'Pentagon is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases'

For the war operations in Iraq, the US Department of Defence was emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire nation of Bangladesh, points out Amitav Ghosh

'Pentagon is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases'

Aditya Anand

Ghosh points to the Indian Ocean rim again becoming a crucial theatre of power politics and frowns at ‘defence related greenhouse gas emissions’, something that nobody notices or talks about.

His latest book ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ is described as a parable for a planet in crisis. Excerpts:

Tell us about the significance of the spice, nutmeg in your latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse and how you connected it to colonialism, massacres and the mindless exploitation of nature.

I did want to make a non-human protagonist in the book- it is very interesting to me the way these botanical entities actually become shapers of human destiny.

Unfortunately, in these last 100 years, the idea has been fostered that humans are the sole makers of their destiny, that human history has become independent of the earth and botanical resources and so on. Actually, that is not true at all. Our destinies are profoundly shaped by, I would say, botanical entities. Opium for instance is a botanical entity and we can to this day see the effects that opium cultivation left on Bihar and Eastern UP.

What has changed drastically between the time of colonisation and now?

At least during the last years of the colonial era, Indians and people elsewhere were trying to think seriously about alternative ways of living; about what is a good life and that is really what Mahatma Gandhi was doing.

He was trying to ask us to explore the best ways to live and if high consumption necessarily led to happiness; Mahatma Gandhi's answer was clearly no. So, he was trying to think of alternatives. Today, nobody is trying to think about anything, everybody is just trying to buy more and consume more. That is what is taking us towards disaster.

Did the pandemic have an impact on writing of your book?

Without the pandemic I would not have been able to finish this book, because everything slowed down, and I was able to focus. I was in Brooklyn and was able to focus very sharply on my book.

At a time when we’re surrounded by rhetoric that is only about development, how can we effectively communicate the extent of how climate change is destroying the planet?

The media has a big role to play. Sadly, I think, the Indian media has performed exceptionally badly. There are few exceptions. The focus is constantly on what I would call distractions like cricket, Bollywood and so on. And political scandals. I mean you turn on the television in India, whenever you're there, and it's just people screaming at each other about something like that, when things are really getting worse and worse.

You have said that the Indian Ocean is where the action lies and is once again moving to become the most important region in the world. Why?

As I say in the book, one principal reason is that the Indian Ocean Pacific Rim region contains the great majority of the world's population. Secondly, this region also has most of the world's oil reserves. The oil reserves are in the Gulf, they're also in Sarawak, Malaysia and so on. So, this region has an oversize share of the world's fossil fuel reserves and it has much of the world's population. And today, it's also economically the most important region in the world by far.

You put together the economies of China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and the Middle East. It far outweighs Europe and North America. That has actually happened in the last 30-40 years. It's a start, a seismic shift back to the pre-colonial era. In fact, India and China were among the world's biggest economic actors.

So, in terms of resources, in terms of population, in terms of economy, you can see the Indian Ocean region is again becoming, as it were, the prime theatre of global history, which it wasn't in the 19th century, or even in the 20th century. In the 20th century, the Atlantic was where everything was happening. But now, I think we're going back to the pre-colonial norm.

You have also mentioned defence expenditure and climate change linkages. Can you explain that?

Defence related greenhouse gas emissions are set to account for 20% of the US greenhouse gas emissions. The Pentagon is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases. Simply for the operations in Iraq, during the war, the US Department of Defence was emitting more than the entire nation of Bangladesh with 60-70 million people.

We don't pay attention to defence-related greenhouse gas emissions because these were excluded from climate change negotiations going back to the Kyoto Protocol. But defence accounts for a very large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. And those are just increasing, because every country, and most of all the countries of the Indian Ocean region, are rapidly expanding their defence footprint. This is only going to go up and when we say that it's 20%, one must understand that it doesn't take into account defence-related manufacturing, which also accounts for a huge percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

I would say nobody actually has concrete fingers on how much of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are defence-related. I would think it's by far the biggest sector. If you compare, I think air travel accounts for only, like 5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. But defence is 20%. There's a huge disparity there.

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