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Friday, September 16, 2005

Guest Post: Katrina was environmental and social blowback

This article by Eli Greig, published on Melbourne Indymedia on Hurricane Katrina, was promoted as a story feature on the front page. I was an editor at Melbourne Indymedia at the time, although the decision to promote would have been a collective one. Although it doesn't mention climate change or global warming, it raises important questions about disaster response and adaptation very relevant for today. Eli Greig was Social Justice & Environmental Projects Officer at Monash University Student Association. I am republishing it in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina. - John Englart 12 July 2015

What has happened and is happening in New Orleans poses critical questions to our assumptions about the great traditions of western thought and social progress.

The first and most important question that must be answered is, was the cause of the levies breaking simply a lack of investment in old, yet critical infrastructure or is it a fundamental question on the failure of a market economy and the subjugation of civil society to neo-classical economics?

If you believe that the levies broke through a mere lack of engineering and that the solution lies in more engineering, then you may as well not read on. Just ask yourself one question: What assumptions and what ideological fabric underpin the drastic reduction of funds from federal grants for levee maintenance, and their subsequent redirection to war making?

Why did the Bush administration divert $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corp of Engineers, a 44% cut? With the loss of Federal funds plans to upgrade pumps and fortify levees were mothballed.

This is in no way meant to be glib, let's attempt to question neo-conservatism. To think and to question is not anti Bush and is not anti- American, as the windbags in the reactionary press would have us believe. Rather, it is an opportunity for those with a broader perspective on society; the economy and human relations to take a good long hard look at the foundations of western society and delve into the causes and consequences of this humanitarian and environmental disaster.

We do not need to play politics at times like this, when the game is well and truly on. We must think about and tackle the political; economic and social orthodoxy head on; only if we do this we may find some answers and some positive outcomes.

In the heartland of modernity we are witnessing a catastrophe on the scale westerners are used to watching on TV in some far off place. And what we are bearing witness to, is the collapse of the fa├žade that neo-classical economists have utilised over the past 50 years to cloak themselves. The collapse exposes and lays bare the great disparities that tear at the very fabric of American society. These disparities in wealth, in access to critical infrastructure such as health, education and transport and in access to real freedom are at the heart of the problem in American and sadly now Australian culture.

The juxtaposition of great wealth and poverty is laid bare in the baking Gulf sun.

The economic philosophy and the systemic problems that create this inequality are been repeatedly displayed, yet all too seldom examined or questioned.

President Bush initially said that no one could have predicted this. This was blatant untruth. Various groups had been work-shopping a scenario remarkably similar to Katrina. What did they find? Approximately 250,000 people may be left behind and unable to evacuate.

With 25% of the population below the poverty line and a general community amongst the poorest in America, mostly working poor, one would have thought it was prudent to provide ways to evacuate, but no Bush asked people to take individual responsibility rather forevacuation.

His charades of compassion such as telling newly destitute people to go to a non existent Salvation Army shelter, of setting up a food distribution center for the cameras and dismantling it as soon as the American press leaves, these gross acts of deception , captured by European media, were the acts of a disconnected and politically manipulative system.

The Bush administration mouthed platitudes about respecting the dead, collecting and caring for the bodies; yet the first thing done was to outsource the collection process to a private company who subsequently complained about the contract and left some of the bodies to rot.

Well of course we need to take individual responsibility for our own actions, but what about civility, what about the broader questions of family and society, of responding together to confront great adversity.

It is often said that the true test of civil society, is how we treat our most vulnerable members...

When a society decides that they will not provide basic health and services to its citizens, when an under classes emerges and flourishers - civil society is either broken or sadly lacking. An overt focus on individualism, freedom of choice, and reliance on market forces will leave the vulnerable lacking the basic services a civil society ought to provide. A lack of respect for oneself and broader society is surely the path to long-term decline and collapse.

Has the American Polity reached a tipping point? If so which way will they go?

Most observant people have long known that great inequality exists and that ignorance of its consequences prevails in modern consciousness.
It often takes monumental events to awake the great power of human awareness and action; and often in destruction we can find great creativity.

At present the two worlds of America sit cheek by jowl; they co-exist but do not cooperate.

Will Katrina lead to a re-evaluation of the role of civil society and Public institutions, of the provision of infrastructure, access to employment and access to critical facilities such as schools, hospitals and public transport?

Will Katrina blow away some cobwebs and let creative and intelligent minds find positive responses to the disaster?

Or will we slavishly follow economic theory, hastily rebuild and wait for the prosperity to trickle down?

Apparently President Bush is a deeply religious man; he should then know that all Gods display great vengeance and enact destruction upon their children. But they do so with an expectation of a humane and creative response, Is Bush Jnr attuned to this?

At this stage we cannot discount fresh ideas, we need to remember the great social history of ideas that dominates western thought. We need bold ideas, big new plans and brave and competent leaders. It is the responses we bring to the discussion, and a brave new world, which will challenge the orthodox.


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