Some of you may already know that, in Brazil, many of the cars run on alcohol. No, it's not beer (I was so confused at first); it's sugar cane. Brazil is covered in sugar cane, and the government has invested lots of money (controversially) in making the alcohol production more efficient over the last 30 years. Whether or not people thought it was a good investment in the beginning, Brazil is now the largest exporter of sugar cane in the world, and 40-odd% of it is used for energy, not cookies.
Since I've been here, I've learned more than I ever thought I would about energy production. Though the alcohol is less efficient than gasoline (30% less, in fact), it's half the price here in Brazil, and that's without any subsidies on sugar or tariffs on oil. (The only laws that exist about it here are that car engines must be specially-made to use the sugar cane, and all oil sold for cars must have at least 24% alcohol.) The most successful car companies here use engines that have sensors that detect the ratio of alcohol and gasoline, and run accordingly. People choose these cars, because it gives them the option of buying regular gasoline (which Brazil also produces, but mostly imports) if the prices change.
It seems like the majority of the problems caused by the sugar cane production are a) political corruption and fights for power over the companies; and b) chemical pollution from the pesticides used to kill bugs and snakes on the crops (problems that America already has).
Of course, when I started learning about how great this is, I wanted to know why, exactly, the US wasn't importing the alcohol from Brazil or producing it on US soil. I learned that the US is actually the second-largest producer of sugar cane, after Brazil, even though it can only grow in a few southern states and Hawaii. So where does all of our sugar go?? I then learned that the US puts crazy tariffs on any sugar-cane-related imports, thanks to lobbying, not only from the less-efficient ethanol peeps, but also from people who make high fructose corn syrup. The companies that put all the sugar in American food don't want any possible competition from other countries. Though the article didn't write about it, I can guess that there is also a lot of lobbying from gasoline companies in the US, too.
I'm not an expert in this stuff by any means, and I can sometimes fall for conspiracy theories pretty easily. All I know is what I can barely understand from the news, what I read in my “Brazil Since 1980” textbook that I bought myself, what Alexandre tells me, and what I read on news sites and on Wikipedia. But what I do know is that the food here doesn't contain nearly as much sugar. I've lost a lot of weight already. I know that I spend a lot less money to use Alexandre's car. I do know that, even though Sao Paulo is the second largest city in the world, it doesn't have nearly as much pollution as a place that is as relatively small as LA.
I do know that, when you have to choose between hanging out with 2 friends-- a rich one who is self-destructive, with all kinds of problems, who secretly hates you and who always puts you in danger, or a poor one who had problems but is making his life better and who wants to work with you to make your life safer, too-- it's a no-brainer as to which friend to choose, even if he doesn't buy you like, TVs and Hummers and stuff.
Then I found this article about an Emeryville company and a Berkeley professor (go Bears!) who are trying to work with Brazil to make an even better sugar cane alcohol that can work in the same engines that are used in the US. I'm going to read and discuss it with the students to see what else they can teach me, and maybe teach 'em some English at the same time.
Ahhh I'm totally freaking myself out with big-picture mode here. I'd better go run around the block or something.
If you know anything else about this topic, please enlighten me.