October 2005: Victims of a Neoliberal Mega-Storm

Hurricane Katrina exposes the fatal flaws of U.S. individualism
October 1, 2005

Most of the media coverage of the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina focused on the desperate plight of the survivors and the chaos and violence that wracked the flood-stricken city of New Orleans. The victims--most of them poor African-Americans--were justifiably enraged by the tardy and sparse relief efforts of the Bush administration. Their shocked disbelief that an American city could so quickly fall into such a state of anarchy was shared by U.S. media pundits and commentators. The disaster exposed a deep unawareness on the part of most Americans of the true nature of the society in which they now live.

The stark reality could be seen in the pictures of state troopers assigned to surround and protect the few mansions and stores that had escaped the hurricane’s fury, instead of trying to help the thousands of homeless refugees. This is a society in which property has become more important than people--or at least people who are black and poor. As one soldier curtly told a protester, “Go fend for yourself.”

That just about sums up the current American ethos: the belief that each person and family are responsible for their own welfare, that it’s your own fault--laziness or lack of ambition--if you become jobless or destitute. This culture of individualism goes hand-in-hand with a distaste for “big” government; with a conviction that the smaller the government, the better; that public programs should be slashed along with the taxes to pay for them.

Unfortunately for small-government enthusiasts, however, minimal public services are not conducive to the kind of massive rescue operation they need when disaster strikes. The “every-man-for-himself” response to a crisis triggers the kind of chaos so starkly displayed in post-hurricane New Orleans. It was the very opposite of the collective and cooperative teamwork that such a catastrophe demands. But collectivism and cooperation have become dirty words in a nation run by the high priests of private enterprise.

As psychologist Carrie Cooper has pointed out, social cohesion in U.S. cities like New Orleans can be maintained by such a reliance on individual hard work and religious faith--but only so long as some semblance of order prevails. In an emergency on the scale of Katrina, “the lack of a safety net of mutual support can strip away the civilized veneer and it becomes a terrible jungle.”

I may be guilty of nationalist hubris when I suggest that such a cataclysmic social breakdown would never blight a Canadian city hit by a similar natural disaster. Nor would the aid and rescue effort be so badly mismanaged. We have our home-grown slashers of public services and taxes, too, but thankfully they haven’t (yet) stripped us of our sense of social collectivity or the means to protect it.

In the wake of Katrina, we’ve learned how the Bush administration ignored the requests of emergency preparedness officials for more urgently needed flood control funding. Instead of adequately increasing the funds for strengthening the dilapidated levees around New Orleans, Bush siphoned the money away to facilitate more tax cuts for the rich and help pay for his continuing military occupation of Iraq.

Katrina thus exposed the fatal flaws of a society dominated by a cult of individualism and a blind faith in corporate and military power. It also exposed the vulnerability of any populated area to the backlash of an intolerably polluted biosphere. The Bush administration was quick to deny that this devastating hurricane was spawned by global warming, but the growing ferocity and frequency of such storms in recent years can’t be so easily dismissed.

One of the hapless residents of New Orleans, trapped in his half-submerged SUV, raised his face to the skies and plaintively asked as he was being dragged out, “God, why are you letting this happen to us?” Well, maybe God, if he were listening, would have pointed to the man’s gas-guzzling vehicle and then to all the oil-rigs and refineries dotting the gulf and the coastal communities, and he might have replied, “It’s you and your fellow citizens, not me, who are causing this to happen.” (And it was ironic that it happened in the heart of the Christian fundamentalist American bible belt!)

It’s as if Mother Nature, having taken as much environmental abuse as she could, had struck back--not just at the nation spewing out the most greenhouse gases, but at the region of it that extracts and refines most of the fossil fuels that generate these pollutants.

Ross Gelbspan, author of Boiling Point, says that, although the National Weather Service named the big August hurricane Katrina, its real name was Global Warming.

“Few people know its real name,” he says, “because the oil and coal corporations have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in the dark.” They have put the survival of their industries’ obscenely huge profits ahead of the survival of the ecosphere. And they’ve used their political and advertising clout to make sure the U.S. media perpetuate this public ignorance of global warming by disregarding or downplaying the warnings of the more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries who comprise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“The mainstream media,” says Gelbspan, “have failed to inform people about what global warming is doing to our agriculture, water supplies, plant and animal life, and public health, as well as to the weather. The press and the TV and radio networks must therefore share the guilt for our self-induced destruction with the oil and coal company executives.”

And with the politicians who slavishly do those business barons’ bidding.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)