New Orleans, August 30, 2005. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

The rich win, the poor lose: We want to believe that everyone will pull together in a natural disaster -- but they won't

Events like Katrina affect everyone, but the way each group can capitalize on a disaster is incomparably different


John C. Mutter
September 6, 2015 5:46AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer"

Th[e] mind-set —that a “problem people” majority must be contained for the sake of the privileged minority who live among them—is all too common around the world. From it we can discern a narrative common to most natural disasters almost regardless of where they happen and how citizens are governed. First, a terrible event happens. Nature has a tantrum, everything seems terribly wrong, outside the norm. A massive fire erupts on an oil rig. A riot breaks out. The ground shakes violently where no one could remember it ever having shaken before. A massive storm arrives out of nowhere. This is analogous to stage 1 in Susan Sontag’s brilliantly satirical description of science fiction movies of the 1950s—it’s the arrival of the Thing. In the movies Sontag discusses, the Thing almost always arrives in the United States or Japan, often from outer space but sometimes from deep inside Earth. The terrible event of a disaster can arrive anywhere.

The authorities are the most surprised, or act as if they are, even though they should be the least surprised. The class, race, or ethnic group of those who form the authorities, whether a military junta, a major company, or an elected governor, does not reflect that of the majority of the people most affected by the event. The authorities consist of a small, perhaps tiny elite that holds almost all the wealth and political power. They don’t care very much about those most affected by the event. They have to say they care and sometimes they do initially, but that soon fades. The Thing doesn’t care about any humans, either.

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Scientists say they are not surprised. They say “I told you so,” and then are not heard from again. Sometimes a smug scientist is interviewed on television. When the Thing emerges, the press is initially delighted. They describe it in apocalyptic terms and rush to see it for themselves and report back from the field, breathless and harried. Scientists do the same.

The authorities downplay the scale of the event, wanting us to think it’s not as bad as reporters and scientists are saying. You can’t believe those reports, the authorities tell us. We all know how they exaggerate. Don’t worry; everything is under control. You can trust those in authority. New Orleans is over 80 percent submerged—no problem, we’ve got it, we’ll send KBR, the private security firm that was made infamous when a group of Blackwater guards was involved in the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians. A no-bid contract to KBR would get things moving along the fastest.

An attempt is made to deal with the event that is in proportion to its advertised, downscaled magnitude. In Sontag’s science fiction movies, for example, police are sent in to deal with the Thing and are slaughtered. The head of Homeland Security pays no attention to Katrina and trusts Michael Brown to deal with the problem. At least in science fiction, or figuratively, Brown will be slaughtered soon enough. In Myanmar, the generals ask, Cyclone? What cyclone are you talking about? Everyone in the elite stands flat-footed for days, hoping that the Thing will go away. Incompetent people in government who are political appointees with little to no experience make pathetic efforts to deal with it. People in the affected area try to help each other because no help has arrived. Lying and finger-pointing begin. All attempts to kill the Thing are failing badly.

The elite start to panic while regular people don’t, although the media says they do. But soon the regular people start to realize they do not have the capacity to gain control of the situation and no one has come to their assistance. People who have been bravely helping each other realize that food and water are running out. They can’t produce either out of thin air. Because no one has come to help, the people take what they need from stores. The media sometimes call these actions provisioning (if performed by members of the elite’s racial group) and sometimes call it looting (if performed by those outside the elite’s group).

Frustration mounts among the affected population. They are angry but not panicked and are starting to feel hostile. Members of the elite class in the affected area are long gone, having left at the first news of the Thing. If they made the mistake of staying, they are rescued by the first of the rescuers to arrive on the scene and are treated for any injuries they might have sustained.

Looting, whether real or imagined, extensive or trivial, begins in earnest and is a game changer. Looting is a godsend for the elite. It’s a way out, a way to deflect attention from their incompetence. Looting is a godsend for the media, too, and where earlier the elite wanted  everyone to ignore the media, now they want everyone to believe the media. No more downplaying. The media are showing things as they really are, they tell us. By this time, the Thing that arrived to start all the trouble is gone, and it’s hard to keep the public’s attention. The story has moved back a few pages in the newspapers and is no longer the first item discussed on the nightly news. Then, luckily, looting “breaks out,” and there is something to exaggerate and moralize about, a way to frame a story that the public will accept—a framing adapted from movies mixed with racial and class bias. The event is back on the front page again. When there are no reports of looting—as in Japan after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami—media focus remains on government incompetence and inconsistent reporting from authorities.

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The elite who supposedly struggled to quell the Thing are able to say that the very people they were trying to save from the monster are actually monsters themselves. They are problem people behaving badly, rejecting the elite’s valiant, not to mention expensive, efforts to help them. They are criminals, bad people, not only stealing luxury goods from stores owned by good people but raping and killing each other, even children. It doesn’t matter that few if any of the stories of rape and murder are substantiated; it’s just what you would expect these non-elites to do. What next? Soon they will start killing and raping members of the elite. They must be suppressed at all costs. We need curfews, martial law, the military, and shoot-to-kill orders. That’s the only hope.

By this time in the disaster event, the Thing re-emerges; it had not gone away at all. But it has changed. It is no longer an act of Nature; it’s a group of people. The military is brought in. In some countries, the military is already there. Looting and crime, real or manufactured by the media, become the reason to wage war on the people.

The elite win. How can they not? They command the military. “Peace” is restored.

Scientists give advice. Sontag’s young hero scientist, having built a device to kill the Thing in his lab, stands cheek to cheek with his beautiful girlfriend, looks into the sky, and asks, “But will they return?”

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Today’s scientists say the Thing will return, and it will be bigger and more aggressive than ever. They recommend abandoning places where the Thing might appear next and creating massive fortifications against it everywhere that matters to them. Members of the elite consider protecting themselves but hardly anyone else. Plans are being considered for a storm barrier to protect lower Manhattan, for example, but not much can be done about the Rockaways. That’s too bad, but what were those people doing there in the first place? What were people doing in the Lower Ninth Ward? Didn’t those problem people know it was dangerous?

Now the second opportunity opens wide: The winners can plunder the vanquished. It’s their turn to loot, but they would never call it that. Money is needed and needed quickly. No time for lengthy bidding processes, review, and oversight. “Dangerous” lands must be taken and used for better purposes. Scientists agree. In rich countries, that means gentrification or “urban renewal”—euphemisms for property development that benefits the elite and enriches them. In poorer countries, it means land grabs under bizarre laws made by the elite that typically ensure that regular people either do not own land or can be easily displaced from areas they have been farming and living on for generations. Or rebuilding in a damaged area becomes so expensive and so regulation-restricted that those who lived there earlier (in the Lower Ninth of New Orleans, for instance) can’t possibly afford to return. The losers also lose what capital assets they might have had, and the winners gain them. Capital is key to gaining wealth. If winners already had private capital assets, and they usually do, those assets become more valuable. The winners can control who gets the lucrative contracts for reconstruction of public infrastructure and ensure that they go to members of the elite.

The rich win; the poor lose.

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It’s completely expected in a world of great inequality that the outcome of a natural disaster will also be unequal. Disasters may well affect everybody, rich or poor, in some way, and they are never pleasant for anyone. We want to believe that a disaster is a moment when everyone pulls together—but it is not. It is a moment of pulling apart because the effect on each group is so different, and the way each group can cope is vastly different. The way each group can capitalize on a disaster is incomparably different—the rich can, the poor can’t. Schumpeter’s gale puts wind in the sails of the rich’s yachts but sinks the fragile craft of the poor. The rich can move further up; the poor can only stay in their poverty trap or slide down the slope back into the trap—descending from having land and a meager income to no land and no income, for example.

Thomas Piketty, the French economist who recently rose to international stardom with his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has argued that the only time inequality decreases is in times of catastrophe, after which inequality inexorably rises again as returns on capital outpace the overall economy (r > g). Piketty is referring to financial crises; the opposite is true for natural disaster crises, where owners of capital see the value of that capital actually increase rapidly in the immediate postdisaster period. Disasters make the owners of capital even more wealthy; those lacking capital are made poorer, and inequality becomes greater.

Excerpted from "The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer" by John C. Mutter. Copyright 2015 John C. Mutter. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.

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