‘Natural disaster’. These words have been used a lot in the past month or so. But they’re words we need seriously to question. Of course, the Indian Ocean tsunamis themselves were not the fault of human activity; they were caused by tectonic movements that no human agency, no scuba-diving vanguard party or mass campaign, could prevent. But the fact that the attendant suffering was on such a tragic scale was the result of human acts and omissions.
Why didn’t the Pentagon issue a possible tsunami alert, despite the fact that the US military base on the island of Diego Garcia received more than enough advance warning? Similarly, why didn’t the government of Thailand act on information it was given? Then there were the precarious communication and emergency systems in many of the places hit, which would have made effective response to any alert difficult anyway. Also contributing to the tragedy was the human destruction of nature’s own sea defences: the region’s mangrove swamps and coral reefs. In other words, the production of a disaster is a complex combination of human and natural causes.
In this month’s Red Pepper we have responded to Boxing Day’s shocking reminder of the powerfully active nature of the earth by focusing on both the tragedy in south Asia and another disaster: the steadily building catastrophe of global warming. Global warming is also the product of a combination of natural and human activity, but, as Mark Lynas vividly describes, mankind certainly is the catalyst for this manifestation of earth’s destructive powers.
Historically, the left has viewed nature as something to be tamed. But the clear limits to the earth’s resources, the analyses coming from the green movement and the left’s own investigations and experiences have produced a seismic intellectual shift towards a recognition of the need to understand nature and work in partnership with it. Hopefully, this recognition will lead to a fresh determination to work for social and economic changes (including in our own lives) that might mitigate the disastrous legacy of our abuse of the planet and ensure that all peoples are equally prepared when genuinely ‘natural’ disasters do occur.
It helps if we see ourselves as products of nature, not outside it, but products of nature with free will. We can choose, for example, to rethink our own relationship to energy, reducing the way we waste it and the way we bump up our oil consumption without thinking. At the same time, we need to campaign for government to choose differently. Richard Heinberg and Elmar Altvater outline some of our options: ending our reliance on fossil fuels, and promoting the use of renewables; supporting development of local food markets and food production in the UK instead of oil-dependent supermarkets; moving, in all spheres of life, towards greater energy efficiency and patterns of reduced energy use.
Sometimes our political system in Britain seems so blocked and impermeable that New Labour itself faces us as a natural disaster. But the crisis in south Asia must lead us to renew our determination to work for progressive change. We must learn from those experiences when we have built really powerful campaigns in the past to create a climate change or global warning movement to transform the oil economies that capitalism has produced into ones based on sustainable energy.
Britain ‘s presidency of the G8 provides a great opportunity to kick-start such a movement. Downing Street will flood us with words on climate change while at the same time promoting oil-guzzling policies in transport, industry, food and the projects it funds overseas. We must be active in unvanquishable numbers exposing Blair’s hypocrisy and forcing action.
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