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Book Review: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti.

Book Review: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti.

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Christian Parenti has written a solid tour de force on environmentallyinduced
conflict, worldwide, as seen from within the first decade of the
21st century. Indeed, the book title itself—Tropic of Chaos—is derived
from the names of the geo-climatic zone situated between the Tropic of
Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. And, just as these geo-climatic
zones are now slowly spreading north and south, respectively, so too is
human-induced violence and destruction, as more and more people
engage in a neo-Malthusian competition for fewer and fewer natural
resources. Parenti provides an on-the-ground, first person description of
what this actually feels like for a few of those individuals caught up in
these struggles. He then works backwards, to explain some of the history
and “back story” behind these events.
Christian Parenti has written a solid tour de force on environmentallyinduced
conflict, worldwide, as seen from within the first decade of the
21st century. Indeed, the book title itself—Tropic of Chaos—is derived
from the names of the geo-climatic zone situated between the Tropic of
Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. And, just as these geo-climatic
zones are now slowly spreading north and south, respectively, so too is
human-induced violence and destruction, as more and more people
engage in a neo-Malthusian competition for fewer and fewer natural
resources. Parenti provides an on-the-ground, first person description of
what this actually feels like for a few of those individuals caught up in
these struggles. He then works backwards, to explain some of the history
and “back story” behind these events.

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Theory in Action, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 2012 (© 2012) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.

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Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti. Nation Books, 2011. Pp. 304. $25.99 (Hardcover). ISBN: 978-1568586007 Reviewer: Blaine Pope1 [Article copies available for a fee from The Transformative Studies Institute. E-mail address: journal@transformativestudies.org Website: http://www.transformativestudies.org ©2012 by The Transformative Studies Institute. All rights reserved.]
Christian Parenti has written a solid tour de force on environmentallyinduced conflict, worldwide, as seen from within the first decade of the 21st century. Indeed, the book title itself—Tropic of Chaos—is derived from the names of the geo-climatic zone situated between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. And, just as these geo-climatic zones are now slowly spreading north and south, respectively, so too is human-induced violence and destruction, as more and more people engage in a neo-Malthusian competition for fewer and fewer natural resources. Parenti provides an on-the-ground, first person description of what this actually feels like for a few of those individuals caught up in these struggles. He then works backwards, to explain some of the history and “back story” behind these events. In the spirit of works like Robert Kaplan’s 1994 article, “The Coming Anarchy,” or Dobkowski and Wallimann’s 1998 book, The Coming Age of Scarcity, Parenti provides us with the current state of the collapse of the environment, taking place at the end of the Holocene era, and unpacks what that now means in terms of both international and regional security. The most poignant difference between Parenti’s current work
Blaine Pope, Ph.D., is currently a Faculty Advisor in Goddard College's Independent B.A. program and B.A. in Environmental Sustainability program. Throughout much of the 1990s, he worked in Africa and the Middle East, overseeing emergency relief, health, natural resources management, and economic development programs. His latest project was his work as a research consultant on the recently released documentary film, The Naked Option (2011). Address correspondence to: Blaine Pope; e-mail: blaine.pope@goddard.edu. 1937-0229 ©2012 Transformative Studies Institute 131
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Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos. and world history. and Part IV—Latin America. On this. There are many regional experts on this or that part of the world. They have now arrived. in different parts of the world. It is often difficult. however. so prone to respond to climate change in ways that exacerbate the social fallout of the new extreme weather . on-the-ground. Here. and there are likewise many different types of experts in various aspects of environmental studies and/or ecology. to describe how the catastrophic convergence has manifested itself in one part of the world after another. . Part III—Asia. basic environmental science. He combines. he effectively establishes the intellectual (and emotional) rhythm for the subsequent unfolding of this thesis. the first of which is thematic. political-economy. Part II—Africa. the writer also introduces the concept he calls the “catastrophic convergence. first person narrative describing the impact of climate change on the lives of real human beings living in real places. . thus. in a highly interdisciplinary way. their multiplied destructive impact is seen as greater that the simple arithmetic sum of their parts. Within Part I. Combined. and environmental disaster. . early on. he writes: I examine the prehistories of the climate disaster in order to explain how the world came to be such a mess and. 8) Here. It seems that the only solidarity forthcoming in response to climate change is an exclusionary tribalism . provides us with a vivid and disturbing snapshot of where things now stand. it is the combined or synergistic effect they produce when they converge that must also be considered. In this regard. chapter by chapter. economic. . . .” described as the “collision of political. more or less on schedule. for anyone to see. the author sets up the epistemic framework for the rest of the book. Parenti sets the stage for all that is to follow. This is then put together with a kind of true grit. He then proceeds. while the remaining three are geographic: Part I—Last Call for Illusions. rather. to find a single individual or a book that presents a strong grasp of both 132 . together with a bit of personal biography. . . (p. Within that first section. This is not ‘natural’ and inevitable but rather the result of a history—particularly the history of the global North’s abuse of the global South . “Last Call for Illusions”. Parenti divides his work into four parts.Blaine Pope and these earlier works from the 1990s is that these long-anticipated catastrophes are no longer simply coming.” It is not just multiple disasters stacked atop one another. section by section. as of the early 21st century.

worldwide. this is at best a minor critique in presentation. He is literally able to circle the globe. However. The Ugandan state quickly became personalistic. this remains a distorted picture of a country long in need of a more nuanced re-framing in the western mind. peculating. It might have been helpful to include a Part V. One other critique. drawing upon his own first-hand experience. Of course. ultimately. This is precisely the strength of Christian Parenti’s work in Tropic of Chaos. which focused purely on “conclusions.Theory in Action regional political-economic or historical issues. together with global environmental issues. and/or studying there. Amin 133 . It is a little known fact (in the West. working. At first his repression had a political logic: violence was directed toward specific socioeconomic ends and served the dominant economic interests. is worth noting however. roly-poly.73-74) This is an all-too-popular western political narrative of Uganda—aided and abetted by slickly produced. insane: a big. Tropic of Chaos is written in such a way that. in an otherwise strong body work. well-acted-yet-damning films like the 2006 production. although this is probably still advised. Sadly. Parenti writes: Amin’s regime was marked by medieval savagery and modern weaponry. the reader need not necessarily read the subsequent sections of the book in sequential order. Why? The common perception among a number of Ugandan commentators is that. it is difficult for most western writers to cover East African post-independence history. the writer concentrates his work on East Africa. But Amin was.” as such. (pp. khaki-clad sociopath in charge of what had become one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest armies. bribe taking. The Last King of Scotland. and vicious. during the 1970s. at not address the terrible events that took place in Uganda during the reign of General Idi Amin Dada. and its impact on selected societies. as the writer has written a conclusion in the final part of the book labeled “Latin America”. seemingly) that more Ugandans were actually killed by the security forces of Milton Obote’s Administration than that of Idi Amin’s. In terms of book format. smiling cherubic. after reading Part I. clique ridden. at the level of concept development or worldview. Of this troubled period. to discuss the state of environmental security. In the section labeled Part II—Africa. This is a dynamic part of the world which this reviewer knows very well—after several years of living. while there was brutality in the regimes of both Amin and Obote.

regarding the need to be ever vigilant—and ever willing to question—the prevailing narrative on any given issue. this still does not detract from the essence of the writer’s basic points on the environment in the region. worldwide. this slightly depressing factor is also a testament to the quality of Parenti’s overall work: it can be difficult to strive to be a compassionate and conscious human being and not feel affected by the long litany of well documented enviro-catastrophies listed in Parenti’s book.due to the now-dire nature of the environmental crisis humanity is confronting. the sense of alarm also grows louder with each passing decade. The last chapter within Section IV of the book is entitled “Implications and Possibilities. It is merely a brief cautionary tale. Niger. The projects he outlined being done in the West African states of Mali. and active in sustaining their sense of hopefulness. as far as human right abuses were concerned. for many. Parenti provides his readers with reasons to be both hopeful in their activism. especially in relation to Britain. overall. for those who have actually worked in some aspect of this field. By the same token. It is highly readable and informative.Blaine Pope incurred the wrath of the West because of his more confrontational manner. As a result of this. even if somewhat disturbing or depressing in parts. How much more damage can the biosphere sustain before 134 . Indeed. As has long been the norm in books of this genre. he states that these activities now need to be more broadly adapted and scaled up—rapidly-. regarding the portrayal of Idi Amin and Uganda. He provides concrete examples of successful climate change mitigation activities currently being done in different parts of the world.” Here. Obote was often subject to significantly less western scrutiny than Amin. this is in many respects the stock-in-trade of the industry. Also in keeping with many other books on this theme. if not each passing year. on the other hand. With each passing decade. was seen as a western European and American ally in the region. While this might be an area in which this reviewer would take issue with the writer. questions that continue to run through Parenti’s book (seeming to constantly demand answers of the reader) are never far from the surface. which provides his readers with a global snapshot of the state of the environment in the early 21st century. and Burkina Faso were especially inspiring. Christian Parenti has written a very good book. working on behalf of environmental and/or political-economic sustainability (especially in many parts of the Third World) gradually begins to feel more and more like battlefield medicine. Obote. Ergo.

This may seem like a small point. we run the very real risk of unleashing a process of self-fueling. There is one other point that should be noted about Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: the author has actually been to the places about which he writes. Parenti hammers home the point that mitigation remains essential. has gone the extra miles and kilometers to put himself directly into the circumstances about which he writes (and occasionally even putting himself in harm’s way). which no amount of Internet searches on the part of the writer could replace. in order to deliver a better product. Indeed. will not need to write many more books like this one. so often used isolation to describe what is happening in the world. and many others.Theory in Action irreversible damage is done? Has a tipping-point level of damage (irreversible damage) been done already? Should we now be focusing our scarce resources on disaster adaptation. and others like him. For those unsure of how climate change actually works and feels in different parts of the world. 236). this would also be a good book with which to start. While some degree of adaptation to environmental damage now appears inevitable. For those seeking to get a good. Tropic of Chaos is well worth reading. but it is not. One can only hope that Christian Parenti. Some of today’s most prominent writers will write on subjects or situations they themselves have not engaged directly. runaway climate change to which there can be little successful adaptation” (p. This affords a priceless. This was clearly not the case here. 135 . Much of what passes for policy analysis or social commentary these days is written by armchair analysts and coffee shop commentators. first-hand account of how climate change has been affecting global security at a number of different levels. “Without mitigation. in developing this work. the Earth cannot sustain much more (if any more) ecological damage—without dire consequences for the human race. first-hand perspective to the reader. with very little or no “field” experience. Parenti writes. On this point. there may not be sufficient time to write many more books like this one. if Parenti is now even only half-way correct in his assessments. Christian Parenti. Parenti takes the time to metaphorically draw a human face atop the innumerable-but-often cold charts and graphs. instead of mitigation? How will people survive in the future? According to Christian Parenti.

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99 (Hardcover). Price. Nation Books. 304. Pp. Critical Pedagogy. and the Sociological Imagination Ray Muller Critical Pedagogy and Dialectical Thought in the Secondary English Classroom Daniel Ian Rubin The disappearing immigrants: hunger strike as invisible struggle Ally Walsh and Myrto Tsilimpounidi Marginalization and the Multiplicity of Rationalities: A Discourse Theory of Poverty Agustin Martin G. 2011. No. 2011. 208. $45. $15.CONTENTS Vol. 5. ISBN: 978-0674049307 Claudia J. ISBN: 978-1568586007 Blaine Pope 30 51 70 82 104 122 126 131 . Cambridge. 2011. Ford Book Review: Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State by David H. AK Press. 2 1 5 April 2012 Introduction: The Politics of Knowledge and History. ISBN: 978-1849350631 Neema Caughran Book Review: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti. $25. Pp. Corey Dolgon Transforming Student Engagement through Documentary and Critical Media Literacy Jessie Daniels Designing Health Messages to Promote Social Change Susan Kahlenberg From Apathy to Activism: Civic-Mindedness. Rodriguez Book Review: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon.95 (Paperback). Pp. 370. MA: Harvard University Press.00 (Hardcover).

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” --Stonehill College student “Corey’s work weaves together a coherent and accessible narrative about labor struggles with a tour de force of labor songs that moves audiences. labor movement. all received a good time and good learning. From union retirees to active union members. Please contact Corey for scheduling a lecture or receiving a sample CD at 617-298-0388 or at cdolgon@worcester.com . More info @ www.” --Chris Dale. Focusing on the role that folksongs play in the U.S. and inspiring.edu. and great knowledge about folksongs. “I learned about the importance and power of strikes and labor unions. from academics to management. I encourage other unions to add Corey's talents and expertise to their agendas. Professor of Sociology. [The lecture] made the period come alive for me. Professor of Sociology. Folksinger & Sociologist Corey Dolgon.In Search of One Big Union: A Singing Lecture by Corey Dolgon. abundant energy. and organizing. and other social movements were entertaining. labor. a Ph. very informative. New England College “Corey's music added tremendous spirit to our National Labor Assembly. Corey’s words and music bring both history and theory to life. William Patterson U. I never knew there were songs about them.” --John Ralston. President.D in American Culture and Sociology Professor has been performing “singing lectures” for almost a decade. U. United American Nurses.” --Kathleen Odell Korgen. He is a long-time labor activist and community organizer and has used folk songs to build solidarity on the line and engage students in the classroom. labor. AFL-CIO “Corey Dolgon’s “singing lecture” is a hit. of Louisville Labor-Management Center “Corey’s wonderful voice. This singing lecture covers labor history from a multicultural perspective and examines the function of folk songs in workers’ lives.coreydolgon.” --Cheryl Johnson.

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transportation. Our goal is to establish a tuition-free accredited graduate school to foster interdisciplinary research that will bridge theory with activism and encourage community involvement to alleviate social problems.00 CAN PRINT ISSN: 1937-0229 ELECTRONIC ISSN: 1937-0237 .The Transformative Studies Institute (TSI) is a fully-volunteer social justice think tank managed and operated by a global team of scholar-activists. operates a speakers’ bureau. fellowship program. We do believe in: • • • • • • • • • • • Direct political and economic democracy Prohibition of corporate involvement in any political process News media as an independent public utility Free and equal public education at all levels and the nationalization of private educational institutions Equal treatment of all individuals and groups The right to make one’s own reproductive decisions Guaranteed housing Universal single payer healthcare Guaranteed family income Sustainable development and renewable resources Direct action for social justice To achieve these goals we must make people aware of social facts. and various community outreach projects. utilities.g. grassroots activists. housing. education. Principles ‘No one is free unless we are all free’ We do not believe in: the privatization of societal resources or socially important goods and services e. and provides consulting services and custom policy papers. and values. military.00 USD $35. as well as consider multiple viewpoints to foster social justice. health care. public infrastructure. This requires a process of critical education to empower people with skills to question assumptions. beliefs. and the concerned public. social services. TSI TRANSFORMATIVE STUDIES INSTITUTE $35. TSI publishes independent peer-reviewed journals including Theory in Action.

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