Last Friday evening I pulled into a bar to watch the opening ceremonies of 2016 Rio Olympics. Although viewership was down from the London Olympics four years prior, it is estimated that some 30 million people across the country watched. Although much of the entertainment took the form of a great big party, the underlying theme was bringing attention to the environment. To that end, each athlete received a seed and a cartridge to plant a native tree of Brazil. As explained by the Rio Olympics website, “The towers which moments ago symbolized urban claustrophobia will house the seeds, which will grow into the Athletes’ Forest in the area of Deodoro. This will be Rio 2016’s legacy.” Seeds of Hope” they were called.
Rhett Butler founder of Mongabay.com, wrote “since 1978 over 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana.” Now to Brazil’s credit, the destruction of its rainforests peaked in 2004 and since then, “annual forest loss for Brazil, that contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon’s forest cover has declined by roughly eighty percent. The drop has been fueled by a number of factors, including increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, pressure from environmentalists, private and public sector initiatives, new protected areas, and macroeconomic trends.” Butler went on to say, the other countries have not copied Brazil and continue destroying rain forests at their previous dizzying rates.
Like most people concerned about our environment and fully cognizant of the importance the Amazon rain forests play in our lives, I at first wanted to applaud this display of environmental theater. Then I thought to myself, the “seeds of hope” idea might go far in creating a warm and fuzzy feeling with viewers. But wouldn’t a much more effective environmental message be for the world to watch each of the athletes deposit condoms (it could be a condom with the picture of a tree on one side and the Rio Olympics logo on the other) around not towers but models of large phallic symbols!!
Although that might offend the sensibilities and raise umbrage amongst many of the viewing audience, I can all but guarantee, there is a much better chance of seeing a forest grow in the Deodoro area with an active family planning program in place than without one. Don’t believe me, well let’s pull back the veneer and see what is really going on just outside the stadiums, sports complexes, and villages erected for these Olympic games.
Brazil, and in particular the city of Rio de Janeiro, is a place where the population has outstripped the ability of the infrastructure to support it. For instance, Guanabara Bay, the place where athletes will be competing in events such as sailing, rowing, and canoeing has been experiencing dangerously high levels of viruses “that can cause stomach, respiratory illness, as well as heart and brain inflammation.” In some cases levels for adenovirus were some 2.5 billion times higher than what can be considered in most industrialized countries safe to drink. According to ABC, close to 51 percent of the sewage flowing into the bay is untreated.
Brad Brooks, Chief Correspondent for Reuters in Rio de Janeiro reported that “A lot of attention has been paid to Rio’s water pollution, but far more people die because of air pollution than the water.” For the past several years Rio’s air pollution has consistently been two to three times above what the World Health Organization considers safe.
Environmental issues are not the only problems plaguing the Rio Olympics. Another issue is one of morality. The question one must ask, is it moral for a city with 20% of its 6.5 million in habitants living in abject poverty in which some 800,000 families go homeless each night, to host something as extravagant as the Olympics?
Scholars, clergy and civic leaders may be pondering that for years. However, the verdict from the economists seems to be already in. And the games will be a bust and perhaps and even bigger bust than the World Cup hosted by Rio two years ago.
It is a theme that has become all too common, too many people and too few resources. Although this might very well be the unofficial theme of the Rio Olympics, it’s a theme not limited to third world and developing countries. Fully developed/industrialized countries can experience it as well. I can’t help but feel many Americans fail to see that “we are not exceptional.” Much like the people of Rio de Janeiro, our population is fast outstripping the ability of our infrastructure to support it.
As I write this, the city of Los Angeles, California is one of three finalists competing to host the Olympic games in 2024. Many of star struck civic leaders are on fire to resurrect the glory days of 1984 when Los Angeles not only hosted the games, but made a profit doing it.
But this is not 1984. Although our air and water pollution is nothing like that of Rio, it, along with many of our other key infrastructure aren’t looking good.
The population of Los Angeles recently went over 4 million and the surrounding metro area boasts a population of 13.1 million. There are some big problems accompanying this surge in population, and it is getting harder and harder to paper them over.
In Los Angeles, the reality of failing infrastructure asserts itself in many ways and often to the embarrassment of its public officials and annoyance of its citizens. A common site last year was water main breaks. In one instance it was estimated over 20 million gallons went rushing down the streets of a neighborhood near UCLA – and this during a terrible drought.
Some 700,000 feet of the City’s water pipe is over 100 years old. So it is prone to breaking. The average age of all the City’s water pipes is 58 years. It is the policy of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to replace the pipes only when they break as only limited funding exists for proactive maintenance. Under the current budget, the City can replace its pipes only once every 400 years.
The LADWP also manages 3,655 miles of electric power transmission lines. That represents 27% of the entire California grid. Due to new laws requiring increased renewable energy utilization, elimination of ocean cooling of plants, and elimination of dirty sources of electricity such as coal, the LADWP will need to replace 72% of its power system in the next 30 years. This is at a time when much like the water, the LADWP can barely keep the current system up and running. For instance, with the current budget, existing power poles can be replaced every 147 years and cable every 159 years.
This doesn’t take into account the decommissioning of San Onofre, a nuclear power plant located between Los Angeles and San Diego. Currently, Los Angeles receives 10% of its power from San Onofre.
Now if that doesn’t sound bad enough, there is more. According to the New York Times, Los Angeles is battling a class-action lawsuit from advocates of disabled people because of broken sidewalks that are impossible to navigate by wheelchair. BY WHEELCHAIR, some of them are barely navigable by healthy millennials.
Now, if you are like most commuters in Los Angeles and you spend lots of time in your car you know how bad the roads are. It was estimated that the average car owner spends $832 a year for repairs related to bad roads. That is the highest in the nation.
The New York Times article went on to say it is estimated it would cost $3.6 billion to fix the worst roads, $1.5 billion to repair the sidewalks and $3 billion to replace aging water pipes. Now, I don’t see that leaving a whole heck of a lot to host an Olympics with. Do you?
Clearly, Los Angeles is doing little more than treading water when it comes to infrastructure. But add to this mix that the population of Los Angeles County is projected to grow 27% by 2060! This explains that while Angelenos are some of the most energy efficient people per capita in the country, the aggregate demand for energy keeps going up and up and up.
Moreover, the poverty rate for Los Angeles County is 18.7% compared to statewide rate of 16.4%. And median household incomes are falling along with other key indicators such as education levels. To paraphrase Dean Vernon Wormer from the 1978 movie, Animal House, poor and stupid is no way to march off into a sustainable future.
And much like Rio, Los Angeles has it share of homelessness. According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year and approximately 82,000 people are homeless on any given night. And these numbers have been rising steadily since the downturn in the economy in 2008.
In case of Los Angeles, the state of California and the country for that matter, controlling the population is a pretty good idea. At the very least, keeping it steady would assist greatly as we on one hand look toward a more sustainable future and at the same time work to maintain and improve the key infrastructures on which we all depend.
However, passing out condoms may not be the most effective thing for Californians. Given that 80% of our population growth comes directly from immigrants and the children of immigrants, perhaps it is with our immigration policies we need to first look to and revise where needed.
Given all the above, if Los Angeles is unfortunate enough to “win” the competition to host the 2024 Olympics, those games might bare a closer resemblance to the 2016 games than the 1984 games. Perhaps during the opening ceremony we can display to the world the art of teasing water out of 110 year pipes or have an installation attesting to how a sewage system built in 1932 can run at over 200% capacity for close to 90 years. And our theme could be “too many people getting by on too few resources.”