Armed Lifeboat: Government’s Response to Natural Disaster

Whether Washington’s response to natural disaster caused by climate change will rely on social solidarity, or on militarized borders and government surveillance, depends on what happens now, says Christian Parenti.

| September/October 2013

  • Banksy Police State
    As extreme weather becomes more frequent and damaging the government’s response could be violent and authoritarian, or it could build on our capacity for social solidarity in the wake of crisis.
    Photo Courtesy Banksy & Palestine Solidarity Project
  • Banksy Armed Lifeboat
    The way communities come together after an emergency, and especially the way they prepare for that emergency, can bring about changes and solutions previously thought impossible. The difference is what happens before the storm strikes.
    Photo Courtesy Banksy & Infrogmation

  • Banksy Police State
  • Banksy Armed Lifeboat

The U.S. government is dead serious about climate change, but not in the way you might think. While carbon taxes and green grids remain decidedly out of reach on Capitol Hill, planners at the Pentagon have been quietly preparing to take charge of a planet shaken by climate chaos. Predicting ever more extreme weather, famine, and social collapse around the globe, high-level experts like former CIA director James Woolsey and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan outline a chilling vision of endemic violence and “militarized adaptation” to disaster. As hunger and disease turn to conflict in the Global South, planners inside and outside the Pentagon are preparing to shut borders, control population movements, and intensify U.S. intervention abroad.

The plans go back to 2004, when the Department of Defense funded a study on how climate change would impact national security. The results, compiled by security experts at the Global Business Network, evoke a Hobbesian landscape in which desperation and dislocation fuel permanent worldwide conflict. “Once again, warfare would define human life,” the authors ominously warn. Subsequent reports by Pentagon insiders and think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies echo those apocalyptic proportions. Their prescriptions are also familiar, if disturbing: on a violently warming planet, the U.S. will need to escalate its military presence at home and abroad to protect key interests, secure borders, and contain conflict. More often than not, planners point to counterinsurgency (COIN), a strategy that sees civilians as a primary threat, as their weapon of choice.

Investigative journalist Christian Parenti refers to plans like these as “the politics of the armed lifeboat.” It’s this dark vision that forms the opening chapters of Tropic of Chaos, his searing study of how climate change plays out on a violently unequal planet. Although it affects everyone, Parenti argues, climate change has a dramatically uneven geography—and the areas most deeply affected by a warming atmosphere are also those least able to respond. Devastated by centuries of colonialism, proxy wars, and neoliberal economics—and now climate change—the Global South seems to be edging toward the social collapse Pentagon planners predict. Meanwhile in the U.S., state surveillance, border militarization, and the militarization of local police hint at a creeping authoritarianism on our own soil.

But that’s by no means the whole story. The armed lifeboat may play into ongoing crises and pathologies, says Parenti, but it’s certainly not the only way for the government to respond to disaster. “In a moment of crisis the state will step in,” he explains over the phone. “The question then becomes, what kind of state?”



Afghanistan’s Wardak Province may not sound like an obvious place to study climate politics, but in fact extreme weather has much to do with the ongoing violence there. In the autumn of 2004, Parenti made the first of several trips to Afghanistan to report on the region’s booming opium trade for the London Review of Books. The center of Asia’s “golden crescent,” Afghanistan produces more than three-fourths of the world’s opium, even as the country is torn apart by war. Even more remarkable, the cultivation continues amidst diligent eradication efforts by government and NATO counterinsurgents who seize crops, arrest traffickers, and destroy fields. Meanwhile Taliban warlords offer opium planters credit and defense against government forces.

The LRB story wasn’t really about climate, but while interviewing poppy farmers, “the word drought kept coming up,” says Parenti. “At the time I wasn’t even aware that there was a big drought. It turns out, lo and behold, Afghanistan has been going through the worst drought in living memory that has coincided with the entire NATO occupation.” Left with little alternative, impoverished farmers embraced poppy, a crop that uses just a sixth of the water needed for wheat. This in turn fueled violence between NATO forces and the Taliban, which profits from the opium trade. “Read the history of the war in Afghanistan,” Parenti writes in Tropic of Chaos, “and a climate angle emerges.”

What all of this illustrated was not how climate change was causing conflict in the Middle East, says Parenti, but how it expressed itself through existing conflicts, inequalities, and traumas. In Afghanistan, farmers faced not only a crippling drought, but also endemic poverty and a deadly war that has its roots in Cold War geopolitics. Out of that “catastrophic convergence,” Parenti says, comes the continuing violence in Afghanistan.

And Afghanistan is not alone. Once he began looking, Parenti found this convergence of climate change and Cold War militarism, along with neoliberal economics, fueling conflict all over the globe, from rural Kenya to the mountains of Kashmir to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. “The catastrophic convergence plays out differently in different places,” explains Parenti. But the results are usually violent.

This is the world the Pentagon planners aim to take charge of—a world on the brink of social collapse and permanent conflict. Even more alarming is how much those plans are already taking shape. The counterinsurgencies, militarized borders, and government surveillance that make up the armed lifeboat do not represent some far-off dystopia. These are policies that have already begun to take shape—in some areas more than others. Militarized adaptation, says Parenti, is “simply a more extreme version of the present.”

Take border security. “Within a formal democratic structure, we have elections, freedom of speech,” Parenti says. “But on any given night, there are 30,000 people in mostly privately-run immigrant detention facilities. These people are by and large not charged with or even suspected of committing violent crimes.” Even efforts at reform, like the recent Senate bill, still see immigration policy as primarily an issue of walls, checkpoints, and drones. “Within our democratic structure there’s also a kind of built-in, routine intimidation and harassment of immigrant populations.” It’s this kind of system we could expect to expand, he adds, should militarized adaptation be put into full practice.

The same can be said of counterinsurgency, a strategy that’s come to define 21st century conflict. Unlike conventional warfare, counterinsurgency makes little distinction between combatants and civilians, or between battlefields and civilian territory. In an effort to “win hearts and minds,” counterinsurgents target civilians to “remake the social relations of a place,” whether through propaganda and economic development, or through dislocation and terror. Frequently what this boils down to, Parenti explains in Tropic of Chaos, is social disintegration. By design, counterinsurgency “ruptures and tears (but rarely remakes) the intimate social relations among people, their ability to cooperate, and the lived texture of solidarity.”

The effect, he says, is profound social damage. COIN operations are especially deadly for civilians, but their traumas also have a way of recurring through multiple generations of victims. In places like Guatemala and El Salvador, nations that witnessed unspeakable counterinsurgency violence during the Cold War, what this means is crime rates today that approach the death toll of a warzone. And it’s becoming more common. From U.S.-backed Shia death squads in Iraq to drone strikes in Pakistan to drug violence in Latin America, counter-insurgency has become the weapon of choice among great powers. “This is the essence of militarized adaptation,” Parenti writes, “dirty war forever.” And as the U.S. continues to rely more and more on Special Forces, drone warfare, and paramilitary violence, that future may be difficult to avoid.

If an alternative future is going to possible, he adds, it begins with mitigating the effects of climate change, but also with rethinking government’s role in our lives. As climate change continues to take shape in more immediate ways, the government could respond as Pentagon planners predict, but it doesn’t have to. “It’s not inevitable that emergency and crisis means a deepening of oppression and authoritarianism and corporate money grabs,” Parenti stresses. “We need to start thinking about things to change and how they will change.”

Some six months after Tropic of Chaos appeared in print, Hurricane Irene made landfall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and began edging up the eastern seaboard. At its most ferocious Irene was a Category 3 storm, though its highly populated pathway made it one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. Hundred-year floods overflowed rivers across the Northeast. Millions of homes lost power. Thousands of roads and bridges were washed out. In Parenti’s home state of Vermont, total damages approached an unheard-of $1 billion (Vermont’s annual budget is less than $4 billion). If small states like Vermont were going to recover from Irene, they’d need some help.



That help, says Parenti, undoubtedly had to come from the government—in this case, Washington. Writing for Tom Dispatch early last year (and reprinted in Utne ReaderCrisis Management: Extreme Weather Calls for Big Government Action), he tallied the federal government’s herculean response to Irene: shelters housing tens of thousands of people, low-interest loans for reconstruction, billions in direct aid. And while private charities and individuals donated what they could, it was barely a drop in the bucket compared to the government’s response. Not to mention public flood insurance, which dwarfs private coverage nationwide by a factor of 20. Vermont, says Parenti, “would still be an economic basket case,” if it wasn’t for federal aid covering more than 80 cents on every dollar rebuilding the state’s roads.

And the same can be said of the whole host of extreme weather events we’ve seen over the past several years, he adds, from massive flooding in Thailand, Australia, and Brazil, to last year’s Midwestern heat wave that crashed NOAA’s record-keeping software. In the U.S., total damages from extreme weather in 2012 alone topped $110 billion—relief the private sector could never be counted on to provide. As weather becomes more and more extreme, says Parenti, we’re going to have to look to big government for help. “For better or worse, only government has the capital and capacity to deal with the catastrophic implications of climate change.”

All of which is to say, the politics of the armed lifeboat is by no means the whole story. As extreme weather becomes more frequent and damaging the government’s response could be violent and authoritarian, or it could build on our capacity for social solidarity in the wake of crisis. “We’ve seen both,” Parenti stresses. “There’s both tendencies at play, and the question is what needs to be done to make sure that disasters don’t bring on a police state, but rather the state as a renovation of the social democratic potential.”

That social democratic potential was very much visible during Vermont’s recovery, adds Parenti, and it actually began before the feds stepped in. In the days and weeks before aid arrived, residents pulled together in remarkable ways to help shoulder the common burdens they faced.

In Williamsville, residents held potlucks where neighbors could meet up and offer each other internet access, electricity, or a place to stay. In nearby Jamaica, contractors and residents volunteered their time to build a temporary road before federal aid arrived. The same thing happened in small towns and villages throughout the state. Indeed, such generosity and kindness seemed almost baffling to at least one New York Times reporter (“This is Vermont, after all, where self-sufficiency may be the greatest virtue,” she quipped).

But to Parenti, the response made perfect sense. With a long tradition of town hall meetings and direct democracy, New England’s small town residents were used to thinking about problems and solutions in common. “Every March there are meetings throughout New England where everybody comes and argues about how much money should go for plowing roads, how much should go for the local school and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “With those traditions, it was clear that it was really helpful for how people responded to the storm.” Disaster relief, it seems, was just another common problem that needed a common solution.

If all this sounds utopian, it’s happened elsewhere. After Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York City area late last year, Occupy Sandy’s rapid-fire response quickly put federal and private relief efforts to shame. Like small town residents in Vermont, Occupy Wall Street veterans in New York City had hands-on experience with direct democracy and community building. Not to mention effective organizing: not only were they the first to reach battered areas like Red Hook and the Far Rockaways with hot food, flashlights, and blankets, they also sought to address the poverty and disenfranchisement that left those communities vulnerable in the first place. Months after the storm first struck, Occupy Sandy’s Far Rockaway branch runs after-school programs and helps unemployed locals incubate cooperative businesses.

The point, says Parenti, is not that local efforts should replace government relief (even Occupy Sandy’s call for a People’s Recovery requested extensive federal aid). Rather, it’s that recovery from a crisis can be equitable and actually lead to a “deepening of democratic process.” Disasters like Hurricane Sandy can serve as openings, opportunities to rethink our role in the larger community, and the government’s role in our lives. “It’s in those moments that a police state can really expand,” says Parenti. “Or alternatively, it can be checked, and new forms of social solidarity and community organizing can be built.”

What real mitigation and recovery boil down to is unleashing the power of good government. “More than one third of the U.S. economy is essentially the public sector,” Parenti explains. “What can we do with that? What kind of transformative power does that give us if we talk about it and think about it and come up with a plan?”

If the Pentagon plans for militarized adaptation can be said to have a foil, it might be Bolivia. Over the past decade, few countries have been as defiant toward U.S. power or as serious about mitigating the effects of climate change, Parenti writes in his book. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 (COP 15), the Bolivian delegation was the main force behind a binding treaty cutting carbon emissions worldwide. When the conference ended with only voluntary agreements, Bolivia refused to sign on, saying an agreement without teeth or aid for adaptation in the Global South was meaningless. A year later, Bolivia enshrined Mother Earth with legal constitutional protections—the first, and only, country to do so.

But the real story of Bolivia does not begin with Evo Morales, says Parenti. It begins earlier, with the social movements that brought him to power—movements like the successful resistance to water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000, or the massive three-week strikes that demanding nationalization of gas companies in 2005. Bolivians have a history of mobilizing to protect natural resources from private interests, and that hasn’t changed since Morales came to power.

“There’s a real tension between Morales and what we on the outside consider his base,” Parenti explains. “If he doesn’t deliver, they’re going to go block the highways and shut the country down.” As with Rafael Correa in Ecuador or the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, real power has less to do with corporate interests or military might and more to do with popular organization and struggle—that is, democracy. Social movements in places like Bolivia have demanded meaningful action on climate change, but in a way that safeguards indigenous rights, labor protections, and income equality. In this way, climate mitigation and recovery are not just about preserving the status quo; they’re also about social justice.

This is how the enormous power of good government can be unleashed, says Parenti. Social movements alone may not be able to stop climate change, but through them, we can harness the government’s unparalleled ability to mitigate the effects of global warming and prepare for an equitable recovery. If we’re going to escape the catastrophic convergence, or the politics of the armed lifeboat—what an Adbusters headline termed “post-crash fascism”—it begins with this kind of participatory democratic culture.

Extreme weather events can unleash the very worst in our governments and communities. From the drought-fueled conflict in Afghanistan to the disaster of “recovery” in post-Katrina New Orleans, we’ve seen how climate change can feed savage violence, displacement, and repression. But disaster can also be transformative, revealing previously hidden tensions, inequalities, and ways forward. The way communities come together after an emergency, and especially the way they prepare for that emergency, can bring about changes and solutions previously thought impossible. The difference is what happens before the storm strikes.

Sam Ross-Brown is an Assistant Editor at Utne Reader.




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