Sleepy Tree Hugger

Day 19: Friday, January 24th


We experienced our first class with Shirota today. It was awful.

Just kidding! I wasn’t sure what the class would be like – or how many beers would be promised for correct answers – but I was right in predicting that it would be a lot more engaging than our last classes. I had to fight the urge to sleep only once, and that was due to my lack of sleep, not the class itself. We talked about environmental issues, like Amazon deforestation and Piracicaba River pollution, which made a lot of people in the class happy (especially after the disappointing end of our last class.)

Early on, Shirota asked, “Nina, I have a hectare of Amazon rainforest. I can preserve it or cut it. What should I do?” Of course, the real answer depends on a lot of things, but I decided to give Shirota the answer he wanted. I said, “Preserve it.” Shirota shook his head and explained that tree huggers act through feelings, but it is better to act through thinking. The right answer would be, “It depends.” During our discussion, Shirota admitted that in an ideal world we should save the entire Amazon, but we can’t and won’t.

I understand Shirota’s position because of course, everything depends. If cutting that hectare of rainforest would save my mother’s life, I would do it in a moment.

Shirota’s description of tree huggers reminded me of a different debate in which environmentalists tend to use their hearts instead of their heads: nuclear energy. Given climate change and the current state of renewable fuels, I think we should give nuclear a chance, but lots of people (who Shirota would probably call tree huggers) refuse to think about the issue rationally.

With that in mind, I am happy to discuss Amazon deforestation. Obviously deforestation is going to happen, and we should work on policy and education which results in as much forest being saved as possible. If half of the pristine Amazon is saved forever, as Shirota suggested at Rabobank, I would be very happy because I think that’s truthfully an optimistic goal. My only disagreement with Shirota’s attitude is one I brought up in class: shifting baseline, the idea that each generation sees the current state of nature as close to the original, and accepts that conserving half of what is left is sufficient. Obviously, over several generations, the shifting baseline process results in nearly no conservation at all.

If, by cutting down half the Amazon Rainforest today, we were able to guarantee that the other half would be saved forever – well, I might agree to it. But the fact is, if we cut down half today, the people of the next generation will want to cut down half of what remains during their lifetimes too, and on and on. For this reason, I support the effort to preserve everything that is left. From a global and historical perspective, there isn’t much pristine nature left already.

After class, Shirota gave his feedback on our project proposals. His advice: “You can do whichever one you want.” We decided to work on Amazon deforestation, since all our ideas, including cattle and immigration, can be included within it. We will have to talk as a group to decide what the scope of our presentation will be. I hope we have time to work on it during the long trip!

We got out of class early so we would be ready for our homestay families to pick us up at 7:00pm. Debora and a friend took me straight to a barbeque in a frat house. We had beef and crusty rolls, and I had fun practicing Portuguese and English with all the guests. I was so dead tired that I started to nod off at the party, and someone offered me a bed which I gladly accepted. I slept for a solid three hours before Debora took me home and tucked me into my real bed. I was sorry I had fallen asleep during the party, but Debora understood, and I felt much better after the nap. I hope I catch up on a lot of sleep this weekend!

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