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September 07, 2011
Book Review: Tropic of Chaos, by Christian Parenti
    by Robert Kropp

Author Christian Parenti writes of how the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change is already destabilizing regions of the world, and of the worldwide conflagration that is likely to occur if climate change remains unchecked.

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, by Christian Parenti, is a rarity among nominally popular books, in that it seeks to describe what the world will look like if climate change is left unchecked. Exceedingly well-researched—its list of footnotes is almost 40 pages long—it nevertheless lays out a narrative all the more frightening for those living in a world whose leaders seem increasingly resistant to doing anything about climate change.

Between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn lies the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). "It is the area of the planet where the weather is…already very impacted by climate change," Parenti stated in a recent interview. "It is where empire—or imperialism—has fought its battles, built and destroyed states, and left a legacy of exploitation and violence."

In each of the countries visited by Parenti—in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, "battered post-colonial states," he writes—poverty is widespread. Not only has the history of colonial conquest of these countries by the Global North "left a legacy of exploitation." Today, many of the best efforts of their governments have been undone by the terms under which the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lend them money.

Parenti writes, "Neoliberal economic policies—radical privatization and economic deregulation enforced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—have pushed many economies in the Third World—or, if you prefer, the Global South—into permanent crisis and extreme inequality."

A second legacy bestowed upon these nations by the Global North is the effect of decades of Cold War militarism. In the failed state of Somalia, a proxy war with Ethiopia funded by the former Soviet Union "crushed Somalia's small, agriculturally based economy," Parenti writes. And in the failed state of Afghanistan, the arming by the United States of the mujahedeen led to the rise of the Taliban and a base for the terrorist activities of Al Qaeda.

As the governments of these and other countries descended into chaos, the weaponry bestowed upon them both during the Cold War and in the counterinsurgency efforts led by the United States has resulted in "unprecedented levels" of violence, "due to rising crime and delinquency."

Add to these factors the growing threat of climate change, and one arrives at what Parenti calls the "catastrophic convergence." During the past four decades, he writes, poverty and violence "have distorted the state's relationship to society—removing and undermining the state's collectivist, regulatory, and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities."

"This, I argue, inhibits society's ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in," he continues.

Parenti, who has written about the intersection of poverty and violence in previous books, is almost overly cautious in linking climate change to those factors. He quotes often from the important scientific work aggregated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose Fourth Assessment Report may well have been too conservative in predicting the effects of climate change.

Parenti quotes James Woolsey, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who wrote, "It will take extraordinary effort for the United States, or indeed any country, to look beyond its own salvation. All the ways in which human beings have dealt with natural disasters in the past…could come together in one conflagration."

Elsewhere, Parenti refers to the projections of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), writing, "700 million climate refugees will be on the move by 2050."

So what is to be done? Parenti skirts the issue of whether capitalism, with its emphasis on unlimited growth, can successfully address the fundamental issue of climate change in an era of resource scarcity. He does, however, argue, "If we put aside capitalism's limits and deal only with greenhouse gas emissions, the problem looks less daunting." Yet the solutions he sketches could not be more at odds with capitalism as practiced in 21st century America.

"Solving the climate crisis," he writes, "Will require a relegitimization of the state's role in the economy. We will need planning and downward redistribution of wealth." One need go no further than the news of last week to despair of the likelihood of such actions being taken in time.

Last week, President Obama retreated yet again from his proclaimed determination as a candidate to address climate change in a meaningful way, when he directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw new Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The standard at issue was devised during the latest Bush administration, and was criticized by most environmental groups as being insufficient. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which had withdrawn a lawsuit over the standard because of promises from the Obama administration to increase them, "Will resume our lawsuit challenging it," according to Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC.

The usual suspects among well-heeled lobbyists—including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute—immediately issued support for the decision, which, as the President will certainly learn in the coming months, will not translate into support for his re-election.

But on behalf of what form of business do these trade associations speak? Surely not for the long-term financial health of American corporations; sustainable investors and environmental groups have been arguing for years that externalizing the cost of climate change will inevitably lead to significant financial risks, not only for society but for companies as well. Yet, in a culture in which politicians can demonize responsible scientific consensus that climate change is real, business as usual—that is, enriching the businessmen of today—becomes the rallying cry.

Referring to the climate denial efforts led by Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries—one of the nation's top ten polluters—Parenti notes that by 2008 the brothers had contributed almost $25 million to advocates of climate denial. In part as a result of such efforts, he writes, the number of Americans who agree there is evidence of climate change declined 20% between 2006 and 2009.

In other words, American politics in recent years have gone far toward ensuring that the nightmare scenarios outlined in this important book will indeed come to pass.


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