They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and a lifetime of travel has led me to conclude that much of tourism consists of simply re-visiting the sites of those lessons.
Ruined castles or ancient ruins seem to be on everyone’s camera roll, including my own. Whether it is Machu Picchu, Ninstints, the coliseum of Rome, Angkor Wat, or the great wall of China, history is trying to tell us something about the impermanence of what we build.
The causes of such decline may be political, as when an empire crumbles, or commercial, where a change in technology, or even of fashion, undermines the rationale for what has been built, but sometimes, the undermining is physical, when natural disaster wipes away man’s puny constructs.
What lessons need to be taken then from the devastation of this year’s hurricane season?
Nature has just told us forcefully that not all parts of the planet are meant to be inhabited, or perhaps more properly, highly developed. think about it- there is a string of islands in the Caribbean that have been declared to be, at present, uninhabitable, and large chunks of the gulf coast that should, ideally be left to nature, or at the very least, only lightly developed or populated. The sandbars upon which the skyscrapers of Miami are perched came within a whisker of being washed away. In the face of this stern warning however we seem poised to rush headlong into a massive, multi- billion dollar re-building programme, to essentially simply replace what has just been washed away.
The question is- should we?
Does it really make sense to re-build infrastructure, at huge cost, faced with the likelihood that it will all simply wash away again in the foreseeable future? When I see the Mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico proclaiming “we shall re-build” I squint a bit, and instead, appears an image of the Mayor of Pompeii, trying to re-assure the burghers of the ruined city.
So, at the risk of ruffling some feathers, let me pose the question – when is it time to throw in the towel ? There is no easy answer, and I intend to explore the issue in some depth in coming blog pieces, but for now, let me propose that the money we spend on disaster relief be dedicated to humanitarian relief only, to the rescuing and re-locating of those affected, and not squandered on bulldozing away the debris and frenetically trying to re-build. It is time to pause, and to plan, and to open our minds to the possibility that the future Caribbean and Gulf Coast of the US could and should look vastly different than they were before.
What right do we have to insert ourselves into the conversation about how best to recover from the storm devastation ? Well, frankly, its going to be our money that will be used, by both governments and charities, since the areas affected are functionally bankrupt. Many, like Puerto Rico, were in grievous financial straits before the storm, and now, they have. no economy.
Great challenges lie ahead, and many lives affected, but before rushing to apply a band-aids we should give heed to the words of Elizabeth Gilbert:
“RUIN IS A GIFT, RUIN IS THE ROAD TO TRANSFORMATION”