Book review: Tropic of Chaos

Posted by By at 4 November, at 11 : 06 AM Print

soft mesh of shade upon his body. He wore a silver earring and khaki shorts and lay on his side with his arm twisted awkwardly beneath him. The left side of Ekaru’s forehead was gone, blown away by the exit of a bullet. His blood formed a greasy, black slick on the desert floor. His sandals, shawl, and gun had been stolen.”

Question: “Who killed Ekaru Loruman?”

Hint: The story is not fiction.

It is the opening scene of a new book by investigative journalist and book author Christian Parenti, titled “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.”

“The thesis of this book”… is that climate change doesn’t just look like bad weather,” investigative journalist and book author Christian Parenti said during an August appearance at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. “It also looks like ethnic violence, religious violence, civil war, banditry, counterinsurgency (and) xenophobic anti-immigrant policing.”

“And it always works in conjunction with pre-existing crises,” he added.

Parenti has lived and traveled extensively in the three regions he calls “Tropic of Chaos” – Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in his book relates the histories and inter-cultural conflicts of indigenous peoples to the ways in which their situations are exacerbated by climate change.

In an apparent reference to the economic environment of the U.S. preceding the American Civil War, Parenti divides the world into the “Global North” and the “Global South.”

The former essentially comprises the wealthy, industrialized cultures on both sides of the planet’s equatorial band – the tropics – bounded by the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – the two lines of latitude where the sun is directly overhead on June 21 and Dec. 21.

That mid-latitude area, what Parenti terms the “Tropic of Chaos,” is home to cultures that are largely agrarian, mostly poor, and almost totally at the mercy of the weather – which, of late, has been treating them poorly. They generally have an over-supply of inexpensive small arms, often supplied by the Global North in support of “proxy wars” – armed conflicts between Global North nations, fought in and by cultures of the Global South.

During several years reporting on Afghanistan, Parenti repeatedly was told by Afghani poppy farmers the reason they raised the illegal crop was, “well, poppy is very drought resistant.” Afghanistan is suffering the worst drought anyone still alive can remember, and wheat requires up to six times more water than poppy.

On the other hand, one of the North’s characteristics is widely available means of dealing, at least temporarily, with climate change. After all, if there is no rain for a period, there is money to lay pipe to move water from where it is to where people and plants need it.

A large portion of the South has been forced by weather-decimated crops and herds, from small nomadic groups to large concentrations of peoples dependant on sparse water supplies for their survival. What would be “inner cities” in Philadelphia or Los Angeles do not benefit from the economies and collective governing of the surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, they join, at best, an uneasy truce prompted by a need to share available water. And they fight, among themselves, and more often with neighboring tribes which steal what cattle they have left.

Parenti notes that studies by Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the International Crisis Group, combining databases on civil wars and water availability, found that “when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.”

As Parenti suggests, climate change may not cause bloody conflict, but if the seeds are there – if the antagonists are sitting nervously waiting for shooting to start – turning a grassland into a desert is likely to cause them to germinate into full-scale conflagration.

But the problem for the Global North is not that Global South populations are at war with each other. The problem is that the effects are spreading, and Northern nations are responding by erecting walls, figuratively if not physically, to protect themselves from incursion by peoples seeking escape from poverty and destitution.

In the U.S., our borders are increasingly militarized, while a privatized prison industry seeks to provide a place to store the “illegal immigrants” escaping Mexico and other Central American nations. And we are hardly alone among the world’s industrialized nations in our response.

Meanwhile, global warming is causing sea levels to rise, and millions of Pacific Island nations are preparing to find new homes for succeeding generations.

“What will happen when China’s cities begin to flood?” Parenti asks. “When the eastern seaboard of the United States starts to flood, how will people and institutions respond?”

We may not have pulled the trigger on the gun used to kill Ekaru Loruman, but Parenti posits that our failure to recognize the chaotic, and often bloody, effects of climate change on the poorer of the world’s populations likely will result in significantly more chaos and death within our own borders.

Whether we agree with “global warming” or don’t, Parenti offers an inside look at the real effects of  climate change in the “Tropic of Chaos,” and how those effects appear destined to impact those of us outside its boundaries.

And he offers some suggestions for how to mitigate, or maybe prevent, some of the destruction.

Christian Parenti is a contributing editor at The Nation magazine and a visiting scholar at the City University of New York. Visit for more about this and other books

“Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence;” Nation Books

Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and


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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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