Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why I'm here

I moved to Brazil as it was becoming increasingly powerful, emerging from a long history of boom and bust cycles, and taking on a growing role in global affairs. I’m convinced many Brazilians will look back on this period as golden era of boundless opportunity the way American Baby Boomers wax nostalgic for the Post-War II boom. I see a nation that with a wide array of advantages when it comes to key sustainability issues, but at the same time one that will soon be facing many of the same environmental and social problems that the currently plague the United States.

Brazil has one of the world’s most extensive networks of renewable energy, one of the world’s highest rates of raw materials recycling, vast access to water resources, and abundant land for agriculture. It could be an ideal place to develop wind energy, which is works most efficiently when combined with the sort of hydroelectric generation that provides most of Brazil’s power. The country’s use of electricity is considerably more rational than in the United States, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because of the country’s recent experience with prolonged energy shortages.

But this picture is changing. Many of Brazil’s hydroelectric dams were put up during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship when environmental legislation was nearly non-existent, and putting up new dams is not proving nearly as easy these days. The country’s main agricultural regions, some of the world’s most productive, were created during the dictatorship by clearing forests that were once part of the Amazon – which is less palatable option for expansion now.  

The high recycling rates are to a great degree dependent on an army of poor folks that collect trash off city streets or, as so clearly explained in the documentary Wasteland, sift through landfills in search of recyclable materials. As poverty falls and the middle class expands, there will be more raw materials going into waste stream and fewer unlucky souls to sort them. Brazil’s economy is undeniably heading toward greater use of fossil fuels, and its increasingly obese population is eating itself sick much the way Americans have been doing for 20 years. The next five to ten years will be crucial in determining to what extent Brazil will learn from the mistakes of countries like the United States and to what extent it will repeat them.

I’m fascinated by the changes taking place in this country and hope this will be a chance for me to learn more about them. I admit there are a lot of things going on here that I don’t think bode well for a sustainable future. But I’m consistently impressed with the number of people and organizations doing smart things to reduce society’s impact on the environment, limit natural resource depletion and educate others about the impact of their consumption decisions. And I think there are many reasons to be positive about the country’s environmental awareness.

I hope to use this space to explore sustainability issues big and small, from broad macro concepts about energy usage to up-close examinations of local recycling and urban transport initiatives. I expect I will from time to time delve (carefully) into the controversies surrounding these issues. But mostly I hope this will be a chance to meet new people involved in sustainability in Brazil and to learn about the interesting things that Brazilians are doing.

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