Last Saturday investigative journalist and Nation Books author Christian Parenti was on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes to discuss economic growth and climate change. His book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, which was released in paperback last September, argues that a new era of climate war has begun, intertwining environmental disasters, poverty, social inequality, and violence in the Global South. Parenti supports his arguments about climate change with a rigorous analysis of global economics and the politics of economic development.
On MSNBC, Parenti acknowledged that in order to comprehensively deal with climate change, we need to understand the limits of the Earth's ability to absorb pollution – what ecologists call "sink." As industrial processes release chemicals and CO2 into the environment, the Earth can only absorb so much pollution. One possible location for CO2 to "sink" is in the ocean. Parenti notes that due to human-caused climate change, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were a hundred years ago.
Creating a sustainable economy will lead to green jobs and economic growth, Parenti said, but we must not define economic growth simply as GDP. Rather, a more nuanced conception of growth is necessary for a world dealing with the challenge of climate change. If growth means the ever-expanding production of inefficient cars, dirty energy sources, and unsustainable industrial practices, then this conception of growth runs directly against our ecological limitations. But, on the other hand, if growth means more energy-efficient transportation, sustainable housing, and clean energy sources, then growth can help us combat climate change by reducing our carbon footprint.
In the Christmas/New Year's issue of the Nation, Parenti also wrote about the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Dennis and Donna Meadows. According to the Nation Books author, the Meadows' book is worth revisiting because "it introduced the concept of anthropocentric climate change to a mass audience." Though the years have seen critiques of Limits from across the political spectrum, Parenti concluded that on the issue of Earth's ability to absorb pollution,
[T]he catastrophically bleak vision of Limits is...totally correct. We may find new inputs — more oil or chromium — or invent substitutes, but we have not produced or discovered more natural sinks. The Earth's capacity to absorb the filthy byproducts of global capitalism's voracious metabolism is maxing out. That warning has always been the most powerful part of The Limits to Growth.
In his own powerful environmental book, Parenti takes the reader on a tour of the places where the bleak vision of Limits has begun to take shape. The "tropic of chaos" is a belt of restive post-colonial states that lie along the planet's mid-latitudes; these states are suffering the brunt of the planet's rough weather. He takes us to embattled areas of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, vividly describing the way environmental changes have fueled violence and military conflict; he travels to the slums and deserts of Brazil and Mexico, where climate-driven rural crises are pushing people into the furnace of the urban drug wars; and he investigates the increasingly militarized US border, revealing how this unraveling world in the South is being met by the military might of the Global North.
Combining historical research with on-the-ground reporting, Parenti shows how the environmental crisis is colliding with the twin legacies of cold war militarism and unbridled free-market economics to cause fragile nations to disintegrate into failed states. Tropic of Chaos is a survey of a world in peril and an urgent call to action: those living in the privileged Global North must recognize that their future security is inextricably linked to the fate of the struggling nations of the Global South. Despite its bleak panorama, Tropic of Chaos ends with pragmatic suggestions for moving toward a more just and sustainable world — which include dealing with the limitations of growth and Earth's ability to absorb pollution.
Naomi Klein, whose book The Shock Doctrine detailed how economic shock therapy exploited mass disorientation after collective "shocks" such as wars or natural disasters, calls Tropic of Chaos "[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."
Parenti, a former Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is a Professor at the School for International Training, a contributing editor at the Nation, and a visiting scholar at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has reported extensively from Afghanistan, Iraq and various parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His work has appeared in Fortune, the Washington Post, the New York Times, LA Times, and the London Review of Books.