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Intersectional Disasters

Intersectional Disasters

I have returned from Minnesota not the least bit refreshed but nevertheless somewhat re-energized by my experience. This was my first time talking with such a large group of leftists, and it was both sobering and inspiring to get to listen to them and to share thoughts. If you find yourself able to go to such a gathering sometime, I recommend it. And since this newsletter was the whole reason I was invited, I thought I would share a shortened version of my talk with you all.

This is not exactly a new concept, neither to the world nor to readers of this newsletter. But I think something that we don't talk about enough in our discourse regarding climate change, fascism, and an increasingly authoritarian state is that these three actors (representing, at times, more nebulous concepts) are almost always interacting with one another, overlapping, colliding, and generally magnifying the up-with-which-they-fuck-shit.

Put another way, no disaster occurs without context. And we live in a world of bad contexts.

Historical Examples of Intersectional Disaster and Collapse

In November of 1970, what has come to be known as the Bhola Cyclone struck what is present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal. It was a powerful storm, a Category-4 by today’s standards, and it killed far and away the most people of any comparable storm system, with over 300,000 dead. Now, Bangladesh is uniquely vulnerable to a storm like this, with millions of people living in low-lying areas. The storm surge alone killed most of those who perished. But it wasn’t just geography that created this problem, and the people that would become Bangladeshi weren’t only confronting this single storm.

I am doing this history a disservice, but, briefly: with the dissolution of the British Raj in India in 1947, new national boundaries were drawn up and Pakistan was formed--twice, in West and East Pakistan, East Pakistan being over a thousand miles away from West, with India between the two. Given that kind of distance, differences mounted (and already existed) between West and East Pakistan until a self-determination movement arose in East Pakistan. This came to a head in 1971, following an election that was won by the East Pakistan-based Awami League, a political party opposed to the ruling faction in West Pakistan and for the self-determination of the Bangladeshi region. The Awami League won that election in part due to the bungling of relief efforts following the Bhola Cyclone. What followed was an internecine conflict that devolved into genocide and civil war, eventually leading to the establishment of an independent Bangladesh. While 300,000-500,000 people were killed due to Bhola, upwards of 3,000,000 were killed in the genocide that followed.

In 2006, Syria began to suffer under a prolonged drought. Over the course of five years, fully 85% of livestock in the country perished, and nearly a million farmers directly lost their livelihood. One and a half million people pulled up their stakes and moved into the cities for work and food. If that doesn’t seem like a lot, in 2010 the population of Syria was only 22 million--this would be equivalent to roughly the entire population of New York state up and moving in the US. Along with burgeoning political unrest against the Assad regime, this influx of dissatisfied and hungry migrants to cities only increased the metaphorical temperature. The cost of food soared--one of the chief indicators of trouble to come. By July of 2011, armed conflict had erupted. The war would last years, involve multiple other countries, and kill an estimated 600,000 people. Some level of conflict, through various parties, continues to this day.

On a much smaller scale, Hurricane Katrina played out in a similar way in New Orleans, exhibiting the same intersections of threats to life and safety: a natural disaster becomes exacerbated by already festering socio-economic wounds, which then erupt into conflict. Contexts of simmering political strife come to a full boil when pressure is added.

Haiti has suffered what you might call a rolling intersection of disasters essentially since its liberation from the French. Forced into poverty by their colonizers, Haiti has weathered natural disasters and the encroachment of white nations ever since. In 2010, the nation suffered a tremendous earthquake, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving over a million homeless. During the subsequent relief effort, a UN base managed to contaminate a river with their wastewater, causing a cholera outbreak. A series of storms and political unrest lead us to the present, in which Haiti’s president Jovenel Moise was assassinated in 2021 amid a controversial stay in office. Since the president’s assassination, no elected official remains in the government. Subsequent disasters have hampered any attempts at recovery, and the island nation is largely now controlled by gangs.

At this point you might be wondering why all of my examples are in non-European nations or cities that are predominantly Black. I think you know the answer. One of the ever-present contexts in these scenarios are the exploitations of white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. Suffering through these disasters and in effect what is momentary or long-lasting collapse is a direct result of these regions either being neglected, exploited, brutalized, or all of the above.

Future Disasters and Collapse

Class attendees and I, at this point in the presentation, posited how we might see the intersection of other contexts and crises in a few given scenarios. I'll leave you with a couple and let you ponder where these roads might take us.

Widespread derecho: Not something I ever heard of as a kid, derechos are powerful straight-line windstorms created by a group of fast-moving severe thunderstorms known as mesoscale convective systems, which is a way less punchy way of saying “land hurricane.” In the summer of 2012, a “land hurricane” developed over Iowa and moved east, spreading from northern Illinois across Indiana, most of Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and into New Jersey. The peak measured windspeed was over 90 mph and sustained winds were in the 80s--literally the kind of power associated with a hurricane. Over a million people in Ohio lost power, some for over 5 days, and 22 people died. So imagine in the summer of 2024 that one of the season's only thunderstorms winds up being a derecho, born on the plains of South Dakota and growing, southeastward, until it blows across the East Coast as far south as Savannah, Georgia. Let’s say this happens on July 15th, the first day of the RNC in Milwaukee.

Overzealous government response to protest: After a sudden economic downturn, President Biden and House Speaker McCarthy announce a series of austerity measures designed to tighten the government’s belt while bailing out a failing bank. In doing so, they create another recession, with the pinch particularly felt around social services. A protest movement rises in response across the country, with citizens occupying state-owned spaces. After a brutal crackdown in Oklahoma City that was augmented by a fasc militia, the idea spreads and several red-state/blue-cities find themselves in continued street battles between protesters and a state/fasc combo. People are being evicted from their homes in the middle of summer, roving packs of fascists are fighting with entrenched leftists, and the cops are smoking out entire city blocks.

Fascist attack on power stations: In the early fall of 2024, wheat and corn prices skyrocket on word of a thin harvest from the US and Canada. Food prices worldwide soar once again. With the presidential election just over a month away, and the latest case against Trump drumming up rage, a spate of attacks on power stations supplying cities and even towns with a leftist bent occur, which are compounded when two power stations are then attacked again while repairs are underway. Mutual aid organizations are repressed by local governments out of fear of any radical influence, leaving many hungry and without recourse. It is unseasonably warm in the leadup to November, and the country seems a powderkeg.