Agency, or "o Brasil do meu amor" (op-ed)

by Mike Kimel

Agency, or “o Brasil do meu amor”

There was a rumor that an Olympic kayaker hit a couch while practicing in the lagoon in Rio. Perhaps it happened.  Perhaps it didn’t.  Either way, one thing is certain.  The water – in the lagoon, in Guanabara Bay, and off the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema – is filthy.  It’s been that way for a long time, and will remain that way during my lifetime and yours.

I say this with certainty (and sadness) because I know Brazil well.  Though I was born in the US, and though neither of my parents is Brazilian, I did spend my formative years in the country and have been back a few times since.  And whenever I have had the chance to go back to Brazil, it has been to Rio.  I know and love Rio as well as any city in which I’ve ever set foot, but that doesn’t mean I have any delusions.  (When I say I love the city, I am not beginning to do justice to how I feel about it.  There is no other piece of ground that I can legitimately claim to love.)  My only surprise, with the Olympics, is that nothing really serious has gone wrong as of this writing.

My mother likes to tell a story that she feels illustrates Brazil.  It happened when I was around 12 or so and I remember some of the events from my own first-hand point of view.  My mother, my sister and I took a tour bus with several other families we knew.  At some point, the bus stopped by a little stand at the side of the road which sold ears of corn and soft drinks.  We all bought food and drinks then piled back into the bus.

As people finished their meal, they tossed the remains out the window of the moving bus.  Corn husks, corn cobs, napkins, cups, bottles, it all went out the window.  Meanwhile, my mom collected the remains from my sister and me and put them in a plastic bag to be disposed of later when we eventually came across a garbage can.  One of the other ladies on the bus noticed, and came up to my mom somewhat belligerently, saying, “You Americans, always so clean.  You look at us, dirty Brazilians, with disapproval.”

The fact of the matter is that the Olympics are filthy because much of Brazil, at least the parts of the land that are have contact with people, are also filthy.  And they are filthy largely because Brazilians have, for generations, dumped their garbage everywhere. Just about every public place in Brazil is dirtier than just about every public place in the USA.  This is true in the same way, and for the same reason, that just about every public place in the USA is dirtier than just about every public place in Japan.

That isn’t to say social mores can’t change.  There were a heck of a lot more trash cans in evidence the last time I was in Brazil about a decade ago than there were when I was growing up, and it seems the Brazilian government ran a few campaigns trying to get people to be more conscientious about trash.  But the change, while noticeable, is smaller than it needs to be.  (It can go the other way too.  There are places in California that are strewn with garbage now that had none when I was finishing high school in the late 80s.)

The result is that no matter how clean the average Brazilian tries to be, he or she will continue to live in what an American would consider a trash-strewn environment as long as he or she remains in Brazil.  If every Brazilian was immediately imbued with Japanese cultural norms regarding garbage, the baggage would remain.  Trash would still be noticeable in Guanabara Bay, let alone the lagoon, for years, but it would be less and less over time.  Eventually, the place would be as pristine as a Japanese beach.  But it won’t happen, because imbuing Japanese cultural values into 200 million Brazilians won’t happen.

Interestingly enough, an argument can be made that Americans bear some amount of blame for the dismal condition of the Brazilian environment.  Consider the American environmental movement, which seems to have kicked up a notch in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Think the Land and Water Conservation Act (1964), the Clean Air Act (1970), the formation of the EPA (1970), creation of Earth Day (1970) the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  The Woodsy Owl (“give a hoot, don’t pollute”) was born in 1970, and though he’s now forgotten, Johnny Horizon, the Bureau of Land Management’s rugged he-man anti-littering campaign mascot ran from the late 60s to the late 70s or so.   If I had been an adult at the time, and living in the US, I’m sure I could dredge up more examples.

The Brazilian environmental movement didn’t seem to enjoy any similar successes during the same period.  In fact, from what I can tell, the Brazilian environmental movement, weak as it is, didn’t even take its baby steps until the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Nothing of the sort could happen until after the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship.  The military viewed such activities as leftist and therefore something to be watched if not crushed.  And the Brazilian military would never have taken power in 1964 if not for the coaxing, urging, support, aid, goading and threats by the US government.  But that is the past, and the past cannot be changed.  What matters is what happens now, and how that will affect the future.

Now, I have in this post, compared the Brazilians to Americans and to the Japanese.  But perhaps it is unfair to compare the Brazilians and their plight to Americans and the Japanese.  On average, Brazilians are much poorer than the Americans and Japanese, and less educated.  The technology that Brazil can bring to bear is less formidable than that which the US or Japan can use to attack a problem.  And then there is the respect factor.  Let’s be realistic – ask people in the Congo, or Mongolia, or Bulgaria whether they have more faith in Japan or Brazil a given outcome, which do you think they’d pick?  Heck, which do you think most Brazilians would pick?

Is any of that – differences in wealth, education, attainment, and even the perception of competence fair?  Obviously not.  After all, there are many extremely accomplished Brazilians.  But still, the differences, on average, between Brazil and the US and Japan have existed for longer than any of us are alive, and they continue to persist.  These differences – some real, some imagined, some deserved, some not – don’t change one simple fact.  For the most part, the state of Brazil today is due to the actions of the Brazilians of yesterday, and the state of Brazil tomorrow is being determined by the actions of the Brazilians alive today.  I hope they beat my expectations.