In the weeks following our world cruise, I have reflected on our many experiences. I have come to believe that our travels offered some key lessons. Here are some of the things I have learned.
Investments in infrastructure make a difference. The ability of Hong Kong (and I suspect all of China) to make major commitments to big projects and to get them done quickly makes real change possible. The new Hong Kong subway lines are amazing. If I have any hope for our global environment, it’s that China will begin to realize the costs of its environmental degradation and apply that same focus and commitment to improving its environmental infrastructure. I only wish that the US could find a way to stop arguing and invest in the bridges, schools, transit, and scientific investment needed for our future.
There’s something to be said for a benevolent dictatorship. When you compare life in Singapore today to what existed there fifty years ago, it’s an amazing transformation. If Americans are willing to give up freedoms to prevent terrorism, what might they give up to get clean streets and a peaceful environment? I’m not advocating limiting the hurly-burly of democracy, and I’m not naive enough to think most autocratic leaders remain good, but Singapore is a testament to what is possible when sensible policies are simply put in place and enforced. All of us, from the NIMBY movements at a local level to the gridlock in Washington, should recognize that the paralysis of inaction often keeps us from improving life.
Travel while you can. It’s an amazing world, but that doesn’t mean it will all be around to see that much longer. Long-time travelers told us how the lemurs have largely disappeared over the past 20 years from the park in Madagascar. While the cruise didn’t visit the low-slung Maldives, we sailed through the rising waters that will almost certainly cover that country in the coming decades. Poachers in southern Africa are decimating the rhino for illicit gain. I’m glad that we saw what we did, but worry about how we protect the wonder for the future.
Walking away from responsibility leaves devastation in its wake. The history of how Portugal and its citizens abroad simply abandoned colonies like Mozambique (without training or preparing the citizens to run the country) makes touring a city like Maputo painful, as you experience the ruins of what once was and sense how much energy is needed to regain lost ground. Americans should ponder if our policies are leaving behind similar devastation.
Resources need to be matched with a just society. I am sure that my blog came across as harsh on Brazil. But it is sad to see a country that has so many resources like land, minerals, and people fail to deliver a more equitable society. Different people may give different reasons: corruption, a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots, a disregard for the environment, a lack of the common weal — but whatever the reason, I hope an increasingly polarized United States does not fall back into such a state.
There is hope. Around the world, people exist who care and can make a difference. In South Africa, which so transformed itself in the ‘90s, hope seemed so palpable. Even as the South Africans’ initial exuberance has been tempered by real challenges, the optimism of the people remains high. I want to claim that same optimism, not just for South Africa, but also for the United States, the world and all mankind.