The power of nature and the tragic failures of an outmoded system

Revolutionary Worker #1264, 2005, posted at rwor.org

Near daybreak on December 26, the earth shuddered on the eastern coast of the Indian Ocean. The collision of two massive plates of the earth had built up tremendous pressures, and the faultline finally gave way along a 750-mile boundary, The floor of the ocean suddenly lurched 60 feet underneath the land mass of Southeast Asia’s Burma plate—moving forward more in a few violent moments than it had in the last three hundred years. The whole volcanic Indonesian island of Sumatra moved a hundred feet south.

This was one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded by human beings—and was followed by at least a dozen secondary earthquakes, several of them massive in their own right. The energy released suddenly by this violent slide was the equivalent of 32 billion tons of TNT. The quake unleashed 30% more energy than the whole U.S. consumes in a year, or (to use a quirky illustration) enough energy to boil 2,600 gallons of water for every person on earth. A massive hurricane would have to rage for two full months to release as much energy as this earthquake unleashed in seconds.

And as that massive collision of rock slid and quivered, part of the coastal sea floor rose, suddenly displacing hundreds of cubic miles of ocean water along the sliding fault—and forming the massive tsunami waves that moved at jet-liner speed across the Indian Ocean—moving east and west toward densely inhabited coasts.

Within 15 minutes the first wave had crashed into Sumatra—forming a wall of water up to 40 feet high that washed over fishing communities along hundreds of miles of coast. Whole towns were obliterated. At least 100,000 people reportedly died in Sumatra’s Aceh region alone. People were swept away with their homes and vehicles, often pulled out to sea to return with the future tides. Boats were found three miles inland. The town of Meulaboh was obliterated, and at least half of its population of 40,000 are reportedly dead. Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and home to 400,000 people, was completely devastated.

And then, hour by hour, the massive ripples of water, moving at 500 miles per hour over deep water, hit more distant coasts of the Indian Ocean—pounding the western coast of Thailand, devastating Sri Lanka’s eastern shores, hitting southern India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, sweeping over the 200 low-lying islands of theMaldives and then passing on to Africa’s Somalia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Tens of thousands more died. In Sri Lanka a whole train with a thousand passengers was swept out to sea, and buses were later found floating far out in the deep ocean. In the tourist resorts of western Thailand, thousands were snatched from beaches, raked over coral reefs while scuba diving, or drowned in the relentless flood.

In Mogadishu, Somalia—completely on the other side of this vast ocean—the tsunami waves were twice the height of an adult.

The final number of human dead will never be precisely known. Uncounted thousands of inhabitants of these coasts now lie in mass graves or at the bottom of the sea.

As the sun set on that awful day, people all over the world ached in sympathy and grasped for ways to help and rebuild.


In an instant, this earthquake drove home to us all the tremendous dynamism of our planet—its turmoil, its constant change, and its unpredictability.

But then hour after hour, day after day, a second profound truth has stood out starkly: This massive disruption of nature and human life revealed, starkly, how the present global capitalist social order stands as a complete obstacle toward solving the most basic problems and challenges of humanity.

Human society has come a long way in many respects. In fact, in countless ways, the means exist for preventing the massive loss of human life, and for rapidly rebuilding the damage left behind. Scientific researchers understand earthquakes and tsunamis in profound ways—it was possible to detect the earthquake around the world within minutes, and within an hour specialists understood the great danger faced by people on the coasts. Our society has the means for instant communication to every point on the planet—with satellites, radio towers, internet, and cell phone networks. There are massive resources accumulated by human labor that could be put into play—bulldozers, evacuation ships, helicopters, floating hospitals. And there are countless people, all over the world, eager to throw themselves into the rescue and rebuilding operation.

Through most of human existence, massive natural events appeared out of nowhere, they overwhelmed isolated and unprepared communities, and then desperate survivors tried to carry on alone, without relief or supplies or anyone even knowing of their suffering.

None of that is necessary today. None of that need happen.

And yet.... and yet... in ways that drive the mind mad with frustration, at every point, the knowledge, the wealth, tools, the creative collective efforts of humanity were kept from being deployed—in timely, effective ways that actually saved and rescued those in danger.

At every hand, the "modern" social order stood in the way.

This world capitalist order—divided into rich and poor, organized for private profit and military supremacy, carved into oppressor and oppressed nations, governed by oppressive and corrupt nation-states, funding those systems that serve the powerful, dedicated to keeping science the domain of a specialized few—at literally every turn of this human catastrophe, the workings of this complex global class society showed itself to be utterly outmoded and criminal.

Much of this human suffering could have been prevented. And the second wave of death, suffering and desperate poverty now facing the survivors could also be prevented.

And every look at the responses of the world’s governments, with all their crocodile tears and claims of compassion, reveals over and over that these forces cannot claim to serve the needs of humanity—as they scramble like crabs in a barrel to turn this human disaster into an opening for their own advantage and control over human beings.

Bottled-up Science

"The astounding tragedy in the Indian Ocean is not just a human disaster of unbearable magnitude. Nor is it a matter of fate. It is the consequence of years of underinvestment in the scientific and technical infrastructure needed to reduce the vulnerability of developing countries to natural and environmental calamity."

Los Angeles Times editorial, Dec. 30 by geographer Robert Chen and
seismologists Arthur Lerner-Lamand Leonardo Seeber

The most glaring and infuriating truth about this tsunami is that people got no warning.

One often cited estimate says that nine out of ten scientists who ever lived are alive today. The earth is under constant surveillance—by seismic instruments and satellite. There are institutes full of people who have dedicated their lives to understanding earthquakes, to identifying possible tsunamis, to predicting how waves will spread and how they will hit. And yet all their research, their patient listening to the vibrations of our earth and their planning were frustrated—when in very basic ways, their warnings simply were prevented from reaching people in time.

One spot in the Indian Ocean did get clear warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. It was the massive U.S. and British naval base at Diego Garcia—where the U.S. invasions of Iraq and the whole surrounding region are prepared.

Ironically, the waves never really hit Diego Garcia—but the message this military base got shows that warnings and timely evacuation could have saved tens of thousands of people as mountainous waves were crossing the ocean toward Sri Lanka.

And why, as the greatest disaster of our times hit, couldn’t that scientific knowledge reach the people who needed it?

One obvious reason is that the Indian Ocean is an impoverished, semicolonial region. It is dominated by the "great powers" of Europe and North America, but the well-being of people along those intensely populated shores is not their concern. Nike and the computer industry can build sweatshops in Indonesia, but no one bothers to set aside a few million dollars to build an early warning system. There were simply no detection buoys in place to track a tsunami in the Indian Ocean—even though a handful of such buoys (costing $250,000 each) could have gathered vital information.

In a world where computer research is cheap and commonplace, there were not even models in place for predicting how a tsunami might spread across the Indian Ocean. There have been reports of how frantic scientists rushed to plug data on the Indian Ocean into their existing programs—at the very moments when the waves were already overwhelming Sri Lanka’s coast.

In a world of rich and poor (and of imperialist countries and dominated countries) the warning systems have been built off the coasts of Japan and California, and not off the coast of Indonesia or Sri Lanka or Somalia—or Bangladesh where many tens of millions of people live in very low-lying floodplains.

In the aftermath, authorities quickly argued that tsunamis "are rare" in the Indian Ocean, and so such warning systems had not been considered necessary.

But the truth is that several severe tidal waves have happened there in the last century. And it is well known among scientists that the whole eastern coast of the Indian Ocean is a highly volatile zone of colliding plates—part of the "ring of fire" that produces the vast majority of the world’s tsunami waves. In fact, since the December 26 disaster, it is becoming known that a few far-sighted scientists had been sounding the alarm about the Sumatra coast, but were unable to get a hearing.

And on a whole other level, ordinary people are kept from scientific knowledge that they can use to analyze their surroundings and save themselves. Before the waves hit, the oceans withdrew from the beach, in some cases exposing almost two miles of sea floor. It was extremely unusual and an unmistakable warning of a tsunami. But thousands of people watched this and did not know what it meant. In many places, children ran into the exposed areas to capture fish—while the killer wave rushed down upon them. They just didn’t know!

These were communities where people made their living on the water—and yet, these millions of people had been deprived, kept away, from basic scientific knowledge.

In our world, in modern capitalist class society, science remains the domain of the few—and all kinds of religious and superstitious thinking is promoted among the people.

Government Men with Guns

As thousands of bodies washed up along the tidewaters, and as millions stood desperate and homeless in the ruins of their coastal towns, surrounded by fields destroyed by saltwater—the local governments of these regions revealed themselves (once again!) to be profoundly corrupt and brutally oppressive.

In all of the major regions hit by the tidal wave, the national governments have been involved in internal wars aimed at suppressing the aspirations of their people. In northern Sumatra, the Indonesian army has carried out a decade of fascist suppression among the Aceh people. In Sri Lanka, the government quickly announced that they refused to allow supplies to be delivered into the hands of the rebel Tigers (LTTP), even though large parts of the devastated coast are under the control of these rebel forces. In India, the government, police and army have savagely suppressed resistance of many kinds, including revolutionary communist forces among the people. And in southern Thailand, the people have lived through brutal government suppression in which 500 people were killed last year—and 78 arrested demonstrators were suffocated to death by police.

The reporting on the tsunami has put tremendous attention on the backwardness of these coasts, the poverty of the people, and the lack of transportation. But the truth is that great funds have been spent on the military suppression of the people—and on enforcing their poverty as wealth is extracted from them.

In the Aceh region of Sumatra, for example, where the waves hit hardest, it is estimated that ExxonMobil has extracted $40 billion from liquid natural gas facilities—in other words from the labor of the people and from the resources of their land.

And yet almost none of this wealth has flowed to the people—or to create infrastructure (roads, airports, rail lines, modern ports, storage facilities, hospital systems) that could now be used for rescue and rebuilding.

However, great wealth has gone to building up the Indonesian military (and their killer squads) in this Aceh region. The International Labor Rights Fund wrote:

"There have been credible reports dating back several years that Exxon Mobil Corporation, along with its predecessor companies, Mobil Oil Corporation and Mobil Oil Indonesia, hired military units of the Indonesian national army to provide ‘security’ for their gas extraction and liquification project in Aceh, Indonesia. Members of these military units regularly have perpetrated ongoing and severe human rights abuses against local villagers, including murder, rape, torture, destruction of property, and other acts of terror." (Village Voice, December 30)

When a human rights group tried to sue Exxon Mobil over this, the U.S. State Department urged the presiding federal judge to throw the case out, saying in 2002 that such a lawsuit "would in fact risk a potentially serious adverse impact on significant interests of the United States, including interests related directly to the ongoing struggle against international terrorism."

When the tsunami disaster happened, the Indonesian military viewed the whole population as its enemy. Its vehicles, bases, and helicopters were not deployed in rescue, but stood guard in fear that they would face armed attacks from the population. The military had forbidden journalists from entering the province and was highly suspicious of any outsider who wandered outside the coastal tourist resorts. And in crucial early hours after the tsunami, the Indonesian military refused to allow in airlifts of emergency supplies.

In short, the wealth and labor of this region are exploited. The government of Indonesia, one of the largest countries in the world, had 50,000 troops to send into Aceh to terrorize the people, but they had nothing in place to rescue those people. The U.S. corporations had funneled money to death squads while little went to roads or phone systems. And when disaster hit, the organized apparatus of the state was poised for war and repression—but nothing and no one was in place to serve the people.

The Callous Emperor and the Pressures of Rivalry

"We’re a very generous, kindhearted nation."

President George W. Bush, offering $35 million in relief four days after the disaster

So much power and wealth flows through the fingers of the U.S. superpower that the eyes of the world went to Washington DC to see how the White House would react. And for days there was silence.

The White House finally promised $15 million in relief. And the whole world gasped. A UN spokesman sputtered in dismay about a "stingy" response. And with that a political firestorm broke out.

When Bush finally swaggered into the public eye, he threatened: "Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed." He offered a new promise of aid: $35 million.

Official spokespeople went on a rampage insisting that no country on the planet is "more generous" than the U.S. And apparently this is a widely held myth—polls showed that most people in the U.S. believe that 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. federal budget goes to "foreign aid." In fact it is less than a quarter of 1 percent, and much of that is spent for highly sinister purposes of propping up pro-U.S. regimes or helping to extract wealth. (For example, a huge chunk of U.S. "disaster relief" in the last years went to the zones of Afghanistan and Iraq—where U.S. bombing had created the disasters.)

Pressure mounted. The other global powers, in Europe and Japan, took advantage of this moment to upstage the U.S.—and promise vastly larger contributions to the relief effort. Critics of Bush within the U.S. political establishment complained that he had missed a major opportunity to extend U.S. influence and repair damage to U.S. prestige—especially in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. (One major liberal magazine actually called on its readers to "Join the call for the U.S. to show more aggressive leadership." Is that what this world needs? More aggressiveness from the White House?!)

Under pressure, the retiring U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the U.S. would, in fact, spend much more in relief—and then said the relief efforts were becoming like "some kind of an auction house where every day somebody has to top someone else." And meanwhile, day after day, the U.S. government scrambled to up their bid. Two days after Bush’s first announcement, their next promises of relief jumped ten times—to $350 million.

In other words, when potential rivals stepped in, when other imperialist powers started to intervene in the Indian Ocean, then the U.S. government was forced to act—if there is going to be an international operation of any kind they demand to lead it. If anyone is going to gain influence and respect from this disaster, they insist it must be them.

And in all this too, the oppressive nature of this world system revealed itself.

A Criminal Lopsidedness

Commentators noted that only the U.S. military could possibly mobilize enough ships and aircraft to deliver supplies to the affected areas. And why is that? Why, in the world today, is all this wealth invested in the military capabilities of the main superpower? Why is all this capability concentrated in delivering threats and weapons anywhere in the world?Why are the efforts of tens of thousands of trained people focused on "force projection" into the Indian Ocean, and not a second’s thought goes into warning systems for the most populated coasts on the planet!?

This is itself just a glimpse of the extreme lopsidedness of this world order—where extreme wealth concentrates at one pole, and extreme poverty concentrates at the other. The shores of the Indian Ocean include several of the world’s most impoverished regions. When their fishing boats are ruined, when their coastal fresh water and fields are soaked in salt, when their few fragile roads and rail lines are washed away—the people of these regions have nothing. Millennia of feudal class society, centuries of "modern" colonialism, decades of corrupt and ruthless "independent" states (often funded from Washington or other world "great powers")—have all produced this situation where over a billion people on the planet live permanently in the shadow of starvation and desperation while the means finally exist for ending such starvation and desperation forever!

The wealth of this planet is relentlessly focused where it can make more profit for the very few—that is the law of capitalism, of the "free market" that is supposedly so "efficient." But what has been efficient is the way the natural resources and labor of places like Indonesia have been sucked up by huge imperialist corporations trading in timber, arms and natural gas. Or the systematic way a generation of young women throughout this region have been forced into sex slavery in places like Bangkok or the tourist resort of Phuket along Thailand’s western coast that was recently devastated.

Or think of it like this: Tsunami tidal waves may be rare—but massive flooding is not. Bangladesh and other coastal areas of the Indian Ocean are hit by massive flooding and monsoons that often endanger millions of people. Why are there no rapid response forces in this region that could be rushed to Sumatra? Why are there no massive floating water tankers, no designated bases filled with supplies and equipment, no international air flotillas for relief and rescue?

Because such intense human needs (especially in the poorer regions of the world) are simply not on the drawing boards whenever the plans and priorities of the powerful are drawn up. This system has mobilized unimaginable resources to invade, occupy and suppress the Persian Gulf oil region and to give the U.S. superpower the ability to literally threaten any country on earth. All this is done in the strategic (read: imperialist) interests of the U.S. ruling class. But nothing similar is done (or even considered!) for the real threats people face from everyday starvation, from the extremes of natural disasters and the growing dangers like global warming (which will slowly flood large parts of the world the way the recent tsunami did for a few hours)!

A disaster hits on the Burmese plate—but because of the most basic structures of imperialism, the only "practical" plan for ad-hoc disaster relief relies on convincing a military superpower a half world away to send a few of their ships and bombers. What kind of a system is that?!

And what happens now, in those places where the fate of peoples is at the tender mercy of these imperialists, their military and their "charity"? Where Colin Powell and Jeb Bush tour like envoys from the Emperor, visiting the provinces and directing operations?

A natural disaster becomes a way for these imperialists to tighten their grip, to make their rule seem more palatable to desperate populations and a way to grease the palms of favored corporations and governments.

It did not take long for such practical changes to emerge.

One American in Aceh pointed out: "In normal times, Indonesia’s worst nightmare was having American marines arrive on the Banda Aceh tarmac. Yet here we are in the middle of this operation, and we have marines here."

A "senior American diplomat in Asia" complained that the U.S. no longer had its massive naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, and added that the world is "paying the price" for this American loss. After all, according to this imperialist logic, the only way people can be safe from the ocean waves is if U.S. marines can easily and quickly invade absolutely any corner of the planet at will.

What would it take?

"It is like 9/11 but so different. There is no one to blame."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

"What one’s faith gives you is the capacity to respond to a disaster, not necessarily to explain it."

Prof. Diana Eck, Harvard Divinity School Chicago Tribune, December 31

"It is a natural event. We cannot do anything about it. Hold onto the feet of the lord. He will give you the strength to go through what you have to go through."

Krishna Rajan, Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago Chicago Tribune, December 31

"When the waves washed over India’s coastal villages Sunday, thousands of pilgrims to a Marian shrine were washed away as they attended mass. Bodies were buried in the sand, and the shrine suddenly became a morgue. University of Chicago divinity student Kristin Bloomer, in the region to study Indian devotion to Mary, said she watched one man shout: ‘There is nothing! There is nothing! Where is God? What is God?’"

Chicago Tribune , December 31

The earth shook, and an awful ripple tore through the dense fabric of human life. The scope of suffering is hard to contemplate—both the immediate deaths and then the long extended suffering from dislocation and destruction.

What would it take for a different outcome?

Sincere people are making lists of changes that are needed—a system of buoys in the Indian Ocean, some way of emailing warnings to Sri Lanka, some increase in budgets, some new international institutions..... the list goes on.

But clearly none of these changes will really affect the outcome next time—unless radical and fundamental change sweeps away imperialism and the profound divisions of class society.

And meanwhile, in countless ways, people are told this was all just fate, or inexplicable tragedy, or the mysterious hand of an all-knowing god.

One Muslim imam from Aceh was quoted saying: "Be patient. Surrender to god, for this, too, can be a valuable experience. Faith is all we have."

Todd Strandberg (founder of Raptureready.com) was quoted in the press saying that the tsunami was a sign of the "end times" where Jesus returns to a sinful world—fulfilling a prophesy made in Luke 21:25-26 that, in the last days of earth, "There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth."

Such lunacy would simply be ridiculous if fundamentalist Christian forces did not have great power and initiative at the heights of this empire, and if the mainstream U.S. media hadn’t constantly spewed out religious metaphysics in its news coverage of the disaster (announcing as news the "need for prayer" or declaring that nothing could explain the sources or reasons for such suffering).

Take a moment, and think through what it would really take for human beings to be prepared to consciously and collectively prepare themselves for such massive events. We would need a society where the wealth created by human labor was allocated by human need. Where scientific knowledge had become the property of all, and where people deeply understood how the real world worked, and how they could organize themselves to change it. Where the huge, infuriating divisions between nations and regions had been overcome—and where a global human community worked together to identify problems and develop common solutions.

We would need a world where the ruthless and relentless laws of capitalism had been overthrown—where the accumulation of more and more profit was no longer the guide to investment or intervention. Where the vast and criminal lopsidedness of the world—a legacy of colonialism and imperialism—had been consciously overcome. Where the means of life were available to all. Where the powerful tools humans have created were no longer focused on war, or the reinforcement of unjust power, but could be deployed for the protection and welfare of the people.

On one hand, such a communist world—of cooperation and abundance, operating beyond class and national divisions—seems so far away today that it may appear to be an idle or utopian dream.

But in the most practical and real way, the conditions for such a world are here, at hand, today . For the first time in human history, the means exist to actually abolish the enslavement of one human to another, and end the powerlessness humans have felt before nature.

No force on earth could have prevented the earthquake of December 26. No change in human society would prevent massive and unexpected natural events.

But an earthquake disaster on the shores of the Indian Ocean does not need to leave a shoreline of corpses, or millions of people facing a desperate future.

We live in a time filled with reasons to make revolution, and to fight for a communist world. The world-shaking earthquake of December 26 revealed how much human suffering today flows from the criminally outmoded capitalist system. On many levels, this world order literally prevented the warning, rescue and recovery of people.

It squandered the life-work, resource and dedication of scientists. It left millions of people stripped of resources, infrastructure, and communications. It kept basic scientific facts about the earth and the oceans from being known to the masses of people—while it propped up and promoted countless forms of religion, fatalism and superstition. It forged a society where people found themselves isolated and disorganized—even as millions all over the world strained to find ways to help.

And then, this system placed the whole recovery process in the hands of the most brutal war-makers and empire- builders this world has ever seen, as they typically turned the whole effort into just a new arena to press for sinister influence and advantage.

Our times are filled with reasons to make revolution. The man-made horrors of this Indian Ocean tsunami have added still more.