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Shameless Disaster Capitalism: How Companies Are Already Planning to Get Rich Off Superstorm Sandy

Yes that’s right: this catastrophe very likely created by climate change—a crisis born of the colossal regulatory failure to prevent corporations from treating the atmosphere as their open sewer—is just one more opportunity for more deregulation.

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One example: between 2008 and 2010, at least 261 patents were filed or issued related to “climate-ready” crops—seeds supposedly able to withstand extreme conditions like droughts and floods; of these patents close to 80 percent were controlled by just six agribusiness giants, including Monsanto and Syngenta. With history as our teacher, we know that small farmers will go into debt trying to buy these new miracle seeds, and that many will lose their land.

When these displaced farmers move to cities seeking work, they will find other peasants, indigenous people and artisanal fishing people who lost their lands for similar reasons. Some will have been displaced by foreign agribusiness companies looking to grow export crops for wealthy nations worried about their own food security in a climate stressed future. Some will have moved because a new breed of carbon entrepreneur was determined to plant a tree farm on what used to be a community-managed forest, in order to collect lucrative credits.

In November 2010,  The Economist ran a climate change cover story that serves as a useful (if harrowing) blueprint for how climate change could serve as the pretext for the last great land grab, a final colonial clearing of the forests, farms and coastlines by a handful of multinationals. The editors explain that droughts and heat stress are such a threat to farmers that only big players can survive the turmoil, and that “abandoning the farm may be the way many farmers choose to adapt.” They had the same message for fisher folk inconveniently occupying valuable ocean-front lands: wouldn’t it be so much safer, given rising seas and all, if they joined their fellow farmers in the urban slums? “Protecting a single port city from floods is easier than protecting a similar population spread out along a coastline of fishing villages.”

But, you might wonder, isn’t there a joblessness crisis in most of these cities? Nothing a little “reform of labor markets” and free trade can’t fix. Besides, cities, they explain, have “social strategies, formal or informal.” I’m pretty sure that means that people whose “social strategies” used to involve growing and catching their own food can now cling to life by selling broken pens at intersections, or perhaps by dealing drugs. What the informal social strategy should be when super storm winds howl through those precarious slums remains unspoken.

For a long time, climate change was treated by environmentalists as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor. They failed to account for the myriad ways by which the superrich would protect themselves from the less savory effects of the economic model that made them so wealthy. In the past six years, we have seen the emergence of private firefighters in the United States, hired by insurance companies to offer a “concierge” service to their wealthier clients, as well as the short-lived “HelpJet”—a charter airline in Florida that offered five-star evacuation services from hurricane zones. “No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class experience that turns a problem into a vacation.” And, post-Sandy, upscale real estate agents are predicting that back-up power generators will be the new status symbol with the penthouse and mansion set.

It seems that for some, climate change is imagined less as a clear and present danger than as a kind of spa vacation; nothing that the right combination of bespoke services and well-curated accessories can’t overcome. That, at least, was the impression left by the Barneys New York pre-Sandy sale—which offered deals on Sencha green tea, backgammon sets and $500 throw blankets so its high-end customers could “settle in with style”. Let the rest of the world eat “social strategies, formal or informal.”

 
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