Two things have captured, and held, my attention the past few months: the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s drought in Amazonia. The oil spill is a direct result of human recklessness, greed and loss of control over our own actions. The Amazon drought is quite conceivably an indirect result of the same behavior even if it does appear the more natural of the two disasters. It is truly sad that a hundred years of greed and growth have put our planet on a crash course with environmental self-annihilation. But allowing our greatest technologies to falter and result in huge environmental accidents of our own making is simply unacceptable. Ï can’t seem to shake the cry of, what were they thinking, from my mind!
Not surprisingly oil is also an issue in the scorched Amazon, and scorched now not by forest fires but by global warming caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels, resultant climate change and a simple lack of rain. The drought of 2010 was the worst ever recorded in the Brazilian Amazon.
Only 25% of the electricity produced in Brazil’s Amazonas state for its 4 million person population comes from hydroelectricity in the form of the Balbina Hydroelectric dam 100 kilometers or so north of the capital city of Manaus. The rest comes from a collection of different sized generators fueled by petroleum transported from the Brazilian south. Despite a its own refinery, gasoline in Manaus still costs about 15% more than anywhere else in the country. Electricity in the north costs 30% more than any other region in Brazil.
In 2010 the 700km Urucu-Manaus gas pipeline was finally completed and it is claimed this will provide the region with another 25% of its energy. Natural gas may be the cleanest of the traditional fossil fuels available on our planet, but that’s as far as the good news goes. Natural gas is still a non-renewable source of energy and its commercial use results in unacceptable amounts of carbon released into our atmosphere. As such we still remain as dependent as ever on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and the accompanying ever-rising prices.
The Amazon is blessed with excessive amounts of strong, direct sunlight and clean, running water. This has resulted in the greatest abundance of green plant life on the planet. In the recent past Brazil has developed simple technologies that result in a clean and potentially abundant form of energy. Ethanol is a biodiesel produced from sugar cane. Yet Brazil, like the United States, cannot shake its lust for oil and other fossil fuels, and seems as obsessed as ever with the prospect of becoming the “united states” of South America. When we have just witnessed the largest oil spill in history, in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil is patting itself on the back after discovering deep, deep undersea oil deposits that may make it the fifth largest oil producer in the world.
There are numerous indications that the future of the planet is being decided in emergent countries such as China, India and Brazil. And in Brazil it should come as no surprise that the epicenter of activity is once again Amazonia. Yet if the Amazon- with its enormous organic and mineral wealth- cannot provide for its own energy needs what hope is there for any other part of the world? If Brazil should fail in its efforts towards sustainability in the Amazon this would only provide fodder for the conservative forces of big oil and big government that threaten us all.
A huge opportunity exists in Brazil for the country to become the world’s first truly green superpower. And thankfully this ascension need not take the form of us versus them, north versus south, developed versus developing, the US versus Brazil. No, in fact an opportunity exists to show others how things might be done correctly for once. What might soon become a struggle within Brazil between the forces of Green (biodiesel, say) and Black (petroleum) could very well determine the path other countries might take towards sustainability and energy self-sufficiency. Rather than exploiting its finite black resources and following the tried old path already tread by so many other countries, Brazil has the option of tapping its infinite green resources, saving the Amazon directly, the polar ice caps indirectly, and providing blueprints for a worldwide economic and energy revolution?
Brazil could become the green energy superpower of the future. The current superpowers already depend on distant, expensive and non-renewable sources for their energy. The consumerist-driven obsession with oil in the USA has blinded its leaders to the fact that the country is being held hostage by the Saudi Arabian oil sheiks. At the slightest provocation, real or otherwise, America is willing to “unleash hell” to secure its national interests regardless of detrimental, long-term consequences. And when the Saudi oil runs out- and it will sooner rather than later- where will the United States turn to for their energy? What future wars will be fought over the last barrels of crude in distant and, in most cases, violence-prone or ecologically-important regions?
In Brazil the Petrobras company has, in only 30 years, made the country just about self-sufficient in oil and natural gas, and its recently tapped deep-sea (“pre-sal”) oil deposits off the southern coasts will turn the country into at least the world’s 5th largest oil producer and a net exporter. Economically, if not necessarily environmentally, things in Brazil, as opposed to the USA, are looking very, very good in the short run these days.
But just as supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas will run out elsewhere these same fossil fuels will also run out in Brazil. What form will the necessary transition from non-renewable energy sources to renewable ones take? In the medium run Brazil will also do well, it seems. The reason for this is, literally, “blowing in the wind”, and “flowing in the water”. Brazil’s vast interior contains more free-flowing freshwater than anywhere else on earth. The largest river in the world by volume, the Amazon, runs through the center of the country and spills unchecked (how much water is that each day?) into the Atlantic Ocean at the city of Belem. Twelve massive tributaries longer than 1000 kilometers each are found entirely, from mountain headwaters to gaping river mouths, within Brazil’s borders. Hydroelectric potential is obviously enormous. As well Brazil’s coastline stretches 12,000 kilometers from French Guiana to Argentina. Powerful trade winds swath endless, paradisiacal beaches, all potential sites for 21st century wind-farms like those found today in California (USA) and Holland (EUR).
But the real gem in Brazil’s energy treasure chest is that which will assure Brazil of superpower status in the long run. That gem is green. That gem is the Amazon rainforest. If Brazil can make the transition sooner rather than later from non-renewable to renewable energy sources (and preserve its massive rainforest from what is has already destroyed Indonesian and African rainforests) then the groundwork will be laid for a truly green revolution of a kind never before seen, let alone imagined, on our planet. Heaven help anyone not on friendly terms with the perpetually friendly Brazilians.
In concluding we would do well, yet again, to consider if not heed the lessons of history.
As a young man the German engineer Rudolph Diesel was appalled at the inefficiency of the steam-powered engines of his time. His revolutionary “diesel” engine won the grand prize at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. But incredible as it may seem his “compression-ignition” engine was not powered by oil or gas. Today’s diesel fuel has nothing to do with Rudolf Diesel; his engine was powered by peanut oil.
And who does this all bring to mind but the popular (and still unfairly derided) ex-President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer who in the 1970’s was the last US president to systematically reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil significantly (25%) by facing up to the Middle Eastern monopoly and encourage conservation, mandate lower speed limits and develop more fuel efficient vehicles instead.
In the end you have to wonder why, with all our technological know-how and regrettable sense of godliness, we are unable to implement the changes necessary to save our planet from…ourselves?
*Who killed Rudolph Diesel? Patent fees from his bio-fuel engines (seed-oil and, especially, hemp) made him a millionaire but a pariah to the emerging American lumber and petroleum empires. Diesel died under mysterious circumstances in 1913, vanishing during an overnight crossing of the English Channel on the mail steamer Dresden from Antwerp to Harwich. His death might have been suicide, an accident or even assassination. His commercial opponents included, amongst others, the Dupont family and William Randolph Hearst…powerful men with a lot to lose from alternative energy sources. Sound familiar?