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30.12.03

Social Solidarity And Wildfires

I'm still officially on hiatus for the next week, but I found time to pop in and link two interesting tidbits that are somewhat relevant to my dissertation. First, in Western Australia, which is catastrophic wildfire central at the moment, residents are conducting a fodder drive to help out people whose range has been burned. It makes perfect sense that in a rural situation people would need help maintaining and rebuilding the basis of their livelihoods in addition to keeping themselves alive and rebuilding their homes, but it's not something that pops to mind when the paradigm case of wildfire is a suburban and wilderness fire like the ones in California a few months ago.

Speaking of California, I wrote a paper for my political ecology class on the contrasting strategies that George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger used for dealing with the fires this year. In it, I focussed on the use of public resources -- the land that Bush opened up to logging via the Healthy Forests Initiative, and the disaster aid funds that Schwarzenegger (who called himself "the Collectinator") wanted to get for California. I left out consideration of the role of the private sector. The obvious way to go would have been to talk about Bush and Scwarzenegger's generous praise of private donations to the relief effort as a way to shift the burden from the government onto the people -- a sort of standard leftist complaint about charity. But I thought that was too overdone, too cynical, and not clearly integrated with the remainder of my analysis. I would also have to take into account the performative aspect of the praise of charity, in addition to the functional -- the role it plays in shaping a politician's image and creating a feeling of connection from the people by drawing on, and reinforcing, shared moral values (something that Bush proved very good at after September 11*).

Another aspect of private sector support for fire recovery is described in this article describing the large amounts of money that businesses have contributed to relief efforts. This one is even tougher to work into my paper, since officials made no public statements (as far as I remember) regarding business, as opposed to individual, charity. Indeed, it would seem to undermine my overall thesis -- stated simplisticly, it's that in different ways the governor and president were aiming at advancing and securing the interests of business. One way around it is to say that businesses can afford a short-term financial loss in order to secure a long-term favorable structural situation (they'd rather cut a one-time check than risk having their taxes raised or their activity regulated). Or it could be explained as a failure of the pro-business agenda -- Bush and Schwarzenegger didn't do good enough to keep businesses from having to shell out money for their own. There are also other purposes that the act of giving to charity could serve, which apply to any charitable need (not just wildfire). The obvious and cynical one is that the capitalist system produces an impersonal, alienated society, and that business charity aims at papering over that fact by playing up an image of being involved in the welfare of the community and building bonds that go beyond the coldly economic. Then there's the fact that business owners are people, too, and are just using their greater financial power to do what ordinary folks do.


*Thought for a future post: It's this performative aspect of politics that Howard Dean doesn't get, and which is behind his frequent "gaffes" in which he says things that are probably true but sound really bad.

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