In his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, journalist and scholar Christian Parenti travels across time and space to show how climate change has exacerbated problems created by Western militarism and neoliberal economic restructuring around the globe. Published by Nation Books in 2011, Tropic of Chaos describes the “catastrophic convergence” of poverty, violence and climate change, and how the Global North, particularly the United States, holds much of the responsibility.
Last week, Parenti published a controversial article in the Huffington Post in which he called out 350.org and climate activist Bill McKibben’s Do the Math campaign. The popular campaign aims to pressure universities, pension funds and churches into divesting from the fossil-fuel industry, but Parenti argues that a divestment campaign, while great for mobilizing the masses, isn’t going to hit industry where it hurts.
We spoke to Parenti about his arguments against the Do the Math campaign, Tropic of Chaos, his response to Hurricane Sandy and why pressuring and working with the government should be the climate justice movement’s top priority.
Reading your op-ed, it seems that one of the major differences between your argument and Bill McKibben’s is that his focus is on hurting the fossil-fuel industry through divestment, while you’re focusing more on the role of the state and how we can pressure it into acting. Could you talk a little bit about that distinction?
I’m all for hurting the fossil-fuel industry. I’m not opposed to that, but I don’t think divestment is going to hurt the fossil-fuel industry. It’s not going to do anything to the Koch brothers. It’ll tarnish them if there’s a big enough political spectacle around it. It will tarnish their reputation—it will do symbolic damage, and that’s great. I’m not opposed to the divestment campaign. I just think there should be other demands involved because divestment itself is actually not going to hurt the bottom line of the fossil-fuel industry. It will help tarnish its reputation if the campaign gets big enough, but it is being pitched as something else. It is being pitched as a direct assault upon their bottom line, and that, it is not.
I think that it’s good to mobilize people against the fossil-fuel industry, but I also think that it’s dangerous to fall into a kind-of progressive-green-left version of neoliberal assumptions about the role of markets versus the role of states. To describe the state as broken, to describe the state as something that should be avoided and gone around is to play into what is really a corporate-dominated narrative. So I think there has to be a realistic appraisal of the important role of government in creating regulation and thus hurting the fossil-fuel industry. And not just hurting the fossil-fuel industry but building up the alternatives.
At the end of that op-ed, I laid out some facts that are very rarely discussed, which is that the government—beyond any types of subsidies or special programs—is an enormous consumer of energy. It is an enormous consumer of the things that come from energy: vehicles and buildings. If the government at the federal, state, and local level took its consumption seriously as a political tool, it could use all of that money to help jump-start clean energy. We’re dealing with a very compressed time frame—and Bill McKibben has been excellent about translating the science to a mass audience—so we have to deal very realistically and in very short-term ways with what this means. And that’s why I think we have to be serious about trying to build up alternative energy now, as soon as possible.