Published On: June 9, 2016

Our Troubled World

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One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak. – Gloria Steinham


The world is undergoing a rapid transformation, and maybe nowhere is this more evident than in Brazil. For the first time, the middle class is the largest class, bringing with it decreased family size. It’s the first generation where the majority of women are working outside the home, and half the country’s college graduates are female. An educated, politically aware populace is eager for change in a country with mandatory voting. Some experts are calling it a social revolution. (See CIE article “Brazilians are Angry”)

Of course, much of the stimulation that is effecting change is not unique to Brazil. The three largest forces on the planet — Mother Nature (climate change), Moore’s law (the doubling of capacity in technology), and market globalization — are all in simultaneous, rapid acceleration.

Brazil is doing its best to keep up with the changes, considering the necessarily smaller financial resources of a developing country. With regards to one of the critical areas, climate change as it relates to biodiversity, there have been some significant improvements over the past decade, but there is still much to be done to protect the Amazon rainforest and surrounding areas from deforestation.


Amazon rainforest

Sadly, Brazil’s worst drought in 80 years appears to be related to its deforestation. A single fully grown tree releases 1,000 liters of water vapor a day into the atmosphere. Therefore, the entire Amazon rainforest sends up 20 billion metric tons of water vapor a day. With deforestation, there is less water vapor, which translates into less clouds and thus less rain.

When we add the lack of rainfall to the increasing demand for energy in Brazil’s largest cities, Rio and São Paulo, the result is not only a lack of water but a lack of energy. Brazil generates about 75 percent of its energy from hydroelectric sources.

Environmentalists in Brazil are doing everything possible to focus the attention of the government and populace on the severity of the problem. Simple solutions to biodiversity destruction, like stopping illegal deforestation or the replanting of trees, have thus far proven unfeasible. With 3 trillion trees alive today on Earth (more than 400 trees for every human), some people do not see the tragedy of losing a few more.

Amazon deforestation

Amazon deforestation

The hope is that by raising the awareness of the population, pressure can be applied on the federal government in Brasília to allocate more funds for biodiversity protection. However, the congress has other issues on its mind these days, as it is embroiled in a “perfect storm” of major corruption scandals, high unemployment and inflation, and an economy in recession.

An additional problem in Brazil’s congress is the legislature fails to reflect Brazil’s population, with just 13 percent of elected positions being held by women and only 3 percent being held by black politicians. (Black and mixed-race people constitute at least half of the country).

The federal congress is filled with white men, an alarming number of whom are alleged criminals. As of last month, 141 deputies (almost 30 percent of the lower house) and 31 senators (almost 40 percent of the upper house) were being investigated for crimes, including corruption, money laundering, electoral fraud, and incitement to rape, according to the watchdog group Congresso em Foco.

Eduardo Cunha, under investigation

Eduardo Cunha, under investigation

Luckily, thanks in part to the more educated and politically active population, the light of justice is shining on previously darkened arenas, such as untouchable oligarchs like the CEO of Odebrecht, the largest construction company in Latin America. In 2014, Brazil’s prison population surpassed half a million, ranking it fourth in the world in total incarceration. Unfortunately, forty percent of those in prison haven’t been convicted and are simply awaiting their trials because of an antiquated and clogged criminal justice system.

Brazil faces unique challenges today as a developing country in the midst of a crushing recession. Meanwhile the US, with the world’s largest economy and far greater economic resources, has its own problems. Specifically, the US is experiencing an epidemic of suicides. A startling report on the subject was issued on Monday, November 2, by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case. (Last month, Dr. Deaton won the Nobel Prize for Economics.)

Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, Drs. Deaton and Case concluded that rising annual death rates among middle-aged white Americans are being driven not by the usual big killers like heart disease and diabetes, but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse, such as alcoholic liver disease, and overdoses of heroin and prescription opiates.

Angus Deaton, Princeton professor

Angus Deaton, Princeton professor

Suicide rates in the US rose overall 7 percent in metropolitan counties from 2004 to 2013, while in rural counties, the increase was 20 percent. The state of Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average. In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah, all states where isolation is common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, with a population of 1,000 people, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks. Suicide is often “contagious” in small towns, particularly among teenagers.

Dr. Deaton states that only one epidemic in modern time has been this severe, and that was the AIDS epidemic. As economists, Deaton and Case are not experts in psychology and cannot draw any conclusions as to the cause of the epidemic. In a recent interview, Dr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged American whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.”

Certainly, easy access to guns plays a role in the increase in deaths, as does the shifting employment picture in the US. Millions of American men who worked in manufacturing have lost their jobs in the past decades because factories have closed and moved overseas in search of cheaper labor. Economic setbacks have hit white American males the hardest because they expected better. These are men who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and they are coping badly with its failure to come true.


Another major factor in the suicide increase, psychologists believe, is the easy access to powerful prescription medications like Vicodin and Dilaudid, opiate-derived pain killers. Not only are these medications extremely powerful and therefore lethal if taken in large quantities, but they are highly addictive.

Like the prevention of global climate change, there is no easy solution to suicide prevention. Certainly, access to therapists and other health care professionals trained in suicide prevention helps. In this regard, rural areas in the US are severely lacking. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that 55 percent of counties in the United States (all of them rural) do not have a single psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker.

Celebrity drug overdoses and suicides often appear in the news, such as actors Spalding Gray, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Williams. In analyzing the dramatic rise in middle-aged suicides, psychologists point out that this generation, known demographically in the US as Baby Boomers, has a higher rate of depression than other generations.

Philip Seymour Hoffman wins the Oscar, March 2006

Philip Seymour Hoffman wins the Oscar, March 2006

Some theories hold that Baby Boomers grew up during a time of social revolution in the US. Included among the characteristics of that revolution were the accessibility of drugs, as well as a heightened desire for social justice, including gender and racial equality. The “flower power” sentiments of the hippies created in Baby Boomers a strong communitarian vision of the world, leading many to “drop out” and leave their urban and suburban upbringings to create utopian rural lifestyles known as communes. However, most communes from the 1960s and 1970s failed.

As one psychologist noted: “Aging involves adapting our hopes and dreams to reality. Learning to compromise our dreams is a natural part of getting older, but it has been a particularly difficult journey for the Woodstock generation. When they were young, many of their hopes for social change were coming true right before their eyes, like ending the Vietnam War and forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon. However, in all countries and all centuries, social revolutions are the exception, not the rule, and no matter how successful they are, they do not continue forever.”

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil.

[Research for this article comes from the CarbonBrief website and The New York Times.]

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