Monday, November 16, 2015

Disaster for all but the happy few

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick knew the score, in 1959 writing the cheery line in the song "Merry Minuet": "What nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow man ..."

In The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, John C. Mutter provides an academic account of this present day fact. Like many of the storms Mutter recounts, this book begins slowly, carrying only a hint of its powerful and distressing conclusions. Careful chapters catalog the general categories of "natural" catastrophe, their effects, but most importantly the nearly universal character of their aftermaths.

The Columbia professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences and International and Public Affairs defines the sequence of the phenomena he discusses:

The important thing to recognize is that disasters are processes, not single events ... The first phase takes place before the event [-- the quake, the storm, the flood --] occurs. It is when societies should be preparing for disasters that will surely come, but typically do not ...The second phase is the event itself ... The third phase, which is talked about the least, is what happens after the disaster. ... It is the period of time when individuals try to get back on their feet and societies try to function in some semblance of the way they did before the disaster. ... No one has a formula for how to recover quickly, effectively, or completely. Some societies succeed very well and might even prosper from the experience; some don't.

Mutter's book is not all doom and gloom. Though worldwide media saturation means that we are more aware of terrible events halfway round the world than we might have been until recently, in fact he concludes that lower rates of extreme poverty have lowered the annual death toll from "natural" disasters from 120,000 in 1970 to 20,000 today. Not that we really know; he goes to some lengths to explain how poorly the toll of most events is counted. And most events don't even show up in national GDP calculations because the kind of wealth destroyed in disasters -- especially property rights in land -- aren't part of that economic abstraction.

But mostly -- whether in Haiti or China after earthquakes, in Sri Lanka and Japan after tsunamis, or in Myanmar or New Orleans after cyclones -- a dreary pattern can be documented.

Post disaster situations ... are fertile ground for some and wastelands for others. An elite few make out-of-sight decisions about rebuilding or not rebuilding, about who will benefit from the lucrative contracts that will be part of any reconstruction and who will not. But more important are the actions of another elite group (perhaps with some of the same members as the first), operating outside media scrutiny, to exploit an opportunity to reshape society in order to secure its hold on power and capital.

... What all these cases do reflect is an ordering of society and a geography of poverty and wealth that increasingly put physical and financial distance between the classes. And every disaster, because it harms the lower ranks and merely inconveniences the upper, separates us more and more.

Mutter's conclusion extrapolates his model to climate change:

It's completely expected that in a world of great inequality that the outcome of a natural disaster will also be unequal. Disasters may well affect everybody, rich or poor, in some way, and they are never pleasant for anyone. We want to believe that a disaster is a moment when everyone pulls together, but it is not. It is a moment of pulling apart because the effect on each group is so different, and the way each group can cope is vastly different. ..."

... What is very likely to happen is that the true injustices of disasters will increase. As the gap between the wealthy elite and the 99 percent grows and grows, it will become easier and easier for the elite to control the outcomes of disasters amid the chaos. And that is no accident. ... it is because inequalities can be made greater still by the actions of those who have power. The disaster itself provides a cover, a sort of shield to hide behind, a distraction. Most people will believe that what is going on is natural, but the natural part of the drama of disaster is over fairly quickly.

Many natural scientists believe that burgeoning climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather disasters, including intense droughts, prolonged rainfall, and strong storms. ... A smaller and smaller habitable planet will be asked to serve the needs of a much larger number of people. ... the elite will grab more and more habitable land for themselves, leaving the majority in the badlands. If there is anything certain about climate change, it is that it will send us further apart than we already are. Natural disasters teach us how it will be done.

If the poor, Black residents of New Orleans, especially those who were never able to make it back to the city, had known about Mutter's theoretical construct, might they have been more able to fight back against displacement? They certainly already had known for generations that elites considered them throwaway people. But wider understanding of how "natural" disasters always are seized upon by the wealthy to enhance their existing advantages might at least have helped them pick their fights in the traumatized aftermath.

This is not a fun read, nor is it particularly cogently written. I picked up a few historical tidbits I may pursue one day, for example that the 1906 San Francisco quake was followed by vigilante murders of poor residents, just as happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. But I'm glad to have a stronger familiarity with the ugly pattern. After all, I live in earthquake and tsunami country; this typology could be all too personally relevant.


Hattie said...

We visited Christchurch, New Zealand, on our recent trip, and I'll be posting my journal entry and photos about the place. The damage and fatalities there from the 2011 earthquake were grim and mostly due to ignorance and lack of foresight in the way the downtown was planned and built. Restoration is costing billions.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: Look forward to your pics. Mutter says that usually scientists can point out where the worst damage will be in advance, but there are so many reasons why we ignore them ... One exception was that nobody had much idea that a huge quake could occur in Haiti.

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