Like many disasters, Covid-19 shocked the world; like some disasters it changed the world economy in ways most of us did not predict. But let’s back up for moment. What if those post-disaster changes had indeed been predicted – planned even – by people long before the virus began its deadly spread?
More than a decade ago, this question was explored by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. Bringing together critiques of globalization, privatization, and corporatization, the book revealed how global capitalism was being advanced – deliberately and cunningly – by exploiting natural and human-made disasters to centralize power and profit in big business. Analyzing many kinds of disasters all over the world, Klein saw that there was a clear and repetitive pattern. She called this pattern “disaster capitalism”.
Put simply, the disasters Klein examined created social and economic vulnerability, which was followed by a cookie-cutter style of capitalist rebuilding. It mattered not whether the disasters were human-made (e.g. terrorist attacks, civil wars or oil spills) or natural (e.g. floods, fires, disease, droughts, storms, or earthquakes). Regardless of their origin, these disasters almost always leave local communities in a vulnerable state: scared, splintered and grasping for quick solutions.
To people who need immediate post-disaster support, many capitalist measures feel familiar and safe – for instance, a private-public partnership to run an overburdened hospital, or outside developers brought in to quickly build housing for people whose homes have been flattened in a storm. But are measures like these from the capitalist playbook the only options? In an interview with The Nation, Klein paraphrased Milton Friedman, one of the most ardent visionaries of capitalism: “After crisis hits, the kind of change will depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
Capitalism and globalization have been working hand in hand for decades, strewing ideas so that they can be found “lying around” in even the farthest corners of the planet. They are abundant, apparently appropriate and ready to come to the rescue in a disaster situation. Yet, those are not the only ideas people have had for post-disaster rebuilding. If anything, the last few years have shown the incredible strength and ingenuity of people to recover from frightening disasters using ideas that are place-based, and that can only be implemented by people working at the grassroots. What if this were to become the new normal pattern? What if, when the next disaster hits – whatever its cause or location – the most numerous, doable and beneficial ideas lying around were those that support the rebuilding of local economies. This is what I call “disaster localization”.
Disasters have always been a recurring feature of human history. Although we may be able to mitigate their impact, there is nothing at all – not sea walls, AI or other technology or more international discussion – that will eliminate them. A few years ago, I teamed up with Rupert Read – currently co-Director of the Climate Majority Project – to write a book chapter that made me face that fact in a new way. Our chapter was called “Making the Best of Climate Disasters: On the Need for a Localised and Localising Response”, and it was featured in a collection with the courageously blunt title: Facing up to Climate Reality: Honesty, Disaster and Hope. The juxtaposition of “disaster” and “hope” gave us reason to develop the fledgling concept of disaster localization, and to make it clear that our chapter wasn’t meant for depressive wallowing – something that is easy to slip into when writing about climate change.
For humans, a lack of control can be scary. When it involves the global climate, it is downright terrifying. If we need proof, we only need look to Hollywood, where disasters drive the plot of many a blockbuster. Ironically, this genre of films provides an insight into what popular culture deems post-disaster “success”. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is not capitalism. Even though I know it is fiction and that my emotions are being manipulated by the crescendo of a good cinematic score, I feel a sense of relief when the disaster has been overcome and the heroes emerge, bedraggled but triumphant, to reunite with loved ones and to cooperatively begin the work of rebuilding their homes and communities. Dark skies go blue and bird song ushers in the credits. Never have I seen final scenes in such films display disaster capitalism ideas being implemented. No international bank employees clapping each other on the back with congrats for another community taken over. No neat queues of children in monotoned uniforms and resegregated skin color being shuttled to newly privatized schools. No underprivileged communities joyfully cutting an oversized ribbon on a rebuilt sweatshop that will continue to provide plastic trinkets for the brave new economy. Yet, those are just some of the disaster capitalism ideas lying around, many layers deep.
But, hey, those don’t make for feel-good viewing. Ironically, the fact that capitalist economic globalization would play badly on screen – dull and complex, at best – is likely one reason for the success of disaster capitalism in the real world: it takes over economies while most people are occupied with other, more personally captivating things.
In her Nation interview, Klein mentioned Friedman’s belief that shocks also “softened the ground” for the capitalist economy he envisioned. In ground softened by disaster (where people are less likely to resist because they are scared, sad and vulnerable), capitalist ideas – not just those strategically lying around but others that had been carefully honed, prepared and targeted deliberately into specific economic sectors over many years – can gain a stronger footing.
Even without a disaster to exploit, such a multi-faceted strategy has enabled globalized capitalism to creep around the world, leaving in its wake the distinctive footprints of exploitation – small farmers and local shops driven into bankruptcy, the dissection of local governing infrastructures, corporate chain stores, giant banks, and factory farms dotting the landscape.
Privatization has been one of globalization’s biggest accomplishments; in many places it has now taken over the provisioning of basic human services, like education, health care, food and drinking water. In fact, the features of capitalism are so pervasive they themselves create disasters – like the 2008 financial crisis triggered in part by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage scheme. In a perverse feedback loop, those disasters can further “soften the ground” and bring more disaster capitalism ideas to life. For example, it is now even harder for people with median incomes to be approved for a mortgage, while the 1% raises property values by investing in the gentrification now happening in nearly every major city.
If there is any objection or protest, disaster capitalism has prepared for that as well, and protesters quickly become mired in the softened ground. Klein showed that by the time people realized they had been exploited in their time of greatest need, it was too late to go back. The initial ideas “lying around” had become laws and institutions, while political power had been drained from democratic government through fast-tracked globalized trade treaties. As Klein put it: “If you think of it like a business plan, it could hardly be more profitable. Basically, what you are saying is you have this new market. It’s never going to end. So, unlike a one-off war… they built a permanent part of the economy.”
Today, as we still reel from the effects of Covid-19 – perhaps the most global and intense crisis the world has faced in over a century – the revelation that it is just one in a string of exploitable disasters can feel like too much extra doom and gloom. However, as Rupert and I pointed out, disaster capitalism is not inevitable. Its inherent weakness is revealed by the fact that its progression has required so much planning, so much concerted effort to disseminate ideas, and so much taking advantage of shocks. If such an exploitative system were inherently desirable, it would have been unanimously embraced in times of both disaster and calm. Forgive the flippancy, but it also would have been a staple of the formulaic ending of those Hollywood disaster films.
However, the trope is actually backed up by the scientific research of disaster studies, which have shown repeatedly that, after a shock just as in times of calmer normalcy, people have a tendency to cooperate and support each other. Disaster localization comes to humans more instinctively than does disaster capitalism. Even without the benefit of much preparation and effort in boardrooms and secret gatherings of the richest institutions around the world – and let us not forget billions in investment – to ensure the reign of capitalism, disaster or not, there are still a multitude of disaster localization ideas lying around. Many of these ideas have taken root and flourished even without the softer ground of desperate communities that comes from being pummeled by disaster. They are are the kind of ideas that are featured on the Planet Local pages of Local Futures’ website, in the Localization Action Guide, and those that were presented by speakers at the recent Planet Local Summit in Bristol, UK.
So, what’s next for disaster localization? Friedman’s vision of the post-disaster process of a capitalist re-build is as instructive as it is dismaying. The strategy is already there – essentially be prepared to rebuild the many sectors that provide for human needs after disasters of many types. For the most part, the disaster capitalism strategy needs needs to be wiped clean until it’s only an instructional framework of steps, and then we can re-populate it with ideas of disaster localization – those that support the localized provisioning of what people, communities and the natural world need to recover and regrow.
Post-shock, surviving the present will always be foremost in people’s minds, but disaster localization can also include ways to make people and planet more resilient against future disasters. My mind goes towards the classic example of mangrove forests, more than half of which were ravaged for short-term profit over just a few decades, mainly for large-scale shrimp farming. Yet when replanted, the mangroves have shown to settle right back in to their ecological and socioeconomic roles of protecting aquatic ecosystems, providing complementary long-term livelihoods, and protecting inland regions from climate-driven storm surges – a localization strategy that ripples out in globalized benefits.
One might argue that opponents of disaster capitalism aren’t in agreement enough to put together many cohesive alternative strategies as neat as the mangrove example. It is true that localists, small farmers, small business owners, labor advocates, social justice activists and environmentalists are known for disagreeing over details. This intellectual squabbling has been blamed for holding back movements that could lead to positive change, meanwhile allowing capitalism to spread with little effective opposition. It is a fair criticism. Over the twenty-odd years that I’ve worked in the localization movement, I have been in many meetings during which hours were spent debating merely a unifying name to describe our movement: localization, new economy, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, anti-corporate, environmentalist, Green, those who believe a better world is possible, and so on. However, the plethora of ideas that lead to these heated discussions could actually be an asset for disaster localization. Detailed agreement is not necessary to scatter ideas around. If anything, abundance and diversity make the ideas of greater use. Some may balk at the term disaster localization, but that’s fine too. It’s there as a counterpoint to disaster capitalism, to get a hotter fire propelling the movements to rebuild after disasters in ways that aren’t cookie-cutter capitalism – though it’s possible that some disaster localization ideas might even contain – yikes – some tinges of capitalism, if they suit the local conditions.
At this stage what is most important, for the sake of the future of both people and planet, is to get the ideas out there. They don’t need to be categorized or given an overarching name right now; in my opinion, they simply need to be useful, doable, helpful and within reach in times of crisis to ensure re-building happens in ways most adapted and beneficial to local people and the environment. Most importantly, the ideas need to be disseminated so they are the ones most commonly “lying around”.
Because every locale is different – culturally, ecologically, and economically – disaster localization will look at least a little different everywhere. As we include these ideas into the strategy of disaster localization, they will multiply and grow stronger – some will already be robust, others may be feeble and need life breathed back into them.
Looking around, it is clear to see that there is no scarcity of ideas to draw on for disaster localization. Many ideas have yet to be tried, others are already tried, trusted and transforming economies every day. These are the more familiar ones: local exchange, local farms, local business alliances, cooperatives, and credit unions, as well as policy changes like the shifting of subsidies away from giant corporations and agribusinesses towards small businesses and local farms. We will need many more and I have no doubt they will come to us. The next time they are needed, I hope we will see post-disaster transformation that brings us closer to a more localized world. For when it comes to disaster localization, this is just the beginning.