Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Politics of the Armed Lifeboat

Early on in Tropic of Chaos, Parenti identifies the two main strategies by which human civilization must confront the effects of climate change: mitigation and adaptation. He writes, "the watchwords of the climate discussion are mitigation and adaptation - that is, we must mitigate the causes of climate change while adapting to its effects." (10)

Mitigation entails the reshaping of the political economy of energy production in order to drastically cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as well as a shift away from carbon-based forms of energy toward renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power. "It means closing coal-fired plants, weaning our economy off oil, building a smart electrical grid, and making massive investments in carbon-capture and -sequestration technologies." (10)

By contrast, adaptation entails exactly what you might think it would - changing the patterns of everyday life in order to deal with the effects of climate change that are already happening or are going to happen in the short to medium term. Parenti distinguishes between two basic forms of adaptation - technical adaptation and political adaptation.

Technical adaptation "means transforming our relationship to nature as nature transforms: learning to live with the damage we have wrought by building seawalls around vulnerable coastal cities, giving land back to mangroves and everglades so they can act to break tidal surges during giant storms, opening wildlife migration corridors so species can move north as the climate warms, and developing sustainable forms of agriculture that can function on an industrial scale even as weather patterns gyrate wildly." (10) A recent story in the New York Times highlighted some of the ways in which Chicago is already taking steps to prepare itself for a climate future that will make it feel much more like Baton Rouge than the cold, windy city it is today. City planners are beginning to plant trees native to the South, adding vegetation to roofs, and replacing concrete and asphalt with more permeable, reflective pavements that will allow the city to breathe easier and trap less heat.

Political adaptation, on the other hand, poses a far bigger challenge to states and societies around the world. It will entail, Parenti writes, nothing less than "transforming humanity's relationship to itself, transforming social relations among people. Successful political adaptation to climate change will mean developing new ways of cintaining, avoiding, and deescalating the violence that climate change fuels. That will require economic redistribution and development. It will also require a new diplomacy of peace building." (10-11)

The alternative to such adaptation is what Parenti calls, in a pungent phrase, the "politics of the armed lifeboat." One can easily imagine the rich countries of the Global North respond to the climate crisis by repressing and excluding climate refugees from the Global South and carrying out long-term, open-ended counterinsurgency operations to contain the fallout produced by failed states and societies. While it does not explicitly address the climate crisis, the essential 2006 film Children of Men offers a chilling depiction of what this kind of society might look like.


Anonymous said...

The upshot with Parenti's view seems to be that societies around the world will be forced to collaborate with one another on an unparalleled scale. That prospect doesn't seem inviting given the collaboration levels we've seen in recent history. The "armed lifeboat" metaphor seems adequately chilling.

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