The deepening GERS crisis, with its potentially huge human, economic and social costs, is also an object lesson in several of the ills that plague the Virgin Islands. (Note: the territory is hardly alone.)
Here is a shortlist of those ills: failures of imagination about the potential consequences of our actions and inactions; the social distance between decision-makers and the “little people,” even when the two live in the same communities; a selfish inability to look forward and the willingness to “kick the can down the road” and let “the next guy” get left holding the bag; and, finally, a culture of backward-looking blaming instead of forward-looking problem-solving.
It doesn’t take a great genius to see that these are, in no way, problems exclusive to the Virgin Islands. For each one, you could say “ditto” for the United States as a whole. A simple example: there would be an interesting comparative study of the Virgin Islands Senate and the United States Senate. The title could be: “How Did It Come to This?” Or, who wins the “Most Arrogant” contest?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought all of the consequences of these negative values home in spades. Take the culture of blaming. It is an extraordinary fact that American leaders, and their media mouthpieces, continue to focus on blame, i.e., “the China virus.” Along with denial. And – to use one of the all-time best Caribbean phrases – on “spreading confusion,” to disastrous effect.
During this time of upheaval and enormous uncertainty, predicting the future – always a tricky game – is riskier than ever. But there is something that has become clear. That something is the half-baked strategies and negative qualities that have produced our current mess. That mess includes unhealthy communities, extreme inequality, progressive environmental degradation, the normalization of widespread violence, social fragmentation, trash media and the destruction of truth.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of chickens have come home to roost at the same time. All you have to do is look at news images or films from just a year ago to pine for a “return to normal,” including some of the simplest things that many people simply took for granted, but no longer do.
For lots of reasons, that return to “normal” is not going to happen. Nor should it. Too much has happened, including the shredding of what was already a fragile democracy in the United States, and the pandemic’s exposure of the life-and-death consequences of our extraordinary inequality.
In a culture that’s big on choosing “winners” and “losers,” picking is going to be a tricky proposition going forward. (In a worst case, that may be a little less true if the Trump form of being a “winner” survives. In Trumpland, winning is making sure that, even if there is nothing for me, the “losers” really suffer and end up being worse off.)
In a more hopeful future where that definition of winning is rejected, you will be lucky, if you live in one of the new kind of “winner” places. What will these places look like? First, they will have begun to address the extreme inequality that is the hallmark of our lives today. The United States is today the most unequal society in the “developed” world, having an income/wealth profile that matches only three other countries on earth, Mexico, Brazil and Russia. Nice company. For the Virgin Islands, the inequality challenge is greatly complicated by economic decline over the past twelve years. That leads to the second great challenge, the no-growth/zero-sum problem.
Going forward from the pandemic, the key for the territory is going to be to find a path to economic growth that also reduces inequality, and, especially, provides hope and a path to a better future for those at the bottom of the income scale. Basic assumption: that growth has to be environmentally friendly. It is a near certainty that reviving cruise ship tourism, along with other forms of tinkering, is not that path to that future.
It is also a near certainty that a movement away from a “linear” (design-make-sell-use-dump), landfill driven economy, is that better future. And that the “winners” are going to be those places and those economies, even the small ones like the territory’s, that move most quickly in the direction of a re-use/repurposing economy. That will be the pathway to economic development, more affordable and healthier living, and significant job opportunities.
Next, the “winners” are going to be the places that figure out that “health care” is a losing game because it will never be able to keep up with the growing number of unhealthy people. The key to a better future is to start restoring healthy communities. Getting there is going to involve changes in ways in which we live, including changing what we eat, dramatically reducing violence, becoming fit people, and replacing pessimism and despair with hope and promise. What is striking about this one is how little it costs, and how great the benefits are.
Finally, the winners are going to be the places that accept the reality that the future has arrived with respect to climate change and begin to make the adjustments needed to mitigate its effects.
If you look at these items, one thing becomes immediately clear: they are all heavy lifts that require social cohesion and good government. Each one will take commitment, time, competence and the best allocation of scarce resources, especially talent and money. And all of them require rejecting the tinkering around the edges that have become a way of life in many places. Here are two questions for the territory’s leaders: do you have an alternative agenda that promises a better future for Virgin Islanders? If so, what is that agenda?
By Frank Schneiger
Editor’s note: Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as a planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.