When I wrote about the silos in WOOL, one of the ideas I wanted to capture is the insanity of walling ourselves off from each other, and all the trillions we spend defending from and attacking one another, when we’re all in the same green-and-blue space-boat. Viewed from afar, it’s absolutely bonkers. Yet we persist.
Travel can be antidote to bigotry. I recently spent over a month in Cuba, which is the most silo-like country I’ve ever visited. Not much has changed in the 16 years between my visits. The land and its people are still blindingly beautiful, and still suffering from political insanity. Most of that insanity comes from its own government, and a system that simply does not work. An American embargo that serves no obvious purpose other than cruelty certainly doesn’t help. It’s one of the most confusing and conflicting places I’ve ever been. The more time I spent there, the more thousands of kilometers I drove, the more cities I visited and people I met, the more my opinions shifted and convictions eroded. One observation is this: A handful of individuals, rallying around a single charismatic leader, can derail the course of a country’s history and lead millions to shocking deprivations.
A study of history should make this clear without having to buy a plane ticket or set sail. And yet walking around inside of it, talking to people who had meals of sugar water as kids, who now call a decade of starvation “The Special Time,” bangs this truth home with a sledgehammer. More startling is the impassioned defense of Fidel in a country he helped make so poor. I watched so many people bawl in the streets during his wake and the procession of his remains. To many, their captive symbolized freedom. And the Orwellian way in which many in Cuba are convinced that they can’t go abroad due to the restrictions of other countries is mind-bending. I even traveled with Americans who took these excuses at face value and thought Cubans were free to leave at any time, if only these foreign governments would allow them.
The ingenuity and artistry being lost to the world is a travesty, but that’s not just Cuba. In Panama I encountered a young boy who moved and leapt like a natural dancer, who had a physical creativity and self-awareness that made me wonder if Gene Kelly had been reincarnated. I look at the snapshots I took of this kid in flight, and I can’t help but wonder if all that soulful beauty will end up trapped in an old man who never knew an outlet for some pent-up talent. The free flow of talent and ideas is what makes humanity so amazing. This is why walls and silos are so infuriating.
There’s another lesson here in Panama, one seemingly not passed on and hardly learned from. This canal right outside my window that cuts through two continents is an engineering marvel, but also a political experiment. Panama City rises up along the shores of the Pacific with gleaming towers and a mighty bustle. The people here have profited from what someone built and gave away. And a powerful pride of ownership oozes out of taxi drivers, workers, people on the streets. My novel-writing brain got to thinking about alternate realities. I tried to imagine a world where the United States took all of the unbelievable wealth it generates and used that to go around the world building incredible works of engineering, and then giving them away.
Most of the exodus from Africa right now is being created by drought and global warming, not war. And what war there is, notably in Syria, was created largely by drought. The lack of water and the slow march of the Sahara is forcing an entire people to abandon their homeland. Like most refugees everywhere in the world, the decision to leave is not made with pure joy. Most would stay, if only opportunities existed where they happened to be born. It’s often a choice between home and health, which is not a choice taken lightly. This is something I can’t help but think is tragically true: The world could have spent far less money building desalination plants and pipelines than they’ve spent on bombs, and Africa would be growing green rather than seeping red.
Really imagine for a moment the absurdity of this: We could spend a few hundred billion dollars on a dozen desalination plants, pipe that water to the parched countries of Africa, which are largely drying out because of carbon-fueled progress made elsewhere, and the people of Africa would have more crops, increased wealth, greater options, all of which lead to less violence, less emigration, lower population growth, and the greater importation of foreign goods and services. The United States could spend less money building things than it does blowing up things, and at the end of the ordeal, you have something functional standing there, rather than craters and suffering.
It’s so much more difficult to be generous rather than angry and hateful. One of the humans I admire most in the annals of history died trying to send this message (it’s sad that most who try to send this message suffer from its offering). Hanging from the cross, Jesus is said to have uttered forgiveness for those who crucified him. He washed the feet of prostitutes and embraced lepers. Imagine the courage not of men with rifles, but women with rivet guns. I know it sounds absurd. But if we lived in that world, imagine if someone suggested that instead of enriching our neighbors and building things, we spend ten times as much money making bombs and dropping them on people’s heads. Those people would also sound insane, and I think more rightfully than what I’m suggesting.
Conspiracy theorists say the war machine is all about profit motive, which is nonsense. There’s profit to be made building solar power plants and smart energy grids and desalination plants. There are all kinds of profits being made here in Panama from a path cut between two seas. The hangup is not capitalism, which can work wonders to improve our quality of life. The hangup is our emotions, which cultivate fear and aggression and short-term thinking, making it impossible to see how investing in generosity pays ultimate dividends.
Imagine a world where the United States goes around building works of infrastructure overseas, then leaving those works in the care of their new owners. An army of orange-vested builders moves on to the next project. Now imagine in that world that there are people who hate us for these works, who bomb us, who protest us. What are they bombing and protesting? How do they recruit others for their brutality? What speeches do they give? How many would listen?
China is investing heavily in African infrastructure. They are building trains and power plants and other utilities. These are being built at a great cost to the African countries, which are incurring massive debts, so it’s not quite the build-and-leave strategy that I would love to see, but it’s better than what the United States and Russia are doing in Africa right now. Think of the ties being built between China and Africa through these projects. How many Africans are going to grow up riding Chinese-built trains with an appreciation and admiration for Chinese ingenuity and technology? How many are going to want to go to university in China? Open business partnerships in China? How many will look East with a smile, and rightfully so?
We should be competing with China not for the islands of the Pacific but for the hearts of the Africans. For the hearts of all people. Instead we instill them with fear. In many ways, what Obama did during his eight years was more pernicious than the trillion-dollar wars Bush saddled us with. Drones seem humane, because they are meant to be targeted, but they exist everywhere and at all times as specters of death. I’ve read moving accounts from those who live beneath them, who describe the all-pervasive fear of an errant attack. It’s like living with a drunk. You never know when someone who professes to love you will strike you, maybe even fatally this time.
Science fiction is full of laments over the wastefulness of war. Many such books look to the cosmos as a place we should be building bridges. I think we’ve got a perfectly good home right here to concentrate on first. It’s a strange dichotomy of optimism and pessimism to think that we can settle on and terraform Mars, but that we can’t possibly figure out a few degree rise in temperature here. It’s the optimism of science coupled with the pessimism of our relationship with nature. But really, if the science were so easy, we could settle by the millions in Antarctica. And if nature were such a pushover, we’d have toppled her by now.
I think the greater irony is that we’ve allowed our fear of “other” to blind ourselves to how enriching the other truly is. Global wealth shoots up as we include more people in on the process. We treat immigrants as job-stealers, then celebrate in our community at news of another birth. Each person added creates more jobs than they take. An immigrant steals a job no more than a newborn. An even greater infusion of wealth occurs when we move a person from a place of poverty to one of opportunity. A girl who stays at home on the parched farm struggles to bring in apricots. In Silicon Valley or Houston or Boston, she creates an app that increases global productivity, alleviates frustrations and wastefulness, creates jobs and improves life for her family and many others.
This happens. It’s the way it happens. It only speeds up as we lower barriers and tunnel from silo to silo. But trusting in the process, even with centuries of examples, is so much harder than giving into fear, xenophobia, short-term thinking, anger, blame, distrust and all the dark rest. We can see it in our fear over job loss. Entire occupations are being transitioned to automation and software faster than we can relearn and adapt. It’s terrifying. I’ve been inside industries while they were disrupted and my livelihood shaken. Blaming immigrants satisfies that angry id and soothes our hurt egos, but it’s not what’s happening. We know this as surely as we know that bathtubs, ladders, and swimming pools are more dangerous than radicalized Muslims. At the height of the second gulf war, more soldiers were being lost to motorcycles and suicide than to engagement with the enemy. Coal jobs are being lost to the plummeting costs of solar and soaring profits of wind. But where’s our person to blame? To hate?
What exactly is it that we want? If we want to save the lives of soldiers, we will care about motorcycles and depression and PTSD. If we care about job creation, we would care about reeducating disrupted workers and easing transitions. If we care about private wealth, we would concentrate on global wealth. If we care about being safe, we would open borders. If we care about reducing the number of refugees, we would build great works abroad and give them away. If we cared about the survival of our species, we would spend our trillions making the most Earth-like planet we’ve ever known an even better place.
I think we don’t know what we want. And that we spend too little time even contemplating such questions. We just feel, and we lash out, and we spasm. It’s so much easier blowing up at others than it is to build relationships. So much easier to blow up things than to build them. Walls and silos are built one hateful, lazy brick at a time. Toppling them is difficult and comes at too great a cost. So much better if they’re never built at all.