As we respond to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, followed almost immediately by Rita, what can we learn? As we seek to ease the pain of the victims and survivors, how can we understand these events and the many issues they have raised?
These hurricanes starkly highlighted structural poverty and inequity in the US, deeply tied to race and class. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath exposed years of neglect of New Orleans’ infrastructure as well as neglect of the timely and efficient rescue of its people. Also exposed were the empty promises of the neoliberal agenda, promoted around the world in the garb of American-style development, economic globalization, and free trade. The trickle down theory doesn’t work. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats—just the yachts. As we saw in New Orleans and in the whole region, many are sinking, caught not only in floodwaters but in a system that sacrifices basic human needs on the altars of profit and greed.
Some call this system “global capitalism” or “corporate globalization.” Some call it “corporate rule.” Some call it “Empire.”
Before Hurricane Katrina, money designated to reinforce New Orleans’ levees was diverted to the war in Iraq. Afterwards, National Guard units that had been deployed to Iraq were unavailable to respond to the disaster. Some units were from Louisiana. The costs of the war, in terms of the safety and security of Americans, are now obvious, and support for the war continues to decline. People realize that the war was started under false pretenses, and that there is no clear goal, timeline, or exit strategy.
There really is no exit strategy, because there is no plan for leaving. The US is building 14 military bases and the largest US embassy in the world. US military goals are both geopolitical and economic—to dominate the Middle East (and ultimately, the whole world) and to have access to world’s resources (in this case, Middle East oil.) Tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians, and over 2,000 American and other foreign soldiers have been sacrificed for these goals.
But we are not safer. Terrorist acts are increasing. As the situation in Iraq deteriorates, anti-American sentiment continues to grow. Corporate profits also continue to grow, even as our resources, infrastructure, security, and overall standard of living decline.
Furthermore, our oil-based economy is, in itself, a problem. The scientific consensus is that human-induced climate change is already underway, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which release CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere. We can’t say that any particular hurricane is the direct result of global warming, but we can say that computer-generated scientific predictions (including more frequent and violent hurricanes) seem to be playing themselves out as the overall climate continues to warm.
Hurricane Katrina revealed other environmental problems as well. It left behind extensive toxic contamination and countless oil spills, which demonstrate the potential hazards of industrialized society to all life, human and non-human alike. The fact that neighborhoods of color were most affected also demonstrated the environmental racism inherent in the placement of hazardous and polluting industries.
I have only been to New Orleans once. Several years ago, the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society sent me there to a Conference for organizers from around the country who were working on issues related to human health and the environment. The location for the Conference , New Orleans, wasn’t a random choice. The nickname “Cancer Alley” acknowledges the relationship between toxic chemicals and human health. Local environmental activists hosted a “toxics tour” of the region, which included meetings with residents of highly polluted neighborhoods. We observed that highly polluting industries were always in or near poor neighborhoods of color. They were also often near vulnerable wetlands, affecting birds and other wildlife. Such policies reveal both environmental racism and a careless disregard for God’s non-human creation.
(We spent the evenings enjoying the local culture, including Zydeco music and cajun food. I even learned some of the basics of Zydeco dancing. Walking down Bourbon Street, in addition to the music that streamed out of the clubs, there were countless strands of colored Mardi Gras beads and elaborately feathered masks. I didn’t have the heart to buy any for my grandchildren, however, because they all said, “Made in China.”)
In days following Katrina, Blackhawk, a private (mercenary) firm that provides militarized security in Iraq, patrolled the streets of New Orleans with shoot to kill orders. At the same time, FEMA’s inept handling of emergency response reveals our extreme vulnerability and lack of preparedness of any sort of disaster including, God forbid, a terrorist attack.
Reconstruction plans for New Orleans have also exposed not just social and governmental flaws, but entrenched structural injustice. Instead of engaging the people of New Orleans in helping plan and rebuild their city, the reconstruction process already involves no-bid contracts for large corporations, a lowering of the minimum wage, cheap labor brought in by trucks from the outside, and plans from on high to completely redesign the city. Some residents fear that such plans will destroy valuable aspects of New Orleans culture and bring gentrification, making it impossible for them to return.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have revealed, like no other recent events, the many interrelated challenges we face, including poverty, inequity, racism, global warming, toxic pollution, corporate profiteering, war, and militarism. With such grave challenges,
how can we possibly work effectively for change? Where do we begin?
Right where we are. Since the many social and ecological struggles we face are interconnected, we can pray for guidance and creatively work for change in our own present circumstances. We can also educate ourselves about the global economic system, dominated by powerful transnational corporations and enforced by the US military. We can “follow the money,” to discover who benefits from the current system, and how it is designed and perpetuated. In other words, we can come to understand and directly challenge the “Powers that Be.”
The large corporations that dominate the US government continue to reap profits. Oil companies that lobby against fuel efficiency standards and the Kyoto Protocol, measures that would reduce the threat of global warming, continue to reap record profits, while prices at the gas pump continue to rise. Chemical corporations lobby for chemicals to remain “innocent until proven guilty” and against the Precautionary Principle, which would help protect the public from toxic chemicals. Weapons manufacturers market their deadly wares to Congress and lobby to promote weapons systems, military policies, and specific wars. Large industrial development corporations, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, lobby for privatization, free trade agreements and specific development projects (for instance, in New Orleans and Iraq). These and other large corporations spend millions to fund voter initiatives. They make huge campaign contributions to both parties, giving them access to whoever is in power.
The global system is not in place accidentally. As the saying goes, “The system is designed for the results it’s getting.” Even through the devastation of these hurricanes, the system is paying off for those for whom it is designed—that is, for the wealthy few and for large transnational corporations.
But as we have seen in the outpouring of support for the hurricane victims from people all around the world, there are other dynamics at work as well. There is another form of globalization taking place—a globalization from below. People everywhere realize that we are one human family, and that our futures are intertwined.
Some things are beyond our power to change. Climate change, for instance, creates its own feedback loops. Mother Nature takes over. And if the ecosystems of the world collapse, no one, no matter how wealthy or powerful, will be exempt.
But we can change some things. People can be very resourceful and the earth can be very resilient. We don’t know what the future holds. But we do have a choice—to follow the Powers on their path to global violence, chaos, and destruction or to follow the way of life offered to us by the sages, prophets, and people of conscience through the ages.
Social change begins with a change in the human heart. Who do we serve—God or the Powers? How do we send our time, our money, our energy, our attention? What fears govern us? What compulsions? Are we willing to move toward freedom, to risk living in hope, and to assume and act on the authority over the Powers that God has given us as human beings?
Systemic change will require more than voting and contacting our elected representatives. Because our governing institutions have been so corrupted by corporate power, we will need to protest, to take to the streets in order to show them, each other, and the rest of the world that the political wind is changing, that a new spirit is at work—a spirit of transformation. This change will not come easily—it will require hard work and sacrifice. But it must be rooted in the principle of nonviolence, so that we don’t move from one form of injustice to another.
This will require careful organizing, training, and practice of nonviolent civil reisistance that is so much a part of our nation’s heritage. We celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday, as we should, but it would be an even greater honor if we practiced the principles of active nonviolence that he used, in order to bring peace and justice and ecological healing in our own day. After all, both Gandhi and King claimed that their inspiration and model for nonviolent resistance was Jesus.
At this critical time in the earth’s history, we must claim our birthright as children of God and assume the responsibility we have been given—to try to understand the dangers we face, to do what we can to repair the damage, to resist further harm, and to work with others to help build a peaceful, just, and sustainable world.
People working together for peace, justice and sustainability.