OCTOBER 3, 2018
NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO, I stood in an old theater in Paris to listen to Naomi Klein speak. The crowd was exuberant, but a little tense. The Paris climate talks were ongoing, representing the biggest international step in 20 years to collectively combat climate change. But three weeks prior to this, terrorists had gunned down 89 people who were attending a concert at another old Paris theater called the Bataclan. So we were all a bit afraid, while also aware that the city’s prolonged state of emergency was being used as a convenient reason to curb protests by climate activists.
“We know that our elites are good at exploiting shocks and crisis and grief,” said Naomi Klein to the crowd that night. “And while we grieve, they take. And while we mourn, they move. And then we look up, and it’s too late.”
Might the Paris Agreement have looked different if Paris had not been in a state of emergency during the talks, restricting the scope for public dissent? We will never know. But Naomi Klein has written extensively, before and since, about what she calls “the shock doctrine.”
When societies experience profound shocks, from economic crashes to war to natural disaster, that disruption of the norm leaves an opening for state and non-state actors to bypass the democratic process, as Klein described in her runaway best seller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). Moments of crisis have been used to spread neoliberal ideologies, such as the descent of the “Chicago Boys” on Chile after its 1973 coup. But these inflection points can also be used to advance the cause of radical democracy, as Klein argues in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014). It all depends on who is able to look at the wreckage with a clear head and see a path toward their own vision of paradise.
Klein’s new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, acts as a timely reminder that in a tumultuous world, the future remains an open question. By disrupting what always was, disasters like Hurricane Maria can teach us how we want the future to be. Hurricanes are common in Puerto Rico, but Maria in September 2017 was in a league of its own. Almost a year later the archipelago remains crippled, with the aftereffects of the worst storm in 85 years worsened by state ineptitude and neglect. Klein spotlights two groups trying to find paths through Puerto Rico’s wreckage, guided by very different visions of the future.
She leads her narrative with a network of grassroots activists who want to use the lessons of Hurricane Maria in order to create an environmentally sustainable, climate-resilient, self-sufficient Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. The counterpoint to these efforts is a group that would like to turn Puerto Rico into a libertarian paradise for Bitcoin billionaires in search of low taxes and cheap, recently vacated land.
“Collision is inevitable,” says Klein, between these two dreams for the island. “In a very real sense, it’s a battle between sovereignty for the many versus secession for the few.” And although Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló backs the libertarian vision of Puerto Rico’s future (“Puertopia”), Klein does not think that success is a foregone conclusion for either side.
Klein profiles several activist groups working to turn the archipelago into a climate-resilient space. She describes a school teaching agro-ecological farming to children, now doubling as a vital source of food to communities isolated by the storm. The school is part of a network called Organización Boricuá, which is trying to revive traditional farming methods on an archipelago that imports 85 percent of its food. Another group called Casa Pueblo is trying to spread solar energy through the sun-rich archipelago, after seeing how well their own solar panels stood up to the hurricane compared to the centralized, fossil fuel-dependent grid.
Casa Pueblo is also fighting the proposed privatization of the energy grid, which could make it harder to switch to solar. Likewise, the Federation of Puerto Rican Teachers is fighting against the closure of public schools and the privatization of the education system. All of these groups, and more, came together in January 2018 for a large forum on disaster capitalism at the University of Puerto Rico, which has now grown into a Puerto Rico–wide collaborative network called JunteGente, “People Together.”
As the libertarian paradise vision of Puerto Rico gains political clout, the activists of JunteGente still have some advantages. Puerto Rico has a strong protest culture born of its long history of exploitation and colonization, and that culture is slowly coming back together in the wake of the hurricane. And activists here watched disaster capitalists descend after Hurricane Sandy in New York, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and they know what to expect. Their aim, post-Maria, is to build toward both democratic self-determination and climate resilience, having learned the hard way that neither one is possible without the other.
The Battle for Paradise is a quick read that acts as a contemporary case study for ideas about the shock doctrine, disaster capitalism, and the democratizing potential of climate action. The ideas here are powerful, but they might have been even more so if the book hadn’t cohered so neatly in the end. One is left with every sympathy for the Puerto Rican activists, every confidence that these activists are on the right path for a sustainable future, and zero sympathy for the billionaires and politicians opening the door for wave after wave of privatization. That style of clarity might not serve Klein’s own apparent goal of shining a light on inspiring stories that she hopes will grow.
A recent article by Amanda Ripley argues the need for complexity in journalistic narratives, given that a nuanced narrative is most likely to hold readers with opposing views. Complexity, here, does not mean treating opposing ideas as morally equivalent. Rather, it means foregrounding the details that don’t quite fit one’s narrative. Klein’s writing, while excellent and thought-provoking, sometimes lacks that kind of complexity. And that could have the effect of trapping vital ideas about environmental justice and sustainability in an echo chamber that sorely needs to break.
Take the description in The Battle for Paradise of traditional Puerto Rican campesinos (farmers) working to spread agro-ecological farming across the archipelago. Klein writes that Washington, DC, “equated campesino life with underdevelopment, and set Puerto Rico up as a captive market for U.S. imports,” meaning that only a handful of traditional farms now remain. Together, these farms are currently fighting to make Puerto Rico agriculturally self-sufficient.
But why was it that the US government equated campesino life with underdevelopment? Was any part of that equation accurate? In the latter half of the 20th century, for example, production of everything from sugar to eggs collapsed in Puerto Rico, unable to compete with large-scale, more efficient agricultural practices on the mainland. Perhaps as a result, agricultural work is associated with poverty in Puerto Rico. A more nuanced look into how modern day agro-ecologists have made their farms feasible might help others who would like to adapt older, more sustainable farming methods to a rapidly changing present.
Naomi Klein’s argument against the privatization of the public sphere also needs nuance. She suggests that infrastructure in particular needs to be publicly owned if it is to be made climate resilient, equating public ownership with democratic accountability. But worldwide, the public/private dichotomy can be far murkier than suggested here, and the path to true democracy equally complex. For example, many civic bodies in India in charge of urban planning are parastatal organizations, with a mix of public and private features. Their members are not publicly elected, but they are accountable to local governments, and they do conduct community consultations. These consultations have been criticized for deprioritizing the voices of low-income groups — but such a critique might say as much about the challenges of democracy in a deeply stratified, iniquitous society as it does about nature of ownership. After all, private-sector actors are still public citizens, with identical shortness of sight. Completely deprivatizing these bodies might be a first step toward making infrastructure development democratically accountable, but many other kinds of steps are also required.
Acknowledging such real-world complexity and messiness might help make the models for change in The Battle for Paradise more easily replicable, and easier to swallow by readers who don’t already agree with the worldview described here. But this still provides a timely, important portrait of Puerto Rico’s struggle to learn from a hurricane’s devastation in order to build a more disaster-resilient future.