Tropic of Chaos

Tropic of Chaos

Finding myself with pockets of time to catch up on reading while working from home – this has been one of my best reads so far (& we’re still in Q1-2020!). Not meant to be a book review but sharing excerpts/thoughts that I felt were important and worth documenting.

“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.”

I loved how the book covered colonial history, economics, development financing, poverty, environmental stress, politics. I loved that it was focused on Africa, Central Asia and LatAm. The book covered how drought, famine had played a hand in igniting uprisings and overthrow of governments and showed us how a future, with more climate stress, would look like through examples of the India-Pakistan-Kashmir conflict, African Kenyan-Uganda tensions, US-Mexico migrations.

It’s a sobering and heartbreaking read because it showed how developing countries were impacted by capitalistic structures, neoliberalism, developmental finance during their growth and how these legacy decisions have impacted their social and economic structures today and how these structures, lives and livelihoods have been made worse with environmental degradation.

It left me with a lot of thoughts and questions on capitalism and whether this free-market profit maximising approach is the right framework is going forward for the challenges our generation currently faces and will face. (especially now when we start comparing healthcare systems around the world in the face of COVID and we’ve yet to see the real horrors of the liberalised US healthcare system come to light + I’ve just watched Netflix’s DirtyMoney episodes on US BigPharma and GuardiansInc and felt sickened by the system). And if we move away from capitalism and gravitate an inch closer towards socialism, would it change how the stock markets operate? Or have we waded in too deep to turn back?

Yet I’m reminded that by our sinful nature, Humans have an inherent insatiable greed and, regardless of the system, will always exploit. Sad, but can we try to be better?

So many great chapters in the book but some excerpts that stood out to me:

  • The core issue is water, both quantity and quality. In other words, monsoon variability is bad news for Indian farmers. It has a negative effect on crop yields beyond what aggregate and average precipitation data can reveal. In social terms, monsoon variability manifest as increased debt, immiseration, migration and social conflict.
  • The moneylenders demand that cotton be planted with their capital because cotton is inedible, so during times of crisis, producers cannot ‘steal’, that is eat it. Thus, even when food crops, like grains, command higher prices, they carry greater risks for the money lenders. Cotton is the moneylenders’ biological insurance, they steer farmers away from food crops, even if the potential for profits is higher, because only cotton is guaranteed collateral.
  • This shift has coincided with the neoliberal reforms that removed from agriculture many legal protections and government subsidies – including public credit and public investment in irrigation. In response to the relative withdrawal of the state, farmers took on more expenses themselves and in turn, had to raise capital wherever they could – that meant from moneylenders. The more farmers turned to private moneylenders, the more they were under pressure to grow more cotton. And the more cotton they grew, the lower its price sank. Thus, the Telangana farmers became trapped in a downward economic cycle: they need expensive inputs and capital to produce a crop that drops in value even as they invest more heavily in it.
  • The immiserating growth – agricultural output rises but incomes sink. Others have descried the same set of contradictions as “modern poverty” or a form of “development-induced scarcity.
  • 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.
  • The climate crisis is not a technical problem, nor even an economic problem; it is fundamentally, a political problem
  • As an economic system, capitalism must grow exponentially, while the Earth is finite
  • From that grew the Marxist belief that capitalism, as a whole, is irreconcilably in contradiction with nature, that the economic system creates a rift in the balance of exchanges, or metabolism, connecting human society and natural systems.
  • The fact of the matter is time has run out on the climate issue. Either capitalism solves the crisis or it destroys civilization. We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist…as some advocate.
  • In short, we cannot wait to transform everything – including how we create energy. Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.
  • Hopeless? No. If we put aside the question of capitalism’s limits and deal only with greenhouse gas emissions, the problem looks less daunting. While capitalism has not solved the environmental crisis (meaning the fundamental conflict between infinite growth potential of the market and finite parameters of the planet) it has, in the past, solved specific environmental crisies.
  • We owe such an effort to people like Ekaru Lourman, who are already suffering and dying on the front lines of the catastrophic convergence, and to the next generation, who will inherit the mess. And, we owe it to ourselves.

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