Unnatural Disaster

Puerto Rico, a territory of three-and-a-half million US citizens, is unplugged, de-sheltered and desperate for months to come. This tiny little island in the Caribbean, with more people than the Dakotas, Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont combined, now sits in the dark: lights out, refrigeration, too; hospitals closed; food crops destroyed; communication systems collapsed. In a fully foreseeable crisis, some combination of forces seems to have chosen unreadiness as the first response.

It’s a man-made pattern of history that turns storms into unnatural disasters — empire, money and power sorting out who lives, who dies, and who pays for the destabilization of the human habitat.  A succinct and dignified case against the unfairness of this picture has been laid out before the United Nations by Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of tiny Dominica. His island and his own home were smashed to bits by Hurricane Maria.  

Stuart Schwartz at Yale is our historian of the 500-year interaction of weather and people in the Caribbean. His remarkable book, Sea of Storms, reveals the various ways massive tropical storms haven been interpreted throughout the ages.  The European Christians who got to the West Indies in the 16th Century had never seen such weather before: and read it, first, as God’s hand, then as whimsical Nature; eventually as human failure.

Kumi Naidoo is a global activist from South Africa who sees the fight for environmental justice as a natural extension of his own anti-apartheid struggles as a teenager. A former Rhodes scholar, Kumi Nadioo’s activist path led him from Durban to Oxford to Amsterdam where he served as the first African executive director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to 2015.

Jason Moore is a social and environmental historian with a wake-up argument that the most critical combination in our world is carbon and capitalism. His book is Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.  He’s joined in conversation by Christian Parenti, an investigative reporter with a Ph.D. in sociology and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

Roy Scranton came back from his Army service in Iraq with a grim take on the war.  It’s our condition now, he says, that we are moments away from death, all day every day, and we know it.  After Iraq, Roy Scranton earned a Ph.D. in Literature at Princeton and wrote two books that have made waves: first the novel War Porn, and then an extended essay titled: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. He invited us this week to meditate on our fear that it’s “game over, ” not for the human species necessarily, but “over” as it was for the Sumerians or the Aztecs once upon a time. Climate change has sealed our collective fate.

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat closes out the program with a poem and few words on the continuing crisis in the Caribbean. You can listen here, too:


Guest List
Stuart B. Schwartz
George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale University and author of Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina
Kumi Naidoo
Chair of the Board for Africans Rising for Justice Peace and Dignity and former Executive Director for Greenpeace International
Jason W. Moore
associate professor of sociology at Binghamton University and author of Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital
Christian Parenti
professor in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence
Roy Scranton
assistant professor of English at Notre Dame University and author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

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  • Shirley

    I understood what our civilization was when the first person walked on the moon. What that person did was shoot a gulf ball onto the moon’s surface and leave it there. One small moment of fun for a man, one piece of garbage for eternity. When we left, we used the moon as a trash can, leaving our space junk. We litter wherever we go. Thoughtless.

  • writhe and shout

    A good show. The prime minister of Domenica captured the essence of the problem. Dominica was one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean — rivers, waterfalls…Jean Rhys grew up there and its presence colors The Wide Sargasso Sea. There are or were indigenous Carib people living there.

    Farther up the chain and equal the disaster. I grew up there and lived through various catastrophes, Hugo the last. Five months without power, scrambling for everything else. A simple solution to some of the region’s disaster problems would be to bury the power lines. But no, that would cost too much up front, hence the cycle of loss and pointless rebuilding of the grid. The buildings not built or rebuilt to code, so the roofs keep flying off, compromising the structural foundations as they wrench away. In the Philippines I saw people who would sink concrete pilings then try to secure the roof with a cable or rope. Etc. An elderly relative still incommunicado in Puerto Rico.

    • A in Sharon

      My only counterpoint is that the rebuilding is not pointless. It’s because people want to live a life. People in that situation do not spend the day thinking about rational possibilities. They and their families are wet, cold, hungry, thirsty. Some may argue its up to the “authorities” to make it happen. The reality is we know where that leads. In China, they simply bring in the cops to force the people out so that the building can take place. Cities signing on to be Olympic Committee slaves do the same thing. I presume you just got out, which will likely be the future for many.

  • Potter

    The “bookends” on this show were wonderful! The Dominican Prime minister was clear in his articulation, so right. Edwidge Danticot at the end has such a sweet voice! This proves again to me that the truth, reality, comes from people who suffer the most, and won’t come until we suffer too. In the meanwhile we collectively go on living high, unbothered politically…that is until disaster of one form or another, and even then. It gets harder to be optimistic.

    Good discussion between Jason and Christian. Thank you once again for a great show, well put together, on what we need to be focussing on and understanding now full time.

    The music at the end ( can you identify ?)..Merci Mon Dieu (?) so perfect, so simple.

    • Potter

      Excellent informative article linked above :How Puerto Rico Recovered Before.

      “Puerto Rico, you lovely island, island of tropical breezes…..Always the pineapples growing,
      Always the coffee blossoms blowing . . . .”