"The status quo is simply not protecting those most at risk in American society. The time for a radical departure is now." (Flickr/Gus Holzer/CC)
By Jason von Meding
and Heidi Harmon
Sep 13, 2017
It is unusual for disasters to garner as much sustained coverage in the media as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have. Authors have been able to explore complex aspects of disasters in more nuanced ways than fleeting public interest generally allows.
Whilst it is critical to discuss the issues around urban planning, emergency management funding, insurance, evacuations, pollutants, an impending housing crisis and, of course, the influence of climate change on hurricanes - these disasters, like every other, are ultimately about vulnerability in our society. They are about structural injustice. And they are very, very political.
Harvey impacted the poor, the undocumented, the elderly and the disabled disproportionately. While the impacts of Irma are still being assessed, a similar distribution is expected.
"We need better politics. And we need them now."
We must not only ask how the most vulnerable are impacted by a disaster, but why they are vulnerable in the first place.
Some have argued that now is not the time to discuss the political aspect of this disaster. They say that we should wait until a more appropriate future time. But will anyone be listening if we do not take this opportunity?
Naomi Klein, talking about climate change, argues that, “Talking honestly about what is fueling this era of serial disasters — even while they’re playing out in real time — isn’t disrespectful to the people on the front lines. In fact, it is the only way to truly honor their losses, and our last hope for preventing a future littered with countless more victims.”
Honest discourse is urgently required. However, a narrow focus on climate change may actually obscure a deeper political malaise that keeps the most marginalized in society perpetually at risk.
US democracy - a political disaster
In the United States, an entrenched two party system has long embraced neoliberal policies as beyond reproach. These policies are demonstrably devastating for the most marginalized in society.
Whether regarding health care, immigration or the minimum wage, both parties have kept the downtrodden in servitude for decades. The Democratic Party claim incremental change - but at this stage, is less bad really good enough?
In 2016, Bernie Sanders threatened to turn the system on its head. The establishment colluded to make sure that this didn't happen. In recent weeks, he has been widely smeared for daring to run against Hillary Clinton in the primaries. This is how the establishment protects itself - Ralph Nader’s character assassination is a prime example.
But we need people like Bernie in government as a matter of urgency. People that care about the most vulnerable and will work to protect and enhance their rights.
In the aftermath of Harvey, Ilan Kelman wrote, “Many voting records in Texas are for lower taxes, for less government intervention, against tackling systemic inequities and against helping marginalized people help themselves. This choice actively creates the vulnerabilities which cause disasters. It is an ideological choice to vote for creating disaster vulnerability and voters have the right to do so.”
We need better politics. And we need them now.
The causes of the destruction seen during Harvey are deeply political - so let’s not be afraid to politicize it. “Power” often profits from disaster. But it doesn't have to be this way.
From a politics of fear and hate to one of hope and love
The American public has become trapped in a politics of fear. Afraid of Conservatives. Afraid of liberals. Afraid of the alt-right and antifa. Afraid of minorities and afraid of poor people - or perhaps of being poor.
Making decisions based on fear is not rational. That is why fear is such a useful political tool in the hands of tyrants.
In 2016 Bernie Sanders rode a wave of hope and love into the hearts of millions. In Britain, meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity surges on the most positive and compassionate Labour Party message in decades.
We need love to overcome fear.
Political change can undermine unjust and oppressive systems. We need leaders that care for the planet and for people. They sometimes seem to be so few and far between.
What can you do?
So we need to ‘storm’ our city halls, our state capitals, and the White House. We need a Super Storm of caring capable folks to run-win-and lead on climate change. But we need them to be willing to fight against systemic injustice wherever they see it.
While gathering supplies for Texas or Florida, you can be gathering your team and forming strategy around the imminent threats facing our changing world. You can make sure that the focus of this strategy targets the root causes of vulnerability.
If bad politics are the source of systemic issues, we need progressive and courageous politicians willing to challenge entrenched power.
True leaders show up for the vulnerable who are affected most. Those who demonstrate care for others before they run for office also stand with the vulnerable and marginalized who are affected the most when they are in office.
The status quo is simply not protecting those most at risk in American society. The time for a radical departure is now.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Dr Jason von Meding is an author, educator, researcher and activist based in Australia. He uses his position to create a public discourse on disasters that maintains a focus on systems of injustice that underpin vulnerability. Alongside his academic endeavors, Jason writes for non-academic audiences via magazines, online media outlets and blogs.
Heidi Harmon is a climate activist that ran for mayor, won and is now creating policy around this issue. After years of trying to make a difference she found a meaningful way by becoming mayor of San Luis Obispo, California. She has signed onto the Paris Agreement, made climate action a major city goal, and committed to being a net-zero city. Since being elected she has turned San Luis Obispo into a sanctuary city, abolished Columbus Day and initiated Indigenous Peoples Day and prioritized truly affordable housing to create a more inclusive city.