Eulogy for my Homeland

I know this isn’t the usual content for my site, but I needed to somehow respond to the news that in 50-100 years, my birthplace and the ancestral home of half my lineage will be gone. The only way to do it is to write, and this is my only platform.

If you didn’t know, I was born and raised in the United States Virgin Islands. Specifically, on the island of St. Croix. It was there I spent the first 18 years of my life, and there where my parents still live. I have roots there on my mother’s side, going back to the native Taino and the first Spanish settlers to the Dutch and some of the slaves they brought with them. The Caribbean is a fascinating microcosm of the world – a place that most people think of as a wonderland, but to those that live there it is both a gift and a tragedy, full of rampant poverty and ignorance. It’s a wild melting pot, where even the US territories are loosely governed and basic services go unmet. Yet it is also the favorite playground for vacationers – Joe Biden is particularly fond of the East End of St. Croix.

Donkey cart ride.

So it is sad that this rich history and this beautiful but complicated land stands to be, for all intents and purposes, wiped out by climate change. I am referencing this article by the local news source, VI Consortium. It opens with this dark thought exercise:

“Imagine a Caribbean where water is a scarcity because of extended droughts. Then, when the rain does fall, it’s wetter but shorter, leading to catastrophic flooding. Now, visualize for a bit saltwater intrusion associated with rising sea levels, which further reduces the availability of freshwater. In coastal towns — which includes the U.S. Virgin Islands’ three main municipalities: Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted and Christianted — the problem becomes the towns’ very existence.”

Hurricane damage in St. Croix after 2017's hurricanes.

It’s not just overall climate change. The storms are getting much worse. I think that for mainland Americans who are just starting to become aware of hurricane’s destructive potential in the past few years, they don’t understand how unusual the last season was. I have been alive roughly 30 years, and I have never seen storms intensify as quickly as the storms did last year. To have a storm go from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in a week? That’s unheard-of. Usually it takes two to three weeks as the storm slowly churns across the Atlantic from West Africa. There was one storm that went from a Depression to a Category 5 to a Depression in a single week. That’s insane!

Do you know what’s even weirder? Most people didn’t notice this – but a tropical depression traveled all the way up the Central US and hit Michigan. This is unusual because hurricanes rely on the warm, wet air of the ocean to strengthen. Something was weird enough in the weather that a tropical storm was able to make it across the entire continent before petering out in the cold north air. That is bizarre.

While the islands may survive, their way of life will forever change. The few towns they have are all along the coast, and most of them will face regular flooding. More frequent and more powerful storms will destroy infrastructure, and then destroy it again before it’s able to be rebuilt.

 

Vieques, another US territory, still does not have power as of this writing – the undersea cable connecting them to Puerto Rico was severed and there are no plans to rebuild it. Ironically, this will help them. It is forcing the island’s residents to build distributed power resources based on solar panels around their own homes. The general poorness of these island communities will exacerbate these problems.

We will see a flood of immigrants from the islands that are most affected to other islands and to the United States and other Latin American countries. The Caribbean may experience a massive diaspora, as people flee from one island to the next, straining already underdeveloped resources.

Reduced food supplies and water will cause crime to rise and weak, corrupt governments (let me tell you stories of the USVI…) will be unable to stop the tide. Tourism will be reduced – a consequence of more frequent storms, higher crime, and deader oceans.

A lot of people might read this and say that I’m making assumptions, or that they don’t believe in climate change…or just that they don’t care because most of this will happen when they’re in their 60s or 80s so they don’t care.

 

To that I say two things:

  1. Not believing in facts doesn’t make them not true.
  2. Fair enough. This is going to happen, because we haven’t changed and won’t change in time without significant investment from literally the entire planet. If you don’t care by now then I’m not going to try to make you. You’ll be just as prepared as I will be. The disruptions will be so vast and unpredictable that both of us will be carried along by the same tides.

This is where I’m supposed to offer some hope of how we can stop this, but that’s silly. Of course we can’t. I’m reminded of this skit from a TV show:

Truth is, we’re pretty much screwed. Like a hurricane, this storm has spun up and it won’t be stopped until the energy runs out. Our society runs the way it runs based on a lot of assumptions that are going to be wrong in just a generation. So we just have to hold on.

But because I’m an idealist, I’m going to spend my remaining hold on your attention on some things the Caribbean can do to prepare.

 

  1. Build storm shelters. Many people do not live in hurricane safe homes, and many people have not repaired theirs from the last time. Building communal shelters to take refuge in will save lives and property. Stocking them with food, water, batteries, etc. before a storm hits will reduce panic.
  2. Invest in wireless telecoms and new low-cost disaster relief technologies. Buy a bunch of drones and throw them up immediately after a storm. Don’t wait on big expensive helicopters and aircraft.
  3. Offer tax breaks and even just give people money to install solar panels, wind farms, etc. near their homes. Rather than continuing the fruitless effort to bury the power lines (the USVI has been “trying” to do this for like 20 years), skip that and create node-based power so that knocking out the central power station doesn’t leave the entire island in the dark. Can you believe that the USVI makes it extremely difficult to buy and place your own solar panels?
  4. Form an inter-island alliance. I like to say it’s the European Union of the Caribbean. There’s lots of racism between different islands, but the only way we’re going to get through this is by working together. When the hurricane ravages one island, aid can be sent from another. When storms force a mass migration from one island to another, other islands can chip in to share the load – rather than letting each one of them flounder under their problems.

 

But you and I both know people won’t go for these. They’ll blame their governments and go about their daily lives, not changing anything.

 

Goodbye, paradise.