Material World – Disasters, natural and unnatural

Adana, Turkey – 6 February 2023

Once again the world shudders at the news of another ‘natural’ disaster, as the death toll climbs from the Turkish-Syrian earthquake. It is again apparent that even a ‘natural’ disaster can be mitigated. Similar misfortunes are invariably presented in the media as unavoidable and to a certain degree, this is true. But it ignores the consequences of the pursuit of profit at the expense of prevention and it is not a coincidence that the number of victims of various disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes is clearly related to the extent of their poverty. What all the casualties share is that they are mostly poor and it was their apartment blocks tumbling down and reduced to rubble.

It is necessary to understand why the poor suffer more even in natural calamities. Earthquakes are inevitable, but the accompanying casualty figures are not. It is falling buildings that take lives, not the tremors in the ground. No matter how severe an earthquake is on the Richter Scale, if buildings were correctly constructed many people would survive. This does not happen in the poorer countries of the earthquake-prone regions because precautionary guidelines to make them more resistant are seldom followed.

The world is structured in such a way that poor people are and will always be the most susceptible to disasters. They are unable to prevent disasters and lack the reserves to recover when they hit. Poorer communities take far longer to rebuild and are far more likely to be affected by subsequent disease outbreaks such as cholera. They grow further impoverished because they cannot afford to rebuild.

Many modern buildings have been equipped to withstand seismic shocks. In wealthy countries, architects have designed ’active’ buildings, some mounted on top of massive rubber shock absorbers or other systems to counteract seismic shaking. What’s the likelihood of such sophisticated technology being used for dwellings in poverty-stricken areas? Using elaborate building methods and materials, there is no reason why there should be any undue loss of life or major destruction after experiencing even the most powerful of earthquakes.

Having witnessed the tragedy unfolding in Turkey and Syria, we see how people are endowed with the ability to sympathise and empathise with others and even in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis contribute to charities to alleviate some of the suffering being experienced. People are at their best when things are at their worst. When a major catastrophe strikes, we can always rely on people responding with whatever they can give towards the relief of the survivors. Volunteers are never lacking nor slow in coming forward to offer whatever help they can.

If there is any good that comes from this catastrophe and other calamities it is that human beings show themselves as an inherently caring species. One reason capitalism persists is that it fosters a lack of confidence and conviction in working people’s deep compassion for others. It seems our society has been influenced to believe that nothing can be done. That big death tolls from quakes, volcanoes or floods are inevitable. Unlike the media, socialists strive to explain capitalism’s culpability and socialism’s solutions.

Being poor means having very little control over your own existence. While some disasters cannot be avoided, others are completely preventable. Is it controversial to argue that capitalism, with its emphasis on profit, means that any disasters which do happen are likely to be more serious and harmful than would otherwise be the case?

Most dangers from Nature are well known and there is no need to leave communities exposed to them. Earthquakes are natural phenomena. It is known where they are likely to happen but not when. So society could take action to minimise the impact and it makes no sense deliberately to court disaster.

One reason earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and floods kill so many people is that people live and work in known danger zones. Under capitalism, it is a question of necessity which stops people from moving to safer lands.

It must be clear that nobody would voluntarily live alongside a ticking time-bomb, and given the freedom of movement implied by the abolition of private property, we can surmise the largest contribution to protecting lives in a socialist world will come from populations changing locations away from high-risk areas. A massive mobilisation of people to other regions would be inconceivable today but not necessarily in socialism.

Contingency plans should exist throughout the world for the relief of any catastrophe. Saving lives could become a new ‘un-armed forces’ raison d’être. Bodies of fit, well-trained, well-resourced, motivated men and women available to deal with the effects of natural disasters and unexpected calamities would be one of a number of ways to deploy willing volunteers, for humanitarian intervention. Emergency stocks of food, clean water, and medical supplies would be maintained at strategic points whilst machinery, equipment and helpers would be moved quickly to the area of crisis. Appeals for money are an insufficient substitute for releasing real resources. Capitalism exacerbates supposedly ‘natural’ disasters. The best disaster relief is offered through solidarity.

The best disaster preparedness we can have is to build the kinds of communities we want and seek to live in anyway. What kept many alive after floods, hurricanes or earthquakes, and is keeping them alive today, is a culture of solidarity and mutual aid. Social solidarity is a strategy through which marginal communities survive, and through which relationships thrive. Volunteers, neighbours and strangers alike from the community come forward as first and second responders.


Next article: A winter of discontent ⮞

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