Stop Calling the Events of this Summer “Natural Disasters”

By Aurora Levins Morales

Mudslides in Putomayo, Colombia earlier this year

I’ve been thinking about mudslides. All along the roads of hurricane swept Puerto Rico, there must be hundreds of places where the orange clay of our mountains has lost its grip on rocks and roots and cascaded across the narrow roadways, taking uprooted trees with it and blocking traffic. In spite of power outages and flood damaged homes, Puerto Rico got off easy compared to our neighbors.

Except that the physical derrumbes have come on top of a landslide of massive Wall Street orchestrated robberies that have gutted our infrastructure, our public health system, our entire economy, so we’re up to our necks in mud. And if it were only chance that sent Irma careening through the Caribbean, tearing off roofs and coffee blossoms, and ripping the social fabric to shreds, that would be one thing. But it wasn’t.

Last month, three days after terrorist attacks in Barcelona left 16 dead, an entire mountainside came down on the people of Regent, on the outskirts of Freetown in Sierra Leone, and killed at least 500 people. As is painfully usual, world governments and the corporate media exclaimed over the first event and pretty much ignored the second.

This isn’t new. When bombs injured and killed civilians in Paris and Beirut in the same week some years ago, when two communities of people going about their own business were ripped apart by the same hands, we were told all kinds of details about those who died in Paris, the neighborhoods where they lived, what everyone was doing when it happened — but there were no interviews with vendors in the open-air market that was bombed in Beirut, and the news stories kept describing their neighborhood as a “stronghold,” constantly underlining the message that the Beiruti people who died while shopping for their dinners were not as innocent as the Parisians who died in concert halls, stadiums, or bakeries.

The fact that US and European heads of state didn’t rush to make statements about the Sierra Leone mudslide, that offers of aid were late, reluctant and insultingly small, that no buildings were lit up in the colors of the Sierra Leone flag, that there were no Facebook filters or safety check-ins for friends and relatives in Freetown, no “we are all Sierra Leone” t-shirts, is just one more expression of why it’s necessary to keep saying that Black Lives Matter. Every single day the governments and media outlets of the global north tell us through word and deed that they don’t.

But there’s also another kind of lie at play here. That Barcelona was human violence and Freetown was nature.

This year Sierra Leone had three times the expected amount of rain. That rain fell on deforested slopes covered with the insecure housing of the very poor, who were squatting there because they had nowhere else to go, and the government did not warn or evacuate them. So yes, the prolonged looting of West African societies, the slave trade, colonialism, neoliberal economics, governments indifferent to their own people and/or ineffective at meeting their needs, the desperation of poverty, landlessness, homelessness — all of these factors placed those people in the path of that mud, and those are human crimes.

What keeps being hidden in plain view is that the rain itself is a crime, or at least the result of one.

Heavier than normal rainfall is one of the documented effects of global climate disruption, which overwhelming scientific evidence shows is being caused by human greed, mostly on the part of the rich countries of the global north. The rain itself is a crime.

As temperatures rise, wet places get wetter, dry places get drier, and ordinary rainfall becomes torrential, leading to massive floods and mudslides, many of them in the tropics. And as the oceans warm, hurricanes grow stronger, bigger, more frequent and extreme.

These derrumbes, these unfastenings of the earth from its moorings, these winds that uproot us, these floods that drown our cities and fields, have authors, people with names and addresses, who sit in board rooms and government offices and decide to keep plundering the earth for riches and burning fossils to fuel their plundering.

This week Donald Trump appointed a climate denier with no scientific background at all to head NASA, which plays a leading role in worldwide climate science, monitoring solar activity, sea level rise, the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the state of the ozone layer, air pollution, and changes in sea ice and land ice. This is a man who demanded that President Obama apologize for funding climate research. They want to hide the evidence of their ecocide.

We need to stop calling the events of this summer natural disasters. Stop pretending it’s just hurricane season, just rain, just wind. Stop saying “accident” about the toxic chemicals saturating the water and soil of Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast. Stop thinking it’s luck that Cubans survive the hurricanes that kill their neighbors. It isn’t luck. It’s choice. It’s socialism.

When my Taino ancestors decided to cut down trees to make canoas or houses, they did ceremonies honoring each tree for its gift. They didn’t clear cut mountainsides, leaving the soil unrooted so that it buried whole cities of sleeping people. They told stories about the powerful spirit called Guabancex, who sent hurricanes upon the people when she was angry, whose helper Guataubá brought the winds, while Coatriskiye made the floods. They believed in human reciprocity with the rest of nature, a code of conduct that, when broken, had consequences. They were right. Mudslides and hurricanes aren’t bad luck. They’re consequences.