Gone are the months of walking up ten flights of stairs, every day, in the dark, carrying three gallons of water so I could have something to drink, hydrate the dogs, and be able to clean up a bit. Gone the oppressive heat that enveloped us as Hurricane Maria traveled north and sucked every gasp of air away from Puerto Rico for weeks on end. Gone are the endless mounds of debris on lightless roads, and intersections with slow, cautious traffic that no one dared drive in after sunset. Gone the block-long lines to get inside the few cash-only supermarkets with empty shelves, the self-winding line at the ATM machine, or the mile-long lines to buy rationed gasoline. Gone, the constant drone of generators spewing sulphurous fumes in an incessant and costly battle to keep refrigerators and air conditioners operational. Gone, the constant fear of losing or needing medicines that were unavailable. Gone, the sleepless, sweaty nights. Gone is the milling around in front of buildings with free WiFi or driving around to find high ground where a weak cellular signal might get through. At least I made it, even if I lost my job because of the storm. So many of us didn’t make it.
Twenty four months after Hurricane Maria, most people have electricity, internet, and cellular signal. Most roads are clear, and most street lights are on, but one still does not feel safe. Supermarkets have restocked and are accepting credit cards. Restaurants are open, although too many of them quietly closed their doors forever. Gasoline prices have risen from pre-Maria .52 cents a liter to up to .74 cents a liter (roughly from $2.08 to $3.00 a gallon), but it is readily available. About 10% of the population flew off the island with one-way tickets costing from $500 to $1,200; and about one third of those have come back because they could not make it wherever they went. In middle-class neighborhoods, every other house is either abandoned or for sale. In tourist areas and high-end communities, hipster restaurants and expensive home remodels are rampant. In poor areas, foundations of homes destroyed by the storm lay denuded, upwind of their debris fields. Blue tarps still cover 30,000 homes. Commercial flights have resumed, and Isla Grande Airport, San Juan’s small regional airport, is doing a brisk business in private jet services for the ‘Vulture Capitalists’ that have descended on the island in droves.
As with any disaster, there are many newly minted disaster-relief corporations that are cleaning and rebuilding our cities. Most are foreign, because after a decade of economic depression, the locals have no up-front money, and no credit. Airlone pilots, once a bulwark of middle-class income, are making poverty wages, and thankful to have a job; so are many lawyers and doctors. Billionaires are taking advantage of generous tax breaks and buying up as much prime real estate as they can. Half of the hotels are open, the rest are still closed, taking this opportunity to rethink, remodel, or upgrade their facilities after the storm. $15-dollar drinks are common. Last month for the first time ever, there was a posse of exotic cars on the expressway: an orange Lamborghini, a neon green McLaren, and a red Ferrari, followed by a coterie of Porsches and BMW’s, although why they would submit such thoroughbred vehicles to our potholed streets is beyond comprehension. The shopping malls, as always, are full; but people visit them to sit in the air conditioned common areas, while most stores are hemorrhaging money for lack of sales.
We have gone through the July Summer Revolution, when citizens of all ages and walks of life said 'Enough' and in an unprecedented show of solidarity, protested for 12 days until they peacefully ousted governor Ricardo Rossello from office. Pedro Pierluisi briefly became governor until the Supreme Court decided that transition was unconstitutional, and finally settled on Wanda Vazques, the Secretary of Justice, as the next governor. While the governorship has been decided, it is clear that both parties and all acting politicians need to rethink their goals and strategies.
There is just enough recovery to make it seem as if everything is back to normal. But scratch the surface, and you find a mass of people that have lost their jobs and their homes and are frantically trying to regain their economic footing, in an economy where there is no secure foothold. Nature has rebounded, somewhat; Wall Street has rebounded, somewhat. But to the majority of Puerto Ricans, there is no recovery – just one long, protracted, never-ending catastrophe. And to add insult to injury, we are surrounded by jet-set outsiders buying up what is left of our natural resources, our culture and our history - for cents on the dollar.
Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism” is thriving in Puerto Rico.
The people who lost their jobs have found there are no other jobs to replace the ones they lost, and those that do exist pay $7.50/hr to $10/hr, and are scrambling to offer entrepreneurial home-based services in a market where no one has discretionary income. Flea markets and consignment stores have sprung up physically and virtually, as everyone rushes to sell their belongings. These stores have become the archives of a time when consumers filled their homes with goods that demand a level of care and maintenance that only full time servants are able to provide.
Fifty-something women who used to be bankers are starting dog-sitting businesses or catering businesses, and one woman I know is doing both. Millennials are working for minimum in cavernous call centers inside repurposed warehouses. Everyone is ‘making do,’ and, counterintuitively, finding that while the situation is bad, it’s not as bad as they thought it would be. The 'New Normal' is not easy, but it's not as bad as I thought it would be. It has forced me to simplify and refocus, and that is a good thing, and something I would have never done voluntarily.
Maria has come and gone. But the economic depression compounded by the austerity measures will continue to reverberate throughout our crippled economy for a generation, according to economist Heidi Calero. And that carries negative consequences we will all have to suffer through, compounded by the many other challenges we must also solve during that time.
For Baby Boomers, that means that whatever they have left is all they are going to have for the rest of their lives, and that they are de facto dependent on a bankrupt government for their quality of life. For Gen X-ers and Y-ers that means they will have to lower their expectations and adapt to a world that will never be as easy or as cheap (not that it was ever easy or cheap) as the one they grew up in. For Millennials it means embracing the concepts of ‘Less is More’ and living in a hotter, angrier world. This “new normal” is will not be easy to live with.
The solution is reaching out and building alliances, and working together for a better future. The island government won't be able to help. the federal government is uneilling to help. We must help ourselves.
Not a single proposed fiscal plan or legislation in the past two years is anywhere near sustainable, either financially, socially or ecologically. And that is because they all start from the wrong place: “how do we get money out of this moribund economy without spending any money to help the local economy get back on its feet?” At a time when Fiscal Austerity Measures have been proven not to work, politicians in Congress and Puerto Rico have decided to pay down a crippling debt before allowing or helping the local economy to recover from the many forces outside of their control, without changing those forces so they work for the people of Puerto Rico, instead of against them. And what of the much-needed FEMA money? Of $95 billion needed to restore the island’s infrastructure, only $30 billion is earmarked for disaster relief, of which only $1.8 billion has so far reached the island.
Catastrophes lead people to seek sustainability. Sustainability demands individuals make decisions from a broader perspective, one which not only includes economic solutions, but also social and ecological solutions. It demands we build resilience into our recovery. The times demand we look at the world with a gimlet eye and ask ourselves: with all that we now know, what is the best way to solve all these problems holistically?
Sustainability requires we drop the old arguments based on religion or myth, politics or economics, self-interest or greed, for why we do the things we do. It forces us to start from a science-based analysis that clarifies the situation and the limits we face (environmental, economic and social), within a framework of ethics and collective health and wellbeing. There is a global consensus by 97% of all scientists, and by most nations outside of the United States, that to survive, we must stop any and all activities that extract, burn, or use fossil fuels within the next 20 years, leaving trillions of dollars in the ground.
We must transition to a circular economy that eliminates or minimizes waste and creates no toxic wastes. We must embrace business inefficiencies and incentivize small entrepreneurial markets that redistribute wealth and keep it local. We must transition to a decentralized clean energy grid and must focus all agriculture back into organic and permaculture programs as quickly as possible and do away with all industrial farming and industrial animal farms. We must set aside 50% of our land and oceans as protected wilderness, so all other species have enough space to live well, and stop the mass extinction now underway. We must concentrate population density in well-planned, walkable cities with ample mass transit.
We must dismantle wealth-concentrating business models and spread money around as if it were manure on a barren cornfield. We must clean up the land, air, and waters, and treat them with the respect they deserve as a living part of our habitat. And we must take care of the section of the population that has lost their revenue streams due to global or historical ‘Forces of Exclusion’ and offer them access to the necessities of life (secure housing, food and water, health and mobility), as well as finding ways of re-inserting them into a productive economy, instead of leaving them to their own devices in an economy that has passed them by. Most important of all, we must work towards lowering population growth and supplant limitless economic growth with static economic growth, while cultivating a society that grows health and well-being for all instead of concetrating wealth for a few.
Puerto Rico has enough sunlight and wind to power its households via photovoltaic systems, wind generators, batteries, and decentralized microgrids. By transitioning PREPA’s (the local energy company) existing electrical generating plants to locally produced organic algae oil, which is 98% equivalent to the ‘Bunker C’ oil currently used, it can supply all the power needed by the commercial and industrial sectors, and the algae oil can be grown on non-agricultural land here in Puerto Rico, with ‘waste products’ of organic shrimp and fish, organic fertilizer, and organic animal feed. This could be the first step to creating a circular economy, and stop depending on outside sources for our food and our energy supply. That is the crux of sustainability: using what we ourselves can produce, and whose profits stay in our local economy because they are locally owned.
Industrialization and globalization have given us many benefits and made a few people very wealthy. But it’s time to realize that the costs of that development model far outweigh the benefits they bring to the majority of society, and both are based on an exclusionary mindset that systematically leaves large portions of the population out of the better opportunities enjoyed by a lucky few. As long as there are only ‘a lucky few,’ and as long as society continues to want to emulate them, we will perpetuate an untenable, and unsustainable, pyramid-scheme development that serves only the rich.
Skeptics will say this means the economy will collapse. Open your eyes, skeptics! The economy has already collapsed, and is on life support, no matter how high the Dow Jones has risen. All the variables that underpin that growth rest on quicksand. They will say we are incentivizing laziness. Wake up. It’s not laziness if the private sector hasn’t enough jobs to cover 100% employment participation. Money alone will not get humanity out of the problems of Climate Change. Technology alone will not get humanity out of Climate Change. ‘We the People’ need to change our minds about how we can live on this earth without killing it (or ourselves). Climate Change’s greatest challenge? Teaching people we must learn to downsize. Teaching people we need to live in towns and cities with less people, less consumption, less mobility, and less wealth. More family, more happiness, more wisdom, more health.
Developing countries, and I count Puerto Rico as one, by virtue of its status as one of the last remaining colonies in the world, have an immense opportunity now. So does every nation, city and county that has been decimated by economic forces outside their direct control. We have been forced to downsize; we must now choose to rebuild in a sustainable way, as opposed to mimicking the excess and obscene opulence of 19th century kings.
This is the 21st century. There is no need to aspire to own everything or control everything around you, like kings of old. That lifestyle model has run its course and proven insufficient, both emotionally and economically, for most people.
Now we must do something much harder: get everyone on the same sustainability page and moving in the right direction, together. It means learning self-discipline, not only individually, but as communities, regions and nations. It means talking to each other and including everyone in decision-making. It means having small families, in small homes, in small and self-sufficient communities or small to midsize cities. There are limits to growth, and we have reached them. Now let’s live within them in a way that benefits everyone, not just a few lucky ones.
For over ten thousand years, the population growth bell-curve of the planet lay almost flat at around one billion people. In the last 300 years, it has risen exponentially to almost 8 billion, and is expected to reach 10 billion within the next two decades. The carrying capacity of the planet before Climate Change was one billion people. The fact we are now consuming almost twice as much as the earth can replenish in a year, tells us that the bell curve is hitting its apex, and all we have left is a downward slide. It can be a controlled slide, or it can be a chaotic slide. But the slide down cannot be stopped.
Add to that the catastrophic effects of Climate Change, which will make every piece of land that is within 2,500 miles north or south of the equator too hot to grow food in by 2040, and the mass migration north that fact will cause in the next couple of decades. Add rising sea levels and how that will impact all the major cities of the world by 2050, because they were all built on or near water. Add to that the more frequent and larger storms, and the more frequent and longer droughts, in places where they did not exist a decade ago. Add to that the fact we have fished out the oceans of 33% commercial fish and 90% of apex predators (tuna, cod, swordfish, sharks), many of them species that have been living for hundreds of millions of years, and once extinct, will be gone forever. Add to that the fact we are demolishing all that is left of pristine forests in the Amazon, the Congo, and Malaysia, which constitute the lungs of the planet. Add to that the fact there will be more plastic in the oceans by 2030 than there are fish. If the planet were a family home, it would be bursting at the seams with too much waste and too many people.
This is our chance to start living a simpler, more natural life. With right-size aspirations that have more to do with loving than hoarding, with a healthy respect for our world and all the living things in it. If all of us decided to start on the path of living sustainably, respectfully, and consciously today, right now, we will have a chance to survive the next 1,000 years of climate change. If not, our species won’t make it. Period. We could be condemning our grandchildren to unspeakable heardships; let's not do that.
We have been handed an opportunity in the guise of a catastrophe. Life is giving us a lesson, and a push towards becoming radically better human beings, something the human race has avoided dealing with for centuries. Here’s hoping we choose to create a better world rather than being smothered by petroleum and greed. That is the challenge we face, the greatest challenge the human species has ever faced.