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.
” 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. ”
Sounds a lot like the NYC I left in 1980. When I first came to Chicago I thought the streets lacked any sign of human habitation; no litter — looked like they belonged on some kid’s electric train set. :-0
Being more or less totally ignorant about Brazil, I made a few quick searches. The poverty is surely related to the too-fast population growth.
I verified a suspicion about that growth rate – Brazil remains 64% Catholic. The 64% represents a decline, and that’s a good thing because contraception has become available and the birth rate is beginning to ease off. Abortion is still almost totally unavailable though. Hopefully Brazilian government will show more sense than Indiana regarding the Zika virus. Our blessed governor – and Republican VP candidate – has signed a law which hardly anybody seems to know about.
Brazil is still a little worse than Pence’s “Misissippi North” in that the Church is part of the punishment. Recall the 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather and was carrying twins. The Brazilian doctors who performed the abortion were excommunicated. That’s True Christianity, folks, and the devout swine who did it were quite proud of themselves.
I think Brazil joins a growing list of nations I have no desire at all to visit.
Not obvious the move from Catholicism an improvement. Much of that has been conversion to Protestant evangelical Christianity, now nearly a quarter of the population, who are no more progressive on things like contraception or abortion, and far less progressive on other social, economic, and political issues.
To Barkley Rosser
Your point is a good one. US Catholics have finally figured things out, and ignore the more stupid teachings of the Vatican. It’s entirely possible the same evolution is happening in Brazil, and it’s the new Protestants who are retarding things.
“When I first came to Chicago I thought the streets lacked any sign of human habitation; no litter … ”
As a native Chicagoan, and a volunteer docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, I must confess that you are too kind in implying that Chicagoans are less piggish than New Yorkers. Most of the credit for our relatively clean streets should be ascribed to the alleys that Chicago has and which Manhattan lacks; garbage cans and their spillover are in the alleys and not out on the public streets.
Ah. The alleys. Yes. As a native Chicagoan–born there, grew up there–I remember how surprised I was that other cities don’t have them. And of course the postwar suburbs wouldn’t be caught dead having them, but culturally, people just keep their garbage in their cars and throw it out when they get home.
Chicago is a very well-laid-out city. And one thing that always, always worked like clockwork there was garbage pickup. There also were, back as far as I can remember, street waste baskets every few blocks.
My Chicago upbringing (and my parents) left me with an obsessive disgust of littering. I don’t understand why cities, large and small, don’t have waste containers every few blocks. And I don’t understand why people just toss things onto the ground instead of waiting until they get home or wherever they’re going to throw these things away.
Just dog poop.
Litter was a grade school project. The city even put metal baskets out on street corners to collect litter. We had to create slogans for it and Chicago adopted one of them (forget which).
New York City also had a problem with people stealing the trash containers. They’d dump the trash and run off with the wire “basket”, presumably to sell for salvage. The city even went so far as to replace all the trash containers with sturdy, heavy concrete containers, not all that unlike the anti-tank defenses that now dot Romania. They even purchased special collection trucks that could heft things and empty them.
Then the crime wave broke some time in the 90s, and the city moved back to more conventional containers.
No different than Bangkock or Manila.
Yet the converse exists in Singapore where even leaving gum on the sidewalk is a crime. It is a very clean city of course.
I haven’t been to Manila or Bangkok but I can imagine that the trash situation is similar. However, I would be extremely surprised if you could find more than a few square blocks of NYC or Chicago, at any point in my lifetime, that looks anywhere as garbagey as large stretches of Rio. Or as crime ridden. An American who has not been to parts of what used to be called the third world would have a hard time conceiving of how messed up some of these places actually are.
Zachary Smith & Barkley Rosser,
Catholicism in Brazil does not entirely resemble the American version. When I was a kid, there were an awful lot of people who go to mass regularly but who also believe in Macumba whose roots parallel Santeria. It seems less prevalent today, but it hasn’t gone away.
I sometimes work there along with Seoul, Pitsanlok, Beijing, Jakarta, Tiajing, etc. I go where ever I am sent. Some of these places are pretty bad. If I drop 500 baht in a donation can, it is a big deal for the recipient for one week. Might be $10 for me. It will feed a family. Kids play in the garbage or search through it.
Sound like Haiti
Poverty in the US is definitely not poverty in Brazil. I have a few cats that started life on the street in Brazil.
As to Haiti… I almost wrote “whose roots parallel Santeria or Voodoo” but then figured that Voodoo has a certain connotation here in the US that might distract from the point. So you are correct. Haiti came to mind.
Was not comparing to the US and that is a ploy many conservatives use to down grade poverty in the US. “Ohhh, it is not so bad here.”
Here is a story which may be relevant to the ‘clean town’ issue.
I would just point out that before 1965 and Lady Bird Johnson’s various Keep America Beautiful initiatives dumping your trash out of your car window was not only not a crime but fully accepted behavior by most folks. People who were a little more fastidious waited until they came to a bridge over a river. Because back then open dumping of urban trash in the ocean and of pouring untreated sewage and chemical wastes into rivers (to the point that rivers like the Cayahoga in Cleveland routinely caught on fire) was SOP.
$500 fines for littering the highways worked. America after the Clean Air and Clean Water Act were amazingly different than America before. And very little of that was due to fricking neo-lib ideas of “incentivizing” behavior via whatever. Instead it was all command and control regulation, “thou shalt not – or else”.
I am sure that kids these days have no idea that there was any reality to the meme of people ‘catching’ a boot while fishing, in fact I doubt any cartoonist has used that particular theme/meme in years. But that was the reality for those of us over 55 today.
Maybe it wasn’t Brazil, but it damn sure wasn’t America the Beautiful either.
Maybe there’s an issue with respect for authority and minor laws. There are, after all, laws against littering in Brazil but Brazilians are less concerned about following the letter of the law relative to Americans as Americans are about following the letter of the law relative to the Japanese.
“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.”
This still would bug me to no end. Even growing up as an 80s child in good old Reagan’s America, “pack it in, pack it out” was drilled into me at a young age. My parents dutifully separated the recycling and taught us to do the same. I will never understand the Brazilian attitude to garbage.