How did Hurricane Maria evolve from a natural disaster into a human catastrophe in Puerto Rico? While the official death count remains at 64, a Harvard study suggests thousands were killed. While the hurricane left its devastating mark on the island, there were already destructive forces at work long before the storm made landfall. Forces that made Puerto Rico uniquely vulnerable to the ravaging effects of the storm and its aftermath.
So when did the problems in Puerto Rico start? And how did they manifest in the lead up and aftermath of Hurricane Maria? Naomi Klein says that to understand what happened you need to go way back before the storm. She explains how Hurricane Maria acted as an accelerant to a process long underway and that could continue to get worse as Puerto Rico tries to pick up the pieces.
CHRIS HAYES: It's kind of a slow-motion disaster, right? I mean it lasts for a very long time in the sense that because the grid doesn't get up, because people are in isolation for a very long time. What is the means by which people there that you're talking to are trying to kind of build resilience as this aftermath stretches on and on?
NAOMI KLEIN: I mean honestly I hesitate to even just call it a disaster which makes it sound like there's no agency in it for anyone. We've been talking about how the economic strangulation of Puerto Rico exacerbated the death toll whether it was in healthcare or electricity, water, but that strangulation is just intensified with post-Maria, right? I don't think this is really just about Maria. I think Maria was an accelerant to this process that was already underway and that is ongoing.
CHRIS HAYES: Welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
You've probably seen the shocking number from the Harvard Study of the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria and its aftermath on the island of Puerto Rico beginning in late summer 2017 when it hit the island. It was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it got a lot of attention because it was an attempt to estimate just how bad the effects were.
They interviewed people in a number of villages and then attempted to extrapolate out using statistical methods and the number they arrived at was 4,645 deaths. 4,645 deaths, now that's a shocking number. If that is the actual number it's the worst natural disaster and its aftermath in America in over 100 years, it's worse than Katrina, worse than 9/11. I mean, it's a level of death that is almost impossible to get your head around.
As Joseph Stalin once said, a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic, something he used to great effect in his time. 4,645 people dying, not just from the hurricane, let's be clear. The study was looking at the after effects of the complete and total evisceration of both the electrical grid and, crucially, the medical infrastructure in Puerto Rico. That number is not surprising to Puerto Ricans who experienced the aftermath of the storm, who have been saying that they know loved ones who died because of lack of medical care.
To reporters who have been on the ground saying people weren't able to get insulin, they weren't able to go for dialysis, they were not able to get access to oxygen, all the kinds of things that chronic illness in an island that is rather old in its median age needs access to, all taken away. Now, what was also shocking about that number was that the official death toll was so low, 64 people. Everyone knew that number was bullshit. People knew it was bullshit in the weeks afterwards when basically none of the morgues were reporting, and so the number was always preposterous even when Donald Trump went down to Puerto Rico and did a bizarre, unseemly, cringe-inducing victory laugh about how low the death roll was while, in fact, the death toll was in the hundreds at that point, probably in the thousands and mounting up.
Now, there are people who argue about the methodology of the Harvard Study and it's true that it's essentially an estimate, it's an attempt at an estimate. The hardest data we have puts the minimum around 1,000 people who died in Puerto Rico but here's the thing. Whatever the scale in numerical terms of disaster, despite the fact that this was a massive story in America, despite the fact that it's something that they've talked about politically, there's a fundamental way in which even though Puerto is American soil and Puerto Ricans are Americans, the way in which we as a culture and as a political entity have processed the tragedy of Puerto Rico has been about another place.
The reaction if it were Houston or New Orleans as in Katrina or in New York City after Sandy would have just been completely different and that's because Puerto Rico occupies a bizarre liminal space politically. It is a subject of American law, it is a democracy that gets to vote for its own governor and legislative body but doesn't fully control its own destiny. In fact, they experience some version of the kind of thing that we literally rebelled against with the British crown and spilled blood over, the fundamental argument of the revolution which is that we should have total say over what we do as a people and as a polity.
In Puerto Rico, they are fundamentally in deep ways that we're going to talk about in this hour, in deep ways governed from abroad. They are governed by others over whom they have no say. It's that fundamental political fact about the nature of Puerto Rico and then the crisis it entered into in the wake of the financial crisis. The new forms of control exerted over the island that created the conditions for the aftermath of the hurricane, which is to say Puerto Rico was in crisis before the winds started to hit the island.
In many ways, that's the subject of a new book by my friend, author Naomi Klein. Naomi is a well renowned author, she's been translated into 20 languages, she famously wrote a book called "The Shock Doctrine" which is a great book which is about the ways in which natural disasters and even unnatural disasters are often used by people in power to implement incredibly unpopular anti-democratic reforms to fundamentally alter the structures of a society.
In the wake of what happened in Puerto Rico people started to say, "Wow, this looks a lot like The Shock Doctrine, this looks a lot like what Naomi Klein was writing about. Naomi went down to Puerto Rico, she's been reporting on Puerto Rico and talking to people. She has a new book out called "The Battle for Paradise" which is about what happened in Puerto.
One of the things Naomi talks about is the crisis before Maria ever hit, and that's the austerity crisis that came out of the financial crisis and a piece of legislation that we'll talk about in this hour called PROMESA which is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act which was passed and signed into law in June of 2016, a year and a few months before the hurricane hit.
What Naomi sees in Puerto Rico is a story about the resilience of the Puerto Rican people, our fellow Americans, but also a story about what the front edge of climate disaster looks like; a combination of financial crisis, austerity, impoverished infrastructure, and the toll on human life in society when the inevitable weather event arrives. All of that came together in Puerto, in Maria, right under our noses as Americans. All of that is continuing to grind on on the island of Puerto Rico, subjecting Puerto Ricans to misery and struggle under our noses as Americans.
What happened to Puerto Rico is a story about Puerto Rico but it is also a story about the future that all of us are looking at. It's a story about the fork-in-the-road that stands before us about whether we are going to build up vibrancy and resilience in the public sphere and capacity in infrastructure as we enter the era of climate crisis or whether we're going to strangle those things off and leave people to the fates that they were left in Puerto.
Those are the stakes. Puerto Rico was just the first example in our immediate area of what the scale of that disaster can look like. That's why it's so important for all of us to understand what was going on in that island before the storm hit.
There's a question about like "When did the problems for Puerto Rico start?" That seems really urgent right now as we think about the recovery and what happened there. I guess I wanted to know how you would answer that. When did the problems start?
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. It's a good question, and I think there are many different start dates. I mean you could start with the beginning of Spanish colonization. You could start with the handover from the Spanish to the Americans. You could start with the signing of NAFTA and how that impacted Puerto Rico's economy because Puerto Rico's economic development was a sort of a proto-NAFTA. It's something that a lot of people don't understand, but before there was free trade, before there were maquiladoras in Mexico and Central America and American companies were able to offshore their manufacturing to cheaper labor, they used Puerto Rico that way. But it wasn't international because they could still say the stuff was being made-
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
NAOMI KLEIN: ... in the USA because Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States. So actually the whole free trade model was workshopped in Puerto Rico, but then when the free trade deals started to be signed, all these manufacturers fled Puerto Rico.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Because if you're competing on wages, like you can-
NAOMI KLEIN: Mexico's cheaper.
CHRIS HAYES: ... get cheaper labor in Mexico than you can in Puerto Rico. It's funny you say that because it was a big scandal back in the Abramoff years in the Republican Congress. One of the things Abramoff did was using American Samoa and Guam and these territories for the exact same gig, right? Like opening these very low-wage factories with really bad labor conditions but slapping "Made in America-"
NAOMI KLEIN: Exactly. Or you could date it back to 2006 which was the expiration date for all of these tax incentives that lured American manufacturers there. The process of de-industrializing Puerto Rico began with the free-trade era, but the death blow was the expiration of those tax breaks. Then hot on the heels of that comes the financial, global financial meltdown.
CHRIS HAYES: So you're got this NAFTA within the U.S. model, and then NAFTA sort of bleeds away that economic engine that this certain model that you're going to have these factories. That's replaced by this set of tax incentives, right? There's a sort of like "Well that goes away and now we're going to to give you ... You can go and do stuff as a corporation in Puerto Rico and get some sort of preferential tax treatment if you do it there." Right? That became the kind of new model for economic development.
NAOMI KLEIN: That's been the very, very sort of desperate-
CHRIS HAYES:Right. Yeah.
NAOMI KLEIN: ... Hail Mary that the Puerto Rican government has put in place just over the last four or five years to try to show some kind of economic activity on the books. It's very different from that industrialization strategy that was a program that was called Operation Bootstraps which was this industrialization program in the '40s, '50s, and '60s that provided these big tax breaks to American corporations if they set up in Puerto Rico. In exchange for those tax breaks, they created thousands upon thousands of jobs. What's happening now in Puerto Rico is very different. This is about luring what they call high net worth individuals to set up their official residencies in Puerto Rico and also to change the address of their corporations. It's appealing specifically to hedge fund managers, people who are very mobile because they just need access to data.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
NAOMI KLEIN: That's why it's also appealing to cryptocurrency traders. There used to be a requirement that they create four jobs, and they have since waived that requirement. So they literally don't even need to hire a gardener, and they can still get all of these...
CHRIS HAYES: Right. This is more like the Delaware model, right? Which is like you just ... Delaware gives very favorable treatment if you incorporate there which is essentially a paper transaction. You could run your LLC out of-
NAOMI KLEIN: Oh, totally.
CHRIS HAYES: ... Delaware, but you're not having anything to do with Delaware. This is that kind of model.
NAOMI KLEIN: For sure. People are shopping.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
NAOMI KLEIN: They're comparing it to the Caymans. They're comparing it with other tax havens. The advantage of Puerto Rico — and this is their pitch and they're very explicit about it — is that you have this sort of contractual guarantees ... I don't want to do an ad for tax dodging in Puerto Rico, but it's a pretty appealing pitch to be honest, right? You have the legal guarantees of being part of the United States.
CHRIS HAYES:American courts.
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. It is more stable than a lot of those —
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
NAOMI KLEIN: ... other tax havens. The deals are outrageous, right? I mean Trump pat himself on the back to no end for cutting corporate taxes to 20%. Puerto Rico is offering four for your corporate taxes. 4% corporate tax. No federal income tax and that's true for all Puerto Ricans, but if you move your hedge funds to Puerto Rico or your cryptocurrency scam to Puerto Rico, you pay no capital gains tax, no interest tax on interest dividends. It's the sweetest deal around.
CHRIS HAYES: And we've seen this in other places. I mean I remember covering Detroit when it was going through "We're going set up a casino," this and that, the specific kind of frenzied pursuit of tax base that happens under these kind of conditions of neoliberalism that looks very familiar in different places that are desperate for that kind of tax base. Then you have the financial crisis that happens which creates a debt crisis on the island. Maybe talk a little bit about what that does to life and governance on the island before the hurricane hits which is the key part of this whole thing.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. Chris, as you know, more than a decade ago, I wrote a book about all this called "The Shock Doctrine." A large part of that book is not about how wars and huge natural disasters are exploited to push through extreme neoliberal economic restructuring although it's about that too like after Hurricane Katrina or after the invasion of Iraq, but mostly this happens in the aftermath of economic crises. Mexico has the peso crisis. They come to Washington, cap in hand, for a bailout. The IMFN and the World Bank says "Okay. We'll give you a few billion dollars in exchange for you privatizing, deregulating, following what used to be called the Washington Consensus."
What I think is unique about Puerto Rico is that you had a very similar situation. They borrowed in ways that may well be illegal so there's a really important ... According to the Puerto Rican constitution. They used some very dodgy financial mechanisms that exploded the debt, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
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NAOMI KLEIN: This is the big problem, just how quickly it expanded. There's all this talk of Puerto Ricans living beyond their means. That's not what this is about. This isn't about sort of overspending in Puerto Rico. It's about really, really bad and possibly illegal money management in Puerto Rico in order to replace that investment that fell through in 2006 and was exacerbated by the financial crisis after that.
NAOMI KLEIN: What makes Puerto Rico unique is that it wasn't like an IMF bailout or just conditions on a loan. Puerto Rico has just lost its democracy altogether, right? It's more parallel to what's happened, say, in Detroit or Flint where you have these emergency managers where a city under bankruptcy loses control over its local government, but in the case of Puerto Rico, it's the whole island. Even though they start with this very weak "colonial democracy" because this is a colony ... They have to abide by U.S. laws, but they can't vote for the U.S. president. They don't have an elected representative in Congress, but they could vote for their governor. They could vote for their mayors and have some kind of local self-determination.
NAOMI KLEIN: But after the debt crisis, this becomes the excuse to create the fiscal control board. The PROMESA is passed, the PROMESA law. Now there's this seven-person appointed board who are mandated to be accountable to Puerto Rico's creditors. This is the problem. You really have a rule by creditor in Puerto Rico. Of course they don't have the interest of Puerto Ricans at heart.
CHRIS HAYES: There's a universe of literature written by Puerto Rican bondholders. They were producing this litany of propaganda. They would ... You would occasionally see them run television ads. They were lobbying Congress. There were newsletters and bulletin boards and websites all set up about the plight of not the Puerto Rican people but the Puerto Rican bondholder, the creditor. It was always a grandmother who bought some Puerto Rican bonds.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: These people, these poor people are getting screwed because Puerto Rico's not paying its debts, and they were very powerful. I mean there were these huge vulture funds holding billions of dollars who where the people on the other end of this propaganda.
NAOMI KLEIN: But it's important to understand that this is why, a large part of the reason why Puerto Rico's electricity grid was as neglected as it was. There was no investment. There was mass layoffs. It was all to appease these creditors.
CHRIS HAYES: Because the board basically imposes an austerity regime that says whatever dollars are flowing through the public treasury, some of it's got to go to pay your creditors back.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. Puerto Rico doesn't make its own economic policy. The governor of Puerto Rico comes up with these fiscal plans that he then submits to this board, this outside board, and they say
NAOMI KLEIN: To this board, this outside board. And they say no, go back to the drawing board, you didn't cut enough, we want to see more. So they go back and they say, "Okay, so we'll close 300 schools, right? And we'll save the money," and this is intimately tied to the depopulation of Puerto Rico right now, because if you look at the fiscal plan, they are planning to lay off thousands of teachers, close 300 schools, but they justify this by saying, "We have to do this" or "We can do this because we're going to have 100,000 fewer students." Right? So what it shows is that this depopulation that has happened in the aftermath of the hurricane is designed to be permanent. It's not sort of a humanitarian measure because people couldn't get healthcare.
NAOMI KLEIN: If that were true, then they'd get healthcare and you'd bring them back to the island, right? In the same way that New Orleans was depopulated and the population shrunk after Katrina, we're seeing this strategy of forestry location, really, and that being used for austerity.
CHRIS HAYES: I should say, just in the interest of some kind of journalistic balance here, that the bond holders scream all the time about PROMESA and the board, and they say they're getting screwed by them and that they're getting cents on the dollar, and the PROMESA been nowhere —
CHRIS HAYES: Just to give a full picture. There's a group of people on the other side of this who say they've been taking the cleaners by the PROMESA board.
NAOMI KLEIN: But, I think what people need to understand is that these are some of the extreme austerity policies that I've ever seen and I've studied this for a very long time. For instance, they want to cut the budget of the University of Puerto Rico in half at the same time as they increase tuition and massively contract services.
NAOMI KLEIN: So this is not subtle little trimming, this is an evisceration of the public's... and the other thing that they're pushing for is a very privatization of public services and one of the things that struck me, and that I write about in the book is that the timing of this is really interesting because the resistance to these measures, the popular resistance to these measures, was really peaking right before the storm, right? The storm hit in September. In May of last year, there were the second largest protest in Puerto Rico's history and they were against PROMESA, calling for an audit of the debt. Calling for the resignation of the governor.
NAOMI KLEIN: There was huge repression, but this was a kind of protest that Puerto Rico had not seen except in the mass protests against the U.S. military in Viequas. So, it was getting harder and harder to push these policies through. And so Maria comes along, and frankly it's kind of a gift, because it puts people into this state of emergency where they are so focused on staying alive that it's basically impossible to resist these measures. And look, if you didn't have the lights in your house for six months and somebody came along and said the solution to this is to sell off your electricity grid, you might be desperate enough to just believe it.
CHRIS HAYES: So you've got this situation, and I just want to keep people tracking this, because the timeline here is really important. You've got the broad financial crisis that happens in the country and the world, you've got the debt crisis that happens in Puerto Rico where it has these deflating/on the verge of defaulting on a lot of public debt. So then PROMESA gets passed before the storm and you have the austerity regime put into place. You've got this board that's like emergency manager in Flint, right? The decide what the public's bedewing is with the-
NAOMI KLEIN: And notably, they're not even in Puerto Rico.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh that's a good point.
NAOMI KLEIN: Things are happening in New York.
CHRIS HAYES: Really, that happened in New York? That's sort of a perfect touch isn't it?
NAOMI KLEIN: Mm-hmm.
CHRIS HAYES: It's like all of the Naomi Cline metaphors made very literal.
NAOMI KLEIN: Well especially because in Puerto Rico people call the board "The Junta." So it has this sort of double meaning.
CHRIS HAYES: Like literally, in a translated sense they call it the Junta.
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, literally, but it also has this deliberate double meaning of a financial coup d'etat.
CHRIS HAYES: And then you've got resistance to this austerity regime. You've got popular resistance and political activity all leading up, and then the storm hits. Maybe talk a little bit about the interplay between what that austerity had done to the infrastructure and polar capacity of Puerto Rico and what happened in the storm.
NAOMI KLEIN: So, I mean, we started this conversation with you asking where do we date the beginning of this to? Right? And some of it is about those ten years before the storm, where Puerto Rico's public infrastructure was just bled out. Where they laid off tens of thousands of public sector workings, including when it comes to electricity, people who were responsible for doing the maintenance. So a lot of highly trained electricians were out of work, and the grid was very, very brittle.
NAOMI KLEIN: Similar things were happening in communication. The sort of disinvestment in education, but it wasn't just that. You really do need to talk about the history of colonialism and how the whole economy of Puerto Rico was set up. What colonialism is about. What having a colony is about is having a satellite feeder economy that you can extract well from. And in Puerto Rico that wealth comes in the form of cheap labor in Puerto Rico and also in the U.S. mainland, but the extraction also comes in the form of treating Puerto Rico as a captive market for U.S. products. Fossil fuels, food.
NAOMI KLEIN: So here you here you have this extremely fertile island, which has the perfect conditions to grow all kinds of food to feed its people that imports about 90 percent of its food from U.S. agribusiness companies, food packaging companies, and fast food outlets, and so on because this is what you with a colony, is you profit from it. You also have an island that is bathed in sunlight, lashed by winds, has perfect conditions for waves; wind, solar, wave power and yet they get more than 90 percent of their electricity from imported fossil fuels. They don't have fossil fuels. They import it from the United States directly to the benefit of U.S. fossil fuel companies.
NAOMI KLEIN: This model creates all of these bottlenecks, right? So I think maybe more than anything else, that system of dependency and centralization made Puerto Rico extremely vulnerable to this storm, which let's remember, is also not a natural disaster. All storms today are super-charged by climate change. So nothing about this is natural. So you have this economy that is built to be dependent, that has these bottlenecks, all this food is coming through this one port. All the fuel is coming through this one port and the port get blown out, right? Total chaos. So it's, all of it, it's the infrastructure, it's the austerity of the last 10 layered on top of a colonial economy that created these centralized —
CHRIS HAYES: Pod chain that is really, really vulnerable to... I mean what's fascinating about that, there's a bunch of things, right? So the dependents of the colonial model, the fact it's an island, the exposure. This is something that people have written about in other context. A guy named Barry Lynn who writes about monopoly. He writes about, and this is not Puerto Rico, this is just the U.S., which is not a colony and is not dependent. But the way the global supply chains is they have no redundancy built into them and they're actually super vulnerable.
CHRIS HAYES: Even in the strong United States. It's amazing how many single points of failure there are in the way of global supply chain works. Even when you're not talking about a place as dependent as Puerto Rico. So it's fascinating to hear that because he has been sounding the alarm and others have been sounding the alarm just about the vulnerability of the global supply chain in places that aren't isolated islands that are dependent.
NAOMI KLEIN: One of the most exciting things, frankly, that I saw when I was in Puerto Rico is the way in which decentralized renewable energy, and also decentralized food production, proved so much more resilient in the face of climate change. And these are theories I've heard about, written about, but to see it, right? To see the one structure that has power being the one structure that put up solar panels on the roof in the 1990s and hear them talking about Casa Pueblo...
CHRIS HAYES: You opened the book with this great image of this one place with light in this entire region that's the place that put their solar panels on.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right, which is this pink house, it's painted pink. This old colonial structure that's turned into a community center and it's just glowing in this sea of darkness, right?
NAOMI KLEIN: And that's not to say that solar panels are not vulnerable to high winds. You know you can get your solar panels knocked off. I mean if your solar panels are on the roof and your roof gets blown off, you're going to lose your solar panels. Renewable energy is not a magic bullet, but decentralized renewable energy means that if one person's roofs gets blown off, you get it from somebody else. That's what a micro grid is, right? It means that you have that capacity to shift to where the energy comes from. And you also have the power to get off the grid when you need to. You can be part of the grid and you can be feeding back into the grid, but if there is a shock that affects the grid and you have a micro grid and your micro grid has some panels still up, then you're still going to have power.
NAOMI KLEIN: You're not going to have what we saw in Puerto Rico where if one big power facility gets knocked out, the whole island goes dark. Or three of them, right? And with this, I think what we're really seeing is the dangers of these highly centralized systems, right? Not just the global supply chains, but any highly centralized systems.
CHRIS HAYES: It's equal points of failure, right? I mean, what you're describing I remember when we saw the news that was coming about the one port, right? The one bottleneck port and it's, right. If you have one port and the port's not working, then you have no supplies. If you've got one grid and the grid falls apart, or if you've got one power station and the power station goes out.
NAOMI KLEIN: Or if you plant one crop. If you plant one crop. If you just plant bananas. Maria went through these fields of mono crops, like a scythe. It just decimated them, but low and behold if you follow these ancient traditional farming methods, and intercrop, plant multiple crops, right? In addition to your bananas, you also have root vegetables, and you also plant trees to stop erosion. You know there's wisdom in this, right? And much of that wisdom was wiped out through centuries of plantation agriculture, but some of it has still survived and the people who protected those methods were some of the only people with food on the island.
Why? Because if you have root vegetables, you have storm protection because if the crop's above ground, it'd get wiped out by high winds, but the crops underground survived. And this kind of thing actually blew my mind, because it is. It's one thing to sort of hear about it and know about it intellectually. It's another thing to see it.
CHRIS HAYES: It's kind of a slow-motion disaster. I mean, it lasts for a very long time in the sense that because the grid doesn't get up, because people are in isolation for a very long time. Having gone down there and reported and talked to people that are sort of engaged in kinds of cooperative undertakings, just sort of creates self-reliance in the face of all these horrible setbacks and challenges. What is the means by which people there that you're talking to are trying to kind of build resilience as this aftermath stretches on and on?
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. I mean, it's the slow motion disaster. It's an ongoing disaster. I mean, honestly, I just hesitate to even call it a disaster, which makes it sound like there's no agency in it for anyone, right? We've been talking about how the economic strangulation of Puerto Rico exacerbated the death toll, whether it was in health care, electricity, water. But that strangulation is just intensifying post-Maria. So I don't think this is really just about Maria. I think Maria was an accelerant to this process that was already underway and that is ongoing. To be honest the reason that I did this quick little book was as a fundraiser for this remarkable coalition.
Quick little book was as a fundraiser for this remarkable coalition of groups that has emerged and all the royalties are going to this group called JunteGente, which emerged while I was in Puerto Rico, which in itself is remarkable, that you would have a new political formation that would emerge in a moment where people still didn't have power, still didn't have water, were still in that state of emergency, and yet came together not just to say no, not just to protest the selling off of their island or reject the privatization policies, but to say "We have our own plan." We have a plan for what should be happening with electricity, what should be happening with the food system, what should be happening with the debt, what should be happening with the fiscal control board. An actually coherent plan for how to get at the root causes of what turned this disaster into a human catastrophe. And they have been developing a people's platform, having meetings all over the archipelago, sort of town hall meetings to get people's input to draw on their ideas, and to do exactly the opposite of this very top-down model of we know how to fix this and Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, comes to New York and tells investors that Puerto Rico is a blank canvas on which they can project their wildest dreams. And this is the antithesis of that.
CHRIS HAYES: Again, it's like Naomi Klein is writing the characters in this.
NAOMI KLEIN: It bores even me, Chris. I swear to you.
CHRIS HAYES: We want to apply what I'm now calling "The Shock Doctrine" to the island.
NAOMI KLEIN: What is remarkable, and what is new, is not what Rosselló is doing, it is the emergence of this counter power which has a plan for shock resilience, for shock resistance. That is remarkable, and I think that really deserves our support. There has been remarkable outpouring of generosity, particularly organized by the Puerto Rican Diaspora, and organizations like the Brooklyn-based Uprose and the Climate Justice Alliance, who've sent brigades, who've sent solar-powered generators, and then all of the money that's been sent to Puerto Rico in the spirit of humanitarian emergency relief. But now, I think we're in a stage where we need political support for these movements that are really trying, under incredibly difficult circumstances, to put forward an alternative.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, it seems also like there's a way in which you can view a kind of unnerving and dystopic way, a kind of glimpse of our climate future, right? A sort of combination of debt crisis, austerity, under-investment in public infrastructure, market supply chains that produce things, simple causes of failure, and then weather events that are super-charged by rising temperatures. All sort of coming together in this way. And also the vulnerability of the grid. Which is a huge thing for everyone, whether you're in Puerto Rico or not. We're not in this period where it's like how do you conceive of, build, rebuild the public sphere, back, right? Move things back from one category to another, but without creating more crappy grid utilities that aren't good. And I just feel like, as an ideological project, it's easy to hand-wave. But as an actual project, it's really hard. It's like the devil of socialism is in the details.
NAOMI KLEIN: But what I will say is that, if we're talking about eco-socialism, it's a little bit easier because it's pretty hard to build a decentralized electricity system run on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are really expensive to dig up. They are really expensive to process. They are really expensive to transport. Which lends itself to monopoly, whether state-controlled or corporate-controlled. But renewable energy, by its definition, is everywhere. The sun is everywhere. The wind is everywhere. And that's not a guarantee of a decentralized system, but is much, much, much more conducive to a decentralized model with many, many, different owners. And that's what I actually find very exciting about this transition.
CHRIS HAYES: So that's an interesting idea about the inherent... I mean, you write about this in the book, that there's something inherent in the nature of these kinds of energy forms in this moment in...
NAOMI KLEIN: Chris, I don't think it's a coincidence that the dawn of the fossil fuel era coincides with the dawn of industrial capitalism, and that as we understand the true impact of building an economy based on the double inputs of slave labor, and fossil fuels, as we come to grips with those impacts through the ages, and through the generations, because the impacts aren't just immediate, that the transition to that also is an opportunity to get at some of these root causes. And I think the same holds true for agriculture, right? I mean, the whole agriculture model that we've had lends itself to monopoly power to a few big players, and they might be state-owned or they, in our age, are corporate owned. But the alternative to that, and the more resilient model, is one that has so many more players in it. I find that very exciting. And I do believe that a true response to the kind of messages that we're getting from climate change are not just that flipping of the switch from private back to public. I think it is much more about how do you have a model that recognizes many different kinds of knowledge, that gets to the original promise of the fossil fuel era which is that we can be apart from nature, that we can dominate nature, that was the original promise of the steam-powered engine. You are as gods. You are master of the waves. You don't need to wait for the wind. You can sail anytime.
CHRIS HAYES: It's a cool promise. I just want to say. I feel like your characterization is slightly pejorative. Like, it's pretty awesome.
NAOMI KLEIN: To be master of the universe?
CHRIS HAYES: Yes! I mean, fossil... power...
NAOMI KLEIN: It isn't working out that well, Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm not disagreeing with that. But I'm saying that...
NAOMI KLEIN: As it turns out, there is no one-way relationship of dominance, that even if you have to wait a couple hundred years, there will be a response. And the response to that is Sandy, Maria, Irma...
CHRIS HAYES: Well, there's not a one-way relationship of dominance over humans, but part of it was dominance over machines, right? Or dominance of the earth?
NAOMI KLEIN: Dominance of the earth. That was the promise.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
NAOMI KLEIN: You used to have to get your power from a rushing river. You used to have to sail your ship when there was wind. And you no longer have to be in any kind of conversation with the natural world. You are the boss.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. But here's the thing that I want to preserve about this promise, right, because part of the promise, too, was you don't have to wash your clothes for eight hours, and there's all these things, right? Part of the promise of power was leisure, which I feel like is an ideological project and the practical project is the thing we want to preserve, right? The whole idea is that...
NAOMI KLEIN: I mean, I don't think the answer to this is completely anti-tac.
CHRIS HAYES: Like back to the land.
NAOMI KLEIN: I think there's going to be some back to the land, and I think some people want to go back to the land. I know a lot of people who want to go back to the land. They're using all kinds of cool technologies.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
NAOMI KLEIN: I think that this is often posited in a really pejorative... we're going to go back to living in a cave, and there's going to be no creature comforts whatsoever, and as I said, it certainly didn't feel like that in Puerto Rico, where the only people who had power were the people who had solar panels, and the only people who had food were the people that hadn't listened to the Department of Agriculture and had maintained some of these ancient methods.
CHRIS HAYES: And in fact, one of the things that you write about in the book, towards the end of it, is that one of the things that's so insidious and so miserable and so offensive about what has been done to the people of Puerto Rico is that it's really hard to communicate just how grindingly awful it is to try to function in 21st-century life when the basic things like the grid and clean water aren't functioning. Because what it means is you spend four hours a day getting those things. And that just takes... so opportunities to do all the things that you would want to do other than standing in a line by a stream on the side of the mountain to get the clean water, which may be caring for your loved ones, or playing soccer, or working or whatever, that's taken up by having to deal with acquiring the basics.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. Or waiting in line for FEMA.
CHRIS HAYES: So people that do have... the people that have the luxury of having voting power, which a lot of people listening to this, I think, right? You have a representative, you can vote. What should they be doing, or what can be done by the United States Congress that does hold the fate in some ways of Puerto Rico in some ways in its hands or has some contributory effect to what it can and can't do in terms of the rebuilding process.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. Well, I think one of the most important things that Americans can do right now is support these calls to audit Puerto Rico's debt, because we really don't have basic information about how this debt was accumulated, what parts of it are legal, what parts of it are illegal... Originally, when PROMESA was passed, and when the Fiscal Control Board was created, one of the things it was supposed to do was audit the debt. And they decided not to, right? Had they had this mandate to pay back the whole $72 billion, right? So what it actually, a lot less is owed, and that would create a different kind of conversation of responsibility for this, and that would be really important.
So there's a team of Puerto Rican economists and lawyers who have been calling for the audit of the debt. They're launching a crowdfunding campaign this week because they can't get it funded to audit the debt. So people can donate to that, they can educate themselves about the findings of that, they can raise it with their representatives. I think PROMESA itself, personally, I think it needs to be abolished and a lot of Puerto Rican groups are calling for that. This idea that you can appoint a Fiscal Control Board that has more power than the elected representatives of Puerto Rico is an outrage to the basic principles of democracy. And I think people should support Junte Gente. They can read more about it at juntagente.org. This is a moment where we... it's not just about sending money to .. send money to people, do that humanitarian assistance, but this is a political battle. This is an economic battle.
CHRIS HAYES: The book is called "The Battle for Paradise - Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists" by Naomi Klein. The royalties from it go to the group Junte Gente that Naomi just mentioned. Naomi, of course, a global, best-selling author in 25 different languages from "No Logo" to "This Changes Everything" to "The Shock Doctrine", which has proved to be one of the most prescient books written over the last twenty years. Naomi, it's great to have you.
NAOMI KLEIN: Great to talk with you, Chris. Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: Just one more thing I wanted to mention that all of the royalties from Naomi’s book are going to an organization called Junta Gente. Junta gente, which means “the people together” — basically — is an organization that is fighting for a just reconstruction in Puerto Rico. You can find more information about them at juntagente.org.
"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News THINK, produced by the "All In" team with music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more from "Why Is This Happening" by visiting nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.