Climate Dystopia: When Hurricanes Hit Industrial Agriculture

Flooding of factory farms in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence. Photo by Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr
“These disasters drag into the light exactly who is already being thrown away.”
—Naomi Klein, in a tweet about Hurricane Florence

A Tale of Two Hurricanes

In 1831, a powerful hurricane devastated the island of Barbados. Eyewitness accounts reported a “deluge of rain opening huge chasms in the ground which swallowed their livestock whole.” The island suffered massive economic losses and 1,787 reported deaths, most of whom were slaves on sugarcane plantations. Three years later, another hurricane of similar magnitude swept through the Caribbean, this time pummeling the island of Dominica. While both storms flattened most structures on each of the British-ruled islands, requiring imported food relief and massive rebuilding efforts, on Dominica only 29 deaths were reported, also primarily enslaved people.

What accounts for this gulf in death tolls — among the most vulnerable and exploited populations — on these two islands? According to environmental historian Oscar Webber, the most plausible explanation is: plantation agriculture.

Barbados was already almost entirely deforested by the 1660s to make way for large-scale sugarcane monocultures. Mass deforestation left the island’s soils highly vulnerable to erosion and, when the hurricane-borne deluge hit, deadly landslides. While Dominica also cultivated some sugar, its economy revolved primarily around coffee. The deeper and stronger root systems of coffee trees kept the soil structure intact: there is no significant record of landslides as a result of the 1834 Dominican hurricane, according to Webber.

Caribbean sugar plantation. Source: The Economist print edition Dec. 13, 2017.

Dominica had also retained a large proportion of densely forested lands. The forests not only lessened the occurrence of “epiphenomenal hazards” like landslides, but also provided protection for enslaved plantation workers seeking shelter from heavy rains and flying debris.

Based on this stark comparison of agro-ecological vulnerability, could the British colonial powers have moved away from a plantation system that so frequently resulted in both economic loss and human catastrophe? Absolutely. But they did not. (The 1898 hurricane season, for instance, again resulted in hundreds of deaths in Barbados and St. Vincent.)

It all boils down to a crude and all too familiar power equation: those who benefitted from the plantation economy experienced little of the intense suffering it caused. The colonizers gave little thought to the colonized (except when they revolted). As Webber puts it: “This [plantation] system, as unsustainable and ill-suited to the region’s environment as it was, remained because it primarily benefited a select group of people who were far removed from its consequences.”

Present-Day Dystopias

Some might argue we live in a time in which dystopic imagination is redundant. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more vivid image of climate dystopia than that of millions of chickens and thousands of hogs drowned by floodwaters, carcasses floating, animal feces and urine from burst waste lagoons seeping into the surrounding “soup of pesticides, fertilizer, and topsoil.”

Tom Philpott’s excellent reporting for Mother Jones on the factory livestock farms — known as Confined Animal Feedlot Operations or CAFOs — of North Carolina following Hurricane Florence paints a thoughtful and utterly horrifying picture. He quotes a statement from Sanderson Farms, the third largest chicken producer in the country, revealing that “60 of the 880 chicken barns that grow birds under contract for the company had flooded, killing an estimated 1.7 million birds of the around 20 million the company currently holds in the state.” Millions more birds, Philpott reports, are cut off from feed and could starve to death.

As with other top offenders in the climate crisis — oil refineries, coal plants, cement kilns, landfills, pipelines — CAFOs are disproportionately located near communities of color and low-income areas.

The communities of North Carolina’s coastal plain are at ground zero of an environmental and public health crisis in the making. But “why on earth would the meat industry alight upon such flood-prone territory in the first place?” asks Philpott. The answer harkens back to a similar logic as the colonial plantation economy. As with other top offenders in the climate crisis — oil refineries, coal plants, cement kilns, landfills, pipelines — CAFOs are disproportionately located near communities of color and low-income areas.

Much of the labor for these CAFOs is provided by immigrant workers living in precarious housing provided by farm owners, such as mobile homes or other structures unlikely to withstand heavy wind and rain — mostly next to fields located in floodplains. There are over 100,000 seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina, according to Durham-based Student Action with Farmworkers.

A map and database compiled by North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (published by NC Policy Watch) describes farmworkers imperiled when two lagoons overflowed at A&P South Farms. The map provides locations for hundreds of breached waste lagoons — an agribusiness euphemism for manure cesspits — and thousands of animal deaths.

The poultry and hog farmers themselves are vulnerable, too. Under contract with large corporations like Tyson, Smithfield, and Purdue, they shoulder substantial financial risk during these increasingly frequent catastrophes (for more on this, hear Tom’s conversation with retired North Carolina chicken farmer Craig Watts and others on Mother Jones’ Bite podcast).

Speaking on Democracy Now, Naeema Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, did not mince words regarding who benefits from a landscape dominated by dangerous industrial livestock production:

Smithfield owns everything — the hogs, the trucks, the feed, everything except the waste. The waste belongs to that grower, who is not being paid enough to do anything different from what they are doing. But Smithfield is pocketing billions of dollars in profit every year and can do something about it, but they won’t, because [their] goal is profit over people. You don’t care about what happens to anybody else, as long as you get your dollar bill.

The colonial powers of the nineteenth century, which cared little for the plight of the colonized and enslaved, have been replaced by corporations… corporations with the power to curry favor with our policymakers. And like their colonial predecessors, the only language they are likely to respond to is revolt.

But what does revolt look like?

Maybe it looks like heading to the polls this November to elect candidates who are accountable to communities, especially the most vulnerable among us. Or pressuring those candidates now to make a commitment to building climate resilient and socially just economies. Perhaps it looks like Puerto Rico’s agroecology brigades, promoting diversified local food systems and self-sufficiency through grassroots training and mutual aid. Or campaigning to lessen the climate footprint of our cities, schools, and hospitals with policies that promote “less meat, better meat” like the Good Food Purchasing Program. (Or all of the above…and much, much more.)

Dystopias are compelling because they help us imagine, with chilling specificity, the worlds we don’t want to live in. But they also invite us to imagine the ones we do — and to shape our revolt according to our vision.