by Max Sirak
I don’t spend much time on Twitter. I check it twice a day, maybe, for a combined total of 7 minutes. But recently, when swiping up to scroll down, I saw the tweets between Elon Musk and Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico and smiled.
“Yes,” I thought. “This makes so much sense.”
When I was 20 I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. A couple friends joined me, or I them; they did most of the planning. It was the early 2000s. Cell phones weren’t ubiquitous. Pre-paid calling cards kept us in touch. The digital revolution was nascent. Our Eurail passes, like our currency, were paper.
It was an eight week trip. We visited 13 different countries. And it was while winding on the rails all about Europe, from station to station, where I fell in love with reading and writing. Up until then, both bored me. (Not that this is what my essay’s about, but it seemed a relevant aside, you know, considering…)
Anyway, about 2/3 of the way through our trip we disembarked in Rotterdam. A friend from college, Whit, was studying there for a semester and, since we happened to be in that part of the world, we decided to drop in for a visit. I’m glad we did.
Not only was it nice to see a friendly, familiar face but city itself blew my mind. Sure, I was high (I mean, we were college kids from the US in the Netherlands…), but still. It wasn’t just the drugs that had me wide-eyed.
It was the architecture. I’d never seen anything like it.
It wasn’t the cobbled and quaint streets of Bruges. It wasn’t the mind-melting, Seussical structures Gaudi built in Barcelona. It wasn’t the amalgamation of antiquity and everyday that defines Rome.
Rotterdam was modern. There were cube apartments for rent, strung like Christmas lights across avenues. The bridges, brightly colored and lit, looked more like industrial insects than brick barracks. It was more steel than stone, more odd angles than arches.
It was on the way home from a bar, the four us in a cab, when I found out why. “Hey,” I asked the driver, “How come Rotterdam looks so cool?”
We were at a red light. The driver turned around, cocked his head to the side, and squinted. Confused, he shook his head in disbelief. I could almost hear him think, “Stupid American….”
The light turned green. The cab driver turned back around and looked up at me through the rearview mirror. “This place was leveled during the war. Nazi bombs. Everything is new.”
Destruction And Creation
This drunken cab conversation may have taken place 16 years ago but it’s one I haven’t forgotten. Rotterdam looked different because it was. The rest of the cities we visited in Europe had been preserved for centuries. Rotterdam was recently razed.
Rotterdam had a modern feel was because it was rebuilt in modern times.
The city dates back to 1270 (or 1340, depending on how me measure such things…). No one can deny we, as a species, have made incredible advances in structural engineering, design, and construction science over the last 747 years. To rebuild Rotterdam as it was would have been mistake.
Rotterdam was bombed into opportunity. I’m not trying to gloss over the devastation, loss of life, or sheer catastrophe of Nazi bombardment. From May 10th to 14th, 1940 over 900 hundred people were killed. Another 85,000 lost their homes. And what once stood as a proud hub of shipping and commerce was little more than cinders and dust. All in less than 96 hours.
I am not making light of the ruin of Rotterdam. I am, however, illustrating how to make light from it. Which is all any of us can do when faced with the horrors of war, the chaos of life, and total loss. Because – here’s a secret – destruction is the seedbed of creation.
Think about it.
Have you ever done any remodeling on a building? After the planning is done, after the drawings are finalized, what is the actual first step of construction? Demolition. Sledgehammers smash.
Anytime we create something new where something old already is, we begin with blasting away. Destroying what is makes room for what will be. Destruction begets creation.
Only when things have been torn down to their foundations, can we institute wholesale change. Often times, before such a casualty, transformation of this scale is nearly impossible. The best we can do is add on, patch up, or work around. All three of which are perfectly reasonable fixes when dealing with exiting structures.
But that’s just it. That’s the beauty of complete destruction. It removes the possibility of using our aforementioned strategies and replaces them with a mandate: Build. Again.
If we must build again – why not take advantage of all the advances made, all the wisdom gained, since last we were given the chance to construct?
Doesn’t this make sense?
Which Brings Me To Puerto Rico
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. And it’s not like the island was in great shape before the storm. There has been a steady migration north, to the mainland, since the beginning of the 2000s. It’s estimated some 300,000 people, mostly skilled laborers, have jumped ship.
Couple this population movement and the associated loss of workforce with an unregulated energy monopoly and things were already stormy before the hurricane hit. Puerto Rico featured some of the priciest energy in the US. When there’s only one option to choose from — customers lose. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had no reason to keep costs low or invest in infrastructure.
Then, there’s the island’s old, centralized energy grid. 98% of Puerto Rico’s power came from imported fossil fuels. Oil, natural gas, and coal were converted into electricity at a main plant and then distributed through the jungles of the island via above-ground lines on rickety old poles. Which, makes sense, this was the standard method, style, and strategy of energy distribution back when the original grid was built.
However, in tune with Rotterdam, just because something used to be done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Destruction carries with it opportunity.
Building For the Future
Again, in Puerto Rico, we can see the unique gift destruction brings. It grants us a boon – a blank slate, full of space, to rebuild. What’s been lost is forever gone. The choice now is to build again, without correcting all the previous flaws, in the same way as before. Or, to take advantage of any and all advances made since the original construction and improve upon what was there.
Tesla is amped. What’s been talked about with Australia, and done on Ta’u (American Samoa) and Kauai, is being initiated in Puerto Rico. The powerpacks have been shipped. Decentralized microgrids. Solar panels. Renewable energy on a grander scale. A potential model of our future.
Google’s getting in on action too. They’ve already sent two solar powered balloons down to Puerto Rico. Soaring some 60,000 feet in the stratosphere, these members of Project Loon are granting wireless access to the citizens below. And more connectivity is on it’s way. The FCC has approved the deployment of 28 more balloons to further this internet initiative.
There’s a line in the Grateful Dead song, Scarlet Begonias, that goes, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” Wreckage may sound like a strange place indeed to find light, but it’s not. Rebuilding offers opportunity.
We can either: Do the hard work, use what’s been learned so far, make changes for the better, and correct what bothered us before. Or – rebuild in the same tired way, echo what once was, and face former frustrations.
It’s our choice.
Neither path is without a downside. The latter brings with it well-known issues. The first, a whole host of new challenges. But when it comes to indiscriminate destruction, be it by Nazi bombs or natural disaster – I’m of the mind – it makes more sense to side with the devil you don’t know than the one you do. Because there too, along side this unfamiliar archfiend lives the angel of hope.
Brandon Sanderson, author of Towers of Midnight, sums it up nicely. “…If a hold was damaged during a raid and you rebuilt it, you never made it exactly the same way. You took the chance to fix the problems—the door that creaked in the wind, the uneven section of floor. To make it exactly as it had been would be foolishness.”
Puerto Rico, like Rotterdam before it, has an opportunity. Step into the future or hold onto the past.
I know which I’d choose.
1) By J. Däpp (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=203478
3) By SC National Guard – 20171007- SC National Guard in Puerto Rico, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63441974
4) By Chief National Guard Bureau from USA – 170927-Z-CD688-266, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62861935