Dispatches from Silo 18

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.




I love this excellent and insightful post and could’t agree more. I hope you’ll send this to the NY Times! Am leaving for a trip to Cuba this week. Is there a particulsr book you recommend I read before I go? Thanks Huhg!! Wishing you smooth seas and happy selling!

Wonderful words. Thank you for your heartfelt expression of truth, and the way forward, out of silos.

You’ve nailed it in one. Mankind has not and never will ‘adapt’ to building bridges and extending hands out to the less fortunate. Building fortresses/ivory towers/walls and silos contains and controls their inane idea of ‘control’ and is more in keeping with our limited thinking. Is the future of mankind being controlled by fate itself and we are imploding country by country? There are very few non-aggressive countries or races left in the world. Dictators and megalomaniacs are hell bent on destruction but loathe rebuilding in the countries they destroy. China will extend in Africa so long as there is something in it for them. As Tim Lloyd Rice wrote in Jesus Christ Superstar, ‘There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got”.

I admire your articulation and stating the obvious. It is the future of mankind at stake. The author I have always admired is George Orwell in 1984. He got that right. You’re second best but I only hope that ‘Wool’ doesn’t actually eventuate. You have a perfect lead character in Trump and his circus and countries/civilisations that can possibly disappear in our lifetime.

Keep sailing and writing. You’re keeping readers’ minds open to the possibilities of where we are going. Thanks.

Well said.

I’ve believed this regarding the drone war in Afghanistan as well. An entire generation growing up to fear blue sky. Learning to hide from the sounds of aircraft instead of running out and celebrating what could easily be food, rice, medicine parachuting down instead of what the drones bring.

I agree. Great article. I think you’ll find that almost everyone who reads this agrees. The question we need to consider is how to reach those who do not spend Saturday morning reading? Who see the world distorted through their own fear? Who do not understand that their fear is what causes them to hate what they do not know?

Thank you Hugh.
What an interesting and emotional read that was. I too wish we could all pull together and for me the issue is with our education system. We’re not taught about emotional intelligence, instead we’re given all the tools to better our own lives, not others. Call me a hippy, but I can’t understand why we’d rather live in a world full of anxiety (caused by weapons and war) than give up some of our luxuries to improve the lives of others.
That’s my bit said! Back to Countryside life :) – Keep up the good work.

Well said.

Inspiring thoughts, Hugh. I’m trying to think of other examples along the lines of the Panama Canal. The Marshall plan for rebuilding Germany after World War II? What others? We don’t do much, It seems, on a large scale that actually ends up being a positive for other countries.

Of course, The military is a huge part of the budget of the United States. And part of what keeps it going is the fact that building thanks for the military makes money for lots of industries. And many families depend on the military for their livelihood. I don’t see us changing this paradigm any time soon.

As you say, decisions made by “leaders” are mind boggling. It would take a true leader to be able to pull off your suggestions. They would need the vision to see the end result and the strategy to head off the many, many roadblocks.

I see the lack of legal protections in countries that have been “independent” for so many decades and I see the deterioration of the infrastructure that they were “given” by the previous imperial governments and I despair. Is China the new imperial power in Africa? What will they do when the governments try and default on the huge debt?

Lots of questions, few answers.

Hugh, I really like this perspective. Giving and receiving without walls is a powerful idea.

Amazingly insightful and dreamlike. There is nothing wrong with imaginary peace and prosperity for all peoples of the world. Imagine all the people living for today.Too much destruction and loss is directly related to the creation of explosives of all manner. What if the instead of making war the money was spent making Africia green? That would be a pleasing sight in God’s eyes. Such a concept is so foreign to those who have the power to make it happen that such an idea might as well not exist.
Your discription of the mindset of Cuban citizens is new to me. I’ve never stopped to wonder how those people think of the U.S. Did we build that invisible wall, or was it Castro. It’s time to lift the sanctions against Cuba. As you say, it does no good for anyone.
Thank you for caring enough to write about the things that could be.

Patricia Wilson

As always, you’re an inspiration to others to think… to think about who we are, and how we relate to everyone and everything on this entire planet.

Or perhaps I should say you are always an inspiration to me.

I sometimes wonder if only people who are of like minds consider things they read to be inspirational but then I know this can not be true for I consider the things I read even when I do not agree with what is being said. Would that not imply that while I may not be of a ‘like mind’ with the writer of what I am reading I can look at things being said, and give it some consideration, think about it… remove my own personal belief systems and see if it hold true. So, since that is true of me I have to believe I am not the only one. I am in no way terminally unique.

It gives me hope, to know I can read things I don’t always agree with and be opened minded about it.

I hope the people who may not agree with what you write give it a look with an open mind. The world we live in would be a much better place if they would.

PS: I am grateful for when you blog, but I wish you’d do it more often. I understand – you’re busy – out there LIVING, and so I read and reread your blogs when they come out.

Perhaps… I appreciate them more so for the scarcity of them?
Naw… I’d love reading them even if they came daily.

It’s always been the fear of “the other” that had caused war amongst us humans. It’s lazy and easy to fight and create war. It takes a lot more energy to think critically and act creatively.

Thank you for this lovely post. These sentiments are shared by many, and you articulate them well. By the way, love the updated version of WOOL for Kindle.

Couldn’t agree more, although you put it ever so much better than I ever could have. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for 20 years (which pretty much comes down to just my very patient wife and kids) that we should take about 1% of our defense budget and put it to work providing clean water for anyone who’ll let us. (Yes, I know: Flint.) It would create so much goodwill that, beyond the fact that it’s good in and of itself, it would make us so much safer.

Nicely said! It amazes me that, at the level of technology and civilisation we’ve attained, more people haven’t come to this conclusion. They do say that it’s easier to destroy than to create, but it’s an awfully short-sighted policy. Alas, politicians in general seem to be a myopic breed. I’m sorely tempted to enter politics myself, to see what good I can do, but I worry that the process of achieving any meaningful power would flay the altruism from my bones. Surely that’s what happened to most existing policy-makers? They must have all started out wanting to make the world a better place at some point, but somewhere along the line they became fixated on winning elections, or holding onto the reins at all costs…

You simplify things too much. Conspiracy abounds. You say we could replace the industrio-military complex with other avenues for revenue. GOOD LUCK!!! The greed of those in charge will prevent it. The individuals who would be losing their cash cow from warmongering and weapons making won’t go quietly into jobs creating solar power, desalination or smart energy grids. You will take their golden goose from them and they will fight to the death to preserve it. Currently they have the money to keep their lobbyists in Washington and keep the military machine buying their goods. Good luck stopping them. These profiteers are not philanthropic.

China is no more philanthropic. What they do, they do for their bottom line. Period. If you want to know what is really going on in the world, look for the greed.

Align philanthropy with greed and you have solved global problems. That is the only way to fix things. Unfortunately.

Powerful story in the face of the roaring pessimism rolling through media – social and otherwise. Love to you brother hugh… Many thanks 🎉

One problem that would arise if we had an army of builders come into a country to build infrastructure is: who would run the infrastructure when they left? Building something is wonderful, but operation and maintenance are just as important, and that’s where a corrupt local government can take the most well-meaning of projects and turn it against the people. It’s not only a problem of wanting to give something to the world; the world has to be ready and willing to receive it and maintain it. That’s a lot of people that have to be good actors at the same time. It’s been done before, but it’s hard to do it consistently, especially among people that have good reason not to trust the United States.

I also suspect when everything is tallied up that infrastructure projects would cost about the same amount of resources as running a war, with the only exception being the loss of human life.

A very well thought out post that is rooted in logic and reason. It seems like the actions of the world currently seem to point to the fact that terrorism works. A lot of people are making illogical, dangerous decisions simply out of fear instead of facts.

Kristian Lindqvist

A very insightful and inspirational read as always, thanks – hopefully some future leader of a (small or big) country reads this and agrees! :)

As for why we can’t act too unselfishly even if it would be better in the long run, it may just be that we’re prisoners of our genetic system: we want our offspring and near family to succeed, and maybe – if we’re generous – some slightly more remote relatives (and their cousins and friends and college roommates) as well, but other families competing on the same turf are competition and the more distanced they are, the greater a threat they pose. If they share the same xenophobia, that is.

Maybe sentient life has different stages and this is the level that tests if we can escape our prison of short-term goals and think big? Or go bust. I’d like to think that we can succeed in beating this goal as well…

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