The following is my latest piece for Al Jazeera.
When I started reading Christian Parenti’s latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, it was not with the intention of evaluating his work against that of bumbling New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman.
In fact, after spending the last two years of my life thinking about Friedman, my aim as of late has been to not think about him. In the case of Tropic of Chaos I succeeded until page 7, on which Parenti summarises the book’s premise:
Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters the catastrophic convergence. By catastrophic convergence, I do not merely mean that several disasters happen simultaneously, one problem atop another. Rather, I argue that problems compound and amplify each other, one expressing itself through another.
Reading this, the first thing that occurred to me was that Friedman is also the author of a convergence involving three elements. Conveniently branded “the triple convergence”, it debuted in Friedman’s 660-page advertisement for US-directed corporate globalisation, The World Is Flat.
Friedman explains the triple convergence by recounting one of his “favourite television commercials” about the Konica Minolta bizhub as well as a tragic tale about ending up in the “B” rather than “A” boarding group on Southwest Airlines due to unawareness of at-home boarding pass-printing capabilities. The theory is too long-winded to delve into here – suffice it to say that the first of the three convergences is that of the “ten forces that flattened the world”, among them “Flattener #5: Outsourcing” and “Flattener #10: The Steroids”, which are new technologies that have acquired this moniker “because they are amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners”.
The flat world itself meanwhile rematerialises as the middle element in a revised tripartite convergence of “global warming, global flattening and global crowding”, which gives birth to Friedman’s environmental tome Hot, Flat, and Crowded.
The continuous emission of such gibberish has not impeded Friedman’s receipt of Pulitzer Prizes for things like “clarity of vision” or his appearance twice in a row on Foreign Policy‘s annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. Foreign Policy additionally hosted the debut of Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics, according to which, the 1993 privatisation of a Nigerian oil field was one of three major occurrences between 1979 and 2006, indicating an increase in the global “pace of freedom”. According to the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report, Friedman invokes as proof of said increase in freedom, 1993 was precisely the year in which Nigeria turned from “Partly Free” to “Not Free”.
Other prominent intellectual landmarks in Friedman’s career meanwhile include the idea that Google Earth helped spawn the Arab Spring and that countries that possess McDonald’s establishments do not go to war with other countries that possess McDonald’s establishments. The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention was unveiled around the same time that 19 McDonald’s-possessing NATO countries went to war with McDonald’s-possessing Yugoslavia.
Given that Parenti has yet to attain the rank of Global Thinker, I thought I might offer him some pointers on how to rectify his version of the convergence in order to render it more acceptable to Global Thought.
Tropic of Chaos is arranged around the question “Who Killed Ekaru Loruman?”, a pastoralist from the Turkana tribe in northwest Kenya’s Rift Valley who was shot during a cattle raid by a neighbouring tribe.
After reviewing various possible answers – Ekaru was killed by a specific man; Ekaru was killed as a result of the tradition of cattle raiding among tribes of East Africa; Ekaru was killed by the drought that prompted the cattle raid – Parenti posits that the explanation for Ekaru’s death ultimately lies in the convergence of poverty, violence and climate change.
The following passage serves as the introduction to Parenti’s synopsis of relevant events in East African history, from colonisation to El Nino to the link between Cold War superpower machinations and the inundation with firearms of the Turkana region of Kenya:
The East African conflict system is a specific and evolving political economy of violence that links pastoralists, militias, organised crime, political elites, markets, and changing climatological patterns. Its historical evolution illustrates elements of the catastrophic convergence… which is to say, the imbrications of neoliberal economic restructuring and Cold War militarism with the effects of global warming. The recent disruptions of the Intertropical Convergence Zone [the Tropic of Chaos – ‘a belt of economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet’s mid-latitudes’], for example, play out on a stage set by human history. Thus there can be no proper understanding of the social effects of climate change without some knowledge of the concrete history of the places where these climatological changes are happening. And no plans for adaptation [to climate change] or mitigation [of its effects] can be successfully developed or implemented without such history.
Compare the non-Global Thinker’s preoccupation with an understanding of history as a prerequisite for analysing contemporary phenomena with the Global Thinker’s analysis in 1996 of the civil war in Angola, upon which nation he briefly descends as part of the entourage of US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright: “This is, quite simply, the stupidest war in Africa.”
Friedman does in this case provide some background to the conflict – something he does not want to do when asserting, for example, the “collective madness” of Palestinians – and acknowledges its origins in the Angolan war of independence from Portugal and the US-Soviet proxy battle for oil- and diamond-rich Angola. However, he prefers to downplay the relevance of such details in favour of the effortless analysis that the current conflict is “stupid” and “senseless” and that the only truly applicable event in the timeline of African history is the end of the Cold War.
In the event that Parenti would like to offer an explanation of Ekaru Loruman’s death more compatible with Global Thought, he might either point out the lack of McDonald’s in Kenya’s Rift Valley, expand his statement that it is possible to see the location of the cattle raid on Google Maps into an argument that Google in fact enabled the raid, or simply regurgitate Friedman’s tried and true line: “Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas”.
Discussing the violence that has ravaged Mexico and produced tens of thousands deaths since President Felipe Calderon deployed the army in 2006 to ostensibly fight (read: sustain) narco-trafficking, Parenti notes:
[T]he meltdown of northern Mexico provides another illustration of the catastrophic convergence: policies that create poverty and violence are now colliding with the new realities of climate change, and together these three forces are creating socially destructive forms of adaptation.
Regarding the identity of these poverty- and violence-creating policies, Parenti pinpoints neoliberalism as a principle culprit, which, along with climate change’s adverse effects on agriculture and fishing, “is driving rising unemployment and pushing people north, toward the United States, and into the traps of the underground drug economy”.
Describing Ciudad Juarez as “the city NAFTA built and then began to kill”, Parenti incidentally quotes Friedman’s own newspaper in response to the question “[W]hat did free trade really do for Mexico?”:
An almost quizzical article published in the New York Times in 2009 answered this as follows: ‘In some cases, NAFTA produced results that were exactly the opposite of what was promised. For instance, domestic industries were dismantled as multinationals imported parts from their own suppliers. Local farmers were priced out of the market by food imported tariff-free. Many Mexican farmers simply abandoned their land and headed north’.
In citing World Bank figures according to which “in 2004, 28 per cent of rural dwellers [in Mexico] were extremely poor and 57 per cent moderately poor”, Parenti meanwhile reveals his blatant ignorance of the intricacies of Mexican society, summed up by Friedman in 2010: “40 per cent of [Mexicans] live below the poverty line but 75 per cent… identify themselves as ‘middle class’.”
This encouraging optimism on the part of the Mexican poor enables Friedman to instruct his readers to “Root for the Naftas” – a demographic comprising “people who came from the countryside to work in new industries spawned by NAFTA” – in their battle against “the No’s” (those opposed to more pro-NAFTA reforms) and “the Narcos” for the future of Mexico. Parenti’s insistence on focusing on such issues as NAFTA’s facilitation of narco-trafficking is presumably what prevents him from perceiving other evidence of free trade-induced societal improvement, such as a study of the top 50 Mexican baby names of 2008 conducted by Luis de la Calle, Mexico’s former Trade and NAFTA Minister in Washington, DC.
Friedman cites the study as follows:
The most popular [names] for girls, [de la Calle] said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’ Not only Juans.
Parenti, of course, manages only to interview a Jose Ramirez, an unemployed fisherman, and to expound on detrimental social and environmental consequences of the “neoliberal model of fisheries management” such as plummeted stocks and an increase in poverty among fishing communities. Adds Parenti: “Foreign boats take much of the fish: Mexico’s fleet accounts for less than 10 per cent of the total catch, with the rest going to boats from the United States, Canada, and Japan”.
In addition to overlooking the advantages of neoliberalism outlined by Friedman in 2003 (“You win the presidency by connecting with the American people’s gut insecurities and aspirations. You win with a concept. The concept I’d argue for is ‘neoliberalism'”), Parenti remains oblivious to the following Friedmanian logic: “If we didn’t have free trade with Mexican fishermen, would we have been able to pressure them into using dolphin-safe nets on the tuna they sell us? Not a chance”. Bottom line: “Flipper got saved. That’s how you change the world”.
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