“Tropic of Chaos – Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” by Christian Parenti, 2011
Well, this book shoots that theory of ‘super-imperialism’ all to hell. (Super-imperialism – oligarchic corporations completely control world market with no national issues remaining.) Instead, Parenti describes a world where the violent patterns of the old ‘cold’ war, neo-liberalism and climate change are combining to produce failed states, massive migration and violence in the global ‘South’ - and an armed life-boat mentality among the imperial states of the ‘North.’ In other words, a centrifugal world – not a centripetal one. Parenti concentrates on the situation along the equator between the two longitudes – hence his title.
He traveled around the world to tell this story – spending time in Kenya, Afghanistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil and Mexico. He could have looked at Asia too – Burma or Indonesia would have given him plenty of support for his thesis. This book is a companion to Mike Davis’ “Planet of Slums” (reviewed below – use search). They both start by looking at U.S. Defense Department military planning, which visualizes combating guerrilla war in crowded slums – like Baghdad and Mogadishu – while dealing with millions of climate refugees. A look at the British film “Children of Men” gives an idea of what lifeboat militarism might look like. As the unstated assumption goes, if the corporate politicians never talk about it, it’s not because their armed forces aren’t fully aware. The situation along the Mexican border using high technology, massive force, fences and reactionary politics all illustrate what is happening even now. Mexicans are not merely looking for 'better pay,' as refugees from neo-liberalism - many are refugees from climate change too.
Parenti uses examples of individuals caught up in the present violence of climate change. He tells the story of a dead cow herder in Kenya, killed trying to keep his cows from tribal raiders because the water holes are drying up. He interviews poppy growers in war-torn Afghanistan, who can’t grow anything else except poppy due to the string of droughts there. (Poppy uses very little water.) The Taliban supports poppy, taxing it, while American policy is to destroy it. He talks to an ex-fisherman squatting in murder capital Juarez, Mexico, who’s livelihood was lost because of red algae in the over-heated Pacific ocean. Neo-liberal Mexican government policies which got rid of government supports for fish prices and fishing also played a role – combining to put him out of work. Farmers in northern India, who’s wells and rivers are running dry, tell him how they can no longer pay the usurers and banks for expensive Monsanto seed and chemical fertilizers. (AKA, the end of the Green Revolution.) Parenti points out that these are also grievances of the revolutionary Naxalites, whose base in among farm and forest people. (See Arundati Roy’s “Field Notes on Democracy,” reviewed below – use search.) Parenti travels to northern Brazil to talk to landless peasants squatting on unused land, using local ‘green’ techniques to bring back the soil and crops. The violent favelas of Sau Paulo and Rio are full of people from the Northeast who can no longer farm due to economic and climate conditions. Parenti notes that Lula, while redistributing wealth in Brazil, has not changed the basic class relations. Parenti tells the tale of ethnic violence in Kryghistan. One main reason is because the hydro-electric river dams no longer have enough water to power the city and countryside, resulting in escalating conflicts between Uzbecks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Formerly, the USSR provided economic support to all three now 'independent' states, and this enabled them to blunt negative effects like this.
Parenti describes climate change due to global warming as gasoline on the economic failure of market solutions and the arms issues of the ‘cold’ war. The collapse of Somalia is precisely where the cold war and later, American military priorities to control that part of the oil world, come together. Climate change is producing floods and droughts, tsunamis, melting glaciers, poor crops, dying animals, poor soil, dropping water tables, raging fires and disappearing forests. Neo-liberalism has already made water, trees, people, animals, land and crops commodities to be bought, sold and controlled only in order to make a profit. Which is why sustainability is being sold to the highest bidder. The cities of the ‘South,’ and increasingly the ‘North,’ are full of refugees from decaying eco-systems and eroding economies or classes. This book is another warning to those who don’t actually believe climate change will have any effect, or will ever impact themselves. I think this includes many Democrats, not just Republicans.
The weakest part of the book, of course, is the last chapter. Endings reveal underlying ideologies. Parenti, after roaring like a lion for chapters, ends squeaking like a mouse. He sounds basically like Al Gore – not that Al Gore hasn’t said some good things about climate change – but the Al Gore of the Democratic Party establishment. Parenti does not talk about conservation as a strategic response, or the limitations of the capitalist market – his fixes are mostly technological. He directly opposes eco-socialism’s idea that capital’s method of eternal growth is wrong. He visualizes capital growth in the direction of wind turbines and solar arrays. In that, he and Al Gore are in the same lifeboat. He thinks an enlightened market, seeking profits in green technology, can mitigate climate change to an acceptable degree.
I would disagree.
As Bill McKibben said recently: "What ... the energy-industrial elite are denying, in other words, is that the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry."
This point in history is unlike any other ‘catastrophic convergence’ (Parenti’s own term). There is a ‘clock’ running and, even by his own standards, the present 390 ppm of carbon is already on the slope towards irredeemable global climate change. Capital may well be able to convert in ordinary timescales, after much destruction and squandering – but unfortunately, continuing to use market methods and ‘market’ politics in this situation will allow profit-making via destructive technologies and practices to continue long past the time when the clock stops. Since it is basically profit that drives this system, anything that makes money, no matter its inherent destructiveness (Rhino horns!) will survive. The people who control those industries will defend their positions on the normal terrain of the capitalist state for years to come. In other words, the solution to a ‘catastrophic convergence’ is not gradualist market politics and policies.
Parenti correctly points out that the main problem is a political problem, and the U.S. is the premier roadblock to tackling these issues. However, both U.S. political parties are dedicated to military solutions in many cases - just the thing Parenti warns against. They both preside over the largest military and arms dealer in history. Yesterday, Obama even admitted that military spending will still increase, only more slowly. (!) The ‘protected enclave’ is already U.S. military policy. Both parties embrace a status-quo picture of handling immigration and Mexican politics, with minor variations, continuing to make a chunk of the working class in the U.S. illegal. Both parties support the continuation of the drug war. Both parties have essentially done almost nothing about climate change, though the Democrats have made a few small moves in the right direction. Both parties support different versions of neo-liberal economic policies. So if the main problem is political – what is the ‘political’ answer to this morass? Parenti has none. Absolutely none. And reveals himself to be an excellent reporter, but not much more. His own facts condemn his politics.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, January 22, 2012