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.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Somalia and "The Catastrophic Convergence"

In a world filled with crises, the current conflict-exacerbated famine in Somalia is perhaps the most dire. The entire Horn of Africa - Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti - is in the throes of an historic drought that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions throughout the region. But no country has suffered worse than Somalia, where the effects of the drought have been made drastically worse by the ongoing conflict between a barely functional central government and an Islamist militant group known as the Shabab. According to reports, tens of thousands of Somalis have already died, and an estimated 500,000 children are on the verge of starvation. As the New York Times reports, Somalis are faced with the kind of Hobson's choice that will become more prevalent in an era of climate change:

This leaves millions of famished Somalis with two choices, aside from fleeing the country to neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia, where there is more assistance. They can beg for help from a weak and divided transitional government in Mogadishu, the capital. Just the other day there was a shootout between government forces at the gates of the presidential palace. “Things happen,” was the response of Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s new prime minister.

Or they can remain in territory controlled by the Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and have tried to rid their areas of anything Western — Western music, Western dress, even Western aid groups during a time of famine.


While the entire region struggles to confront the drought, two areas controlled by the Shabab are the only two in the region where the United Nations has declared a famine. Somalis report that the militants are diverting rivers away from poor villages to farmers who pay them taxes, and have forced many to live in camps outside Mogadishu. According to reports, the camps are violent, squalid places almost completely cut off from international food aid.

The disaster unfolding in Somalia is a prime example of what Christian Parenti calls "the catastrophic convergence":

Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters the catastrophic convergence. By catastrophic convergence, I do not merely mean that several disasters happen simultaneously, one problem atop another. Rather, I argue that problems compound and amplify each other, one expressing itself through another.

Societies, like people, deal with new challenges in ways that are conditioned by the traumas of their past. Thus, damaged societies, like damaged people, often respond to new crises in ways that are irrational, shortsighted, and self-destructive. In the case of climate change, the prior traumas that set the stage for bad adaptation, the destructive social response, are Cold War-era militarism and the economic pathologies of neoliberal capitalism. Over the last forty years, both these forces have distorted the state's relationship to society - removing and undermining the state's collectivist, regulatory, and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities. This, I argue, inhibits society's ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in. (p. 7-8)


Somalia and the Horn of Africa was ground zero for the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet bloc (with the Cubans playing a key role) in the late 1970s. The dueling powers intervened war between Somalia and Ethiopia, now on one side and now on another, in an attempt to set up a sphere of influence in a strategically important region. Parenti details the history of the war, the machinations of the superpowers, and the disintegration of the Somali in Chapter 7 of Tropic of Chaos.

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

While a band of hardcore denialists continues to question the existence of human-induced climate change, almost all scientists agree global warming is real, that it is driven primarily by human activity, and that it threatens the stability of the ecological systems that sustain life on Earth. Many climatologists concur that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide above the level of 350 parts per million (ppm) is the threshold at which disruptive and irreversable climate change becomes very likely. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) estimates that we have reached 390 ppm, the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 10,000 years, far higher than the approximately 280 ppm the atmosphere contained before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. With so much carbon dioxide in the atmopshere, a rise in the planet's temperature and the ecological disruptions that will accompany it may already be locked in place.

As Christian Parenti warns in Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, a very grim future awaits humanity if the current carbon-based global energy economy is not radically changed, starting now.

This month at Brooklyn Book Talk, we will use Parenti's book as a starting point to discuss the climate crisis, how climate change threatens to make existing political, economic, and social conflicts even worse, and what our country and the world need to do in order to avoid potential catastrophe.

Brooklyn Public Library currently has one copy of the book in circulation, so if you'd like to read it you will have to place the title on hold through our catalog.

Christian Parenti has written widely on this topic, so while you are waiting for your copy of the book, check out some of his other publications and appearances on the Internet. He recently appeared on Democracy Now! to promote the book and talk about climate change:





He's also been on the excellent Against the Grain radio program on Berkely's KPFA 94.1, in addition to the also excellent Behind the News program on WBAI 99.5 in New York.