Tropic of Chaos

By Bryan Walker 20/06/2011

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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