In Conversation

Inside the Tropic of Chaos: CHRISTIAN PARENTI with Theodore Hamm

Christian Parenti is a contributing editor of the Rail and the Nation and a visiting scholar at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books) is based on more than six years of research and travel to war zones, slums, and failed states across the world.

Theodore Hamm (Rail): Tell us about the connection you make between climate change and political upheaval in the book.

Christian Parenti: I argue that climate change doesn’t just look like bad weather. More often, it looks like ethnic pogroms, religious violence, criminal mayhem, civil war, and state failure. Dig beneath the surface of many social and political conflicts and you find a clear climatological angle.

Rail: What is the “tropic of chaos”? 

Parenti: The tropic of chaos is that belt of states lying on the mid-latitudes of the world where you find: failed states, civil wars, armed religious fanaticism, widespread banditry, and profound humanitarian crisis.  It is the space between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. It is the area of the planet where the weather is ruled by the inter-tropical convergence zone and monsoons, and is thus already very impacted by climate change.  It is where empire—or imperialism—has fought its battles, built and destroyed states, and left a legacy of exploitation and violence.

Over the last eight years or so I have been traveling in and reporting from this belt of crisis states, usually for the Nation but for other publications as well. In many ways the process of this book began in Iraq in the summer of 2003 when I watched a society meltdown. Iraq isn’t even discussed much in the book but it was a formative element in my thinking.  

Rail:  Tell us about the historical forces creating crisis in these states.

Parenti: The recent history of these crisis zones in the Global South is shaped, in particular, by three powerful forces. They are: 50 years of cold war militarism, about 30 years of radical free-market economic policy pushed by the World Bank and the IMF; and now, the onset of anthropogenic climate change.

Rail: So how do these forces produce crisis?

Parenti: Well, first off, the cold war involved military interventions, proxy wars, revolutions, and counterinsurgency all across what was called the Third World. As a result, many parts of the Global south are awash in weaponry and men trained in the arts of warfare. 

This same belt of states has also borne the brunt of radical free-market restructuring, also called neoliberalism. This agenda has demanded the privatization of state industries and services, deep cuts to social spending, and opening poor economies in the Global South to imports from wealthy economies of the Global North.

Across the Global South this neoliberal agenda has led to increased inequality, more migration, and weakened state capacity—all of which helps cause crime, drug dealing, banditry, ethnic violence, civil war, etc. These two historical forces—cold war militarism and neoliberal economics—are now being joined by the onset of climate change.

Rail: This combination is what you call the “catastrophic convergence,” correct?

Parenti: Exactly, I argue that climate change creates violence by exacerbating the pre-existing legacies of cold war militarism and free market economics. 

Look at each of these in succession: Both camps during the cold war—communist and capitalists—used proxy forces and client states.  As a result much of the Global South—what people used to call the Third World—is awash in cheap weaponry and bands of armed men trained in dark arts of asymmetrical warfare: assassination, smuggling, propaganda, terrorism, torture, small unit combat, etc. Many of the animating ideas of the cold war are gone but the tools of its violence and its tactical forms of organization remain. Guerrillas and mercenaries become bandits and drug dealers. Or they fight on, not for democracy or socialism, but now for God, tribe, ethnicity, or just loot.

  Rail: Where can we see this convergence occurring?

 Parenti: East Africa, where the book opens, is a classic example. I open with the death of one man, a Turkana pastoralist named Ekaru Loruman who was killed in a cattle raid.  Across East Africa raids like the one I describe are becoming more frequent and more violent because the region is gripped by severe drought likely linked to climate change and simultaneously awash in cheap weaponry, a legacy of the cold war. Pastoralists resort to stealing each other’s cattle because their herds are dying due to the drought. Lack of any kind of government program of support means the pastoralists fall back on their own methods—violent cattle raids.

  With the onset of climate change, Kenya is suffering from drought punctuated by flooding.  This is killing off the cattle herds. To make up for their losses, pastoralists like Ekaru go on armed raids to steal their neighbors’ animals. But this traditional raiding has also become more violent in recent years because inexpensive weaponry and ammunition flow out of Somalia—a failed state which really must be understood as a byproduct of the Cold War. 

Rail: You also see a climatological element in the Afghanistan war. Tell us about it.

Parenti: The war in Afghanistan is not caused by climate change, but climate change is a contributing factor to why it drags on. Like most of South and Central Asia, Afghanistan has been suffering the worst drought in living memory for almost a decade. This has devastated agriculture around the region.  In Afghanistan, old crops like fruit orchards and wheat suffer.  However, opium poppy uses only one-sixth the water that wheat uses.  The NATO occupation and Afghan government attacked poppy. The Taliban defend it.  Growing opium poppy to produce harrowing for the international market is a way that Afghan farmers are adapting to climate change. They support the Taliban, in many cases, because the Taliban support their poppy farming.

Rail: How is the Global North responding to climatologically driven social breakdown in the Global South?

 Parenti:  By planning for a response based on repression, containment, and military might.  In the book I discuss the rise of counterinsurgency as a doctrine and place it in the context of military thinking about climate change. To be fair, the U.S. military and most militaries take climate change quite seriously. That’s a lot more than you can say for other parts of the government and for much of industry.

However a vision is emerging in which a planet facing profound climate crises is managed with force repression, surveillance and incarceration at home, open-ended counterinsurgency and counter terrorism abroad. I have a specific sociological critique of counterinsurgency: because it is a form of warfare that targets populations and relationships rather than territory, it is particularly destructive and corrosive upon the social fabric. It leaves societies atomized and traumatized and less capable of dealing with climate change. The legacy of counterinsurgency throughout much of the tropic of chaos is urban crime, rural banditry, corruption, and on the dysfunctional broken states. The murder rates in many Central American countries—front lines of both guerrilla insurgencies and counter insurgencies during the cold war—are now higher in some cases than it was during their civil wars. Counterinsurgency as a sociologically oriented form of violence destroys the social fabric. Also it won’t work. One half of the planet cannot defend itself with walls and guns against the other half of the planet’s disintegration into chaos. Eventually the secured enclaves—the armed lifeboat—will also succumb to the collapse in chaos. The rich may be the last to go down but if climate change is not addressed with mitigation—cutting greenhouse gas emissions—they will go down as well.

Rail: Your book ends by suggesting some immediate actions that can be taken to avoid climate catastrophe. Can you explain?

Parenti: The U.S. has failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation. But there is actually a lot we can do without new legislation. Due to the diligent work of activists the Environmental Protection Agency has been forced to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act of 1970. The EPA could begin by banning mountaintop removal and banning opening new coal plants. Then there should be an immediate switch in existing power plants from coal to natural gas. Coal must not be burned. And gas must only be a “bridging fuel”—something used while renewable technology is ramped up to scale. Right now renewables are a little bit more expensive than old dirty fossil fuels. This difference is called the “price gap.” How do we close the price gap? One way would be for government—which accounts for about a third of the U.S. gross domestic product—to use its tremendous purchasing power to create markets for clean energy from solar wind and hydropower and for electric vehicles. If the government really tried to become as green as it could it would have a tremendous impact throughout the private sector because it would drive down the cost of clean technology. Once the cost of clean technology is below that of dirty fossil fuel technology, then the transition is under way and it doesn’t matter what kind of legislation you do or don’t have.

 So all the pieces are in place for us to move in that direction. But people need to pressure the political class to do these things.

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Theodore Hamm