After 240 years of relative quiescence, at 4:53 PM local time on Tuesday 12 January 2010 the Enriquillo fault system ruptured near 18°27’ N, 72°32’ W in an M 7.0 earthquake, followed by numerous aftershocks, mostly westward of the mainshock hypocenter. Institutional functionality, or the lack thereof, in Haiti prior to the earthquake was such that there was no local seismometer network in place, so nuances of slip in the 2010 earthquake involving several associated faults have had to be inferred from kinematic models.
The Enriquillo fault itself forms the boundary between the Gonâve Microplate and the Caribbean Plate, but seismic activity along it is driven by collision with, and subduction of, the North American Plate. The entire fault system may have begun a new cycle of large earthquakes similar to those of the 18th century, in which case there will be several more such events with significant effects in Haiti and the Dominican Republic through, very roughly, 2080.
Around half the entire US population donated money for Haitian earthquake relief in 2010. I may not have been among them, but as initially recounted in this forum in April of 2011, I was drawn into restoration work in a computer lab and fixed-wireless network in Petit-Goâve, and have subsequently assisted in similar efforts in Musac (Mizak), La Vallée-de-Jacmel. Paging through the visa section of my passport, I now find an astonishing number of red ENTRÉE and blue SORTIE stamps from the Ministere de l’Interieur et des Collectivites Territoriales / Direction de l’Immigration. My God, I’ve been down there 16 times. What was I thinking?
Something like this …
I. Attractions: Contrasts
The reasons given below are likely to be common to most volunteers and aid workers, across many destinations; as such, they are more indicative of human nature in general than any one environment’s particular characteristics. This analysis may, however, be more applicable to North Americans than some others.
I identify five possible categories of contrast, in order of increasing subtlety: climate; novelty; primitivism; demographics; and dysfunction.
Climate – A significant and welcome difference for anyone outside of peninsular Florida, perhaps south Texas, portions of coastal California, and presumably Hawaii. Coastal/low-altitude parts of Haiti do get uncomfortable, especially in the afternoon, from about June through October but aren’t bad the rest of the year. Mountainous areas, which after all are most of the country – see the etymology of its name – are delightful year-round and also have many fewer mosquitoes, lowering the risk of vector-borne illness. (I was essentially at sea level, almost certainly in the vast infection reservoir of Port-au-Prince, when I was bitten by a chikungunya-carrying mosquito in June of 2014.)
Insolation is of course a large part of all this. I live about as far northeast in the US as I can without having to resort to a light box to function. Regular readers will recall my awareness of depression and sleep disorders, which seem to have become more prevalent by > 20x in the US since the 19th century due to profound lifestyle changes, greatly reduced exposure to sunlight prominent among them. I suggest that Midwesterners and Northeasterners visiting Haiti, especially from late autumn through winter, feel more energetic and upbeat without always realizing why.
Novelty – Besides climate, stark differences (again relative to much of North America) in terrain, vegetation, infrastructure, language, culture, ancestry, and history combine for what the friend of mine who first recruited me onto a Haiti team called “a strangely compelling environment.” Many people who visit Haiti find themselves hooked after that first time, even if they are not known for novelty-seeking behavior, much less poor impulse control – which I would expect to be underrepresented among the devout. And of course anyone with an evangelistic impulse must also display a certain xenophilia, in order to feel drawn toward the targets of one’s message.
Primitivism – Like climate, a subset of novelty, but worth calling out for its contrast to First World levels of technology and institutional functionality. An enduring image of my first visit to Mizak at Easter of 2013 was of a man dressed only in cutoffs, hand-tilling a field with a mattock, while a few strides distant a young girl (possibly his niece) was carrying a tablet – in the 21st-century sense of the word – on which she was watching a music video. In English.
Of course, primitivism is not always charming. Haitian customer service often merely fluctuates between the bizarre and the ineffectual, corruption is rampant, and for all the admirable qualities of Haitian culture, large numbers of close relationships being near the top of that list, the blunt reality is that life expectancy there is a couple of decades shorter than in the US. Death in childbirth and infant/child mortality are terrifyingly commonplace. How is this attractive, you ask? See “dysfunction,” below.
Demographics – Relatively few white Americans live in majority-minority neighborhoods, but the real contrasts here are in median age and physical condition. Traveling from the US to Haiti means suddenly being surrounded by people who average 15 years younger. Besides – well, if they knew how to bike and swim – most of them could probably finish a triathlon with no special preparation. Haiti is a largely muscle-powered society; I have seen everything from bed frames to (unoccupied) coffins being carried for long distances through the streets. Girls in their teens routinely spend hours a day carrying full 5-gallon buckets of water, weight ~40 pounds, on their heads (cushioned by means of a piece of cloth twisted into a small, toroidal pad). So I further suggest that being surrounded by young, physically fit people has an energizing effect on visitors.
Dysfunction – Behold the graphical stair-step of Third World volunteerism, as depicted by me:
From lowest to highest …
• voyeurism – completely passive “danger tourism,” observation of suffering while doing nothing to communicate or mitigate it; ultimately hedonistic, not to say ghoulish; see Vintage Season, which, its purely science-fictional elements aside, is sickeningly plausible
• fictionalization – gathering material for depiction in writing; communication to others for purposes that include transmission of understanding and mitigation of suffering, but also self-glorification
• journalism – factual depiction of situation for wide audience, but still no direct mitigation
• sustaining – involvement in mitigation but in such a way as to avoid, however inadvertently, final resolution of a need; chronic care; long-term but unhealthy commitment; see Travesty in Haiti … and my rant on “sustainability,” below
• emergency response – providing acute care in immediate aftermath of disaster, but no long-term commitment
• strengthening – truly enabling acquisition of greater resiliency; to quote from Resilience Engineering, “[h]ow can we increase, maintain, or re-establish resilience when buffers are being depleted, margins are precarious, processes become stiff, and squeezes become tighter?” … because in Haiti, buffers are easily depleted, margins are always precarious, processes are not so much stiff as nonexistent (or hopelessly corrupt), and squeezes are always tight
• transformative – aiming for antifragility; this concept also owes something to The Experience Economy
Evaluating my own experience by the above, which is to say ranking myself on a scale that runs from complete superficiality and spectator mentality to complete empathy and tremendous effectiveness … I am, possibly, at the “strengthening” level on my very best days. And hoping to apply that degree of engagement and meaning to everything else I do, anywhere else in the world.
I am as susceptible as – the next Midwesterner to the blandishments of the Caribbean climate, the next American to the strangeness of a different (and much less tame) environment, the next First-Worlder to the charms of artisanal production and amateur everything, the next middle-aged person to being around lots of young people, and the next project manager to diving into a gigantic mess. I think I’ve avoided descending as far as outright voyeurism but have indulged in fictionalization (not quite ready for publication as I write this).
And I loathe “sustainability” with its connotation of stasis. The last thing Haiti needs is to be sustained in anything remotely resembling its present epidemiological, nutritional, and institutional context. The more those things get disrupted, the better. God grant that I have a part in that.
II. Attractions: Challenges
Here is a table of “enterprise environmental factors,” a project-management term whose meaning will become evident by browsing through the list, which I compiled during my third trip to Haiti in late 2011 and have edited for presentation here. It is deliberately intended to convey a sense of two countries as being nearly photographic negatives of one another.
As overwhelming as the picture that emerges can seem, many if not most elements of it are deeply attractive to the problem-solving American mindset. And for Christian mission volunteers, the prospect of encountering actual danger in the course of applying their beliefs is an immense and welcome departure from a cosseted existence in a country where they have few opportunities to risk anything for their faith.
I will underline that last point at some length. First World existence has become so nearly free of hazards that they must be deliberately sought out. The environment of the early Church, of many other historical periods, and of believers who have not ensconced themselves in a wealthy cocoon today, is nearly the exact opposite of this: high risk of life-threatening opposition from secular authorities or hostile elements in the local population, in combination with a lifestyle of profound self-control and intense connectivity with others. A greater contrast of prioritization, of action vs safety, can hardly be imagined.
Middle-class environments in the United States are characterized by zero persecution and nearly zero violent crime, communicable disease, or accidental injury. Almost all risks to life and limb are essentially lifestyle choices. Poor diet, lack of exercise or outdoor activity, inadequate sleep, social isolation, and substance abuse underlie – with only rare exceptions – all remaining health problems, including mental health problems.
And make no mistake – Americans are staggeringly wealthy, and almost never endangered by anyone other than themselves. The legal minimum wage in the US is in the uppermost decile of personal incomes globally, and to be upper middle class here is to be in the global “1%.” Violent death rates have been plummeting for a generation and are highly concentrated in easily identifiable demographics and locations, to the point where homicide is all but unheard of for the rest of the population. Religiously-motivated (or anti-religiously motivated) violence kills fewer people than lightning strikes, and none of what little occurs is state-sponsored. Nor does any other government activity remotely approach the devastation wrought by the great 20th-century totalitarian states, or for that matter the restrictions, some quite severe, on Christian expression in other nations today. The merest glance at consumption patterns shows that the so-called poverty line represents greater material abundance and general comfort than median-income households had as recently as the 1970s. Communicable diseases have regained a foothold only because of a grotesque opposition to vaccination among people who have no experience, and no proper concept, of a general lack of herd immunity (and even that foothold, repugnant as it is, is small). For all the complaining, basic institutions – utilities, transportation, communication, finance, logistics of all kinds – function nearly flawlessly.
Plenty of suicides, though: quadruple the general homicide rate – among males. And the greatest single physical health issue is almost certainly obesity. Even the homicides are a cultural phenomenon rather than the by-product of contention for basic necessities. America is awash in avoidance of physical discomfort, avoidance of relationship, and needless fear of contagion (Ebola and EVD-68 a year and a half ago, Zika now).
The other great challenge is that technology is easy, but culture is hard. Much of the Third World, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, is at or near the “Multi-Active” vertex of the Lewis Model, while the US is near the “Linear-Active” vertex.
I can only imagine how alien the mindset behind the PMBOK will seem if it is ever translated into Kreyòl Ayisyen.
I went to Haiti for lots of reasons. Now what?
There are two levels of lessons which may be applied in our home environment, one more obvious than the other. Gratitude for institutional effectiveness and a high-trust, cooperative society tops the list in the first level. Then some more gratitude, for the Tocquevillian cultural expectation that when something needs to be done, people will self-organize to do it. And not to overlook the obvious, see Global Rich List.
Next, we would do well to adopt certain unambiguously healthy lifestyle elements: physical activity, exposure to sunlight, far greater social connectedness, and deliberate avoidance of self-pity. Then a clear-eyed recognition that failed states are very bad things, arguably worse than any political result short of outright totalitarianism. And elitism/inegalitarianism is a bad thing. I find that people who object to the mention of inequality as a political problem begin to see the difficulty with the right prompting, eg that 11 of the 15 richest (that is, ~0.2%) of the counties in the US are in the DC metro area.
The second, subtler level begins with recognizing that transformation is needed: “sustainability” is not enough (and, as noted above, can be drastically counterproductive). Robustness/resiliency is better – to repeat: “How can we increase, maintain, or re-establish resilience when buffers are being depleted, margins are precarious, processes become stiff, and squeezes become tighter?”
But “antifragility” is best of all, and the US, historically, has demonstrated it. Keeping it, or reviving it if necessary, may be a tall order. For nontrivial challenges lie just ahead. I have made my share of predictions in this forum based on Strauss-Howe generational theory. If I am right, sometime in the next few years we will wake up to the news of a radioactive tsunami from an offshore nuke swamping a port city, or thousands of simultaneous cases of smallpox appearing all over the country, or statewide gaps, expected to last for years, in the electrical grid from sabotage of high-voltage transformer substations. Or some possibility not as obviously feasible as these, but which in any case unambiguously plunges us into an existential conflict, quite possibly with a significant disloyal domestic element.
Lessons learned in an environment lacking in public health resources or reliable utilities – but abundant in elitist, deeply factionalized, incompetent, and corrupt leadership – are going to come in handy.
Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium raises an even more disturbing possibility. Technological erosion of information control, formerly oligopolized by government agencies and major media, in combination with technological enablement of rapid gatherings of all kinds, promotes political backlash and mass protests in reaction to unconcealable failures of public policy. Huge but ephemeral coalitions representing much of the public make vague but mostly-negative demands, while believing (entirely incorrectly) that government could accomplish some desired goal if only it wished. This eventually facilitates the rise of nihilism, “the belief that the status quo is so abhorrent that destruction will be a form of progress.”
In this model, the “stimulus,” Obamacare, and the Greek bailout – and Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS – may be just the beginning of the real “end of history,” with democratic processes eroded to nullity and state action trivialized into a random walk through endlessly ineffectual and often destructive political programs, punctuated by slaughter. As I wrote the early drafts of this post in a thankfully quiet rural setting 10 kilometers west of and 600 meters above Jacmel, Haiti had again postponed a (repeatedly rescheduled) presidential election runoff after protests and was expected to form a transitional government, since the current president was obliged to leave office soon. Haiti has no tradition of political compromise, and as in 2010-11, the OAS has become involved. Compare the increasingly common practice of sustaining Federal government operations in the US through congressional “continuing resolutions” rather than actual budgets. Imagine, to pick the obvious topical example, the disintegration of the primary election and convention-nomination processes, through legal challenges of the sort aimed at Obama and Cruz, or whatever obstacles will be thrown at Trump, or an indictment of Hillary Clinton. In the election of 1860, Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in the South, but he was able to win the nationwide vote. It is not difficult to envision a factionalized US where no major presidential candidate can form an electoral-vote majority and several high-population states openly reject anyone installed by an Amendment XII vote of the House of Representatives, in which Alaska and Wyoming would have equal weight with California and New York. The path to recovery from such a situation is … nonobvious; there is no one analogous to the OAS who could possibly arrange a “do-over” in the United States.
As always, “I do not bid you despair … but to ponder the truth in these words.” Returning first to Gurri, we find him recommending an individual shift in attitude and expectations. Some quotes:
To the extent that choices are returned to the personal from the political, they can be disposed directly, in the light of local knowledge, as part of an observable process of trial and error. Personal success can be emulated and replicated. Personal failure will not implicate the entire system.
When it comes to economic questions, politicians should be rewarded for the modesty of their claims rather than the heroic ambition of their rhetoric.
The more people we elect to office who grasp the concept of trial and error, which means nothing more than learning from mistakes, the happier we should be.
You may keep your old political faith and still break new ground, but you may not treat reality like an enemy, and you may not compound failure with dishonesty.
I can’t command a complex social system like the United States, but I can control my political expectations of it: I can choose to align them with reality. To seize this alternative, I must redirect the demands I make on the world from the [distant] to the personal, because actionable reality resides in the personal sphere. I can do something about losing my job, for example, but I have no clue what could or should be done about the unemployment rate. I know directly whether a law affects my business for better or worse, but I have no idea of its effect on the gross domestic product. I can assist a friend in need, but I have little influence over the natives of […] Niger.
It has occurred to me before now that Strauss and Howe’s “Crisis of 2020” may lack a Churchill, an FDR, a Marshall; that we may be very much on our own. And I am irresistibly reminded of something my father once quoted from an interview with Gene McCarthy in 1968, in which he was asked a softball question to the effect that did he think he would be a good President, and his answer was “I think I’d be an adequate President.” Try to imagine any of the leading candidates in 2016 saying anything in that spirit.
For government itself, Gurri recommends greater online transparency, especially in the development of legislation, rather than static postings on boring, low-traffic websites – or enormous hidden projects that flop on launch like the health-care signup application did in the autumn of ’13. This would allow, if not fully crowdsourced reforms, at least greater feedback from people anchored in everyday realities.
I doubt that Gurri’s thesis can seem compelling to the sort of American, all too common these days, who believes in magic bullets: Federal programs that work perfectly and protect everyone (“universal healthcare” and “close the borders” come to mind). And the notion of public feedback on legislation won’t do much, if anything, in the face of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs (think public-employee pensions). The great question is what we do when impossible programs fail.
The same networking that ended the authoritative information oligopoly, however, has obvious potential for replacing it. Astronomical research has always been a collaboration between professionals and amateurs, and climatology (the unfortunately named “Climategate,” for which I have always preferred Rand Simberg’s “Climaquiddick,” features prominently in Gurri’s book) could easily incorporate crowdsourced data gathering, algorithm development, and model testing – assuming the people who claim the scandal is important are actually interested in improving our understanding.
There are analogs for other issues. How about an Underground Railroad for refugees? Or a medical charity to help people victimized by the ACA? The technology to organize such things is on our belts and in our backpacks. If enough people actually care about the issues they like to complain about, such organizations will exist soon enough.
John Gilmore famously said that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The future adaptation of representative democracies will depend on our capability, as individuals, to interpret endemic institutional dysfunctionality as damage and route around it. In this regard, Haiti may be more advanced than the United States. Take another look at the “multi-active” list above. Possibly useful traits, yes?
Returning to Strauss and Howe, however, their “secular crises” have been overcome by enthusiastic consensus in response to exogenous violence: from natives in the Connecticut Valley in the late 17th century, British in the late 18th century, Confederates in the mid-19th century, and Axis powers in the mid-20th century. A deeply divided America simultaneously confronting an existential geopolitical threat would be a new and unpleasant combination; as I have commented before, we avoided a serious fifth-column problem last time around only because Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union a few months before we entered the war. Enthusiastic consensus is not easy to imagine in the America of 2016, and it’s not easy to imagine in Haiti, period. In the absence of inspiring leadership, such an attitude can, at best, be approximated as an emergent property of millions of individuals deciding to pursue the ideals of the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, no matter how thoroughly those ideals have been abandoned or subverted by politicians.
So: repent of disdain and scapegoating and utopianism, resist demagoguery, and resolve to continue the greatest political experiment in history.
“You’ll be smarter than they are. You can whip them.” – Larry Niven, PROTECTOR
Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid,
the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.
Bring justice to our land, that all may dwell secure,
and finely build for days to come foundations that endure.
Bring to our world of strife thy sovereign word of peace,
that war may haunt the earth no more, and desolation cease.
Lyrics written 1937 … which we are now, approximately, recapitulating.