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‘Disaster capitalism’ piles on top of California blazes and power outages

Ads for air purifiers and solar panels abound

A fire burns in San Bernardino, CA on OCtober 31.
Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Fires raging in San Francisco’s Bay Area and in the greater Los Angeles area have already forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes or be stranded without power in preemptive blackouts aimed at stemming new blazes. But as residents check their social media feeds for emergency updates, they’re seeing something more — social media is swimming with promotions for solar power, back-up generators, and air purifiers.

The frenzy has almost become an expected side effect of fire season. “Here in California, in the wealthy tech-heavy region of the Bay, the fires offer a glimpse of an emerging form of disaster capitalism,” Alexis Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic in the midst of historic blazes last year. The idea of “disaster capitalism,” — when industry moves in after a disaster to push an agenda and/or profit off the chaos — has arguably been around since before author Naomi Klein introduced the term in 2007, but it’s become more visible over the past decade. As California’s fire season grows longer and more devastating with the changing climate, “Climate adaptation could look like a million individual products, each precisely targeted on social media to the intersection of a consumer culture and a catastrophe,” Madrigal wrote.

An air purifier that The New York TimesWirecutter ripped apart as “the worst air purifier” that it had ever tested, ran ads on social media referencing this year’s fires. The company, Molekule, is using the same playbook they used last year when they posted fire-related ads on Instagram around the same time that the Camp Fire broke records in California for the most death and destruction in the state.

“We get where people are coming from regarding the California wildfires and advertising. To be honest, it is something we’ve debated at great length in the office,” Jaya Rao, chief operating officer and co-founder of Molekule, told The Verge in an email. “It’s obvious we didn’t get it right. We accept that our communication regarding this could be interpreted as somewhat clumsy, and we apologize to anyone who found it offensive or exploitative.”

Rao tells The Verge that it gave away $100,000 worth of its product during the Camp Fire, and $30,000 worth during the Kincade fire that’s burning just north of San Francisco right now. But giveaways have also been criticized as an unfair way of marketing to people coping with a crisis, as people saw in 2013, when outrage erupted after politicians sent branded gear to places in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, which at the time was the strongest cyclone to ever make landfall.

And if Molekule’s products work as poorly as they’ve been reviewed, those donated purifiers could potentially put people at risk. Rao calls the WireCutter review “incomplete and misleading,” and says that the technology it uses is the result of two decades of academic research. Molekule’s devices are on the California Air Resources Board’s list of certified air purifiers (making it legal to be sold in the state), but the agency that regulates the state’s air quality still recommends purifiers with a HEPA filter, which Molekule’s devices do not use (instead, it uses nanotechnology to “destroy” pollutants).

It’s not just hawkers of air purifiers that have jumped on the opportunity to boost their business during the crisis. Elon Musk tweeted on Monday that his company will offer $1,000 off its solar panels and batteries (its Solar Roof typically costs upward of $33,000). Tesla and other solar companies say they’ve seen an increase in demand since the outages started this month.

While Tesla slashes prices in the face of disaster, in other sectors, prices are climbing. Concerns about wildfire-fueled economic opportunism extends to price gouging displaced residents on everything from hotel rooms to rising rental prices. When looking for hotel rooms in the Bay Area on October 28th, Hotel Tonight listed a room at the Hilton Garden Inn at a whopping $1,272 for the night. Both companies initially pointed fingers at each other for the shocking numbers, but Hilton told The Verge in a statement that, “We have thoroughly investigated this situation and uncovered that the rate was unauthorized and triggered erroneously ... we express our most sincere apologies for the alleged price gouging via a third party online travel site.” Room rates are now down to under $200 a night at the hotel in question.

But officials are still worried about the effects of price gouging on their communities. “Families in Sonoma and Los Angeles Counties are in the midst of dealing with devastating wildfires. They shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re being illegally cheated out of fair prices,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in an October 25th statement issuing a consumer alert.

The alert was sent out after Sonoma and Los Angeles counties declared a state of emergency, and Governor Gavin Newsom has since declared an emergency for the whole state. It’s illegal in California to raise prices on designated essential services and supplies — like gasoline, food, medical supplies, and hotel accommodations — more than 10 percent above what they were before an emergency was declared. Becerra has encouraged anyone with information on potential price gouging to report it to his office.

Taking price gougers to task is a start, but as long as there’s money to be made, when fire season begins and the devil winds start blowing, ads and sales will keep popping up in the feeds of people who are fleeing for their lives. For some companies, where there’s smoke, there’s also opportunity.