Published On: January 26, 2012

Change Isn’t Easy

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By B. Michael Rubin

Is Brazil ready for the 21st century? Big changes are coming from every direction – from the country’s first female president, to Brazil becoming one of the world’s largest oil exporters with a woman as the president of Petrobras.

The economy grew by nearly 3% in 2011, which was less than 2010, but still ahead of many other countries. Thanks to a growing economy and the influx of foreign investment sparked by the coming World Cup and Olympics, the real estate market is booming in Brazil. A quick glance at the current skyline of Curitiba reveals construction cranes dotting the horizon. With office towers building heliports on their roofs, Curitiba is beginning to look like São Paulo.

Curitiba -- the dawning of a new economy

 Is Brazil ready for change? Many people are slow to change, holding on to old habits, which have been passed down for generations, like family recipes. Nevertheless, not all habits are old, for example, some people create habits for the modern age, like parking illegally.

The older a custom is, the more generations it’s been handed down, the more difficult it becomes to abandon. The persistence of old habits is particularly prevalent among cultures with a tightly-knit family structure, such as Brazil and the other developing countries. The less money a country or a family has, the more likely they are held together by family support.

It’s easy to blame old habits and superstition on ignorance or a lack of education, but that’s not quite accurate. There are plenty of educated and intelligent people who are superstitious or adopt ideas for no logical reason. The fact is – all people have trouble with change.

It’s in the nature of human beings to find a pattern of behavior they enjoy and then stay with it. This explains why we all eat the same foods our mothers prepared for us. In science there is a term for this repetition of behavioral patterns: it’s called “stasis.”

All cultures follow this pattern of repetition, handing down ideas and customs from one generation to the next. The repetition might be a recipe for feijoada, or it could be advice on how to avoid being eaten by a lion. That’s why there are tribes of native Indians living in the Amazon jungle who are eating the same foods and using the same tools they did 10,000 years ago. And why many of these tribes do not have written languages. If they never needed to write before, why would they need to now, as their daily lives are no different today than in the distant past.

The principle of stasis applies not only to human customs and daily habits, but also to the plant and animal kingdom as well. Once an animal finds a habitat where it can exist with sufficient food and water and minimal predators, it will remain in that environment. By the laws of nature, it will stay where it has the greatest likelihood to thrive.

Thus, to maintain the same habits and customs – eating the same foods and watching the soap opera each night after the news – is normal. What’s abnormal and difficult is to change one’s habits. And it doesn’t matter how many friends or doctors tell you to change, it’s much easier not to. There are cases of people who are dying from lung cancer and continue to smoke.

The biggest problem with refusing to change one’s life is the world is always changing. If there is one lesson we can learn from history, it’s that everything changes. Therefore, to refuse to alter our habits means we are ignoring the world around us. If we are overweight and have high blood pressure, is it wise to ignore the doctor’s advice to change our diet?

Rua das Flores

A good example of stasis in Curitiba occurred when the concept of Rua das Flores was first proposed. Back in 1972, the shop owners who had stores along this street protested against the idea. They said without a street or cars, no one would patronize them and the stores would go out of business. Instead, the visionary mayor at the time, Jaime Lerner, went ahead with the project against the protests of the shop owners, and today we know that Mr. Lerner was correct and the owners were wrong. Rua das Flores became the first outdoor shopping mall of its kind in Brazil and today is still a model for all of Latin America. The lack of cars there has increased the pedestrian traffic and the revenues of the stores.

The most highly adaptable people in a society are able to alter their habits without even realizing they are doing it because they naturally bend to the changes around them. For example, my wife, who is a Curitibana, is often asked by other Brazilians where she learned to speak Portuguese. She has been speaking English long enough that she now speaks her native Portuguese with an American accent. She has adapted to her new linguistic environment without even realizing it.

Some psychologists believe that the more education people have, the more easily they adapt to change. There may be some truth to this, but I’ve met university-educated people who had some very old-fashioned ideas. I’ve also met uneducated people who are very adaptable. For example, there is a maid who works in my building, Josi, who recently lost her home and her belongings in a fire. When she returned home from work one afternoon, everything was gone – all her clothes, furniture, family photos. The fire had started in her neighbor’s house and spread to hers. When I saw her a few days later and asked how she was doing, she gave me the same dimpled smile she always has and said she was fine. She and her husband and son are living with her mother-in-law, and she is grateful no one was hurt in the fire. She didn’t have insurance and certainly doesn’t have the money to replace all her lost possessions, but her vitality is strong. Josi is flexible. Thanks to the support of her community, she is adapting to a difficult change.

It’s possible to argue that poor people need to be more adaptable. Certainly they have a greater motivation to change their lives in the hopes of improving their situations. However, the desire to change and improve one’s life can also occur among people who are rich. Some men accumulate wealth and use it to open their own businesses to fulfill a life-long dream. Wealthy women take classes or volunteer their time to help others.

Yearning for more than one has is not restricted to poor people. Having a plan of action to reach the new horizons of the 21st century will require everyone to have new ideas, new habits, new ways of thinking, and most of all – the courage to change.

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

[All photos are from Curitiba by the author.]

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  1. Bruce says:

    I wonder who will be the next Jaime Lerner of Curitiba? Or more importantly, now that this name is known, who will break the “Lerner stasis”?

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