Tropic of Chaos

Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, gave a talk this evening sponsored by the Seattle World Affairs Council.

I haven’t read the book yet, but here’s a synopsis from this evening’s talk.  Parenti argues that climate change, far from being some medium- to long-term threat, is having a direct impact today on global conflicts primarily in the developing world.  He worked through a few examples to illustrate his thesis.

In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are attempting to eradicate the poppy crop.  They’re using a variety of means including destroying poppy fields and attempting to induce farmers to switch to other crops. However, it turns out that poppies are drought-resistant.  They require only one-fifth the amount of water as wheat, and Afghanistan is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades.  Farmers literally cannot survive growing wheat.  Meanwhile the Taliban apparently favors allowing farmers to grow whatever crop they choose. 

In Kyrgyzstan, most of the country’s power comes from hydroelectric generation.   A recent drought has caused water levels in the dams to drop dramatically, reducing the amount of power that could be generated.  This in turn led the government to ration power.   In 2009-2010, Kyrgyzstan was hit by one of the coldest winters in memory, further driving up demand for scarce power to heat homes.  Meanwhile the country’s president, in preparation for privatizing the government-owned utilities, doubled electricity rates.  People took to the streets.  The government was thrown out of power.

In India, a Maoist group known as Naxalites has been fighting an insurgency against the Indian government, starting in West Bengal in the 1960’s and moving south into Andhra Pradesh, fighting for land reform.  Farmers in this region, known as the “Red Corridor,” can no longer obtain low cost loans for seeds or fertilizer from the government and instead turn to loan-sharks.  Loan-sharks insist the farmers grow cotton rather than wheat (farmers could eat the wheat crop in case of emergency, depriving the loan-sharks of their collateral).  But as more cotton is grown the price falls leaving farmers further in debt.  Here too drought is causing crop failure to become more frequent, and indeed as the drought moves south, so too does support for the Naxalites.

These are just three examples of a pattern of events in which climate change interacts with other social and political conditions to create or exacerbate conflict.  Other important causal factors he cites are:

  • Lingering side-effects of the Cold War including social upheaval but mainly the availability of massive quantities of cheap weapons. 
  • Withdrawal of state support for local farmers and herdsmen under new neo-liberal economic policies, forcing these groups to look elsewhere for support. 
  • Counter-insurgency tactics by the US and other militaries which often involve migration of villages and the destruction of local social fabrics. 

Here in the US, Parenti asserts, that the government’s response has varied from anemic to the outright denial of climate change by the GOP.   Interestingly, the Pentagon is among the most thoughtful branches of government on this issue.  They take climate change very seriously, and do not question the validity of climate change science.  Instead in their Quadrennial Defense Review the Pentagon notes that it will likely be involved in more conflicts caused by climate change.  Alas, their plan for dealing with such conflict will rely heavily on counter-insurgency which Parenti notes makes matters even worse.  However, the Pentagon is not responsible for the policy decisions; that rests with the politicians. 

Overall this was a really interesting, though somewhat grim talk.  Parenti showed how a variety of complex and inter-related factors – now including climate change – are converging to create or exacerbate conflict and violence. 

I’m looking forward to reading the book.

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