During crisis events, people often show their most compassionate and even heroic sides. In Hurricane Katrina’s disruption of every day life, most people in New Orleans have done the best they can to help each other. While decried as “looting” by the officials of order and private property, reports have shown that people neglected by rescue authorities are in many cases taking from the ravaged city’s stores and distributing the goods equitably among fellow desperate people. Under police threats of “shoot to kill,” make no mistake that these are heroic acts – not crimes.
But moments of chaos and desperation are also moments when the most repugnant aspects of society, which may otherwise be hidden by the obscuring dazzle of every day life’s drudgery, come into stark relief. Reports unsurprisingly indicate that gangs in the hurricane-ravaged New Orleans are taking the opportunity of lawlessness in New Orleans to hoard everything in sight, including firearms. But these small groups operated long before the hurricane hit the heavily impoverished city. The brutal rapes and killings this anti-social minority has been perpetrating on the people of New Orleans could have been anticipated and planned for. Indeed, what is most prominently outrageous in this disaster is the powers’ that be crass disregard and indifference to the immediate and long-term needs of the people that have been affected by this disaster, especially those left behind in New Orleans.
Stepping back from the horrid immediacies this situation presents, we can discern two intimately connected aspects of our social reality that bear upon the disaster: First, we see the present market-based social and economic order where each must fend for him or herself without any background assurance that society will help when in need.
Second, we see that the relationship of this social order with its natural environment is one of dangerous ecological imbalance. These two aspects of our social reality are intimately connected, and as this disaster reveals with horrifying clarity, they exacerbate each other’s effects.
The Ecological Crisis
Human societies are an inextricable part of their natural environments, and the way they are organized socially largely determines the role that they play ecologically. Therefore, matters of social structure are crucial for understanding both the economic and ecological impacts associated with the event of Hurricane Katrina. As we all know, to survive, an economic entity like a corporation must compete against others, and to do so, they must become bigger than them. From the extractive practices of the oil and timber industry to the dehumanizing mechanization of “managed” healthcare, it is plain to see that in order to grow, capitalism must transform the natural world into a rationalized system of commodities. In doing so capitalism ultimately remakes the natural world in all of its diversity and complexity into a package of discrete and exchangeable parcels that accord with principles we know as efficiency and productivity. The end product is a natural world with its complex eco-communities dangerously simplified, threatening the very existence of complex ecological communities, and with them, human life itself.
The specific effects of this global crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are multitudinous. First, massive petroleum consumption, which remains necessary to fuel an economy based on the maxim of “grow or die,” is causing dangerous global climate disruption whose effects are being felt the world over. This is a process that warms the oceans, raising ocean levels through both the heat expansion of water and increasingly rapid glacial melt. Oceanic heating exacerbates hurricane intensity and duration, and rising ocean levels increase storm surge heights.
Second, the levee system that has prevented the Mississippi from flooding New Orleans and other communities alongside the river has also funneled the silt deposits directly into the ocean’s depths. For thousands of years, these deposits spread out to build and shore up Louisiana’s marshlands. The levees’ funneling effect has blocked the distribution of necessary nutrients and soil mass to the coastal marshlands, which protect the Gulf Coast form Hurricane storm surges. Lacking the replenishment of soil that once came with the Mississippi’s flood deposits, this sensitive ecological community steadily loses land mass to the encroaching ocean at the staggering rate of 25 square miles per year – the size of Manhattan Island.
Third, although by no means unique in its anti-ecological relationship with its natural surroundings, the sub-sea level location in which New Orleans grew was uniquely unsuited to ecological city life. This is not to say that the city should never have been built, but it does mean that the way in which it was built should have been informed by a better understanding of its natural ecology. While ignorance has played a significant role historically in how the engineering of New Orleans took place, the main issue is one of economic imperatives. Under capitalism, ecological considerations are invariably outweighed by immediate economic imperatives to keep growing. But in this system, powerful state and corporate actors frequently ignore important considerations that entail major costs without quick economic reward. Even the repeated warnings and pleas of mainstream Louisiana officials for federal assistance to restore the coastal wetlands and to shore up the levee system have gone unheeded and under-funded.
Fourth, New Orleans’ massive quantity of dangerous industrial petrochemicals are the spice of what forecasters of hurricane catastrophe have dubbed, “the toxic gumbo,” which now fills the “bowl” upon which New Orleans was built. Long before they were released into the flooded streets of New Orleans, these chemicals were killing people living along the stretch of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that racial and environmental justice advocates call “Cancer Alley.” The region is one of the most concentrated production sites for the chemical and petroleum industries in the U.S.
We simply cannot have both an ecological society, much less a socially just and free society, and also have capitalism. The same capitalist system that creates social domination and exploitation creates global ecological crisis. This crisis is an ongoing, but worsening condition of intensified environmental and climatic disasters, and it disproportionately affects those already marginalized within the dog-eat-dog market economy. As climatologists predict a furiously turbulent hurricane season this year and in years to come, amplified by rapid global warming, the question of who will be most affected must be stressed with the utmost urgency. Hurricane Katrina should be taken as an indication that either we supplant capitalism with a more humane and rational society or we degenerate into uncontrollable ecological collapse and social barbarism.
Who Can Manage the Disaster?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, media images from all over the city reveal unmistakably that the people who were left behind in New Orleans to suffer, and in an increasing number of cases, die, are overwhelmingly black. But the commentary does not explain why this is. There are doubtlessly multitudinous reasons why, but obviously, the most important set of reasons involve the financial and logistical obstacles to leaving that especially face poor and black people. Not only is this disaster a class issue, it is also a race issue, because racism harms the racially marginalized by pushing them into lower socioeconomic classes and making their “race” a classification of its own.
In the grand media events of the Coast Guard plucking small groups of the tens of thousands of predominantly black people left behind on rooftops and apartments, the drama of heroism unfolds. But who is asking how could the city and state authorities neglect to provide evacuation transportation knowing that New Orleans is a city with one of the country’s highest poverty rates (38%), one which is predominantly black, and the lowest car ownership of any major city in the United States?
The people stuck in New Orleans are not there, because they “chose” to ride out the storm, but because to the best of their assessment, they had no better choice. Consider the calculation that people must make when considering whether to evacuate their homes or to risk the storm. What awaits them on the outside if they are to evacuate? Expensive, even price-gouging hotels? Houston’s Astrodome? If people think there is a chance that they and their home may survive the storm and they have no practical options for evacuation anyway, what’s the point of trying to put themselves into an uncertain and unaffordable world?
Underlining the neglect and class arrogance of federal officials, FEMA chief, Michael Brown told CNN, “I think the death toll may go into the thousands and, unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable to a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings.” He explained that people either “chose to evacuate or chose not to evacuate,” in effect, blaming the stranded citizens of New Orleans for their terrible plight. Brown’s use of the notion of individual “choice” is a sly deflection of responsibility away from the bad decisions of authorities that would have been in a position to mobilize a public evacuation operation onto the private and ostensibly “free” choices of individuals. But Brown explicitly contradicted his implicit message of blame by entirely dismissing any discussion of responsibility on anyone’s part: “Now is not the time to be blaming,” Brown said. “Now is the time to recognize that whether they chose to evacuate or chose not to evacuate, we have to help them.”
How can we explain this shameful neglect? I think a helpful way to look at it is that deeply embedded and largely unacknowledged racism is a kind of unwritten “keep away” sign that prevents white-dominated communities from accepting large numbers of black people. Within this background of racism, officials consider no other options than ones that contain the poor, black masses. I think that is why they are warehousing them in abandoned sports stadiums. Veteran Black Panther Party member and resident of New Orleans, Malik Rahim, has stayed in New Orleans through the immediate aftermath of Katrina. He points out, “We have Amtrak here that could have carried everybody out of town. There were enough school buses that could have evacuated 20,000 people easily, but they just let them be flooded. My son watched 40 buses go underwater – they just wouldn’t move them, afraid they’d be stolen.” The obvious and practical measures that Rahim suggests don’t happen, because in the surrounding communities where the power is predominantly white, there is no place for black people. The legacy of white supremacy in this society is that blacks must stay in their place. So in this moment of volatile displacement, the state is happy – however late – to serve them within the confines of secured sports stadiums, but to do so within the neighborhoods of white people is nearly unthinkable. Although death is the inevitable result, the state doesn’t neglect, because it wants to kill black people. It acts neglectfully, because the state cares much more about maintaining white supremacy than whether black people die.
Notwithstanding the feeble calls for unity, this is a time for blame and righteous anger; in the face of the government’s despicable and lethal neglect, it is only by revealing the root problems of racism and capitalism that any solution can be possible. The desperate neglect of the people who have been stuck in New Orleans is not the consequence of technical infeasibility, but the effect of a systematic neglect of the poor. In a society with superabundant wealth that is being steadily consolidated by the super-rich to fantastic extremes, the fact that some people are impoverished at all is an unforgivable injustice. But the results of the situation are entirely predictable.
Social and Ecological Crisis: The Only Solution is Social Revolution
The particular vulnerabilities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region that result from global climate disruption, the regime of Mississippi River management since the 19th Century, and the preponderance of petrochemicals have been long known. Furthermore, the more specific vulnerability of the poor and sick in New Orleans had been fully understood. But these warnings and predictions have gone, and continue to go, neglected. The reason is that the social order is primarily concerned with maintaining white supremacy and the system of private profit. Since these dimensions of our social reality engender unstable social inequalities, a national security state is required to maintain them. Like the levees around New Orleans, however, this system is prone to have breaches. The tremendous political anxiety over this volatile situation is partly manifested in federal officials’ emphasis on the immediate necessity of restoring “order” to New Orleans even while thousands of residents go in desperate want of water, food, and medicine. In the national security state ideology, it is up to individuals to prepare for their own fates alone while the state merely polices the population.
This is a crucial time for global ecology and global justice. The big question of our era is whether a revolutionary political movement can emerge to transform this society of “dog-eat-dog” and “grow or die” into an ecologically sane and socially just society. In the face of this crisis, there are possibilities for transforming the political consciousness of the crises that stare us in the face. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, people in the United States are seeing to a greater extent than ever before that climate disruption kills, and the most vulnerable are the first to go. As a result, the U.S. discussion on extreme weather events is getting more politicized. The potential revolutionaries of tomorrow must learn some lessons, and quickly. First, the current regime of capitalism’s exploitation of the natural world is causing environmental catastrophes of which we are only seeing the beginning. Second, as the Industrial Workers of the World once proclaimed, “We will build a new world out of the ashes of the old,” because the alternative is that this capitalist world will consume in its flames those of us who cannot keep ahead of its social and environmental disasters.