The flooded landscape of 21st century capitalism

Fred Magdoff is co-author of Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation, with Chris Williams, and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism, with John Bellamy Foster. He talked to Michael Ware about the causes of the catastrophe that has struck Houston and the Gulf Coast--and what it will take to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Downtown Houston is inundated after Hurricane Harvey

IS THERE reason to believe that global warming made Hurricane Harvey more intense than it would have been?

YES, ABSOLUTELY. The oceans are warmer, and the Gulf of Mexico in particular has warmed significantly--this year is the warmest of all.

The warmer the water, the more easily water can evaporate, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, so you have that aspect as well. Storms in general have been getting more intense--not just this particularly intense storm.

There's another factor as well: The poles are warming faster than the middle of the earth, causing less of a gradient between the temperatures in both places. This affects the atmospheric transfer--that is, the jet streams. One of the predicted effects of this is that weather patterns will slow down--things won't move as fast as they normally would.

This is one of the factors that made Harvey so devastating: it stuck around. It moved a little bit, but in a circle, and it made landfall again and again. I wouldn't be surprised if this is part of the reason why it stayed so long before it started moving out toward the Northeast. That's also an effect of human activity and global warming.

But the major factor is that there's more evaporation from the large bodies of water, the atmosphere holds more water, and we have more intense storms in general.

HOW DID capitalist development in Houston make the effects of the storm even worse? Also, there are more than 1,000 people dead in in South Asia--why are the floods like those in Bangladesh, India and Nepal also more deadly?

I CAN'T speak as much to the impact in Asia or the specifics of the geography as I can about Houston. But this was also the result of a monsoon, with a similar phenomenon of intense rainfall. Bangladesh is also affected by rising sea levels, but the disaster is also affecting northern Bangladesh, away from the coast.

As for Houston--and it's not just Houston, but the surrounding area in Texas, all the way up the coast toward Louisiana--there has been incredible development, with the construction of roads and shopping malls and industries and houses.

This building is taking place on what, in the past, was substantial open land, some of it grassland and prairie, which is incredibly absorbent of water. What's happened is a significant portion of this open land has been paved over or covered over or otherwise made impermeable.

In Houston itself, there is essentially no zoning whatsoever, so people can do what they want, wherever they want. It's designed to cause a disaster. If you wanted to make the effects of a natural disaster worse, this is how you would go about doing it.

This is one of the underlying issues with regard to capitalism: the real estate interests are so powerful. And that isn't just a Houston issue either--it happens in other places. In the book Creating an Ecological Society that I wrote with Chris Williams, we have a section on unnatural natural disasters, where we talk about something very similar that had happened last year in Louisiana. We quote a professor at length saying that this area never should have been developed.

Anyone who was looking at the question dispassionately would have known this, but the real estate interests convinced governments to allow it to happen anyway. The real estate interests are quite powerful all over the country, and they exert a lot of power at the local, state and regional levels.

So you have an area that's prone to flooding, and one of the means that this was dealt with in the past--the percolation of water into soil and the slow release from the groundwater to the bayous--has been eliminated.

Once you eliminate 30 to 40 percent of the land that once served that function, every storm immediately becomes worse. There was major flooding in Houston last year--they called it the Tax Day flood because it came on April 18, when taxes were due. The year before, it happened on Memorial Day.

So flooding in Houston is not an unusual issue. This, of course, was an unusual storm. It's referred to as a 1,000-year storm, meaning it's a storm that will happen, on average, only once every 1,000 years--or it's actually more accurate to say that in any given year, there's a a 0.1 percent chance of a storm this severe taking place. And in 2016 and 2015, there were 500-year storms.

That's my take. You have capitalism affecting the climate through global warming and affecting the built environment through real estate development, both of which make a whole region more vulnerable to flooding.

AND NOT only did this development turn Houston into a kind of bathtub without a large enough drain, but there wasn't really a plan in place to deal with the flooding--even after the previous flooding in Houston or the disasters following Sandy and Katrina. So what do we have to do differently in the future to both protect people and provide relief immediately when these disasters happen?

THERE'S A lot more that can be done than is being done. But some of it is being done, carried out by regular folks. Disasters like this generally bring out the best in people. There are a lot of volunteers helping to rescue people or feed people in the various shelters that they have set up. Charities and Texas state and Houston employees are helping. And the federal government will help some through FEMA.

But they're saying that 100,000 homes in Houston that have been flooded. I have no idea whether that's accurate. And that's just Houston--there are many other locations around Houston and all the way up the coast to the northeast that have been flooded as well, and very few residents have flood insurance.

If you live in what is classified as a 100-year flood zone, you are required to have flood insurance in order to get a mortgage, that is. But the problem is that the flooded areas aren't only in the 100-year flood zones, but the 500- or 1,000-year flood zones as well.

So probably 80 percent or more of the homes that have been severely affected don't have any flood insurance. Those homeowners will only get modest help through FEMA--nowhere near what they need to rebuild or to renovate. And I expect that many of the homes that the news footage showed to be deeply flooded will be beyond renovation.

This is a human tragedy--not just for the homeowners, but for renters as well. Where do they go? Who provides them with reasonable housing? That could be accomplished by a government which has, as one of its main purposes, serving the people. You see empathy and caring and help at the personal level, but you don't see it at the governmental level to anywhere near the extent needed.

DID GOVERNMENT administrators in Houston know this disaster could happen, but didn't do anything about it because of the cost or pressure from real estate interests?

THE IMPORTANT thing to remember is that this disaster didn't start last week--it happened over decades. That's the real problem.

Last December, there was an article about Houston published by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune called "Boomtown, Floodtown." They document, going back to the 1930s, how flooding has taken place in Houston as a byproduct of development.

So obviously, they knew last year that disasters of this large magnitude could happen, but it's hard to say what could have been done at that point to stop it, because the solution would have to be long-term planning going back decades--not having such a large city, with the areas surrounding it built up to such an extent that so capacity for absorbing so much rainfall was lost.

You can say that the city could have come up with an evacuation plan and put that in place. But we're talking about millions of people to evacuate, so it's not easy to do. But beyond that, what could have been done is decades in the past. Flooding took place this year, last year and the year before. Who's to say it isn't going to happen again this year or next year?

AND THE problem with that is that there 840 petrochemical refining and power plants in the Texas-Louisiana border region. Why are these facilities so concentrated there? Why are so many nuclear power plants--like Fukushima in Japan, which was hit by the tsunami--located near rivers or seacoasts? How does this impact drinking water or marine life?

FIRST OF all, nuclear power plants need to be near water because they need a mechanism for cooling the reactor. In the case of Fukushima, the water came out of the sea and went back to it after cooling the plant. Every nuclear power plant needs this, as do plants that run on coal, because they depend on water being turned to steam.

So water is a part of the system--one that can become very difficult to manage. Nuclear power plants in particular need to be built near large sources of water if they are to be at all economical--which, of course, they aren't, but that's a whole other story.

Fukushima was a disaster waiting to happen. There are old stone carvings, dating back hundreds of years, above the zone that the tsunami reached which say: "Don't build below this zone because tsunamis can happen here."

So it's not like the owners of these businesses didn't know a disaster like that could happen. But they figured: "What are the odds?" I'm sure the executives who planned Fukushima didn't expect this to happen. But the fact is they were building in a zone where tsunamis had swamped the whole area previously.

Why the concentration of petrochemical plants in the Mississippi River area, along the Louisiana and Texas coast? That has to do with where oil has come from historically and how shipping takes place. These plants are located near the source of oil, at least originally, and with access to the means to transport petroleum products, both within the U.S. or overseas.

From a narrow economic point of view, that makes sense. And I'm sure these companies have insurance for flood damage, even though many of the residents in the surrounding areas didn't.

I'm also sure the petrochemical companies have taken some mitigating measures to limit damage. For example, drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been raised--they used to be 40 feet above sea level, and now they're closer to 70 or 90 feet above sea level. So the industry knows there's a problem, and it's trying to limit the damage.

But when these chemical plants get inundated, who knows what goes into the water? We know a tremendous amount of toxic material has polluted the water--and also the air, as a result of fires at places like the Arkema plant near Houston, when the power went out to refrigeration systems that were there to cool reactive chemicals.

There were backup generators, but the backup generators flooded, so some of the storage tanks exploded. These aren't major explosions, but the fires and the gases fueling them are quite noxious.

These things are going to happen when you build a plant like that in a zone where floods are possible. But it wasn't planned for. They had backup generators in the event of a power failure, but they didn't have another mechanism if those failed.

WHAT DOES all this mean for the future? There are estimates that the number of severe storms has quadrupled since 1970. How would a socialist society address this? How would we address the infrastructure that's built in such a destructive way?

THAT'S A long-term issue, and it's not going to happen overnight. Assuming the transformation of society, you would need to depopulate parts of that region and rip up a certain percentage of the impermeable land covered by roads or shopping centers. You would need to return the prairies to prairies and build infrastructure in other places.

The real question is: Do we need such reliance on these industries? If we moved to a society based on solar and wind power, tidal and geothermal power, much of the petrochemical industry on the Gulf Coast could be done away with. What society does need in deriving certain chemicals could be done in safe locations--away from the sites of probable disasters and away from large population centers.

There are no guarantees anywhere in the world against disasters taking place, but we know they're going to happen again in Texas and along the Gulf Coast.

So it's a long-term venture--to remove impermeable layers off the land and to remove much of the petrochemical industry that won't be needed in the future.

HAS THERE been much talk within the environmental movement about nationalizing these industries in order to shut them down?

I DON'T think so. I think the only way this is going to happen is with a different type of society. Under a capitalist society, these industries have so much power. If you had the kind of power it would take to nationalize them, you could change the entire government and economy. If you had the power to take on those interests, you'd have enough power to create a whole different society.

We're not just talking about the oil industry. It's the whole chemical industry, which is extremely influential because of all the lobbying and all the money that they give to political campaigns.

HOW FAR would intensified regulation get us?

WELL, THE Trump administration just delayed regulations that were supposed to go into effect at the Arkema plant. The company and industry as a whole organized a major lobbying campaign to reverse regulations.

The companies fight against regulations, and if they see that they're going to pass, they try to get them watered down. And then, if they actually go into effect, the companies try to make sure they aren't very well enforced. So even if the regulations exist and are meaningful--which is rare--the industry finds ways to get around them.

Often, the fines for violations aren't very much. You could have a good regulation, and a company violates the regulation, and they pay a thousand-dollar fine or a ten-thousand-dollar fine. For them, what's the difference?

In the coal industry, Black Lung disease, caused by breathing in coal dust, virtually disappeared in the United States because of OSHA regulations. But there was a mine disaster in 2010 at a Massey mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed, and when they did autopsies, most of the men had Black Lung disease. This is something that has reappeared.

This was a regulation that was doing pretty well, but the industry exerted enough pressure so it wasn't being enforced. After the disaster, Massey had all these fines levied against them, but they were small fines for each violation. For the company, this is just the cost of doing business.

So regulations have to be meaningful, and then they have to have teeth. To have that combination is very, very rare.

AFTER HARVEY stalled and moved east, instead of inland, people in other parts of Texas were spared, but now they're seeing long lines at the gas station. How is the Harvey disaster going to impact the U.S. economy as a whole?

MY GUESS is that the destruction will be relatively short term.

Gasoline prices have already gone up as a result of some of the major oil refineries having shut down, but the whole issue is how much they have been damaged. It could be minimal or worse than that, but they'll be repaired. We may be talking weeks or months in some cases, but I don't think it will be years.

There was also a pipeline that carries gasoline into the South and Northeast of the U.S. that was disrupted, but my guess is that will be back online relatively soon. So I don't see a major disruption occurring in the economy.

On the other hand, this is a situation where this could potentially create a stimulation for the economy because of the cleanup costs, and then the new buildings, highway repairs, people buying new cars and so on. That all adds to the GDP. This might have a mild stimulatory effect on the national economy overall and certainly down there.

But the other thing that happens, as we saw with New Orleans and Katrina, is how what Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine comes into effect. Capital has an opportunity to change things if it wants to. In New Orleans, one of the major changes was to essentially privatize the school system.

We don't know what will happen in the Houston area, but a situation like this affords an incredible opportunity for powerful forces to do some things done that they hadn't been able to get done.

What that would be this time, I have no idea, but that's another thing the left needs to be on the lookout for. We know that these changes are usually not carried out for the advantage of ordinary people. They're done for the advantage of making profits.

So my guess is there will be a short-term hit, but a longer-term stimulation of the economy as the region cleans up and rebuilds, because people will get paid, money will be taken out of banks, there will be new mortgages. But on the other hand, a lot of people are going to suffer.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein and Christopher Zimmerly-Beck