Sunday, January 02, 2005

Après moi le déluge!

"Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society," wrote Karl Marx in Capital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5). What Marx said in the late nineteenth century still holds true today.

As capitalism destroys subsistence agriculture and makes terms of trade unfavorable to rural life, more people become proletarianized and migrate to cities in search of elusive jobs. Unplanned urbanization therefore proceeds apace. "By 2007, for the first time in human history, more than half the people in the world will be living in cities," the number of urban dwellers rising "from 3 billion in 2003 (48 per cent of the total population) to 5 billion in 2030 (60 per cent)" (United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 2004, Chapter 4). 15 of the 20 mega-cities of more than 10 million people are in developing countries, in whose urban areas "[a]lmost all of the world’s total population growth" will take place in this period (State of World Population 2004, Chapter 4). The earth is becoming a "planet of slums," as urbanization has been "radically decoupled from industrialization" (Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums," New Left Review 26, March-April 2004) due to the "Washington Consensus" (William Finnegan, "The Economics of Empire: Notes on the Washington Consensus," Harper's Magazine, May 2003) as well as labor-saving technological innovation compelled by competition that constantly creates a surplus population.

The poor, "everywhere forced to settle on hazardous and otherwise unbuildable terrains" (Davis, March-April 2004), are vulnerable to disasters. At the same time, they are denied the benefits of improved building techniques:
[I]n response to the threat of earthquakes, buildings on the West Coast now are designed to sway over shifting foundations, and new highway overpasses are no longer stacked like the jaws of a huge horizontal vise.

Istanbul, Tehran, New Delhi and other increasingly dense and shabbily constructed cities, on the other hand, are rubble in waiting. When an earthquake leveled the ancient Iranian city of Bam in 2003, for instance, more than 26,000 people were essentially crushed by their own homes. . . .

"Tehran is a city the size of Los Angeles, with thrust faults like Los Angeles," Dr. [Kerry] Sieh [a veteran seismologist at the California Institute of Technology] said. "In Los Angeles the next 7.5 quake might kill 50,000 people. In Tehran, that would kill more than a million people." (Andrew C. Revkin, "The Future of Calamity," New York Times, January 2, 2005)
The ruling class obsession with short-term cost-and-benefit calculations and disregard for long-term human, ecological, and even economic consequences compounds nature's upheavals.
[E]lected officials and disaster agencies, both public and private, remain focused on responding to catastrophes instead of trying to make societies more resilient in the first place, said Dr. Brian E. Tucker, a geophysicist and the head of GeoHazards International, a private research group trying to reduce poor countries' vulnerability to earthquakes. For instance, while the United Nations in 1989 declared the 1990's the "International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction," and created a secretariat to run it, it set no concrete goals or timetable for accomplishing them, Dr. Tucker said.

He described a recent study by Tearfund, a Christian relief agency, that found that less than 10 percent of the money spent on disaster relief by government agencies and institutions like the World Bank goes to preventive measures. According to the study, Mozambique, anticipating major flooding in 2002, asked for $2.7 million to make basic emergency preparations. It received only half that amount from international donor organizations. After the flood, those same organizations ended up committing $550 million in emergency assistance, rehabilitation and reconstruction financing.

Dr. Sieh said he was not confident that wealthy countries would ever recognize the value of prevention. Even as they grow more scientifically prescient, people have a blind spot for certain inevitable disasters, either because they play out over long time frames, like global warming, or because they are rare, like tsunamis.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"There is a technological and scientific basis for proactive strategies," Dr. Sachs said. "But they are not being applied, and there is no reason for that. It's not even a question of money. It's much cheaper to anticipate rather than respond." That is true, he said, whether the goal is restoring fertility to African soil or building a system to warn of tsunamis. (emphasis added, Revkin, January 2, 2005)
What it takes to force the power elite to think in a long term perspective is "compulsion from society" alone (Marx, Section 5).

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