Maui’s Deadly Inferno: Disaster Capitalism in Action

by Barry Shephard, published on Socialist Action, August 17, 2023

People around the world viewed with horror the wildfire on Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands, with the historic city of Lahaina, formerly the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, being burned to the ground, people trying to escape by jumping into the ocean or by car, cars burned, and more.   As of this writing, August 17, the death toll has reached over 111, making it the deadliest fire in the U.S. in over a century.

Democracy Now! interviewed Kaniela Ing, a Maui native and national director of the Green New Deal Network on the islands, while the fire was still burning.   He said,

“These are really somber times. I was born and raised in Maui. I’m Kanaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian, come from seven generations. Our island is on fire. Our most historic town was set ablaze by wildfires. Hundreds of people have been evacuated and hospitalized. The death toll is climbing, and people are searching for loved ones right now….

“We’re a tropical island here on Maui. We’re not supposed to have wildfires. This came as a shock to everyone. There’s not enough firefighters here. We can’t ship them over from the next state. We’re an island. So, everyone right now is feeling a bit overwhelmed.

“As it occurred, we saw community members jumping into the ocean with nowhere else to go, just floating and watching their homes being reduced to ashes. The death toll went from six to thirty-six all of a sudden, and there are still firefighters, Red Cross members out there searching for loved ones. It was apocalyptic, something you would only see in a movie….

“There’s two facets to this. The first is climate change…. The spread was [caused] by hurricane-force winds and by dry vegetation and low humidity. Those are functions of climate change. This isn’t disputable…. Climate pollution, corporate polluters that set a blanket of pollution in the air that is overheating our planet contributed.”

Kaniela was referring to Hurricane Dora, which began as a disturbance in the Caribbean that became a tropical storm when it crossed into the Pacific. It grew to a Category Four Hurricane (winds at least 130 miles per hour) and took a long unusual path to the south of Hawaii before moving farther west in the Pacific.

While Dora didn’t drop any rain on Hawaii, its still hurricane force winds on its outer part fanned the flames on Maui.   Ocean temperatures have reached record highs, and warmer oceans produce more powerful hurricanes (Dora became a cyclone, as such storms are called after crossing the international date line, one of only two hurricanes to do so.)

“In addition,” Kaniela said, “there is mis-management of land. The original Big Five oligarchy in Hawaii, missionary families that took over our economy and government, continue on today as some of the largest political donors, landowners and corporations.

“They’ve been grabbing land and diverting water away from this area for a very long time now, for generations. Lahaina was actually a wetland. You could have boats circling Waiola Church back in the day. But, you know, because they needed water for their corporate adventures, like golf courses and hotels and mono cropping, that has ended.   So the natural form of Lahaina would never have caught fire. This disaster is anything but natural.”

Another aspect of lack of water that influenced the spread of the fire is that fire hydrants were dry.

A Brief History 

To put his remarks in context, a brief outline of Hawaiian history:   The first inhabitants were Polynesian settlers in the sixth or seventh century. The societies they established evolved and in the modern era became governed by chieftains in different parts, with a class structure somewhat resembling European feudalism.  The first contact with Europe was made by Captain Cook (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) in 1778, followed by intermittent contact. In 1810, King Kamehameha I, using European military technology and weapons, consolidated control over most of the islands. For the next 85 years monarchs ruled over the Hawaiian kingdom.

In the early 1800s American whaling vessels began wintering in Hawaii and the islands were visited with mounting frequency by European explorers, traders and adventurers. Money and trading were introduced along with the Bible.

In 1820, the first of 15 contingents of New England missionaries arrived. The first five were the Big Five Kaniela referred to above, a small but powerful white minority that began to exert greater and greater power over the monarchs. Private ownership of land was established along with a shift to what would become a plantation system owned by wealthy white American planters.  Sugar was one of the crops they introduced, along with coffee and later pineapples.

Hawaai’s Bayonet Constitution

To labor at the plantations many more workers were needed and were imported from Japan, the Philippines, Korea and other countries, many of whose descendants remain. Native Hawaiians became a minority.  In 1875 a “Reciprocity Treaty” with the monarchy was signed, a free trade agreement with the U.S., in which sugar was exported to the U.S. duty-free and under which the U.S. was granted special economic privileges denied other nations.

In 1887 a company of white troops, the Honolulu Rifles, forced upon the then King Kalakaua the infamous Bayonet Constitution, which severely limited his powers and gave the right to vote to the wealthy, generally Americans and Europeans. When the Treaty was renewed that year, the U.S. received exclusive rights to enter and establish a naval base at Pearl Harbor.  When his successor, Queen Liliuokalani, tried to abrogate that Constitution, a group of American and European businessmen that called themselves the “Committee of Safety,” overthrew the kingdom and seized power in 1893, backed by a company of U.S. Marines from the USS Boston, at anchor in the harbor.

A short-lived republic ensued. Sanford Dole, of Hawaiian pineapple fame, was elected president in 1894.   All this was a lead-up to the Spanish-American war in 1898 when the U.S. took direct control of the ports in Hawaii for its Navy, part of the war to conquer Guam and the Philippines from Spain in the Pacific farther west. Hawaii was formally annexed by the U.S. in 1900, but not made a state until 1959.  Dole was the governor of the Territory of Hawaii, 1900-1903.

Government Failures and Climate Catastrophe

To return to the fire. The situation after the fire was desperate. People were pressed to find drinking water, shelter, food and other necessities. But government aid has been slow to come from the state, and especially Washington.  This fire was part of the climate catastrophes this summer in the Northern hemisphere, including the United States, of extreme heat, massive flooding as well as fires. But President Biden has steadfastly refused to declare climate change a national emergency. If he had done so, and not just in words, he would have been obligated to immediately send all the aid needed. Biden hasn’t even visited the island or sent an emissary. He now says he will visit on August 21.   People on Maui and the rest of Hawaii have jumped in to do the best they can.

Private groups and ILWU Lend a Hand

There has been help from private individuals and groups in the rest of the U.S. Oprah Winfrey, who owns a large property on Maui, joined others in Lahaina helping at a temporary shelter, and bought supplies from a COSTCO outside the city.   The West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) sent containers of needed goods on ships. The ILWU also represents most dock workers in Hawaii. It has been known for its progressive actions.  Collections of money from individuals have been publicly made. All this in sharp contrast to the federal government.

Biden Rejects Declaration of Climate Emergency

Under a declaration of a national climate emergency, the President would have to adequately deal with the other climate emergencies across the country. He doesn’t want to spend the money, while nearly a trillion dollars goes to the military this year and tens of billions go to the war industries to further U.S. imperialist interests in Ukraine.  He would also have to step in to force the fossil fuel industries to rapidly end the production of greenhouse gasses responsible for accelerating global warming — that is, if the declaration of a national climate emergency wasn’t just words but a course of action.   Instead he keeps increasing the number of fossil fuel wells and mines, and insists that capitalism can solve the crisis by taking greenhouse gases from  some sites where they are burned (not automobiles for example), and even from the whole atmosphere itself, his nuttiest  proposal. Those scientists not in the pay of the fossil fuel monopolies and related industries say all these schemes won’t work.   When asked about why he doesn’t declare a national climate emergency by a reporter, Biden said he “practically” has.

Kaniela Ing said on Democracy Now!,

“As soon as I start thinking about that statement from President Biden, I just get so incensed. This is a climate emergency. There is no ‘practically.’ You either believe it or not.  And I think as bad as Republicans have been by denying climate change, Democrats are just as culpable by not doing enough. Scientists say that we need to be investing at least $1 trillion a year in the clean energy transition. We need to end and phase out, deny all new fossil fuel permits, and really empower the communities to build back ourselves democratically.”

Disaster Capitalism 

Today, residents of Lahaina face a new danger. An article in Common Dreams reports that

“Locals fear wealthy outsiders will dominate and further serve themselves with a multibillion-dollar rebuild after the devastation in the 50th state.”

The Associated Press wrote on social media Sunday, August 13, sharing new reporting from Hawaii.

“Lahaina residents worry that rebuilt homes in their Maui town could slip into the hands of affluent outsiders seeking a tropical haven rather than homegrown residents who give the Hawaiian island its spirit and identity.”

Naomi Klein — author of several books including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism — responded with one word: “Again.” Said Klein,  according to AP.

“Even before Tuesday’s fire — which was enabled by climate-wrecking fossil fuel companies and land decisions that have diverted water away from the area — a chronic housing shortage and an influx of second-home buyers and wealthy transplants have been replacing residents.”

Richy Palalay, who had ‘Lahaina Grown’ tattooed on his forearms when he was 16, told AP,

“I’m more concerned of big land developers coming in and seeing this shared land as an opportunity to build condos and hotels that we can’t afford, can’t afford to live in — that’s what we’re afraid of.”

Palalay added that he didn’t know whether the house where he rents a room for $1,000 survived the fire, which destroyed the restaurant where he works….  The AP’s reporting on Sunday sparked warnings from Kanaka Maoli —a term Native Hawaiians use to refer to themselves — as well as campaigners and experts beyond the islands.”

Reports suggest 93 people are dead, 1,000 still missing, and 2,700 structures destroyed,” said Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli activist, scholar and assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto St. George in Canada. “The colonial speculation of disaster capitalism is happening right now in Lahaina.”

Former U.S. National Women’s Soccer League player Mana Shim, who is also Kanaka Maoli, wrote on social media:

“This is a major concern that needs our immediate attention. It’s awful to have to discuss this before we know how many have lost their lives, but anyone who knows disaster capitalism knows the urgency of protecting our ‘aina from developers and greedy malihini.”

Malihini” means foreigners, newcomer, or stranger, while ‘aina is a Hawaiian term for land or earth.  Klein, who coined the term disaster capitalism, said the definition is really straightforward: “It describes the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises.’’

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