The Forgotten Pepper of Amitav Ghosh

Climate change is the main focus of many Terra Madre Salone del Gusto events. Among these, the conference on Sunday, September 23, in which Amitav Ghosh and Sunita Narain tell how to face the greatest challenge of the next decades.

What follows is an account of the meeting between the Indian writer and Carlo Petrini. Not only discussing the changing climate but also interesting reflections on the world of spices, as Amitav Ghosh will also be a guest in the Forum Where do spices come from?, on September 20th at 4 p.m., in the space #foodforchange Seeds.

I meet Amitav Ghosh in Milan during a break in his journey between Asia, Europe, and America. I sit in front of one of the greatest contemporary writers and one of the most committed voices in denouncing the effects of climate change on our planet.

Yet I have the feeling of having in front of me a friend with whom I talk as if we had known each other for a long time. Kind and thoughtful, Amitav is a writer, anthropologist and journalist, born in Calcutta in 1956, raised in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran, India, England, and the United States. He is an author of many novels, including the Ibis trilogy, and a last powerful essay The Great Blindness: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2017, Neri Pozza).

He welcomes me with a variety of fresh pepper from its India. It has a very strong scent, different from the aroma we are used to. “Today’s chefs pay much more attention to ingredients, in general” – he starts to tell. “However, I find that there is an almost forgotten category of products, spices. No one pays attention to their origin, to their quality. Yet spices have played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, they have been among the most precious goods: the discovery of the Americas was also determined to conquer their market. Today, the fact that spices are produced mainly in poor countries, colonized in times prior to ours, is undoubtedly one of the reasons why they are often neglected by the Western gastronomic world.

And the paradox between the Western world and the colonized poor countries comes back into focus on reasons for climate change: “Injustice is one of the fundamental aspects of this problem. Different parts of the world have played very different roles in climate change. Today, the countries most affected are also those that have contributed least to this overheating. While the industrialized countries, with their massive emissions that have favored their wealth, are damaged marginally.

Ghosh’s essay, as well as his latest articles and lectures, show how Ghosh has put his pen at the service of such a complex and urgent issue. “In my country, climate change is not denied, but we prefer not to talk about it. India is a poor country where, however, since the eighties, there has been a rapid race to industrialization and mass production. We know the costs perfectly well in terms of environmental impact, but it is necessary to grow on the market, to become rich. We live in a world where wealth means coal and fossil fuels, which in turn means greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

I am intrigued to understand how Amitav has moved from a powerful fantasy trilogy to dealing with much more contingent phenomena. And the explanation has literary roots, in fact. “About 20 years ago I was collecting the material to write The Land of Tides [Neri Pozza, 2005]. The book is set in Sundarban, the region of India in the Bay of Bengal with the largest mangrove forest in the world. It was at that time that I saw how the coastline was constantly and suddenly changing in the area and I clearly understood that climate change was causing devastating effects. Since then I have started to pay real attention to these phenomena, to observe them during my travels, and I have seen how dramatic and evident the impact was, so much so that it was impossible to ignore it even in writing. Today, 20 years later, I think there are still too few people talking about it. For now, I’m writing a new novel and I’m preparing for the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Turin, where I’ll talk about spices and climate change. Industrialized agriculture is the heart of the ecological problems of our planet, but I hope that Terra Madre can offer solutions.”

by Carlo Petrini

The conferences of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto are organized in collaboration with the Readers’ Club and with the contribution of Aboca.

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