By Mina Shah
As we focus on the disaster that is the current American political system, other kinds of disasters are happening unnoticed in other parts of the world. In Chile, for example, wildfires are running rampant at high temperatures and, as it looks now, are nigh uncontainable. Already many people have died as a result of the flames, and large areas in the country have been destroyed. On January 23, about 104,000 hectares of land were still affected by uncontrolled forest fires. For reference, that’s about five times the size of the city of Oakland.
The housing lost as a result of the fires is especially problematic since Chile has been experiencing a severe housing crisis since the major tsunami and earthquake of 2015. While the strategy of architect Alejandro Aravena to build half-houses has alleviated some of the great need, the destruction caused by these fires has exacerbated, and will continue to exacerbate, the problem.
It is doubtful that anyone would deny that these fires and the state in which they are leaving Chile are horrible. However, it is doubtful that people reading this column will think it useful to prioritize thinking about the situation in Chile over the current political situation in the U.S. (except probably my Latin Americanist colleagues!). The fact that we are somehow able to justify shutting out world news as a result of our own crises is part of the reason that we should, in fact, be paying attention to what’s happening in Chile and other spaces where natural disasters are happening.
The current wildfires in Chile open another greater conversation about the idea of “natural” disasters in the present and can help us to more critically analyze “natural” disasters in the past, as well. Rather than believing naïvely that such events are divinely ordained or random, we can contextualize the damage that these events cause in a greater space of the negative impacts of global warming and unregulated development and extraction. These negative effects predominantly harm people who are historically disadvantaged. In this case, we see the greatest negative effects of disaster related displacement on low-income communities, much like Hurricane Katrina mostly affected low-income communities of color in the U.S. This ought to cause a lens shift; instead of simply viewing greater protections from natural disasters as simply a good thing to do, they now become a social justice and equity issue.
Perhaps most obviously, these wildfires speak to the way that rising global temperatures have made it possible for so much of the forests to dry to a point where it is possible for them to burn so quickly and so much out of control. They show us what can and will continue to happen if we do not double down on the Paris accords regarding climate change and try harder to reverse the strains that we have been putting on the environment.
The effects of these wildfires also speak to the way in which certain peoples, like low-income Chileans, are structurally disadvantaged, and that there are better and worse ways to go about changing that structure of inequality. Even though many Chileans got new houses following the earthquake and tsunami, this does not mean that they would continue to be protected from the next natural disaster that happens to disproportionately negatively affect low-income folks. By understanding this, perhaps we can use this base idea to imagine new ways to provide enduring safety and security for historically disadvantaged folks in the face of tragedy. While the best way to stabilize in the short term is building more houses (or halves of houses), in the long term, a better solution would be to engage in systemic overhaul at a national level and the provision of greater social protections.
To some extent, it may seem silly and indulgent to say we need to pay attention to the way that global power structures are allowing Chile to literally burn to the ground when it feels like our political infrastructure here in the U.S. is doing the same, though less literally. While we do need to focus on putting out our own flames (which will take attention from each individual in this nation), it remains important to care about what is happening in spaces that we do not have ownership over. After all, climate change and so many other problems affect all of us.
It is also true that part of the Trump administration’s goal is to coerce the American population into prioritizing a certain kind of person over another. The most radical kind of resistance that we can do is to continue to care about what is going on in other places, whether that care benefits us financially as a nation or not. In fact, being so self-interested financially is exactly what got us into this political situation in the first place. Thus, a careful application of the opposite ought to help get us out.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.