Facing Reality: The Future as History

Sunset over Charlotte Amalie (Source file photo).

In the Spring of 1988, two friends are sitting on a waterfront bench in St. Thomas. One asks, “What do you think things will be like thirty years from now?” His friend replies, “I don’t know, pretty much the same I guess. Things don’t change much here.”

But, in those 30 years, lots of things have changed, some in fundamental ways. The tourist-based economy has continued to evolve. The ability of government to serve as an economic and jobs engine has steadily eroded, along with its fiscal stability and its capacity to meet its obligations. As elsewhere, inequality has increased as the middle class has become smaller and more insecure. And crime and violence has reached levels that have changed the way people live.

Could any of these developments have been foreseen by the two friends sitting on that bench? Probably not, but someone with a sharp eye would have seen that the seeds for major problems in the future had already been planted. Those seeds included high levels of poverty, an education system that was good at making excuses and bad at teaching children, ineffective and non-transparent government, weak infrastructure and infrastructure management, and the resulting pessimism about the possibility of getting good things done.

Other big things, none of them positive, could not have been foreseen. These include the Hovensa closing, the arrival of extreme weather events driven by climate change, the Great Recession and the installation of a reactionary, white supremacist government in the United States.

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The territory is living with the consequences of the somewhat foreseeable and the mostly unforeseeable, and a big question is what will it do to address these challenges going forward. This series is intended to spur discussion, a discussion based on a single premise: business as usual is not a viable response; it is the path to decline and potentially a downward spiral.

Is this the time to have that discussion? That is always a tricky question. First, this series is going to be mostly written from a distance, and there is always the reality – and the trap – that things invariably look simpler from 35,000 feet or 2,000 miles away. These pieces will not fall into that trap. There is a deep awareness that the challenges and responses to them are as complex in the territory as they are anywhere else.

Then, there is the question of timing. The territory is a long way from full recovery, and the case could be made, “let’s just wait until things settle down.” But, if there are lessons in history, one of them is that when things settle down, there is an overwhelming tendency to go back to the old ways. The best time to have a discussion about basic changes is during a period of instability, but – and it is a big but – that discussion has to be reasonable and grounded in realities.

Which brings us to a final framing theme. In an age of bitter divisions and collapsing moral and behavioral standards, this series will focus on problem solving rather than finger-pointing and blaming. The structure of these discussion pieces will be straightforward and consistent. For each major issue, what are the global and U.S. trends? What are the trends in the region, and where are the best practices and the models for success? And, finally, where does the U.S. Virgin Islands “fit”? Is it a leader, within the normal range, or an outlier?

The series will explore long-term trends in the following critical areas: the environment and climate change; government and politics; the economy; population and demographics; education; and society, social cohesion and community peace.

Assumptions, which we all make, often implicitly, will be made explicit so that they can be challenged and possibly refuted. By accepting the wisdom of Yogi Berra and many others that “predicting is difficult, especially about the future,” none of this will be about predictions, but a lot of it will be about trends and the theme of sustainability.

Next Facing Reality: Climate Change

While the merchants of doubt continue to refer to a climate change “debate,” there is no such debate. The returns are in, and the threats facing vulnerable places like the Virgin Islands are multiple and severe. This piece will explore those threats and the tools available to a small insular territory for addressing them.

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