There is an interesting essay by Dominican writer Junot Diaz in the Boston Review, looking at what the earthquake in Haiti revealed to the world (Apocalypse, What disasters reveal, May/June 2011). I copy some extract below, but the whole article is worth reading.
“(…) Apocalypse comes to us from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning to uncover and unveil. Now, as James Berger reminds us in After the End, apocalypse has three meanings. First, it is the actual imagined end of the world, whether in Revelations or in Hollywood blockbusters. Second, it comprises the catastrophes, personal or historical, that are said to resemble that imagined final ending (…). Finally, it is a disruptive event that provokes revelation. The apocalyptic event, Berger explains, in order to be truly apocalyptic, must in its disruptive moment clarify and illuminate “the true nature of what has been brought to end.” It must be revelatory”.
(…) Hunger, overpopulation, over-cultivation, and dependence on wood for fuel have strained Haiti’s natural resources to the breaking point. Deforestation has rendered vast stretches of the Haitian landscape almost lunar in their desolation. Haiti is eating itself. Fly over my island—Hispaniola, home to Haiti and my native Dominican Republic—as I do two or three times a year, and what you will see will leave you speechless. Where forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, only two percent is now covered. This relentless deforestation has led to tremendous hardships; it is both caused by and causes poverty. Without forests, 6,000 hectares of arable land erode every year, and Haiti has grown more vulnerable to hurricane-induced mudslides that wipe out farms, roads, bridges, even entire communities. In 2008 four storms caused nearly a billion dollars in damage—15 percent of the gross domestic product—and killed close to a thousand people. The mudslides were so extensive and the cleanup so underfunded that much of that damage is still visible today.”
We must refuse the old stories that tell us to interpret social disasters as natural disasters.
When confronted with a calamity of the magnitude of the Haitian earthquake, most of us resort to all manners of evasion—averting our eyes, blaming the victim, claiming the whole thing was an act of god—in order to avoid confronting what geographer Neil Smith calls the axiomatic truth of these events: “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster.” In every phase and aspect of a disaster, Smith reminds us, the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.
In other words disasters don’t just happen. They are always made possible by a series of often-invisible societal choices that implicate more than just those being drowned or buried in rubble.
This is why we call them social disasters.
(…) It is, I suspect, not simply an accident of history that the island that gave us the plantation big bang that put our world on the road to this moment in the capitalist project would also be the first to warn us of this zombie stage of capitalism, where entire nations are being rendered through economic alchemy into not-quite alive. In the old days, a zombie was a figure whose life and work had been captured by magical means. Old zombies were expected to work around the clock with no relief. The new zombie cannot expect work of any kind—the new zombie just waits around to die.
And this too the earthquake revealed.
I cannot contemplate the apocalypse of Haiti without asking the question: where is this all leading? Where are the patterns and forces that we have set in motion in our world—the patterns and forces that made Haiti’s devastation not only possible but inevitable—delivering us? To what end, to what future, to what fate?
The answer seems to me both obvious and chilling. I suspect that once we have finished ransacking our planet’s resources, once we have pushed a couple thousand more species into extinction and exhausted the water table and poisoned everything in sight and exacerbated the atmospheric warming that will finish off the icecaps and drown out our coastlines, once our market operations have parsed the world into the extremes of ultra-rich and not-quite-dead, once the famished billions that our economic systems left behind have in their insatiable hunger finished stripping the biosphere clean, what we will be left with will be a stricken, forlorn desolation, a future out of a sci-fi fever dream where the super-rich will live in walled-up plantations of impossible privilege and the rest of us will wallow in unimaginable extremity, staggering around the waste and being picked off by the hundreds of thousands by “natural disasters”—by “acts of god.”
Sounds familiar, don’t it?
Isn’t that after all the logical conclusion of what we are wreaking? The transformation of our planet into a Haiti? Haiti, you see, is not only the most visible victim of our civilization—Haiti is also a sign of what is to come.
And this too the earthquake revealed.
(you can read the rest of this article on the Boston Review website)