The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

How Capitalism Destroyed Lahaina, Maui

Sep 4, 2023

The August 8 fire that killed more than 110 people and wiped Lahaina, a town of 13,000 people, off the map was a disaster two centuries in the making.

Lahaina burned down so quickly because the area of western Maui surrounding the town was a tinderbox—covered with dry grass ready to explode once a fire started. That’s the exact opposite of how early European and American explorers described Lahaina and its surroundings in the 18th century: an area covered with abundant streams and lush wetlands.

But like many other parts of the world, big capitalists followed those explorers to Maui—in particular U.S.-based capitalists. By the middle of the 19th century, big agricultural companies had set up large plantations in western Maui, growing just two crops—sugar cane and pineapple—in very large quantities. These crops are real water-guzzlers—one pound of sugar, for example, uses up 2,000 pounds of water to grow. So, these big plantations quickly began to deplete Maui’s streams.

Having taken over much of the island’s land and water, the big plantation owners imposed their political order on Maui, as well as the other Hawaiian Islands, with the backing of the U.S. government and military. In 1893, plantation owners staged the overthrow of Hawaii’s government—for which, in fact, U.S. Congress issued a formal apology in 1993. When the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, the first governor of the new U.S. territory was Sanford Dole, a member of the family that owned Dole Plantation!

After drying up Maui for nearly two centuries, the plantation owners left the island. They sold the land to real estate speculators, who started luxury resorts and other touristic facilities on the island. Today, 16 of the top 20 water users on Maui are such facilities, whereas the real estate companies have left vast amounts of land unused, covered with grass.

Under these circumstances, it was only a question of time for the ongoing drought to further dry out the grass, for hot weather to ignite it, and for high winds to spread the fire quickly—leading to the complete, deadly destruction of Lahaina.

Such weather events—the drought, high temperatures and tropical storms—are made more extreme by global warming which, in turn, is also a result of the capitalist system.

Yes, global warming is caused by human activity. But this description is also misleading. Relying overwhelmingly on fossil fuels for energy, which drives global warming, never was a choice made by all human beings—it was a decision made by a very small number of big capitalists, behind closed doors, and only because it was highly profitable for them.

Another extreme weather event, another human catastrophe: brought to you by capitalism, every step of the way.