Hurricane Sandy, climate change and capitalist crisis

By on November 8, 2012

A crisis arising out of a major natural disaster tends to reveal a society’s strengths and weaknesses, values and priorities, and forms of organization.

Hurricane Sandy hit U.S. capitalism right at its financial nerve center, the very personal domain of much of the ruling class. Workers should carefully note what was revealed by it.

First, the U.S. boasts that it has the technological power to send a pilotless drone, directed from Tampa, Fla., to launch a pinpoint missile against people in northwest Pakistan. It has the logistical power to put giant military bases in the desert of Saudi Arabia and the far reaches of Afghanistan that can house and supply tens of thousands of troops.

Yet the authorities could not organize a plan to protect tens of thousands of poor people living in housing projects and vulnerable coastal regions along the densely populated Eastern seaboard, even though scientists warned about the power of Hurricane Sandy long before it arrived there.

U.S. focuses on wealth, Cuba on people

The New York metropolitan region has the most concentrated capitalist financial wealth on the planet. Yet it is socialist Cuba, a poor country pillaged and colonized for 500 years, that has been recognized by the United Nations and other international bodies as having the most advanced system in the world of dealing with natural disasters, especially hurricanes — all while struggling for 50 years against the U.S. blockade.

Socialist Cuba has been plagued by hurricanes for decades. Along with other Caribbean islands, it has suffered from the increasing number and intensity of these storms, aggravated immensely by climate change and global warming. Yet Cuba has shown a very low death rate, a record of strong preparation and a rapid rate of recovery, superior to that of the U.S.

This time Cuba suffered 11 deaths and massive destruction, especially in the 400-year-old city of Santiago. Its first priority was to mobilize assistance for the masses of people and organize the recovery.

The first move of the New York City authorities was to be sure the Stock Exchange reopened.

Organization under capitalism is focused on making money, exploiting workers, and maintaining a repressive state apparatus and the military. Organization in socialist Cuba is directed at preserving human life, especially during disasters.

A 69-page report in 2004 by the human rights organization, Oxfam, praised the Cuban system of centralized, planned organization based on mass participation during disasters. It sheds light on what is possible even in a poor, formerly oppressed country that has a socialist commitment to its population.

“Cuba is unusual in that its socio-economic development model and its disaster response policies combine to substantially reduce its population’s vulnerability to hazards. Over the past 40 years, Cuba’s socialist government has emphasized social and economic development, prioritizing an equitable distribution of resources, universal access to social services, and a narrower urban-rural development gap,” reads the report.

“Cubans are highly educated, with a strongly developed sense of solidarity and social cohesion, extensive experience in mobilization and highly organized through mass organizations, professional groups and political structures.”

Cuba’s comprehensive National Civil Defense system, the report says, “is as much a concept of organization as it is a system of measures and procedures.” Its work is based on a national plan, formulated both from above and at the grassroots level, which relies on mass organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Cuban Women’s Federation, student groups, trade unions and the Association of Small Producers.

“In addition to specific assets for work on disasters,” continues the report, “there is a political commitment at all levels of government to allocate all resources at hand for the preservation of life in emergencies. This allows the Cubans to make use of any and all available resources, such as using local schools as evacuation shelters, securing boats and buses for evacuation purposes, or tapping the ham radio association as a communications network.”

All other aspects of preparation are “secondary to the basic commitment of saving lives.”

Any weaknesses Cuba has in dealing with hurricanes flow entirely from its economic underdevelopment. Its strengths lie in its social system.

Suffering and the profit system

The untold hardships and suffering that have landed on the working class, especially the poorest, in New York, New Jersey and other mid-Atlantic areas are not just the product of the storm but of a dying system that is consumed with piling up profit. The rich regard storm damage preparation and recovery as a financial distraction from making money.

Tens of thousands are still homeless in New York City alone as the temperature drops. Many other thousands are living with relatives or friends. Tens of thousands get meager military rations. Food and clothing are being donated by neighborhood groups and neighbors trying to fill the gaps left by the capitalist government. Hundreds of thousands wait on long gas lines, meaning lost wages in many cases.

Before the storm the governor, the mayor, the head of the transit system, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other authorities assembled in press conferences telling people to evacuate. It all sounded very efficient and motivated by concern. But the social organization for an evacuation and the recovery of hundreds of thousands of people does not exist.

Who was assigned ahead of time to check house by house, apartment by apartment, and find the elderly, the sick, people in need of medication, families with children, people with no transportation or with mental illness, and so on to ensure that everyone could get to a predesignated evacuation site, prepared in advance to take care of their needs?

The richest city in the world in the richest capitalist country could surely accomplish this, if that were its priority. In underdeveloped Cuba everyone is accounted for. It is done as part of an overall strategy that involves all social, economic and military organizations, which have planned and practiced evacuation and rescue procedures from the block level to the cabinet level.

Without such planned evacuation and rescue procedures mere orders to evacuate are meaningless.

Prepositioning supplies for emergencies

Is it beyond the economic and technological capacity of the ruling class to make sure that every neighborhood, every high-rise project, every coastal town and city is equipped with emergency backup generators and fuel supplies to deal with emergencies? If it can be done for the military in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it can be done for civilians in New York.

The Pentagon prepositions war supplies, weapons and equipment at strategic locations to be ready for military intervention in targeted areas. Surely the authorities in the metropolitan region should have long ago prepositioned supplies to deal with an emergency that everyone knew was bound to come.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has in his files a report issued in 2009 by the New York City Panel on Climate Change that predicts the rise in sea level, sea and atmospheric temperature, and warning of just such storms as Sandy. Preventive measures were recommended.

Bloomberg himself gave a press conference hailing the report when it came out. Since that report was issued, ocean levels have risen at an even more rapid rate than predicted, due to the melting of Greenland glaciers and Arctic ice sheets.

But preparations eat into profits, interest to the banks, the hundreds of billions of dollars targeted for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, and the personal wealth of billionaires like Bloomberg.

Some 8 million people in the area lost power, and hundreds of thousands are still without electricity. A common recommendation as a corrective measure is to bury power lines underground. Bloomberg and others dismiss this as far too expensive. It would cost $10 billion. But Bloomberg has $20 billion in his own personal fortune. He could sell half his assets, personally finance burying the power lines, and still have $10 billion left for himself!

What about raising the infrastructure above sea level? What about making it all salt-water proof? What about building sea barriers? What about rebuilding marshes as a natural barrier to storms — barriers that have been destroyed by real estate developers who got rich? What about relocating people away from the most vulnerable coastal regions and turning them into public parks and beaches that millions could enjoy, instead of selling the land to a small number of homeowners who have to rebuild their homes every time a hurricane hits?

Capitalism’s environmental death spiral

Perhaps the most profound exposure of the state of decay of U.S. capitalism is the way in which its pundits have reacted to the scientifically proven phenomenon of climate change and its root causes.

It was only after Hurricane Irene in 2011 that Wall Street began to take extreme weather seriously. Up until then, it was the Southern states, from Florida through the Carolinas, which experienced the brunt of the damage and suffering from hurricanes.

Even after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and displaced hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and poor people, little was done to prevent a recurrence of this kind of disaster. Droughts affected mainly the Midwest and South. Forest fires were in the West. Wall Street only felt the effects of this extreme weather by increases in insurance costs.

Hurricane Irene threatened the Northeast — New York in particular. Massive evacuations were carried out in the city. The transportation system was shut down for the first time. But, although water washed over the walls along the Hudson River with a nine-foot storm surge and the tide came within feet of the subways and tunnels, the city dodged the bullet.

That storm did $15.6 billion in damage in the U.S., another billion in the Caribbean, killed 57 people and caused record power outages. But the heavy part missed New York.

It was just a matter of time. Irene should have been the handwriting on the wall. But other than making some slight improvements in agency coordination and putting supplies and transport in place, not much else was done. The message, however, was clear: Global warming can bring disaster, not only to Bangladesh or the Maldives or sub-Saharan Africa or Bolivia and other areas oppressed by imperialism, and not just to the masses of the Southeast and Midwest, but to Washington and Wall Street.

All the scientific warnings given to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at all its conferences since Kyoto in 1998 should have rung true after Irene hit. And if any further confirmation was needed, this summer as much as one-third of the U.S. wheat and corn crop was wiped out by record droughts and 100-degree days. This was felt by agribusiness, the commodity markets and traders on Wall Street.

However, the campaign by right-wing ideologists in recent years had pushed off-limits any public discussion of climate change by the media or big-business politicians, including Romney and Obama. Critics call this “climate silence.”

Breaking climate silence — to cover for the polluters

Hurricane Sandy broke the climate silence. Business Week has a cover story on climate change entitled “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” Time magazine’s cover is “Lessons from the Storm” and deals with climate change. Nicholas Kristof’s conservative column in the New York Times was “Will Climate Get Some Respect Now?” The New Yorker, the New York Times editorial page and many other bourgeois voices that had remained muted or silent under the regime of climate change censorship have been emboldened and pressured by the magnitude of the disaster. They have opened up a counterattack against the right and against the anti-scientific views that have prevailed in bourgeois politics around global warming.

The ruling-class media and politicians finally split over Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing social and economic disaster. But even those who now affirm climate change as a great problem caused by human activity are in denial about the polluters responsible for it. Their tepid rejoinders reveal the complete bankruptcy of the capitalist establishment in dealing with what is a growing global environmental crisis of life-threatening proportions.

One cannot find a single commentator of any authority within the establishment who goes beyond a discussion of building sea gates, imposing carbon taxes, passing fuel emission standards for automobiles and so forth.

No one is pointing the finger at the oil companies, the gas companies, the coal companies, the power industry, the giant industrial corporations, the auto industry, and all the corporate interests that have been behind climate censorship.

None has pointed the finger at the corporate polluters whose think tanks and foundations poison the political atmosphere with right-wing ideology and who pay scientists-for-hire to denounce scientific findings that are universally held and verified by research.

No one has shown how the industry lobbyists have a stranglehold on politicians up to the presidential level, causing all U.S. presidents and their representatives to go from international conference to international conference, year after year, shooting down global attempts to stop the corporate polluters.

The U.S ruling class has defied governments that represent the vast majority of the peoples of the world for two decades now in its campaign to protect corporate rights to pollute for profit.

In fact, it is the polluters and the bankers who finance them who are really the most powerful interests at the summit of the U.S. ruling class.

The idea of renewable energy is anathema to big oil, big coal and all the ancillary interests connected to the energy, power and industrial companies. They own trillions of dollars worth of carbon-based fuel and are spending billions scouring the globe right now for new discoveries. Trying to force these corporate predators out of the channels that bring in trillions in profits is like trying to force Niagara Falls to flow upward.

Drilling for oil in the melted Arctic

A case in point is the melting of the Arctic. This is caused by global warming, which is caused by greenhouse gases being trapped in the atmosphere. These gases are emitted by fossil fuel — mostly oil and coal. The energy companies are the main culprits. Their activity has dangerously accelerated the melting of the Arctic. An ice sheet the size of Rhode Island recently broke off in Greenland.

What has been the reaction of the oil companies to the melting of the Arctic ice? Now that they have more access to the Arctic Ocean because of glacial melting, there is a race to drill for more oil there. This in turn will cause more ice to melt and lead to further increases in the rise of ocean levels and a warmer atmosphere.

This is a death spiral for the environment and for hundreds of millions who live in island and coastal civilizations, including New York City, which has just been inundated for the first time in a significant way.

It is a death spiral for the hundreds of millions whose arable land is being turned to desert, whose fertile valleys and plains are drying up, and whose rivers run lower and lower as mountain snows and glaciers disappear.

All this is the environmental equivalent of the capitalist financial and economic death spiral, whereby the economic system is grinding to a halt. Just in the U.S., tens of millions are unemployed, underemployed and/or underpaid. This economic slowdown reaches around the world.

In this environment of mass poverty, the bankers and bondholders in Europe are demanding massive cutbacks in services and wages. In the U.S. the same is being done regarding Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other services. The only possible result of such cutbacks will be further poverty and further crisis of the system.

It is absolutely necessary to wage a daily struggle against the polluters of the earth, whether to stop them from fracking, clear-cutting and mountaintop mining or from destroying the rain forests and polluting the rivers and aquifers. Everyone has a right and a duty to try to slow down, if not reverse, the course of capitalist environmental destruction.

But it must be understood that to change the social and economic priorities of the country, to stop the mighty powers of big business and finance capital that garner fabulous profits from destructive industrial and chemical processes, an entire reorganization of society is required.

The political superstructure and the economic foundation of society are in the hands of the ruling class that is doing the polluting and causing climate change. That goes for both big-business parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.

Fight the right

The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy should give progressive and revolutionary forces an opening to attack the right-wing ideology that has been so pervasive, going back to the Reagan era and deepening since the coming of Tea Party Republicanism, which has cowed much of the Democratic Party and pushed it to the right.

It is time to take the offensive. The people need more services, not less. It is the working class and the oppressed, as well as sections of the middle class, whose deficits have been aggravated by Hurricane Sandy.

It is time to answer the deficit hawks who want to hand over social service money to the bankers and avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Instead of worrying about the problems of the bondholders and bankers, it is time to make them and the polluters pay to restore the welfare of the millions who have been damaged, displaced, lost jobs and wages, lost homes and loved ones, and had their lives turned upside down. The workers and the oppressed are being pushed over the “hardship cliff.” Their deficit is increasing.

If Hurricane Sandy shows anything, it shows that the mass of the people must fight back and ultimately take over the vast apparatus that is being used to pollute the environment.

Need science for the people

Thousands of research scientists in universities depend on corporate contributions and are subject to guidance and control by administrations beholden to the polluters. Thousands more work in the laboratories of the oil companies, the chemical companies, the coal companies and so on.

All this scientific brainpower must be reorganized to serve society. These researchers must be freed from the profit interest and mandated to come up with better sources of renewable energy and ways to restore the environment that will begin to reverse the course of devastation.

Millions of young people who are condemned to low-wage jobs, unemployment or prison by this system, which offers them no future, should be educated and trained to take on the scientific and other challenges of the future. What is needed is science for the people — a scientific renaissance freed from the shackles of capital and turned toward serving human need.

This is the only way that humanity can surmount the present crisis. And it means getting rid of capitalism.

Goldstein is author of “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End.” More information is available at www.lowwagecapitalism.com. The author can be reached at fgoldstein@workers.org.

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