August 16, 2023 Common Dreams
The struggle now is the one that punctuates all moments of crisis: the forces of disaster capitalism versus the people attempting to build a paradise out of hell.
Over 100 people (likely many more) were burned alive and an estimated 1,300 are still missing on Maui, in one of the most deadly and destructive wildfires in history. The dire crisis continues as hospitals are overwhelmed with burn patients, residents inhale highly toxic air, the community reals with trauma, and basic necessities fail to get to those most in need. Countless Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and workers—including many undocumented and unprotected immigrants—lost everything and may never be able to reestablish their lives in the Lāhainā area. With only 25% of the devastated area searched by rescue teams, developers and realtors are already swooping in to try to buy land from displaced locals—a callous incarnation of our current social order.
The human-caused roots of the Maui atrocity—and the already-in-motion fight for what happens next—have everything to do with empire, capitalism, elite power, and their ravaging of the planet and people. But what has emerged from the bottom-up in response to the disaster—ordinary people collectively and creatively organizing to generously and selflessly care for one another—shows us the alternative to the world that imperial capital has compelled. It is also the world that the vast majority of us long for so deeply.
Multiple wildfires across typically wet, tropical islands are a chilling reminder that climate catastrophe is upon us. The “absolutely unprecedented” is our new norm. Our planet is ablaze; the impacts of climate change are hitting harder and faster than scientists predicted even less than a decade ago. Tipping points and cascades are already occurring at around 1.2°C of warming. On our current trajectory, we are facing a cataclysmic 2.7-4.4°C of warming by the end of this century.
In Hawai‘i, we are increasingly accustomed to floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, even sea level rise. But wildfires of this nature came as an absolute shock to most of us, despite scientists’ warnings to government and large landowners for years. Heat and severe drought turned parts of Hawai‘i into a “tinderbox,” before a high pressure system in the north and a hurricane passing to the south lowered humidity and caused forceful winds to blow up multiple fires. All of these effects of climate change are going to get worse. Hawai‘i is already getting 90% less rainfall than it did a century ago, with the severity of drought being particularly acute in the past 15 years.
Parallel to climate change, “tinderbox” conditions were created by appalling land and water management for benefit of the elite. Major water diversions—first for plantation agriculture and then for tourism and gentlemen estates—have radically altered ecosystems. Landowners and water diverters like the old sugar barons Alexander & Baldwin may bear some direct culpability for the death and destruction on Maui. The company has a long history of ferociously and corruptly fighting Kānaka Maoli and environmentalists over restoring diverted water to its natural watersheds.
Some of the very same players diverting water, like Alexander & Baldwin, left broad swaths of land covered in highly flammable invasive grasses, despite abundant warning that they were creating a potentially catastrophic fire hazard. Fire-prone vegetation like guinea grass, brought to Hawai‘i by sugar oligarchs to feed livestock, has been left to cover over a quarter of Hawai‘i’s land in the transition from monocrop plantations to tourism development.
Climate change and water-deprived land covered in combustible non-native vegetation have led to other serious fires in recent years, a phenomenon Hawai‘i is highly unprepared for. Multiple studies and articles have warned that Hawai‘i is “primed” for wildfires. In 2018 and 2021, fires burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes. The growing threat was largely ignored because it was inconvenient and expensive to the powerful.
When last week’s fires broke out, the occupying U.S. state—which ideologically justifies its presence through appeals to “protection”—failed in its emergency response. Not a single alarm siren was activated during the fires. Power lines stayed on despite fire hazard warnings from the National Weather Service. Firefighters and disaster response teams were radically under-resourced to save people, and remain “overwhelmed” in the days after. A week later, despite the immense resources held by the U.S. military and settler elites in Maui—Bezos, Oprah, Jimmy Buffet, Jensen Huang, just to name a few—ordinary people are still without food, fuel, and water. Mutual aid efforts led by Kānaka Maoli have proven far more effective at delivering disaster relief.
The proximate causes of the horrific Maui tragedy—a rapidly warming climate, land “primed to burn,” and lack of preparedness—share the same underlying roots. Capital and empire, or more specifically, a social system violently forced upon most of the world, that is premised upon unending extraction and exploitation of people and environment for accumulation of private wealth. In Hawai‘i, imperial capitalism has dispossessed most of the Native population, consolidated power and resource control to a remarkable degree, created a society of lavish wealth alongside extreme poverty, ravaged the ‘āina (“that which feeds,” or land), commodified Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture, and increasingly delivered huge chunks of “paradise” into the vacation home portfolio of the elite. These are the conditions that created water diversions, denuded land, and neglect of potential disaster that always hits hardest at the bottom of social hierarchies. As Kaniela Ing succinctly put it, “colonial greed is burning down our home.”
These histories, and the monstrous repercussions, are relatively recent ones in the long span of human history in the islands. Knowing the recent history of imperialism and capitalism in Hawai‘i—and their ongoing contestation—denaturalizes the current social order. It reminds us that much different kinds of social orders have existed in our human past, survive in our present, and are possible in our future.
For over a millennium, Hawai‘i’s peoples lived in steady balance with the rest of the web of life, sustaining dense populations through sophisticated agroecological production. Structured by relationships of reciprocity, Indigenous Hawaiian production was organized cooperatively around ‘ohana, or extended family units. People freely accessed land, water, sea, and forests. While evolving Indigenous Hawaiian society was not free from class hierarchy, it was defined by beliefs and structures of collectivity, human freedom, reciprocity, and redistribution. Systems of production and distribution were designed to ensure that all had enough and that careful stewardship and reverence for the Earth were maintained. It was a society in which the logics of capitalism—of unabated exploitation of land and people for personal gain, extreme individualism, absolute private ownership, accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake, and the deprivation of many alongside excess riches for very few—would have been structurally impossible and culturally unintelligible.
Kānaka Maoli power in and over the islands remained strong in the first decades of increasing contact with Euro-American capitalists and imperialists, even as they navigated widespread death from introduced disease. The 19th century was one of competitive Euro-American imperialism throughout the Pacific, and militarily imposed agreements for repayment of accused debt-ensnared Hawai‘i in the imperial-commercial economy even before it was recognized by colonial powers as a sovereign nation. While the Hawaiian Kingdom worked to maintain sovereign Indigenous governance for almost all of the 19th century, capitalism and its violent backers steadily engulfed the islands.
As the interests of sugar capitalists increasingly collided with the Hawaiian Kingdom, white oligarchs secured the backing of the U.S. military in overthrowing the Indigenous government. By the early 1900s five sugar corporations—descended from four missionary families—controlled virtually the entirety of the economy and the government that served it. Sugar production thrived for decades because an antidemocratic, illegally occupying state secured the industry’s elite minority interests, maintained extreme class and ethnic inequalities, and delivered the land, water, and laborers that it demanded.
Sugar production in the mid- and late-20th century moved to cheaper locations of exploit, largely in response to militant interracial worker organizing. However, the legacies of the plantation persist. Today, Hawai‘i is entirely dependent on a vertically integrated corporate tourism economy. It provides cheap labor, natural resources, infrastructure, and other government support in exchange for low-wage jobs and an inflated cost of living—a change in form but not in function from plantation days of past.
Lāhainā embodies these colonial and capitalist assaults, as well as their resistance. Pre-colonial Lāhainā—with older names like Malu‘ulu o Lele, “land of the flying breadfruit”—was a place of wetlands and extensive food tree forests. It has long been seen by Kānaka Maoli as a highly sacred place. Ali‘i (problematically translated to “chiefs” by colonists) would gather in Lāhainā for governance, and it was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom for 50 years.
Lāhainā became one of the first commercial centers of the islands with the entrance of whaling, which gave rise to a growing population of foreign traders looking to “grow rich rapidly” in the islands. Thick groves of breadfruit and fishponds were destroyed to make way for export-oriented sugar production. In the 1960s sugar capitalists started cashing in for land development, which continued to require water diversions and further “denuding” of the land. West Maui is now choked with hotels and tourism infrastructure that services 2 million people who visit every year.
Amidst the ongoing systematic extraction of wealth and resources from Lāhainā, it remains the home of many Kānaka Maoli, their sacred sites, burials, and cultural centers like Na ‘Aikane o Maui. Invaluable cultural artifacts, documents, and art were turned to ash in the flames that burnt Lāhainā to the ground. It’s a chilling symbol of the rapaciousness of capital and empire.
Others at the bottom of Hawai‘i’s social hierarchies are also hardest hit by the fires. Housing is excessively unaffordable and difficult to find in Maui, and the thousands of working-class people rendered homeless will not simply be able to find new places to live. Those already living on the edges—which are the majority in Hawai‘i—will be further pushed into lives of precarity under the existing social order. A large portion of Lāhainā’s population was immigrants; many will lack access to federal relief. As the ash settles, inequalities will be further cemented.
The struggle now is the one that punctuates all moments of crisis: the forces of disaster capitalism versus the people attempting to build a paradise out of hell. Capitalism compels a grotesque search for profit wherever it is to be made—even in desperate times, the system knows no morality. As capital and empire turn Maui and the planet into a burning nightmare, power could consolidate in increasingly violent and extractive ways. The people that are and will be hit the hardest are those who have already been most brutalized by the past centuries of imperialism-capitalism-racism-patriarchy that delivered us to this apex.
But even at this apex, the future is not a foregone conclusion. The social relations that have existed since time immemorial in Indigenous Hawai‘i remind all of us that a world beyond the prisons of capital and empire are possible. The ways people are mobilizing to care for one another in the wake of Maui’s disaster illuminate our deepest human selves—generosity, compassion, cooperation, interdependence. Both show us the alternative to systems premised on hierarchy, exploitation, and greed. They show us that humans are absolutely capable of constructing far more utopic futures that are structured to incentivize, inspire, and cultivate the best of our human capacities rather than the worst.
Our different potential future trajectories couldn’t be more stark. Maui is a powerful reminder that we all need to fight like hell to get out of hell.
-Andrea Brower is an activist and scholar from Kaua‘i. She is an assistant professor in the Solidarity & Social Justice Program with Gonzaga University’s Department of Sociology.