Why do so many humans believe we are
Separate from the ‘More-than-human’ World?
To partially answer this question, Amitav Ghosh (2021) goes back to the 17th century to Selamon, a village in the Banda archipelago, a tiny cluster of islands in what is today part of Indonesia. He tells the story of brutal colonisation by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) which was hellbent on dominating spice trade routes globally. It is the story in particular of controlling trade in nutmeg and mace and it’s told as a parable for a planet in crisis. Through the story he illustrates how understanding colonisation is key to understanding the entrenched belief in the separation of humans from the more-than-human world.
In order to gain a monopoly over the lucrative nutmeg and mace trade, the Dutch East India Company had to ‘empty the islands of their inhabitants’ through systematic violence. The company officials believed that the land and the people could be sacrificed for their own profitable ends. To be able to do this, the perpetrators had to have theories of `othering` where the lives and cultures of the people concerned were deemed so inferior that they did not deserve protection. (Klein, 2019, 158) Both the people and the more-than-human life forms, were ‘things’ which could be destroyed at will. After the destruction, disregarding historical claims or capabilities, settlers and slaves were brought in to create a new economy.
In the eyes of the Dutch colonists, there was no intrinsic connection between the Bandanese and the landscape they inhabited. They could simply be replaced by workers and managers who would transform the islands into nutmeg-producing factories. This was a radically new way of envisioning the Earth, as a vast machine made of inert people and `things` to be used for profit. But even in Europe, the mechanistic vision of the world had only just begun to take shape, and then too, only among elites that were directly or indirectly involved in the two great European projects of the time: the conquest of the Americas and the trade in enslaved Africans.
As Ghosh (p37) describes, it was the rendering of humans, the majority of whom were not white, into mute resources that enabled the metaphysical leap whereby the Earth and everything in it could be reduced to inertness. In that sense the colonists and predecessors were not only colonists but also philosophers – it was their violence directed at ‘natives’ and the landscapes they inhabited, that laid the foundations of the mechanistic philosophies that took hold. These included seeds of the ideology of white supremacy.
Colonists ability to extinguish tribes, to take over land, to conquer indiscriminately, was helped through the fact that European doctrines of empire had evolved in that direction with philosophers, polemicists, politicians, like Francis Bacon, arguing that Christian Europeans had ‘a God-given right to attach and extinguish peoples who appeared errant or monstrous in their eyes’ (Ghosh, p.26). This outlook reflected a metaphysic that was then emerging in Europe, in which more-than-human life was seen as ‘brute’ and ‘stupid’ and hence deserving of conquest with nothing but profit and material wealth as ends.
The graphic story over control of trade in nutmeg is one of colonisation at work. It is an instance of the history of colonisation that was unfolding at the time on a vastly larger scale in the Americas and elsewhere. It is an example of the way in which plants and botanical matter influence humans’ trajectory – after all, it was the war over nutmeg and mace that created the genocide of the island population.
The story has parallels in the 21st century where in the ‘age of progress’ many believe that human-made goods take precedence over natural products. However, as Ghosh illustrates, this is blatantly not true – one example of this is the crucial dependence on energy that comes from long-buried carbon (coal, oil, and natural gas are fossilised forms of botanical matter). This material dependence humans have on the planet and the products of the Earth illustrates the continuities between today and the 17th century.
The attitude of the Dutch colonists was in stark contrast to the Bandanese who understood the nutmeg to have two hemispheres – one was the object of horticulture and commerce which demanded considerable technical and practical skills, and the other was life giving, which was captured in their songs, stories and rituals. For the Bandanese, the landscapes of their islands were places of dwelling that were enmeshed with human life in ways that were imaginative and material – the land did not exist solely to produce nutmeg and mace. It was not land, but Land, which is in the words of the Indigenous scientist and thinker Max Liboiron, ‘the unique entity that is the combined living spirit of plants, animals, water, humans, histories, and events.’ (Liboiron quoted in Ghosh, p.36)
The subjugation, and repopulating of the Americas, enabled educated, upper-class European men to think of themselves as those who could subdue everything they surveyed even in their own countries. The domain they conceived of as ‘nature’ was an inert repository of resources, which in order to be `improved` needed to be expropriated, no matter whether from Amerindians or from English or Scottish peasants. But those being subjugated did not take kindly to expropriation of common lands through fences and enclosures, nor suppression of their ways of thinking about the Earth. They believed the universe to be a living organism, animated by many kinds of unseen forces.
As Ghosh (p. 38) states, the conjoined processes of violence, physical and intellectual, were all necessary for the emergence of a new economy based on extracting resources from a desacralized, inanimate Earth. These elite orthodoxies were the product of the subjugation of humans, particularly those ‘natives’ who were thought of as ‘brutes and savages’, and women, all of whom were identified as part of ‘nature’, along with trees, animals and landscapes – all there to serve the material interests of elite men.
The basic tenet of what can be called ‘official modernity’ was the idea of ‘nature’ as an inert entity. This metaphysic, fundamental to an ideology of conquest, would eventually become hegemonic in the West, and is now shared by the global elite. To envisage the world in this way was a crucial step toward making an inert ‘nature’ a reality. As Ben Ehrenreich (quoted by Ghosh, p. 39) observes – ‘only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so’.
Unpicking false assumptions about the separation of humans from the more-than-human world – why does it matter?
Ecofeminists argue that the planetary crisis is entangled with colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. The story of the ‘curse of the nutmeg’ illustrates this graphically.
With the devastation being experienced around the world through floods, fires, droughts, air pollution, it’s obvious that human existence and survival are based on the material conditions of more-than-human life. Yet global economies function as if ‘nature’ is separate from humans and is a limitless commodity that can be used to boost profit. This false belief is mirrored in the global capitalist system's addiction to endless economic growth at the expense of people and the Planet.
Capitalism thrives on rampant consumerism and waste, whereas what is needed is an attitude of mutual interdependence, conservation, preservation, and appreciation of the finiteness of the planet. The climate crisis is a confrontation between imperialism, capitalism and the planet which means that virtually everything we know has to be unlearnt, relearnt, learnt. It calls for new and imaginative thinking, across all spheres of economic, social, environmental and cultural life, including education. Growth-led economics that maximise profits while offloading the costs to society and ‘nature’, as a whole, must become a thing of the past. Now.
Unpicking the false assumptions that prop up the unsustainable and abusive relationship with social and ecological systems is the most pressing task for educators. This very much includes humans’ separateness from the more-than-human. How can these belief systems, grown and nurtured over centuries, be transformed? (Nadeau's article for ideas on this).
Ghosh, A. (2021). The nutmeg’s curse. Parables for a planet in crisis. John Murray.
Klein, N. (2019). On the burning case for a Green New Deal. Alfred A. Knopf, Canada.
Satgar, V. (2021, November). Climate justice charter in South Africa, PIMA Bulletin, No.39. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cWLBy65p3bl300Gqskv64pQE-qyvbkvT/view?usp=share_link
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirley Walters loves the outdoors – she hikes and exercises regularly. She’s a justice activist-scholar, professor emerita of adult and continuing education at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, convenor of PIMA’s Climate Justice Education Working Group and PIMA President.