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
Reading List
"The Capitalocene"
Benjamin Kunkel
"If We Fail"
Christian Parenti

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