In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mike Peters takes issue with the whole concept of natural disasters
In January 2005 there was a programme on British TV about global climate change, in a series called ‘War on Terra’. Seven dates were selected to illustrate the recent alarming escalation in the number of ‘exceptional’ meteorological conditions:
4 November 2000: heaviest rainfall for 300 years causes severe flooding in Yorkshire
31 January 2002: Antarctic ice-shelf the size of Yorkshire collapses
8 January 2003: eight days of high tides and sea surges in England
9 May 2003: Oklahoma City struck by tornados twice in one day
10 August 2003: heat wave in Europe and forest fires; highest temperature ever in UK
3 August 2004: four hurricanes hit the Caribbean and USA
16 August 2004: rain falls eight inches in 12 hours; flash floods submerge Boscastle.
The phenomena recorded on these dates have indeed been dramatic and historically unprecedented, yet by virtue of being classified as acts of nature, their significance is entirely missed by the public, who have been hypnotised by the western cultural dualism between the natural and the social. But there is nothing natural about what is now happening to the earth. These storms, torrential rains, floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornados, and the melting of the polar ice, are the direct and inevitable consequence of the huge quantities of carbon dioxide emitted by modern industry.
Boscastle flood – a natural disaster?
The very concept of the natural (as in the expression ‘natural disaster’) is at fault for inducing a stultifying complacency in the minds of those who unconsciously assume that nature is something divinely ordained … and therefore unchangeable. One might as well assume that nuclear weapons have nothing to do with human society, since the chain reaction unleashed in a nuclear explosion is merely a matter of physics, obeying physical laws. This must be why such fatheaded infantilism prevails, in Britain at least, about what is called global warming. ‘Warm’ is, after all, a plus-good word in the language of advertising.
A political issue
We have been so used to regarding the weather as beyond human control that one despairs whether people in this country will ever grasp that it is in fact changing as a result of the way our homes are heated, our abject dependence on electrical appliances, and of our travel in cars and planes. The British are renowned for their hate of talking about politics, but we always have the weather as a topic for conversation. Just as long as it doesn’t in the end become a political issue!
The seriousness of climate change cannot be trivialised as a matter of ‘the weather’ (that ultimate banality, on which daily reports belong to the rituals of everyday life). If you live long enough, you can attest from personal experience that the climate has changed. When I was born over half a century ago, the whole country was snow-bound – in March! When was the last time it snowed in March? So why do we persist in the illusion that Britain does not have a climate, it only has weather?
The TV programme was called ‘Seven days that shook the weathermen’, and it tried to present the grim news in the plainest terms so that anyone would understand. The flash floods and sea surges that have devastated villages in Yorkshire and Cornwall in the last couple of years may have been called freak weather conditions but they can be scientifically explained. It is the explanation that is more frightening than these accidents themselves. In the end, however, this will require a radical overhaul of our ordinary ways of understanding the relation between society and nature.
What’s in a name?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it must be dawning on increasing numbers of people that human society is subject to merciless retaliation from a natural environment that we persist in believing our existing institutions of authority can control. The increasing severity of hurricanes over the last century is a long-term effect of climatic disturbances caused by relentless and unregulated capitalist industrial damage to the ecosphere (the number of category five hurricanes has doubled in 50 years). By the time this hypothesis has been proven to the satisfaction of the highly paid scientific sceptics organised by the petroleum industry, it will be far too late to have any chance of survival.
The capitalist corruption of science matches the corruption of human society as a whole by the same capitalism: even common sense is now subverted by the delusions that owning capital can free you from the consequences of your actions, and that money can be a measure of real costs and benefits, or can buy us out of the hell we are descending into. There is no point changing the programme, when the fault lies in the way our society is organised, and the consequent way we have been trained to think about it.
The personalised naming of discrete hurricanes bears witness to this determination to cling to superstitious reifications rather than face up to social reality. It has been suggested that Katrina should have been named Hurricane Kyoto, after the treaty on carbon emissions rejected by the US government in homage to the oil lobby. But these climatic events are not angry goddesses; they are the predictable consequences of the mindless sacrifice of human will and energy to the social institution of capital, and the illusion that the market is a force of nature to which everything must be subjected.
In the heartland of capitalism, where this fantasy appears hegemonic – that there is no such thing as society and the market is the ‘divine wind’ (the way nature itself is believed to work) – a change in the political climate is already discernable. Faith in unfettered capitalism and the elevation of private over public solutions (along with the whole caboodle of tax-cuts and reductions in government spending) which is what led to the dismantling of Federal Emergency planning, is suddenly at an all-time low. In America, it turns out, there is such a thing as society after all, and it is finally recognising the need for collective action to protect itself and prevent these catastrophes.
Whether America can free itself from the rule of capital is (to say the least) unlikely, but its capacity for self-organisation is nothing short of astonishing. A million people were removed from Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita in only 24 hours. In this country, nobody would even know how to begin such an operation for a single village. Coastal towns doomed by rising sea levels (we have already been warned) should learn about motes and beams.
To understand a bit about what I mean by capitalist power, consider, just for one instance, the overwhelming economic, political and ideological influence wielded by what has been called the ‘auto-industrial complex’ in contemporary society. This forms an undeniably interconnected system – like a kind of grotesque parody of the global ecosystem in its mechanisms of functional interdependence and mutual interest. This goes far beyond (and means something different from) the banal fact that cars ‘need’ petrol and roads. When we examine the ways these technical requirements are subordinated to economic interests, we can see they enforce the universal dependence of human society on conditions that are not only short-term but also ultimately lethal.
Dependency (in the sense of addiction) is only dangerous when it causes damage – an idea nicely captured by the Italian word tossicodependenzia (toxic dependency). The ‘social toxicity’ of capital (subordination of the general to the particular) appears fatally as an ‘industrial toxicity’ out of control (subordination of biological life to capitalist production). Let me briefly explain:
• The oil industry is committed to extracting every last drop of oil from the earth and selling it. BP recently rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, to delude us into thinking it was working at something else, but that didn’t stop it rushing to get its snout in the trough when the Americans grabbed the Iraqi oil fields. In the first quarter of 2005 both BP & Shell announced record super-profits, and for the first time in my life I detected an audible murmur of criticism being permitted. Maybe at last the tide (so to speak) has begun to turn. Maybe profit is not always a good thing.
• The motor industry dominates the culture and the mindscape, as well as the economy.
• The road lobby (construction industry) as it used to be called in the heyday of the first wave of motorway protests in the 1960s, enforces upon town-planners and local authorities the imperative of road building rather than rail transport, and the conversion of urban space into a place for driving.
Each component works in its own economic interests, and in doing so serves the interests of the others. It ensures that the internal combustion engine is literally the driving force of the economy as a whole, and thus society is doomed in the long run to die by internal combustion when all the oil has been transformed into heat and all the oxygen into carbon dioxide and poisonous carbon monoxide. This complex commits society to measure its progress and well-being in its own terms, and prevents any other course to be taken. What’s good for General Motors, however, is ultimately worse for the world as a whole.
This is a genuinely and thoroughly anti-ecological system that, if we fail to drastically overthrow it, enforces upon human society an inevitable destruction of the natural environment, including human biological survival. This is not the purpose of this complex of industries, but that is its inexorable long-term consequence. Recent evidence of global warming shows that this is no longer such a distant prospect. It is happening now.
Oil in the capitalist economy
Oil is a ‘product’ whose use value maintains the capacity for many other forms of social production, and its ‘consumption’ is collective (everyone participates in using it and not only those who pay the ‘price’). As an organic ‘material’ consumed it is not just an energy source for machinery (such as cars) but is a primary resource for the petrochemical industries (dyes, fibres, foods and pharmaceuticals).
Cars are machines for consumption as well as being themselves consumer goods. Both the petrol and the car are ‘consumed’ simultaneously. Cars also maintain the capacity to consume (or sell) a variety of other products.
Road transportation involves the delivery of goods and labour power on an expanding scale, intensifying the circulation of commodities and accelerating the ‘consumption’ (destruction) of materials and of the ‘means’ of transportation themselves.
The capitalist mode of transportation produces the use value of (ie. the need for) both cars and petrol. Under capitalism, instead of transporting vegetables one mile from where they grow to where they are consumed, they are flown in aeroplanes (consuming millions of tons more petrol) from one continent to another, because the opportunity ‘cost’ to capital has priority over the real damage and loss suffered by capital’s ‘environment’ (including humans).
New uses are produced by labour for consumption: desires and goals for ‘consumption’ (as part of labour itself), such as the desire to drive, or to use the car for new ends (the fantasy of freedom as mere ‘mobility’, motor-racing, etc), and as a sphere for capitalist enterprise.