The recent wildfire that swept through Lahaina, Maui has been front and center on the news as recovery efforts have been ongoing. What is less reported is the fact that, within days after this disaster, real estate agents, developers, and others have been contacting locals to buy up their land for dirt cheap prices. Disaster Capitalism, a term coined by activist and author Naomi Klein, refers to the practice of private interests descending on a region in the wake of a major event, such as a natural disaster, war, etc. Sadly, Lahaina is just one of the many places experiencing this type of opportunism. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Haiti after their major earthquakes, South Asia after their 2004 tsunami, and so many other countries and cities across the globe have been subjected to disaster capitalism and the drive to privatize and deregulate systems for private gain.
This is problematic for many reasons, some of them being the following:
Exploitation of the Vulnerable: When populations are in crisis mode and focused solely on picking up the pieces of their lives and communities, parties swoop in to take advantage of this vulnerable time by offering quick money with no regard to the possible generational ties, sentimentality, and pride the locals have in their communities.
Hindrance to Long-Term Recovery: Disaster capitalism is more focused on short-term gain than long-term recovery. If proper attention isn’t paid to rebuilding the community as a whole, this can lead to problems with infrastructure and development and make the region more vulnerable to future disasters.
Privatization of Essential Services: Everything from water, electricity, healthcare, and education could become privatized and price out those who cannot afford these services. A prime example of this is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which became the most privatized school system in the nation. Charter schools replaced public schools and unionized teachers experienced layoffs. While not every change in policy negatively affects a region’s citizens, upending entire institutions in the wake of destabilizing events is opportunistic and takes advantage of a time when people’s attention is on more pressing matters.
Since disaster capitalism falls under the category of “it’s not right, but it’s not illegal,” it’s important for communities to have safety nets in place. Community control of economic assets and decision-making at the local level led by those who would be directly impacted by policy change is imperative.