A sweeping discourse on the collision between the natural and the social world — the confluence of poverty, violence and climate change
Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Nation Books, 2011.
reviewed by Chris Williams
Socialist Worker, September 14, 2011
Who killed Ekaru Loruman?
Until his recent violent death, Ekaru was a pastoralist from northwestern Kenya, a member of the Turkana tribe. He died when a bullet ripped out the side of his head as he tried to defend his few head of cattle, his only form of wealth and livelihood.
One could respond that a member of the Pokot tribe, a traditional enemy of the Turkana, who live and farm in the surrounding hills and raid across the border from Uganda killed Ekaru. That would, after all, be a factually correct response, and any murder investigation by local police would, with the identification and arrest of the individual responsible, end there.
Christian Parenti, in his excellent, if flawed, new book Tropic of Chaos, finds this a deeply unsatisfying answer. And so should anyone seeking to better understand the world and the twin ecological and economic crises in order to take action to ameliorate the consequences of those crises.
Parenti’s book makes an important contribution to that effort–he has written a sweeping discourse on the collision set in motion between the natural and the social world–what he calls the “catastrophic convergence”: the confluence of poverty, violence and climate change.
Parenti poses the question: Why did a farming tribe such as the Pokot have modern armaments, when small arms manufacturing in Kenya and surrounding countries is unknown?
One can only answer by expanding the discussion from an individual murder over local tribal resources to an examination of the regional legacy of the Cold War. Though East Africa does not manufacture guns, it is awash in them; specifically ex-Soviet and U.S. weaponry from a time when the superpowers fought proxy wars for world supremacy and their inter-imperial conflict made battlefields of a succession of African states.
Going further still, why are inter-tribal cattle raids becoming more ferocious and widespread? Who is financing the acquisition of the weapons? This requires looking at the social conditions and where the money is coming from to supply the Pokot with AK-47s and the bullets that make them effective killing machines. Here, we find the answer expanding to take in powerful businessmen and politicians in Uganda and the underlying social relations that cause them to see profit in supplying funds for such activities.
But we could further enlarge our circle of understanding about the violent death of Ekaru on the dusty plains of Kenya by following Parenti and asking: Who created the border between Uganda and Kenya? Why is there a border there anyway? Whose interests did it serve, since the artificial separation and magnification of previously marginal tribal differences would only seem to ferment inter-tribal conflict?
One can only answer this question by going further back in time to the British colonial overlords and their imperial “scramble for Africa.”
Ruling over a restive and rebellious native population required the British to institute all the trappings of an imperial state at odds with the local population: the imposition of a new administrative structure; governmental regulations; the identification and promotion of some ethnicities, religious or tribal groups at the expense of others; the creation of artificial state borders and divergent economic development–all geared toward the interests of the imperial center.
In turn, as local development was stymied, people’s land robbed, and poverty and starvation increased, the British invented or refined some of the most brutal counter-insurgency methods: forced relocation to pacification centers, the creation of the gulag, industrial-scale killing, torture and concentration camps.
Bringing in another dimension, why were the Turkana watering their cattle so close to Pokot territory? They must have known, and indeed did know, the risks that they were running. And why are the Pokot farmers themselves so increasingly desperate, carrying out dangerous multi-week raiding parties, rather than farming their land?
To answer that question, it is crucial to examine how climate change is affecting regional rainfall and creating multi-year droughts that are drying out the farmland of the Pokot and making their lives increasingly precarious while simultaneously shrinking the availability and geographical extent of waterholes for the Turkana, so killing their cattle and thrusting the two groups into ever greater conflict.
By this implicitly Marxist methodological and dialectical approach, Parenti helps the reader comprehend what might otherwise appear on the surface to be just another isolated, violent, yet ultimately inconsequential murder in eastern Africa, and locate its origins within a framework of colonialism, the Cold War and the historical development of capitalism, which, through the burning of fossil fuels, is creating global climate change.
Parenti is following a pattern used by ecosocialist Joel Kovel when Kovel examined the question of what injured over half a million Indians, many of them permanently, and killed 8,000 outright in the city of Bhopal in 1984.
On one level, what killed and maimed them was methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides, 46.3 tons of it released from a nearby factory run by the American multinational Union Carbide on the night of December 2, 1984.
But as Kovel eloquently illustrates, one can only understand what really caused that atrocity by looking at why the factory was sited there, why it was using MIC rather than a safer alternative, and why the observance of health and safety regulations were nonexistent–by an examination of the historical development, structure and purpose of capitalism.
Ultimately, this highly effective and elucidatory rhetorical device, expanding the most immediate and direct cause out to its logical endpoint, derives from Aristotelian logic: a search for the “efficient cause” of an event or process.
The great strength of Parenti’s book is that he, too, locates the origin of the “catastrophic convergence,” the central premise of the book–a term he uses almost 30 times–in the incessant growth of capitalism, particularly its neoliberal variant, coupled with colonialism and inter-imperial conflict. To great effect, he goes on to delineate this process and its regional variations, and outline its impact in Asia and Latin America.
As he covers so much ground, the book is of necessity a survey, but nevertheless serves as an excellent way to understand the violence generated by the historical development of neoliberal capitalist practice and doctrine intertwining with inequality and growing climate change.
For example, why is the feudalistic, tribal and predominantly rural society of Afghanistan one of the most impoverished and violently dysfunctional societies in the region, and poppy growing for opium production so prevalent?
As Parenti argues, it is the logical outcome not of a series of random events disconnected from one another, nor something peculiar to Afghan society. Rather, it is the result of colonial invasion and occupation, historically by the British, then the Russians, currently by the U.S.; the impact of the Cold War; imperialism and climate-change-induced drought.
It is not primarily even that there’s more money in opium, but rather that the poppy is a drought-resistant plant that only requires one-sixth of the water needed to grow wheat. A poppy crop is therefore one of the few that it’s still possible to grow in Afghanistan that will keep people alive by providing money to buy food Afghans can no longer cultivate due to persistent drought.
While not wishing to nitpick, the map that introduces the chapter on Asia has reversed the location of Bangladesh and Burma (actually now officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), and this seems to me to go beyond a mere typo, particularly as Parenti discusses Bangladesh in the text. Another rather significant typo exists on page 59 when a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature is erroneously converted to an extremely alarming rise of 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Latin America, the full force of neoliberalism and a scorched-earth campaign against local revolutionary movements was carried out by the United States government as it sought to dictate the forms of political representation and economic development it felt was appropriate for the continent. That was a greater factor than Cold War rivalry.
Nevertheless, the ultimate cause is the same: imperialism and capitalist development. The poverty and violent breakdown of states is now exacerbated and accelerated by the effects of climate change, itself an outcome of the global development of capitalism.
Parenti documents through various case studies that this isn’t destabilization that is going to come in some far-off time or even in the near future, but is already with us as the poorest and most violence-wracked states disintegrate under the pressure of the catastrophic convergence and stronger ones seek to take advantage and secure access to critical natural resources via a build-up of military power and enhanced border security.
On the one hand, Parenti’s analytical technique and focus on the intersection between the social and the natural world is nothing new to Marxists. Indeed Parenti quotes Marx with respect to capitalist agriculture robbing both the worker and the land. Marxist scholar Alan Roberts, in his 1979 social and ecological study, The Self-Managing Environment, put it well:
[J]ust as human interaction with the environment is above all a social phenomenon, intimately derived from the social structure and its economic apparatus, so we should not expect crises to express themselves in some distinct “ecological” sphere. The crises to be expected are social, economic, political, environmental constraints cannot express themselves otherwise in human affairs.
Parenti’s analysis shows some similarities with Michael Klare’s 2001 publication Resource Wars, whose final chapter, “The New Geography of Conflict,” is echoed by Tropic of Chaos‘s subtitle “The New Geography of Violence.”
However, Parenti pays much more attention to the accelerating factor of climate change as well as colonial historical development in driving this new geography, which as Parenti points out, really just follows the old geography of violence and conflict between “center” and “periphery” but in intensified form due to the expansion and deregulation of capitalism and incipient climate change.
However, as many environmentalists eschew a critique of capitalism, Parenti’s extremely well-researched analysis is most welcome and will hopefully be widely read, especially by anyone interested in understanding the roots of the climate crisis and its social impact.
Nonetheless, somewhat similar to Klare’s book, for all the explanatory power of Tropic of Chaos, it was disappointing to see such little attention paid to what an alternative might be to a descent into a Hobbesian hell of unpredictable global climate dominated by inter-ethnic conflict in the South, inter-imperial warfare over diminishing natural resources, the ramping up of border security and the racist demonization of immigrants by governments and the right (including “green fascists”) in developed nations.
The reality which Parenti so graphically illustrates is already with us; poverty, bloodshed, crop failures, water shortages and mass migration, has vulnerable states collapsing under the twin hammer blows of an increasingly unpredictable and unstable climate and neoliberal assault that comes to seem an almost horrifyingly bleak inevitability. While Parenti here and there shows the odd flash of where an alternative might come from in his brief discussion of organizations and movements in the Global South, he nevertheless continually circles back to the negative side of the equation.
Because time is so short and he doesn’t believe there’s the time or likelihood for fundamental social change, despite the increasingly dire global economic and ecological situation, for activists and concerned individuals in the U.S., he proposes two things.
One is support for the Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases, part of which will entail a switch from coal plants to natural gas, where hydrofracking for the extra reserves trapped in shale deposits across the country is more closely monitored and regulated.
Another is to have the U.S. government’s procurement of products and services biased toward “green” suppliers so as to tilt the market toward more investment in “green” technologies.
Though he argues against the reactionary and racist politics of “the armed lifeboat” that have been occasionally espoused even by liberal environmental campaigners such as Bill McKibben, when Parenti discusses how to escape the growing violence, militarization and ecological and societal breakdown, he poses a false dichotomy: As we cannot wait for a revolution or fundamental societal change, it is necessary to work within the system for small incremental changes such as those above.
This makes his short final chapter, “Implications and Possibilities,” by far the weakest, as it’s unclear to me how we could build the requisite movement to bring even these limited policies to fruition without far bigger short-term goals, such as a struggle to close all the coal and nuclear plants; fighting to ban fracking, not try to make it safer; and arguing for massive investment in clean energy technologies such as wind and solar to replace dirty fossil fuels; as well as a huge expansion in public transit and infrastructure and energy conservation measures.
And what about building an antiwar movement to end U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, reducing the $1 trillion military “defense” budget and redirecting it in socially progressive directions?
As Parenti demonstrates through the example of Bolivia becoming the only country in the world to stand up to the U.S.’s regressive dictat at the UN climate conference of December 2010 in Cancun, we need to radically change national government policy through the construction of massive social movements for jobs, climate justice and against racist scapegoating, and thereby change our own governments, before we can hope to make policy changes at the international level.
To quote Parenti, “The climate crisis is not a technical problem, nor even an economic problem; it is fundamentally, a political problem.”
As such, we need a forthright political response and organizations that communicate what that should be. We stand no hope of doing that if we articulate the lowest possible level of demands and practice the “politics of the possible.”
His prognosis that we must ditch more radical demands and a longer-term vision and strategy to achieve the end of capitalism and its replacement with an alternative economic and social system is contradicted by recent events in the Middle East, particularly the ongoing revolutionary upheaval in Egypt, not to mention similar revolts in several countries across Europe and the flaring of social protest in Wisconsin, the heart of the imperial beast itself.
Furthermore, the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Japan point to the power of determined, politically clear and organized mass social protest in effecting dramatic and swift u-turns in government policy.
In the final three pages, Parenti asks if capitalism itself is against nature and concludes that “It may be true: capitalism may be, ultimately, incapable of accommodating itself to the limits of the natural world” but nevertheless goes on to say, “that is not the same as whether capitalism can solve the climate crisis…The fact of the matter is time has run out on the climate issue. Either capitalism solves the crisis, or it destroys civilization.”
Based on Parenti’s previous 200-odd pages of observations, facts and astute analysis, surely one can rationally only place bets on the latter outcome. Despite this, he goes on, “Capitalism begins to deal with the crisis now, or we face civilizational collapse beginning in this century. We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution: nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of pre-industrial America as some advocate.”
I couldn’t agree more … except for one important change in argument and social actor: Nobody is waiting for the revolution–if we were, it would never come. Either we build the movements that force the capitalists to begin to deal with the crisis by implementing real social and ecological reforms while we build revolutionary organization for its overthrow, or we face civilizational collapse.
The irrational short-term time horizon of capitalism and its addiction to profit makes the system incapable of a rational response that recognizes that the descent into chaos that is already engulfing some states is the potential future for all states, as destabilization goes global. Capitalism as a system can and will only ever be reactive to ecological crises. Where ameliorative actions threaten profit-taking, it will seek to delay and minimize any and all such regulatory changes. Ample evidence supports this contention.
Furthermore, capitalism cannot solve climate change as only one aspect of the ecological crisis because of its historical development based on fossil fuels and, even more significantly, because climate change is an international problem.
Capitalist nation states are prevented from genuine international solutions by economic competition for markets as expressed by inter-imperial conflict. The evidence to back up such an analysis is confirmed by almost 20 years of fruitless international negotiations specifically meant to address climate change.
Why Parenti would place more faith in those that run the capitalist system suddenly coming to their senses, despite all evidence to the contrary, much of which is documented in his book, rather than arguing to build more radical movements, seems to me to be severely misplaced.
With this caveat about the last chapter, his book remains an important and cogently written, if frightening, contribution to our understanding of the planetary crisis and how we got here, even if his proffered way out is rather depressing, unconvincing and inconsistent with the prior analysis.
Chris Wlliams is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010)