Cerebral Fodder

February 2006


Natural Disasters and Societies

by Jayant Deshpande


Recent calamities visited upon us by the forces of nature prompted this response.


It's cliched to say that all crises and disasters, natural or man-made, bring us together. What they really do is reveal our true colors, good or bad.

Is there a link between New Orleans, Mumbai and the Asian tsunami?

All these disasters are natural, but the man-made response appears to be much the same everywherepower and privilege triumph over the disadvantaged, who're left to their own devices. That is the way of the modern, globalized worldit breeds a kind of 'globalized apathy'. How else are they linked? The hurricane that hit New Orleans. and the cloudburst that flooded Mumbai may well be due to the erratic weather events brought on by global warming. And that in turn has been precipitated by our voracious appetite for carbon-based fuels, at the expense of a fragile, non-renewable environment.

That brings me quite naturally to economic prosperity. With its unique political history and military might, America got in on the ground floor.
Early in the last century it used its power to venture abroad and secure its economic interests
read 'black gold' under the sands of Arabia as the principal commodityand hence its extravagant lifestyle at home. This naturally segued into the globalism of its multinationals. But this also over-extended America's reach and fueled a certain greed and wastefulness in its own people. Globalization is for those with the instincts and compulsion to get rich quick. In a competitive world, globalization allows every individual to seek advantage over another. I have no issue with that. Globalization has given me the tools to do my work. People getting rich has never bothered meglobalization is ideal if it can achieve a decent standard of living for everyone. Any surplus can be put to other uses. But globalization has blood on its hands, not in terms of its response to tragedies, but its general callousness towards poverty and economic disparity. It is supposed to alleviate poverty by some trickle-down effect that never seems to come about. Its spoils are not available to all of us.

The result: Today America is for the well-to-do and the rich. The disparity at home in America becomes a symbol of the disparity between nations, and within those nations. Indeed the rural-urban divide in India is greater than that between, say, the urban middle class and its counterpart in the prosperous West.

Now America faces death and destruction on a massive scale.
An in-your-face mortality induces a kind of humility, even among the rich or privileged—at least one hopes it does. If that isn't an integral part of human experience I don't know what is. Is this the real link between these disastrous events? Not if our collective memory is short.

Having lived and worked in Canada/US for many years I've witnessed the average American's (or Canadian's) indifference to politics or poverty, especially during the period of wide and easy prosperity in the 50s and 60s, when I was growing up. Prosperity also meant being innocent, not street-wise or curious about public life. By 1973 the oil crisis changed the complexion of this newfound prosperity. But not the ingrained habits of this 'boomer' generation.

In fact, in much of the First World, the filth, squalor and grinding poverty of the 'Third World' is experienced only as images on TV and other media. That kind of poverty has never been a part of the fabric of ordinary American life. Poverty is largely confined to the Native Indian Reservations, or the urban black and Hispanic ghettos, and their labor-intensive workplaces. But their numbers are growing. (Surely this parallels the chawls, slums and bonded labor here). America is a 'melting pot', where blacks have civil rights; yet the integration of poor blacks with the mainstream still remains a chimera. In India we see poor people and interact with them in some form every day—they're in our midst, and a part of our life, though admittedly not in the intimate social sense. Not so in affluent, or even middle-class, America—the poor are out there somewhere, not in their backyard, or on the streets where they live. They're almost invisible. Poverty is an undesirable brand they simply ignore or avoid thinking about as they go about their highly self-centered, independent, materially abundant lives. The nouveau riche in India are beginning to ape this attitude.

Wealth, development, prosperity, leisure, comfort, desire—in the end, all are relative, and often illusory.

Recently, after the July 26-2005 deluge (Black Tuesday as some called it), Dilip Chitre weighed in on Mumbai**, the great decaying metropolis and urban nightmare. He said quite simply that this city was built on greed, and will be destroyed by it. I thought of a parallel: the same way those who live by the gun die by the gun. In a broad metaphoric sense, will this also be America's fate?

**His essay appeared as a lengthy editorial in the Mumbai-based Indian quarterly, New Quest, No.161, July-Sept 2005.