The monopolist of doom visits Bangladesh

In the mangrove swamps and urban slums, Robert Kaplan sees a connection between global warming and Islamic extremism.

Published January 29, 2008 11:56PM (EST)

Robert Kaplan goes to Bangladesh for the Atlantic, and sees some scary things. At the top of the list, naturally, is the prospect for "one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in history," as climate change wreaks havoc on a nation where a population half as large as the United States is squeezed into a territory about the size of Iowa.

And as if that wasn't enough, there's a war-on-terror angle.

Here is how global warming indirectly feeds Islamic extremism. As rural Bangladeshis flee a countryside ravaged by salinity in the south and drought in the northwest, they are migrating to cities at a rate of 3 to 4 percent a year. Swept into the vast anonymity of sprawling slum encampments, they lose their local and extended-family links, becoming more susceptible to a form of Islam with a sharper ideological edge. "We will not have anarchy at the village level, where society is healthy," warns Atiq Rahman. "But we can have it in the ever-enlarging urban areas." Such is the weakness of central authority in Bangladesh following 15 years of elected governments.

How the World Works could not agree more with Kaplan's observation that American intransigence on global warming is a bad public relations move in a world where the countries that will pay the biggest price for climate change are also the countries that have done the least to bring it about. As Spiegel Online reported in May, "the average Bangladeshi produces just 178 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year -- a mere drop in the bucket compared to the 21 tons per capita released annually by Americans." The consequences of global warming entail rising anti-American sentiment as well as rising sea levels.

But packed within that one paragraph from Kaplan are invocations of some long-standing themes that we have come to count on from the man whom one critic calls "the monopolist of doom." The impotence of democracy. The coming anarchy. A tension between urban chaos and rural traditional values.

In a world where everything is falling apart, global warming is just one more stress fracture.

In a generally admiring profile of Kaplan written for Salon in 2001, well before he had made himself so obviously comfortable in the trappings of American neo-imperialism, Laura Rozen summarized Kaplan's worldview:

We are heading toward the apocalypse, and there is no deliverance.

"I would be unfaithful to my experience if I thought we had a general solution to these problems," Kaplan writes in "The Ends of the Earth." "We are not in control. As societies grow more populous and complex, the idea that a global elite like the U.N. can engineer reality from above is just as absurd as the idea that political 'scientists' can reduce any of this to a science. In an age of localized mini-holocausts, decisive action in one sphere will not necessarily help the victims in another. Only in a few cases will an organization like the U.N. make a truly pivotal difference."

But isn't the real tragedy that mitigating climate change could be one of those cases, if the United States threw the full weight of is authority and power behind it? Instead of fighting endless wars against extremist Islam whose only tangible result appears to be raising the overall temperature of global discord?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works