Tropic of Chaos: a book review
“Between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer lies what I call the Tropic of Chaos, a belt of economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet’s mid-latitudes. In this band, around the tropics, climate change is beginning to hit hard. The societies in this belt are heavily dependent on agriculture and fishing, thus very vulnerable to shifts in weather patterns … In this belt we find clustered most of the failed and semi-failed states of the developing world.” p. 9
Christian Parenti has written a book about climate change, “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” from the perspective, by and large, of the least of these, of the world’s poor. And it is a very sobering picture.
He has also grounded his analysis in history and economics, placing the climate impacts that are being felt in the countries he visited and reports on within a broader context. In so doing, his book will help readers appreciate that the deadly and destructive impacts of climate change, caused mainly by the world’s burning of fossil fuels, are in many respects a continuation of colonial and neo-colonial policies in effect worldwide for centuries.
As Parenti says, “The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence … the catastrophic convergence.”
The countries reported on in this book, some more than others, are Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico. Parenti traces how drought, desertification and rainstorm deluges-the primary ways climate change manifests itself in these countries-are responsible for more frequent famines, internal conflicts, government repression, wars and the rise of drug-growing and distribution.
Afghanistan, for example, has been suffering from frequent droughts for 40 years. And that is the period of time during which it has been riven by internal uprisings, armed conflicts and foreign interventions-first the Soviet Union, now the United States. Afghanistan is also the country that produces about 90% of the world’s opium. One reason, of course, is the higher prices for this crop on the world market than other commodities. But it is also because the growing of the opium poppy “uses only one-sixth the water needed for wheat.” This is a very practical incentive for Afghanistan farmers when faced with persistent water scarcity over a period of decades.
Another example is in northern Kenya and Africa’s “pastoralist corridor, a region of mountains, savannas, marshes and deserts straddling the borderlands of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Plagued by drought and flash flooding,” the region is now suffering through violence, crime, illegal militias, armed conflicts and more as people struggle to survive. Parenti’s description of an armed battle over a herd of cattle between Pokot and Turkana groups in northern Kenya is one of the book’s most vivid and disturbing stories.
After a chapter about Mexico which explains why so many Mexicans are heading north, looking for work to survive, Parenti rips into the xenophobia and racism of the U.S. anti-immigrant “demagogues” and those who “talk hate for a living:” Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Savage and others. “Our current style of anti-immigrant policing-of which climate change will surely bring more-is eroding civil liberties and returning the nation to its more primitive condition: a herrenvolk democracy based on segregation and routine violence, in which race and nationality mask raw class power. Immigrants are the canaries in the political coal mine, and immigration is the vehicle by which the logic of the ‘state of emergency’ is smuggled into everyday life, law and politics.”
Parenti concludes with his perspectives on what must be done to address and solve climate change. He supports a number of things that I also support: the spread, as rapidly as possible, of wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies to replace fossil fuels; grassroots-based projects throughout the developing world to reduce carbon pollution and foster resilient local economies; increasing taxes on the rich and cutting the military budget; supporting national efforts like the 350.org movement and the movement to shut down coal plants and prevent any new ones from being built; support of the EPA moving forward to enforce the Clean Air Act; and calling upon government at all levels to implement a “big green buy” via a “redirection of government purchasing.”
He singles out, justifiably, the country of Bolivia for special praise for its international leadership on this issue, including its willingness to point out that “the emperor has no clothes” as far as proposals from the United States and other climate laggards during international climate negotiations.
Unfortunately, he also puts forward switching from coal to natural gas as part of the solution, with no mention of the rapidly growing use of hydraulic fracturing-fracking-to get at natural gas inside underground shale deposits. In addition to the documented poisoning of local water supplies, peer-reviewed studies by professor Robert Howarth and others at Cornell University indicate that in many cases, natural gas from fracking is as bad or worse than coal as far as greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, Parenti briefly addresses the issue of whether what we should be prioritizing is the building of a revolutionary movement to move from capitalism to a qualitatively superior way of organizing society. I agree with his view that “we cannot wait to transform everything. We must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.”
Parenti’s book, its focus in particular on the ways in which the climate crisis is already disrupting the lives of large numbers of people in the global South, is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on this urgent topic.