Discussion with Christian Parenti: Tropic of Chaos
In 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 among 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 City University of New York Center for Place, Culture and Politics and is currently a 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.
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.” Would 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.