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

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From Africa to Asia and Latin America, the era of climate wars has begun. Extreme weather is breeding banditry, humanitarian crisis, and state failure.

In Tropic of Chaos, investigative journalist Christian Parenti travels along the front lines of this gathering catastrophe—the belt of economically and politically battered postcolonial nations and war zones girding the planet's midlatitudes. Here he finds failed states amid climatic disasters. But he also reveals the unsettling ...

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From Africa to Asia and Latin America, the era of climate wars has begun. Extreme weather is breeding banditry, humanitarian crisis, and state failure.

In Tropic of Chaos, investigative journalist Christian Parenti travels along the front lines of this gathering catastrophe—the belt of economically and politically battered postcolonial nations and war zones girding the planet's midlatitudes. Here he finds failed states amid climatic disasters. But he also reveals the unsettling presence of Western military forces and explains how they see an opportunity in the crisis to prepare for open-ended global counterinsurgency.

Parenti argues that this incipient "climate fascism"—a political hardening of wealthy states— is bound to fail. The struggling states of the developing world cannot be allowed to collapse, as they will take other nations down as well. Instead, we must work to meet the challenge of climate-driven violence with a very different set of sustainable economic and development policies.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this scathing study, Parenti (Lockdown America) argues that climate change is already wreaking havoc on the planet in the form of devastating droughts and other weather aberrations that create a shortage of arable land and resources. In the developing world, these challenges intersect with the ongoing crises of poverty and violence to create what Parenti terms a "catastrophic convergence." Arguing that coming environmental shifts will "act as a radical accelerant," he describes how cold war militarism and neoliberal economics have eroded community fabric and public services in such disparate places as the arid savannahs of Kenya, the mountains of Afghanistan, the favelas of Brazil, the jungles of Colombia, and the deserts of northern Mexico, opening the door for "socially disruptive forms of adaptation," like brutality, genocide, and corruption. As the developing world sinks deeper into crisis, the developed world takes the "armed lifeboat" approach, consolidating wealth and firepower while ignoring the rising tide of need among the planet's most vulnerable citizens. Parenti's careful reporting and grasp of politics and economics support the book's urgent message—that impending global chaos is all but assured unless the developed world finds the political will to imagine a better future. (July)
From the Publisher

San Francisco Bay Guardian
“Christian Parenti offers an unusual and compelling analysis of violence through the lens of the environment….Parenti also turns a sharp eye upon the repression, surveillance, and counterinsurgency that first-world nations have employed to combat growing violence in water-scarce, conflict-ridden regions, and calls for a more enlightened approach.”

Jan McGirk,
Tropic of Chaos is a must-read. It telegraphs an urgent message of how quickly climate catastrophe is morphing around the globe.”

Astra Taylor, Bookforum (online)

“[A] harrowing tour-de-force… if you read one book on climate change this year (and really, who can bear to read more than one?), Tropic of Chaos should be it. The way you understand the changing climate, and the resulting conflicts that serrate our world, will be transformed.”

Nomi Prins, Truthdig

“Tropic of Chaos” is a wake-up call to humanity, particularly to the richest nations (with the U.S. at the top of that list) that produce the greatest amount of carbon that accelerates climate change. The detrimental effects of our environmental gluttony at the heart of our economic avarice are not blurry fatalistic hypotheses—they are here, today. As “Tropic of Chaos” illustrates so clearly, we can’t afford, morally or economically, to be lax about the impact of catastrophic convergence on the global population or allow private profit-motivated interests to ruin civilization.”

Foreign Policy In Focus

“[An] impressive new book… If Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, and James Howard Kunstler had teamed up to write a book, the result would read something like Tropic of ChaosTropic of Chaos illustrates the strengths of merging climate projections with left historical analysis of the poverty and conflicts that define much of the Global South. The result is an important map key to the (possibly near) future, if not strictly a climate book. Viewing climate change as an amplifier of existing inequality and disorder results in a split-screen, one that deals as much with the last century as the current…there is no denying the relevance and immediacy of the book’s main thesis, powerfully illustrated by the current drought-related famine in Somalia… Tropic of Chaos not only asks the right questions. An argument could be made that it deals with the only questions currently worth asking. Climate change is the X Factor lurking behind every other conversation over the direction and shape of our civilization. If the temperature goes up by the predicted six degrees Fahrenheit, Parenti is correct to conclude that all bets will most certainly be off. ”

Socialist Worker

“[Parenti] has written a sweeping discourse on the collision set in motion between the natural and the social world…[Parenti’s] book remains an important and cogently written, if frightening, contribution to our understanding of the planetary crisis and how we got here.”

Social Funds

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, by Christian Parenti, is a rarity among nominally popular books, in that it seeks to describe what the world will look like if climate change is left unchecked. Exceedingly well-researched…it nevertheless lays out a narrative all the more frightening for those living in a world whose leaders seem increasingly resistant to doing anything about climate change.”—


“Parenti takes readers from the drought-afflicted savannas of Kenya, where armed farmers are killing each other over limited water supplies, to shantytowns in Brazil, where scarce resources are driving desperate citizens into the deadly drug trade. . . . While the landscape he surveys is grim, Parenti offers several tactics to encourage better resolution of its problem, including raising awareness among political leaders and recognizing that progress will come only through creative compassion.”

The Georgia Straight, Vancouver, Canada

“There’s much to admire in Tropic of Chaos, notably the breadth of Parenti’s research and how he ties it into a coherent, big-picture view of the world. The book also offers timely insights into the origins of this month’s famine in East Africa.”

Washington City Paper

“Parenti’s exploration of how, say, a water shortage in equatorial Africa causes nomadic herdsmen to roam far afield—only to be met by a rival tribe that raids their animals and kills their men to protect fertile land—illustrates the domino effect extreme weather can cause anywhere in the world.”

The Daily

“Like the climate scientists he invokes in his analysis, Christian Parenti seeks to understand a dizzyingly complex problem. . . . His book embarks on a tour of the so-called ‘tropic of chaos,’ the equatorial belt where much of the world’s population lives, and where changing weather patterns have led to conflict and destitution.  At each stop, Parenti draws connections between violence and global warming.”

Publishers Weekly

“Scathing. . . . Parenti’s careful reporting and grasp of politics and economics support the book’s urgent message—that impending global chaos is all but assured unless the developed world finds the political will to imagine a better future.”

Kirkus Reviews
An investigative journalist’s tough analysis of how some of the world’s most vulnerable states—those with a history of economic and political disasters—are confronting the new crisis of climate change. . . . A dark look at a looming world crisis.”

Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

“A brilliant weather report from the near future of world politics.”

Naomi Klein, author The Shock Doctrine

“A richly investigated and original account of the role climate change is already playing in contemporary conflicts. This glimpse of the future we most fear arrives just in time to change course.”

Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

“To read this disturbing, indeed frightening book is to appreciate fully the fix we’re in.  On the one hand is a looming planetary crisis, the product of climate change, resource scarcity, and widespread poverty.  On the other hand is the misguided conviction, to which Americans in particular cling, that military power, deftly employed, will insulate the developed world from these problems.  It won’t, Christian Parenti argues.  He’s right.   We can’t say we weren't warned.”

Pablo Solón, Chief Climate Negotiator and Ambassador of Bolivia to the United Nations

“This important book highlights a new dimension of climate change. It’s not only about the loss of biodiversity, glaciers, and island states but also about a new era of conflict, violence and chaos.  Parenti shows us how climate change already produces war and aggression.  But he also invites us to think about real and structural alternatives to unbridled capitalism and runaway climate change.”

Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day

Tropic of Chaos is a penetrating look at natural disasters and the humans that make them happen.  This engrossing, deeply researched account takes us on a journey around the globe to uncover the social production of catastrophe.  A book that’s hard to ignore, and difficult to put down.”

Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club 

“Christian Parenti’s exhaustively researched Tropic of Chaos presents a disturbing idea: that the species which caused the climate crisis will be the one most affected by it.  This powerful book charts how climate-driven violence is already taking hold.  If we don’t act with urgency, a troubled future awaits us.”

Saskia Sassen, Professor, Columbia University and author of Territory, Authority, Rights

“We know we confront multiple catastrophic events.  They have been analyzed and debated.  Like no other book I know of, Parenti gives us the vortex itself.  He does so through knowledge and facts in a manner that brings it all to life.  What a great book, really extraordinary.”

Rethinking SchoolsTropic of Chaos is an important book for teachers, especially because of the wretched treatment of the climate crisis in mandated corporate-produced curriculum materials. . . . [W]e need to devise ways to incorporate [Parenti’s] analysis into our curriculum.”

Kirkus Reviews

An investigative journalist's tough analysis of how some of the world's most vulnerable states—those with a history of economic and political disasters—are confronting the new crisis of climate change.

The Nation contributing editor Parenti (Lockdown America, 2008, etc.) focuses on the region of the planet that lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He expects nations in this area to face a catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change—hence the label "Tropic of Chaos." The danger he foresees is that the reaction of the United States and other developed countries to this disaster may be to become "armed lifeboats" with militarized borders and aggressive anti-immigration policies. In Parenti's view, the militarism of the Cold War and America's economic policies of privatization and deregulation are to blame for pushing many developing countries into political and economic instability. The social effects of climate change in a given country can be neither understood nor planned for, he writes, without knowledge of the country's history. To remedy this, he offers a grim account of the history of several countries in the Tropic of Chaos, including failed and semi-failed states in Africa, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, making specific connections between economic history, political violence and climate. Water, he argues, has long been a key driver of conflict, and with climate change bringing extreme weather with droughts and flooding, it will become an even greater issue. The chapter on South America leads directly to his discussion of immigration to the United States, where immigrants are met with "the calumny, hatred, and ideological spittle of rightwing demagogues" like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In the final chapter, Parenti offers his ideas for how the United States might respond otherwise.

A dark look at a looming world crisis in which the United States comes off as one of the worst villains.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568587295
  • Publisher: Nation Books
  • Publication date: 9/4/2012
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 310,432
  • Product dimensions: 8.10 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Christian Parenti is a contributing editor at the Nation. The author of Lockdown America, The Soft Cage, and The Freedom, he has written for Fortune, Mother Jones, Conde Nast Traveler, Playboy, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Table of Contents

Part I Last Call for Illusions

1 Who Killed Ekaru Loruman? 3

2 Military Soothsayers 13

3 War for a Small Planet: Adaptation As Counterinsurgency 21

Part II Africa

4 Geopolitics of a Cattle Raid 39

5 Monsoons and Tipping Points 55

6 The Rise and Fall of East African States 67

7 Somali Apocalypse 79

8 Theorizing Failed States 87

Part III Asia

9 Drugs, Drought, and Jihad: Environmental History of the Afghanistan War 97

10 Kyrgyzstan's Little Climate War 113

11 India and Pakistan: Glaciers, Rivers, and Unfinished Business 123

12 India's Drought Rebels 133

Part IV Latin America

13 Rio's Agony: From Extreme Weather to "Planet of Slums" 157

14 Golgotha Mexicana: Climate Refugees, Free Trade, and the War Next Door 179

15 American Walls and Demagogues 207

16 Implications and Possibilities 225

Acknowledgments 243

Notes 245

Index 283

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2015

    Christian Parenti paints a bleak picture of the future and, what

    Christian Parenti paints a bleak picture of the future and, what’s worse, is he backs it up with exhaustive and irrefutable research.

    In his book, Tropic of Chaos - Climate Change and the new Geography of Violence, the author cites war, after famine, after natural disaster to point out that even today climate change is a contributing factor, if not the major one, in most human catastrophes around the globe.

    And it will only get worse.

    Parenti details how colonialism destroyed the natural order in many countries. When the colonizing powers left or were forced out it created a power vacuum. This vacuum was filled by corrupt leaders who were supported by one side or the other during the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Eastern block these kelptocracies became pawns of the neoliberalism in the form World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans.

    Crippled by debt, further hardships were placed on the populations, which has lead to civil unrest. Add to that drought and famine and you have the perfect storm, or as Parenti has coined it, “a catastrophic convergence” of poverty, violence and climate change without any ability to mitigate the misery and suffering.

    Current estimates suggest there will be between 25 million to 1 billion environmental refugees by 2050, people from the world’s urbanized coastlines and agricultural economies that have been displaced by increased storms, droughts, flooding, proliferation of pathogens and rising sea levels.

    The Tropic of Chaos includes forty-six countries, home to 2.7 billion people, in which climate change interacting with economic, social and political problems will create a high risk of violent conflict.

    In the face of rising migration the borders between the healthy, less impacted countries with functioning economies and these failing states are becoming hardened and militarized, or, as Parenti puts it, governments are adopting the “politics of the armed lifeboat”, responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing

    But if climate change is allowed to destroy whole economies and nations, no amount of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed and aerial drones or permanently deployed mercenaries will be able to save one half of the planet form the other.

    Parenti solution to deal with this threat to the world as we know it is to say we need to transform humanity’s relationship to itself, transform social relations among people and develop new ways of containing, avoiding, and deescalating the violence that climate change fuels.

    How likely is that?

    Pogo was right, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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  • Posted March 2, 2012

    Life (and, perhaps, human life in particular) tends to exploit e

    Life (and, perhaps, human life in particular) tends to exploit environmental resources right up to and even beyond the carrying capacity of that environment. The consequence of overshooting that carrying-capacity limit is natural selection; survival of the fittest, if you will. Populations are trimmed only to return and again step over that barrier. Plus, carrying capacities expand and contract and populations must respond or face extinction.
    Among humans tooth and claw has often, but not always been supplanted by cultural evolutionary safeguards and buffers. That cultural evolution is reflected in the formation of coercive governments and the rule of law. The weak have been protected from the strong; communities have planned for the future based on events of the past; and, humans have created an artistic, literary and scientific heritage that transcends (but does not necessarily replace) nature.
    When natural ecosystems near or exceed the limits of carrying capacity the causes are often evident and the consequences readily predictable. Not necessarily so with the human race. In order to fully understand historical context it is necessary to de-convolute cultural from environmental influences.
    In Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti provides dozens of examples of political and economic chaos which, he claims, are somehow linked to global climate change. In a series of excellent vignettes he details, most often from first-hand field experience, horror stories mostly concentrated between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.; drought in Kenya; the failed state Somalia; poppies and drought in Afghanistan; drought in Kyrgyzstan; the politics of water, glaciers and extreme weather in Kashmir; drought, cotton & moneylenders in southern India; drought in Northeast Brazil slums of Rio; and, links between drought, NAFTA and the drug wars of northern Mexico.
    The strength of the links between political and economic collapse in the tropics, that he most often presents as self-evident, are not always convincing and often superficial. The author provides extensive notes and, within the limited context of the text (tropical conflict) the scholarship is thorough. But, there is nothing new in the "solutions" that he offers at the end of the book.
    Some left-insider, politically-motivated terminology (with frequent barbs aimed at the IMF & WB) heavily used by the author in Tropic of Chaos may be unfamiliar and need definition; e.g., neo-liberalism may mean something other than what he intends to the U.S. public (for that matter just what is the "crisis of neo-liberalism"?)
    Tropic of Chaos is, admittedly, not a book about the science of climate change - it's a political-science text. However, even a social-science book could have provided a better link between climate change and political and economic order. One thing the author does get right - "The climate crisis is not a technical problem, nor even an economic problem; it is, fundamentally, a political problem."
    Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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