The Tropic of Chaos
Air Date: Week of July 22, 2011
Climate change can exacerbate severe weather, and create a scarcity of resources — especially in developing nations. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood talks with Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” about how extreme weather and scare resources are escalating violence facing the world’s poorest citizens.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The people that bear the brunt of the devastating effects of climate change are those who contributed the least to the problem. They live in developing nations where the use of fossil fuels is low, and poverty rampant. Christian Parenti chronicles their lives and the human impact from global warming in his new book, “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: You begin your book with the death of the tribesmen in northern Kenya, why?
PARENTI: To me, that seemed like a very clear example of how climate change is causing violence. The book opens up with the death of a guy named Ekaru Loruman, who was a Turkana pastoralist in northwest Kenya in the Rift Valley. The horn of Africa is suffering one of the worst droughts in 60 years. And so, on the ground in Kenya, that means pastoralists are fighting increasingly with each other over access to water and to replenish their herds, the young men go out and raid their neighbors, and that is what happened to Ekaru Loruman. So to some extent, he was killed by a member of another tribe, but at another level, he was killed by these larger processes. Climate change has caused scarcity and that was causing young men to raid their neighbors’ cattle.
CURWOOD: Now you call your book “The Tropic of Chaos,” referring to a belt of economically and politically battered states around the mid-latitudes. What defines these regions?
PARENTI: Most of them lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, so I call it the Tropic of Chaos. In many ways they are the states that were created by colonialism, they are in many ways the economies that have least margin of error when it comes to extreme weather, and they were also the states that were the front lines, in many cases, of the political, ideological camps during the Cold War.
CURWOOD: So how does the war in Afghanistan serve as an example of violence driven by climate change, Christian?
PARENTI: Well, the idea of the book actually came to me in Afghanistan when I was researching the poppy economy. And poppy is the flower from which opium and heroin are produced. I would ask the farmers, ‘Why do you grow this illegal crop?’ And one part of the answer was always: ‘Well, it’s very drought resistant.’ Turns out, Afghanistan is suffering the worst drought in living memory and poppy uses only one fifth the amount of water that wheat uses. In this war, the NATO forces and the Afghan government are trying to eradicate poppy, trying to get farmers to grow alternative crops like wheat, like apricots, and the Taliban are defending the farmer’s right to grow this illegal crop. And the reality is the farmers can’t really survive if they grow apricots and wheat because the climate won’t cooperate. I’m not arguing that climate change caused this war, but that it’s a contributing factor, because when a young man in Afghanistan might choose to join the Taliban, along with whatever religious and ideological motivations he might have, there is this very real material incentive, which is that the Taliban are the side of the war that defends his family’s right to grow this illegal crop.
CURWOOD: Now an example that’s close to home here in the United States that you have in your book is Mexico, and there you relate immigration tensions we have with Mexico, and the drug war, for that matter, with climate change. Can you explain these connections?
PARENTI: Mexico is also suffering from the worst drought that they’ve had in 60 years. And so the contributing factor in the migration of people north from southern Mexico and central Mexico where the drought is quite bad, into northern Mexico and into the US is climate change. One guy I profile is a fisherman in Michoacán, and when I met him he was sitting on the south bank of the Rio Grande and looking into the US, trying to figure out how he was going to get back into the US. And his story began in the late 90s during an El Niño event when warm water helped create a toxic algae bloom and all the fish disappeared. And you think, well, you know, a fisherman should be able to survive one bad season, but in part because of the stripping away of public supports for small farmers and small fishermen that are part of trade liberalization in Mexico leading up to the North American Free Trade Act, all of the old subsidized credit had been removed. So he was left to his own devices, he couldn’t pay back his debts, the fish didn’t quite come back. He lost his gear. Then he migrated north and now, when I met him, having been deported from the US, sitting in Juarez, he was saying ‘I wonder how I’m going to get the money to get back into the US, to get a job, and you know, the only way I can really do that is if I can get involved in the drug trade here in Juarez, and I really don’t want to do that.’ So you can see how climate change, in conjunction with other issues, like what I would consider bad economic policy, forces people to migrate, and particularly with unemployed young men in these border cities where there is a booming drug trade and intense lawlessness, that migration flow can be a contributing factor in the drug violence that is marking life in northern Mexico these days.
CURWOOD: Now you say that the climate crisis is fundamentally a political problem, can you explain please?
PARENTI: The thing is, we have the technologies to start mitigating the problems, to start reducing emissions, wind power, solar power, electric vehicles, a refurbished electrical grid. We have actually plenty of capital to do this. What is missing, therefore, is the political will to put all this together. We also have lots of unemployed people who would like to go to work transforming our energy economy. So, the pieces of the solution are existent, but they are not being put together by government policy, so that’s why I say it’s a political problem. It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s not that we don’t have the technologies, it’s that we haven’t brought all the components of the solution together to move forward on this. And I think that the US government should be taking the international negations, the UNFCCC, or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, much more seriously than we are. Part of those negotiations involve establishing a fund to transfer capital and technology to the global south to help societies in the global south adapt and mitigate, that is to say, adapt effective climate change we’re locked in for, and shift away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. So, fundamentally, there isn’t a proper response yet.
CURWOOD: In your book, you make the charge that the US and the rich part of the world is engaged in a program of ‘arming the lifeboat.’ What do you mean by that?
PARENTI: I mean, inadvertently, this is what’s happening. I don’t think it’s a plan that the response to climate change would just be ‘arming the lifeboat.’ But the only real response so far that has much traction is the Pentagon planning for a future of increased state failure. Domestically, we see the rise of really xenophobic anti-immigrant policies in states like Arizona, all that calls for increased border militarization, so those ad-hoc responses are what I see as the emerging politics of the ‘armed lifeboat.’ They are not yet articulated as a response to climate change, but that’s what one could imagine taking off as a response to climate change if we don’t do what we have to do which is take mitigation and adaptation seriously.
CURWOOD: Haven’t there always been wars?
PARENTI: Yes, there have always been wars. And they have always had specific and distinct causes. And my argument is that, increasingly, climate change is one of the driving factors in civil wars and internal wars that we see here today. And at that first glance these wars that look religious or ethnic are rooted to some extent in the climate crisis. And so we can draw from that the fact that we must address this climate crisis or we can expect a future of increased internal warfare, state failure, banditry, and rising chaos.
CURWOOD: Boy, it sounds awfully grim!
PARENTI: You know, that’s what I’ve found in this, like, six years of traveling around to war zones and failed states – it’s a very real crisis out there and of poverty and violence and increasingly if you scratch the surface, climate change is right there as a cause.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time to talk with me.
PARENTI: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Christian Parenti’s new book is called: “The Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” I'm Steve Curwood.
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