From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
In mid-February, the north polar jet stream strayed far to the south, covering much of the U.S. with frigid air. This type of event is made more likely by climate change. By Feb. 19, 58 people in the U.S. and 12 in Mexico died as a result of Winter Storm Uri. Some 32 of them were in Texas, including 11-year-old Cristian Yafeth Pavon Pineda, who froze to death in his mobile home, and 75-year-old Carrol Anderson, who froze trying to retrieve a spare oxygen tank from his truck.
WHO SUFFERED MORE?
In Texas alone, over 5 million people lost power, some for more than three days. Lower-income, Black and Latinx areas in general lost power the longest. In cities like Austin and Houston they could gaze through the darkness at the lights gleaming in the rich downtown areas.
Refineries and chemical plants spewed an extra 3.5 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the air over five days. The people suffering the most exposure—the same ones who always do because the plants are near where they live—were again mostly Black and Latinx.
More than 12 million people lost water service, many for over a week. Burst pipes damaged thousands of homes. Women prisoners at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth reported that they had to hand-scoop feces out of toilets overflowing due to the lengthy water outage. Food shortages were widespread.
This debacle gives us another taste of what to expect from future disasters, if we do not uproot the system that keeps sacrificing people for the sake of its continuation—just as Hurricane Harvey gave us a taste in Houston in September 2017, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in the same month, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in 2019, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic.
The way business and government prepared—or failed to prepare—for the disaster and the way they responded to it tell a bloody tale of climate obstruction, greed, indifference and cruelty. The feeble attempts to blame windmills or the Green New Deal, which is only a proposal, distract attention from the fact that we are only seeing the tip of the climate catastrophe iceberg to come, if society does not make a radical change.
Oddly, some on the Left piled onto the attack on wind power, when the bulk of electricity supply loss came from thermal plants fueled by natural gas, coal or nuclear fission. The “socialist” magazine Jacobin even featured an article that argued, “We should be fighting like hell to protect America’s fleet of 56 nuclear power plants,” as if that could be part of the transition to a new society centered on human needs, human self-development, and a rational relationship to nature!
‘GOOD DAY’ FOR SOME = TRAGEDY FOR MANY
Not everyone suffered. While some people were hit with electric bills in the thousands of dollars as prices skyrocketed, Roland Burns, head of shale drilling company Comstock Resources, crowed, “Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot.” Interviewed in December, Bill Magness, the President and CEO of Electric Reliability Council of Texas, explained:
“So, having a market structure that can have very bracing outcomes but also very profitable outcomes for those who are there and providing services for those times when you have scarcity pricing and prices go quite high, that can be a really good day.”
Obviously, some private interests are quite happy with the way things are. So it is not hard to understand why, after being warned ten years ago that a failure like this year’s could happen, regulators, utilities and suppliers fought to prevent preventive measures. They would cut into profits. Those same interests are deeply engaged in climate obstruction, a key part of which is denial.
In those ten years, Texas has put far more energy into devastating communities and the environment by building Trump’s border wall, closing women’s health clinics, and obstructing any climate action, than it has into slowing down climate change, adapting to it, and building resilience into the power, water, food systems and so on.
Those in charge were unconcerned that too many people had already suffered water and food shortages. And this disaster shows how quickly abundance of food, water, heat and electricity can turn into opposite when social-economic systems are disrupted by situations that were warned about but not prepared for.
SHORT-TERM PROFITS TRUMP PEOPLE’S LIVES
While a number of leftish commentators blamed deregulation of electricity production and distribution, that is an epiphenomenon of the current stage of capitalism, which for a half century has gone into overdrive on cost-cutting in the face of low rates of profit. Engineers know well the importance of resilience through such techniques as redundancy and winterizing, but in that period what has prevailed is the mania for “rationalization” that cannibalizes resilience in the pursuit of maximizing short-term profit.
As Karl Marx put it, capital “allows its actual movement to be determined as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun….‘Après moi le déluge!’ (After me, the flood!) is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.”
What we need is a totally new, human direction of society that sees and acts on the value of preparing for the future as if human beings matter more than capital.