In her 2007 book: The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explores the ways in which institutions take advantage of natural disasters to promote capitalist, neoliberal agendas, under the bill of “build back better.” To illustrate her case, Klein describes how Sri Lanka and other nations tried to use the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to “build back better,” introducing that phrase into development for the first time. In this episode, Colleen Baker, Crystal Franco and Claudia Meca take a look more than 15 years after the disaster, and review what actually happened after the tsunami, how the recovery and development process worked, and whether there are ways to build back better, better.
Colleen Baker graduated from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment with a Master’s in Environmental Management in 2021. Before starting the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in 2022, she is working on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Illuminating Hidden Harvests project. Her research focuses on small-scale fisheries, fisheries governance, and effectively working at the nexus of development and fisheries. With an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from Princeton University, she has worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nicholas Institute for Policy Solutions, and American Rivers. Outside of school and work, Colleen takes hikes with her dog and is getting better at making her own fresh pasta.
Crystal Franco graduated from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in May 2021. Crystal’s work has focused on wild caught fisheries, exploring the strong link between community wellbeing and environmental health. Her master’s project evaluated distribution and abundance patterns of black sea bass in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean in order to contextualize the need for adaptive management for climate change resilience. She has also taken an interdisciplinary approach to environmental solutions in her work at the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nicholas Institute for Policy Solutions at Duke University, and on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Illuminating Hidden Harvests project. When not at work, she is happiest in board meetings, whether that be on the surfboard or paddleboard, along the coast of Southern California, where she calls home.
Claudia Meca van den Berg (Masters of Environmental Management, ’21) is a recent graduate from the Nicholas School of the Environment, focusing on Ecosystem Science and Conservation. Their work is centered around community-based conservation management. Prior to the Nicholas School they worked as a project coordinator for mine site restoration in Suriname which involved stakeholder engagement and participatory planning. They have also worked as a GIS coordinator for Save the Waves Coalition, which involved prioritizing integrated surf and conservation networks for the Azores Islands. In their free time, they enjoy hiking and spending time outdoors.
Dr. Lisa Campbell hosts the Conservation and Development series. The series showcases the work of students who produce podcasts as part of their term projects. Lisa introduced a podcast assignment after 16 years of teaching, in an effort to direct student energy and effort to a project that would enjoy a wider audience.
Supplemental material for this episode
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AUDIO FILE CONTENT:
C-SPAN. (2005, May 6). Tsunami relief [Video File]. Bill Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee’s 99th Annual Meeting. https://www.c-span.org/video/?186623-1/tsunami-relief
CBS News. (2012, October 31). Gov. Cuomo: N.Y. will “build back better” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pds7Fy7Oc0I
Channel 4 News. (2017, November 20). Barbuda: Islanders still homeless after hurricane; land bulldozed for airport. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gqofuh_2lo0&t=20s&ab_channel=Channel4News
International Monetary Fund. (2017, July 10). How the IMF Works [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knVMZbpfIu8
Joe Biden. (2020a, August 8). Explained: How to Build Back Better | Joe Biden For President 2020 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MNY6EQmQxo
Joe Biden. (2020b, October 22). Elizabeth Warren Explains Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan for Working Families [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpnQNbXYrHc
Moyers. (2012, November 15). Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change. [Video]. BillMoyers.com. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://billmoyers.com/segment/naomi-klein-on-capitalism-and-climate-change/
PBS NewsHour. (2020, August 20). WATCH: Barack Obama’s full speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention | 2020 DNC Night 3 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaalF5y2P0k
The Laura Flanders Show. (2019, November 27). Naomi Klein on the Case for a Green New Deal. [Video]. Lauraflanders.org. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://lauraflanders.org/2019/11/naomi-klein-on-the-case-for-a-green-new-deal/
[“Oyster Waltz” theme song]
Lisa Campbell: And we’re back… Welcome listeners to Season 2 of Seas the Day, a podcast from the Duke University Marine Lab. I’m Lisa Campbell, part of the production team and host of our Conservation and Development series. We’re going to jump right in and launch this season with a new episode of Conservation and Development, but first I want to tell you what to expect for season 2.
First, we kept the band together: Janil Miller, Stephanie Hillgrove, Nora Ives, Ali Jennings, Rafa Lobo, Brandon Gertz and I are all delighted to be back at work on Seas the Day. Even though Brandon graduated from Duke’s coastal environmental management program last spring, we convinced him to stay on, with his ‘made for podcasting’ voice and his new perspective as an alum. We’ve added some new team members as well, Junyao Gu and Becca Horan are PhD students at the lab, and they’ll join Rafa Lobo in producing our PhDeep series. You’ll meet them in an upcoming episode.
Second, we’ll continue to publish episodes on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. You can expect more episodes in our existing series – Conservation and Development, Whale Pod, PhDeep and the F-Files – and maybe even a few new ones! As always, the scope of our interests in oceans is broad, ranging from the biggest marine animals to some of the smallest, from management efforts by local communities to management via international treaties. You’ll hear from natural and social scientists, engineers, lawyers, community members, and artists. We’ll talk about research and teaching, and about life on a remote campus and in a small coastal town.
All of our content, I’ll remind you, is produced by students, staff, faculty and friends of the marine lab. Visit sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday/ to check out our past episodes.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we’ll start this season with an episode of Conservation and Development. In this episode, Colleen Baker, Crystal Franco, and Claudia Meca Van den Berg tackle the topic of disaster capitalism, or the development response and rebuilding that follows in the wake of natural disasters. Whether from a Tsunami or a hurricane, coastal areas are reshaped not just from physical impacts, but by recovery efforts as well. We’re halfway through the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season here on the east coast of North Carolina, so the episode is pretty timely for us. I’ll turn it over to Colleen, Crystal and Claudia now.
“Build back better.” It’s such a common phrase. And, we’re hearing it more than ever during this pandemic:
[Play jump cut of politicians]:
Elizabeth Warren – “We can’t just build back things the way they were before, we have to build back better.” START 0:33 // END 0:40
Joe Biden – “We have to build back better.” START 0:48 // END 0:50
Gov. Andrew Cuomo – “And the challenge here for us is not to just build back, but to build back better.” START 0:13 // END 0:17
Barack Obama – “To lead this country, out of these dark times, and build it back better.” START 10:25 // END 10:30
But, what a loaded saying. Better in what way? Better for who? Who gets to decide?
(music fades in)
This is Conservation and Development, and I’m Colleen. Today, Crystal, Claudia, and I are going to try and unravel the idea of disasters as development opportunities. Disasters as resetting the landscape, creating blank slates, allowing us to build back better. This kind of rhetoric has expanded over the last 15 years and it has real implications for how we think about development and carry out development. Today, we’re going to look at the first time we tried to “build back better” after a natural disaster and explain what the impacts of those recovery efforts were. We’ll ask why the process failed so many people, and has so in so many other cases, and explain how climate change makes this more urgent to understand than ever. Finally, we’re going to show that it does not have to be this way and talk about how we can build back better, better.
(music fades out)
So, where did this phrase- “build back better”- come from? Most scholars attribute its origin to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami recovery efforts. Some people even pinpoint the origin to one man, the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery: former US president William J. Clinton.
[Play clip of Bill Clinton – START CLIP 30:55]:
“A lot of what we’re doing in these tsunami-affected countries could be done for poor people everywhere in the world. And the whole goal is to help them — we can’t replace the lives they’ve lost, but we can honor the sacrifices they’ve made by helping them to build their areas back better; to have better housing, better education, better health care, stronger communities, and a more diversified economy.”
[END CLIP 31:22]
It’s an appealing thought. And a phenomenally popular one at the time. All of the eyes of the world, and the pockets of wealthy donors and nations, were focused on the tsunami-affected communities.
As a reminder: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was, and still is, one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The morning of December 26, 2004, a massive underwater earthquake just north of Sumatra, Indonesia sent walls of water toward the coasts of more than a dozen countries. Within hours, 230,000 people had died; millions more were displaced. Most of the victims were the poor and vulnerable who lived along the coasts of India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
(music fades in)
The humanitarian response was enormous. According to the UN, more than 1.3 billion dollars had been pledged to recovery efforts within just one week of the tsunami. Eventually, with long-term recovery loans and foreign government pledges, the number grew to more than 14 billion dollars. With all of that money, and all of the international support and volunteers, couldn’t this be an opportunity to give people better lives than they had before the tsunami? Maybe even make them less vulnerable to the next natural disaster? Why not “build back better”?
(music fades out)
First, let’s ask one of our key questions: better in what way? It’s not a simple answer. Bill Clinton published close to 30 pages trying to explain himself. But, the United Nations (and there’s a bonus hint for you on our question of “who gets to decide”) provides us a more succinct definition:
“Building back better is the use of recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction phases after a disaster to increase the resilience of nations and communities through integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure and societal systems, and into the revitalization of livelihoods, economies, and the environment”
A mouthful. But, essentially, the UN is saying building back better is building back with less disaster risk. It’s more… building back safer. And that logic is exactly what led to two of the signature components of the Indian Ocean tsunami’s rebuilding process: first, get people off the coast and second, get people into higher quality houses.
The relocation and reconstruction approach manages to whiz right past a pretty crucial question: why were so many people unsafe to begin with? For coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, their story did not start with the 2004 tsunami. Take the fisher settlements in Tamil Nadu, India.
For centuries, people lived along the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu and made a living from the sea. They safely weathered hundreds of coastal events like tsunamis and seasonal storms because historically, fishing villages weren’t built on the actual shoreline. Communities were located further inland and on higher elevations, like dune tops. Things started changing in the 1960s. (music fades in) Martin Bavinck’s ethnography about Coromandel fishing settlements tracks the way fishers were pushed closer and closer to the water by urban sprawl and competition with tourism and real estate developers. By the time the 2004 tsunami hit, most of the 237 fishing settlements on the Coromandel Coast were in such low-lying areas that they were located on what is legally referred to as “wasteland.” The devastation was enormous.
Unfortunately, Tamil Nadu’s story is not unique. According to a review by UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, the coastal communities impacted by the tsunami were disproportionately poor and marginalized. Meaning, people were not just vulnerable because of where they lived, but how they came to live in such a vulnerable place. Displaced by more powerful economic interests and social forces. But, when we built back better, better just meant physically safer.
(music fades out)
On the other hand, even if relocation or better quality houses did not address the broader causes of communities’ vulnerability, wasn’t it still better for their safety? Better for their living conditions? Their access to services? We looked into this. And the answer is: Sometimes. But definitely not always. And, at an unnecessarily high price.
So, how did this relocation and rebuild process work. Step one: governments declared new coastal buffer zones. In India, the government restricted construction within 500 meters of the high tide line. Indonesia attempted to implement a 2 kilometer restricted zone. Sri Lanka varied between 100 meters and 200 meters depending on the part of the country. Under the rules, rebuilding your house within the zone was either completely forbidden, as was the case in Sri Lanka, or there was India’s approach. They only offered disaster aid to individuals who agreed to relocate from the zone. Many people did not even have official titles to their land or lost documentation in the tsunami. Without aid to rebuild, they would be homeless. Few saw a choice.
Step two: governments secured land parcels further inland for relocating communities. Sarah Khasalamwa studied government-chosen land parcels in Sri Lanka and found they often put communities in the path of new problems, sometimes literally. One village was built on an elephant path and was slowly destroyed by not-so-gentle giants. But, in the more metaphorical meaning, the Nature Conservancy found that the relocated settlements in India are generally in low-lying areas, vulnerable to flooding and water logging. There are groundwater and sanitation issues. And these problems were only exacerbated by the sprawl of the new construction.
Which brings us to step three: governments contracted NGOs to construct new housing. But, NGOs did not simply imitate the look and arrangement of pre-tsunami communities. NGOs built “better” housing. Multiple studies of new settlements in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, all over– they all describe the same sight: gridded streets lined with identical western-style homes. As a result of that design, researchers point out that most homes cannot not fit intergenerational families. The yards aren’t large enough to fit fishers’ gear. Ventilation assumes families cook with electricity, instead of biofuels. People feel crowded, and people feel there isn’t enough privacy. The structures aren’t suited to the climate. Some houses have crumbled. Other villages have been abandoned entirely, like Baan Lion in Thailand. A 15 million dollar ghost town.
In an interview with researcher Nishara Fernando, one tsunami survivor described his new, built back better life by saying the following:
Quote: The waves of the Tsunami washed with it our three daughters and our house, taking away everything. We built our house amidst great economic constraints, but within seconds giant waves destroyed everything in front of our eyes. We are now suffering the “second tsunami” after settling in a new settlement almost 9 kilometres from our previous residence. We feel economically and socially weak, and have absolutely no income. I do not know what fate will deal us in the future if we continue to live like this. Unquote
Faced with new threats, unsuitable housing, fragmented and far from their homes, people are simply moving back to the coast. (music fades in) In an analysis of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Reuters estimates that the number of people living in the tsunami hazard zone has returned to pre-2004 levels. So, I have to say it again: build back better in what way?
It’s a big question. And we’re just getting started here because some people who have tried to return to their coastal land? They’ve found they can’t. It belongs to someone new. Which is when we start to ask: build back better for who? Crystal is going to take it from here.
(music fades out)
Crystal Franco: Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and rehousing efforts, the most immediate effect for survivors was the separation of people from their homes and their livelihoods, as Colleen just described. It’s easy to brush relocation off as an unfortunate necessity for the sake of safety. (music fades in) But as fishermen returned to the coast, they realized governments were funding reconstruction of hotels on the very beaches the tsunami cleared out.
Rebecca Leonard, a research associate at Focus on the Global South, described these land grabs. Within days of the tsunami, local administrative bodies in Thailand faked civic projects and illegal zoning plans in an effort to seize land that could be developed as high-value tourist destinations. Reconstruction in Thailand was rolled out without even the pretense that the plans were guided with the input of coastal community members. Similar land grabs were conducted by Sri Lanka’s Task Force to Rebuild the Nation agency. The task force was composed entirely of business and economic leaders with interest in coastal tourism development. Simply, the fox was in the henhouse.
You might be thinking, okay, but the response within the countries devastated by the tsunami was enormous, surely these actions are a reflection of a few bad eggs. (music fades out)
Which is why we thought it would be a good idea to see who was funding these newly emboldened government agencies. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition found that a sizable portion of the funding came in the form of loans and grants from international financial institutions, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund or IMF.
Here, it’s important to understand the function of development banks. An IMF promotion video on their YouTube channel explains:
[Play clip from IMF – START CLIP 0:29]:
“To keep the global economy running smoothly, 189 member countries work together to promote financial stability, prevent crises, and facilitate trade through the International Monetary fund. The IMF does this by tracking the economic pulse of each of its member countries by collecting and evaluating data and providing advice on sound economic policies to benefit the health of the world economy as whole. It also lends money in times of crisis. Countries in need can turn to the IMF to borrow money from its members to alleviate a crisis and return to stability.”
[END CLIP 1:06]
From the World Bank’s website:
Quote: The World Bank Group works in every major area of development. We provide a wide array of financial products and technical assistance, and we help countries share and apply innovative knowledge and solutions to the challenges they face. Unquote.
If you skip past the buzz words of innovative knowledge and solutions, you can deduce that they offer financial products like loans, grants, and technical advice for development projects that they believe will quote, “help create sustainable economic growth, invest in people and build resilience to shocks and threats that can roll back decades of progress.” Unquote. Shocks and threats in this context can be natural disasters, wars, famine, etc. but progress is suspiciously undefined.
And this is where we have to say the word neoliberalism. Shalmali Guttal, an expert on economic development and an advocate for ecological and social justice issues in Asia, gives us a definition.
Quote: Neo-liberalism – an unregulated, market economy, […], free flow of private capital, privatization, removal of domestic regulations and economic protections, […], which in practice means that the […] state’s responsibilities are re-oriented towards facilitating and protecting free market conditions for creating wealth. Unquote
Practically, it means fewer trade barriers, less government interference, and greater freedom for private entities and foreign investors.
The World Bank and the IMF have had massive influence on Indonesia’s economy since the 1990’s. For example, project loans from the World Bank worth 1.1 Billion, came with some conditions. The Bank required economic policy reform for free trade through deregulation and privatization of government services. Binny Buchori, an advocate for democracy in Indonesia, reported that this World Bank Loan prompted a new law on oil, gas, and electricity that allowed for the privatization of respective state-enterprises. The government deregulated other public services like water and sanitation, telecommunication and the construction of roads. Then education and health care services were privatized shortly after.
William Robinson, an American professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, highlights that tourism is an industry that can swiftly slide a country into the global economy. Beginning in the 1990’s, the World Bank and IMF have promoted tourism development. Robinson points out:
Quote: Tourism has become the fastest growing economic activity, and even the mainstay, of many Third World economies. International tourist flows are still largely unidirectional, from North to South, and the flow of much of the income generated by world tourism is from South to North. And the introduction of tourism […] has significant social, class and political ramifications. Unquote.
Following the tsunami in 2004, new loans from the World Bank and the IMF were offered under the condition of more policy reform towards a free and unregulated economy. Again, it’s not the fishermen who are snapping up these business opportunities. Domestic elites and foreign businesses are now able to invest within this new market, while humanitarians work under the illusion that the disaster has given these communities a fresh start to “build back better.”
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For coastal communities along the Indian Ocean, neoliberal ideology meant countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka were shifting their idea of economic development from small-scale rural producers and state-supported enterprises to private industries and global trade. And in a global market founded on wealth accumulation, shoreline fishing communities were a nuisance to more promising economic activities like tourism.
Equity does not even appear to be an afterthought. And in their shocked state, citizens were not empowered to advocate on their behalf. Advocates for free trade were allowed to dominate economic and social policy reforms. And these reforms only expanded economic disparities between poor and vulnerable populations and wealthy elites. And without participatory processes, transparency in planning, or efforts focused on equitable outcomes, the better for who meant better for private companies and foreign investors.
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Would the transition from fishing communities to five-star tourist resorts have happened without the tsunami? Perhaps. The event only acted as a catalyst for the process, which suggests that neoliberal intervention following natural disasters is likely to keep happening.
So it’s good to name the process we just described as part of a larger practice. Naomi Klein first coined the term “shock doctrine” in her book of the same name, published in 2007. The shock doctrine is a process in the aftermath of shocking events, like wars, economic crises, and natural disasters, where institutions take advantage of a society in shock to promote capitalist, neoliberal agendas.
Now, 18 years later, it’s clear this was not an isolated event. Klein defines disaster capitalism as the shock doctrine process applied within the context of natural disasters. Natural disasters are ideal opportunities for the shock doctrine because there is an inherent need for an immediate response. Those in dire need of assistance are simply too incapacitated to respond, meaning they can’t negotiate the terms under which they receive aid. And we can say with confidence, that those who get to those who get to decide the definition of better comes from those who are providing aid for reconstruction under the bill of “build back better.”
Disaster capitalism is part of a broader trend of development organizations seeing natural disasters as opportunities. And that’s because of climate change. Climate change is impacting every facet of life. Global warming has changed how and where we produce food and disrupting public health, water availability, energy production, and historic weather patterns. Obviously, earthquakes and tsunamis can’t be attributed to climate change, but the impacts and devastation that they bring can closely resemble the destruction of a severe weather event, like a hurricane. And increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes is expected under climate change. We need to point out that natural disasters are unpredictable events in both place and time.
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But these events are disproportionately devastating to vulnerable populations in countries with developing economies, you know like economies that rely on development loans. It’s also worth mentioning that countries in the Global South have historically contributed much less to climate change than economies in the Global North, who “come to the rescue” with innovative solutions that often exacerbate climate change, like massive tourism industries.
It’s clear that disaster capitalism is continuing to be championed under the slogan of “build back better.” And with climate change in the mix, there will be more opportunities for disaster capitalism. Is there a way in which we can build back better, better? Claudia has the answer to that question.
Claudi Meca van den Berg: So, why does climate change matter for disaster capitalism?
As Crystal mentioned, it’s generally accepted that climate change is expected to significantly increase the vulnerability of coastal habitats and coastal communities. We’re seeing increased frequency in storm surges and intensity, rising sea-levels, you name it, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions, as entities like NASA have predicted.
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Communities that are impoverished and geographically or socially vulnerable to natural disasters are disproportionately affected, and left in shock, over and over again. At the same time, this leads to constant opportunities for disaster profiting or “building back better”.
As a 2009 article published in the American Ethnologist describes, this cycle results in a chronic state of despair, where socioeconomic and political conditions result in long-term disruption. This affects communities both psychologically and physically as sociologist Daina Cheyenne Harvey explains. We see this clearly with the Indian Ocean case study where the disaster aftermath is extended into a permanent way of life, for example, by the displacement of vulnerable populations.
Let’s hear from Naomi Klein, herself, about this on Moyers and on the Laura Flanders Show:
(Clip from Moyers)
“And you know, one of the things about deregulated capitalism is that it is a crisis creating machine. You take away all the rules and you’re going to have serial crises, economic crises, booms and busts, or there will be ecological crises. You’re going to have both. You’re going to have shock-after-shock-after-shock. And the longer this goes on, the more shocks you’re going to have.”
(Clip from Laura Flanders Show)
“And so we just have to accept that we live in a time of multiple, overlapping, intersecting crises. People are so overstressed and overburdened because of 40 years of neoliberal policy…”
But, does it have to be this way for communities that are affected by disaster? Increasingly, it has been documented how affected communities have decided that they are not going to accept this fate.
What we are seeing is this idea of decolonizing disaster responses. According to Devex, colonization in humanitarian aid and development refers to the idea that, quote, “Western researchers and practitioners impose their ideas on countries with low resources, without involving people from those places and while controlling key resources such as money” unquote. Decolonization is a radical redistribution of this format.
Alex Dupuy assesses the international response to disaster in developing nations. There is a rising movement for alternative efforts for mitigating climate-related disasters through bottom-up solutions. The dialogue centers again around “the blank canvas” post disaster. And the idea is that nonprofits and local communities should grab opportunities rather than predatory capitalist interests.
This retaliation is being documented in coastal communities where they are pushing back against top-down planning. This is examined by the Overseas Development Institute and by Gemma Sou who specializes in decolonizing disaster response. The idea is to shift from centralized, quote-on-quote, “protection” to a decentralized system where communities are empowered to decide on civil coastal protection.
Pushing for community empowerment should reduce the dependency on foreign aid and other international funding such as through the World Bank or the IMF, as Crystal described earlier. And communities further want to redefine the idea of “build back better”. Local residents are the most likely to suffer the consequences of climate change and so they want to decide instead what “better” should entail, both for them and also their environment.
The community-led movement is implying a bottom-up effect, where collective action by individuals can influence and generate change at the systemic level.
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And so, with climate change acting as a threat multiplier, we are now seeing an unprecedented number of categories 4 and 5 hurricanes devastating parts of the world. We’ve been talking about the Indian Ocean for most of the podcast, but one place where we expect to see increasing hurricanes is the Caribbean. And past hurricanes have demonstrated the same problems with disaster capitalism as well as responses and resistance, like in Puerto Rico and in Barbuda.
In 2018, 11 years after “The Shock Doctrine” was originally published, Naomi Klein released a book titled “The Battle for Paradise”. It narrates the aftermath of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, and, the community retaliation against forced privatization of education, of healthcare and electricity, among other social rights violations.
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Most of the island lost power for almost 3 years in the aftermath of those 2 hurricanes. These hurricanes simply exposed an underlying history of economic impoverishment and a failing power grid, all fueled by a long-standing colonial relationship with the United States. But it’s a great example where communities decided to fight back.
Groups of academics started publishing forums on disasters and the long-term political and social implications. They talked about the enforcement of neoliberal policies on energy access, which caused an unsustainable public dependency on one unreliable energy source.
And rural communities and non-profits individually and collectively started developing off-grid solar energy, becoming entirely self-reliant. These initiatives proposed alternatives to disaster capitalism that pushed instead for equity and ecological resilience.
Why are we talking about community organizing and a resistance against neoliberalism? A major concern in coastal communities vulnerable to hurricane damage is the relationship between coastal development and community vulnerability.
As we have seen, neoliberal practices are often much more detrimental to the environment than local or traditional economies. This movement is inherently tied to conservation because vulnerable, coastal communities are often living off the land, and rely on the land for protection against storms.
Let’s listen to a news clip from Channel 4, on how a lawyer who was hired by a local community in Barbuda reacts to seabird colonies being bulldozed to make way for an international airport, weeks after Hurricane Irma. None of the essential amenities such as power and water had yet been restored on the island and many of the local residents had been removed from their homes. The government claimed that the airport was planned to be constructed long before the hurricane hit. The civilians and activists say they were never consulted about it.
(Clip from Channel 4 News)
“There has to be consultation with the Barbudan people. Now I haven’t seen that and what’s troubling is, it’s been 10-11 weeks since the hurricane, and since that time hardly anything has been done in terms of restoring any of the essential services on the island to allow Barbudans to return home.
I haven’t seen an environmental impact assessment and no development in Antigua and Barbuda unless that is done, and that’s for a very good reason. You don’t just go around developing areas of natural beauty for no reason, without the area being properly assessed.”
Like the Barbudan community is implying, large-scale development and coastal engineering does not exactly help with coastal resilience against climate change. This is because naturally-occurring coastal ecosystems like sand-dunes and mangroves, act as physical defenses against natural disasters. By destroying these ecosystems, we become defenseless against storms and rising sea-levels.
So not only are communities pushing back against neoliberal policies and disaster capitalism in order to recover from natural disasters, they also want to be better prepared for future disasters under a scenario of climate change. They want to be less vulnerable.
And so organizations like USAID and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, advocate for nature-based solutions to build social and ecological resilience. This simply means investing in the preservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems to lessen the impacts of future disasters. As discussed in a 2018 article published in the journal of Environmental Science & Policy, intact coastal ecosystems are becoming increasingly valued as a way to provide resilience to natural disasters.
When communities push their agenda through the lens of conservation, they may sometimes collaborate with nature-oriented groups that look at preserving or restoring natural landscapes. But, using nature-based solutions doesn’t address all of the problems we’ve seen with who gets to decide, better for who, and better in what way. And nature-based solutions have also been critiqued for aligning with capitalist interests.
Much of the funding for alternative development and climate resilience projects is channeled through nonprofits or NGOs, even when initiatives are community led. If this is the case, we want to avoid another version of “humanitarian aid coming to the rescue”. The funding should be for projects which actually benefit the communities and empower them to make decisions. The use of nonprofit work through these communities needs to contrast with the NGOs that Colleen mentioned earlier. Remember, in the Indian Ocean we saw outsourcing of not very helpful development projects.
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And if there is this push for environmentally-friendly development or nature-based solutions, we need to make sure this doesn’t just create another market opportunity waiting to be privatized. Projects that are meant for community and ecosystem resilience should probably be, exactly that, and community-led. For example, Puerto Rico’s rural communities took initiative with their ingenious solar microgrids. But is there a threat of mainstream corporations coming in to steal their thunder, by providing mass-produced technology or striking a deal with the government?
As anthropologist Robert Fletcher comments in an article on capitalizing on disaster, there is always an economic opportunity to take advantage of a climate or conservation solution.
Crystal: So, are we on our way to building back better, better? There’s certainly a lot of food for thought. And we haven’t even touched upon how governments and corporations can reform their own practices. It is hard to prove that certain policies, political ideals or corporate interests can be the cause of specific suffering, but it is also hard to deny that certain socio-political systems compound coastal vulnerability, particularly in the wake of a changing climate and repeated disaster. We hope you started to see those patterns today.
If this episode spiked your interest in disaster capitalism, we recommend checking out Naomi Klein’s interview with Owen Jones on the Owen Jones Podcast published in March 2021. Similar discussions on development, environmental justice, and solutions for the climate change crisis can be heard on the Conversations in Development podcast hosted by Peter Mason, and the podcast, How to Save a Planet, hosted by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Thank you so much for listening.
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Wherever you are, we invite you to take a moment to think about what natural disasters affect your area and what kinds of support systems and responses are in place to cope post-disaster. For many communities, the most successful disaster recoveries begin far before the actual disaster event, with organizing, advocating, and preparing. Maybe your efforts to build back better can start today.
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[“Oyster Waltz” theme song]
Lisa Campbell: You’ve been listening to Seas The Day. Thanks so much for joining or rejoining us for this second season opener.
Today’s episode was written and recorded by Colleen Baker, Crystal Franco, and Claudia Meca Van den Berg.
Rafa Lobo edited the podcast.
Our theme music was written by Joe Morton and our artwork is by Steph Hillsgrove.
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @seasthedaypod
And to learn more about today’s episode and its authors, visit our website at sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday. You’ll find past episodes there as well.
Thanks for listening.
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