“Crisis” reverberates through recent scholarly conversations and mass media representations alike as the framework of choice for understanding recent global upheavals: From the financial sector breakdown to Arab Spring revolutions to global climate change, we observe a persistent attempt to segregate crises into coherent, and largely independent, units. What happens, however, when we track the interdependencies between extreme ecological degradation and political upheaval? Between commodity speculation and food riots? In Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, investigative journalist Christian Parenti argues that by analyzing economic or political crises without acknowledging how the social effects of climate change are implicated—climate-driven migration to over-crowded urban slums, politically destabilizing riots triggered by food shortages or food price inflation, the negative effects on livelihoods of intensifying natural disasters, and so forth—we fail to grasp the historical and ecological complexity of these phenomena.
For Parenti, the confluence of poverty, violence, and climate change is deepening into what he calls the catastrophic convergence, a term he uses to emphasize that emerging instabilities result from multiple intersecting—rather than discrete or serial—crises. His analysis attempts to capture how four decades of Cold War militarism and the entrenchment of neoliberalism across the Global South have reconfigured the relationship between society and state, leaving both dangerously exposed to environmental shocks and producing new geographies of scarcity and social vulnerability. The social disruptions caused by such shifts have given rise to ethnic, political, or religious warfare, mass migration, criminal cultures, and other forms of social breakdown. But as the underlying climatic pressures are so rarely incorporated into our narratives of these events, we must revise our very approach to crisis. For Parenti, it is by engaging with the uneven and often drastic social effects of climate change that we can imagine social justice encompassing not only economic redistribution to mitigate global inequalities in environmental vulnerability, but also technical and social adaptations to climate change that range from building sea walls and expanding sustainable agriculture to developing new political strategies to de-escalate the violence provoked by climate change.
Parenti’s book presents yet more compelling evidence that how we account for our problems shapes the solutions we devise.
The book successfully resituates seemingly one-dimensional crises within broader, more complex interactions between humans, their ecosystems, and their horizons of opportunity, and raises important questions about where to go from here. Popular approaches to the environment generally appeal to the free market—corporate social responsibility, clean tech, green consumerism—or else go local—food co-ops, local food, grassroots organizing around particular issues or communities. Beyond these often well-intentioned movements, however, new logics, institutions, and social relations will be necessary to recognize that the climate crisis is not primarily a technical or regional issue, but rather a fundamentally political problem. It is for this reason that control over climate change knowledge in political discourse has become an increasingly charged issue in the US and internationally—see, for instance, the ferocity of climate-change denial among the right wing here, and the failure to reach any binding political strategy on climate change internationally due, in part, to a willful dismissal of climate change science as carrying sufficient political urgency. In both cases, scientific knowledge about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change are too readily divorced from their broader social, economic, and political consequences. Parenti’s book presents yet more compelling evidence that how we account for our problems shapes the solutions we devise.
Parenti is also clearly right that systemic denial of the gravity of climate change defers the possibility of integrated approaches to crises of convergence. On the other hand, his analysis needs to be extended further, to address the solutions that explicitly target our ecological futures. The environmental campaign with the greatest impact is the green economy, which creates market opportunities out of ecological concerns—in such forms as green consumerism—in order to maintain economic growth with a nod to environmental responsibility. Where such market creation involves Northern appropriation of Southern social and natural capital, sometimes at the expense of local sovereignty, indigenous rights, and food security, these ostensibly “green” solutions can retrace familiar global routes of exploitation. This is evident in such strategies as cap-and-trade markets, reduction of deforestation programs in developing countries to offset the eco-sins of the heavily industrialized, and the global agricultural land grab in the name of food security for the wealthy at the expense of local food economies.
Such policies foreground the environment through a depoliticized framework that reduces nature to its exchange value on global food, land, and carbon markets. Commodifying nature in these ways exhibits a general disregard for the social, political, and economic consequences of the offloading for local ecosystems. There is no theory, nor indeed social movement, that is yet able to account for this dialectic, in which both the denial of climate change, and its co-optation through greenwashing, result in the same reductionism. A politics of convergence is nevertheless possible: it is currently being mobilized by activists in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, food sovereignty, and other movements. For a new climate politics organized under the banner of social justice to emerge, we will have to more effectively account for the uneven effects of climate change on us all through global economic redistribution, more sustainable forms of economic development, and reforming our cultural narratives of change. And it will have to take place on a scale we can only begin to imagine.