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Speak Softly and Carry a Big Environment

May 4, 2005

Several Sundays ago, I went to the beach by myself. It turned into a

landmark day. Totally routine—3 hours’ reading in a solitary folding

chair, drinking guaraná, the national soft drink derived from a

berry native to Amazonia, gazing out occasionally at the islands off

Ipanema—until I decamped. Knapsacking my book (nothing worth a foray

to Amazon.com), leaving the chair to be retrieved by the guy who’d

rented it to me, I insouciantly threw the empty guaraná cans on

the sand as I walked into the sunset.

It had taken nearly three years for my environmental consciousness to

ascend to this level.

Why that long I now wonder.

Disclosure: after growing up in Northern California, and having been a

link in human chains for Greenpeace, the Abalone Alliance, the

Clamshell Alliance, and other pro-earth organizations, I have become a

card-carrying neo-born-again anti-environmentalist. Not that I’m

against the environment—of all human follies, our destruction of the

host organism has got to be about the stupidest. I’ve just run out of

enthusiasm for environmentalism. This change came about quickly once

I became a resident of the struggling world, a vantage point from

which I noticed—belatedly—something odd about the people raising the

hue and cry for the environment. Nearly all of them live and thrive

in the affluent regions that steadily gobble up 12 to 15 times their

equitable share of the world’s resources every day, month, and year,

and are responsible for the preponderance of the world’s waste. With

environmentalists like these, does a poor planet have a hope? No. In

which case, why not admit to ourselves that we care profoundly about

the environment, just not enough to give up our privileges and sense

of entitlement. That stride taken, we might focus our efforts on the

immediate sufferings of people. Particularly people outside the

present enviro-bloc, Anglo-America and the EU, where all that

hyperconsuming is rationalized as necessary to keep the global

economic engine from seizing up.

My thinking took a while to get to this unkind conclusion, and getting

there had everything to do with living in Brazil.

One of my first friends here in Rio used to torment me by tossing

whatever he no longer saw as useful—candy wrappers, ticket stubs,

juice cartons, the plastic sleeve for a new VCR—on whatever ground he

then occupied. He enjoyed my horror—couldn’t parse it, but saw it

shocked me in some way that was to him ineffable; my gringo brain just

couldn’t absorb the fact that people I knew, people I liked, would

litter. To him, this outrage was hilarious. Finally, when he

littered flagrantly in the presence of his four-year-old son, I asked

once the boy was safely home with his mother, “Is that the example you

want to set?”

“Yes, that’s exactly the example. If we didn’t throw our trash, the

people the city pays to come at night and sweep it up would be out of

jobs.”

A perverse logic, okay. But no more contorted than the economy in

which it is operating. The two aluminum cans I left on the beach

three years later were no doubt collected before I was back on the

pavement, by one of a platoon of scavengers who eke out a subsistence

by selling trash at the ferro velho—the scrap yard, a kind of

Dickensian concern I doubt exists anymore in the affluent world, where

lots gets recycled, but little gets reused. Of course those

beachcombers could just about as easily dig the cans out of the orange

bins staked along the beach. But why should they have to be exposed

to the vermin and infection or—as my friend pointed out when I offered

that argument—the indignity such rooting entails? For all I knew, he

had been so employed himself.

We’re not indifferent to the impact of litter. As we see it, we just

have more immediate concerns.

Happily, in regard to this shortcoming as in regard to so many others,

we have help from outside.

And that’s a big part of the problem. Environmentalism has been

introduced to Latin America largely by the same people who brought

down the Monroe Doctrine, gunboat diplomacy, the Alliance for

Progress, the Cuban embargo, Ollie North’s mullah-funded freedom

fighters, IMF austerity programs, the Washington Consensus, and Dan

Quayle’s still-resounding “Wish I’d Learned More Latin” speech.

There are always determined Northerners showing up with carpetbags

chock full of bitter pills.

The same week I made my great stride at Ipanema beach, a wonderful

example came my way. I received an urgent petition by email:

Brazilian congress is on the verge of legislating the development of

50% of Amazon. There may even have been an exclamation point. It was

signed by, among others, a brilliant professor of life sciences at a

prestigious British university, who was its indirect route to me, and

a whole roster of other academics. I was curious, so I right away

emailed a query to the petition’s originator. Unsurprisingly, my email

bounced back—sender non-existent. And as the immediate-to-me sender

soon acknowledged in reply to my obnoxious retort (“think we’re all

idiots down here?”), it was “a hoax.” Odd hoax. My guess is that it

was some kind of way to collect email addresses for spammage, but who

knows. More interesting than any ill intent is the heartfelt appeal’s

premise: Brazilians are hellbent on the destruction of the Amazon, so

alarmed enviros have good reason to believe just about any outlandish

nonsense.

Not wholly unfair. The question of environmentalism in Brazil brings

back a throwaway scene in Citizen Kane: the charismatic magnate

is holding an impromptu photo-op. As he disembarks from a

transatlantic liner, a reporter hollers, “How did you find business

conditions in Europe, Mr Kane?”

“With great difficulty.”

Saving the environment is uppermost in few minds down here.

First, there’s not even a word for it in Portuguese—the

environment is the “meio-ambiente,” a phrase close to

surrounding midst, milieu or medium, all rolled together. Semantic

shortages being as they may, the average person here does live in the

middle—and at the mercy—of the damn thing. It climbs right in the

kitchen window, snatches the last guava off the counter, and hops out.

It swings in trees and yowls at night. It swoops down and eats

chicks and ducklings left unattended. And this is in the middle of

any city. Early this year I tried without success to rent an

apartment in the most densely-populated part of town, Copacabana. Its

main rooms opened onto a morro, one of those rounded

Yosemite-like stone hill-o-liths that make Rio the most breathtaking

urban place in the world. The view of sloping basalt, not 30 yards

away, was draped with bromeliads, and monkeys regularly scampered

across. My first day of work in São Paulo two years ago, I glanced

out my office window after a flash of color; it was a toucan, an

actual Froot-Loops bird, alighted right there in a tree. Nearly

anywhere in Brazil, even in the world’s second-most populous metro

area, one takes this presence of nature for granted, just the way one

takes for granted seagulls in Far Rockaway or Audi A6s in Marin.

The ubiquity of nature—a phenomenon easy to confuse with the

environment when it’s harassing you while you hang the wash—explains

an indifference here as would have in much of the US four generations

ago. But the need for environmentalism may have taken longer

to catch on here not just because this is a developing country but

because development itself took hold here very late. The physical

country, like 19th-Century America, remains an infinite landscape, a

continent. Seemingly inexhaustible. The idea of nature is

inextricable from the place. Artifacts of this link chiefly to the

strong presence of non-European cultures. Brazil’s day-to-day

existence derives much, in food and other aspects of material culture

from the Indians and their connection to place. The orixás,

the gods of macumba, Afro-Brazilian spiritism, construed as

“divinized forces of nature,” assert themselves constantly, especially

in the music that is itself pervasive (samba, for one example,

originates in the dance to summon spirits who mediate for the

orixás). São Paulo is the largest Japanese city located

outside Japan, and the region’s agriculture and horticulture have

benefited from this profoundly over the past century.

So, all this suffusion with environment, but so little concern?

The country’s slow emergence into development was not just economic

retardation. Portuguese colonialism was about the extraction of

resources for the purpose of creating wealth elsewhere. The crown not

only did nothing to encourage development here, it did a great deal to

discourage, even prohibit it. (Newspapers were banned in Brazil for

the first 300 years of colonization, until the king took up roost in

Rio to flee Napoleon. No hospital was built until 1840; no university

until much later yet.) By the time industrialization arrived, Brazil

was nearly four centuries old, and well over a century behind the

competition. Still resource rich, but held back by its own founders.

And in an understandably big hurry to catch up.

The only questions were how, and how fast?

World Wars, sandwiching worldwide Depression, slowed things down.

Then, by the time it was finally Brazil’s turn, it wasn’t Brazil’s

turn. Oh, no, the Amazon is sacred to all humanity, didn’t you guys

hear? Just like the Mississippi Valley mighta been, except we already

exterminated and deported its inhabitants and turned the place into an

outlet mall.

Okay, I am not giving due credit to serious environmentalists, inside

as well as outside Brazil. How, in the context of such a history,

could serious environmentalism get much purchase?

Being heedless but not unmindful of the environment is very Brazilian.

Last year I spent a few months up the coast in Vitória, metro-area

pop 3 million. I put up in the middle of the old, decaying downtown,

at the foot of a densely forested mountain that was home to three

araras, huge green-blue-yellow parrots. Every afternoon, they

would swoop out from their tree, crag, ledge wherever araras roost,

and come down to eat palm fruits and make a proprietary circuit of the

town. My life-list is short, but I’ve seen the festooned glide of the

resplendent quetzal, and passed through the Jurassic shadow of the

Andean condor. These Brazilian birds inspire no less awe. When they

screech, everyone would look up, sees the awesome swift movement of

the national colors and the long trailing tail, and stand transfixed,

mouth agape. Lifelong residents of Vitória don’t get inured to the

spectacle. When I learned that these three araras are the

three remaining on the island the city occupies, I remarked with some

anguish to the friend who shared that information—just as the trio had

passed over us in a park—how this must mean they’d be the last

last, that while there were doubtless other araras in other

places, we were seeing the end of the endemic line. It was clear this

prospect had not occurred to him. We talked extinctions, with which

he was plenty familiar, and the notion of critical mass, with which he

was not. Seeing how much he was affected, I regretted having said

anything.

One of my favorite couples has a farm outside São Paulo. It’s a

family farm to which the generations have added their embellishments,

culminating in a spectacular 18-going-on-36-hole course that’s a

favorite with Bill Clinton and other dubious celebs. Yet nothing

that’s been done to spruce up the place has been allowed to interfere

with its serving as home to a herd of 80-100 capybaras. This is not

because they’re legally protected (they were protected by the family

before federal protection was brought to bear); not because they are

droll and picturesque, and when they dive into the river transform

from the world’s largest rodent into a mini-hippo, just eyes and

nostrils above an otherwise undisturbed surface; it’s because they are

part of the place. They dig stuff up, shit everywhere, make a mess,

and can be a nuisance in numerous ways. That’s immaterial. They’re

there. It’s taken for granted they’re staying. An element of the

landscape, an article of faith.

Given the other contradictions embodied in Brazil—birthplace of

fruit-as-millinery and of fute-volei, a logic-defying sport

game played with a volleyball net, a soccer ball, and all body parts

but the hands—it is no surprise that the distinct mindsets vivified by

the araras and the capybaras coexist.

They coexist, however, across the society much more than within the

individuals who compose it. The environmentalists are a minority.

College students. The affluent and moderately affluent. Probably a

demo approximate to what one would have isolated as

“environmentalists” in the US as Ike was leaving office. People who

had read Rachel Carson and had heard of Jacques Cousteau. My

sampling on the environment question, like that on all questions, is

crude, but crudely representative of the population: 7-10% rich

people, 36-40% upper-middle- and middle-class people, the majority

working-class to destitute. The majority look at environmentalism as

a luxury good much like the others heedlessly consumed in front of

them by the characters on the novellas. Out of their reach,

for another class of people, and worked into the plot so as to trigger

the masses’ longing for whatever the sponsors sell. Environmentalism

is about as in-reach an ambition as a fully-loaded Accord.

A broader majority, inclusive of many in the middle class, who may in

fact drive the Accord—second-hand, patched vinyl interior—see

“environment” simply as a place they’ve never been. And are unlikely

to go. Among the couple dozen people I know who’ve made an excursion

to the Amazon (per person/dbl occupancy, inside cabin, US$4K and up,

and that is not Abercrombie & Fitch), only two are Brazilians.

More than the price is prohibitive: Manaus, the usual start- or

end-point for an Amazon package, lies as distant from São Paulo and

Rio as the Arctic Circle does from Manhattan. The unfamiliarity of

Brazilians here in the built-up southeast with their country’s great

wilderness tract is as unnoteworthy as a Nevadan’s ignorance of

Alaska.

Which wilderness state is a good focal point for comparative

environmentalisms. Just as Alaskans evince suspicion, even paranoia,

with regard to the intentions of outsiders in general,

environmentalists in particular (that lower-48-wide conspiracy to

thwart the opulent indolence that is Alaska’s destiny), Brazilians

come up with some great stuff when the topic is the Amazon. I have

been told more than once, by educated Brazilians, that the United

States owns a bigger-than-Massachusetts (scale mine, though the parcel

is always said to be a rectangle, this apparently being a particularly

sinister shape) bio-techno-petro-ranch in the Amazon basin, covertly

acquired during the reign of the military dictatorship (the one here,

I ask, or the one in Crawford?—could make a big difference in the

mortgage rate). The intent of this clandestine land-grab/swindle

varies: staging area for ultimate takeover of Latin America (bit late,

really), mining (not an easy activity to conduct in secret on a

profitable scale), and my personal fave, isolation of all those fabled

Amazon medicines that will hold up the specter of eternal life before

our Anglo-Saxon descendants (this cutting insidiously into Brazil’s

area of tech dominance, cosmetic surgery)—before the Brazilians can

take time out from polishing the World Cup to secure the patents.

As paranoid fantasies go, more fun than some bitter, cuckolded

presidential-hopeful senator’s vast right-wing conspiracy. It could

make a second sequel to The Boys from Brazil. Larry Olivier

brought off mothballs to play the CEO of Pfizer; carnivalesque. And

more diverting yet if you see the credentials of some people who buy

into it.

Why do they?

One reason—the big reason—is that for Brazilians as for most of the

world, The Amazon is more myth than reality.

As already noted, “the environment” means, for the vast majority here,

either the Amazon or places that look a lot like it, but less

menacingly vegetated. Moreover, this limited view seems to be held by

a vocal faction outside Brazil, who regard that region, and Brazil’s

apparently lamentable stewardship of it, with anxiety. That

e-petition I got courtesy of all those European professors is just one

of myriad instances I confront, and have to explain, of how foreign

environmentalists are even more myopic about Brazil’s environments

than the indifferent natives. After I researched, per my slovenly

methodology, the bogus e-petition, a well-wired Guernica

associate tracked it down for me. The appeal apparently originated in

2000, when the Brazilian congress did briefly contemplate legislation

easing the limitation on development of private real estate in

Amazonia to 50% of an owner’s rainforest acreage, rolling back from

20%. How an email floats around the internet for 5 years mystifies;

the web is a scary place. Cyberflukes aside, the “explanation” posted

at snopes.com provides a streaky window on the Amazon problem:

There is indeed “only one Brazilian rainforest” — in the

Amazon, an area twice as large as the country of France and the home

to about half of all the plant and animal species in the world. The

Amazon was relatively untouched until the 1970s….

Erroneous, like so much “information” posted on the internet, but so

what? I grab hold of this reference for two reasons. First, it’s

typical of grand pronouncements about Latin America by those who in

most cases have never been here—based on stuff the writer thinks he

knows only because he’s heard it so many times. Second

because, anti-environmentalist as I’ve become, I still believe

environmentalism loses its ground, becoming mere sentimentalism about

“nature,” when it shows disregard for the facts. The facts being:

•Brazil contains multiple rainforests, not just one. The mata

Atlântica—the coastal rainforest, a long way from the

Amazon—greeted the first Portuguese as a curtain of hardwoods

stretching uninterrupted from São Paulo to Bahia. Much of it is now

gone. Much of it is now still standing, some within sight of my desk.

Indeed, more of the square-meterage within the city limits of Rio de

Janeiro is still occupied by this magnificent rainforest than by

asphalt, concrete, and sandy beach combined. In all the states where

it stands, the mata Atlântica is protected.

•The percentage of the number of plant and animal species found in

the Amazon is, whatever its absolute numerical value, significant.

Given that science concedes that it has catalogued but a fraction of

the species in the Amazon, and done only slightly better outside, what

“half” means is up for grabs. The citation of contrived figures

undercuts an environmentalist argument, which ought to be inherently

scientific.

•And the substantively vague part: that all-purpose disclaimer

“relatively.” Something is relatively this or that relative to

something else. Relative to itself later on? To the world’s other

massive rainforest basins at the time? Whichever the writer thinks he

means, the rape of the Amazon was well underway by the late 19th

Century, let alone by the 1970s. It was only a century later, in

those 1970s, that those pesky Brazilians got significantly into

the act.

And that timing is a major sticking point. Maybe it’s this latest

chapter our environmentalist friends object to? Local

participation? This is what people here believe, in large numbers,

and with compelling reasons.

For the record: there was, back in the 1880s and 1890s this thing

called a rubber boom. It made the papers. It’s what put Argentina on

the skids and put a lot of Europe’s and North America’s

great-grandparents on the road. The French, Belgians, English and

Americans, the Goodriches, Goodyears, Firestones, Michelins, and

Continental Tyres of the fin de siècle had a good run up the

Amazon. And while they were in there, relatively untouching the

place, the action largely left out the home team (except the Indians

enslaved, dismembered, and killed—see Roger Casement’s unflinching

reports to Her Majesty’s government—who, while a major beneficiary of

this pillage tut-tutted dutifully in response). Eventually, the

Europeans stole young rubber trees and in one of the early feats of

industrial espionage moved the whole smelly business off to where they

had other natives really under the boot heel, in Southeast

Asia. Brazilian rubber collapsed. (As has, thanks to the Europeans’

knack for neo-colonialism in places like Kenya, Indonesia, and until

recently the WTO, Brazilian coffee and Brazilian sugar.)

So tires came from elsewhere, and the auto industry kept cranking. As

it exploded, Brazilians were again left overwhelmingly out of the oil

exploration in the Amazon to mid-20th Century, when one of the

country’s one visionary dictator set out to nationalize the game.

The point being not that snopes.com’s provision of sincere, though

misleading, online info is insidious agitprop. It’s the more reckless

kind of prop: well-intentioned off-the-cuff ignorance. Of which

environmentalism seldom suffers a drought. Too often its ignorance

has been lavished on the developing nations whose environments the

well-intentioned see it as their manifest destiny to save.

Latin America, as outlined, has particular reason to greet this with

its characteristic polite reserve. Its history of

soliciting/taking/accepting/having imposed on it guidance from the

other hemisphere is spotty at best. After enduring the battery of

insults and indignities and cynical “assistance programs” only

partially listed, and still producing great dance records, is a

country like Brazil being unreasonable to say, “Why would we want to

listen to you people? We’ve heard it all before.”

Of course, Brazilians—the ruling class by connivance, the mass by

acquiescence—let that hemispheric inequity, and the attendant pillage,

go on a long time. The basic issue in Brazil, then and now, is—before

social equity, education, health care, the arts, etc., and

environment—development.

Just as with the example of America’s own Amazon, the Fiftieth State.

Imagine what would have been the attitude of the US, back when Alaska

was admitted (much more recent than we might think—Jackie and Sister

were already plotting to redecorate the White House), had the

advanced, industrialized, educated, European and Europeanized

world—decided for us that we were too benighted to know what to do

with this huge pristine wilderness, and had to be led by the hand.

(OK, we were, we ought to have been, but that’s another tirade for

another pile of HTML.) Such guidance, paternally offered to a country

in which the suggestion that a neighbor’s above-ground septic system

is a bit funky will be followed quickly by a discharge of firearms,

would not sit well. On top, factor in the source: a cluster of

privileged nations that have, in their epic rapaciousness, laid waste

to their own natural patrimony. Eradicated their continent’s

indigenous species except sewer rat, felled its primary forests to

build fleets of war and commercial takeover (said fleets more often

than not burned or sunk by the builders’ neighbors, leaving the

builders nought but deforestation), and fouled the waters so rankly

that an industry of potable ferments and spirits arose only because

every other liquid in reach was more toxic than alcohol. Would it be

entirely ill-mannered of the nation on the receiving end of this

cartel’s advice to say, “we’ll get back to you on that”?

Just like environmentally-minded Alaskans, many Brazilians who

do think about environmental issues, and who don’t incline

toward crackpot conspiracy theories, politely wonder why it is that so

relatively few Amazon-crazed Americans exhibit any interest in

restoring the wonders of the high-grass prairie (ever see pictures of

that? me neither—our great-great-great grandparents eradicated it

before Matthew Brady could get there to preserve an image of that

ocean of 8-foot grasses, unique in all the world, just teaming with

them plant and animal species). Or in merely preserving the rare,

surviving botanical complexes of the canyons increasingly cluttered

with the incongruous architectures of Bel Air. It’s a fair thing to

wonder, be your position Alaska or Brazil.

Yet these same sincere first-world zealots, in hordes, exhibit a

frantic anxiety about the far-flung reaches of the Amazon, which has

in the world’s media-life become less a place than a slogan (and, with

dubious irony, a web outfit charged with converting trees into the

latest retread by Nicholas Sparks and glosses on The DaVinci

Code). Could it be this crusade is appealing because….it’s just

simply easier than tackling a problem on your own watch? It’s a

hobby? That’s what I try to reassure my friends. That there is no

real malevolence at work.

But the Brazilians I hear from don’t altogether buy that. The pattern

is too clear. “Environment” is just another guise for the obsession

the Europeans and English-speaking world-wide have with telling others

what’s good for them. Religion once worked, but then crapped out;

anti-Communism worked so well that it became obsolete; military force

went out of style, except as applied in the regions where people

practice indefensible religions and cruelly force women to wear

unrevealing get-ups; the economic experiments carried out down here

over 30 years have all crashed and burned. Happily, “Environment”

still packs a wallop when the object is keeping our little brown

brothers in line. Best thing about it is that the spokesmodels are

all these hip, super-intense, inarticulate kids with rings in their

noses and stuff. No ugly, shriveled Bill Buckley types need besmirch

our screens.

Yo, Diego, wanna come on MTV and do a non-speaking to help me shoulder

White Man’s Burden, oof, yup, got it on straight? OK, which one’s

Camera 2, let’s roll tape.

The actual environment championed is as remote from its

overexposed First World champions as the River Amazon is from me and

my neighbors—it’s an ideal having all the tangible immediacy that a

landmine had for Princess Diana. (The last boom you hear may not be a

claymore.) All that’s left to do is convert the veinous contour of

the river system into some kind of leaf-logo. The Amazon as universal

rallying cry and pure symbol.

Beautiful, really. A cabal of corporate PACs and anti-environmental

lobbyists, if they had the organizational skills and the brains, could

hardly put together a better scheme to thwart the aims of the

responsible ecologically-minded forces in this part of the world.

So, until environmental regard for the larger world matures in the

First World, it may be a good thing that the majority of Brazilians do

not much ponder the environment-as-such. To be honest, which is no

more my policy than to be fair, it’s a good thing we’ve got those

earnest white teens and MTVers with piercings and dredlocks to chant

environmental mantras. Just the way it did in the industrialized

world, environmentalism can probably make inroads here fastest as a

fashion thing. Remember the ‘70s—macramé, granola, posters of

breaching whales? They’re alive and well in certain enclaves in

Brazil.

I think back fondly to that era, and its wide-eyed enthusiasm, every

time I’m walking home late and encounter a squad of

orange-reflecto-suited workers rhythmically push-pulling their brooms.

A wistful, nostalgic bossa nova to ready the place for another

day of our dutiful petty consuming.

After 10 years as a literary agent in film and television, Jess Taylor

went into voluntary exile in 2002. He lives in Rio de Janeiro.

To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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