Tropic of Chaos: A Discussion with Christian Parenti

By Michael Busch

(This interview initially appeared on September 29th, 2011 at the Institute for Policy Studies Foreign Policy in Focus site. It is reposted here with permission from Michael Busch.)

Christian ParentiIn many respects, 2011 has been marked as much by the mayhem of nature as it has by the upheavals of men. Although challenges to political authority have captured the imaginations of millions and produced exciting tremors of revolution across the continents, Mother Nature’s increasingly ferocious response to the heavy environmental footprint of industrial production will likely be judged the most profound source of social change around the world in the years to come.

From the Japanese tsunami, which triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, and the extreme drought that currently threatens the lives of millions in the Eastern Horn of Africa to the wildfires, hurricanes, and periodic flooding that have decimated both coasts of the richest country in the world, anthropogenic climate change is increasingly—and undeniably—at the core of politics and society everywhere in the world.

Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti’s excellent new book examining the intersections between climate change, neoliberal economic policy, and the spread of political violence, argues that the convergence of these threats to international security has set our world along a course that will result in a broken planet characterized by catastrophe, conflict, and xenophobic distrust. That is, unless meaningful action is taken immediately to reorient international relations away from this disastrous trajectory.

I recently spoke with Parenti — who has for several years been a visiting scholar at the CUNY Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and is currently visiting professor of sociology at Brooklyn College — about his book, the future of climate wars, the failures of leadership in Washington and at the UN to combat environmental degradation, and what can be done to avoid a world driven by the politics of natural catastrophe.

Michael Busch: I wanted to begin by briefly touching on the book’s title and, more importantly, discussing the theoretical concept that largely gives shape to the book’s narrative arc: what you refer to as the “catastrophic convergence.” Can you give us a sense of what you mean by each and talk about how they informed your research and analysis? 

Christian Parenti: The “tropic of chaos” is less important than the “catastrophic convergence.” The tropic of chaos is more of a play on words that refers to the conditions in the Global South, which is that belt of post-colonial, underdeveloped, over-exploited states that mostly lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. So, it’s sort of a name for that region of the world.

The “catastrophic convergence” is the driving thesis of the book, the argument that climate change doesn’t just look like tornadoes, floods, and droughts. It also looks like religious violence, ethnic pogroms, civil war, state failure, mass migration, counterinsurgency and anti-immigrant border militarization. And so, climate change rarely works on its own. Usually, it arrives in the Global South on a stage preset for crisis. The forces that have preset that stage are militarism and radical free-market restructuring—neoliberalism. Cold War militarism, and now the War on Terror, have flooded the Global South with cheap weapons and men trained in the arts of assassination and interrogation, smuggling, small unit attacks, and terrorism.  Neoliberalism has created increased poverty, increased inequality, and a tattered and stressed social fabric. As a result, it leads to less social solidarity. It damages and degrades traditional economies. And it makes more populations more vulnerable to sudden weather shocks, extreme climatic events like drought and flooding, which are due to anthropogenic climate change kicking in hard. And it is combining with these two preexisting crises—militarism and inequality/poverty—and the three of them are meeting in this catastrophic convergence and articulating themselves as increased violence. That can be religious violence, ethnic violence, sometimes class-based violence. Sometimes this is expressed as chaos and relative or outright state failure.

But in the Global North, the catastrophic convergence presents itself as a renewed emphasis on building-up the incipient police state that exists in many western European countries as well as the United States. So, we now have a reengagement with the discourse around border militarization, a reanimation of the xenophobic discourse that goes with those policies, which are increasingly articulated in environmental terms—there’s an environmental crisis; there’s not enough to go around; immigrants need to be rounded up; everybody needs to sacrifice some civil liberties; the border needs to be militarized. If climate change pushes chaos and state failure in the Global South, it creates authoritarian state hardening in the Global North, at least in its earliest stages.

Michael Busch: You offer compelling evidence that although the American popular discourse is largely primitive and backwards when it comes to the politics of climate change, the U.S. military sees the challenges very clearly and informs to a great degree its doctrine on counter-insurgency. You argue that this gives life to “the politics of the armed life boat.” Can you talk more about how the U.S. military is responding to climate threats, and what you understand to be the prospects for survival in the armed life boat?

Christian Parenti: The militarized response in the United States takes place in the military but also at the state level in the development of a green xenophobia. They aren’t necessarily connected, but they fundamentally produce the same thing, which is a hardening of state policy.  The military—to its credit—takes climate science very seriously. It does not question the validity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, which is the last one to be published, the one that was attacked because it had a few footnotes that were wrong. And they were wrong. There was stupid, arrogant stuff around those errors, but the errors and their correction in no way change the conclusions of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. The military takes the report seriously unlike, say, the Republican leadership in the House or many other elements of the American political class.

The military runs scenarios of what the future will bring. What they see is not so much an increase in conventional warfare between states as an increase in humanitarian crisis, civil war, banditry, religious wars, state breakdown. And they realize that the armed forces will be called on to respond with various forms of low-intensity conflict: counter-insurgency, direct intervention, humanitarian intervention, shoring-up allied states, as well as increased training and advisory roles in these conflicts. The future for them is essentially one of open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale as articulated through these various reports, some of them public, some of them secret.

In terms of the ethics of the armed life boat, which would seek to manage this crisis of a planet in decline and manage it through the use of force, examples can be found on right-wing talk radio, which calls for expelling immigrants, or in people like Deborah Walker, who I discuss in the book. Walker describes herself as a northern Californian environmentalist. She’s also an anti-immigrant xenophobe and racist. And then there’s the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which I didn’t address in the book because I didn’t know about it; it was only exposed after the book was published, FAIR is the original anti-immigrant lobby group associated with Garrett Hardin and others. It started a front group called Progressives for Immigration Reform that was seeking to reach out to environmentalists and progressives with a message of excluding immigrants, talking about the carrying capacity of the country, and making the case that immigrants, essentially, should be repressed.

These are the current features of this state hardening. One can imagine how this project of border militarization and planetary management through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism could build around it a kind of paranoid, frightened, xenophobic consent among more and more Americans. And that would be the politics of the armed life boat: the idea that we have ours, the world is ending, and we need to hold on for as long as we can through the force of arms. The military—again to its credit—does not think this is a good long-term plan. They always say that this stuff has to be dealt with through the reduction of carbon emissions. Otherwise, we are going to hit all the tipping points climatologically, which will lead to self-compounding climate change and the unleashing of such radical transformations in weather patterns that it will be very hard for civilization to hold on. Radically rising sea levels and the massive desertification of the grain baskets of the world, among other problems, will make it very hard for even the most developed economies to survive. That’s what scientists predict and project if we continue with business-as-usual, which is burning fossil fuels.

Michael Busch: Let’s talk about water for a moment, a point of hope for some environmentalists insofar as it seems to be one of the few things that states have a interest in securing and a resource around which even antagonists—such as India and Pakistan—can cooperate.  You take on a variety of this argument, that “water is rational,” when it comes to something like the Indus Water Treaty, and question its long-term viability. Talk about where things currently stand and what you see as the prospects for the treaty’s continuing functioning in the future?

Christian Parenti: The Indus water treaty is remarkable insofar as it has worked for as long as it has. It was signed in 1960, negotiated in 1959, but it is fraying in part because climate change planners and elites in each country are very much aware that water resources are going to be increasingly scarce. So India is building lots of dams and canals on its side of the border and claims that it is not violating the treaty, that it has the right to use the water under the treaty—which it does—as long as it doesn’t diminish the flow. But then Pakistan argues that there is diminished flow, which contributes to their suspicion of India. Pakistan believes that India is not simply impounding the water but actually siphoning it off. And increasingly we witness this entering the discourse of the radical religious right in Pakistan, the asymmetrical assets that have been cultivated by Pakistani intelligence like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, which recently made statements about India’s “water terrorism” and how water must flow or else blood will. So the issue is becoming more intense.

As to the question of whether or not the treaty can be maintained, that’s an open question in part because the threat of climate change is suddenly part of the equation but also because there’s just horrendously bad management of the agreement, in Pakistan especially, where there is very little productive adaptation. I wrote a piece in The Nation recently about just this. The core of any climate adaptation in Pakistan would be social justice and land reform. No elites in Pakistan are willing to consider this, however, nor do aid agencies make this a condition of development aid, and the U.S. government doesn’t want to talk about it. There is a tradition of progressive movements in Pakistan, but they have suffered tremendous repression and their demands for economic redistribution go unanswered. As a result, even after the recent horrendous flooding, there has been no movement on the issue toward land redistribution and social justice, out of which might have come some better water management strategies, not to mention better use of the land.

Michael Busch: The ability of the world to mitigate the worst effects of climate change will largely depend on multilateral efforts at containing the damage.  The UN has traditionally been the center of gravity for this effort, and yet it’s largely been a failure. Copenhagen was a disaster, and Cancun only cleaned up some of the mess. Among other problems, the secretary general has been almost entirely absent as a force in these proceedings, and as you point out, the United States, the necessary prime mover in all of this, hasn’t assumed leadership on the issue.  Why is that, do you think?  Can you talk about how you view the Obama administration’s record on the environment thus far, and what you think can be done to reorient Washington toward more productive action? 

Christian Parenti: The way you framed it is correct. The United States has played a non-productive role, a destructive role. It has not taken the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations seriously, and as a result they have broken down. We are the largest economy in the world, and until recently we were the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world before China overtook us. The world looks to the United States for leadership but U.S. actions, especially at Copenhagen, were really depressing. As a result those talks fell apart, though the process limps on toward its next round of negotiations in Durban South Africa.

What will change the U.S. position? Protest, clearly. There has to be a movement that forces the Obama administration to do this. The Obama administration is proving itself to be very right-wing on many issues, including this one. It just hasn’t been good on climate even as the majority of people who elected him take climate change very seriously and care deeply about the issue.  And so, I think there needs to be a movement to pressure him. There are campaigns underway that can do just that.  For instance, there is Beyond Coal, a big campaign sponsored by the Sierra Club under the leadership of Michael Brune, and the work that Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, the direct action group Radical Action for Mountain People Survival, and long-struggling local groups like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition are doing to stop mountain-top removal coal mining and coal plant production. Using everything from direct action to lawsuits and lobbying, this array of groups has helped stop the construction of about 130 coal plants.

So, there are campaigns like the fight against coal that people should get involved with. There’s also the actions that were taken in August to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline that would run Canadian tar sand slurry through the United States and down to the Gulf for final refining and  export, where people committed acts of civil disobedience in Washington, DC. These kinds of things need to be done.

Beyond that, I think organized labor has to begin taking climate change seriously. The main thing that organized labor has done recently was Rich Trumka urging President Obama to take China to the World Trade Organization because Beijing was subsidizing its clean tech sector. In the name of competitiveness, the AFL-CIO is trying to cut Chinese subsidies, which they will not be able to do, first of all. And second of all, they’re not demanding similar subsidies here in the United States that would put people back to work. It’s pathetic. So, all the various institutions of the left need to take climate change seriously and start building a movement to pressure government to make it an issue on the international stage.

Now, in terms of what the Obama administration could do to reduce emissions: if it wanted to engage the UN process, there’s a lot that can be done without having to go and get permission from the Republicans.

The EPA, for one, has the obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This is the result of environmental groups suing and fighting in court for 10 years—and finally winning at the Supreme Court level—to get the EPA to consider greenhouse gas emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which holds that if emissions are dangerous to human health then they have to be regulated. And sure enough, greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous to human health due to their adverse effects on the environment. Therefore, the EPA has an obligation to regulate them and has just begun promulgating these rules. Unfortunately, they are not very robust. In fact, they’re pretty lame, and the administration is dragging its feet on the issuance of these rules by building in delays. If the EPA were serious and really imposed strict rules, say, on smoke stacks in coal plants and oil refineries it could effectively push investment toward clean technology as the rising cost of dirty energy and carbon emissions would drive people away from it.

The other thing the government could do is leverage its tremendous purchasing power. If state purchasing of vehicles and electric power were done according to environmentally clean specifications, the public sector’s carbon footprint would be substantially reduced. At the same time, it would also likely create knock-on effects in the private sector by allowing the burgeoning clean-tech sector to achieve economies of scale and provide its energy, vehicles, and services at a rate that is cost competitive with diesel fuel and gasoline.

Michael Busch: As power shifts from west to east with the so-called rise of China, many warn that China’s growing political and economic might is being built on the back of environmental degradation, which is only further exacerbating climate change internationally.  In the book, though, you briefly mention that China is beginning to move to clean technology production.  Can you give us a sense of how Beijing’s approach has differed from that of Washington, and what the likely outcome might be? 

Christian Parenti: I don’t think that China’s approach is that well-organized, yet. The main thing to keep in mind, though, is that Beijing’s actions aren’t motivated by some high-minded concern about climate change. The issue of local pollution has really driven China to embrace clean technology. Take the wind sector, for example, which is growing at something like 20 percent a year in China. They invited in all the Western firms—Gamesa, Vestas, GE—then essentially counterfeited their technology. Then China invited these firms to take, in the case of GE, 2 percent of the market. GE could go to war with them and say “hey, you stole our technology” and try to prove it in court, which would only get them shut out of the Chinese market. Or they can just shut up and take 2 percent of a market that is growing very, very fast. Needless to say, they have chosen the latter.

The one lesson we can take from China is the same lesson that most of the Asian economies remind us of, which is that capitalism develops best when there is a strong state guiding it. Capitalists and capital need discipline, they need to be disciplined. They need to be taxed, and their investments need to be guided by the state because when the market is left to its own self-regulation—which is the ideological preference and prevailing ethos of our political class—you do not get the types of innovations and hothouse developments that have characterized industrialization throughout East Asia. The command model of capitalism that China has embraced—a version of what was done in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—this dirigiste model is quite effective in potentially mitigating the worst abuses of people and nature committed by capitalism while at the same time encouraging its better, Promethean qualities.

After all, Marx not only ruthlessly criticized capitalism, he also praised its ability to create enormous amounts of wealth and technology and transform the face of the planet. That is essentially what we have done in a bad way with fossil fuels. But we need to push on through it and have a reindustrialization around clean technology. I do not think a retreat from industry back to the local is in any way realistic. We have to accelerate through this crisis and come out the other end with clean technologies. That means that we can’t keep flying around everywhere, driving big cars and generally being wasteful. We have to consume less and transform the way we live, radically. But we aren’t going to do that by turning our backs on machinery and electricity. We need windmills. If we don’t get them, we are going to continue burning coal and field-stripping our AK-47s in preparation for our neighbor’s next attack on the bunker.

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