“Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence”

A book by Christian Parenti

“Tropic of Chaos,” Christian Parenti’s epic new book, revolves around what the author refers to as catastrophic convergence, the “collision of political, economic and environmental disasters.” Catastrophic convergence is a culmination of the compounding and amplifying effects of adverse climate change, post-Cold War political violence and neoliberal economic philosophy.

Parenti, a meticulous writer and economist, uses a timeline and pan-geographic perspective to show how the first factor aggravates the latter two, like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. The combined effect causes the least protected people (such as the “climate change refugees”) the most amount of harm.

Parenti doesn’t debate whether global warming exists. He doesn’t have to — though he provides scientific and military-based evidence from a swath of sources. Parenti humanizes his information. He travels through equatorial regions that span Africa, Asia and Latin America — the Tropic of Chaos situated between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn — and meshes the experiences of individuals most affected by climate change and related catastrophic convergence, with historical and forward-looking implications.

Parenti begins with a poignant example of a young Kenyan man, Ekaru Loruman, who was shot through the head and left to die in the desert. Parenti explains how Ekaru’s death “in the heart of the pastoralist corridor — a region of mountains, savannas, marshes and deserts, straddling the borderlands of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia” — is a direct result of the “violence that follows climate change.” Severe aridity caused a decrease in the number of cattle and an increase in the violent cattle raids that led to the killing. It is through Ekaru and his story, and others like him, that Parenti examines catastrophic convergence — from the individual to the global perspective, and back again.

We see, through Parenti’s exhaustive research, that the war in Afghanistan is not only detrimental to its struggling population, but that embracing the Taliban, for example, is as much about economic pragmatism as religious fanaticism. Because of the increasingly arid environment, made worse by climate change, the most cost-effective crop to grow is poppy, which Parenti explains requires one-sixth of the water needed to grow wheat. Our expensive war on drugs and terrorism is thus also a war against Afghan farmers. Certain farmers choosing to grow poppy instead of wheat, given the severe water restrictions, turn to the Taliban because the Taliban financially supports poppy production. The U.S., of course, does not.

book cover

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

By Christian Parenti

Nation Books, 304 pages

Buy the book

Elsewhere in the book, we learn just how much the ongoing violence in Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, is about water rights and the fraying 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Meanwhile, Pakistan supports religious fundamentalists at war with India and Afghanistan, like the Taliban, to strengthen its hand in water-related disputes.

Moving over to Latin America, recounting Brazil’s conflicted history as a battleground between structural adjustment programs and nationalization intentions, Parenti describes how IMF and World Bank loans for austerity measures and privatization of national industries result in more profit leaving the most browbeaten countries than entering it. This phenomenon of debasing the economic stability of local populations is amplified by climate change.

Just south of the U.S.-Mexican border, in Juarez, Mexico (“the city that NAFTA built and then began to kill, but climate change will finish the task … ”), Parenti introduces us to Tanila Garcia, a woman who lives in a shack that “smells of sweat and dirty clothes” with a “dirt floor covered with strips of salvaged gray office carpet” and an outdoor plywood outhouse. Tanila’s family gets its electricity through a jury-rigged setup that can electrocute people during the flash flood times in an otherwise dry area. According to Parenti, “the vortex of murder that now defines Juarez is a harbinger of a world in which climate mitigation has been ignored and adaptation takes the form of violent class apartheid.”

Our hysterical war on immigration routinely kills or incarcerates people who have nowhere else to move because of a combination of climate change and economic devastation caused by financial and trade deregulation. None of this explanation seeps into the mainstream media.

In the last chapter, “Implications and Possibilities,” Parenti provides a list of steps necessary to mitigate some of the horrific effects of climate change, its causes and the catastrophic convergence of which it is a component. These include capping carbon dioxide emission, redirecting government subsidies to clean technologies and building better socioeconomic infrastructure that can withstand the adverse natural forces enhanced by man’s lack of respect for the atmosphere, in his unquenchable thirst for limitless accumulation.

To see long excerpts from “Tropic of Chaos” at Google Books, click here.

Of course, suggestions such as these are predicated on forcing profit-motivated individuals, companies and international agencies to behave in regulated ways that might reduce profits short-term, but enhance the world long-term. We’re talking about a seismic shift in the mentality of pretty powerful, selfish and destructive groups of people. Unfortunately, we have to look at only the IMF and EU’s obscene creation of debt, against which punishing austerity measures are being extracted, to see that the morons running the catastrophic-convergence show are a long way from changing course. Hell, to fear things can get only worse, we had to listen to only the inane bantering over the U.S. debt cap ceiling, during which neither party leaders, including President Obama, seemed to have noticed that our debt increased to float Wall Street, not our seniors. That said, I admire Parenti’s pragmatic optimism. If he can have traveled and witnessed all he did in writing this book and still maintain a modicum of hope, maybe we all can.

“Tropic of Chaos” is a wake-up call to humanity, particularly to the richest nations (with the U.S. at the top of that list) that produce the greatest amount of carbon that accelerates climate change. The detrimental effects of our environmental gluttony at the heart of our economic avarice are not blurry fatalistic hypotheses — they are here, today. As “Tropic of Chaos” illustrates so clearly, we can’t afford, morally or economically, to be lax about the impact of catastrophic convergence on the global population or allow private profit-motivated interests to ruin civilization.

We have only one planet. We have only one global population. As Parenti says at the end of his book, “We owe such an effort to people like Ekaru Loruman, who are already suffering and dying on the front lines of the catastrophic convergence, and to the next generation who will inherit the mess. And, we owe it to ourselves.”

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