The Tsunami Disaster: Natural and Manmade
The underlying fact about world economy that can relieve the suffering of the millions of survivors of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is that humans can produce much, much more than they need to consume. A huge surplus of food, building materials, machinery and technology exists. This surplus, applied rationally, could save millions of lives still threatened by the destructive power of the disaster, as well as lay a solid groundwork of safety for humankind from future natural disasters.
What, you may ask, does the fact of human productivity and surplus have anything to do with the global emergency facing the peoples of South Asia right now? I would answer: Everything!
The capitalist economic system of production for profit—as opposed to a system of production for human need—while obviously not the cause of the tsunami, is largely the cause of the level of devastation to peoples already suffering terrible poverty.
And people seem to be well aware of this. Many letters to the newspapers the day after the United States government first announced its aid package of $15 million (subsequently upped to $35 million—an amount still less than the cost of President Bush’s inaugural festivities—and then multiplied by 10 to $350 million, which is still less than a week of war!) called on the U.S. government to stop the war on Iraq and send all the funds and materiel and people now engaged in war making to South Asia for relief work. In other words, it is quite obvious to many that making war and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis is contrary to the massive humanitarian relief effort needed right now in Asia.
Andrew C. Revkin, in the New York Times’ “Week in Review” (“The Future of Calamity,” Jan. 2, 2005) writes that the world has experienced an increase in “natural” disasters “from about 100 per year in the early 1960s to as many as 500 per year by the early 2000s….” What has changed, he writes, is not that earthquakes and tsunamis have become stronger, but where and how people live has changed dramatically.
Poor people “have been pushed into soggy flood-plains or drought-ridden deserts, built on impossibly steep slopes…and created vast, fragile cities along fault lines that tremble with alarming frequency.” Why have people moved to such places? Revkin says it’s a question of “human choices,” but it is obvious that only the rich can choose where to live. Poor people live where they can, and not where they choose. And of course, the rich can make use of building techniques that can protect them from disasters.
Much of wealthy California, a very active earthquake zone, uses seismic retrofitting to prepare and protect people from future earthquakes. Parts of the tsunami-endangered Western U.S. already has not only a warning system in place, but a series of other protections, including safe, elevated buildings that house emergency first responders. Revkin quotes a seismologist comparing the projected tolls from earthquakes in cities of comparable size and comparable earthquake thrust faults, Tehran, Iran and Los Angeles, California. “‘In Los Angeles the next 7.5 quake might kill 50,000 people. In Tehran, that would kill more than a million people.’”
What accounts for such a gigantic difference? The rich of the U.S. who control much of the world economy through their ownership and control of the vast resources such as oil, minerals, labor, allow a small part of their profits to be used for keeping their financial and business centers, their cities, safe in order to assure their smooth functioning during and after a disaster. Actually, they organize their government (and it is the profiteers’ government, not the peoples’ government) to legislate and contract for these safety measures. The working class pays for them through their taxes.
Iran’s ruling class would like to do the same, but it isn’t as wealthy, and besides, it is under constant military threat from the United States, which calls it part of the terrorist axis of evil, and therefore must spend its wealth on military defense against the United States. Both ruling elites care not a bit for the lives of their countrymen, the workers and farmers who create the surplus which is appropriated by the bosses and used for what the bosses choose to use it for, luxuries and new investments.
It’s hard when you live right in the middle of a structure to discern its workings, but whether we discern them or not, the profit system—the economic system where all production is for profit, as opposed to production for human need—exerts a tremendous weight on society and on the prospects for relief and rebuilding South Asia.
In some ways, we can see how a society mobilized to aid people in disasters could work. Unfortunately, most of the examples are negative. When the U.S. government sought to develop the atomic bomb (which they used to bomb already-defeated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) the government mobilized vast resources, a whole community of scientists, thousands of workers with every kind of skill, billions of dollars in a cooperative effort to build this weapon which now threatens life on the planet. When the U.S. decided to build a new fleet of ships after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, industry was mobilized to build the ships in record time. Unfortunately, no such mobilization of resources and human power has been mobilized to fight the biggest disaster of the last century—the AIDS pandemic. But such a mobilization is possible.
It is possible because of the fact that humankind is capable of producing a vast surplus of goods and services. The key questions are: how to organize society so that the things we produce are distributed to those who need them; and how to organize production to satisfy real needs and to allow the free development of the human species in concert with the other species and systems of the planet. These are the problems that the system of capitalism cannot solve because they require conscious, collective planning as opposed to the anarchy of the market. Under capitalism, profitability is the sole measure in deciding what is to be produced. Because of that, natural disasters take a far greater toll in human life than they should because people are crowded into unsafe structures, on unstable lands.
The victims are not even treated as fully human by the capitalist governments that rule over the nations of the world on behalf of the real rulers of society, the capitalist owners of the means of production. They are seen merely as exploitable labor for their profits and cannon fodder for their capitalist wars.
Tiny Cuba, which acted collectively to protect the lives and property of its population from a devastating series of hurricanes that killed approximately 600 in the other countries of the Caribbean, shows that society can take a different path. (See “Cuba: A Model in Hurricane Risk Management,” elsewhere in this magazine).
But in order for a society, a government to put human life first, the profit system must be ended. The capitalist class must be stopped from running society in its own interests (the interests of a tiny portion of the population, perhaps 1 percent) and the vast majority, the workers and farmers, those who produce, must take ownership and control.
When the vast majority democratically runs society in the interests of humankind and the planet as a whole everything can change. All of science and technology can be directed towards the protection of humanity from disasters, disease, hunger, and want, as well as cleaning up the poisonous mess created by war, production for war, and industrial production for profit. This is a glimpse of the future that socialism will make possible. The only alternative is exactly what we have now—war and devastation—and more of it.