Tropic of Chaos: book review and interview with author Christian Parenti

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

By Sasha

Author Christian Parenti negotiates the badlands of East Africa and the borderlands of the USA, the mountains of Afghanistan and the spreading slums of Rio de Janeiro, to bring us his latest classic, Tropic of Chaos, Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. First-hand accounts of blood and toil mingle with historic analyses of terror and revolution, bringing personal insight to bear on fact-based knowledge of the new worlds being built out of melting glaciers, evaporating rivers and evanescent green space. Throwing the reader into a living reality outside of the privileged bubble of the US, Parenti’s hardnosed journalism brings to climate change a personal side that has never been explored with such depth and scope.

What is most relevant to Earth First!, however, is his conclusion. Yes, the book is wonderful, and Parenti’s writing has never offered more brilliant ecological economic analysis. But, in the last five pages, Parenti’s analysis seems to relax its intensely critical direction. “It may be true: capitalism may be, ultimately, incapable of accommodating itself to the limits of the natural world.” Parenti explains, “However, that is not the same question as whether capitalism can solve the climate crisis.” He goes on: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate.” What is this? Did Christian Parenti just serve the Deep Ecology movement? Before feeling sold out, it becomes crucial for EF! to examine the work itself.

Tropic of Chaos begins with a climactic moment of murder and conflict—the killing of a shepherd named Ekaru Loruman, whose death provides a microcosm of decades of famine, drought, and cattle wars resulting from climate change and subsequent inter-African wars. The scene is set in the once bountiful region of Kenya, located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, whose yearly routine of solar migration traditionally precipitated two fertile rainy seasons, but now opens to a desert of isolation and drought. The reader is swept up from this alienated no-person’s-land into an historical narrative spanning the breadth of the continent. From melting glaciers atop Mount Kilimanjaro across to the logged and polluted banks of the Congo River Basin, Africa, birthplace of humanity, forecasts perhaps the greatest global collapse of all time.

Through a meditation on failed states, Parenti explains the prism through which climate change can be observed. International arms deals, drought, unchecked ecological destruction, debt and nationalist irredentism conspire to destroy popular initiatives and escalate crisis into an increasingly profitable and elite mode of global warfare. He exemplifies this subject through a report on Central Asia, where the story of an interwoven constellation of failed states unravels through a complex of drought and extreme temperatures; water shortages leading to hydroelectric power outages, causing industrial failure, unemployment, and broad-based social upheaval. From his journeys in Afghanistan, Parenti is able to understand the conditions of the climate-fueled opium trade, borne of the cultivation of drought-resistant poppy as the only viable economic output remaining in the harsh land of drones and desert. Mushrooming out from Afghanistan are the revolutionary movements of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on one side, and on the other, murderous wars and civil unrest in the Indian subcontinent. The source of the conflict is the same—water.

 As Pakistan was partitioned without access to the sources of its six rivers, it has always been geographically subject to water that flows from the mountains of Kashmir and Tibet. Kashmir in the west has seen forces of war from India to Pakistan to Afghanistan, while Tibet in the east was the site of a brief water war between China and India in recent history. Today, climate change has exacerbated India’s damming of the Indus River, which flows from Tibet into Pakistan, slowing the flow of water considerably, and intensifying ethnic and religious conflicts. Meanwhile, Parenti’s research reveals that the eastern side of India flares up into Maoist guerrilla war in accordance with the ebb and flow of drought cycles, which are eerily falling closer and closer together. Grain production continues to diminish throughout the world while drought claims more terrain and farmers are switched to staple crops like cotton from food by international financial organizations. Riots turn into global resistance structures of crime and armed warfare, which is met with increasingly technological counterinsurgency tactics from the power centers of the world. Parenti warns that this cycle will eventually swallow the elites of the world unless they “[adapt] to climate change with economic redistribution, social justice, and sustainable development.”

Moving the case study to Latin America, Parenti finds that this adaptation is rare, if not impossible. A “brutal rhythm of drought and flooding” in the Nordeste region of Brazil caused by elevating sea temperatures, is displacing farmers, forcing internal climate refugees into mega-cities where “they become trapped in the favelas… pulled into the vortex of the sub-rosa economy, that carnival of guns, drugs, money, sex, music, solidarity, and respect.” Parenti compares the most notorious Brazilian drug gang, Comando Veurmelho (CV), and its current urban grass-roots structure  to the grass-roots, rural Landless Movement (MST), which settles dispossessed farmers on expropriated land that has been unused by the landed aristocracy for decades. While CV claims territory in the favelas, often forging favorable relationships with local people, the MST uses sustainable farming practices including agroforestry, providing relief from the social tensions of urban spaces, and showing a new way toward the future. At the same time, the socialist policies of recent President Lula are contrasted with the government’s support for groups like the Special Military Police Batallion (BOPE), which has unleashed rampant police brutality on the people of the favelas. “Just as the MST and CV represent two contradictory grassroots adaptive responses to responses to suffering, Lula’s tropical New Deal and the paramilitary assaults of the BOPE upon the favelas are examples of the Brazilian state’s conflicting potentials.” With climate change fueling the pressurized situation, Parenti places the onus on government to alleviate suffering rather than continue state repression.

Tropic of Chaos‘ final case study is the State of Mexico and the borderlands of the US, where the extent of state repression has completely overwhelmed any constructive analysis of economic dispossession and climate change. Dissecting the economic collapse brought on by neoliberalism, Parenti exposes how problems of deregulation and agricultural restructuring have joined with the heating oceans of climate change to increase algae blooms and destroy the Mexican fishing industry. As in Brazil, climate refugees from the countryside have exacerbated poverty and drug trafficking in the cities, creating war zones out of slums. Parenti explains “[T]he vortex of murder that now defines Juarez is a harbinger of a world in which climate mitigation has been ignored and adaptation takes the form of violent class apartheid.” The systems of corruption and oppression emerging out of the Mexican side of the border are part and parcel to the complex of border politics, and are reflected by the hate speech and genocidal policies of the US.

As similar policies are enacted throughout Europe, climate change is only acknowledged in-so-far as it poses a technical challenge—a perspective which Parenti deconstructs, declaring “The climate crisis is not a technical problem, nor even an economic problem: it is, fundamentally, a political problem.” Noting the problems of violence against women and oppressive regimes of war lords that take hold within failed states, Parenti locates the solution to the problem of climate change in immediate environmental restructuring of industrial civilization, beginning with a movement away from fossil fuels—a fresh new direction, which unfortunately leads through the miasmatic politics of natural gas fields. Capitalist mitigation “is merely about buying time,” says Parenti, “exploitation of nature and humanity feuled by the sun rather than by coal would not [provide] a full solution, but it would/could buy time.”

Obviously the failed state scenario of globalized repression would only be a reaffirmation of the elite’s power structure. Solidarity and global organization are necessary to combat ecological destruction on a serious level, which is why it makes sense to advocate for the seizure of the power of the state and all of its resources by any means necessary. In this context, Parenti’s critique of refusing to wait for a social condition catered to our demands reads less like a condemnation of Deep Ecology and more like the revolutionary words of Vladamir Lenin written on the verge of revolution: “We would be committing a great mistake if we attempted to force the complete, urgent, rapidly developing practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of narrowly conceived ‘theory,’ instead of regarding theory primarily and predominantly as a guide to action.” Make no mistake, Parenti is not mixing it up with Deep Ecology, he is broadening it. Through its relationships with social movements around the world, Earth First! has already set out an example of Parenti’s strategy, showing that there is a difference between solidarity and compromise—with the former, we will prevail together; with the latter, we will fail alone. Parenti’s final sentence sheds light on the true path: “I see in friendship the rudimentary components–generosity, loyalty, solidarity, patience—that are the building blocks of a better society.”

We had a chance to catch up with Mr. Parenti, and chat about strategy and tactics of the radical environmental movement, as well as dig for a little analysis of state repression and the Occupy movement in light of the broader goals mentioned in Climate of Chaos. “If one takes seriously these tipping points,” Parenti explains, “one has to operate equally as a revolutionary, and also in response to these tipping points, which talk about immediate change now.” Enjoy!


Talking Strategy and Tactics with Christian Parenti,

Climate Change, Direct Action, and the Occupy Movement

Christian Parenti: One point that I might not have made clearly enough in the book, but found myself making a lot on the book tour, is this: the climate crisis can be confused with the environmental crisis as a whole because the scale of the climate crisis is potentially apocalyptic. But, it is actually a subset of a larger crisis.  In other words, tackling climate change—which must be done immediately and therefore in the short term—is not the same as, and does not mean, solving all environmental problems. Cutting emissions is about buying time to deal with other problems.

People sometimes hear, “Capitalism must and can cut greenhouse gas emissions just as it has cleaned up local pollution in the past,” and they think, “Wait a minute, do you think people can just keep going on despoiling the planet?” No. But being realistic about the disaster of climate tipping points means tackling emissions now, today, immediately, in the short term, with these institutions, in this economic framework. Do you know what I mean?

Sasha: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a really good book produced by AK Press recently called Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, and it talked about a lot of programs going on around the world that are anticapitalist in some ways, and in some ways working within the system. I think it’s important to keep a broad purview of tactics, because the problems are so huge.

CP: Yes, and the reason I argue for embracing the emergency reformist position on climate change is because the timeframe implied by these tipping points is intense. We have to start cutting emissions now, or we’re going to be in really big trouble. I mean we are already in big trouble, so it kind of precludes waiting for underlying causes. Though we should always try to deal with underlying causes.

S: One thing that your book deals with really well is that climate change is certainly exacerbating environmental problems, but these problems already exist in themselves, and that’s what makes it a political issue. Like the problems of drought going from India to Pakistan and the damming of the Indus river; damming is one of the biggest problems in India… and in Brazil; damming is a huge issue that is really choking the water sources, and of course climate change is making it a lot worse, so when you look at the megaprojects going on, it’s sometimes hard to say, “Do we go for emissions reduction, or do we target specific projects that are also fundamental?” There are so many issues.

CP: I think they’re generally not mutually exclusive, but there is an argument that the way you solve the problem is by transforming all social relations, and I just don’t think that argument confronts the limits of the climate tipping points. If one takes seriously these tipping points, one has to operate in response to them, which is to work for immediate emissions reductions now. It puts those who want to be pure and righteous all the time in a difficult situation. I mean, if we believe that 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is really a tipping point, what kind of responsibility does that put on us to be realistic in our actions?

S: You brought up a quote in your book made by Bill McKibben about armed militias guarding vegetable gardens that raises some ethical issues. Bill McKibben has said some really weird things, and EF! is coming out of a long divorce with a right-wing, almost paramilitary, feel through Dave Foreman and folks like that who have gone way to the Right as far as immigration, so linking climate refugees, the drug trade, and the border is absolutely on the forefront of what we need to be doing in the environmental movement to distance ourselves from the problems that are creating climate change, but to another extent we have to look at these movement like and Stop Keystone XL, which just had a major victory, and join those movements.

CP: In Tropic of Chaos I was critical of a certain type of naïve localism, in part because I feel that global scale problems require solutions that are commensurate scale—I’m talking about cutting emissions.  As for the political economy of naive localism, yes McKibben has embraced that in his last two books, and done so with an embarrassingly mawkish sentimentality and a total lack of historical context. He holds up Vermont as a model of local semi-self sufficient economics? That is utterly ridiculous. Vermont – a state I know well because I was raised there – is totally intergraded with the global economy and has been since at least White settlement in the early 18th Century. Even the Abenaki and Iroquois engaged in long-range regional trade networks. As soon as they could, white Vermonters where exported wool and prize Merino sheep—those all the way to Australia as early as the 1820s—and importing metal, glass, guns, tobacco, books, etc. The green tinted Norman Rockwell imaginary is a fantasy and has nothing to do with what the world will actually look like in the second half of this century and beyond.

Now, as for McKibben’s work around the Keystone XL actions, I feel very differently about that. I think that is great I am deeply impressed and appreciative of his efforts. The Keystone XL actions also mark a major maturing compared to 350’s initial set of purely symbolic actions. You’ll recall that people were lighting 350 candles etc.  Stopping the Keystone XL? Now, this is about something concrete, this is a real project rather than just messaging.

S: Absolutely, and that’s the important thing about targeting viable projects, and it’s what in some ways makes the climate change movement work, as opposed to countering climate change, which Exxon is paying so much money to deny or raise speculation about, and it’s really hard to convince people that the people with all the money are wrong, whereas it’s easier to say that these industrial projects are going to screw with your back yard or whatever. And of course stop Keystone XL really pissed off a lot of activists. That’s another thing about that particular group; they mobilize thousands of people, and in some ways they’re willing to compromise, so they push the movement forward, and the people who aren’t willing to compromise in a lot of ways form the advanced guard as long as they don’t speak up in important places.

CP: Was EF! part of the movement?

S: Well EF!ers were, but as a group…

CP: That’s right, now I recall, the whole thing was not endorsed by organizations, but lots of radical organizations seconded activists to the effort. That in a way may have been a very strategic decision. The argument for that was that Republican farmers who didn’t want their property threatened by the pipeline got involved an action alongside individual Greenpeace activists,  whereas the same farmers might never have considered being involved with Greenpeace the organization, let alone something as radical as Earth First!

S: In doing that, they were able to draw people together, but they incurred a lot of criticism from activists like Ralph Nader, whom they ignored, because he’s critical of Obama, and you also had folks like Mike Roselle, who were involved with the more Leftist strains of EF!, criticizing the Keystone XL movement… Keystone XL was saying flood the cells of Washington DC, and likening themselves to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and Mike was saying there’s a big difference between going down to the Deep South and flooding the cells of Birmingham, Alabama, and the folks who go to Washington DC to flood the cells of the relatively cushy jails there, so what Mike is saying is, “Hey, come down to West Virginia when you’re done with that, and flood some of these cells…”

CP: Maybe they will, although it seems like the next thing is going to be fracking… If I were not busting my ass teaching a 4/4 course load at Brooklyn College right now, I would be down there in Appalachia writing about the “ecology of movements” that goes from the radical direct action of RAMP to the more mainstream types like my friends in the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and even beyond into the  ranks of the local political establishment, to include rather conservative NIMBYs who don’t want their mountains blown up.

The Keystone XL movement did have is very unique specificity to it.  The target was a single decision about a single pipeline. It had a specific chokepoint, in that the president had to say “yes or no.” Mountaintop removal on the other hand is about the practices of a whole industry made up of many firms operating in numerous states.  Where exactly is the single chokepoint to stop mountaintop removal?  Maybe the EPA?  But even if it were approached at that level the problem is a series of permits, a whole class of activity rather than a single decision.

Not every problem presents itself in the neat and tidy fashion of the  Keystone XL pipeline. The people with RAMP are up against a much more decentralized enemy. Who is it? The state environmental regulators? The EPA? The corporations? It’s so much more of a diffuse. My only point is that there’s something unique about the Keystone thing and I think the tactics used to defeat it were correct.  The fight against coal seems to require a different strategy.

S: Right, and in the case of MTR, it’s a whole industry practice. It’s a technique. It’s not, “Stop this mine in this place, go to Washington DC, and hold hands around the White House, and that will do it,” It’s a little more complicated, and perhaps the role of activists is to reach out to the community and try to streamline as much as possible what they’re against, so it can be articulated for people.

CP: Yeah.

S: You mentioned fracking. There was a recent conference in Houston, Texas, where environmentalists were compared to insurgents, and industry leaders revealed that they have been hiring psy ops personnel to handle their public relations. You write a lot about counterinsurgency tactics, what are your thoughts about this?

CP: It goes back to the PATRIOT Act. The definition of terrorism is incredibly broad; it’s seeking to promote a political cause or change a public opinion and using tactics that would endanger human life and that means civil disobedience. If you put yourself in danger to impact public opinion then you are, under the definition of the PATRIOT Act, a terrorist.

S: A lot of this boils down to the Department of Homeland Security. They are presently hiring private intelligence firms to store backlogs of information “just in case,” and in a lot of these conversations that they’re having, they’re creating these hypothetical links between drug cartels, terrorists, and environmentalists. As one private security firm’s co-founder put it, he sees “shades of Al Qaeda” in peaceful environmental protesters.

CP: That is some sick shit. Private security firms are definitely going to be looking for more business after getting out of Iraq, and the draw down in Afghanistan. This is the classic problem of mercenaries: they need something to do after the war. But what you describe is the making of Green Scare 2.0. The sooner this concocted intel is exposed as junk, the better.

S: Exactly. So given your knowledge of the counterinsurgency ideology about protest movements, I was musing about the Occupy movement, and I was wondering, if you could write an epilogue to this book thinking about the Occupy movement and where you think that movement’s best potential lies, what would it say?

CP: Well that’s a real tough question, and I am not a scholar of social movements, my work is about the state and the role of violence in political life. I am not prepared to say, “This is what I think Occupy should do.” I’m watching it, and I’m kind of amazed by it—I’m blown away. I’m trying to figure out, first of all, why now? Part of this seemed to be post-Obama disillusionment. There are generation of activists whose only experience with politics was getting Obama elected. In other words, their first and in many cases only taste of political activism was victory. Furthermore, they did the impossible: they got a black guy with a Muslim name elected president in America. You do the math on that!

Then, lo and behold, Obama betrays them, because he is not, in fact, a socialist as they had fantasized. Instead he is a foundation-funded, money-beholden, neoliberal with no connection to any of the movements or communities that have historically constituted the Left in the United States. And so now, enraged and  genuinely  disappointed,  the Obama canvas, the field operation, are back on the the street. I think that is a big part of its going on here.  When Obama was elected my good friend Doug Henwood said that possibly the only real change that would come out of it would be a sort of “radicalizing disappointment” once Obama began to govern. I remember thinking, Oh, that’s rather optimistic! But it seems to be what is happening.

The other thing of course is that unemployment is very high, particularly for young people.  What is it now for college educated kids in their twenties? Something north of 20 percent. And that is the official rate. Historically, effective social movements in industrialized countries are made up of and, for better or for worse, are lead by ambitions, overeducated young people for whom the system has no use. Unable to find opportunity, they make opportunity. Politics and change, even revolution, become their careers. That type, that set, they have to win.

I have a piece coming out in the local Occupy newspaper co-authored with my good friend Robert S. Eshelman, he’s a journalists and was for a long time a housing activist, got his start as an anti-fascist squatter in Germany, did jail time in the Czech Republic, was housing activists in SF; he and I work together in Iraq. Anyway, we say that so far OWS’s greatest victory has been to put class on the agenda; class-consciousness is back. The brilliance of the 99% meme is that it has turned private, personal humiliation—“Why am I broke? Why can’t I get a job?”—into the raw material of politics. Now the question is: “Why is the system rigged? Why do the rich get all the breaks?”  That shift, in and of itself, is of enormous importance.

I am heartened by how massive this is, but I also am not clear how this translates into victory. My worry about OWS is, I don’t see how this set of practices – occupying public space – gets to victory—however you want to define that. The sit down strike of the thirties cost GM money—lots of it—so they settled with the UAW. That was confrontation with a physical, economic, impact. So far OWS operates at the level of spectacle, theater, media traction. It is an outcry; a message written with bodies.  What happens when the media get bored and goes away?

I mean, you tell me: what’s the endgame? How does this lead to social change? On one end of the OWS spectrum you’ve got people who want anarchist revolution, overthrowing the state, build a self-organized society of independent collectives. At the other end you’ve got people who want free college, a jobs program, progressive taxation, a bit of fairness and redistribution. Take even the very mild demands of free college, regulation of the banks, a jobs program; how does this get to that? It’s not at all clear.

S: I hear you. It’s pretty obvious that there are no PR people working on this project. The media comes off as extremely confused about the goals and the reasons for the occupation.

CP: I think that actually is a red herring, the fundamental message is redistribution of wealth and a restructuring of society. What I’m talking about is not clarity of the message, but rather the actual fundamentals of social change. And your response reflects an implicit idea about how social change happens in this society (not that you necessarily believe this) but the idea is that “the message” eventually gets out and then “public opinion” changes and then politicians respond and deliver the goods. But is that what actually happens?

Getting back to organized labor, the strike is an economic – physical—strategy. The Civil Rights Movement’s sit-ins were as were as well. How did Fidel Castro achieve social change? The July 26th movement took state power by force. I’m not saying there’s a correct way to do social change, it’s just that I’m not clear what the mechanisms of change are in this social movement. I’m just saying, “Where’s the point of pressure?” On one level, the State could just say, “OK let these kids live all winter in this park, let them get bored with it.”

S: Right, kind of like, “They’re not costing us any money. They’re not draining money with these actions.” I think the November 5th action was a great action that definitely hit the financial industry where it hurts. Pulling all the money out of the big banks, and putting into credit unions, but you have to wonder how much it matters in terms of the capital that’s really out there.

CP: The sums are minuscule in the over all scheme: $100 million gets you one third of a maximum-security prison. It gets you one third of a new college campus. It is a large skyscraper. It is chump change on the balance she of the American economy. Groupon’s recent IPO raised $700 million. So the bank action was symbolically useful—a vote, a demonstration of anger—but it had limited economic impact on the banks. For more on the limits of credit unions, people should check out Doug Henwood’s work at Left Business Observer.

S: It’s symbolically useful, exactly, it’s empowering for people, and I think that power will spread and people will make connections. And I think that’s what the movement is all about, organizing a grassroots community outside of the mainstream media, outside of all these other things. And in some way the media confusion helps the movement, because maybe people won’t get the media’s message, and will go down to the Occupy camps to ask some questions for themselves. But in the long term its kind of difficult to see how this will make a difference unless there’s a chain reaction when this is all said and done where people up the ante a little bit.

CP: Yes, or become more organized and find more targets that are materially more crucial to the system. I think a reinvigoration of Organized Labor could come out of this and that is crucial. There’s also the Piven and Cloward thesis that historically, progressive reforms are deepest when protest is most disruptive. That’s all in Poor Peoples Movements, How They Succeed and Why They Fail.

S: It is a question, and it kind of makes you think back to the welfare movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and how reform was achieved through a lot of public action—both civil disobedience and a lot of autonomous action in really low income areas, segregated areas—and its really disheartening to see how a lot of those reforms have been scaled back, and how a lot of the reforms since the ’30s have been annihilated, and we’re left with a movement like what was going on before the 1930s, and we have to wonder if reform is enough.

CP: The key question is how ameliorative reforms build towards broader systemic changes. That’s very much how Earth First! has worked—whether or not EF!ers see it as such. EF! actions are about specific victories, protecting specific ecosystems, defeating specific projects, but always also about moving forward, keeping your eyes on the prize of transforming all of society. And so the question is how to achieve small victories that help people here and now, while building towards bigger systemic change. Its always the fundamental issue: how to activate reforms that build peoples’ power and help nature now while also building bigger mobilization and deeper transformations.

Christian Parenti is a journalist and teaches sociology at the Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of several books, including The Freedom, Lockdown America, and The Soft Cage. His latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence is in stores now.

Sasha is a former editor of the Earth First! Journal and a regular contributor to the EF! Newswire.

3 Responses to “Tropic of Chaos: book review and interview with author Christian Parenti”

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    […] Tropic of Chaos: book review and interview with author Christian Parenti […]

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    […] harder than most and bring with them a whole host of ugly social side effects. In his new book, Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti illustrates some of the consequences we’re already starting to see. In […]

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