Tropic of Chaos

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of ViolenceThe title piqued my curiosity: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Christian Parenti’s book is about what he calls “the catastrophic convergence”, when the dislocations of climate change collide with already-existing crises of poverty and violence. He points to evidence, often in tropical countries, that political, economic and environmental disasters are compounding and amplifying each other, to the great detriment of some populations. In other words, climate change is intertwining itself with the existing difficulties faced by those populations and making them worse.

Parenti is an investigative journalist, a contributing editor for the US progressive weekly magazine The Nation, and author of earlier books on the American penal system, surveillance in America and the American occupation in Iraq. This book is firmly anchored in close-up visits he has made to the places he writes about, visits where he met with people on the receiving end of the crises he describes. In fact the book opens with the description of a man dead with a bullet through his head who lay “beneath a flat-topped acacia tree, its latticework of branches casting a soft mesh of shade upon his body”. He was a pastoralist in northwest Kenya belonging to a tribe Parenti was visiting. He had been killed in the course of a cattle raid by a neighbouring tribe. Drought was bad. Raiding picks up when that is the case. It could be said that tradition killed him, or the drought killed him. But in Palenti’s mind, as he walked among the tribe’s warriors scanning the hills for the neighbouring tribe’s war party, the man’s death was caused by the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change.

He pursues this theme into the unsettled regions of north Kenya and the failed or failing states which adjoin them – Uganda, Southern Sudan and Somalia. It’s a complex picture, in which the relatively recent history of the regions plays a strong part, as Parenti’s discussions of colonialism and the Cold War remind the reader. Failed and semi-failed states are not well placed to tackle poverty or to control violence in their communities, let alone cope with the added burden of more droughts and more flooding which climate change is bringing to the region.

From Africa he turns to Asia. In Afghanistan droughts, floods and failed crops, combined with the failure of governance lead unerringly to the opium poppy as a source of relative security. In India and Pakistan water and climate have become the key drivers of the continuing conflict which has its roots in the past. Within India Parenti focuses on the Andhra Pradesh region where farmers reported that in the last ten to fifteen years regular drought and strangely timed rain had become very common. None of them had heard of greenhouse gases or anthropogenic climate change and many speculated that deforestation was the problem. The dominance of cotton growing in the area is no help since the crop needs large amounts of water. Many farmers are poor and mired in debt.  Neoliberal austerity offers them little help. Insurgency and counterinsurgency, both often brutal, plague the region. The Indian government meanwhile does not face the reality of climate change. Parenti interviews a top climatologist Dr. Murari Lal and reports him as distraught: “The political class are in total denial…They are thinking, ‘Development first, then address the environment’.”  It’s a grim picture Parenti paints and not surprising to read his final comment that India should fight the Naxalite insurgency by adapting to climate change with economic redistribution, social justice and sustainable development.

His final focus is on Latin America. In Brazil he shuttles between the violent crime-ridden slums of Rio and the severely climate-stressed Northeast of the country, from where many of the slum-dwellers have perforce come. Once again it’s not climate alone that the people of the Northeast struggle to deal with, but a nexus of social and political factors which have made it difficult for them to establish adequate and stable farming. Lula’s attempted roll-back of neoliberalism and his economic redistribution efforts have helped, and Parenti sees interesting signs of hope on land owned by small farmers who are discovering green farming systems which work within the new climate-constrained limits. Land reform is climate adaptation, he comments.

Mexico, or at least the northern city of Juarez on which Parenti focuses, presents a grim picture. The economic and political history of the country is enough to account for the breakdown in social order which the violence in Juarez represents, and the fact that Mexico is now a social laboratory of radical free market orthodoxy only worsens its problems in Parenti’s view. But climate change is also at work. He presents a climate refugee, a former fisherman he found gazing across the river at the US. “The sea became red and all the fish just disappeared.”  This happened at the time of the 1998 El Niño event. Parenti is well aware that it is impossible to say that a warmer globe causes any single weather event, and nowhere throughout the book does he do so. But he works from the broad correlations to discern the impacts of climate change among the problems bearing down on the stressed populations of which he writes.

Across the border from Juarez, Palenti introduces the reader to the land of walls and demagogues. He doesn’t have to scratch around to find deeply disturbing material among those without understanding or concern for the desperate people seeking illegal entry into the US.

Palenti confronts his readers in rich developed countries with uncomfortable realities. We bear responsibilities, as is often all too painfully apparent as he sets out the histories of the peoples he writes about and points to the unfairness of the economic structures they have been subjected to. We certainly bear responsibilities for the climate impacts that have been introduced into the mix; the greenhouse gases are from our activity, not theirs.

What are we in the rich countries going to do in the face of the rising crises he describes, crises which will only worsen if we allow climate change to develop further?  One possibility is that we turn to the politics of xenophobia and racism and build fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. Neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos, in his words. Not that it will work for long, but when one considers the ease with which we ignore the plight of the populations the book investigates and even blame the sufferers, it must be a real short-term prospect. All the more since short-term seems what we are best at. The other possibility, on which Parenti rests some hope, is that civilised society moves rapidly to the mitigation of climate change, for which we have the technology and the money albeit not as yet the political will, and that at the same time we address the social inequity which tolerates extremes of wealth and poverty.

Parenti is far from alone in coupling the mitigation both of climate change and of poverty. I frequently thought while reading his book of economist Nicholas Stern whose own book makes it clear from the start that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together.

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7 thoughts on “Tropic of Chaos”

  1. Another fascinating post Bryan.
    I am convinced that humanity faces a very bleak future if it cannot solve both the challenges of escalating poverty, and increasing AGW. When we have the obscene fact that one person’s wealth exceeds the combined GDP of 140 nations,
    we can see that something is seriously wrong with the world, and the way we currently do business.
    Those in poverty are powerless to change their situation in life. AGW and associated debilitating Climate Change is being thrust upon them and they are being denied the very tools with which to adapt. Frequently we hear that it is not the problem of continual growth in production – but the continual growth in population. Again, population growth cannot be controlled as a separate issue. They all are part of one and the same problem – how to fairly redistribute wealth so that all may live with hope for the future.
    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initially thought the solution to Aids in Africa was simply appropriate Medical Aid – but when those receiving the drugs failed to respond as those in Western counties did; the question was – why? Lack of adequate nutrition caused by successive droughts was the answer. The Foundation therefore was required to expand its horizons from not only medical relief – but agriculture as well. By enabling people to grow sufficient food to feed themselves, the people were not only able to respond to medication, but there was also less demand to continue bearing children for survival.
    (I quote the Gate’s Foundation as ironically his wealth represents the income of those 140 Nations his foundation assists. $200 mill seems a small amount to pay)
    Now we see a Land Grab by westerners occurring in Africa – buying up huge chunks of land from small farmers and conglomerating them into into large farms for industrialised agricultural practices – thereby reducing yet again the ability of these people to control their destiny, and most likely impoverising the soils to such an extent in the process that they disintegrate into desert.


    1. Thanks for fixing up that link. 🙂
      The issue of the degradation of land through industialized agriculture, exacerbated by drought, is something that as Bob points out below affects us all. It was brought to my attention on my recent trip to WA. There the fragile earths of the wheat belt are under threat of desertification, not only from prolonged drought, but also with rising salinity in the soil. We are not the first civilization to face this situation. Rising salinity in the Tigris river delta was a factor in the demise of the Babylonian civilization.

  2. We have this belief in the richer countries that climate change disasters are for the poor nations. Why should we believe otherwise as in the whole of our lives we have never been in a supermarket that has not been overflowing with food. Climate change is what it says and the plant life on which we depend for food is very sensitive to change. Drought can kill the ability to grow food in even the richest nations and it will effect all nations indiscriminately.

  3. And then we get Garth George advocating for a CO2 level of 1500ppm to enhance plant growth (last week’s Challenge Weekly, & whatever other papers accept his column) – sheesh! What would the temperature be at that level of CO2? And what use is extra CO2 without extra nitrogen and water?

  4. And CO2 at that level would guarantee ocean acidification and stratification would wipe out the remaining life in the ocean, life that the vast commercial fishing fleets haven’t already vacuumed up, that is.

    I could go on….and on……and on, but I see some glaring omissions in this “cunning” denier plan!

    1. Yep, here we have entered that elevated Realm Beyond Satire!

      They may look at research, but it always wears off. Very little is so palpably absurd, it seems, that some won’t be capable of believing it for ideological reasons!

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