Ekaru Loruman lay beneath a flat-topped acacia tree, its latticework of branches casting a soft mesh of shade upon his body. He wore a silver earring and khaki shorts, and lay on his side with his arm twisted awkwardly beneath him. The left side of Ekaru’s forehead was gone, blown away by the exit of a bullet. His blood formed a greasy black slick on the desert floor. His sandals, shawl and gun had been stolen.
Ekaru had been a pastoralist from the Turkana tribe who live in northwest Kenya, on the arid savannas of the Rift Valley. He had been killed the day before when a neighboring and related tribe, the Pokot, launched a massive cattle raid. Ekaru’s corpse lay here on the ground exposed to the elements with goats and sheep browsing nearby because the Turkana do not bury people killed in raids. They believe doing so is bad luck; that it will only invite more attacks. So they leave their dead to decompose where they fall. But these supernatural precautions will not hold the enemy at bay, for there are profound social and climatological forces driving them to attack.
The group of Turkana I was visiting had been pushed south by severe drought and were now grazing their herds at the very edge of their traditional range. In the pastoralist corridor of East Africa a basic pattern is clear: during times of drought, water and grazing become scarce, the herds fall ill, many cattle die. To replenish stocks, young men raid their neighbors. The onset of anthropocentric climate change means Kenya is seeing rising temperatures and more frequent drought. Yet, overall it is actually receiving greater amounts of precipitation. The problem is, the rain now arrives erratically, in sudden violent bursts, all at once, rather than gradually over a season. This means eroding floods, followed by drought. The clockwork rains, upon which Kenyan agriculture and society depends, are increasingly out of sync.
Why did Ekaru Loruman die? What forces compelled his murder? Ekaru, who had been about thirty-five years old — age among the Turkana is usually just estimated — had three wives, eight children, and about fifty head of cattle. He had been an important and powerful man in his community: a warrior in his prime — old enough to have plenty of experience and wisdom but still young and strong enough to run and fight for days on little food or water. And now he was dead. Why?
We could say tradition killed Ekaru, the age-old tradition of “stock theft,” cattle raiding among the Nilotic tribes of East Africa. Or, we could say he was murdered by a specific man, a Pokot from the Karasuk Hills. Or, that Ekaru was killed by the drought. When the drought gets bad, the raiding picks up.
Or perhaps Ekaru was killed by forces yet larger; forces transcending the specifics of this regional drought, this raid, this geography and the Nilotic cattle cultures. To my mind, while walking through the desert among the Turkana warriors scanning the Karasuk hills for the Pokot war party, it seemed clear that Ekaru’s death was caused by the most colossal set of events in human history: the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change.
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. By this “catastrophic convergence,” I do not merely mean that several disasters happen simultaneously, one problem atop another. Rather, I am arguing that problems compound and amplify each other, one expressing itself through another.
Societies, like people, deal with new challenges in ways that are conditioned by the traumas of their past. Thus damaged societies, like damaged people, often respond to new crises in ways that are irrational, shortsighted and self-destructive. In the case of climate change, the past traumas that set the stage for bad adaptation, a destructive social response, are Cold War era militarism and the economic pathologies of neoliberal capitalism. Over the last forty years both these forces have distorted the state’s relationship to society — removing and undermining the state’s collectivist, regulatory, and redistributive functions; while over developing its repressive and military capacities. And this, I argue, inhibits society’s ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in. Thus, in much of the world it seems that the only solidarity that can be deployed in response to climate change is an exclusionary tribalism, and the only state policy available is police repression. This is not “natural” and inevitable, but is rather the result of a history, particularly the Global North’s use and abuse of the Global South, that has destroyed the institutions and social practices that would allow a different, more productive, response.
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 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 two forces worked together simultaneously; sometimes they were quite distinct. For example, Somalia was destroyed by Cold War military interventions. It became a classic proxy battleground. Though it underwent some economic liberalization, the cause of its collapse was its use as a pawn on the chessboard of the grand game. Similarly, Afghanistan is a failed state produced by cold war militarism. It never underwent structural adjustment, but it was a key proxy battleground. On the other hand, Mexico, the north of which is now in a profound violent crisis, was not a frontline state during the Cold War. But it was subject to radical and brutal economic liberalization.
Climate change now joins these crises, acting as an accelerant. The Pentagon calls it a “threat multiplier.” All across the planet, extreme weather and water scarcity now inflame and escalate already existing social conflicts. Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the International Crisis Group, combining databases on civil wars and water availability, found that: “When rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.”1 The project cites the example of Nepal where the Maoist insurgency was most severe after droughts and almost non-existent in areas that had normal rainfall. In some cases, when the rains were late or light, or came all at once, or at the wrong time, “semi-retired” armed groups often re-emerged to start fighting again.
Between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer lies 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 hardest. 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, it is in this belt that we find clustered most of the failed and semi-failed states of the developing world.
According to a Swedish government study: “There are 46 countries — home to 2.7 billion people — in which the effects of climate change interacting with economic, social and political problems will create a high risk of violent conflict.”2 Their list covers that same terrain. It is also these mid-latitudes that are now being most affected by the onset of anthropocentric climate change.
Western military planners, if not political leaders, recognize the dangers in the convergence of political disorder and climate change. Instead of worrying about conventional wars over food and water, they see an emerging geography of climatologically driven civil war, migration, pogroms and social breakdown. In response, they envision a project of open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale.
Our challenge is to come up with other more just solutions. The watchwords of the climate discussion are mitigation and adaptation. We must mitigate the causes of climate change, while adapting to its effects. Mitigation means drastically cutting our production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, like methane and chlorofluorocarbons that prevent the sun’s heat from radiating back out to space. Mitigation means moving towards clean energy sources such as wind, solar power, geothermal and tidal kinetics. It means closing coal-fired power plants, weaning our economy off oil, building a smart electrical grid, and possibly making massive investments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
Adaptation, on the other hand, means preparing to live with the effects of climatological changes, some of which are already underway, and some of which are inevitable, “in the pipeline.” Adaptation is both a technical and a political challenge.
Technical adaptation means transforming our relationship to nature as nature transforms: learning to live with the damage we have wrought by building seawalls around vulnerable coastal cities, giving land back to mangroves and everglades so they may act to break tidal surges during giant storms, opening wildlife migration corridors so species can move north as the climate warms, and developing sustainable forms of agriculture that can function on an industrial scale even as weather patterns gyrate wildly.
Political adaptation, on the other hand, means transforming humanity’s relationship to itself, transforming social relations among people. Successful political adaptation to climate change will mean developing new ways of containing, avoiding and deescalating the violence that climate change fuels. That will require economic redistribution and development. It will also require a new diplomacy of peace building.
But there is another type of political adaptation already underway, which might be called the politics of the armed lifeboat: responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing. One can imagine a green authoritarianism emerging in rich countries, while the climate crisis pushes the Third World into chaos. Already, as climate change fuels violence in the form of crime, repression, civil unrest, war and even state collapse in the Global South, the North is responding with a new authoritarianism. The Pentagon and its European allies are actively planning a militarized adaptation, which emphasizes the long-term, open-ended containment of failed or failing states — counterinsurgency forever.
This sort of “climate fascism” — a politics based on exclusion, segregation and repression — is horrific and bound to fail. There must be another path. The struggling states of the Global South cannot collapse without eventually taking down wealthy economies with them. If climate change is allowed to destroy whole economies and nations, no amount of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones, and permanently deployed mercenaries can save one half of the planet from the other half.
The best way to address the effects of climate change, that is to adapt, is to tackle the political and economic crises that have rendered us so vulnerable to climate-induced chaos in the first place. That is, to role back neoliberalism and reign in militarism. But ultimately, mitigation remains the most important strategy. The physical impacts of climate change — rising sea levels, desertification, freak storms and flooding — are frightening enough, but so too are the social and political aspects of adaptation also underway, and are too often taking destructive and repressive forms. We must change that. But ultimately, the most important thing is mitigation: we must de-carbonize our economy.
The preceding was adapted from Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, published by Nation Books.
- Quoted in: Susan George, “Globalisation and war,” International Congress of IPPNW, New Delhi, 10 March 2008; posted online at accessed June 24, 2008; “Climate Change and Conflict,” International Crisis Group Report, November 2007.
- Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda, “A Climate of Conflict: the Links between Climate Change, Peace and War,” (Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Febuary 2008) pp. 7.