Brazil is known for land exploitation, urbane beach-life, slums, traffic jams and, recently, gang violence. In our columns “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,” 20 Sept 2004 and “Regional Rigor Mortis,” 6 June 2005 at we summarized the state of traffic congestion in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest urban agglomeration this way:

In the Brazilian New Urban Region of Sao Paulo:

The extremely rich travel by helicopter
Daredevils ride motorbikes
The very poor walk
The vast majority of the region’s 20-million citizens who attempt to travel in buses, jitneys or cars are stuck in traffic jams that stretch for 60 miles.

Now comes news of ironic twists with respect to energy and mobility that should concern those who are contemplating the future of transport in the Commonwealth.

Because Brazil is petrochemical-poor it has worked to achieve “energy independence” by generating ethanol from sugar cane. Warren Brown opens his WaPo “On Wheels” column (page G 1 28 May 2006) with a summary of why he found it hard to favorably review the Audi Q7, a $60,000 SUV that gets 19 mpg highway.

Brown has just been to Brazil and he witnessed the social and economic impact of managing a nation-state to make the rich more rich and achieve energy independence. He noted “the debilitating poverty of much of the Brazilian population, including families sleeping along roadsides on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.” His column is worth reading for the irony of his take on the “free” market.

There has been a lot of coverage recent in MainStream Media on the economic, environmental and social impacts of converting the Mid-West (and Virginia) into an ethanol factory. Brazil with lots of sun, water and cheap land has found a way to raise cane sufficient to fuel Autonomobiles for those who can afford them.

This form of energy independence is not a victory for sustainability.

The problem is the same one that makes throwing money at traffic congestion in Virginia a lose / lose proposition.

It is the human settlement pattern that generates huge private-vehicle travel demand, stupid!

Irony of irony’s. Also in WaPo today, the Metro section has an item on Roger and Victoria Sant donating $20 Million to the World Wildlife Fund for conservation. The Sant’s (who make their money from energy production–coal, nuke, hydro) are donating the money to help prevent Brazil from deforesting land. In general, that is a good thing for lots of reasons.

The irony is that the Sant’s money is going to keep the Brazilians from clearing land. What will they do on the deforested land? They will raise more sugar cane and become more energy independent. They can also raise soy beans and cattle and other products so those at the top of the economic food chain can pay for big cars like the Audi Q7 and cover the cost of helicopters.

One might tut-tut and suggest something more sustainable for Autonomobiles like hydrogen. As we will point out in future column the “hydrogen economy” and hydrogen to burn in Autonomobiles requires energy to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen does not grow on trees and cannot be pumped out of places where it has been stored for 2 or 3 billion years. It has to be produced with current, real-time energy.

Most of the energy consumed in the Untied States is used directly or indirectly for mobility and access and to heat and cool dysfunctionally located and designed buildings. Shifting to alternative energy sources means cutting down jungle to grow sugar cane, over fertilizing and dewatering the aquifers of Middle America to produce corn or putting up miles of wind farms.

Energy is not free and not without environmental impact.

Sustainability will depend on fewer people (See our post POPULATION AND SUSTAINABILITY of 25 May) and less energy consumption. That means Balanced Communities not alternative ways to produce energy that is wasted on dysfunctional settlement patterns.


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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “The American Enterprise” June 2006 has several articles on this issue. is the web site – I get the paper version.

    Deena Flinchum

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Hi, Ed, Good post. The prospect of Brazilians achieving “energy independence” at the expense of acelerating the clear cutting of the Amazonian rain forest is something that should chill us all.

    You made one comment that I found interesting because, after all the many years that you and I have been exchanging ideas, I don’t know what your logic is.

    You said: “Most of the energy consumed in the United States is used directly or indirectly for mobility and access and to heat and cool dysfunctionally located and designed buildings.”

    How can a dysfunctional location of a building — as opposed to its design — affect its heating and cooling costs?

    I would conjecture that housing units clustered in apartment/condominium configurations might present a smaller surface/volume area, thereby lessening the loss of heat. Is that what you’re referring to?

  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Glad you asked!

    Back in the 70s we (developer and energy consultant) got a grant from HUD or DOE to look at what an energy effecient layout for most of the Landings Neighborhood (1000 units as I recall) in Burke Center might look like.

    Building type, building orientation, building materials, etc.

    Burke Centre was already 13 persons per acre with 30% openspace so it was far better than most of what was being built and close to the 10 Person Rule for functional and sustainable settlement patterns.

    The design was quite conventional looking but we could not get a builder to build the plan.

    Also in the 70s we tried to work Modular Integrated Utility Systems (MIUS) into Alpha Cluster and Alpha Neighborhood designs in several Planned New Communities in Georgia, Texas, and the North East. I served on a HUD advisory committee, etc. With cheap energy, no builder wanted to bother.

    If we perish becasue as Jerad Diamond suggests we are unwilling to question traditional values and pratices, it will not be because someone was not thinking about solutions long ago.

    Many grasp that we waste most of the energy we consume on trying to achieve mobility and access in dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Many do not yet understand a lot of the rest of it is wasted in the settlement pattern, building types and practices.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    What are “Modular Integrated Utility Systems”?

  5. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    “Modular Integrated Utility Systems” convert the waste stream to heat and recyle gray water to cut btu / du by a large amount depending on the design. They are especially effective at 100 persons per acre at the cluster scale. (The sort of buildings you noted in your first post.)

    One detail I left out was that in fact the Burke Centre design (and MIUS applications) did in fact save a lot of energy. With energy now much more expensive they may be marketable soon. They would have been in 1978 if all the costs of location variable distribution of energy (especailly electricty) had been fairly allocated.

    Also I noted Burke Centre was 13 persons per acre. It is a village scale component. The 10 Persons per Acre Natural Law is at Alpha Community scale.


  6. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    What you say about helicopters, motorcycle daredevils, and the walking poor applies to Manassas as well as Brazil. Brazil’s propensity to make the rich very rich and the poor impoverished started long before there were automobiles or an energy crisis.

    But the those with energy will always be richer than those without. This weekend I had first hand instruction. My main tractor gave out and I had to switch to my smaller back-up tractor. It doesn’t provide enough power to run my round baler, so I had to switch to square bales. It also does not have enough power to operate the bale thrower, so I had to drop the bales on the ground and pick them up by hand later. Instead of putting 16 tons of hay in the barn using fossil energy, I put four tons in the barn using my energy.

    That kind of energy expenditure is not sustainable.

    Muscle and bone can only take so much, but the short term choice was to lose everything I had cut, and I would still need to get the useless hay off the field anyway.

    Energy is not free and it has environmental consequences, but not using energy is not free either, in my example the cost was equal to the value of twelve tons of hay.

    You promote an idealized society that is highly organized, and organization requires energy to sustain. The larger and more complex an organization is, the more conversations are required to keep everyone abreast of everyone else’s thinking and concerns. The more conversations, the more meetings, and in order to meet, we generally travel, hence more energy.

    Twenty million people is a lot of conversations and a lot of travel. No settlement pattern can change that.

    The most sustainable energy source we have is the sun, and even the sun is burning nonrenewable fossil fuel. Becoming permanently non-sustainable is a question of when, not if.

    But if the short term alternative is voluntarily being more poor, doing without autos, or picking up tons of hay bales by hand, then I don’t see too many people signing. That kind of living can only lead to more poverty, disease, hardship, worn out joints, and exposure. People will kill before they submit to that.

    Sustainability (at least for the time being) requires fewer people. Since no one is going to sign up to be the one fewer, I think we will follow business as usual until we bring that result on ourselves through some catastrophe or another. The only alternative is that we voluntarily bring it on ourselves anyway, and probably sooner.

    Fewer people is going to mean more space per person, and a greater likeliehood that they will be able to get by on energy of the solar flux they enjoy. But as long as other energy is available, we will still be richer if we use that, too. In other words, back to business as usual until solar flux is all we economically have left. So it is back to a question of when, not if.

    Why then, do you promote highy organized and densely populated existences which take far more energy to run and can only be still more highly reliant on the open spaces around them? Isn’t the reason that millions of people are flocking to Sao Paulo is that they are not being adequately compensated for staying where they were? Isn’t it because the city makes (some) people wealthy by sucking the countryside dry? Preventing people from clearing land can only result in still more people in Sao Paulo, and even bigger traffic jams.

    We don’t have 60 mile traffic jams yet, but we don’t have 20 million people yet either. And preventing people from developing land is exactly what is happening here, too. Sao Paulo, here we come.

    As you point out, it is the poor people who walk. I don’t like cars, either, and a $60,000 roling luxury saloon, that gets 16 mpg is just gross, but hey, it’s not my call. For all I know, when The Catastrophe comes, he may be the one to “get out of town” in one piece. In the end he may be no better off, but at least he’ll have a comfortable ride, in the meantime.

    The alternative is that you can be one of the walking poor. Fewer cars necessarily means more poor people. More poor people means more dead people. More dead people means fewer people and a more sustainable society where each can enjoy (and depend on) more space.

    So, where do cities go when they evacuate? When did you ever hear of a massive traffic jam from people trying to evacuate the countryside? (Actually there is such a thing at the end of the prime leaf peeping weekend, but then, why are they leaf peeping in the first place?)

    I don’t get it. Your plan for more highly organized and denser cities, combined with your apparent distaste for SUV’s sound like a guaranteed way to get to the fewer people you say sustainability requires. Is that really the plan?

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Today I surveyed my fields littered with hundreds and hundreds of hay bales I needed to pick up, it occurred to me, on Memorial day, how much they looked like so many dead soldiers.

    Suddenly the prospect of several hours in the hot sun picking up tons of hay bales made me feel like the luckiest person on earth.

    Thanks, to all who have worn the uniform.

  8. Scott Avatar

    Ethanol is a stopgap, not a real solution.

    Passenger rail is important, as is solar energy.

    There are things that the Commonwealth can do TODAY to be more sustainable.

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Ethanol and hydrogen are portable and storable, whereas solar energy is not. On the other hand you could use solar power to make ethanol or hydrogen. I think it is important to use what works best where it works best.

    In that regard, passenger rail is pretty much a dead end. There are a few places where it works, and every place else we should forget about it. Conditions might eventually change a little, but passenger rail will never make a substantial impact in our travel needs again.

  10. Scott Avatar

    Solar energy can easily be stored with fuel cells, just as it is today with regular batteries.

    You are very much wrong about passenger rail also. Look at what China is doing.

    This country is falling behind due to naysayer attitudes like yours.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I forgot about fuel cells. I stand corrected. However, fuel cells are still an emerging technology, economically speaking, as are H2 and ethanol.

    China has a lot more places where passenger rail works, and even then, it is highly subsidized in the many places it does not work. Suggesting that we live like the mass of Chinese is what I call falling behind.

    We had fast and comfortable rail transport at one time and we mostly abandoned it for good reason. I like the train and regularly use it, but I am also a realist: rail is *mostly* gone and *mostly* not coming back, unless we abandon the idea that people should pay their full locational costs.

    If I had to pay the full cost of my train rides, I would not ride, and neither would anyone else. Likewise if the train had to depend only on the fare box revenue, it could not operate.

    Only the most densely travelled corridors can even marginally support rail service: it is always heavily subsidized, and even then it only supports the travel needs of a few percent of the residents.

    It is a dead end. I believe any other conclusion is delusional.

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