Doing the Math Better: A Talk With Christian Parenti

Doing the Math Better: A Talk With Christian Parenti

Doing the Math Better: A Talk With Christian Parenti

Author Christian Parenti, in conversation with NYU student Rebecca Nathanson, explains why fossil-fuel divestment campaigns—now gaining popularity on college campuses thanks to Bill McKibben—may be a costly distraction.


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 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.

You hinted at this already, but in your article, you specifically say that this divestment campaign is a tactic, not a strategy. Would you support this as a tactic if it were part of a larger strategy that did directly address the government? Or do you think that because of the time crunch, it really isn’t a good use of resources?

I would support it as a tactic, partly because it has such momentum. If we were starting from scratch, I don’t really think it’s the best. Getting tied up with these boards of trustees—they’re going to resist. I’m old enough to remember the anti-apartheid struggle. It involved people living in shantytowns on campuses for years at a time, so that’s what’s required.

Is that the most efficient use of our energy when there’s currently basically no campaign to try and make the EPA follow the law, for example? The EPA has tremendous power, which it’s not using. So I would support it as a tactic because it’s established, and if it fit into a broader strategy that has other pieces, and if it was acknowledged publically that it’s fundamentally symbolic in nature—which McKibben and others at 350 will do privately. But I don’t think it’s really useful to tell people that you’re basically going after the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line in public and then in private say, “Okay, it’s actually symbolic.” Which one is it? Is it symbolic? Symbolic politics have their place. I’m not opposed to symbolic politics, but let’s be clear which is which.

I think one of the most useful aspects of symbolic politics is that it can mobilize a lot of people and make people feel that they can play an important role in a campaign.

Yeah, I think so.

And something that the Do the Math campaign has done really well is to engage students. These divestment campaigns are a way to mobilize mass numbers of people, and mobilizing students can be very important because they have connections and access to powerful institutions and resources that other people might not. I’m wondering what you think the role of students could be in a mass movement if it’s not through these divestment campaigns. You mention the idea of pressuring universities to buy clean power and electric vehicles.

I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think there should be both. We should be ready. What if there aren’t victories on the divestment front quickly enough? I mean, if there are proper secondary demands about really committing the universities to purchasing clean vehicles, that’s a good secondary demand. Rule number one of negotiation is just buy some business book on negotiations. You always have multiple issues on the table, and you push on one and give in on another. You play your multiple issues off against your opponent’s multiple issues. So I think that that would be useful at the level of the campus.

But also, you know, at the level of discourse, I think it’s really, really dangerous to fall into this anti-government sensibility—that Washington is broken, etc., etc. That’s exactly what corporate America wants the left to think. Corporate America in the age of neoliberalism wants a left opposition that can’t even see or imagine what the state is or could be. And I fear that this falls into that, potentially. Not necessarily, but if there’s this explicitly anti-government message, I just think that’s really, really disruptive. And it’s also historically incorrect. No one studies economic history; there are very few programs in the United States that even offer economic history as a discipline—read Michael Lind’s new book, Land of Promise—you see that capitalism always involves a robust role for the state. I think we need to think about how government is ever-present in the economy and try and use that power to shape and control and check the fossil fuel industry.

You write that government is the only one who can control fossil fuel and that the Clean Air Act, if it were enforced, would do what is needed. What strategies do you have for actually pressuring the government and working with the government?

Well, I think step one is that there has to be a discussion about the meaning of Massachusetts vs. EPA. There has to be a discussion about all the various rules that the EPA is sitting on and has been sitting on and not issuing since 2007. I think there has to be pressure put on the state about this stuff. And it’s not that there’s none of that. There is some of that, but I think it’s very, very underdeveloped.

This is not all about We’re talking about larger issues in the green movement. Look at the first two years of the Obama administration. What did the big green groups do? They spent half a billion dollars and two years pushing for basically unneeded and ultimately failed climate legislation, and nobody talked about how there were already laws on the books due to Massachusetts vs. EPA that would basically give the federal government the power to impose a defacto carbon tax. This is not a criticism aimed at 350—they do discuss that kind of thing.

But in general, the mainstream environmental movement in the US has been very bad about not thinking about, not addressing, not spreading the news that the EPA is empowered to really impose limits on the fossil-fuel industry. One of the main groups that does deal with this is the Center for Biological Diversity. They’re very clear about this and they, more than anybody, have done a lot of work to begin a discussion about these rules. Thirty rules, I think it is, that the EPA is sitting on and not issuing. So I don’t have a full strategy for you immediately, but step one would be to begin discussing the role of government in realistic terms.

What do you think has to happen for the EPA to actually act?

It has to issue the rules that it’s sitting on. So I think there has to be pressure put on the White House—on the executive—to allow the EPA to do that. Now how can the White House be pressured? Well, Obama should be humiliated and he should be attacked and he should be called out. He should not be given a free pass on this.

So I’d like to talk a little bit about Tropic of Chaos. A big theme of that book is how government has, over the years, acted to play a big part in global climate violence by promoting the message that climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally, but rather it’s the poorest countries who have already been subjected to western militarism and neoliberal reforms for years who are the most affected. Could you elaborate a little on the idea that climate change exacerbates problems that were already there?

Well basically, climate change rarely acts in isolation, as you laid out. It generally acts by exacerbating preexisting crises. Those preexisting crises are, in a nutshell, the legacy of Cold War militarism, which has littered the Global South with cheap weapons and unemployed young men who know how to use them. The other legacy is the legacy of neoliberalism, which is to say radical free-market economic restructuring, which for thirty years was promulgated by the World Bank and IMF and economics departments of the West, who were pushing an idea that the state is bad and needs to be removed from the economy and that markets always work best on their own. That has led to increased inequality and absolute immiseration for many people; sometimes it leads to high rates of growth, but it always increases inequality. But very frequently, it doesn’t even lead to high rates of growth. So that has left the economies of the Global South in bad shape, with increased poverty and increased inequality, primed for instability.

So into that comes the extreme weather associated with climate change, and that pushes people who depend on fishing and farming over the edge economically. So they adapt to this crisis in lieu of the state not being there with any kind of program of sustainable development and adaptation because the state has been attacked and systematically dismantled by neoliberalism. In lieu of the state having a plan, people fall back on whatever means they have at hand to adapt, and those means are the leftover weaponry of the Cold War and, increasingly, the War on Terror. So people pick up the gun and they go after their neighbor’s cattle or they pick up the gun and they band together with their ethnic or religious group and try to get them their fair share of the state and then take power. And so that is how the catastrophic convergence works.

The implications of that for policy are that I think we really need to, obviously, move away from militarism and move away from abrasive proxy wars—and we’re on the verge of doing it again in Syria. We also need to step away from neoliberalism and re-engage with the reality of how capitalist economies work, which is that there’s always a little bit of socialism involved and that there’s always a role for the state. We’re either conscious of that and use state subsidy and state investment and state consumption and state planning consciously to build up aspects of the economy that we want, like clean power, or we’re unconscious about it and we allow the other side, which is to say corporate America, to use those subsidies and those planning tools to shape the economy as they see fit, which is around speculative financial bubbles, fossil fuels and militarism.

One of the sections I’m most interested in is your discussion of the US-Mexico border. You talk about how the people who are the most vulnerable to climate change don’t always have the resources to migrate, but they’re the ones who most need to. And at the same time that this need to migrate increases, the borders start to harden and authoritarianism becomes the norm. So you have this vicious circle of the US creating conditions of poverty and violence that makes people need to migrate, but this increase in migration then results in the tightening of borders, making it that much harder to migrate.

So in the Global South, climate-driven violence appears in the fashion that I described earlier: climate change exacerbating preexisting crises and expressing itself as civil war, banditry, etc. In the Global North, you see climate violence as xenophobic border militarization and anti-immigrant policing, and also as an embrace of open-ended, global-scale counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns, as embodied by drone warfare, use of Special Forces, and this kind of new counterterrorism warfare that is going on all over the world.

So those are the ways in which climate violence appears in the Global North: as border militarization, repression of immigrants at home, and an embrace of this permanent, low-level counterinsurgency on a global scale. And the counterinsurgency stuff, this is expressed pretty explicitly in numerous documents that come out of the US military and various European militaries and the Australian military. They discuss this quite openly as their response to climate change. And to their credit, frequently these militaries end those reports by saying, “This is not a solution. This is what we do as militaries: we break-in, we kill people, we put the lid on instability. But if there aren’t actually proper economic changes that move away from fossil fuels, then there are limits to what a military adaptation can do.” But in the meantime, that’s what they’re doing. They’re moving forward with militarized adaptation.

So I wanted to ask you about the conclusion of your book where you emphasize the need for reforms and putting aside larger structural problems to deal with the immediate threats, but you’ve already touched on that. I think something that definitely brings that immediacy into perspective is an event like Hurricane Sandy. There’s a debate about the pros and cons of discussing climate change in terms of extreme weather events and I was wondering what your thoughts were.

Well, what you see in Sandy is a version of the catastrophic convergence. It’s still these pre-existing crises. Life in the projects down at Coney Island was not great to begin with, and then what does Sandy do? It makes it even worse. It takes an endemic, low-level crisis and pushes it over the edge into a really extreme, dire crisis in which, you know, people were dying for lack of running water and electricity. I mean, the whole thesis of my book is to not talk about climate change in isolation but to historicize it and specify it geographically. It’s always happening in the context of history, and history is always geographic and spatial and specific. There’s no single story; there are unifying patterns, but each place has specific dynamics that have to be dealt with as such.

And in terms of the first part of your question, you didn’t really want to touch on it but I think that it’s important. One criticism that my book has received from the left is that this book lays out how capitalism is destroying the environment so why isn’t there a call for the end of capitalism. And the argument is that I’m basically sidestepping that for the moment because of the time frame of climate change. There’s a limited number of years to deal with this so, along with dealing with all of the other environmental problems, we have to try and buy time to do that by coming up with really realistic short-term solutions to the question of mitigating climate change, and that means asking now for these institutions and laws. So what I lay out in that op-ed and what I lay out in the end of the book is what I think is a realistic set of moves to do that.

It’s not a solution to all the environmental problems. Part of the argument is that climate change can be confused with the overall environmental crisis, which involves overexploitation of the sea, deforestation, the spread of toxic pollution, on and on and on. It can seem like it’s the same as all those things because it’s so potentially catastrophic in its consequences, but it’s actually really a subset of a larger problem and it’s the environmental problem that has to be dealt with first because of its specific timeframe. And not at the expense of the other problems, but we have to really take science seriously. The science says we have to deal with this question immediately or we’re going to hit self-fueling runaway catastrophic climate change and that’s going to preempt any other kind of set of solutions to other problems.

I want to bring up Sandy again because I read an article that you wrote about Hurricane Irene where you talk about how volunteerism and self-organization alone are incapable of handling the aftermath of a disaster, and I wanted to know what you thought about Occupy Sandy and other community-based relief efforts.

I think it’s great. My point in that article about Irene was that the huge sums of money necessary to rebuild stuff cannot be raised by volunteers. And what I’d like to see is the mutual aid work also think about the state and not give the state away to the enemy but put demands on the state. In Vermont, what you saw in terms of mutual aid was the use of the town meeting structure and local government as the method and the institution at the local level that people used to respond to the disaster and rebuild. So you had this blending of grassroots mutual aid with local, democratically accountable grassroots government, and—I’m talking from Vermont right now—this state could not have rebuilt without federal aid.

I think it’s very, very dangerous to have a monolithic view of government as just this big, bad thing because there’s no way that small communities can come up with the money they need to rebuild. And they also don’t have the power to extract taxes from huge international corporations and force them to pay for reconstruction and rebuilding. Only strong states have the ability to do that. So we need a combination of mutual aid and robust, democratically accountable government.

Christian Parenti will be giving a lecture at 7 pm tonight on “Climate Violence Now: The global manufacture of natural disasters beyond Sandy” at NYU, 194 Mercer Street, room 307.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy