No Respite From ‘Natural’ Disasters Under Capitalism

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Over the past decades we have observed a multiplication of violent phenomena that ‘experts’ pay-rolled by the bourgeoisie describe as ‘natural disasters’. They encompass a wide range: from wildfires, to floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. The bourgeois media peddle the lie that there is nothing humanity can do to protect itself against nature’s whims and that we should just resign ourselves to fate. We remember how they cynically painted the Japanese population’s prostration in the face of the horrific sequence of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear devastation as a serene Zen attitude in the face of adversity. That’s how the ruling class would want us to be: prostrated. In the US, a winter with record snowfalls, wildfires, a monster flood of the Mississippi river, and, more recently, one of the deadliest tornado seasons on record have left thousands of people homeless, hundreds dead, and caused inestimable suffering. This is reason enough to feel disheartened. But revolutionaries must help the working class see through the thickness of bourgeois deceptions the truth that capitalism is at the root of these environmental abnormalities and that the working class, through its struggle to overthrow this dying system, is the sole force in society that can offer real answers to the problems posed by capitalism’s ravaging of the planet. As we behold the massive destruction and human suffering left behind, we need to pose the questions: What is happening to the environment? What really accounts for the devastation wracked by these violent weather phenomena?

An outbreak of dozens of tornadoes killed 314 people in five states on April 27 and a massive twister killed 138 in Joplin, Missouri on May 22, not to mention scores others before the two deadly dates. 2011 now ranks as the fifth deadliest year in US tornado history. And the tornado season is not even over yet. President Obama, visiting Joplin, Missouri, one week after an EF-5 tornado touched down, had barely declared the state of emergency for the area, when more tornadoes struck California and Massachusetts. These two states are far from Tornado Alley, a term used to describe a swath of land from the Deep South, through the southern plains and into the upper Midwest. The unusually destructive violence of these storms is now coupled with their widening and highly unpredictable pathway. It has to be affirmed very clearly that this east and north-ward spreading of tornado activity in recent years, the tornadoes’ abnormal size and utter violence, are explained by global warming, and that capitalism is completely implicated. La Niña, a cyclical system of trade winds that cools the waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, made a sudden exit about three months ago even though we were in the grip of one of the most powerful Las Niñas on record. It is very possible that if La Niña had maintained its strength there would not have been so many or such violent tornadoes due to La Nina’s stabilizing effect on the jet stream, a high speed air current that acts as an atmospheric ‘fence’ where cool and dry air meets up with warm, moist air –two of the main ingredients for severe storms. Without La Niña around, the jet stream, which by this time of the year should be farther north, has gone rogue. Instead of moving north, in April and May the jet stream hung around the middle of the country, where it has the chance to violently mix cool, dry northern air with warm, moist southern air. It is no longer a secret that surface water temperatures are rising as a result of global warming, and the sea surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is between 1.8 and 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.0 to 1.5 degrees Celsius) warmer than average. If there’s more moisture and the atmosphere is warmer, it is more unstable, so, there’s more potential for severe thunderstorms to develop.

As we can see, there is nothing fatalistic about ‘natural disasters’, and these events can be traced to the anarchistic and reckless mode of production under which we live, a system that has more regard for quick profit than for man or nature. When, in the face of this shift in tornadoes’ path the weather ‘specialist’ and ‘scientists’ paid by the ruling class ask questions such as: “Is there a new Tornado Alley?” it is not to answer that capitalism has caused global warming, a manifestation of which is the changing directions and speeds of air currents such as the jet stream. This question is futile because the ruling class would not use that knowledge to plan for a different distribution of the population, one that will keep it out of harm’s way. Nor will it develop different types of dwellings which can provide greater protection against extreme weather conditions. Indeed, as at the time of hurricane Katrina, the bourgeois state and its various agencies set up with the purpose of responding to emergencies, proves once again its utter uselessness, inefficiency, and corruption. It is not these various agencies who organized rescue, provided comfort, and prepared for repairs in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It is the local population who, in many cases risking their own lives, threw their weight selflessly where they saw the urgent need to intervene. We can expect that the population who has been left homeless will remain so for an indefinite time.

The ruling class is keen on assembling weather forecasters and ‘specialists’ who can soothe the population’s anxiety over the large issues of the generalized degradation of the environment and global warming by trivializing questions such as “Is there a new Tornado Alley?” The ruling class knows that there are lingering, deeper questions about the short and long term consequences of climatic change on humanity and nature and the responsibility of capitalism. It fears that the greater the devastation wracked by what the ruling class calls   ‘natural disasters,’ the more apparent its inability to offer prevention, a minimum of protection and restoration of the environment, and support for the populations affected by these ‘disasters.’ Indeed, it is clear that the louder their bleats about how sorry they feel for the deaths and losses suffered, the cheaper their ‘reconstruction’ efforts are shown to be. In order to distort the truth about global warming and thereby protect its image, the ruling class insists on attributing the multiplication of ‘natural’ disasters to improvements in observations, reporting, documentation and record keeping. These improvements are certainly true, but it is not a statistical account that can explain either the apparent shift in weather pattern or the impact this is having on human life. As to this last point, in examining tornado fatalities from 1950-2005 we see that the majority of fatal tornado events occurred mainly outside of the traditional Tornado Alley region, into the lower-Arkansas, Tennessee, and lower-Mississippi River valleys. This distribution is not to be attributed to a shift in tornado occurrences, but instead a combination of climate and non-climate related factors.

We have seen how global warming is related to the shift in tornado pathway above. Within the non-climate factors, it is noticeable that a larger percentage of mobile homes and lower-stock housing materials are used in this region than any other region in the US. From 1985 to 2005 mobile home fatalities accounted for 44% of all fatalities, when in the southeast the percentage of mobile homes averages over 20% in most counties. The overall population density in the southeast is greater than in the traditional Tornado Alley. A higher percentage of elderly and impoverished persons live in this area, which enhances this region’s vulnerability. This is further aggravated by the population shift to the area resulting from unemployment, which pushes this vulnerable sector of the population to move to areas where housing is cheaper, and poorer. Hence, the increased number of tornado fatalities in that area.   It is not by changing the geographical mapping of what constitutes a Tornado Alley today that we can explain global warming or address the issues of poverty and unemployment. This is an exercise presently occupying a great number of meteorologists, a trick employed to ‘explain’ the increased number in tornado fatalities. The responsibility of the ruling class in the tornado fatalities regardless of a tornado pathway is obvious when we hear the answer to the question of why there were never building codes in the traditional Tornado Alley area.

According to Tim Reinhold, senior vice president for research and chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) in Tampa, Fla., it comes down to something called the “return period” -- the interval between two disaster events in a given location. Although major tornadoes happen every year, the likelihood they’ll happen twice in the same place is very low. “With tornadoes,” Mr. Reinhold says, “because they’re relatively small and don’t cover very much ground, the chances that a particular building in Tornado Alley would be hit is 1 in 5,000 per year. And within that, the chance that the tornado will be F4 or F5 is even lower. So to make everyone build houses to stand up to that level would be a huge cost increase.” This idea, besides revealing a delirious state of a mind out of touch with reality, underscores the ruling class’ attitude: human life –that of the exploited class, to be precise- is a matter of statistical calculations, and, above all cost-efficiency! This is why under decadent capitalism scientific knowledge is concealed, distorted, and prostituted: to serve profit. In order to see the flourishing of science at the service of humanity, science which can be put to use to restore nature and man’s relationship with it, the working class must destroy capital.

Ana, 4/6/11.

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Tornado season