Monthly Archives: April 2012

Inheritance: The Elders Lecture Series #1


A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with some Energy company executives. We were talking frankly about a number of things, and this is what they said: ‘Rubadiri, there is no more gas. If we find some, it will be great, but…. And do you think we are going to wait until we are sucking fumes out of the ground to leave? No. Before that period comes all these fancy buildings here will empty out of us. Ghost-towns… Very soon, life in Trinidad-as-you-know-it will be over. In ten years time this country will look like Haiti…”

Haiti. Not Antigua or Barbados. But Haiti… And he didn’t mean ‘Haiti’ as in the noble nation of Toussaint and Boukman. He was talking about dread violence and poverty ‘Haiti’.

Now this could just be the old talk of men in a board room lime- but it invokes a dread reality that no one seems to be trying to come to terms with. Especially our politicians. Our life as a nation is about to fundamentally change. The ride of oil and gas is over. Another future is waiting for us. What we do in the next 3 years will decide what that future is…

I can hear some people saying, “Diri like to exaggerate eh! Haiti…” But the Scott Ryder Report at the end of 2010 says there’re proven gas reserves equivalent to 9 years of production and proven oil reserves equivalent of 14 years production. The doomsday scenario is not far off. But why doomsday? What will happen when oil and gas start to disappear?

Oil and gas make up 40% of the T&T economy. BPTT alone is worth almost 20% of our GDP. Our government makes up at least 70% of all economic activity in the country. Most of that is income derived from Oil and Gas. When that money disappears so does all the economic activity supported by the State. We’ve just been through a boom estimated to be worth over $300 billion. We failed to diversify away from Oil and Gas in that period. Instead we concentrated on big buildings badly built. During that period many foreigners and certain classes of locals made tremendous wealth. It did not trickle down meaningfully even to our middle class. At the end of that cycle of waste (when we missed an opportunity completely) we found our country operating at an annual deficit averaging $13 billion- in a budget of $50 billion. We now borrow money just to pay our wages- with money set aside for capital investments. The problem is that the money set aside to diversify the economy is not being spent on that. Almost none of the progressive programmes in the Budget are being implemented by government. We do not have time for this stupidity.

The reason that we are on a very slippery slope is this. Most of Trinidad and Tobago has a standard of living that cannot be sustained. We have a false standard of living built around the fact that oil money subsidises our life in invisible ways. Let me just mention three. Gas prices for our cars rely on a $4.8 billion gas subsidy. You remove that and all of a sudden a tank of gas that takes $130 to fill may cost $600… Can you calculate the cost of living that will multiply once that happens? Every single item flies upwards. T&T also now supplies free medicines at the cost of billions- including HIV medication that would cost an individual hundreds of thousands. What happens then to our health care? And there is no way that government can afford to continue its GATE programme. Tertiary level institutions will need tuition monies to survive. And I’ve not even begun to talk about the end of free primary and secondary education. Things are about to change…

These things will start changing in the years leading up to the doomsday scenario. Add to this picture our uncertain global economic times. Many established economies in decline are ones we depend on for preferential treatment or as places to suck up our surplus population. They will no longer be able to do this. I have been told that a lot of the Grants and Funds we currently have access to (but have not been utilizing) from EU countries will disappear in 2- 3 years. Those agencies are being pressured by domestic politics to stop giving away free money when they have problems at home.

I hope you’ve been doing the maths: Education. Health care. Gas. On top of this private companies and the State will not be able to pay their current wage-bills for the size of their workforce. We are therefore due for interesting labour times…

We have a short window in which to re-engineer our economy. It will require bravery. This administration is pussy-footing with plans in the last 2 Budgets to start the transformation. Nothing is being implemented. The new Petrotrin oil find must be used for reserves, savings, and for diversification. ‘Haiti!’ It is literally ‘Diversification or Death’.

The post-genius age

We’re moving into a post-genius Age. We’re moving into a place where the landscape cannot replace its gifts. Gone will be the Age of towering samaan talents. The nation has failed to blood a second and third generation. Let me explain.

My recent articles about Carnival provoked debate from various quarters. Some said my warnings of the collapse of Carnival traditions are too apocalyptic. Some believe that ‘things evolve- stop fighting progress’. Some think that- despite our national sins of omission and commission- Carnival will regenerate itself. That somehow we’d be blessed with the continuance of Genius, beauty, and light… Oh how I wish…

I am here to let us know that ‘it doh wuk so!’ That ‘civilisation’ is a verb. It’s a conscious act. That you actually have to work at it, like agriculture- removing weeds, fertilising soil, guarding for parasites. When you fail to do so bad things happen. Civilisations die. History is littered with societies that went through Ages of genius- some even became empires- and then their light went out. There’re signs that accompany such decline. We have all of them.

I’m not being pessimistic. I’m warning us that we’re on the brink. Many have heard me say this. Trinidad and Tobago experienced something majestic called a Golden Age from 1930-1950. A period of extraordinary activity when pan, mas, and calypso rose to classical forms, ethnic festivals came into their own, male ethnic secret-societies consolidated their community’s power, the trade union and independence movements blossomed.

That pioneer generation is now 75 and over—and dying. We lost 18,000 of a possible 20,000 geniuses in the last decade—failing to document and transmit skills.

During our Golden Age we were the metropolitan epicentre of a massive cultural explosion that changed the globe. Each one of the traditions from that age evolved sophisticated skills—from a King of Carnival, to a champion calypso, to the mind of a CLR James. These are not things that can be replicated by guess. Traditions survive with apprenticeship. We failed to build institutions to document, analyse, codify, and transmit this genius. It’s not present in curricula, museums, media, or anywhere in our mainstream life. It’s as if it never existed. Most youths born after 1980 have no clue of any aspect of this legacy. This is the crisis of inheritance we’re living in. It’s the reason why communities, traditions, and institutions are collapsing.

During the last administration—and the $300 billion boom—we gave government all the blueprints to institutionalise Legacy. The UTT Academy and ‘the real NAPA’ were supposed to be the vehicles for the transfer of Elder knowledge. Instead UTT concentrated on buying status by hiring foreign experts. Classical symphonic musicians were paid millions with houses and cars- whilst local Masters died in poverty with their knowledge vapourising into thin air.

Pat Bishop found herself fired and silenced for championing what was ethical and urgent.

We artists are now about to launch a rearguard action to create the missing institutions. The three projects are: Project Memory—to record biography of surviving Elders; the Guild of Masters—to pass on skill; and Grounding with the Elders—to engage the nation in questions of Inheritance.

The national question is this: “How do you sustain the gifts of the Golden Age long after the conditions on the ground that created it no longer persist?” We’re not the first people to face this question. Nations that answered it successfully have survived, those that didn’t see their civilisations collapse into husks of their former self.

Certain conditions produced classical symphonic orchestras. Europe decided it wanted to continue the tradition and created conservatories and other systems to ensure it survived beyond its Age. We must do likewise.

The greatest example of what’s going to happen if we don’t act is West Indies Cricket. West Indies fell from being the greatest team in sporting history to second to last in the cricketing world. For a decade 11 island boys beat former Empires, sub-continents, and first-world countries through indigenous skill. We failed to build the West Indies Cricket Hall of Fame and Academy.

Australia built theirs—using our Elders. Our collapse has lasted 15-plus years. Once we were able to elevate beyond third world economics to become world-beaters, now we’re third world without the science of how to transcend those limitations. Repeat this story for every tradition. That’s our future. Humiliation. Oceanic mediocrity. We have instinctive talent. We lack finishing schools. And finishing schools are everything. Finishing schools are your civilisation.

Some query my designation of certain people as geniuses. Here’re just a few who have no replacements, their passing will (and did) leave gaping national holes. We’re experiencing generational collapse in every tradition- we should be blooding second generations of these: Pat Bishop. Carlysle Chang. Leroy Clarke. Minshall. Aldwyn Chow Lin On. Ravi Ji. Kitchener. Rudder. CLR James. Shadow. Zanda. Meiling. Claudia Pegus. Winsford Devine. Genius artisans from Ramleela, Hosay, and the industrial arts. Where would we be after these losses? No youths come close. We have a year to get this right.