To my friends and family who are unfamiliar with my town, I’ve often described it by asking them to picture the US in the pre-interstate highway era. It’d take about twice as long to drive to Seattle as it does to reach two of the largest three wilderness areas in the contiguous United States. And they are practically adjacent. But for the University nearby to keep things shaken up, it’s a fairly sleepy place. Moose have been known to wander through town often enough to delight or shock newcomers. My wife even ran into a wolf while watching owls in our favorite stand of white pine. Like I said, it’s a bit out of the way. Even so, issues of energy consumption are consistently at my doorstep.

I live a scenic distance from an inland seaport; the seaport that has over the past months been used to import enormous modules of tarsands extraction equipment. The loads are trucked overnight in order to close the long winding stretches of two-lane highway to make way for these “megaloads.”

The Lochsa River somewhere near the Idaho-Montana border. Click through for image credit.

The region through which they transport this machinery is among the wildest in the US. There are very few  places left where grizzlies, wolves and other predators can live, anthropophobic such as they are. That they are able live here in the Rockies is a testament to the still-healthy ecosystems—around here there are some places that are as close to unsullied as it gets: places that are the least effected by the destructive habits of capitalism. That is until you get to the extraction sites north of Edmonton, Alberta. It brings to mind historic feats of planning and industry, and then tosses them aside like broken toys.

Bill McKibben, in his newest book “Eaarth” says that the return on energy investment for tar sand is 5:1. I just read that the guy that developed this concept, Charles Hall, says that it’s probably more like between 2:1 and 4:1. Meaning that for every one unit of energy put into the exploration of tar sand, only two to five are earned back. Pre-peak oil had a return of something like 27:1, In the early oil-boom years it was more like 100:1. That is to say, the oil companies are paying a premium to continue as a growth industry, to keep it’s own industry alive. Hall says, when an organism or system in nature reaches a 1:1 ratio, it dies.

Alberta Tar Sands extraction site. Click image to see more images by Peter Essick and the accompanying story. For scale, the trucks are the largest ever built. Click through for image credit.

Typically I write, not about wild lands and oil exploration, but about favelas, mostly Rocinha, the one I’m most familiar with. So what does this have to do with favelas? The modern era as we know it exists because of cheap energy. The favelas in Rio, and all over the world, are loaded with the formerly rural, and by now their descendants, who were unemployed and displaced because of the mechanization of agriculture and the growth of global food trade. The “Green Revolution” introduced agricultural production such that energy required for production came less expensively through petroleum than by people.

However, the closer EROI for petroleum comes to 1:1, the less true that will be. Cheap energy displaced workers, hastening urbanization and creating urban housing vacuums filled by informal development. Ironically, or perhaps as a manifestation of some funny karma, one of the hallmarks of informal development has been appropriating energy.

While in Rocinha, I undertook to understand how energy is used. My research objective was to identify habits and tendencies of informal development that might be used as positive models for formal development especially regarding environmental sustainability. I was aware that the average favela home is quite likely to use energy in quantities much lower than I am used to seeing in the US if for no other reason than its relatively limited access to public utilities. That, and in my experience the vast majority of homes in Brazil at large are much smaller and simpler. I am a product of the Reagan era when consumerism, including home size and demand for consumer electronics, went off like a roman candle. Toward my adulthood, consumerism had finally become a source of much commentary and revulsion. But it still shows no signs of slowing–even after the housing and financial crisis that appear so evidently to be caused by hyperconsumption. But it must slow, and the “developed” world must look to more humble, more sensible circumstances for a model if the trend is to change.

That is why I set out to find lessons from the Sambinha Architecture of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. While there, with the help of my friend Márcia, we canvassed four of Rocinha’s sub-neighborhoods to record two numbers for households that we thought might provide us with a snapshot of how much energy is used per household. We asked local residents of Laboriaux, Rua Um, Vila Verde, and Cachopa to count the number of electronic appliances and light bulbs they had currently in their home.

Rocinha’s sub-bairros. Areas of study are highlighted. Click image for higher resolution.

In Caxopa, which is connected to the formal electical utility, reportedly residents make more careful use of the electicity in their home.

I was quite prepared for the numbers of each, appliances and light bulbs, to be as low as they were, and they provided significant context for the households in my own neighborhood. Of course anyone familiar with the ever augmenting American standard of living can imagine that any given bathroom in a US home could have the same number of both appliances and light bulbs as any given home in Rocinha. Even my little apartment has 11 lightbulbs and 19 electronic appliances (if I’m including power tools), and I’m a ridiculous lower-quartile outlier in my own neighborhood.

I discovered something unexpected though, too. Márcia took my survey a step further and asked for numbers of incandescent versus compact florescent bulbs in use. She explained to me that homes in sub-neighborhoods which had been connected to the formal grid use fewer incandescent bulbs and more compact fluorescents. She only specified Cachopa, as fitting in that category in this study set. Conversly she told me that in the Rua Um and Vila Verde sub-neighborhoods, people don’t worry as much about electricity because they don’t pay for it, which might explain why these residents use more incandecent bulbs than compact flourecents. Obviously that’s an imperfect theory since, while in Cachopa there are certainly fewer incandecent bulbs in use, there are also more bulbs total, and more total electronics as well. However another observation she made was that people in Cachopa are much more careful to unplug appliances when they are not in use, while in those in Vila Verde and Rua Um tend to leave electronics not only plugged in but running while not in use.

In the global economy the standard tends to be that the most developed locations are the most desirable. We often hear in the US comments of pity for other countries that lack our modern ammenities. Our world is comprised of the next flashiest labor saving or leisure producing device. In her book “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need” sociologist Juliet Schor tracks how over the past few decades American culture is tripping over itself to keep up with the next wealthier income bracket. The world scale seems to be following that track and even Cachopa seems to be, albeit on a much smaller scale. But if we are to reverse the trend of outstripping natural resources and realeasing GHGs and filling the oceans with plastic, we must begin to use frugality and contentment as our model rather than material advancement and consumption.

Márcia chatting with a thrift store owner on Rua Três, Rocinha.

In Rua Um, Vila Verde, and Laboriaux, acording to Márcia, electric energy is treated with flippancy because it is cheap. American culture does this but on an exponentially more damaging scale. Our cars are huge, our homes are balooning, our cities are spreading over wild and agricultural land. Currently, the “BRIC” countries are tripping over themselves to catch up to the US in terms of GDP and trade volume. And the US refuses to give up any ground. This pattern has been the downfall of international climate negotiations even while all the best science warns otherwise.

So far, cheap energy has created a race for the economic top, meanwhile marginalizing those at the economic “bottom.” This trend cannot hold out. The New York Times reports that the US has begun to increase GHG emissions after a two year lull. That lull came because the economy had slowed. People bought less stuff, average home size began finally to drop (there’s even a market for tiny homes) after decades of ridiculous expansion. Meanwhile everyone’s waiting for the slowdown to end, for everything to go back to normal.

The essence of Sambinha Arquitecture is making do with less, creating and thriving in the face of scarcity. American culture must–if there is any hope of leading the world out of the crisis of larger, better, more–begin to take cues from the rest of the world. If we were to ask Charles Hall, he would say we need to take cues from the biophysical world for models of health and sustainability. The selfsame world being overun by tarsands exploration in my neck of the woods. If you were to ask me, I’d say we need to begin taking lessons from those who have been chased out by the cheap energy economy, people like moradores in Rocinha, for example.

One thought on “Sambinha Architecture, Biophysics, and Cheap Energy

  1. If you get a chance, watch the film 5 x Favela, agora por nós mesmos. One of the five vignettes is about what happens when the lights go off on Christmas Eve. I tried to find it on YouTube with English subtitles for you, but no luck. Also, by the way, the rural to urban migration may have taken place just as much because of the pull of jobs in the cities as the push of change in agriculture. Probably more…

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