Friday, October 28, 2011

Climate change and the new geography of violence

One of the unpleasant effects of climate change is its tendency to incite further conflict where such already exist and in some cases war is already looming. Sociologist and writer Christian Parenti is blaming "pathologies of neoliberalism" and Cold War leftovers that converge with climate change effects for inciting further conflict where it already lingers. Already by now large parts of the political landscape are out of the target group of Parenti's message but he supports his assertion by way of his good storytelling based on personal experiences and interviews - and he finishes with an almost pro-capitalism conclusion.


Chapter 2 is pretty much a summary of some of the military reports I have linked to in Ecowar posts tagged 'military' plus a few other. Chapter 3 is a brief history of the US military which at first seems a bit thorough for a climate change book but actually shows how it has been on a long journey from conventional "European" warfare to guerrilla warfare inspired by North American Indian tribes and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. And ends up with a grim forecast (p. 36) of "the essence of militarized adaption to climate chaos: dirty war forever." In part, global counter-insurgency is an adaption to climate change that most of us wouldn't agree to if given the choice.

Part 2 is about Africa and describe how the Cold War proxy-wars have left unresolved conflicts now to converge with climate change effects, mostly via Parenti's own experiences visiting the areas. Most notably the stories from northern Kenyan herders who increasingly arm themselves to defend and raid cattle as droughts kill off livestock. Chapter 7 details the Cold War prequel to the current desert anarchy in Somalia. Chapter 8, the last of part 2, is a brilliant description of what a failed state is exactly.

Urban herd
I traveled in Kenya January/February 2011. This photo is from the suburbs of Kisumu. I enjoyed the view over the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. It is a bit chilling to read Parenti's stories from Kenya - in fact the book begins and ends with the corpse of a cattle herder left to rot under a tree and the questions of and answers to who killed him. All of the brutal incidents and trends in drought and plunder play out some kilometers away down the great valley.

Part 3 is about Asia and observes how in Afghanistan "the poppy economy and its armed defense are local adaption mechanisms" (wheat use six times more water than poppy which is worth 50 times the price). Chapter 10 is a rare insight to the conflicts in Kyrgyzstan - a lot more interesting than it may sound! Parenti then moves on to the India-Pakistan conflict of declining river flows, provoking dams, mass-murderous droughts, devastating floods, cross border state terrorism, suicide by pesticide Monsanto farmers and Maoist guerrillas. Very complex and under-reported in Western media yet clearly fueled by climate change.

Part 4 is about Latin America and the US. On page 181 Parenti's main message is summed up:
"catastrophic convergence: policies that create poverty and violence are now colliding with the new realities of climate change, and together these three forces are creating socially destructive forms of adaption."
Brazil and Mexico receive treatment in each their own chapters. Not just the always shockingly brutal gang violence is described, so too are more positive examples of coping: an example of organic agriculture and Keynesian economics. The efforts by Bolivia are hailed before the US is described in less than praising terms.

However, although being very critical of neoliberalism and in favor of state run initiatives to halt pollution and force clean technologies forward, Parenti is distancing himself from radical approaches involving revolutionary changes to the economy and society as we know it. First of all for a simple reason: There is no time. We need to start solving the climate problem now, thus we need to start doing it with tools known to work within the capitalist system. And it can be done, Parenti argues, because we have both the technology and the money. Fossil energies probably only have a lead right now because it has been so heavily subsidized for decades. And if there is money now for blowing up bubbles (housing, food etc) to create poverty as prices go up, unemployment and riots as the bubbles burst then, surely, that money could be redirected towards sustainable development.

Christian Parenti's Tropic of Chaos is a great book. Concise, well written and fair in reasoning. It isn't exhaustive as many conflicts from around the world are left untold of. It isn't academic as it assumes basic understanding of the climate, the economy and world affairs and simply move on with its stories from there while it doesn't dig into recent scientific results either. At times, perhaps, it's a bit too much a book of stories as Parenti shares many details of the converging issues. It is brave as it is critical of both the far-right media environment as well as of Bill "350" McKibben. Tropic of Chaos is the third book about how (not if) climate change is causing increased conflict I have read. If you want to read only one book about climate change and war this book should probably be it. (Alternatives are the more imaginative and dystopic Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer reviewed here December 2010 and the scientifically precise and short Climate Conflict by Jeffrey Mazo reviewed here April 2011.)



Further reading/viewing for you right now: Large parts of the book can be read at Google Books. Also, Christian Parenti has given interviews on the book and its topics...

From Foreign Policy in Focus / Interview with Christian Parenti:
"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. [... In international negotiations] 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. [...] 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."







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