“We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.”
Historian Frederic Maitland
There is a big difference between prophesying or predicting the future and planning for it with the best information possible. Without falling into the trap of predicting, it is a near certainty that when we look back at the current crisis, it will be possible to say about some leaders and groups: “Yes, they did the best with the information they had; and they took advantage of the opportunities that were presented.”
Or, alternatively, “They really screwed up and produced a calamity.”
Given the unprecedented nature of these events, along with America’s “gotcha” culture, it is also a certainty that, in every instance, for every leader, there will have been mistakes made. And there will be a laser-like and very selective focus on those mistakes made by people “on the other side.” The “what about [fill in the blank]” crew will be out in full force.
There will also be a select group, the models to be emulated. They will be the ones who, upon stepping back and examining these events, saw that this was more than a health emergency. They recognized the deep fissures that the pandemic had made impossible to deny, and that we were at the end of an era; that there were opportunities here to build more sustainable and just societies. They were the leaders who saw the connections – “intersectionality” in the current language – between the pandemic, climate change and the vast inequality and decay produced by racism, and a “winner take all”/shareholder value as the only value, economy.
They not only saw these connections, but they also acted on them, even though, in most cases, they led small countries like Iceland, New Zealand and Scotland. Not “small” as in Virgin Islands small, but close enough to be relevant models, especially Scotland, which is – at least for the time being – still a part of the United Kingdom.
None of these leaders has taken the position that “Oh, we’re just too small and powerless to do anything substantial.” They acted. Rather than finger-pointing and blame-shifting, they defined a clear vision for a better future and a path to get there. They mobilized communities around this vision and worked to get as many people as possible pulling in the same direction. In a world awash in mistrust, they worked to build trust. They were empathic leaders, a quality in desperately short supply in our country.
Which brings us to the Virgin Islands and the week that was. A week that provides a litmus test for which group the territory and its leaders want to be in when the day arrives that “what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” It is a week in which the Virgin Islands Senate bickered over propane prices and attacked WAPA, while the best leaders in the world were moving toward a solar future.
It was a week in which the territory’s landfills continue to overflow and catch fire, while these best leaders were formulating real plans for a future driven by a circular, landfill-free economy, which measured success by more than GDP and the stock market.
It was a week in which the issue of the landfills was linked to the curse of violence when two workers, one just a child, were murdered while working at a St. Thomas site. Murders that took place four years after a group of the territory’s leaders had produced a thoughtful and comprehensive plan to reduce violence and produce community peace. A plan that was never implemented and is now largely forgotten, despite its continuing value.
In our times, in our country, leaders would find the points made above unmotivating for, at least, three reasons: first, some group, interest or donor would be put out by the changes made; second, people have short memories, pretty much limited to the last news cycle; and, third, a more recent development, the widely shared belief that you can lie your way out of pretty much anything.
These evils can be defeated by leaders who want to defeat them. By those who are able to see a problem and ask: What are our choices? Where is the opportunity here, e.g., in the reality of overflowing landfills? How do we find champions and mobilize communities and resources to make the big changes that we need to make?
Maybe most important: Who do we bring together (and who do we leave out) to ask the critical “what if” questions? As the world’s best leaders are demonstrating, there are no physical barriers to doing these right things. All of the barriers are mental, cultural and habitual. That is to say, they are all soluble if there is a willingness to face up to them and do something different.