Commentary By Steve Thomas
Observer Nevis Editor
(Charlestown, Nevis) – It’s tough to think big.
Most of us think about right now, what’s in front of us, or a few weeks or months down the road. The really smart among us think and act in terms of retirement income, property acquisition, proper insurance, long-term spiritual happiness, an orderly family – all the elements that comprise lifelong security and happiness. Both types of thinking are just part of human nature, the jigsaw puzzle that composes our society, a reflection of the fractured and fractious parts that make us what we are; and what we are as a species is a bundle of contradictions: selfish and noble, rude and polite, secretive and revealing, hesitant and decisive, generous and greedy, racist and color blind, enslaving and liberating, supporters of religious freedom and repressors of freedom of religion, hateful and loving.
We can’t help it. That’s the way we are.
When it comes to countries, it’s much the same way. That’s because, no matter how you cut it, countries are run by people who share all the impulses and contradictions of everyone else. The politicians who win office face the particular challenges of trying to bring their personal natures under control in the name of a higher calling, i.e., fulfilling the will of the people, advancing the welfare of the country and upholding the law. When politicians fail to tame their egos, they become dictators. Zimbabwe is a case in point. Russia could be next.
That is not happening in the Federation. Political debate is sharp, yet it remains within the bounds of the Constitution and usually within the confines of good, or at least acceptable, taste. Vigorous dissension is better than violent dissolution.
What this results in, though, is a situation that requires those who govern to have to meet short-term needs (better roads, for example) and push toward the implementation of medium-term measures (airport expansion, for example) without leaving time or energy to formulate a long-term vision of what could be. Like people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, governments often have to deal with the here and now and leave the rest to . . . whatever.
That’s the point where the rest of us come in.
So I’m going to offer some ideas about where Nevis could go in the future, no matter who is in office. Maybe some of these ideas will be a starting point for further discussion, the first step in a road toward realization. I recognize that this thinking is rather presumptuous since I’ve only lived here six months, but sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to look at things in a different way. I also know that I’m not offering ideas about St. Kitts. That will have to come on a different day.
There are common traits in all societies. People want law and order; decent, affordable places to live; good, affordable food; secure jobs that pay fairly and offer decent working conditions; access to health care, dependable transportation systems; and quality schools. In a world where wealth is overflowing but unevenly distributed, none of these goals is unreasonable or unreachable.
Nevis is at a particularly opportune juncture, though this juncture is tied to a single project: the successful development of geothermal energy. Should this become a reality and Nevis becomes positioned to produce and sell electricity at very competitive rates, the island can move toward a period of unprecedented prosperity.
Vast reserves of coal provided the energy to help propel Great Britain and Germany to leading positions in the world. Coal and oil did the same thing for the United States. Today we see the influence of Middle Eastern states and Russia growing on the oil they produce while the rest of the world competes to obtain the precious petroleum products they produce.
Where is this competition for oil headed? In its May 31 issue, Newsweek magazine published an article with some disturbing ideas about a world that may soon see even higher-priced oil:
“A year ago no one was talking about $200 oil, and now everyone in the markets is, for scary reasons. Oil prices climbed from $10 in 1999 to $95 last year without slowing the surging world economy, in large part because the markets believed the spike was at core driven by rising demand, particularly from India and China, which feeds growth . . . As the per-barrel price climbed over the last few months, the consensus began shifting to a new more gloomy view: that not only would long-term demand, led by China and India, continue to grow, but that the supply threats, including increasing conflict, falling investment, industry bottlenecks and downward estimates of big field reserves in major oil states—aren’t going away any time soon.
“Oil drives so much of the global economy, it’s almost impossible to fully imagine the world of $200 oil. No question, the shock will force nations to go greener much faster than now, particularly by conserving energy and developing and adopting new non-fossil fuels. But none of this can happen full stop in six to 24 months.
“The individual decisions about what we’ll drive, how often we’ll fly and whether we’ll upgrade our televisions as quickly are only part of the larger macroeconomic threat of higher oil prices. But already, it’s clear that oil is catalyzing the threat of inflation in rich countries as well as poor. Inflation looks likely to be about 5 percent in the United States this summer, and about 3 percent in Europe. But in emerging economies, double-digit inflation could become the norm.”
If Nevis wants to prepare itself for living in a $200 a barrel world, it’s time to think big. Here’s an idea: The Nevis Island Administration should take the lead in building a consortium between auto manufacturers, auto dealers, lending institutions, energy distributors and consumers to get as many vehicle owners as possible to trade in their gas-guzzlers for electric cars.
Electric cars are no longer fantasies or gimmicks. Most major car manufacturers are investing heavily in the development of these vehicles and will have them on the market in the next few years. Why not make Nevis a showcase for these cars? The island could be a Caribbean paradise stage for car makers who want to demonstrate how their products can reduce oil consumption and help conserve the environment. Granted, there are some vehicles that will, for the foreseeable future, have to rely on internal combustion engines, like emergency response vehicles and large transprotation vehicles, but how many people could switch to electric cars if they were offered on good terms and their gasoline cars were taken off their hands?
Quite a few, I’d guess.
Lots of people would be driving their electric cars to the grocery store on a regular basis. It would be nice if a lot of what they bought there had been grown and procesed on Nevis.
In all fairness to the NIA, there has been progress on re-introducing commercial farming to the island. It will be a long process. Commercial farming is a complex, time-consuming, labor-intensive endeavor.
However, as demonstrated at the recent Ag Days, personal and family agriculture can flourish here, with encouragement and assistance. Not every family has a yard or land suitable for growing food, but many do and should be actively encouraged to proceed. Those without suitable grounds should be asked to try alternative methods, like “bagriculutre,” where a large bag, instead of a vase, is filled with soil and planted with seeds. If it goes well, the family can enjoy fresh vegetables grown in a corner of the porch of a small patch of yard.
To get the ball rolling, could the NIA send ag experts to schools and give students bags, soil and seeds to get the young people involved in this effort? The payoff could be enormous: A whole generation of people who consider home gardening a normal part of their lives, as commonplace as television or cell phones, but tastier and healthier. (Granted, many children would want the seeds that grow candy bars and freeze pops, just like I would, but once things were explained to them, they might get to like vegetables (I’d still want the candy bar and freeze pop seeds because I don’t trust the government.)
That’s not where it ends, though, With government aid and private sector investment and expertise, low-cost geothermal electricty could power food-processing plants and food storage centers. This would create jobs and move Nevis toward greater food self-sufficiency. While the rest of the world would deal with food prices that factor in $200 a barrel oil, Nevisians would be assured that a significant part of their food supply would remain affordable.
Of course, the items bought at the grocery stores could be carried home in cloth bags. The NIA could levy a tax on plastic grocery bags that would make their use impractical. Cloth grocery bags could be sold at very low rates and, if decorated with a Nevis logo, could be sold at a nice profit to tourists – subsidizing the costs to residents. This would cause many Nevis residents (me included) to have to buy plastic garbage bags for home use – until a better idea comes along – but it would reduce the prevelance of discarded grocery sacks across the island. It is a condition that is ugly and bad for the environment.
These ideas are only starting points, only strands and elements of thinking big. None of them are confined to the realm of fantasy. It’s a question of what people want and what they are willing to do, how much they are willing to look past the immediate moment and toward the shimmering horizon. It is the difference between looking at the sinkful of water you wash your face in every morning and the grand vision that presents itself every day when the sun presents itself over the seas that surround Nevis.
It’s time. Splash some water on your face, shake your head, look at those seas and say: Let’s do it.