Thursday, May 29, 2014 the Tropic of Chaos-- Part I

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of the stony rubbish?  Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
                                             ---T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Climate Change and the Politics of Violence

No, this is not a book review, but rather a meeting of similar minds on a topic that is often posited as a one-issue notion on impending doom.  Well, the doom seems real enough, but it is also become trigger for incredible degrees of violence, both regional and internationally. Christian Parenti (a journalist) has connected a few extremely uncomfortable dots, along with the greater relationship to our 20th century role in the history in what we euphemistically call the 'developing world.'  It is well-cited, written in a journalistic/academic fashion -- more importantly it contains many primary sources;  semi-literate farmers and pastoralists in those regions now living daily with the opening salvo of a planet under siege.  Their voice is valuable because they know nothing of science, have never even heard of 'global warming,' yet they all readily acknowledge that something is terribly wrong.  This is 'boots on the ground' reporting.

But first off, a little lesson about Cold War politics vis a vis The Great Game:   

From Parenti:    "The Cold War sowed instability throughout the Third World; its myriad proxy wars left a legacy of armed groups, cheap weapons, smuggling networks and corrupted officialdoms in developing countries.  Neoliberal economic policies -- radical privatization and economic deregulation enforced by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank -- have pushed many economies in the Third World -- or, if you prefer, the Global south -- into permanent crisis and extreme inequality.  In these societies, the state has often been reduced to a hollow shell, devoid of the institutional capacity it needs to guide economic development or address social crises."

"Sometimes these forces have worked together simultaneously; at other times they have been quite distinct.  For example, Somalia was destroyed by Cold War military interventions.  It became a classic proxy battleground..  Though it underwent some limited economic liberalization, its use as a pawn on the chessboard of global political struggle caused its collapse.  The same holds true for Afghanistan, which was, and still is, a failed state.  It never underwent structural adjustment but was a proxy battleground.  On the other hand, Mexico,the north of which is now experiencing a profound violent crisis, was not a frontline state during the Cold War, but it was subject to radical economic liberalization"

"Between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer lies what I call the Tropic of Chaos, a belt of economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet's mid-latitudes.  In this band, around the tropics, climate change is beginning to hit hard.  The societies in this belt are also heavily dependent on agriculture and fishing, thus very vulnerable to shifts in weather patterns. This region was also on the front lines of the Cold War and of neoliberal economic restructuring.  As a result, in this belt we find clustered most of the failed and semifailed states of the developing world."
                                                   Yes, 'failed states.'  

   From this other author:   "The end of the first round of the Nuremberg trials marked the opening salvo of the Cold War, and for the next 40 years America supported a host of despots, dictators and barn burners for the sole purpose of stacking the UN against the Soviet Union and China.  All this human energy consumed over an ideological debate mutually reinforced by over 50,000 nuclear devices.  Agreeing to disagree had never been explored with this much at stake.  A living, breathing hell restrained only by words – the interpretation of a single sentence in a difficult conversation.  Diplomacy with a loaded gun.  Percussion and repercussion crammed into a single chamber."

     "And so began the “Great Game.”  The pimps of Washington, Moscow and later, Beijing began the arduous task of buying the prettiest girls in the countryside.  Some were from Africa, others from Central and South America  – the best were to be found in the Middle East and southern Asia.  Even comely girls were welcome if the address was right.  Location, location, location.  All they had to do was like us…for now anyway."

    "We gave them gifts.  Bridges without roads, airports without planes, great reservoirs without pumps, pipes or water.  We even picked new enemies for them, started their wars, sold them the guns.  If they lost, we walked away.  If they won, we sent them a bill.  The payback was simple.  Plough your sorghum, raise beef  – we’ll buy it at under market value, sell it to a third party.  Maybe sell it back to you.  What?  Can’t afford it?  Well, go back to eating sorghum.  Oh.  Plowed under, huh?  Well, how about a nice bridge?"

     Turned out the old girl wasn’t as pretty as everybody thought and most bridges, pipelines and air strips weren’t edible."  

And then the climate begins to collapse.  The decades of the Cold War 'sowed', in Parenti's words, "instability throughout the Third World...." -- worse yet, a glut of small arms that have fed the forces of insurrection, both large and small throughout these regions.  Ethnic rivalries? Tribal wars?  Opposing political ideologies at work here?  These are popular notions in western media circles, but the answer is much closer to home:  economics, or quite frankly, the price of bread and the water to wash it down with it.  Especially that water. 

So the IMF, World Bank and USAID enlist...yeah, you guessed it:  Monsanto.  For you see, this economic neoliberalism wasn't designed to lift the masses from their sustenance existence, but rather (as pointed out above), to enlist them in the joys to be had by adopting western ideals as a bulwark against this egalitarian monster known as socialism.  Trouble was, most of these farmers, pastoralists and fishermen weren't nearly as interested in politics as they were about feeding their dependents...and perhaps, just staying alive another day. 

From Parenti: [India]:  "The farmers of Telangana all grow genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, a product of the agricultural giant Monsanto.  The new cotton became available a few years back.  Although advertised as not needing pesticides, it does.  At first it boosted output and incomes, but after a few years, incomes fell and the new cotton became a curse.  Its roots penetrate deep into the soil, sucking up all the nutrients.  Before long the farmers need large amounts of artificial fertilizer -- and that means taking loans.  Scholars call this the "vicious cycle of chemical agriculture.""

""We know that after three or four years, the land will be dead," said Linga Reddy Sama, whose family are Hindu migrants rather than of the local tribal Gond people.  The farmers in these villages know they are mining the soil, extracting and exporting its nutrition in the form of cheap cotton. While their crops decline, their debts increase.  And in the worst of cases, farmers are killing themselves.  This is the catastrophic convergence at the local scale of specific crops and actual families."

So...the ideas was....?  The idea was to import the American approach to agriculture as a way to boost production within India.  The trouble is that this neoliberal approach failed to take into account that Indian farmers lacked the technical sophistication for it -- not to mention the supporting infrastructure, including adequate access to water resources.  This added huge expenses for the farmers and with no regulatory policy in place, they quickly depleted available sources. [Parenti]: "These private coping strategies require private capital -- often at exorbitant rates.  Now, when crops fail or wells run dry, which is becoming more common due to climate change, farmers cannot repay their debts.  By the late 1990's, many farmers had run out of options -- they were too far in arrears to borrow more, too broke to produce crops.  For thousands, the only escape from this debt trap came in the form of suicide. -- often by swallowing pesticides.  According to data from the National Crime Records bureau, 150,000 Indian farmers killed themselves between 1997 and 2005." 

Why cotton?  [Parenti]; "Soon cotton became one of the main crops.  Now the issue was no longer food security but instead victory and profit on the international commodity markets."

And as sick as it sounds...cotton wasn't edible.  The money lenders controlled the crop choices and the seeds.  And even as the value of cotton yields dropped dramatically, they viewed the crop as collateral on the farmer's debt to them.  Yeah....we taught them well.

In Part II -- What you don't really want to know about "The Green Revolution."