By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
The past few weeks have been difficult to take in. Each day has brought with it more and more news of natural destructions affecting the Southern and Western United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, South Asia, and places I am sure I have not kept track of. As time has passed, we have only begun to understand the death tolls and levels of destruction and I can’t help but feel hopeless during these times, powerless to do anything but watch as the world (almost literally) burns.
And yet I know this cannot be the answer. For as many stories as I have seen about the destruction Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have caused, I have seen just as many describing people doing all they can to help those most affected by these disasters. So many stories of bravery that I cannot begin to recount and, as such, I am forced to pull myself out of hopeless passivity and search for more active means of supporting those in need.
For me, showing support must involve attending to those issues that are threatened with erasure in the face of needed attention given to providing resources to those areas facing disaster. I write now not to downplay the seriousness of these catastrophes but rather to unseat the assumption that the scope of destruction we are all witnessing follows inherently from these being natural events. I want to challenge the assumption that the magnitude of damage that natural disasters bring is a given and instead argue that such damage emerges directly from the political contexts within which the United States operates currently. More than anything, I want to state directly that the degree to which so many marginalized populations face such precarious conditions in response to natural disasters is anything but natural.
It is man-made.
It is by design.
And it runs the risk of killing us all.
To highlight exactly what I mean by man-made damage from natural disasters, I want to focus on two different but connected political responses to the growing presence of freak natural occurrences: the 100-percent green growth economy and the actions of climate-change denying Republicans.
At their most basic, those who push for a 100-percent green economy in environmental activism envision a US economy where the whole of energy consumption/production can arise through renewable green technology given adequate “industrial production, technological improvements, efficiency, and markets” In other words, although there may be some bumps and rough patches in transition to such an economy, 100-percent green growth advocates suggest that it is in fact feasible to carry on with a robust healthy economy and maintain a commitment to improving the overall health of our shared natural climate. Following this line of thought through from a policy perspective, Canada has taken national strides towards adopting a Pan-Canadian Framework which optimistically promises a way of growing the economy while still reducing carbon emissions at a needed rate to combat climate change In essence, Canadian officials, in a similar vein to US mainstream environmental activists, seek to combat climate change while demonstrating the economic feasibility of green technology and climate health.
On the other end of the spectrum, several members of the US Republican party have taken it upon themselves to merely deny the severity of climate change in its entirety. In the midst of Hurricane Irma’s approach, the priority for President Trump and other Republicans was not crisis response or even the constituents of their states. Instead, they focused on tax cuts for the rich and corporations, holding strong to a worldview that does not embrace increasing and intensifying natural events as reality. Rather than focus on immediate, coordinated efforts for aid to areas most affected by hurricane impact, Trump and other Republicans saw fit to outright carry on with concern only for themselves and their own access to money. Focusing on these events would have been on par with admitting that people in different or worse off conditions matter, and that, ultimately, a corporation or a wealthy person has no more claim to safety or life than a person in sheer poverty.Focusing on these events would have been admitting that a worldview where the market and private sector are inherently good when compared to the public cannot be sustainable in a world of growing natural calamity. In short, the whole economic foundation conservative climate change denial rests on (and Trump and his political party subscribe to) hinges on downplaying the necessity of public goods/care so long as the market retains its legitimacy.In the eyes of the Trump cabinet and conservative climate change deniers, the world can be damned so long as money for themselves and the market is secured.
Why do I take the time to give a rundown of two ostensibly different responses to the occurrence of natural catastrophes? If these two threads of political action differ so much in their approach to facing the crisis of a battered Earth, how can they have any connection to one another?
The answer is simple: they are in fact one and the same. Or at least, they are are the same in their fundamental assumption for what should be prioritized in the face of ecological ruin.
Whether the response is to create policy promoting a possible green economy or to flatly deny the dangers climate change promises by carrying on with corporate business as usual, the core assumption is the same: the economy must be maintained above all else.
No need to imagine economic redistribution of resources.
No need to consider a removal of profit-generating sources such as prisons and unfair wages to unskilled workers or how these resources could instead be diverted towards public services or community needs such as maintenance of levees in flood affected areas.
No need to consider a complete overhaul of the economic and social undergirding of democratic life which maintains unjust conditions of exploitation and drives whole populations to early deaths.
Whether with an excess of corporate greed or a shiny, new, green luster, current political responses to climate change mask the conditions of misery that allow for the economy to exist in the first place and continue to place marginalized populations at risk for “natural” disasters...
Having a more green economy does nothing if it merely replicates the same capitalistic concerns of consumption and disposal that have dominated for centuries, particularly when that disposal hinges on the removal of human life. No matter how much conservative or liberal circles choose to funnel capital towards corporations instead of public services, natural occurrences will continue to happen in the world without a care for how humans have chosen to value slips of paper over people’s lives. Reacting to climate change with capital as the focus will do nothing to change the fact that people who are most vulnerable to the coming ecological changes will be no better off simply because corporations have more money or the economy is nice and green. And they are not in a state of precarious living simply because of bad luck, but rather by design--the design of a system which causes natural events to have such devastating impacts in the first place.
It is capitalism that has placed so many populations in areas where flooding will have the most long term impact and repairs and resources will be diminished by horrible landlords still seeking rent on unlivable properties.
It is capitalism (and the media) in all of its racist, sexist tenets that values stolen goods over the lives of people “looting” in order to have enough supplies to last.
It is capitalism in all of its ageism and ableism that places older populations in a state of low access to resources and, by extension, low access to evacuation resources that can accommodate their disabilities.
It is capitalism which compels us to evaluate whether or not an economy is sustainable when a more pressing concern should be that the world is (in many literal ways) on fire.
And it is capitalism which must be dealt with, not through flimsy modes of accommodation but a necessary restructuring of the entire system.
The world is in chaos right now and may very well continue to be so for a long time. But I truly believe that we cannot greet this reality with despair and passive hopes for a new world to appear out of nowhere. We must be active and fight for a world where the marginalized are not always asked to come along miserably while the comfortable debate how to fiddle while the world burns.
We must fight and we must care and we must be here for one another.
And that starts with accepting some basic positions:
That this capitalist system is flawed and that we require a new “ethics, politics, and economics”
That we cannot allow the rich to carry on with business as usual and “run riot without rules”
Lastly, to ask the important question:what exactly we are hoping for in the new world we create?
If all we want is a shiny, green, capitalist machine that leaves the same marginalized populations in conditions of precarious living as before, perhaps all we want is a new design to the same old death machine we have always had. And I for one cannot live with that.
These are hard truths to accept and imagining a new world is difficult, even harder to bring forth its existence in the world. But if all we can dream about are new ways for the same people to die slowly, of what good is it to dream of a better world?
We cannot face the reality of growing ecological crisis unless we accept that the people most at risk for the failings of the current world are not there by accident. It is by design, of a system that cannot be sustained and was never meant to without a supply of people to die for those who couldn’t care less about them. And this must end.
To care for each other is our only salvation in the face of ecological crisis. We share this Earth and we share the responsibility of caring not only for ourselves but especially for those who are most vulnerable-- precisely because we have not held those at fault (including ourselves) accountable.
It is time we create something better. And it is time that this death machine of capitalism be ended, lest more people face the effects of its “naturalized” disasters.