62. Climate Change and ‘Natural Disasters’



Marxism – scientific socialism – proceeds from an analysis of objective reality. One of the most important realities which it has had to face, along with the whole of humankind, is the danger to the environment posed by the very existence of capitalism itself through the growth of carbon emissions and the seemingly inexorable rise of global warming. The idea perpetrated by opponents of scientific socialism that Marx and Engels had little to say about this problem is false. Indeed they were, as in so many things, ahead of their time. In Volume 3 of his monumental and major work Capital, Marx makes the following point: “From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors… they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”1

The starting point of any contemporary discussion on climate change is the incapacity of the ‘economic arrangements’ of the world created by capitalism to solve these problems. Just take the demand for growth in the neo-colonial world – necessary in order to eliminate hunger and lack of shelter – against environmental damage, which inevitably flows from this. In my book, Marxism in Today’s World, I commented: “We face an unprecedented situation today.  The kind of development of the productive forces under capitalism in an unplanned way, even if you do not have a new economic crisis, means that the majority of humankind will have to challenge this system on the question of the environment alone in order to prevent an unstoppable decline. The leading Chinese environmentalist… has said that for China to reach the living standards of the US will need the resources of four worlds! Do we conclude from this that the Chinese people will never reach the living standards of the American people today and that they are condemned forever to [underdevelopment]? I think it would be wrong to say this. We can have sustainable growth and we can avoid the crimes that have been committed against the environment by capitalism and Stalinism.”2

This general approach was brought to bear in wrestling with the issues that came up in the environmental movement. The new generation is particularly motivated to take action and have the most to lose if destructive climate change proves to be irreversible. The capitalists themselves cannot appear to be impervious to this. This led to the world environmental summit in Kyoto in 1997. The debate there concentrated on what to do about carbon dioxide emissions. The Rio summit in 1992 had agreed to stabilise the release of emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Leaving the capitalists to carry out this task and to decide on environmental issues for the future of the planet was, we said, “like appointing a Formula One magnate to take charge of health care – profits always come first.”

We concluded that “The biggest threat to the environment and the job security of workers on this planet is the capitalist system”.3 Of course, we supported all measures to curb emissions, to prevent waste in the energy industry – costing in 1997 $300 billion per year. The summit, predictably, failed to agree measures which would slow down the process of global warming. Yet each year demonstrated that the danger posed from global warming was growing.

This was illustrated in a series of articles, books and pamphlets by Socialist Party comrades who specialised in this field. However, this was not an issue for specialists alone. The working masses were profoundly affected. I came across whole villages in Malaysia on a visit in 2005 that had experienced life changing effects from environmental pollution.

This applies not just to the environment in general but also to planning for unforeseen events: ‘natural disasters’ like earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Indeed, such events can be the trigger for major upheavals in society itself, provoking a profound crisis in a regime. It is not for nothing that such events have often been the midwives of revolution. Such was the profound effect of the Nicaraguan earthquake in 1972 that after the dictator Somoza embezzled funds meant for the victims, it provoked his overthrow.

The 150,000 deaths as a result of the Indian Ocean tsunami that broke on 26 December 2004 provoked a similar reaction. Countries affected included India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and many others, leading the Financial Times to comment that this event was unique in the sense that “the number of foreign holidaymakers caught in the tsunami… ensured the rest of the world paid attention to a disaster that… encompassed such a large area and so many countries.”4

The fact that many from the ‘rich’ countries were affected led to unprecedented coverage throughout the world. Alongside the terrible sadness there was also anger at the tens of thousands who had died needlessly, as experts pointed out. Jon Dale, writing with the authority of a doctor, commented in the Socialist: “Despite the biblical scale of floods and destruction, the death along the Indian Ocean coastline was no ‘Act of God’.” He pointed out: “The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was set up in 1949, based in Hawaii. Despite its existence, destructive tsunamis have continued. But technological improvements in recent years have enormously improved the ability of scientists to detect them and issue warnings to coastal areas of their approach.”

Yet despite this, so many lost their lives. Was this avoidable? A Canadian tsunami specialist was in no doubt: “The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts for the whole of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That’s enough time for a warning.” But “The instruments are very expensive and we don’t have the money to buy them,” said an Indonesian meteorological expert.5 The harrowing scenes carried on television led to massive and unprecedented generosity, solidarity and internationalism. In Britain individual donations piled up at £1 million an hour, with more than £70 million collected in total.

Our comrades in key countries such as India and Sri Lanka were affected by the tsunami. However, the CWI centre was able to report “with great relief that, after heroic efforts to establish the whereabouts of all its members, the United Socialist Party (USP – the CWI’s section in Sri Lanka) has found that it has sustained no direct loss of life.” This was despite the fact that many USP members and their families lived and worked near where the tsunami crashed into Sri Lanka: “One national committee member in Galle… was severely injured and hospitalised but has now returned to his home to recover fully. More than 25 USP members and their families in the south and east of the island are homeless, most living in makeshift camps and in urgent need of water, food, clothes and medicine.”

We called upon supporters and members of the CWI to rush finance and resources to help stricken comrades. Clare Doyle, who co-ordinated the international efforts to assist our Sri Lankan comrades, reported: “We will be sending goods to Sri Lanka by container in the next two days and again next week. If you can spare tents or plastic sheeting, light clothes (including underwear) or light bedding please email us.” In Sri Lanka itself, the USP demanded that reconstruction needed to be “controlled by elected committees of workers and poor people to ensure maximum assistance to those who most need it, regardless of nationality, religion and political affiliation… They can have no faith in capitalist politicians. Outbreaks of communal conflict must be prevented as the struggle for scarce resources continues.”6

This was in the best traditions of the USP which, often at the risk of their own lives, has stood for the unity of the working class and the right to self-determination of the oppressed Tamil-speaking people. They were the only organisation that produced a paper in both the Tamil and Sinhala languages. Aceh in Indonesia was also profoundly affected but there was suspicion and resentment that they would not get help from the Jakarta government, which continually drained the province of its rich oil and gas resources.

Similar suspicions of the ruling parties in Sri Lanka were witnessed by Jim Hensman, a long-standing Socialist Party member from Coventry, whose family came to Britain from Sri Lanka. He was visiting family and friends there when the tsunami struck. Shortly afterwards, at a National Council of the Socialist Party, he described what happened: “‘We all have to put aside our differences’, ‘we all have to pull together’… This was the case in Sri Lanka initially. But within days the crass inefficiency and the failure of the weak capitalist class, tied in with world capitalism, to carry out even the basic tasks of relief became apparent.”

He then recounted an amusing story going round the villages of Sri Lanka, which highlighted this point. The Hawaii Tsunami Reporting Centre contacted a senior government minister in Sri Lanka. They told him there was a tsunami in Indonesia arriving in about two hours. “Can you take the necessary action?” they asked. The government minister springs to life and two hours later he is at Colombo airport with a placard which reads “Sri Lanka welcomes Mr Tsunami from Indonesia.”7

A few months later I visited Sri Lanka on behalf of the CWI and witnessed some of the areas most devastated by the tsunami. I wrote afterwards: “The tsunami and its terrible aftermath is the overarching issue that still dominates every aspect of Sri Lankan society… The ‘fortunate’ few are living in ‘temporary’ accommodation – one-room wooden boxes with wafer-thin roofs – while many are arbitrarily removed kilometres from the sites of their original houses.”

I reported the following: “We stop at a spot near Galle where the remnants of the Colombo to Galle express was lifted by the great wave and thrown hundreds of metres inland… speak to a woman sitting outside her new ‘home’, a shack, albeit of new wood … Before 26 December, there were six members of their family… Three of her children were killed on the day of the tsunami: her only daughter and two sons.” This was just a little glimpse of the heartbreak which many Sri Lankans suffered. This woman survived the tsunami by clinging to a tree; her husband, meanwhile, was swept many kilometres away from the seashore.

The government had given £25 to every household whose home was destroyed. The tsunami victims received just over £2 a week for the three people left in this household. The members of the USP, particularly Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri) who accompanied me, had played a key role in the launch and success of the newspaper Voice of the Tsunami People. They asked the young man “if they have taken any collective action or if a committee exists to represent them and air their grievances. He says no, but he would be prepared to organise structures like this, such is the anger now felt by the tsunami people.” The organiser of the meeting that we addressed, the key person in the village, was the ex-head of the local Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – the governing party. Following our meeting he was visited by SLFP thugs and beaten up.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga complained bitterly that the Sri Lankan government had so far “not received even five cents” from the money collected internationally. We declared: “It is buried in the vaults of foreign governments and of some international agencies and charities.” Apparently, 40% of all monies collected by charities for disasters like this are swallowed up by administration costs, which are caused by the fat salaries of those who head these organisations. We asked, “Why weren’t the resources of the Sri Lankan state and society put into emergency mode and placed at the disposal of the people of these regions?” who had suffered terribly. After all, 40,000 people lost their lives in Sri Lanka, with an estimated 800,000 people made refugees.8

Senan, a CWI member originally from Jaffna but now living in London, condemned the way the government was dealing with the situation: “[The] people have reacted far quicker to the tsunami disaster than their government. Unexpectedly, it has provided an opportunity for the Tamil and Sinhalese masses to work together… and to experience it. Unfortunately, the authorities are not using this opportunity to forge unity on the divided island, but the opposite.” The USP had condemned the government for its treatment of the disaster victims and called for aid operations to be under the control of left committees and workers of all peoples, without any discrimination on the basis of nationality, religion or caste.

Unfortunately, ethnically based armed groups undermined this attempt to bring working people together on a class basis. This applied equally to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP). The USP called upon the LTTE to responsibly “ensure that all aid is distributed without discrimination”. This was particularly important in the East of Sri Lanka, which contains Tamil-speaking people who were also Muslims. The USP, which had members in this area with many displaced in 11 counties, fought against any manifestation of discrimination with regard to nationality or religion.

The scale of the destruction caused by the tsunami was monumental, an estimated cost of $1 billion in the first year alone. Without democratic control misappropriation of money in these circumstances by corrupt bureaucrats compounded the suffering of the ordinary working people and poor. US imperialism intervened not in order to relieve the suffering but to immensely enhance its own position. Colin Powell, Bush’s proconsul, visited Thailand, Sri Lanka and, most importantly, Jakarta in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country. The Muslims there had, along with the rest of the world, “an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action”. He went on: “I hope as a result of our efforts… that value system of ours will be reinforced.” The US relief work, he added, should also “dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity”!9

India, a rising imperialist power in its own region, sought to profit from the disaster by sending in its own troops under the cover of aid to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. They were pursuing their own regional ambitions, aiming to rival China and Japan in Asia. The suffering of the masses in this region through the tsunami was of secondary importance to these contending powers. After all, every week 150,000 people were dying of preventable illnesses associated with shortages of food, clean water and sanitation. This arose from the inadequacies of landlordism and capitalism and represented the equivalent of the death toll of the Indian Ocean tsunami every seven or eight days!

The suffering was not restricted to the neo-colonial world. As Offensiv, the paper of the CWI’s Swedish section reported, the country appeared to have suffered the “worst disaster for Sweden since World War One” with initial fears of a thousand dead tourists, although that figure proved overly pessimistic. The Swedish Foreign Minister was targeted for much criticism because she did not cut short her holiday until 31 hours after the tsunami, and was reported to have gone to the theatre after she had heard that it had struck.10

The effect of the tsunami was to emphasise the number of natural disasters which were occurring throughout the world – estimated to have risen from 100 a year in the early 1960s to around 500 a year by the early 2000s – and the neglect of capitalist states’ reactions to this. There was a wide variation between where these events took place and the response of governments to them. One thing emerged clearly: the corrupt capitalist politicians and bureaucrats invariably diverted disaster relief and money into their own pockets. The sections of the CWI in disaster areas always emphasised that workers and poor farmers were the only force which could direct relief and reconstruction in the interests of the people in general. This should be channelled through workers’ committees without any discrimination between different ethnic, religious, caste and other groups. Similarly, reconstruction should be under the democratic control of the left and workers’ committees to guard against corruption and ensure that rebuilding met the needs of workers and other toilers.

Many of the countries affected were burdened with massive foreign debt; five Indian Ocean countries affected by the tsunami collectively owed $300 billion. We demanded cancellation of this debt and the nationalisation of the banks, under democratic workers’ control and management. However, the tsunami brought out the best amongst the world’s population, particularly the aid that was rushed by working people and the poor to their brothers and sisters in the affected areas. It was a manifestation of the instinctive internationalism of the masses. This can only really be fully harnessed for the world by the working class and labour movement in the struggle for socialism.

In contrast, this disaster highlighted the murderous incompetence of the representatives of the landlords and capitalists throughout the affected regions. Jagadish Chandra slammed the Indian bourgeoisie: “It is criminal on the part of the Indian government not to be a member of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. This would have warned the devastated people at least four hours in advance… The avoidable scale of the death and destruction of the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat, India, in 2001 and the 2004 tsunami disaster are a warning about the horrific consequences of poverty and neglect in countries exploited by capitalism and imperialism.”11

The clear stand of the Sri Lankan USP during the tsunami and the work done after this paid off when presidential elections were called a year later in 2005. As expected, the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party the SLFP won the election narrowly. Siri, the candidate of the USP, came third with the highest vote for a left candidate. Just after the new president made his acceptance speech, Siri declared on camera to Rajapaksa’s face: “This is the first time in Sri Lanka that a president has been elected on the votes of the Sinhala (majority) population. The Sinhala Buddhist zealots have dominated your election platforms. As president, you have a duty to control these forces which you have encouraged. Their hatred of the Tamil speaking people, including the Muslims, poses a huge danger in this country… You have made a lorry-load of promises to this country. If they are not implemented, the United Socialist Party… will go to the streets. We will mobilise behind the demand that they be implemented or that you step down.”

Some of the main TV stations and newspapers had been so careful not to mention the name of our party or its candidate. Siri continued: “The USP will continue its work with trade unionists, with the Tsunami-affected people still fighting for justice, with the Tamil-speaking minority, and with the young people whose future hangs in the balance as long as capitalist forces rule.”12

Clare Doyle, for the CWI, reported that the “government had been in league in this election with two arch-chauvinist, anti-Tamil parties – the JVP and the JHU.” Already in the East a number of dead and injured resulted from this.13 The determined resistance of the USP was in the best traditions of the labour movement, particularly of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in the past. The work that was done then is preparing the ground for the emergence of the future socialist Marxist forces in Sri Lanka.

I visited Pakistan in 2005 and witnessed the conditions of the masses there: “Nothing can prepare you for leaving the quite modern Karachi Airport to confront for the first time the living hell of the sprawling conurbation of Karachi… I was taken to a ‘two-star’ hotel, which at first glance I took to be another of the slum dwellings I saw on the journey from the airport. This residence, whose poorly-paid staff were extremely polite and helpful, would certainly not make it onto the guest house list of a British seaside resort!” These were the opening lines of the report of my visit.

Lenin once described capitalism as “horror without end” for the working class and the poor. Pakistan is a living example of this. Yet, when I was there, it was relatively tranquil compared to the recent situation, with Pakistan’s main industrial city Karachi divided into spheres controlled by nationalist or different armed groups with the nightmare of sectarian civil war ever present. We wrote: “Pakistan is a powder keg ready to explode at any time.” That was largely because of the social situation pertaining then and its political reflections in a split in the ruling class against the background of a rising tide of mass discontent.

Pakistan is a byword for poverty, disease and suffering. I reported: “Recently, outside Lahore Press Club, 20 kiln workers lifted their shirts to display savage scars on their bodies. This was the result of their ‘donation’ of a kidney for money to pay off crippling loans to their kiln bosses. In one Punjabi village, 3,000 people donated their kidneys. Most of these ‘donations’ don’t go to rich Westerners but to rich Pakistanis.” If anything, the conditions have got much worse since then. The army still exercises not just military but colossal economic power as well, with direct stakes in industrial conglomerates. The Islamic fundamentalist parties like Jamaate-Islami are a dead end, “with 34 of its Central Committee members millionaires or billionaires.”14

It was not just the neo-colonial world that was struck by ‘natural’ disasters. The richest country on the planet, the US, was hit by the devastating Hurricane Katrina as it struck the Gulf Coast, affecting thousands in New Orleans and throughout the region who died from drowning, dehydration, starvation and, in some cases, a lack of medical care. The city, which was once known for its culture, art, food and hospitality, now provided no secure shelter or food for its residents. As the incompetence and lack of preparedness of the Bush regime became more and more evident so mass anger rose. The working class and poor, overwhelmingly Afro-American, including the elderly and sick, residents of hospitals and care homes, were abandoned without water, food, medicines, electricity or clear information about effective relief.

This contrasted to the truly heroic efforts, not witnessed on television, of the working class in New Orleans; for example, the maintenance man who used forklifts to carry the sick and disabled or the engineers who nurtured and kept the generators running. Even before the hurricane, 20% of the city’s residents lived below the poverty line. Bryan Koulouris, from Socialist Alternative, sympathisers of the CWI, commented: “Just like thousands of homes on the Gulf Coast, the roof has been torn off of US society for all to see the rotten underbelly of the world’s biggest economic and military power.”15

The biased US media betrayed, vilified and portrayed as criminals the overwhelmingly poor Afro-American residents left behind in squalor because they were taking food, water, clothing and other things to survive. However, it was the Bush regime and big business that were not prepared for this calamity who were really responsible for the situation. In New Orleans and other places throughout  Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama working class and poor people resorted to desperate measures to get hold of food, water and clothing. Bush claimed that nobody could have “anticipated the breach of the levees” in New Orleans. Yet experts had warned in 2001 that unless a large-scale engineering project called ‘Coast 2001’ – first developed by engineers and scientists in 1998 – was put in place, something like this calamity was possible.

Incredibly Bush praised Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which openly displayed its bureaucratic incompetence in the first few hours of Katrina: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job!”16 There were over 6,000 National Guardsmen from Louisiana and Mississippi – who were supposed to deal with domestic emergencies, although they were often used to break strikes – in Iraq helping the US attempt to occupy the country for the benefit of Haliburton, Texaco and other US corporations.

The Bush regime was rattled as anger mounted against inaction at the top. We commented: “The last few weeks have been the worst of the 248 in which [Bush] has been in office.” The Katrina catastrophe was linked to the corruption charges levelled against top Republicans in the cronyism at the heart of the regime. The ‘legal profession’ was up in arms because his nominee for the Supreme Court had worked for Bush as a ‘Commissioner for the Texas Lottery’. Bush’s personal ratings in opinion polls were now lower than even Ronald Reagan’s during the Iran-Contra scandal.

The deadly combination of the unwinnable war in Iraq, a web of intrigue and corruption in Washington and Hurricane Katrina – which lifted the lid on the poverty and racism in the US – meant that this was a generalised crisis, not just for Bush’s presidency but for the system itself. It was directly linked to the extreme polarisation of wealth in the US, exacerbated by the policies pursued by both major parties since the 1970s and continued by Bush.17

American workers and youth drew widespread conclusions from this event, helping to fuel the anti-capitalist movement which in the ‘noughties’ became almost a permanent feature of the US. This helped to prepare the ground for the ‘Occupy Movement’, which in turn was a big factor in the election of the socialist, Kshama Sawant in Seattle, and which can lead to a renaissance of the labour movement in the US on a national scale.