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Where's the Justice?

Superstorm Sandy’s Submerged Social Antagonisms


In spite of Barack Obama’s prognostication that future generations would look back at his 2008 nomination as the very point in history at which the (industrially-induced) rising levels of the oceans began to slow, as the 2012 presidential election draws near it is difficult to miss the fact that the opposite is happening. Indeed, as economic activity continues to heat the planet, and as polar ice and glaciers continue to melt, the oceans are not only not slowing their rise – as witnessed most dramatically over the past week, they are rising ever higher, swallowing significant portions of New York and New Jersey, among other places. And though his general rhetoric may suggest otherwise, the policies that Obama has pursued since assuming office have led to these very conditions. For, among others, his economic and energy policies encourage the introduction of millions of tons of deadly toxins into the sea and air and soil of the world, raising temperatures as well as raising sea levels.

To be sure, the extreme weather events – the persistence of which constitutes an obvious and undeniable pattern – that have been witnessed over the past decade have been shown by mountains of reports to emanate from just such policies. Not only does each summer bring monumental heat waves, wildfires, and droughts, the increased volatility of the weather has also resulted in the greater frequency and destructiveness of tornadoes. In New York City alone, where tornadoes have historically been rare, and were not seen in the city throughout the course of the 20th century, since 2006 one has touched down in the city every year.

While this Halloween’s hurricane and flooding was unprecedented, New Yorkers will recall that there was an unusually severe storm last Halloween as well. In addition to Hurricane Irene last August, in October a freak snow storm blanketed the region in over a foot of snow, downing trees, and causing power outages. And while this Halloween’s storm is certainly more destructive, it is but one more example of the regularity of so-called extreme weather. Like heatwaves in March, and hundred year floods that occur every other year, this has become more or less accepted as the – somewhat paradoxically – strange new normal.

In spite of the more spectacular dimensions that attend such extreme meteorological events, a careful analysis of their full social import must not neglect to consider the more mundane aspects of such events – in particular, that the colorful days leading up to Halloween are followed by the relatively drab ones marking the beginning of November. Along with the fact that the beginning of the month brings with it another job report showing, once again, population growth outpacing job creation (jobs, it should be noted, that are marked by longer hours, less pay, and fewer benefits, among other symptoms of a declining quality of life) the beginning of the month brings other things as well. For example, although public transportation systems are down throughout the region, gas stations are running dry, and people are hard-pressed to get to and from the jobs they precariously hold on to, the monthly rent that tenants must pay to their landlords is still due all the same.

At this point it might be helpful to reflect upon the fact that, in general, socioeconomic conditions that are made more difficult than they could conceivably be for some people are often accompanied by a corresponding diminution in difficulty for other people. In other words, the ease with which some people negotiate the social world is made possible by the destruction of the ease with which others are able to maneuver through the world. When this ease (which also means well-being, and wellness in general) is so obstructed, it takes little insight to observe that a form of dis-ease results. Among other things, it must be pointed out that this disease is antithetical to the health of the people. Because the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto (which is not only a basic, foundational metanorm subtending the US Constitution, but has been cited by jurists throughout history as a primary basis of a social order’s legitimacy) holds that the health of the people is the supreme law, it must hold as well that practices that result in the obstruction of the ease of the people – producing the disease of the people – are contrary to the supreme law as well. That is to say, contrary to appearances, such general practices are against the supreme law. As it is based on a dynamic wherein some people (tenants) are compelled to surrender their ease, their energy, and their lives, so that this energy may be concentrated as wealth in the hands of a few (by the landlords, among others), the landlord-tenant relationship provides but one stark example of this relationship of disease. Because everything that is given to the landlord that is in excess of what is required for the maintenance of the property (that is, that which constitutes the landlord’s profit) is made possible by an excessive difficulty imposed on tenants, and because this is antithetical to the health of the people, it must be illegal for landlords to collect rents in excess of what is required for building maintenance. Moreover, because obstacles interposed between a person and what s/he requires for optimal health (such as housing) is violative of the health of the people in general, any demand of rent at all may be said to violate the just.

As we recover from the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy, considerations of justice ought to lead us to not only abandon the use of the toxic materials and technologies that give rise to environmental degradation and global warming in the first place (which reproduce such destructive weather conditions), it must also lead us to recognize that justice cannot be realized without abandoning the toxic social relationships and institutions that are inseverable from these conditions, of which the institution of rent, with its accompanying concentrations of wealth, comprises just one instance.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com