Are hurricanes racist? It seems like a ridiculous question, but why is it that, no matter the type of natural disaster, it seems to always affect Third World countries far more significantly than First World ones? Certainly this has been most recently exemplified by the hugely destructive tropical cyclones that slam tropical and sub-tropical regions every single year, as opposed to the hugely destructive earthquakes and mudslides that may not happen for many years at a time. One would think that a natural disaster happens regardless of one’s income and without racial consideration. How could nature be racist? Well, nature is not racist, nor is it generally subject to class relations. However, nature is reactive to the social relations of an imperialist world, insofar as imperialism conditions the aftermath and social reality wherein natural disasters occur.
“Development” and Disasters
Imperialism may not directly create hurricanes or destructive earthquakes and mudslides (although there is abundant evidence to show human activity has played some role in them) but it does have a direct consequences on the ability to respond to such disasters as they happen. For instance, Hurricane Harvey has, as of September 4th, claimed the lives of 66 people and resulted in more than 70 billion dollars of damages to private and public property—the most expensive hurricane in amerikan history. It is a tragic loss of life, and with more than 30,000 displaced by the flooding, it seems that the residual effects will be felt for some time to come. However, this is dwarfed by the roughly comparable Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which had an intensity nearly identical to that seen with Harvey, which claimed more than 138,000 lives in Myanmar. Why such a startling difference?
It is no secret that the government of Myanmar and those similar in the Third World have deep infrastructural issues, linked by the imperialist apologists to “under-development” in an attempt to obscure social relations. In truth, it is not an issue of “under-development” in some racist scheme of “advanced” and “backward” countries, but the fault of an intentional maldevelopment by the imperialist powers of Third World countries, which parasitically syphons wealth and prevents the establishment of diverse, stable and independent economies in the global south. Rather, the imperialists and their comprador allies work diligently to create mono-economies, wherein all infrastructural development is undertaken with the primary interest of international commerce, and only a secondary (or even tertiary) interest in the wellbeing of Third World workers and farmers.
Myanmar has neither the roads, the emergency networks nor the effective early-warning systems that can quickly mobilize evacuations of sensitive areas. It is not a case of the relative intensity of the cyclone in this case, but rather a direct consequences of imperialist exploitation that caused a category 4 cyclone to become the 5th deadliest cyclone in recorded history. Naturally, this estimate makes no attempt to measure the suffering experienced as a result of the long-term residual effects of the cyclone. We are well aware of the long-term effects of Katrina, and the many thousands who were permanently displaced across the country. However virtually nothing has been recorded of the suicides, disease and displacement that has continued to shape social conditions in Myanmar. This is one of the many features of imperialism in relation to natural disasters, racism augments its effects rather than directly causing its occurrence.
Beyond the Tropical Cyclones
Unfortunately this problem neither begins nor ends with tropical cyclones, and as we have referenced previously impacts all natural occurrences that affect human populations. To pull from yet another recent natural disaster, a town in Switzerland suffered a catastrophic mudslide that has now killed 8 people in the heart of Europe, while just days prior a similar catastrophe killed more than 500 people with hundreds more missing in Sierra Leone. One could reason that the explanation of such high death tolls is something of frequency; these things simply happen more often in these parts of the world, and one can reason that they must be stronger and therefore more destructive. Even where this is true, and it is a matter of geography that propends such places to these disasters, one must ask why those who experience more natural disasters are not more prepared? It is precisely this kind of maldevelopment that has made them less prepared.
Let us take, for instance, the earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis in both japan (2011) and Indonesia (2004): in japan a registered 9.1 earthquake produced a classification “IX” tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people and is responsible (along with enormous government ineptitude) the disaster in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In 2004, just off the coast of Sumatra, a similar 9.1-9.3 magnitude earthquake triggered a similar “IX” tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people, becoming one of the most deadly natural disasters in recorded history. Certainly, neither place was a stranger to powerful earthquakes and towering waves, and both had experience in dealing with terrifying natural disasters. However, it is clear that only one had the resources and proper infrastructure to cope with the immediate aftermath of such a traumatic event. Why?
Is japan not “one of those places” that experiences intense natural disasters quite often? It is clear that they have steeled themselves against the catastrophic recurrences they are plagued with, and have been quite successful in protecting their densely populated urban areas against the routine, powerful earthquakes that rock them. Why, if such technology exists, is it so exclusive to countries like japan, europe and the united $tates? Certainly if such infrastructure was equally developed in all countries that dearly needed it, there would not have been 230,000 dead indonesians in 2004, with towns swept into the sea with the surrounding vegetation. It is not a matter of experience or simple geography, it is a matter of resources and of global inequality. Ultimately imperialism must answer for this horrific inequality, that has ensured that the global south will bear the brunt of every natural disaster. Especially now, as the tangible effects of global warming are being felt most acutely: the Third World.
Climate Change and Imperialism
One paralyzing factor in the current crisis of rapidly recurring natural disasters has, as well, been that of global climate change. It is more or less agreed upon by all relevant parties that there is, indeed, a problem of climate change with only fringe opposition to this rapidly worsening reality. However, what is not often stated is the real cause of climate change beyond the mechanical explanations of greenhouse gasses and emissions. What social causes exist to perpetuate climate change are, unfortunately, only heard through alternative media sources that correctly chastise imperialism and capitalist industry as the main driver of global warming. The weight of blame, however, is almost without exception placed upon the Third World, which has by and large looser restrictions on emissions and industrial waste. Who encourages these loose restrictions? Certainly it is not the 1 million Indians who die every year from air pollution-related conditions. Rather, it is the industrial monopolies that have chosen the most cost-effective route to rapidly industrialize Third World countries to continue the process of imperialist capital export.
These economies are incapable of true independent economic development within the framework of imperialism, and are in many cases designed to fit into a rigid international division of labor: Bangladesh makes textiles, Haiti grows sugar, and the Congo is mined for minerals. The idea here is that no country can support itself with a diverse and flexible economy to allow for rapid development of new sectors with better technology. Rather, these countries are restricted to the mono-economies that now dominate international economic relations under imperialism, and despite all efforts to break free from economic relationships that empty their countries of resources and fill them with deadly waste, the diverse imperialist economic blocs remain impenetrable to the poor countries. This is beneficial in yet another way for the western monopolies that exploit and pollute the Third World, in that now they do not have to claim responsibility for the terrifying conditions that people experience at the hands of both the direct pollution of imperial industrialization as well as the brunt of the long-term effects of climate change.
Furthermore, it is the mono-economy that conditions the sensation of the “canary in the coal mine” for Third World countries. The countries most vulnerable to the effects of global warming are not those rich countries who may have lowland coastal cities under threat of rising sea waters, although certainly they are facing the challenges of climate change, but it is those countries that have no infrastructural alternatives to complete abandonment of their lands. This is the reality faced by many oceanic island nations that are now facing the total disappearance of their countries in a matter of decades, but it has also drastically affected a much larger population of Third World people whose agricultural sectors are still highly sensitive to the smallest fluctuation in seasons. This is certainly true in India, where now a team at UC Berkeley has connected more than 60,000 suicides among Indian farmers to crop-failures caused by climate change. This is simply not a reality for farmers in the united $tates and europe, where, to be quite sure, the largely landowning farmers are secured through the agricultural securities set up through an imperialist domination of world-agriculture.
The Global Ecological Struggle
So we can be sure that with the development of global climate change and the correlated growth in natural disasters, we will see an even stronger divergence in the death-tolls in First and Third World countries. Simply put: the Third World will be left out to dry by those countries that have developed every measure to ensure their own national success, and while these conditions will be felt globally, it certainly will be felt in accordance to global income brackets, with the peoples of the Third World suffering most acutely. The mono-economies in the Third World simply cannot work within the framework of the current global economy to achieve self-sufficiency and thus steel themselves against the recurring disasters, made worse through the economic activity of imperialism slowly killing the planet we all inhabit. So rather than blaming those countries who are confined by the conditions of international finance capital, we should maybe, just maybe, strike back at those who are really responsible: the imperialists.
It is not the Third World, who accepts the full cost for all of what imperialism has reaped in water and gold, who is responsible for the rising seas. Rather, they are being made responsible for them, both unable to guard against recurring ecological catastrophes, and unable to—within the framework of the global economy—take any initiative toward an ultimate resolution to halt the developing conditions of climate change. Yet, it is they who are responsible, whether it be for their lack of preparedness for the natural disasters that occur irrespective of human activity or climate change, or those whose frequency is highly reactive to it, it is somehow their fault. According to the imperialists, they are the ones who are “too backward” for modern emergency infrastructure, “too greedy” for environmental protections, and “too stubborn” for having chosen to live in the only country they have.
To reiterate, when a storm gathers and the rain drown 100,000 Asians, Afrikans or Latin Amerikans, it is not an unfortunate act of god. These disasters are manufactured, in the sense that they are given their form through the social relations of imperialism, and are subject to such startling disparity on the basis of human social disparity. If it were not for the imperialists, the Third World would not have such destructive constraints put on their ability to respond to objective conditions and natural systems. It was the imperialists who considered that their countries were nothing more than warehouses and factories for cheap goods, and maldeveloped them to fit that mold. It was the imperialists who decided that their roads are for minerals, not refugees, and their warehouses are for textiles rather than humanitarian supplies. So to break this disparity, we cannot continue to work within the confines of the system that restricts all independent economic activity. The struggle for survival on a planet growing rapidly more hostile to our existence must come first as the struggle against imperialist domination.
Anti-Imperialism and Ecology
Our struggle to defend the trees and the forest is first and foremost a democratic struggle that must be waged by the people. The sterile and expensive excitement of a handful of engineers and forestry experts will accomplish nothing! Nor can the tender consciences of a multitude of forums and institutions—sincere and praiseworthy though they may be—make the Sahel green again, when we lack the funds to drill wells for drinking water just a hundred meters deep, and money abounds to drill oil wells three thousand meters deep!
As Karl Marx said, those who live in a palace do not think about the same things, nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut. This struggle to defend the trees and the forest is above all a struggle against imperialism. Imperialism is the pyromaniac setting fire to our forests and savannah. (Thomas Sankara)
For those people who live in the global palace, the First World, this difference in frame of mind has allowed for the obstruction of truth. As communists we must fight to elucidate these processes, and make abundantly clear that the pathway to security in the face of natural disasters is a program of anti-imperialism. Without the overall struggle to break free from the repressive global financial system, there can be no serious progress made on any ecological front. Development under imperialism will always follow the political demands of capital, and write off the presently realizable goals of environmental sustainability and infrastructural security in the face of catastrophe as “impractical” for the Third World. To counter climate change, and to save the lives of countless millions under constant threat from natural disasters, we must underscore the importance of the anti-imperialist struggle.
This does not mean that these demands must be politically subordinated in that they are made less important in comparison to the broader problems of imperialism. On the contrary, the political energy of the global proletariat must not be wasted through the reformist atomization of their demands for adequate infrastructure and ecological sustainability; integrated into bogus liberal programs that do nothing to address the structural roots of these catastrophes. The anti-imperialist program must instead aim to mobilize the people, under all relevant pretexts, to unite in destroying imperialism; to make the political demands of the world proletariat the guiding rudder of economic production. To establish socialism, and to erase the economic constraints of imperialism on Third World nations, we hope to decisively end the ecological war being waged against the global south. Until that time, we can always expect a tragic disparity in all ongoing and intensifying natural disasters.
- “Why the Cyclone in Myanmar was so Deadly” (National Geographic)
- “Relatively Low Death Toll is Astounding to Experts” (Associated Press)
- “Tsunami of 2004 Fast Facts” (CNN)
- “Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Facts and Information” (Live Science)
- “Over 59,000 Sucides in India Linked to Climate Change: Study” (TeleSUR)
- “Sierra Leone faces long slog to recovery after devastating mudslide” (LA Times)
- “Mudslide in Swiss Alps leaves 8 missing” (Global News)