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Books: hot wars and global warming

Jan McGirk

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In his alarming Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti sees a “new geography of violence” as political, economic and environmental disasters collide and climate change multiplies the threats. This book is a must-read, says Jan McGirk.

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence
Christian Parenti
Nation Books, 2011

Investigative journalist Christian Parenti’s latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, is a hard-hitting survey of how climate change contributes to increased violence, humanitarian crises and migration in the band of failing states that girds the earth’s middle latitudes. In these geographical areas where drought, floods, famine and bloodshed are becoming the norm, developing countries struggle with the consequences of post-industrial pollution that is overheating the planet and blighting their lives.

The situation is utterly obscene: to maximise profits, richer nations ignore scientists’ warnings and keep spewing out poisons that ultimately wreak social and environmental havoc on the have-nots. So it seems fitting that Parenti’s title evokes a pair of erotic novels of the 1930s by the American author Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, once banned as obscene. In fact, the 1960s songwriter Tom Lehrer used to joke that a sexy title like Tropic of Calculus could sell a million mathematics textbooks. Whether Parenti’s exhaustive book about how extreme weather provokes extremist politics becomes a best-seller or not, it ought to scare you.

Parenti argues that the world’s unstable regions – as far-ranging as East Africa, Brazil, central Asia and Mexico – will suffer disproportionately because the impact of climate change combines with resource scarcity and fuels political upheaval. He jets between continents, oblivious to the increasing size of his own carbon footprint, to point out how global warming stimulates the intensity of the pre-existing conflicts in what analysts term the Global South (Africa, Latin America and much of Asia).

What’s more, Parenti recounts how too many struggling societies now find themselves more vulnerable because decades of neo-liberal economic restructuring has shut down most traditional networks of social cooperation. Bellicose gunmen with access to cheap weapons tend to make matters even worse.

Parenti painstakingly details how militarism was heightened through proxy wars encouraged by superpower cold warriors before our present decade of hot wars was unleashed after the terror attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.  To explain the new risks, he coins the phrase “catastrophic convergence”. By this, Parenti means “a collision of political, economic and environmental disasters … which compound and amplify each other”.  Once man-made climate change is added to this volatile mix, it acts as “an accelerant” or “threat multiplier”.

Has the writer grabbed your attention yet? A nightmare scenario already is under way. Even climate-change sceptics will be alarmed by US defense department strategists’ warnings about rising security threats. The generals predict that future wars won’t be conventional conflicts fought over water or food, but – in Parenti’s words – “an emerging geography of climatologically driven civil war, refugee flows, pogroms and social breakdown”. Parenti cautions that the military response is apt to be “open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale”. Elsewhere, he calls the leading industrial countries’ flawed survival strategies the “armed lifeboat” approach.

The book’s alarming thesis is lent credence by a recent statistical analysis that links El Niño weather patterns to increased internal strife in tropical countries. Warming and drying trends are cited as a partial cause for conflict in Myanmar, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Indonesia, Rwanda and Niger during a single year -- 1997. The new study, by Solomon Hsiang and Mark Cane, was published in the journal Nature (August 2011.)

According to Parenti, because the seas are predicted to rise by one metre by the turn of the next century, it’s paramount to deal quickly with climate-driven violence before the number of climate refugees increases ten-fold. “The struggling states of the developing world cannot be allowed to collapse, as they will take other nations down as well,” he warns, and calls for more sustainable economic and development policies. Unless free-market capitalism can factor in natural limits to plundering resources, he argues, it will inflict too much damage on the earth.

The book’s proposed solutions, gathered in a final chapter of “implications and possibilities”, rely on government will. “The climate crisis is not technical … nor even economic; it is fundamentally a political problem,” Parenti insists. He stresses that governments in the Global North – generally, those with a high Human Development Index – must cut emissions and encourage sustainable power or else the planet as we know it seems doomed. Time has run out on the climate issue, and there can be no quick fixes, Parenti warns, but suggests that there still may be time to transform the energy economy and to redistribute wealth downwards.

While he welcomes the salsa socialism of Brazil and Bolivia, the author cautions that state policies must keep nature in balance and override greed. “If government bought green, that would drive down the price of clean technology and then the momentum toward green tech would become self-reinforcing and spread to the private sector,” Parenti muses. Given the urgent timeline, US president Barack Obama’s recent postponement of enforcing stricter smog standards inside the United States does not bode well.

After decades reporting as a foreign correspondent in Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, I read Parenti’s cruel tales of life on the frontline of climate change closely and detected very little hype. However, nitpickers may point out that some prime examples – notably Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and most of Mexico – happen to lie outside the tropics.  But from Dhaka to Rio de Janeiro, the tropic of chaos is already unleashed and Parenti’s multidisciplinary approach penetrates to the region's heart of darkness.

Occasionally the author’s efforts to “tease out the causal role of climate change within all these crises” seemed a bit contorted or simplified, particularly when examining the complex conditions in the sub-continent.  For example, while Parenti laments that “India-Pakistan tensions … born of a water dispute and exacerbated by climate change … are being played out as a religious war”, he neglects to mention that Muslims comprise a sizeable minority inside India, around 13.4% of the population – exceeding 160 million people, mostly living in the cities. What about the urban-rural divide? His grasp of Naxalite guerrilla violence in India and its paramilitary backlash also feels rather sketchy.

However, the post-mortem of a Kenyan cattle herdsman murdered in a raid was compellingly detailed and left me convinced that a man gunned down by tribal enemies can also be a victim of “profound social and climatological forces” in East Africa. The role of climate change in the brutal criminality of “narco-terrorists” rampaging near the US-Mexico border is less apparent.

Like Henry Miller’s notorious novels, Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos often lacks a clear linear narrative and can lurch confusingly between the past, future and present. Sometimes this occurs in a single dense paragraph, but then comes a lyrical line like this one: “When the monsoons fail, the rivers are reduced to mere memories.” To cover all the complexities, Parenti draws heavily on books by respected regional experts such as Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani analyst whose authoritative Descent Into Chaos may also have inspired this title.

Although Parenti’s writing can be irritatingly uneven, with gripping first-hand reports contrasting with wodges of supporting statistics, historical background and wonkish analysis, Tropic of Chaos is a must-read. It telegraphs an urgent message of how quickly climate catastrophe is morphing around the globe.

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for
The Independent (London) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

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