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Japan – natural and unnatural disasters

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Recent events in Japan have shown how vulnerable we are to environmental disasters and how we have to prevent man made ones, writes Simon Hardy

At 2:55pm on 13 March a 30 foot high Tsunami struck Japan, the waves crashing over flood barriers and in some areas reaching as far as six miles in land. It was caused by an earthquake which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale that occurred out at sea 10 minutes earlier. The earthquake was roughly the equivalent of 474 megatons of dynamite. It was so powerful it moved Japan thirteen feet eastward and shifted the Earth's axis.

The earthquake and Tsunami led to huge loss of life. Whole towns were swept away and thousands of people are still missing. It stuck Japan will leave a scar on the country for a generation to come. In some parts food is running low, and in Tokyo there are rolling black outs as the government tries to preserve the power supply.

But the natural disaster escalated dramatically as the nuclear power station at Fukushima, as well as reactors at other sites, were badly damaged by the tsunami. Two explosions and fires at all four reactors led to an emergency and evacuation as engineers battled to stop a total meltdown. The whole world is anxiously watching events at the Fukushima plant.

The 590,000 refugees from the flooding were joined by another 210,000 who have been evacuated from a 30-mile radius of the stricken plant. Some people began to flee Tokyo when radiation levels there rose despite calls for calm from the government. After several days of fire fighting the emergency crews were reduced to dropping water on the damaged reactors from a great height to try and prevent more fires breaking out.

Profit before people

It is instructive to see how capitalism’s journalistic servants look at such a catastrophe. CNBC journalist Larry Kudlow exclaimed that “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.” His co-anchor added, “this is good news for the US economy.”

Satire itself is disarmed faced with such a response

But leaving common decency aside it is clear why they are concerned - Japan’s stock market plunged by over 10 per cent when it reopened after the disaster. Fears of the long term damage to the economy caused massive selling of shares as companies closed down their operations.

Now the question is who will fund and benefit from the reconstruction? The cost of rebuilding the damaged areas will run into billions of dollars. Already the Bank of Japan has pumped serious money into the economy to keep it moving, anticipating more problems further down the line.

Already Japanese traders have been selling foreign currency to secure more Yen, predicting that companies and insurance agencies will be paying out more money in the coming weeks and months. Currency speculation is a real fear, so much that the Prime Minister has issued a stern warning that he would not tolerate any stock market profiteering from the catastrophe.

Even without the cost of reconstruction, Japan’s gross-debt-to-GDP ratio may reach 228 per cent this year. Its economy has been stagnant for many years and it was badly hit during the credit crunch in 2008.

The neo-liberal ethos that the free market will solve all the world’s problems is cruelly exposed during such events when in fact the state is forced to intervene to save lives. In poor countries like Haiti the government has very few resources and has to rely on foreign intervention, which often include military forces, to assist disaster relief. But these relief efforts always come with strings attached, either more debt or lucrative reconstruction contracts for imperialist companies.

The Japan disaster bears all the hallmarks of similar events, including Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the Haiti earthquake which killed over 300,000 people. Because capitalism puts profit before people capitalist prefer to deal with the after affects of the disaster rather than prevent more deaths in the first place.

These natural disasters are made much worse by capitalism. If you build cities of two million people on ground which “liquefies” in an earthquake (Port au Prince) or fail to rebuild levees (New Orleans) or build a Nuclear power station in an earth quake zone on a coastline where Tsunamis occur, then the victims have a right to blame the politicians, the businessmen and indeed the economic system that flouts such dangers for the sake of profit.

The chaotic market system we live under cannot deal with environmental catastrophe, whether it is caused by global warming, pollution or natural occurrences like earthquakes. It condemns many more people to die than would otherwise be the case if we planned the economy properly and used rational decision making to ensure people were evacuated from the disaster area and rehoused.

Socialism would allow us to move rapidly away from more harmful and polluting industries and marshal our resources to deal with any disasters which occur.