Disasters have always happened and always will. Sad, but true. Since they cannot be entirely avoided, the focus should be on whether a particular economic and political system exacerbates or creates more of them. We live under capitalism. It is a system built on profit-driven private ownership. Within this economic system, the state sometimes modifies the worst excesses that result from the profit motive, but basically exists to reinforce and maintain things as they are. I want to briefly examine how well capitalism stands up when it comes to the issue of disasters.
Take the Grenfell Tower fire in London, in June 2017, in which 72 people died, as an example.
The Grenfell Tower was built to the building codes at the time it was constructed in 1974. It had one stairwell to access the building and no fire sprinklers. The sprinklers were added later. So, too, were gas pipes. The problem was they were placed in the stairwell. The pipes supplying both water and gas narrowed the stairwell to the point it was inadequate in the event of a disaster. Fire drills were conducted. However, unlike those in many other places, the advice was to stay put unless the residents were in an apartment that was on fire or in a surrounding apartment.
The reasoning behind this strategy is sound enough according to the National Fire Chiefs Council in the United Kingdom https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/stay-put-position). However, it is not flawless.
The solid construction of the Grenfell Tower meant the fire was unlikely to spread before firefighters arrived. Evacuating only those directly at risk from the fire ensured that the stairwell was not jammed full of residents trying to get out and fire crews trying to get in. However, the fire drills did not consider the closure of nearby fire stations due to restructuring. It also didn’t factor in the possibility the fire might spread outside the building. So, by the time fire crews got to the Tower it was already well ablaze. This meant that many residents didn’t know what to do when confronted by fire coming from outside the building.
While all these factors contributed to the death toll there were four key things that caused most of the deaths according to the article https://www.firedoorscomplete.com/news/has-fire-safety-changed-since-grenfell
1. Overconfidence in the ability of the building to withstand a major fire.
2. Decades of neglect. The result was that electrical fires and other maintenance issues were common enough to be highlighted as a potential cause of a fatal fire by the building’s tenant’s group in an article published in their newsletter in November 2016. That included fire doors that didn’t function properly and expired fire hoses and other equipment that didn’t work properly, if at all.
3. The use of cheap aluminium cladding on the exterior that wasn’t fireproof. For £2 per metre extra the owners could’ve installed fireproof cladding (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/16/manufacturer-of-cladding-on-grenfell-tower-identified-as-omnis-exteriors ).
4. Over-reliance upon the “stay put” fire drills without a second plan in the event the “stay put” option wasn’t possible.
It was a design flaw in the cheap cladding put on the outside of the building (to make it look nicer for the wealthy neighbourhood that surrounded it) that made it act like a chimney when it caught fire. A fire that started on the 4th Floor ignited the aluminium and flames raced up the side of the building and fanned out at the top. The result was it incinerated the top floors before the residents had any chance to get out.
Twelve years earlier in September 2005 an even bigger disaster that was decades in the making, occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States. The city was struck by Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 Hurricane. Nearly 2,000 people died and thousands more had their lives disrupted.
In the 1960s the United States Army Corps of Engineers built a network of levees to prevent the sort of flooding caused by hurricanes in and around New Orleans. Due primarily to being built by army engineers on a huge scale it was assumed the levees could withstand anything that nature threw at them. What most did not know was that the levees were never designed to withstand a hurricane the strength of Katrina, let alone a moderate-strength one.
During the inquiry into the hurricane and its aftermath, it was revealed the engineers who designed and built the dams did so to the most conservative estimates of the kind of flooding that a hurricane could cause. Saving costs and the construction of a little used canal to the Port of New Orleans both played major roles in turning Katrina into the deadly disaster it became. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2005/10/24/investigators-link-levee-failures-to-design-flaws/d6dc41b1-4c31-4040-a692-0b6ba9bfb36f/ )
This over-confidence in the structures built by the military led to the neglect of the levees. Maintenance was either minor or non-existent. Residents in the lower-lying wards began to report water seeping through the base of nearby levees. Despite this, their concerns were dismissed. More remarkably, when one of the companies responsible for levee construction highlighted problems with the ground upon which they were built, they were ignored.
Indeed, the Washington Post article pointed out that:
“Reports of problems with the soft underlayer began to surface even before the floodwalls were finished. In 1994, the now-defunct Pittman Construction Co., a New Orleans firm involved in levee construction, claimed in court documents that floodwall sections were failing to line up properly because of unstable soils. An administrative law judge dismissed the complaint on technical grounds in 1998, without specifically addressing the allegations about weak soils.”
Those failures largely occurred in the very wards where concerns about water seepage and other issues were raised. The callous failure to evacuate those people who didn’t have their own transport – mostly working-class Black families and the poor – despite the fact there were vehicles that were available to evacuate them also contributed to the large death toll.
After the hurricane had passed through, those people went to evacuation sites, including a stadium. However, the destruction of water and sewerage infrastructure (which was partly the result of neglect) and the flood damage to road and rail links made it difficult to get food, water, and medical supplies to the evacuation centres.
After immense pressure, President George W Bush later admitted the failure of the relevant authorities to respond effectively to the disaster. In his own case, he had been on holiday when the disaster struck. Instead of immediately reacting to what had become “Baghdad on the Bayou”, he went to the opposite end of the country and didn’t even watch the aftermath on TV (Nick Bryant, ‘When America Stopped Being Great’, 2020, p.205)
In Aotearoa, we could get smug by thinking that such things could not happen here. The devastating floods that hit Auckland at the end of January 2023 and Cyclone Gabrielle only a couple of weeks later, showed that over-confidence, neglect through the failure to maintain facilities, and penny-pinching weren’t just confined to other places. Such tendencies are just as strong here.
No one could’ve predicted just how much rain would fall in Auckland in such a brief time. Likewise, how much flooding and landslides would be caused by Cyclone Gabrielle shortly afterward. However, like the two previous disasters discussed above, the factors that would lead to four deaths in the Auckland floods and eleven deaths (at the time of writing) as the result of Cyclone Gabrielle were decades in the making.
In Auckland, the stormwater drainage systems were known to be woefully inadequate and in desperate need of an upgrade. The planned upgrades were canceled in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of such work.
Elsewhere, similar problems with inadequate stormwater drainage systems, road networks that had often not been maintained for years (if not decades) and a privatised telecommunications and power network that was already struggling to cope with increased demand were known to people in charge of these essential infrastructures. The problem was those in charge were more concerned with reducing costs than maintaining or upgrading those services.
As a result, they all failed at the very time they were needed most. Indeed, with nearly all information being broadcast by the Internet or television it was impossible for people who had lost power – and therefore access to the Internet and phone networks – to access information or to call 111 or other emergency numbers.
None of these disasters were deliberate acts in the sense of anyone consciously causing them. Yet all three resulted in the loss of life that was largely preventable. All three disasters were the product of overconfidence in the ability of structures (and infrastructure) to withstand anything. This was despite decades of neglect resulting from that over-confidence and a penny-pinching mindset. This led to those organisations entrusted with maintaining these structures ignoring warnings. Why? It was cheaper to discredit the complainers than to fix the problems.
The Grenfell Tower was owned by the Royal and Kingsbridge Council. The levees are owned by the U.S. military. The stormwater drains and other infrastructure that failed in Auckland are owned by different councils. They were all neglected by various forms of government. The latter were convinced they knew what was best. They ignored warnings that, had they been listened to and acted on, would’ve reduced the level of destruction. Most of those who died wouldn’t have. However, governments have a long record of not listening or acting on what ordinary people say.
The three examples may look unrelated due to their relative scales and the geographical and chronological separation between them. However, there are links between how they were caused and how they played out. What occurred were not exceptions. There are many instances that could’ve been included here that would also have reflected the end result of a systemic obsession with the bottom line and indifference towards the mass of humanity. This isn’t about geography, nature, timing, or ‘bad people.’ It’s about a way of organising society that causes problems that either wouldn’t exist or otherwise greatly magnifies those that could be contained.
Is there an alternative? Could things be different?
Infrastructure isn’t easy to sort out. It can sometimes take years to see anything completed. It can be even longer to see the infrastructure subjected to the ultimate tests that nature and stupidity can throw at it. Housing, road, and rail networks; water and sewerage systems; telecommunications and electrical networks; and other infrastructure can’t be constructed and maintained by enthusiastic volunteers. There will be a need for professional and efficient organisation to deal with infrastructure that can handle the challenges posed by global climate change and population growth.
Anarchism is not a rejection of organisational structures. They will still exist in a free society. However, the people doing the work will do so because they see the need for it. The people directing what must be done will be doing so based on their expertise. They will only be directing things as long as the task at hand is being undertaken and the people taking direction from them agree to do so. Once the task is completed the experts cease to be directors. In short, there will be no managerial class.
Anarchism is not driven by profit, political expediency, or bureaucracy. So, many of the causes of deadly disasters would be eliminated. It does not shun expertise and values direct democratic control and collective ownership, so the quality and effectiveness of infrastructure would improve. We would look at the bigger picture by examining if other measures could be used to prevent disasters. Measures such as stopping the destruction of wetlands as wetlands can absorb a lot of water thus reducing (or eliminating) flooding in built-up areas. Another might be not building on flood plains and other areas prone to flooding. Another would be constructing buildings using fire-proof and sturdy materials that will do the job.
Scott Crow is an Anarchist who helped found the Common Ground movement that emerged in New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina. His recording of this work provides an example of what can be achieved at a grassroots level. The group demonstrated that when governments and other official organisations fail, people can and do, mobilise, and focus on what’s important. Common Ground came from nothing and managed to build up a movement that provided shelter, food, medical care, and other short-term needs. Crow pointed out the challenges and what could go wrong with such organising.(https://blog.pmpress.org/2019/07/24/black-flags-and-radical-relief-efforts-in-new-orleans-an-interview-with-scott-crow/ ) Real life can be messy and the point is not that everything always goes smoothly. Nevertheless, it is one small example that proves our ability to deal with the challenges the system has created and provides the rudimentary tools for working towards something better.
To conclude, people are capable of a range of actions, from profit-seeking destruction through to basic mutual aid. The system of capitalism and the states that support it actively creates disasters in some cases and makes them worse in others.
Problems will continue to exist no matter what form of society we have. However, an improved society post-capitalism is one where greed will not overtake the common need for the basics of life such as safe shelter. It is one where infrastructure won’t be neglected to the point that preventable mass death-causing disasters occur. It is one that will acknowledge expertise but not permit unaccountable power imbalances. It is one that will put people and their own initiatives first. In short, its one that will be an improvement over the disaster that capitalism itself represents.