Capitalism’s legacy

A Perfectly Normal Disaster

epa05014906 Firefighters try to save a horse that is stuck in the mud after a barrier at an industrial waste site collapsed, in Bento Rodrigues in Mariana, Brazil, 06 November 2015. At least several people died, 43 were injured and an unknown number are still missing after a barrier at a waste deposit site in a mining complex near Mariana in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais ruptured, local media and emergency organizations reported. EPA/Antonio Lacerda [ Rechtehinweis: (c) dpa ]
How natural are natural disasters really?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Around the world citizens are increasingly voicing discontent with free markets. Author Stephan Lessenich argues that we should look in the mirror and consider footprint of our own consumerist lifestyles.

  • Facts


    • Man-made disasters, like leaks of toxic chemicals into rivers and estuaries, have become the norm rather than the exception.
    • The success of modern industrial societies is based on exploiting resources and shifting the real costs of consumption to others – a process called “externalization.”
    • We cling to the illusion that we can have our cake and eat it but cut-price exploitation of natural resources often comes at the cost of the environment.
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The chances are you don’t remember what happened in Mariana, the Brazilian mining city last year. Here’s a quick reminder: Last November dams broke at an iron ore mine, spilling 60 million cubic meters of mud containing heavy metals into nearby community of Bento Rodrigues and the Rio Doce River. Along three-quarters of its 850-kilometer (528-mile) course, the formerly “Sweet River” became a toxic flow of residues of iron, lead, mercury, zinc, arsenic and nickel.

The accident cut off a quarter of a million people from clean drinking water. Then, after 14 days the red waters reached the Atlantic coast and flowed into the ocean, devastating the ecosystem on its path. The former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff dubbed the incident the worst environmental disaster in her country’s history.

Although the images of the dead river and its estuary tainted red by chemicals are dramatic, the case of Rio Doce isn’t a unique tragedy. The sad reality is that such spills are all too common: Rio Doce is everywhere.

The sad reality is that such spills are all too common: Rio Doce is everywhere.

Like other accidents, Rio Doce was predictable. It illustrates an economic and environmental world order in which the benefits and risks of development are shared out unfairly.

And, seen in this light, Rio Doce was a perfectly normal disaster. In the global division of labor, poor countries which are rich in natural resources are often forced to intensively and, sometimes, recklessly exploit their bounty. Often these businesses are sold off to transnational corporations to run.

That was the case in Mariana, where the local mine is operated by the domestic company Vale S.A. and mining giant BHP Billiton. Following the recent decline in world market prices, production was increased, rising almost 40 percent within a year. The strategy was to flood the market, but in Mariana it also unleashed its killer flood.

The Mariana mines own only three of 450 dams built to retain waste water from mining and industry in Minas Gerais alone. About a dozen of these lakes filled with the toxic soup, threatening Rio Paraíba do Sul, and indirectly endangering the drinking water supply for Rio de Janeiro, a city of 10 million people.

Like other "natural disasters" in the world's poorest regions, the incidents in Mariana were not particularly "natural."

Like other “natural disasters” in the world’s poorest regions, the incidents in Mariana were not particularly “natural.” Instead, they are rooted in the world economic system, the global strategies of transnational companies, in the thirst for resources among rich industrialized nations and their consumerist lifestyles. But we should stop and ask: What happens on the “periphery,” on the fringes of global capitalism?

Take, for example, the aluminum ore bauxite, which is found in many countries in the tropical belt. Brazil, next to Australia and China, is the world’s third-largest bauxite producer. Bauxite mining has grown considerably in the last decade, with mining company Rio Tinto, for example, increasing its production for 16 to 42 million tons. Virtually all bauxite mined is used to produce aluminum, which in turn is processed into a large of everyday and extraordinary goods in countries that consume natural resources. The carefully portioned and easy-to-use coffee pods used in many coffee makers are a case in point.

An extremely large energy input is required to produce the aluminum in coffee pods. But that isn’t the only reason the enormous success of the aluminum pod is so outrageous. Two billion of the single-serving coffee pods, completely unknown only a few years ago, were used in Germany in 2014, and the market continues to grow. According to industry estimates, Nestlé subsidiary Nespresso alone now sells eight billion of the capsules a year, which translates into a mountain of eight million kilograms (17.6 million lbs.) of aluminum waste.

coffee pods source dpa
Coffee pods: A tasty beverage for some. A pile of rubbish for others. Source: DPA


People across the world sipping their new-fangled coffee aren’t thinking of the Brazilian rainforest in bauxite mining regions being cleared. And the environmental cost is high, mineral resources are being plundered, natural habitats are destroyed and toxic waste basins and dumps filled in other countries.

The coffee pod trend also has other side effects, from the working conditions in ore mining to the growing consumer waste from more affluent parts of the world – which is often exported to poorer countries.

Beyond that, there are the harsh social and environmental realities of coffee production and transportation to the world’s coffee-consuming centers. And the coffee pod is far from the sole guilty party. Just think of our wardrobes and the garment factories in Southeast Asia, the rare African soils which are being plundered for our smartphones, or the environmental footprint of SUVs.

From the beginning, the socioeconomic development of modern industrial society hinged on achieving progress at the expense of others. Another word for this is externalization, exploitation of foreign resources and shifting costs to outsiders.

Externalization is the underlying logic of the global capitalist system. But it doesn’t simply unfold in isolation. It is not solely encouraged by corporations and political leaders – but also by the tacit consent and active participation of consumers en masse. We live in “externalizatised” societies of the global north, and we live well. But that’s because others live poorly. We live well because we live off of others.

But we can’t always bury our head in the sand. Germany has had an unexpected “rendezvous with the reality of globalization,” said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble when Germany opened its doors to an influx of refugees. Most Germans hope that this rendezvous will not become too intense. But the likelihood is that this is the start of a spate of similar challenges.

This is why we cling to the utopia of a global “elevator effect” created by economic growth, the idea that the world’s poor also get better off – meaning that we don’t have to question the wealth of affluent societies. Or the illusion of a “green” capitalism, which supposedly disconnects growth from resource consumption and can reconcile our consumer lifestyle with the limits of planet Earth.

As tempting as these delusions may be, in reality people in the affluent centers will also feel the side effects. They sense that living the good life at the expense of others is unsustainable: with the fabulous wealth of a few and the existential struggles of many. They realize that uninhibited resource consumption in one part of the world is linked to the destructive consequences elsewhere.

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” This motto of progress popularized by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s rings hollow today. Social injustice has become more pronounced as capitalism gathers speed. And it has shaped the 20th century globe – with some spots of abundance others blighted by toxic floods. You might think that these floods are not headed our way but in fact, they are already here, right next to us. You just have to pull your head out of the sand.


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