Disaster Colonialism: Structural Inequalities through Perpetual Disaster in the Face of Climate Change

Authors: Danielle Rivera*, University of Colorado, Boulder
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Planning Geography
Keywords: colonialism, puerto rico, climate change, disaster, inequity
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 16
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Disaster capitalism, rooted in Naomi Klein’s ideas from The Shock Doctrine (2007), has emerged as a prominent theory used to explain myriad post-disaster phenomena. Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, disaster capitalism theory has been used extensively to explain poor post-disaster response in Puerto Rico; however, Puerto Rican scholars and activists increasingly criticize this theoretical approach, noting that disaster capitalism does not explain the extensive history of disinvestment in Puerto Rico. Instead, following decolonial theories (Mignolo, 2012; Quijano, 2000; Walsh, 2018), colonialism and capitalism are seen as intertwined since their mutual inception.

In this manner, the paper uses the case of Puerto Rico to examine how these ideas function in practice and subvert U.S.-centric rhetoric surrounding post-disaster reconstruction and recovery. Using the Puerto Rican concept of environmental colonialism (colonialismo ambiental) as a starting-point (Atiles-Osoria, 2014; Concepción, 1988, 1995), I propose the idea of disaster colonialism (colonialismo desastre) (Rivera, Forthcoming), or the deepening of coloniality and colonialism through repeatedly-poor disaster response. From this, a thread of colonialism is traced throughout the history of disaster in Puerto Rico stretching back to the beginnings of Spanish colonization. The paper concludes with three suggestions for planners and policymakers in post-disaster reconstruction, particularly as the world is projected to face an increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes due to climate change. Ultimately, it is imperative to see how disaster capitalism and disaster colonialism are inextricably linked, and are employed together to deepen structural racism and violence through perpetual disaster.

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