Anthem

The rainy season has really done a number on my neighborhood here in Ecuador (el Capulí, Loja). Two months ago, this was a comfortable little house near the river:

This was the entrance to my driveway:

And this was the road leading to the property, some of which you can still see at the bottom of the image. Most of it is completely gone, replaced by a thin new footpath gingerly trod into the ongoing landslide:

In Ms. Blackwell’s fourth grade science class, we filled plastic tubs with sand and dirt, tilted them a few degrees, and poured water at the top. Maybe we built structures, carved canals, and used straws for plumbing to try keeping some figurines safe. All I remember is everyone’s everything being washed away…fast.

During my recent visit to San Francisco, I felt profoundly grateful for basic infrastructure. I also read Anthem, the first book I’ve finished in a couple months and my first foray into Ayn Rand. I enjoyed the 50-pager’s simple premise, powerfully expressed:

Mankind has entered another Dark Age. Technological advancement is now carefully planned and the concept of individuality has been eliminated. A young man known as Equality 7-2521 rebels by doing secret scientific research. (Wikipedia)

In response to the COVID crisis unfolding last year, Marc Andreessen pulled Rand’s thread forward with his lightning-rod essay “It’s Time To Build”.

Our nation and our civilization were built on production… Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer…uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

Both Andreessen’s piece and Rand’s fiction jibe nicely with my personal bible in Seth Godin’s Graceful. Seth uses a more nuanced, generous lens but ultimately encourages folks in the same direction of individual curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.

Andreessen and Rand are perhaps necessarily more heavy-handed, utilitarian, pragmatic—even dogmatic, judgmental. They believe you should be able to tell how important something is by how long it lasts.

A fortune cookie once told me, “Truth is that which stands the test of experience.” The creator of The Office compellingly said the same thing to Stephen Colbert. In other words, Andreessen and Rand hold a moral view about truth.

For example, they might say the crumbling Ecuadorian dirt roads do not imply that the roads are less important here than in the U.S. but rather that Ecuadorians are less capable of systematically evaluating the roads’ importance. Therefore, they don’t invest accordingly and build things to last.

This view can be taken as a self-righteous insult to other folks’ intelligence, but it’s not intended as such. The operative word is “capable.” A lack of capability may have been outside of everyone’s control due to historical poverty, under-education, etc.

Given that objective starting point, however, my experience battling nature demonstrates room for agency. A child quickly grasps the power of erosion. Property-owning adults surely notice what’s happening around them year after year, especially farmers.

I believe locals could have been more proactive in building certain infrastructure well but repeatedly chose not to. In some sense they failed, just as I myself could have been more thorough in evaluating the risks of owning land here but chose not to.

Nature’s disdainful inevitability—and the truth—hurts.


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