Friday, March 25, 2011

Feeling Green? Sometimes it’s best to keep it to yourself

It was a bit warmer than I expected at a friend’s apartment when I went over for dinner. I was genuinely shocked to discover why: Well, Brian is, you know, ecological, so we didn’t turn on the air conditioning because he might get upset.

I remember having had a brief conversation with this friend about biofuels, and at some point mentioning to him that DC put a tax on plastic bags, which I thought was a good idea. I know I’m generally not very shy about my opinions (I’m more reserved online than in person), but I certainly never gave him a lecture about his lifestyle.

I tried to find an elegant way of backing out of the situation. Look, I’d really be the last person to lecture anyone about environmental impact. I sit in an air conditioned office all day long (and quite enjoy it on hot summer days). I’ve spent ten years living outside the United States and flying back home to see relatives. So no, it would genuinely not be in the slightest bit upset me if you turned on the air. And I don’t walk into people’s homes and tell them what to do.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten this sort of reaction. I remember asking someone about buying furniture in Brazil and how to know if something hadn’t come from ill-gotten wood. That person not long after that told me he didn’t like talking to me about his consumption habits because they thought I’d give them a hard time.

My conclusion: very casually mentioning some basic interest in an environmentally-linked issue – recycling, energy conservation, public transit – can leave behind an indelible impression of having been judged. I work hard at not preaching at people no matter how strongly I feel about an issue because I know it makes them feel resentful and judged and leaves them wanting to talk to someone else. It’s very easy to slight a person with offhand comments about whether or not they eat meat, shop at certain stores, or get plastic bags a supermarket.

Or, the flip side of this, it’s easy to make people feel guilty for not knowing which companies they’re supposed to be boycotting for doing business in countries with governments that they aren’t supposed to be supporting. I did plenty of this as a teenager, until I learned not to, the slow and hard way: having people one after another tell me to piss off, or point out that I implicitly support all sorts of companies or governments or labor practices that somebody else might have a problem with.

I avoided those confrontations so much that I almost wanted to keep my interest in the environment and sustainability a secret. And I did, for a long time, channeling that interest into reading nerdy blogs, position papers and PDFs about alternative energy, Smart Grids, waste management, and second generation biofuels. It was a lot of fun (yes, I’m that boring). Fun for a while, until the isolation kicked in. Until it got to the point where sitting alone and letting this stuff churn through my head really was worse than being thought of as the guy who would get his environmental panties in a twist if someone turned on an air conditioner.

But I’ve come to realize something else in the process. A stray comment can really piss somebody off, but it can leave them genuinely thinking about something and in some cases even changing their behavior. Those are moments when I feel as if I had accidentally planted seeds and years later realized they had sprouted and grown.

Making people listen and think without pissing them off is a delicate balance I’ve never quite managed to pull off, and maybe never will. I may not be naturally good at it. I read up on nerdy stuff and then get in arguments about it, and people don’t always like that. So here I am, trying to be upfront about these things so that ultimately, hopefully, I can find communities in which discussing these issues doesn’t rub people the wrong way.

I’m still a reporter by profession, and have to be uber careful about what I say publicly, particularly when it relates to things that I cover. The growing list of reporters who have lost their jobs because of a stray tweet or a careless blog post is a constant reminder of this. I learned early on during my eight years in Venezuela to keep my head down and not get into any online shouting matches about Chavez or politics. It was the right thing and it saved me a lot of headaches. That’s yet another balancing act to strike in all this, but one I feel like I’m prepared for.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Blue Economy: Green 2.0

From organic food to ecologically certified products, every day the world finds a new way Go Green. The inherent contradiction of “green consumption” is drawing increasing criticism from skeptics, but few have offered as many concrete alternatives to mainstream greenness as the folks at the Blue Economy. Blue, it turns out, is the new Green. Or, as they put it, Green 2.0.

The basic idea has been around a long time: Don’t tweek the existing system by putting green labels on things or selling carbon offsets to compensate for burning oil. Rearrange the system so it turns waste into products and makes logical of natural resources. The book Cradle to Cradle elegantly summed up this manifesto with a broad look at how to reformulate construction, engineering, and design from the bottom up rather than retrofitting a wasteful system.

What I enjoy about the Blue Economy that I found lacking in Cradle to Cradle are the specific, concrete examples of how this is already happening. One projects takes low-value mixed-stream plastic and turns them into vegetable crates that can replace the wooden ones used in farmers’ markets – the latter are quaint and natural looking but they involve cutting down trees. Another describes a South African chicken farmer whose animal feed comes from beach seaweed, maggots grown at a slaughterhouse, fish too small for fisherman to sell and rotting bananas. Yet another involves using the leftover biomass from coffee in the cultivation of shitake mushrooms.

These are ideas that make sense to me. Natural systems are infinitely more efficient than human societies because they don’t have waste. Our own systems, particularly in the 20th century, helped us blur the distinction between something that doesn’t have value and something that doesn’t happen to have value right now, which resulted in an exponential multiplication of trash. There’s a tendency to stir up moral outrage about the piles of festering garbage sitting in eternally expanding landfills, releasing methane into the air and dripping toxic leachate into the groundwater. I think we need another way of looking at them – they’re a waste of money.

The Blue Economy website is worth glancing at. Its setup is a bit awkward with a required registration to see the content and the text often comes in a slightly clumsy translation from what appears to be German. I still recommend it for good ideas about how to turn traditional Green thinking on its head.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Would you recycle if you knew someone would do it for you?

This is currently a dilemma that faces quite a few people living in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a reality that’s about to change.

There’s always a psychological deterrent to cleaning up your own mess when you’ve got good reason to believe some will do so for you. Few people in Rio bother to separate their recyclables from their trash – they know that in the city’s principal landfill there are hundreds of people that make a living poking through garbage and selling the recyclable material they can salvage.

It’s a degrading lifestyle that compromises human health and calls into question the underpinnings of a society that would allow for it, as is so well summed up in Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz’s fabulous documentary Waste Land. After spending several weeks working on a photography project with a group of these collectors, most of them realize (not surprisingly) that they no longer want to work in a pile of trash.

In Rio, by the start of next year, none will. The Gramacho landfill in Duque de Caxias on the outskirts of Rio will close at the start of 2012. The new facility being developed to replace it will not allow people doing the sort of work Vik Muniz documented.

There are quite obvious human benefits to that decision, which will force people to seek a different and hopefully less denigrating form of work. The downside is obviously the environmental one – people accustomed to have their trash sorted out for them have little incentive to do so themselves. The city is promising to boost what is currently a limited curbside recycling program to reduce the amount of glass, aluminum and cardboard that gets buried in the new landfill. But actually getting people to do it will take some quite a bit of cajoling, especially for people who have gotten used to having an army of trash pickers to take care of it for them.

As Brazil gets wealthier, its sustainability dilemmas start to look more and more like those in the United States …

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Redemption in the City of God

City of God became famous when the movie by the same name in 2002 told the saga of a drug-ridden war-torn slum. Nine years later the community is not only pacified and slowly improving – it can now say it played host to world’s most powerful man. I was lucky to be there to see it.

The truth is that I, like most of the people standing around me, saw neither hide nor hare of Obama. His security-constrained, half-hour whirlwind jaunt through the community left him barely setting foot in the street apart from about one minute in which he stopped to wave. It was OK in my case because the White House press pool accompanied him into the gym where we went to play soccer with kids and watch demonstrations of capoiera.

But the feeling on the streets was truly inspiring for me. Hundreds of people gathered, pushing against the security cordon, crowding onto balconies, straining to take pictures from cell phones. And in the end it wasn’t as much the president himself as just the fact that he was there, getting a tour of a place that three years ago only made headlines with gunshots, body bags and drug gangs.

I stood next to one woman who was so happy she trembled and broke into nervous laughter. Not because she was so close to Obama, but just because it represented such a turn around from what everyone in Cidade de Deus had lived for so many years. The President of the United States here to visit US!!!

The experience gave me new respect for Rio’s program to pacify poor communities stricken with gang warfare. I’d grown a bit tired of the triumphalism surrounding it, particularly with the takeover of Complexo do Alemao in December that was so reliant on military might and for me some questions unanswered. Today helped me turn the page on those doubts.

I’m glad I got to almost see the Obama today, but even gladder I got to see the people for whom his visit was so inspiring.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Corporate and Chintzy? Yes ... but Rio Carnival is still fun

I still haven’t made up my mind about the social value of Rio’s flashy Carnival parades. At least this year I did, fortunately, manage to have a good time at them.

I’ve been critical of how Rio’s most famous festival has been transformed from street a celebration for all comers to a sponsorship-driven media-hyped marathon catering to jet-setting tourists and well-heeled Brazilians. I’m not alone in thinking this; it’s one of the most frequent comments I hear about the parades at the famous Sambadromo. The massive floats with tricked-out special effects, the legions of marchers with ornate costumes that range from eye-catching to kitschy, the massive production value and financial muscle that underlies the whole thing – it’s not a natural fit for me.

The difference this year was that I stood and watched it from inches away. And it really is pretty amazing.

The sheer size and scale of the Sambadrome was immediately overwhelming to me. Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who was responsible for many of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia, the facility is 700 meters of street turned into a parade venue with bleachers on either side. Upon its opening in 1984, it became the new venue for parades that were for decades held along the giant Avenida President Vargas in downtown Rio, marking the first step in Carnival’s evolution from a public event for everyone to today’s commercial affair.

Around midnight I jumped out of a taxi in the relatively desolate evirons around the Sambadrome, often referred to as Marques de Sapucai which is the name of the street where the parades are actually held. It took me a good 15 minutes to navigate the “backstage” areas, ducking between support staff, security types and tourists outfitted in garish costumes. Once I got in I found myself standing on the street level with a crowd of journalists, fans and assorted rubberneckers authorized to watch the spectacle from up close.

The Portela school started its parade with bang, and before I knew it I was inches away from a squad of marchers dressed in blue from head to toe with fish costumes that protruded a foot in front of them. The drums pounded, the crowd cheered, the music blared. I felt like a country kid in the big city for the first time, repressing an inner desire to say something like “Aw shucks, ma, ain’t this neat?” The crowd along the edge of the parade swelled for the following act, reigning champion Unidos da Tijuca, which had movie-themed parade replete with floats decked out in full Carnival regalia. A huge Avatar-themed float a practically life-sized pterodactyl at the top, another with dozens of Harry Potter-themed characters sitting around a huge dinner table that tilted back and forth at 45 degree angles, and yet another with Indiana Jones swinging from a rope to dodge a falling boulder.

Many of the paraders are tourists who pay top dollar to join the act. But seeing it up close helped reminded me that this was not all of them – kids, teens, grandmas and grandpas filled out the vast majority of the costumes used by the samba schools, which are located in poor neighborhoods of Rio that take great pride in their link to the festivals. Corny and overdone as the parades can be, they are still the pride and joy and millions of poor Brazilians who look forward to the event all year, and spend hours sweating through sweltering Rio summers to make the costumes and deck out the floats.

There is something undeniably commoditized about it. The songs by the 12 competing schools – 3-minute sambas sung over and over again for two straight hours – are nearly indistinguishable from one another. This in part because all are set to the fastest possible tempo push through the maximum number of marchers in the allotted time – a change some critics call yet another spillover effect of the Sambadrome. I often find the lyrics a milquetoast hodge-podge of ideas centered loosely arranged around the theme of the parade (though I openly profess my ignorance of the music), in contrast to the lyrical genius of Brazilian singers like Chico Buarque that can seamlessly weave love, longing and political protest into a single tune.

And a corporate logo is just about always in sight. This year a large screen at the start of the parade flashed ads for cell phone operator TIM, bank Bradesco and shampoo maker Pantene. The latter is probably not a coincidence, since one of the parades this year was centered around different the concept of hair – often a relevant issue in mix-raced society – with floats based on Rapunzel fairy tale and Medusa’s snake hair.

It’s easy to get turned off by this stuff. Many cariocas have, turning instead to increasingly popular street parties known as “blocos” that include a combination costumed revelers singing, traditional Carnival songs, marching through streets and, of course, drinking copiously.

But the Sambadrome’s pull is undeniably strong for millions, most notably those that will never have a chance to get as close as I did. They line up on bridge overpasses and climb into trees to stare between the bleachers for trace glimpses of action, anything to see it up close and live. They even crowd around the back parking lot where the floats and costumed paraders line up before the start of the show. No complaining, no socialist outrage about the VIP access for foreigners with deep pockets, no lamenting the old days when anyone could watch. Just a crowd of folks straining to catch a glimpse between the cracks.

Being another of the well-heeled foreigners with free reign to wander the festival reminded that this festival I had to admit, whether or not I’m crazy about every aspect of it, has its charm.