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. 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 region.
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. These deals aren’t legal in New York or New Jersey, but Rapoport believes that can change. “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.”
The prize for shameless disaster capitalism, however, surely goes to right-wing economist Russell 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 further 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.
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.
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 suggest that droughts and heat stress are such a threat to farmers that only big players will 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 occupying valuable oceanfront 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 villages.”