Superstorm Sandy—a People's Shock?
Seizing the climate crisis to demand a truly populist agenda
by Naomi Klein
resident Christine Walker walks along the beach under what is left of
the boardwalk in the borough of Queens, New York, Monday, November 5,
2012, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Less than three days after Sandy made landfall on the East Coast of the
United States, Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute
blamed New Yorkers’ resistance to big-box stores for the misery they
were about to endure. Writing on Forbes.com, he explained that the city’s refusal to embrace Walmart will likely
make the recovery much harder: “Mom-and-pop stores simply can’t do what
big stores can in these circumstances,” he wrote.
And the preemptive scapegoating didn’t stop there. He also warned
that if the pace of reconstruction turned out to be sluggish (as it so
often is) then “pro-union rules such as the Davis-Bacon Act” would be to blame, a reference to the statute that requires workers on public-works projects to be paid not the minimum wage, but the prevailing wage in
The same day, Frank Rapoport, a lawyer representing several
billion-dollar construction and real estate contractors, jumped in to
suggest that many of those public works projects shouldn’t be public at
all. Instead, cash-strapped governments should turn to “public private
partnerships,” known as “P3s.” That means roads, bridges and tunnels
being rebuilt by private companies, which, for instance, could install
tolls and keep the profits.
The overriding principle must be addressing the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.
Up until now, the only thing stopping them has been the
law—specifically the absence of laws in New York State and New Jersey
that enable these sorts of deals. But Rapoport is convinced that the
combination of broke governments and needy people will provide just the
catalyst needed to break the deadlock. “There were some bridges that
were washed out in New Jersey that need structural replacement, and it’s going to be very expensive,” he told The Nation. “And so the government may well not have the money to build it the right way. And that’s when you turn to a P3.”
Ray Lehmann, co-founder of the R Street Institute, a mouthpiece for
the insurance lobby (formerly a division of the climate-denying
Heartland Institute), had another public prize in his sights. In a Wall Street Journal article about Sandy, he was quoted arguing for the eventual “full privatization” of the
National Flood Insurance Program, the federal initiative that provides
affordable protection from some natural disasters—and which private
insurers see as unfair competition.
But the prize for shameless disaster capitalism surely goes to right-wing economist Russell S. Sobel, writing in a New York Times online forum. Sobel suggested that, in hard-hit areas, FEMA should create “free trade zones—in which all normal regulations, licensing and taxes [are]
suspended.” This corporate free-for-all would, apparently, “better
provide the goods and services victims need.”
Yes that’s right: this catastrophe very likely created by climate
change—a crisis born of the colossal regulatory failure to prevent
corporations from treating the atmosphere as their open sewer—is just
one more opportunity for more deregulation. And the fact that this storm has demonstrated that poor and working-class people are far more
vulnerable to the climate crisis shows that this is clearly the right
moment to strip those people of what few labor protections they have
left, as well as to privatize the meager public services available to
them. Most of all, when faced with an extraordinarily costly crisis born of corporate greed, hand out tax holidays to corporations.
Is there anyone who can still feign surprise at this stuff? The
flurry of attempts to use Sandy’s destructive power as a cash grab is
just the latest chapter in the very long story I have called The Shock Doctrine. And it is but the tiniest glimpse into the ways large corporations are seeking to reap enormous profits from climate chaos.
One example: between 2008 and 2010, at least 261 patents were filed
or issued related to “climate-ready” crops—seeds supposedly able to
withstand extreme conditions like droughts and floods; of these patents
close to 80 percent were controlled by just six agribusiness giants,
including Monsanto and Syngenta. With history as our teacher, we know
that small farmers will go into debt trying to buy these new miracle
seeds, and that many will lose their land.
Unlike the disaster capitalists who use
crisis to end-run democracy, a People’s Recovery... would call for new
When these displaced farmers move to cities seeking work, they will
find other peasants, indigenous people and artisanal fishing people who
lost their lands for similar reasons. Some will have been displaced by
foreign agribusiness companies looking to grow export crops for wealthy
nations worried about their own food security in a climate stressed
future. Some will have moved because a new breed of carbon entrepreneur
was determined to plant a tree farm on what used to be a
community-managed forest, in order to collect lucrative credits.
In November 2010, The Economist ran a climate change cover
story that serves as a useful (if harrowing) blueprint for how climate
change could serve as the pretext for the last great land grab, a final
colonial clearing of the forests, farms and coastlines by a handful of
multinationals. The editors explain that droughts and heat stress are
such a threat to farmers that only big players can survive the turmoil,
and that “abandoning the farm may be the way many farmers choose to
adapt.” They had the same message for fisher folk inconveniently
occupying valuable ocean-front lands: wouldn’t it be so much safer,
given rising seas and all, if they joined their fellow farmers in the
urban slums? “Protecting a single port city from floods is easier than
protecting a similar population spread out along a coastline of fishing
But, you might wonder, isn’t there a joblessness crisis in most of
these cities? Nothing a little “reform of labor markets” and free trade
can’t fix. Besides, cities, they explain, have “social strategies,
formal or informal.” I’m pretty sure that means that people whose
“social strategies” used to involve growing and catching their own food
can now cling to life by selling broken pens at intersections, or
perhaps by dealing drugs. What the informal social strategy should be
when super storm winds howl through those precarious slums remains
For a long time, climate change was treated by environmentalists as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor.
They failed to account for the myriad ways by which the superrich would
protect themselves from the less savory effects of the economic model
that made them so wealthy. In the past six years, we have seen the
emergence of private firefighters in the United States, hired by
insurance companies to offer a “concierge” service to their wealthier
clients, as well as the short-lived “HelpJet”—a charter airline in
Florida that offered five-star evacuation services from hurricane zones. “No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class
experience that turns a problem into a vacation.” And, post-Sandy,
upscale real estate agents are predicting that back-up power generators
will be the new status symbol with the penthouse and mansion set.
It seems that for some, climate change is imagined less as a clear
and present danger than as a kind of spa vacation; nothing that the
right combination of bespoke services and well-curated accessories can’t overcome. That, at least, was the impression left by the Barneys New
York pre-Sandy sale—which offered deals on Sencha green tea, backgammon
sets and $500 throw blankets so its high-end customers could “settle in
with style”. Let the rest of the world eat “social strategies, formal or informal.”
So we know how the shock doctors are readying to exploit the climate
crisis, and we know from the past how that would turn out. But here is
the real question: Could this crisis present a different kind of
opportunity, one that disperses power into the hands of the many rather
than consolidating it the hands of the few; one that radically expands
the commons, rather than auctions it off in pieces? In short, could
Sandy be the beginning of a People’s Shock?
I think it can. As I outlined last year in these pages, there are changes we can make that actually have a chance of getting
our emissions down to the level science demands. These include
relocalizing our economies (so we are going to need those farmers where
they are); vastly expanding and reimagining the public sphere to not
just hold back the next storm but to prevent even worse disruptions in
the future; regulating the hell out of corporations and reducing their
poisonous political power; and reinventing economics so it no longer
defines success as the endless expansion of consumption.
At the same time as we ramp up alternatives,
we need to step up the fight against the forces actively making the
climate crisis worse.
These are approaches to the crisis would help rebuild the real
economy at a time when most of us have had it with speculative bubbles.
They would create lasting jobs at a time when they are urgently needed.
And they would strengthen our ties to one another and to our
communities— goals that, while abstract, can nonetheless save lives in a crisis.
Just as the Great Depression and the Second World War launched
populist movements that claimed as their proud legacies social safety
nets across the industrialized world, so climate change can be a
historic moment to usher in the next great wave of progressive change.
Moreover, none of the anti-democratic trickery I described in The Shock Doctrine is necessary to advance this agenda. Far from seizing on the climate
crisis to push through unpopular policies, our task is to seize upon it
to demand a truly populist agenda.
The reconstruction from Sandy is a great place to start road testing
these ideas. Unlike the disaster capitalists who use crisis to end-run
democracy, a People’s Recovery (as many from the Occupy movement are
already demanding) would call for new democratic processes, including
neighborhood assemblies, to decide how hard-hit communities should be
rebuilt. The overriding principle must be addressing the twin crises of
inequality and climate change at the same time. For starters, that means reconstruction that doesn’t just create jobs but jobs that pay a living wage. It means not just more public transit, but energy efficient
affordable housing along those transit lines. It also means not just
more renewable power but democratic community control over those
But at the same time as we ramp up alternatives, we need to step up
the fight against the forces actively making the climate crisis worse.
Regardless of who wins the election, that means standing firm against
the continued expansion of the fossil fuel sector into new and high-risk territories, whether through tar sands, fracking, coal exports to China or Arctic drilling. It also means recognizing the limits of political
pressure and going after the fossil fuel companies directly, as we are
doing at 350.org with our “Do The Math”
tour. These companies have shown that they are willing to burn five
times as much carbon as the most conservative estimates say is
compatible with a livable planet. We’ve done the math, and we simply
can’t let them.
We find ourselves in a race against time: either this crisis will
become an opportunity for an evolutionary leap, a holistic readjustment
of our relationship with the natural world. Or it will become an
opportunity for the biggest disaster capitalism free-for-all in human
history, leaving the world even more brutally cleaved between winners
When I wrote The Shock Doctrine, I was documenting crimes of the past. The good news is that this is a crime in progress; it is
still within our power to stop it. Let’s make sure that this time, the
good guys win.
© 2012 The Nation
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist and the author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, now out in paperback. Her earlier books include the international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (which has just been re-published in a special 10th Anniversary Edition); and the collection Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002). To read all her latest writing visit www.naomiklein.org. You can follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein.
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