On Danger

I had the pleasure recently to be in the presence of LeRoy Clarke, a Trinidadian artist, one of the greatest in the Caribbean, who visited The Bahamas for the first time this month. It was a pleasure and it was a challenge. His reaction to our nation was complex; not always flattering, often irreverent, always provocative, but also, and fundamentally, true. Much of what he said struck me. What struck me most was this: he believes that we live in a very dangerous country indeed.

The thing is, he’s not talking about physical danger, about crime or violence or poverty or lesbian gangs. No. He’s talking about a completely different kind of danger, the danger that comes to people who live in an illusion and believe that what they see is real. It’s a danger of the spirit, a poverty of the soul.

And he has a point.

He was talking about the fact that we may be rich, but we live increasingly in a country that is not ours.

Now let’s not make any mistakes now. Trinidad is not a poor country. Trinidad is doing very well indeed. It should be; it’s an oil-producing nation, and crude oil prices are rising. And there’s something very interesting about the intellectuals it produces. They think for themselves. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that oil is something that you can touch, watch come out of the ground, barrel and sell. Perhaps there’s something fulfilling about being able to see the results of your work, at being able to quantify what makes your money. Perhaps when there’s something pretty solid about the money you make you’re better able to see yourself.

Perhaps the ephemeral nature of what we do, the seemingly intangible quality of the things we peddle, makes us blinder to who we are and what we achieve. Our focus is not on something tangible, after all. We are selling our land, our climate, our shores, and our selves. We are the commodity here, not oil. And this is where the danger lies.

You see, there’s plenty of money to be earned in what we have. The richest people in the world will pay dearly for a little access to the beauty and romance of our country. But the exchange of land and climate, shores and selves for money is not the same kind of exchange as that of oil for cash. Oil is something quantifiable, and can be separated from the Trinidadian people themselves. If and when the Lake of Pitch is used up, if and when the offshore oil is all mined, the Trinidadian people, their personhood and their culture, will remain intact. It is their economy, and not their fundamental identity, that depends upon this exchange.

In our case, though, the money we earn is inextricably linked to the sale of the things most central to our selves. We may not understand our fundamental relation to our land, we may be unconscious of our inextricable connection to the sea, we may not be able to quantify our integration into our climate, and we may not recognize the fundamental truth that was very clear to Mr. Clarke, that tourism is in effect a selling of the self; but that is where the danger lies.

It’s possible, of course, for us to argue that the difference between Trinidad and us is superficial. After all, the oil that makes them rich may be owned by the Trinidadian government, but the companies that extract and sell the oil are more than likely to be multinational conglomerates, and anything purporting to be local in the oil business is almost certainly their affiliate. In other words, the raw material may be all Trinidadian, but the finished product may not. LeRoy Clarke notwithstanding, Trinidad may be faced with the same danger as we are.

It’s possible, but the argument doesn’t hold too much water. Oh, it’s true that the power structure of the world is skewed so that profits flow from the south to the north, that countries outside of Europe and North America are generally sources of raw material and cheap labour, while the bulk of wealth-generation remains in the hands of those people who have had it since Columbus set sail. But think of it this way.

Even if Trinidad and The Bahamas are similarly placed in the global power scheme — on the periphery, not at the centre, in positions that require the permission or the strength or the capital or the influence of others in order for our full potential to be realized, there’s one difference between us that should make us aware.

Their money comes from something they can see, measure, and thus control. It comes from something that is part of their land, but outside part of their being. Oil is something one can observe and comprehend, and what’s more, it’s something that is not as stable as was once imagined. Trinidadians know, far better than we do, how fragile prosperity can be, because boom can be followed by bust quickly, and a reliance on oil can be challenged by a switch to other forms of energy, such as LNG.

Ours, though, comes from something we hardly realize we have. Everything that we sell we take very much for granted; land and ocean and beachfront and culture are woven into the fabric of our being, something of which we are hardly conscious, and will not notice we have lost until too late. It’s not visible, it’s not measurable, but it’s marketable. And we’re wonderful salesmen, perhaps too much so. And we won’t realize what we’ve lost until we’re living — as Clarke observed, in the shadow of the big house that’s owned by the people from across the sea.

You see, when we occupy a space that isn’t ours, or worse yet, a space that was ours but isn’t any more, but think we are bettering ourselves, we are lying to ourselves and we are stealing from our children. And therein lies the danger.