Book Reviews: Tropic of Chaos, Chapter 1

Section 1: Last Call for Illusions

Chapter 1: Who killed Ekaru Loruman?

These book reviews are a way for me to think through what we know of the changes we expect in our climate, and how to respond to them. In particular, I’m focused on actions we can take now to support our future efforts towards a society run on progressive, secular humanist values. I’m new to book reviews, so let me know if you have questions or suggestions. If you want to read along with me, the book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, by Christian Parenti

General impression: This chapter lays out Christian Parenti’s expectations for the coming decades in stark detail. This is made more alarming by the fact that this book was written in 2011, and we’ve seen things unfold in a manner very much like what Parenti forecasts. As with so many other things, we have met the enemy, and he is us. The most urgent danger is not rising seas, or killer heatwaves, or destructive storms; the most urgent danger from climate change is how humans react to scarcity, crisis, and refugees.

Soundtrack: Screwed, Janelle Monaé (I promise this won’t all be her, it just kept running through my mind while I was working on this)

Click here for lyrics.

What can we do in response to this? The idea bouncing around in my head currently is something I like to call “prosocial prepping”. Build and maintain a store of food and water. Then, when something happens, you’ll have that ready to use for yourself, or to help your neighbors if they need it more, or even to ship to a part of the country that needs it. Of the problems we’re going to face, all but a fraction will center on problems of resource distribution and humans desperate to survive. To the degree that you are able, position yourself so you can help things go smoothly.

And now on to the chapter review:

In Chapter 1, Christian Parenti follows the golden rule of speechmaking. He tells us what he’s going to tell us in the coming pages, and paints a vivid and compelling picture of what lurks for us in the approaching years.

He makes his case through the story of how a Kenyan Turkana rancher named Ekaru Loruman came to be shot in the head. In short order, the scene is laid out, and the culprits identified as a raiding party from the neighboring Pokot trube. But then the book turns to the question of why the raiding party was formed in the first place, and it’s here that we begin to zoom out and see this one man’s murder as a microcosm for our future. The raiders’ own livestock had died off in a severe drought, a disaster that has become more common in the last couple decades as the historically predictable pattern of rainy and dry seasons has begun to change.

And this is where it really starts to get scary. After a brief run-through of the standard facts and predictions of climate change, Parenti dives right into the scarred global battlefield of the Cold War in the the area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He labels this belt around the Earth “The Tropic of Chaos”. As I write this, America’s foreign policy discussion is almost entirely about actions taken during the Cold War. In addition to Russia’s attacks on elections in multiple nations, the impending meeting with Kim, and the deal with Iran both come out of our own actions during the second half of the 20th century, and those of the U.S.S.R. and China.

All of this is just stage-setting though. Entering a major global warming event would strain even the most stable international community, but we’re nowhere close to that kind of stability. That means that we’re effectively on a ship that’s broadside to very rough seas. Every wave that comes along is going to shake us, swamp us, and risk capsizing us.

Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the International Crisis Group, combining databases on civil wars and water availability, found that “when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.” The project cites the example of Nepal, where the Maoist insurgency was most severe after droughts and almost nonexistent in areas with normal rainfall. In some cases, when the rains were late or light, or came all at once, or at the wrong time, “semiretired” armed groups often reemerged to start fighting again.

Reading that last line, I couldn’t help thinking about the various right-wing militia groups around the country, and how they seem almost eager for war. Unfortunately, this issue is characterized by regularly exceeding our expectations for how bad things can get, and not everybody who’s planning to deal with the inevitable flood of refugees from affected regions views them as fellow people with the same human rights as everybody else.

In additional to, and partly because of political turmoil and war, the Tropic of Chaos is also characterized by countries that aren’t staying far ahead of mass food shortages, so a single bad season could be enough to tip a country into a civil war fueled by desperation. Even without the rising seas, this would create refugees, seeking to survive by moving to more stable areas.

Our current troubles with right-wing extremism and dehumanizing immigration rhetoric give us a good idea of what to expect, and from the point of view of the people running the world see the same thing we do, but through a less humanitarian lens. For folks who keep a critical eye on the self-styled “free world”, this is not really a surprise, but there are some situations where being wrong would be nice. Oh well.

However, another type of political adaptation is already under way, one that might be called the politics of the armed lifeboat: responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing, and killing. […] The Pentagon and its European allies are actively planning a militarized adaptation, which emphasizes the long-term, open-ended containment of failed or failing states – counterinsurgency forever.

This sort of “climate fascism,” a politics based on exclusion, segregation, and repression, is horrific and bound to fail.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like folks currently in power have either the imagination or the desire to take steps to avoid the worst-case scenario. The current trend seems to be toward fulfilling the white supremacist wet dreams of Jean Raspail, Racist Scumbag. Parenti takes the view that “no amount of wall, guns, [and so on] will be able to save one half of the planet from the other.”

Bleak as it sounds, I’m worried that Parenti under-estimates the killing power available to most Western nations, and the collective willingness of humanity to turn a blind eye to atrocities. That said, I agree with him that it’s at least theoretically possible to achieve a better outcome.

I’ve felt for a long time that for America, climate change is going to force a lot of the ugliness that white America likes to ignore out into the open, and the people who most insist that there’s no problem with race will also be among those supporting policies that just happen to lead to the deaths of millions. After all, we’re already noticeably blasé about the hundreds of thousands killed in the so-called “War on Terror”. Those already living on the edge will be hardest hit by the chaos of our changing climate, and I have no trouble believing that the “Western World” will be able to justify making sure that those people are not only not helped, but actively kept out, or killed for trying to get in.

Welcome to my first book review series. Hang on to your hats, ’cause this looks like a rough one.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannon say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
-T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land

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