Tropic of Chaos: Christian Parenti Interviewed

In this interview, Christian Parenti and Mike Menser discuss issues raised by Parenti’s recently published book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

The Geography of Catastrophic Convergence

MM: Kenya, Uganda and East Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico — this is the geography of violence. How would you characterize catastrophic convergence and how do you end up focusing on this particular geography?

CP: The catastrophic convergence is this combination of two pre-existing crises, with the third crisis that’s now entering the picture – the onset of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change interacts with the preexisting crises created by imperialism and capitalism on a global scale. But, more specifically, the two preexisting crises that are exacerbated by climate change are the legacy of Cold War militarism and neoliberal economic restructuring.

The Cold War’s hot proxy conflicts littered much of the Global South with cheap weaponry, bands of armed men trained in the arts of asymmetrical warfare like assassination, extortion, ambush, smuggling, torture, the organization, relocation and control of civilian populations — guerilla combat and counter-insurgency in general. And when the various causes to those conflicts had evaporated or their interpretation changed, many of these groups of men — insurgents and counter-insurgents — continue fighting. Only now they do so as bandits, ethnic nationalists, religious fanatics, or all of the above. So the Cold War’s hot proxy fights littered the planet with cheap weapons, traumatized people, economic dislocation and underdevelopment.

It’s important to note here the specific assaults that counter-insurgency makes upon civilian society. In guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency, territory is not the goal. Rather, the objective is to win and control the political allegiance of the civilian population – the hearts and minds of the people. In other words, the social fabric of everyday civilian life is the battlefield; social bonds, community, local economies, local cultures are thus necessarily damaged and torn asunder during irregular warfare. Both sides in irregular warfare attack one set of social relations and seek to remake them in another fashion. The only thing that is guaranteed in this form of warfare is the attack upon social relations. As a result, much of the Global South remains violent.

At the same time, neoliberal economic restructuring has created increased absolute poverty and increased inequality. Sometimes neoliberalism has been associated with high rates of growth, but more often with slow rates of growth. But always with increased inequality, which is important because that leads to relative depravation – which sociologists know is inherently destabilizing to social order.

So this is the inherited condition of much of the Global South, and now comes the extreme weather associated with climate change: droughts, floods, crop failures, freak El Nino events that drive away the fish. The catastrophic convergence is the way these three distinct crises interact and combine. The over-all effect is to push many states in the Global South towards civil war and state failure while encouraging an increasingly xenophobic militarist politics in the wealthy enclaves of the Global North.

MM: I do a lot of work on global environmental issues, especially with respect to agriculture and efforts to democratize the food system, which is very much not only a public health crisis but also part of the global ecological crisis. What’s interesting to me about Tropic of Chaos [hereafter TC], especially coming from that perspective, is that you consistently intertwine the militaristic aspects of globalization in the post-WWII period with the neoliberal ones. I think people, including myself, often misunderstand the crisis when we try to put forward a green program for a political economy, and we leave out the militarist stuff, or we focus on the military and forget about the key ways in which it intertwines itself with economic development and the so-called peaceful proceeds which usher from neoliberalism. So I like that in TC, you constantly bring these two together, with counterinsurgency in particular not just militancy in general. In a sense your book is more focused on the history of counter-insurgency forms than neoliberal forms, which makes sense because there’s a lot more knowledge on the liberal forms than there is about counter-insurgency.

But what I like about it is that you’re not giving a theory about the origins of the ecological crisis, you’re focused on what is making it so difficult to respond to the ecological crisis now. And so you don’t give an over-arching theory that’s eco-socialist, like the Nature, Capitalism, Society group, or Jeffery Sachs and the whole green-capitalism group, or the Heideggerians, who say it’s technology that’s enframed us since whenever, Jesus, or Steve Jobs… those are fun and interesting and have their place but you’re focused on creating a politics for addressing the problem NOW. One of the most valuable things about your analysis is that you ask: why is such a politics so difficult to proliferate? Why are we being pulled in the neoliberal-militarization direction rather than a democratizing-peacebuilding-sustainability direction?

It’s not that people don’t want or can’t afford solar panels; it’s that the social fabric is being ripped apart by alternating cycles of counterinsurgency and neoliberal development. And that makes it difficult to build towards a sustainable political economy, whether we’re talking about Herman Daly’s steady state economy or anti-capitalist ecosocialism or post-capitalst Gibson-Graham influenced bioregionalism. But again, what you emphasize is that the root of the solution is the capacity of people to respond, to build solidarity, and that’s a social capacity. And here the drug war comes into it, because if counter-insurgency destroys these solidarity-enhancing social relations, and that’s what they target, then what fills the vacuum?

Over the last few decades, if they’ve assassinated all the lefties, as has happened in Guatemala, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Palestine, all the lefties just gone–Peru… what’s left?, Well you have the gangs and the drug war. So, coming back to the geography, why did you focus on seven or eight states?

CP: I’m looking at dynamics that could apply to most of the Global South. Some countries received case-study type focus; others get addressed in passing. I mentioned many countries but really drilled down into a few examples because they were typical of either regional dynamics and problems, or because they are large enough to demand attention regardless of what generalizations might be drawn from their specifics. For example, if you’re going to discuss Asia, you have to discuss China or India.

I have reported from both but I focused on India because the link between climate change and violence is so clear there. That is the part in the book where I discuss the interconnections between the Naxalite Maoist guerrillas, drought, neoliberal economics and specific technologies of geo-engineered cotton and the credit system. Other detailed case studies follow a different logic. Afghanistan is important in part because the readership of this book is in the United States and the UK both countries that are militarily involved in Afghanistan.

CP: Well, at one level the new geography is the same as the old geography: it is the geography of empire. The tropic of chaos is that belt of postcolonial states in the Global South that – surprise, surprise – bore the brunt of the Cold War’s hot proxy conflicts and took the worst of neoliberal economic restructuring. These dynamics play out differently, in different locations. Sometimes they interact with each other and sometimes they don’t.

For example, neoliberalism has very little to do with why Afghanistan is at war. Afghanistan was never subject to any kind of structural adjustment and still hasn’t been. Problems there are rooted in Afghanistan’s role as a buffer state – at first during the great game between British and Russian imperialism’s. And later as an ideological buffer state and proxy battleground between the USSR and US. There are also internal conflicts between urban Afghanistan and rural Afghanistan. Between the Pashtun South and the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek North. For 100 years Kabul has been attempting to extend its writ over the valleys of Afghanistan. And on and off for 100 years the rural landlords and mullahs have been resisting. At first Kabul (broadly speaking) and Afghanistan’s nascent modern state were motivated by and organized around a modernizing form of constitutional monarchy, then after Daud’s coup in ’73 the ideology in state form was that of a developmentalist presidential republic. Then, after the Kalhk coup d’état of ’78 and the Soviet occupation that begins in ’79, which also begins the Parcham phase of communist rule in Afghanistan, the ideology becomes socialist developmentalism. Today, the ideology, such as it is, is liberal capitalism. But through it all there is something of a formal continuity of Kabul, in league with foreigners, attempting to control rural elites and facing violent opposition from them.

Or perhaps we could go back even further. Perhaps Afghanistan’s problems are rooted in the Mogul invasion in the thirteenth century, when great cities like Balkh and Bamiyan were destroyed and burnt to the ground and their canal systems were left to deteriorate. Those two cities in particular have never recovered. And in a way Afghanistan never recover from Genghis Khan’s depredations. The political culture that was born out of that “post-conflict situation,” to use modern terminology, was one of nasty feudalism. And environmental crises flowed from it. Ghor province in Central Afghanistan is utterly treeless, it looks like the moon; the starvation which led to the 1973 famine started in Ghor. And Ghor was denuded when urban Afghanistan fell apart after the Mongol invasion.

So if militarism is all-important, Afghan history is exactly the opposite to some of the other case studies. In places like Mexico and Brazil, by contrast, though Cold War militarism and counterinsurgency of a sort were important during the 1970s and 80s, they remained rather minor parts of the political landscape. The main source of crisis in both of those countries is neoliberal economic restructuring that flowed from the debt crisis.

MM: Right, so one of the things that I appreciated about the book was its relatively narrow geographic focus. So many other works treat the globe as this kind of homogenous field which has all these problems, and makes generalizations like capitalism is empire, and what are we going to do. This kind of approach is very homogenizing. I think some of the specificity comes also from the reporting you did as well.

Failed States and the Ecological Crisis

CP: I like to think that one of the things this book does is to draw on some of the insights from years of reporting in failed states and war zones for The Nation and other magazines. In failed states you really experience the crisis of solidarity and the sociological impacts of violence. Progressive intellectuals in the core economies of the capitalist world don’t like to talk about failed states. That is a trope used by the Right. And I’m intentionally trying–I have a chapter on failed states–to provoke the Left a little by using the term failed state and not making any apologies about it. I’m trying to provoke some thinking about this category instead of just ignoring it. And also I use that term because I want to disabuse people of a certain romanticism and naïveté–about what?

About what it means to live in a failed state.  In more or less failed states like Afghanistan or Iraq, or Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea-Bissau or the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is zero room for Left-wingers to go into politics — in those places the Enlightenment is dead and the gun rules — in a country that is run by teenagers manning checkpoints with AK-47s, progressive civil politics just are snuffed out, and it’s the height of naïveté and arrogance and bullshit to think that such a politics is possible under those conditions. Also the idea that capitalism cannot function in a failed state is totally untrue. Certain extractive industries can function in failed states. You can get cocaine from the FARC while destroying half of Colombia but world capitalism does not benefit from the Indian Ocean being plied by Somali pirates. Yes, Coltan coming from eastern Congo is cheap and eastern Congo is lawless. But other than illegal logging and mining, eastern Congo is not open for investment, development and profit-making by global capitalism.

It is fundamentally removed from the normal process investment exploitation. So failed states have failed for Empire and they have failed for people.

MM: There’s definitely a lot to discuss on that topic, but there’s been some press on Zomia lately about the James Scott book on the history of anti-state peoples in Southeast Asia. The point here is that although I understand what you’re saying about failed states and the impossibility of certain kinds of Left progressive politics in the failed state context, I think we should remember that it’s strong states that have produced the ecological crisis.

CP: Yes, strong states ultimately produce failed states. I mean, the ultimate failed state, Somalia, is the direct product of global madness by Said Barre, the dictator of Somalia, but also of the millions and millions of dollars that the Soviet Union and the US and various allies poured into Congo and Ethiopia and Somalia.

MM: Right, and we’ll come back to this too in relation to the need to de-carbonize the economy, the mitigation program as well as the adaptation program. When you look at the ecological footprint of persons, at who has the highest ecological footprint by nationality or state, you find that the United States has actually fallen on that list since the 1990s because we have more and more poor people due to changes in immigration policies as well as what’s happened in the US economy. So ironically the more poor people we have, the better we look ecologically. And the Scandinavian countries, who hardly ever get picked on, their carbon footprint per person has gone up, and these are the most peaceful states with the strongest solidarity traditions and good welfare states, and actually some of them open to immigrants, but from an ecological perspective, and Canada too, they’re all very cold places so they burn a lot of fossil fuel.

CP: And also Australia, Australia is the highest per capita emissions.

MM: Yes, that has to do with the mining industry as well as transport cost and so on in the Australian economy.

CP: And I would imagine the constant AC throughout the fall. All coal-fire based.

MM: Right, coal-fired, but I don’t want to get too sidetracked on the states and the strong state/failed state distinction, although I do appreciate your points on this context. In terms of the geography, though, you talk about militarization as the dominant adaptationist response right now, and I think that’s a good way to put it. I think one of the things folks have a hard time realizing is the ways in which climate change will play out so differently in different parts of the world, and it’s not that some places are going to be great, but there are going to be major differences, especially in terms of irregularities, and of course proximity to oceans and bodies of water as well.

I like that your book calls attention to Central Asia, which is not only where so much of the Cold War played out but also a site of so much important human history, you know, the Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan to India to Afghanistan, these are some of the oldest trading routes, some of the oldest axes of human civilization, especially when you think about the corridors I mentioned which focus on central Asia.

CP: The spaces that have always linked us… And they still do in this inequality. This inequality is a form of linkage, it is the result of an exchange, a relationship, it’s the result of imperialism, the exploitation of the Global South systematically over five hundred years by the North, and the way in which the North was developed at the expense of the South.

MM: Yeah, and the way the Soviet Union, of course, which again falls off our radar screens so quickly… So just to emphasize for some folks who don’t know your previous works, so these are places that you’ve spent time in, and the timeframe was…

CP: I worked on the book for about six years, but since 2003 I have been doing a lot of international reporting. And I’ve always traveled, always had one foot in academia and one in journalism, but the book is really born out of my experiences when I was reporting from Iraq and confronting this kind of advanced civilization in collapse. And that really bothered me. The only people who were writing about that were Right-wingers, you know, the Robert Kaplans, The Coming Anarchy kind of thing, with their last gasp humanitarian interventionist writings around how to deal with chaos and collapse in the Global South. There was no real kind of Left response to that, and so some of the book is born out of that. Even though Iraq isn’t even mentioned in the book, that’s where I started thinking about these questions of empire and environmental crisis and how the environmental crisis of climate change is going to push places into collapse.

MM: The Freedom is the book in which you focus on Iraq after the invasion.

Africa, NGOs, and the State: The Role of Journalism

MM: And when were you in Kenya?

CP: I was in Kenya in 2008.

MM: Okay, so right after the World Social Forum?

CP: I was there when the financial meltdown happened.

MM: It’s interesting to think about geographical differences, because the countries you look at have different roles in the region and in the global economy. You have Brazil and India, which are the BRICs, rising economies and — despite their internal difficulties, which are considerable —are becoming global players. And then you have Kenya, which to me is the saddest situation of them all, what’s happened to Kenya in the last four years, it’s just really disheartening, politically and ecologically. When you think about the continent of Africa — it’s been a beacon in certain ways, it’s had a great history amidst the turmoil, and been a place to look to, thinking about a kind of politics that can bring us out of this. And now Kenya has just nose-dived politically, and you talk about the accelerant of the drought and record rains in the northeast.

CP: Yeah, the reason I went to Kenya was because I was thinking about the 2007 elections, which blossomed into violence, in 2008 the late — early spring of 2008 violence of the elections…

MM: Yeah, because that summer was the first time the World Social Forum was held in Africa…

CP: My suspicion was that there was a kind of climatological angle to that urban-based inter-ethnic violence, and there may be but it was so attenuated that I actually backed off that…I mean, as I started doing advanced research before I got to Kenya, I realized, ‘oh wait, the place where there’s really climatological issues is rural Kenya, that’s where there are all the imbalances,’ but that’s how I originally turned to Kenya, I was like, ‘oh I’ll bet this is people driven off the land in part by climate change, relocated to cities now and fighting each other along ethnic lines through the spoils system.’ It was actually a displacement into the cities that had little to do with climate change and everything to do with British imperialism, and that whole thesis I abandoned even before I headed to Kenya. But yeah, Kenya is very unfortunate, a very unfortunate place, and Kenya’s also an interesting example, and an example that’s a little tricky for the Left because local elites bear a lot of responsibility for why that place is a mess. I mean, Daniel Arap Moi stole two billion dollars from his people, so…

One thing that I came out of this book with a real conviction about that I’m not sure is fully articulated in the book and is sort of my next project: there’s either going to have to be a recuperation of some sort of democratic developmentalist state in the South, or there isn’t going to be any solution to this problem. It’s not going to be NGOs alone. I mean, popular victories have to crystallize into policy; there has to be governance. Who will stand up to and control capital if not the state? If they crystallize into the NGOs, I don’t believe that’s sufficient. And states in much of the Global South remain, as in Kenya, essentially bastions of people on the take.

MM: When the World Social Forum was being organized in Nairobi, one of the things that folks were trying to make happen was to bring together a lot of the African Left social movements and get the conversation going, think about relationships of solidarity and expanding bridges through the sub-Saharan region. And basically what happened was that states prevented those groups from going to Nairobi to the forum, even though there were other times of the year that they were able to get the visas and so they could go. And speaking of social forums, by the way, I’m an optimist about social forums so I’m not taking any cheap shots at social forums, but that was the beginning of real serious trouble for that social forum. I think it was right to role the dice and do it there, despite a lot of the negative kinds of things that happened afterwards. Not that it’s linked to those things.

But it was the same kind of idea: how are you going to bring together the critical mass of groups to learn about best practices, sorry to speak NGO talk, because there’s lots of successful small-scale radical projects that are going on and that are not being ramped up and amplified. So states basically put the kibosh on that, prevented that from happening, and the NGOs were, as you say, completely inadequate to overcoming that limitation, especially in the African context. You know tomorrow I’m attending a seminar with Achille Mbembe, so I’ve been reading a lot about what has happened in South Africa over the last ten years or so. South Africa was a possible pole emerging in the South-South dynamic. Unfortunately, though, I’m sure you know what’s happened with the South African state and the role of the ANC and its fight with social movements such as that of the “shack
dwellers.” You’re right when you think about the dynamic of the NGOs and the social movements in the state. How do we integrate the insights of these studies, which are on the ground and theoretical in your case, the journalistic and the academic, to better understand, in this case, Africa and the role of the state and NGOs and social movements? And what kind of methodological framework can we construct to help us pose the questions that enable us to make political progress, to strengthen
political movements?

CP: I don’t know what kind of methodological framework we can use, but I know there are certain questions, certain words and concepts that are key. One of them is the state, but people don’t want to think about the state. Nevertheless, let’s think about the Third World state, let’s generalize for a second. I mean, as you’re saying, I’m not one for generalizing about types, and that’s why there’s a specificity of the geography when I refer to specific states in the Global South, but if you want to generalize for a second, what is the nature of most, say, African states right now? They have zero capacity, they’re run by kleptocrats, their economies are open to international business, and there’s a gigantic NGO aid industry that does all the social welfare and infrastructural work that should be handled by democratically accountable governments. Now, where does that put the Left, or social movements? To whom do they, ultimately, appeal? More often than not they appeal to this unaccountable force: the aid caravan, the alphabet soup of the NGO infrastructure.

The state in the Third World or Global South in the age of neoliberalism has been systematically degraded and leached of its capacity. This sort of corruption is a serious problem. I don’t see a lot of discussion about this on the Left. Corruption is part of the discussion of the Right. People like the development economist Paul Collier have a very forceful and convincing critique of corruption. But in the end his prescription is just good old neoliberal deregulation and free trade. Matthew Lockwood wrote a great little book about African states called The State They’re In. I don’t think enough people have read it. He looks at Mozambique and Malawi as potentially developmentalist states, and you know, when those things do happen they are still, to this day, attacked. Malawi had a program of subsidizing farmers’ fertilizer and this government policy was boosting grain yields and moving the country towards greater food security and self-sufficiency. But the 2008 crisis comes along, and now Malawi is under pressure to reduce these subsidies to small farmers. Because despite all the manifest failures of neoliberalism, even in its own terms of boosting growth rates, the essence of the World Bank and the IMF policy is to strip the state of its capacity, to attack and undermine any progressively redistributive function.

The Recombinant State: Latin America

MM: I think you’re right, I mean this is a conceptualization problem, because there are lots of empirical studies which back up your point, but then there’s a lack of ability to fully recognize the different combinations that the state enters into. So we’re familiar with the private-public partnership, which is the fundamental basis of neoliberalism, but there’s also what might be characterized as the social-public combination. A great example of that is in Bolivia, where there
was the fight against the privatization of the water utility SEMAPA in Cochabamba in 2000. It was this archetypal neoliberal conglomerate Bechtel that bought the utility, raised rates, didn’t increase coverage, and before you knew it the rain was privatized because you couldn’t even have cisterns to collect water. And so the people of Cochabamba responded basically by shutting down the
city, and that forced the city to void the contract. But the movements there knew what they were doing, they didn’t want to give the utility back to the state, back to the city, because the city was the one who sold it off in the first place. So what did they do? They came up with a kind of governance for that utility that created a hybrid between the unions and the community and the
city. So they didn’t say ‘well forget about the city’ or ‘we’re done with all forms of government,’ but it did–

CP:–remained in public ownership, but it had these new governance structures.

MM: Correct. I call a “disarticulation of the state,” because you’re actually taking over only part of the state–they didn’t seize the whole city, they didn’t demand the reorganization of the entire state apparatus, for better or for worse, but probably for the better since the actions in Cochabamba set the stage for the other events in Bolivia to happen the way that they did. But what did happen in Cochabamba, was that the people created a different normative framework and a different power framework for the management of that particular state function. Hillary Wainwright deploys a similar concept, of the social public. The notion of the commons is another framework that doesn’t necessarily dispense with states, but gives them a different dynamic in terms of how they relate to groups that are outside the bureaucratic apparatus and how much power those groups have. So in the essay “Disarticulate the State,” I look at participatory budgeting as it started in Brazil and how it reterritorialized the relationship between the state and public. And then I look at the Piqueteros and some more anti-state movements that were developing in Argentina at the time, and then I look at Cochabamba and how it was different and why the Bolivians were more successful that the other two. I think that a comparative analysis is really necessary, because I again think we can really learn from the successes and failures of this one versus that one, and I think you know, coming back to Africa, there are such traditions to draw on that we can’t imagine these social-public hybrids being established in various places, especially in a place like Kenya.

CP: Latin America is very different from Africa, also, because ethnicity and tribe don’t play a role in Latin American politics that much. Now I know that some might say that such a statement has more than a whiff of racism, but that’s the nature of the violence in Kenya in 2008: it was tribal, Luo’s and all the Kalenjin groups versus Kikuyu.

MM: It was those social units that were actors.

CP: Yeah, yeah. And those are the contours of patronage. There’s a specific internal geography to this ethnicity, and that’s a major, major problem. This is of course partly the result of British colonialism’s classic divide and rule tactics. The British created the whole chief system, and displaced the older elder system of tribal governments. But tribes were not invented by the foreign office. They have pre-colonial momentum. Tribal politics get articulated through and enhanced by colonialism. Nonetheless, this is a particular problem in Africa that has no comparison in Latin America.

MM: And in Latin America, again thinking comparatively, of course indigenous politics are crucial for the Left, the imaginative Left, but the violence doesn’t play out as inter-ethnic but more in terms of movements and the state. Colombia is the exception here, it has got a different paramilitary problem, more so than other Latin American states. But of course that’s not the same kind of paramilitary problems they have in Africa, although there’s some resemblance there I guess.

CP: Yeah, and in so many other categories.

MM: Have you spent time in Colombia?

CP: I have, and in Bolivia. I hold up Bolivia as a real model, and I’m very hopeful about Bolivia; there are always problems, and I don’t have a solution to these problems of the state, but at least in Bolivia they’re groping towards something. You can see how what happened was that social movements didn’t turn their back on the state, they didn’t fall into some old-fashioned revolutionary notion that you take state power and that solves all your problems. They’ve taken state power through elections and protest, but they still have to share control of the economy with national and international capitalists.

The Bolivian Left meet violent resistance from the wealthier lighter-skinned residents of Santa Cruz — the Cruzeños — and the southern lowlands ranchers in general. But they’ve done an admirable job and the social movements remain strong.

MM: And evil remains criticized, and that’s how it should be.

CP: But then there are other problems. In resource-rich states, corruption is an ever-present threat. I really support the Morales government but my understanding is that corruption is becoming a serious problem. In Venezuela too, corruption is a major problem.

The Drug War and Climate Change; India-Pakistan and Water

MM: Coming back to your book, when you think about Afghanistan, you base the analysis of why heroin is being grown on an ecological perspective – poppy is drought resistant, it can grow in different conditions, and it’s no accident that that’s the crop that farmers turn to from just a basic evolutionary ecological perspective of what’s going to be able to withstand the climactic variations. So the drug war appears in Mexico and Afghanistan most prominently, these are the two states you look at, although as you point out it still figures in Brazil, especially in the cities, and these kind of civil conflicts that most of Rio…

CP: Yeah, I was in Rio, but you could write similar things about Sao Paulo.

MM: Okay, so, anything else you want to add in terms of Afghanistan, in terms of the dynamic of the drug war and climate change?

CP: Yeah, well in Afghanistan…

MM: Those aren’t often linked: the drug war and climate change.

CP: In many ways the idea of the book came to me in Afghanistan because I was researching the poppy trade, and people would say, “one reason we grow this illegal crop is because it’s really drought resistant.” I didn’t even know there was a drought; turns out to be the worst drought in living memory. The Taliban defend poppy, while NATO and the Karzai government attack it.

So, along with all the ethnic and religious motivations a young man might have for supporting the
Taliban, there is also an economic incentive rooted in environmental crisis. The Taliban is the side in the war that defends his family’s right to grow the one crop that is economically viable, given the climate change linked drought.

When you start thinking environmentally about the politics of water, you see Pakistan’s destabilization of Afghanistan is about its war with India, its displacement of its war with India. That conflict is about many things, but it has as one of its key ingredients Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about the fact that the Indian army sits in Kashmir on the head waters, on the glaciers that are the headwaters of the whole Indus River system. And that’s 90% of Pakistan’s agricultural water. From that perspective Pakistan has very legitimate security concerns. And you know I’m, generally, not a supporter of Right-wing military governments and conservative religious fundamentalists — but you can see how these Pakistani military and political elites have become so paranoid about India. They’re afraid that big bad India could choke off their water. Afghanistan has always been allied with India — most Afghan elites barely even accept the legitimacy of the Durand line on the Afghan Pakistan border — Afghans lost a lot of territory in 1893 when the border was created, including their old winter capital Peshawar. So in the fight against India, Pakistan destabilizes India’s ally Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and intelligence services have done this since the early 1970s by cultivating and developing Islamists guerrillas — asymmetrical assets on the second front against India. Now of course these fundamentalist networks, having a relative autonomy, are increasingly slipping the leash and destabilizing Pakistan itself.

MM: In environmental politics today, and your example here is fully illustrated, the borders of nation states, the nation-state system as it’s spatially articulated, is itself a tremendous barrier to dealing with ecological havoc, because it’s not set up in ways to manage the assets that you need to have a stable, sustainable economy. So, given that, it doesn’t mean that states are irrelevant–

CP: –Just as colonial borders divide ethnic groups, so too they divide water
basins and other regions.


MM: –and having a river as a border, that’s the stupidest thing anyone could ever do: look at the Rio Grande and the US-Mexico border, the idea that we could make a river the border between communities is like drawing a line through your head, how could you ever have a system function given that kind of demarcation? One of the things I work on is a field called bioregionalism which thinks of the borders between communities in terms of their ecological regions. And ecological regions are fuzzy entities, but that’s good in a way because then you don’t get this hard and fast border, ‘we’re the desert people and you’re the mountain people,’ no, there’s blendings and we’ve got to negotiate these things. So I think that your book shows how climate change is not only an accelerant, but it’s also pushing us to think about borders in ways that are at odds with the interstate system and the nation state system, however you want to characterize it, and is giving us a different kind of opportunity to think about transnational politics.

CP: In the India-Pakistan conflict, interestingly, the whole contradiction in India-Pakistan around the glaciers in Kashmir is that the two countries do have this functioning water treaty that has been operative since 1960. It’s fraying — India is building dams upstream and the water flow is diminishing downstream — but it is an example of two states that otherwise don’t get along, actually in a weird way just recognizing some sort of mutual dependence. There are debates about why the Indus Treaty works. The only explanation I can come up with is that India, given the moral
climate on the planet, simply can’t use its upstream advantage over Pakistan. It would be beyond the pale for India to shut off the water to Pakistan. Like dropping a nuclear bomb — totally
apocalyptic — and it might unleash a crisis that could not be contained by Pakistan’s borders.

MM: Yeah, no, cutting off somebody else’s water, I’m trying to think of examples…

CP: It happens on a small scale, but…

Farmers, Flatbush and CUNY

MM: As you were talking before about the Afghan farmers I thought of Via Campesina, which is one of the largest, most vital social movements on the planet. It would be interesting to see them consider Afghan poppy farmers.

CP: It would be pretty interesting, yes, and Via Campesina is a Latin American–

MM: –they originated in Latin America, but have grown tremendously in Africa and in South East Asia in the last five years, and they’re now over 200 million members, some analysts put it as over 500 million people. In a section at the end of the book you call for a remaking of the energy system, and you reference Bill McKibben a couple of times, and in his Eaarth book. He argues that we can’t change the energy system fast enough to make the kind of short-term transformation that we need to get going, but the farming stuff you can flip very quickly, you can go to a much more ecological sustainable agriculture, and it’s interesting because, as you point out–

CP: But it requires social justice to do that. You know in Brazil, I use the example of the MST; an MST community on one side of the road, they’re occupying land that doesn’t belong to them, trying to seize it from the absent cattle rancher, and then using destructive farming methods because those are the ones that will give you a return within one year. On the other side of the road, they own land and are using this agro-ecological farming method, which is great but takes five years and lots of labor to get up and running, and once it’s up and running you don’t need all the chemical inputs which means capital and debt and all that.

MM: Yeah, so that’s two different senses of short term, it’s a fair point, because I would think of five years as a short term in the ecological question, but in the capitalist economy the next quarter is the short term.

CP: The point of that little parable in the book is that social justice and technological adaptation are deeply intertwined. Farmers in the Global South are not going be honoring and tending trees like these sacred wonderful things if they’re under pressure to pay off debts. If they’re under pressure to pay off debts and they don’t even own the land then they’re going be cutting down trees and planting whatever it is they need to plant and thinking in terms of possibly moving to a city. I was shocked in India how these farmers who were in frontline areas in northern Andra Pradesh where the Naxalites had been and were operating, and the counterinsurgency, the police counter-insurgency units, called the Greyhounds were in there assassinating people, the farmers were destroying the soil with GMO cotton and pesticides. The farmers were all talking about leaving. There was no romanticism about the land, it was apocalyptic; they were like, “I don’t know how long this is going to last, maybe three or four more years, maybe I’ll go work on a big farm up in, you know, Maharashtra, or go work construction in Hyderabad.

MM: Unlike in Brazil, where the MST is based on people leaving the cities, not romanticizing the city in any way and going back to the land.

CP: And really, given their political struggles and their victories, there’s an economic utility to venerating the land, it actually does help you to survive in that sort of a situation.

MM: So farmers figure in all these examples. Your book begins with the story of a herder–

CP: –pastoralist, he’s not a rancher, he’s a nomadic pastoralist. Because there are ranchers in Kenya and they are often white and drive Jeeps and fly airplanes and have guns, and sometime get into conflicts with people like Ekaru, the dead man in the opening pages of the book.

MM: But Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Afghanistan, those pastoralists and farmers figure crucially in how it’s going to play out. And the ability of society to respond in an economically viable way, as well as a politically potent way.

CP: That’s why I think it gets back to states. I mean, if you look at the NGO world, there’s lots and lots of good programs, but they just remain piecemeal, and it seems to me that agricultural policy is generally made at a provincial or a national state level, and if nation-states are allowing Monsanto and whoever to run amuck, it’s going to be very hard for social movements and little progressive NGOs, let alone kind of silly NGOs, to have much of an impact. It becomes a kind of voluntarism. What are we asking farmers in the Third World to do? Give up all the short-term advantages that come with genetically modified cotton, and be eclipsed by growing the old cotton? There are these noble examples who make it work, but fundamentally there has to be proper state policy regulating these markets and there have to be prohibitions–“here you cannot go and sell people genetically modified cotton. End of story.”  And if states are continuing to say “yes, go and do whatever you want,” then it’s very hard for communities to exist.

MM: Yeah I agree, it’s like you see a bunch of weapons in an intersection and they’re all loaded and somebody says “hey look, there’s a bunch of loaded guns in the intersection what are you going to do?” and I say “Well, I’m anti-gun, I’m not going to touch them, I’ll leave them there.” Well, we can’t do that, because someone else is going to use them. And the state, that’s how I look at the state. I think it depends on who’s driving the dynamic. Again you can look at a place like Malawi: they take the food sovereignty program, they try to make some legislative changes and constitutional changes, and then how do you get the right configuration of the social-public versus that private-public and produce a kind of new framework and a new operationalizable mechanism that can protect and deliver these kinds of things we’re talking about?

CP: I don’t know. People in the Global South are doing what they do, they’re creating their movements, and the question for us is really what do we do? What do we do, sitting here at Brooklyn College doing this interview, as the kind of people we are here in New York, what do we do, how do we weigh in? Our work is not coming up with better strategies for people in the Global South, it’s about interrupting conversations going on here in this command center of the global economy. Getting people think about the state again. I mean, we’re in the hub of the NGO-wing of neoliberalism here. These universities, journals, magazines, these scenes we hang out in, we’re both I’m sure one or two handshakes away from very powerful people who mean to do well but are in fact, in effect perhaps unintentionally, working to degrade states in the global South and open the global South to further exploitation. They are on the charity tip, “we’re doing whatever we’re doing in the slums of Nairobi and we’ve got this program where we’re helping kids go to school” or whatever. But they never think — literally don’t even contemplate — the potential utility and justice of the state. So one thing intellectuals in the North can do is to build a concerted critique and make things intellectually and politically difficult for the international managerial class. And then of course there is the question of solidarity. You and I both know people who deeply involved in that kind of international solidarity work between social movements.

MM: And I think that brings us back to the struggle at CUNY, with the curriculum at CUNY and the question of who’s controlling the curriculum at CUNY: there was just a big fight the faculty lost in terms of setting the core curriculum, what would count as classes for the core curriculum CUNY-wide, and it also has to do with control of the actual campus. At Brooklyn College we had a community garden that operated for 12 years, that was destroyed, and we managed to fight to save the community garden but it was also a fight for control, and Brooklyn College got a lot of bad press about this, unfortunate, hilarious, but really bad press on that kind of fight.

CP: What happened?

MM: It’s a long story, but we saved part of it, it’s by the football field going towards Ocean Ave/Avenue H. But we did defend it, and now there’s a big composting site there too. And it sounds so small-scale relative to the kinds of crises we’re talking about, but if you can’t build your own little space and protect what’s good in it, and then learn things from your practices in your space and promote the kind of frameworks that we’re talking about, then people are going to leave here going to those usual kind of institutional frameworks that have those bad problematics, and are going to continue to see what they’re not able to do.

CP: This theme came up when I did a recent conversation with David Harvey. I was thinking of the Transition movement in Vermont, Transition Towns. It seems to me that we could apply Robert Merton’s old idea of the “latent” and the “manifest” function, because the manifest function of the Transition Towns movement is to transition to the post-oil kind apocalyptic age, and there’s ways I think that’s very silly, some of what they’re doing now, but then the latent function is to rebuild solidarity and build politics. It’s not that one is real and the other isn’t, your manifest function here is saving the garden, but the latent function is an experiential lesson for students and a different set of priorities, a different kind of politics. The latent functions of these struggles are tremendously important. And that’s the way that there are always victories. Take the tar sands struggle right now. Whether or not this pipeline is defeated, that’s the manifest function, but you can say what are the latent functions of this? One of them is to reach out to labor, to educate people, and that’s why certain unions have gotten on board with opposing this pipeline. That’s really meaningful. But you could never imagine an environmental movement setting out to change Labor’s mind in a better way, so it’s always gotta be through these practices that have sometimes a very quixotic goal at the end, but then all the interim steps are actually like the real victory, they rebuild solidarity, they build capacity, they build political understanding. And this is a very old insight, right, that class consciousness is born out of class struggle. This is something we’ve known for generations.

MM: Right, and in a place like CUNY, if you talk about the NGO complex, we’re in Flatbush, we’re in one of the largest Haitian communities in the world. We also have a sizable Bengali community now in this area around Brooklyn College, in the last five or ten years. Climate change induced? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question, how those folks end up here. Think about the tremendous potential of having a Bengali community talking to a Haitian community about climate change, the state, NGOs…

CP: Well, think about the reverse flow of these students out of Brooklyn College back to Haiti, what are they going to do? Are they going to go try to help poor people with an NGO? Or are they going to say enough of this ramshackle broken down state with zero capacity and zero loyalty to the people, let’s participate in a way that’s about social movements that can rebuild the state, getting some autonomy for it and some credibility and cleaning it up.

MM: Good question, let’s ask them!

CP: Alright.


Christian Parenti is a contributing editor at The Nation, a
Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a visiting
scholar at the City University of New York. He has a Ph.D. in sociology
from the London School of Economics. The author of Lockdown America, The Soft Cage, and The Freedom. Parenti has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Los AngelesTimes, Washington Post, Playboy, Mother Jones, and The London Review of Books. He
has held fellowships from the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller
Brother Fund and the Ford Foundation; and has won numerous awards,
including the 2009 Lange-Tailor Prize and “Best Magazine Writing 2008”
from the Society for Professional Journalists.

Mike Menser teaches Philosophy at Brooklyn College and Earth and Environmental Sciences at the CUNY Graduate Center and is co-director of the Participatory Budgeting Project.  His research of late is on food sovereignty, agroecology and the messy relations among states and
social movements.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.