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February 26, 2011

Where My Trees Went

Truck picking up pulp wood at KapStone in NC 

Forestry is special in its commitment to long-term stewardship and sustainably. I got involved in forestry because I love almost everything about it. I just feel happier in the woods. Alex has been coming with me on some of my visits.  He commented that everybody seems happy in the woods and I think they are.  The foresters are happy, so are the wildlife biologists, loggers and landowners.  

Crane for moving wood 

Forestry provides a great combination between short term efforts and long term dreams.  You get an uncommon combination that includes choices & accomplishments you can make along with something much bigger, on which all our success depends, that we can spend a lifetime trying to understand. I don’t have musical or artistic talent. I feel I have a kind of expression like those things in nature. I understand that my forest is part of a something bigger. I checked out where the water that ran off my land ended up. I posted stories about my harvesting and planning for future forests.  A couple days ago I got to see where the thinned trees go and how they turn into paper products.

Debarker 

The trees harvested off my land last month went to KapStone Paper Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The mill has been there since 1907, although not under the same ownership. The mill takes only pine and makes the kind of brownish paper used for bags and packing materials.  Next time I buy a bag of Kingsford charcoal, maybe the bag will have some of my fiber in the paper.  They produce paper with something called the Kraft process. You can read about it at the link.  The Kraft process uses a wider variety fiber sources than most other pulping processes. The important part for me is that it can use all types of wood, including the resinous southern pine that we grow.

Alex

They start off chipping the trees. The chips are heated and treated chemically. For the details of how this works, check out the link I mentioned above. They brought out three cups of fiber and water from various stages of refinement. The liquid was a kind of brownish color. I couldn’t help but think of the time Chrissy & I visited the Jim Beam distillery. They both have a kind of mash.  Of course, it was not the same thing in any other sense and there was no tasting at the end of this tour.

stacked wood 

Paper making today is capital intensive and minutely coordinated. The big machines – They give them names, BTW, one called the Dixie Queen, for example - represent a big investment.  There is not much warehouse space to store the finished product, so everything runs through as quickly as possible. Trucks and trains are standing by to take away the rolls of paper as soon as they are good to go. Other inputs are also ready just when they need to be. The mill uses only virgin wood fiber to make paper, i.e. there is no post-consumer content. Lots of the chemicals used in the paper process are recycled over and over again. It is all a chain, with one event depending on the ones before, and since any stoppage is very expensive, they spend a lot of time making sure nothing breaks down.  It doesn’t take many employees to make the plant run. It surprises me every time I visit a modern facility. Factories were full of workers when I started working back in the early 1970s. Historical pictures and movies tell me that they were even more crowded before that. Parts of the KapStone facility obviously were designed for lots more workers, necessary with older technology.

The best part of the tour for me was visiting the guys working on the lines.  It is the kind of thing that restores your faith in the American worker. I met skilled and involved workers at every step.  They understood not only their own jobs, but evidently how what they did fit into the whole picture.  And they were eager to explain how everything worked.   

Most of the operation is computerized these days. The paper runs past at around 30MPH.  One of the guys explained that at that speed any little thing can cause a break, but the cause of the break will be way down the line.  They have cameras constantly recording the process, so they can go back until they find the place where it went wrong. This allows them to continually improve the process. One of the guys said something that was basic quality-control but worth repeating.  Results are what count, he said, but in order to get good results you have to have a process that you can observe study and improve. If you have the guys on the line articulating things like this, you know that your colleagues are really on the team. 

Paper-making requires lots of water. The water comes from the Roanoke River. The Roanoke river discharges into the Chowan and then into Albermarle Sound, the same places the water from my farms ends up.  I know it is silly but I feel a little propritary about it and I wanted to make sure the water was okay. They showed me their water treatment facility. During the short tour, I didn’t look at it in great detail. It has the usual settling, aeration & filtering. It was a serious operation. Remaining solids were deposited in a landfill on the site, which provides good wildlife habitat.  Our guides told us about improvements to the paper-making process that allow more paper to be produced with less waste. As a result, the landfill is filling up much less rapidly than anticipated.  The KapStone plant produces much of its own energy, producing energy from wood residues and from “black liquor,” a residue that remains after the paper-making process. In the old days, Black liquor used to be dumped into rivers and streams. Today it is a valuable biofuel that helps power the plant. After the black liquor has been burned off, chemicals used in the paper-making process are recovered from the ash and recycled. The KapStone plant relies on renewable biofuels  for about 60% of its energy needs. 

I was satisfied with KapStone’s commitment to the environment. It is important to me to know that my trees are grown, harvested and processed in an acceptable way. I can watch the growing part myself, but I have to rely on good people for the other steps. I found some. 

There are three things that I notice when visiting industrial plants. First, as I mentioned above, I am surprised at how few people it takes to produce so much. Second, there is so little inventory.  I remember working in factory warehouses groaning with products.  We filled orders from accumulated stock in those days. Today the products move right through plant, from raw material to buyer.  The third thing that has changed is that less is wasted, which translates into more efficient production and less pollution (which is waste, after all.) 

Let me tell you about the pictures. The top shows a truck loading pulp to move in the yard.  Below is a stationary crane that can move the wood around. Those are obvious, but the third picture down is a little harder to recognize.  It is a "de-barker" and it works very simply. The logs go inside and roll around against each other.  It knocks most of the bark off.  Below the de-barker is Alex, all grown up and manly looking.  The last picture is just stacked wood.  I just thought it looked cool.

Here are some related links

Nucor - another great North Carolina firm with great workers

ArborTech saw mill

Foresty

Roanoke Rapids

 

February 22, 2011

Planning for the Forestry Future

Longleaf pine in field 

We have big plans for my little piece of forest. I say “we” because the planning has grown beyond my expertise. Yesterday, Alex & I met with Eric Goodman from Kapstone, Frank Meyer from Gasburg Forestry and Katie Martin, a wildlife biologist to talk about plans for the Freeman property. The local hunt club also has a stake in all this, so I have to bring them in too.  As I described before, the woods have been thinned to different densities, to see which ones produce the best harvests. We will also use different management regimes to test for different outcomes. Some parts will be biosolids; others will be burned or treated chemically.   

This will be a kind of demonstration forest for this part of the Virginia Piedmont. Already there is talk of bringing 4H, Boy Scouts and school groups. We will probably put in a path. Although Brunswick County is a center for forestry in Virginia, there are few places nearby to see forestry at work. The advantage of our land is that it will have several different types of cutting and management within a short distance. I think it is important for people not involved in the business to understand it, especially understand the renewable and sustainable aspects.  Most people don’t understand this part. It shows in everyday expressions, like “Save a tree: don’t use so much paper.” There are plenty of reasons not to waste paper, mostly related to the energy it takes to make and move it, but using less paper in any reasonable sense does not make a difference in saving trees. You have to thin trees, whether or not you can sell the pulp to make paper. If you don’t thin, they die anyway from overcrowding or bug and if you don’t thin, even more of them die in these ways. It is like planting flowers or vegetables in a garden too close together. Land can be overgrazed and overused. It can also be “over-treed.” And the trees grow back. This is what I have learned over and over again as I look at harvested timber tracts. As I take pictures and document the growth of my forests, it is clear to see. I expect to have more total green growing in my forest next year, after the thinning, than we had this year before.

One of the more interesting parts of the plan is longleaf pine planting. We plan to mix longleaf with loblolly.  Frank looked at the dirt and told us that we needed to plant to longleaf farther down the slope, where the soil had more sand and less clay and where the microclimate would be a little more moderate. That is the kind of knowlege you can get only from experience and that is why I need the help of all these people who know local conditions so well. If things go as planned, we can harvest the loblolly in fifteen years leaving a stand of longleaf. Longleaf pine used to be very common in the south, but have lost ground, since they require specific conditions; most important is burning to get them started. In other words, longleaf pine is a fire dependent species that didn’t do as well when fires became less common.

Katie will come up with recommendations for wildlife habitat under the power lines. We can plant warm season grasses and a mix of wildflowers, she says. It won't cost me very much, since we probably can get some cost shares from Dominion Power (it is under their lines and our activities will save them the worry of cutting as well as provide a little "green PR") These plantings will help restore something like the habitat common in this part of Virginia hundreds of years ago. It will also give us a chance to see how well these habitats respond under local conditions. 

In some ways I am more excited about the grassy ecosystem than about the trees. I love trees and the longleaf will be treasures, if we can get them to grow well. (Once they get going, they are very robust, but the start is tricky, especially where we are, near the natural edge of the biome.) But as we talked about the future of this piece of ground, and plans for activities years from now, the big thinning to take place maybe in 2026, I realized that my chances of seeing big longleaf growing on my land are small and my chances of seeing a mature ecosystem is zero. I was glad to have Alex with me. He can bore young people with stories of the creation, when he is an old guy. 

The grass and forbs will mature this year and a few years from now they will form a working ecology.  I have reasonable confidence that I will be around to see that. The trees belong to the next generation. Understanding that fills me with an exquisite mixture of sadness and joy. I am glad that something will be around after I'm gone, but it reminds me that I will be gone.

The picture up top shows some longleaf seedlings near the Virginia-North Carolina border. They are just coming out of the "grass stage", called that because it is really hard to tell the little pines from the grass around them.  You would not be able to see them during the summer, since they would be covered by and the same color as the grass. The grassy vegetation has to be controlled. In the natural run of things, a fire would do that, allowing the pines time to grow above the grass.  I was told that this was an old farm field, so the trees got a head start before the grasses came in. Some of the bigger ones in this stand have done that, as you can see in the picture. 

Other forestry articles

Latest post on the CP forest 

February 16, 2011

Yes, We Have no Bananas

Bananas in San Diego 

We go through phases in my work where we spend way too much time fighting rumors and accusations.  It rarely seems to do much good.  People believe all sorts of silly things, sometimes things that if true would violated the laws of physics, but they believe them. Attacking rumor with mere truth is sometimes worse than doing nothing.  Our comments are taken as confirmations of the rumor. After all, the old saying goes that "where there is smoke, there is fire," and many people seem to figure that strenuous denials indicate that something important has come out.  "Fair" people will look at both sides with equanimity, thinking that the truth must be in the middle.  It rarely is. If you see a discussion between someone who believes the world is flat and one who tells you it is round, they both do not have good arguments and you should not conclude that truth lies in the middle, maybe earth is shaped like a cough lozenge.

Human belief is a complicated system.  I have come to understand that there are some arguments you cannot win, no matter how much truth you possess. The way to prevail is  to run around them.  Bring the weight of attention onto something else.  Change the frame.  These are all things smart persuaders do, yet we still get stuck in the denial game.  Sometimes we have to play that game, but it should be low key. Put the facts out there, but don't play on that unfair field.  My personal favorite tactic is to get someone else to ridicule the opponent's stand, but this is hard to do and can created backlash.

I read a good article about this recently in the Economist explaining that some researchers from Kellogg School of Journalism & at Stanford have come up with research that shows with some academic rigor what public affairs professionals know is a rougher and more intuitive fashion.   

The researchers experimented by planting rumors among undergraduates.  With each repetition, they found that skepticism diminished, increasing the chances that the students would believe them.  So what do you do?   The best thing to do is flood the zone with positive messages.   This takes the fuel out of the rumor fire.

Early in my career, I read a book by Herb Schmertz, the head of PR at Mobile. It was called "Goodbye to the Low Profile."  As his title implies, Schmertz advocated a kick-ass relationship with critics. He felt that businesses were letting their adversaries get away with attacking them and it was not working for them.  There were lots of rumors and innuendo spread about energy companies, then as now.  Schmertz mentioned one dramatic example of countering disinformation, when he described how Mobile debunked the myth that energy companies had tankers full of oil just outside American harbors waiting for prices to rise. Mobile took journalists up in helicopters and challenged them find them.   Of course, they couldn't.  

Schmertz never really solved the problem free riders. Everybody in the industry benefits when somebody takes on critics, but the firm that does the heavy work not only has to pay the expense of the counterattacks, but also makes itself a target for activists and is likely to bring in political pressure.  Most firms opt to keep as quiet as possible and hope that the false charges don't cost them too much.  The idea of a "good news flood" addresses this.  It doesn't provide much of an opportunity to counter attack and it can be justified as image building or even advertising.

The thing I remember most about the book was the saying "Yes, we have no bananas." Schmertz chose the words from an old and familiar song. (I remember it sung by Jimmy Durante, but evidently it was a big song by many.)  The fact that I still remember it shows the usefulness of a memorable handle. That was one lesson I took.  But the underlying explanation was also useful. The idea is that you always bridge from the negative to the positive. If you say, we don't have any bananas; it is just a negative statement.  "Yes, we have no bananas" says the same thing.  But it brings a little positive levity. Nobody is fooled, but it takes the edge off.

The good news flood is a more effective and practical way to do this. It frustrates critics, since if done well it changes the game and marginalizes them.  Sometimes they are honesty angry because they think you are not answering their questions, but nothing says you have to do that. There are always many ways to look at anything.  Their way is only one and probably not the best. When I read more on the subject of persuasion, I found out that this was called reframing or redirecting.  It is a potent tool, especially if you actually have good news to tell.  You don't have to take the frame you are handed and you should always test any frame for validity. Some questions cannot be answered satisfactorily as stated. The classic example is when you are asked to answer yes or no to the question, "Do you still beat your wife." An even more pernicious formula is when you are asks something like, "Why do you hate [name the group]? There is no way you can bring facts to bear on those subjects. The questioner knows this. It is not honest.   If you have to respond, talk over him/her to a wider audience.

Reframing is in order.

February 06, 2011

Green Bay Packers

 

I am a perfidious sports fan. The only time I watched regularly was when I was kid. I broke my leg when I was eleven-years-old at the start of the 1966 season. I was in the hospital in traction for six weeks, so it was enforced watching. My father and sometimes my uncles would come to visit me every Sunday and we would watch the game. They must have allowed them to bring in beer.  

I became a very dedicated Packer Fan that season and the next. It kind of spoiled me. It is a colossal understatement to say the Packers were good in 1966-7, with Vince Lombardi, Bart Star & my personal favorite Ray Nitschke (he seemed like an ordinary good guy). At eleven years old, I really couldn’t remember a time when the Packers were not a great team. In my kid sort of way, I just assumed that it was an order in the universe that the Packers would win most of the time. After the 1967 season, the universe was out of order.

As I said, I am not a great sports fan, but the Packers always remained my favorite for nostalgic and emotional reasons as well as a few others.  The Packers are the only team in the league that is not located in some big city. Green Bay only has around 100, 000 people and it is not near any large commercial or population center.  This is because of the unique ownership. The Packers are a non-profit, community-owned franchise, the only one in Americans sports.  There are 112,015 shareholders. Nobody is allowed to own a large percentage of shares. The shares pay no dividends and it is stipulated that if the franchise is ever sold, all the profits go to charity. This removes the financial incentive for moving the team. It also means that the Packers are essentially owned by the Fans & the people of Wisconsin. I like that. 

I am watching the Super bowl today and writing this during the halftime show. The Packers are ahead and I have confidence that they will win.  If the Steelers come back, I will have had the pleasure of celebrating an interim victory.  Chrissy & I have been watching the playoff games and it is great to see the green & gold in the Super Bowl.  It brings back lots of memories and feeling that I had forgotten.

I bought the cake at Safeway today. I couldn’t say for sure if it was supposed to be a Packer cake or a Steelers cake, but the chocolate football kind of looked like a cow pie sitting on a green pasture, so I figured it must be Wisconsin.

Peripatetic Observations

Shotgun shacks near Balston 

I wrote yesterday about the usefulness of walking around. I walk around an hour and twenty minutes a day, including my walk from the Metro etc. I cannot say that I spend all that time thinking, but I do have a kind of “commuter radio.”  I get “NPR Marketplace” and some Brazilian podcasts, as well as my usual audiobooks.  I don’t think I could just sit still and listen to these things. 

New Construction at Balston 

One of the good things about the walk is being able to look around and feel all the daily changes. Up top and just above show the changing neighborhood. On top are modified “shotgun shacks”.  You can see that they are simple.They call them shotgun shacks because a shotgun fired at the front door would go right through the whole house. These places won’t be here much longer. Immediately above is new construction. The new condominiums will almost literally cast a shadow on the shotgun shacks. How long until somebody builds something here?  Below - We recently had some thawing and I enjoyed watching the melt-water flow. The picture isn't so pretty but those who like flowing water in all its forms will understand.

Spring thaw

February 05, 2011

Sound Mind & Sound Body

Keyboard warning 

The ancient Greeks & Romans were fairly unanimous in understanding that body health & mental health were inseparable. The idea slipped during the middle ages, when some believed in the “mortification of the flesh.”  Our ideas in modern America are mixed. Popular culture features the fictional conflicts between nerds/geeks and jocks. According to the formula, the geeks are uncoordinated and physically weak, but hard working and smart. The jocks are the opposite. Like lots of high school concepts, this one is based on a simplified version of brains v brawn and narrow definitions of health and intelligence. 

The Greeks were right.  Healthy bodies and healthy minds go together, at least in a statistical sense, i.e. in general but not always.  I know that somebody will throw up the example of Stephen Hawkins, but he is an exception in almost every way.  The brain is part of the body. When the body functions poorly, the brain is affected.   You just cannot think as clearly if your body is giving you trouble. Think about the last time you had a bad toothache. Did you think about lots of other things when it was acting up?

It is hard to determine the causality in mind-body health. Healthy people can devote more energy to keeping their mind alert and intelligent people understand better the need and methods for staying healthy. We find a correlation between health and success, with obesity and poor health more common among the poor. It some ways it violates our sense of fairness. We like to think there is some kind of compensation, so the guy with the weak body gets the compensation of being smarter.  It just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I go to Gold’s Gym three times a week and I am under no illusions that all those guys built like gorillas are rocket scientists. On the other hand, the people who work out during their lunch hours, before or after work seem a cut above the ones who don’t.  

Talk of the Nation – Science Friday” reported studies that show that moderate exercise, like walking 40 minutes three times a week actually increase the size of your brain. They also discussed “brain exercises” like doing crossword puzzles. These things make you better at crossword puzzles, but don’t do much in general.  Physical exercise, on the other hand, improves the raw material of brain health and so provides across the board benefits.

I know this is not the same thing, but I find that I think more clearly when I am walking. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it is just better to be in motion. I can think about things when I am walking. I suppose if I was just to sit still and try the same thing my mind would wander or I might just fall asleep.  

Another thing the ancient Greeks used to say was “nothing too much” or “everything in moderation.”  You don’t have to be a triathlete to have a healthy mind and body, but it would be a good idea to be able to walk around the block w/o your body complaining. It helps keep the mind clear.

The picture up top show the dumbing down of our society. How dumb do you have to be to require a warning on your computer keyboard? IMO, one of the big challenges to our society is that we allow fewer and fewer responsible decisions.

February 03, 2011

The Great Ronald Reagan & Me

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old on February 6. As the partisan passions fade, everybody is starting to recognize the greatness of the man. President Obama recently read a Reagan biography for inspiration and wrote an article in USA Today praising him.  

Any president who leads a big change will provoke dislike on the part of his opponents and I recall the rabid hatred among some of them in the 1980s. They can be forgiven some of their faults. Reagan was a very insightful & intelligent man and a hard worker. We know that now from reading his journals and from other sources coming out about him. But he evidently liked to hide these things. Maybe he was modest or maybe it was a strategy.  

Ronald Reagan used to say that you can accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. The easygoing persona that he projected allowed lots of people to feel they deserved credit. It also allowed people to give him things he wanted w/o appearing to give in. Reagan didn’t score points off the failures of others, but his affable personality also led opponents to underestimate him. They thought many of his accomplishments were just dumb luck. In my experience, someone who is consistently “lucky” has something special going on. Only a man truly confident in himself can behave as Reagan did. That is one reason he was such a unique leader.

I voted for Reagan in 1980 & 1984. It was a little hard for me to do in 1980. I had voted for Carter in my first election in 1976 and I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in one of the nation’s most liberal enclaves. When I would say anything good about Reagan, or even when I didn’t join in the criticism of him, my colleagues would make fun of me. There is considerable social pressure in a liberal university setting to “rebel” within acceptable margins. I was finishing my MA in history and looking forward to going on to my PhD. As I recall, most of my colleagues considered Jimmy Carter too conservative and Reagan was clean off the map. The popular candidate around my part of town was a guy called Barry Commoner. Commoner was a bit of a nut, but he said the right things about the environment and was sufficiently obscure to get the “intelligent” student vote. 

Anyway, it came as a surprise to me too that Reagan made sense to me. Up until that time, I just assumed that I was a type of liberal, which was the local default option. I think that my vote for Reagan actually had significant effect on my life. Of course, not the vote itself, but the cognitive dissonance it provoked.  I have never been good at keeping secrets and so I talked about it with my friends. They treated me like someone who had been in the sun too long and tried to explain why I was just being foolish.

As I listened to their arguments and defended myself, I came to understand that I really did not hold the same sorts of views as they did. I started to read more widely and came to lots of different conclusions. One of the very practical changes I made was in my course of study. I began to perceive myself as a bit of an outsider in my history-sociology circles. I still loved history, but I became more interested in practical things like business (IMO a kind of applied history) and decided to get an MBA. This was greeted with some distress by my friends. One well-meaning guy carefully explained to me that an MBA was a kind of “trade school” degree and it was not the kind of thing somebody like me should do. For me, at least, the MBA was a lot more of an intellectual challenge than my MA, but maybe that was just me.

You follow well-worn paths for maybe 95% of your life. This is something you have to do, since nobody could abide the chaos of constant uncertain change. There are a small number of inflection points, however. These are usually little things. You may be almost unaware of them at the time, but over time they take you off the old path and put you on a new one. The little half turn doesn’t seem like much, but there can be substantial divergence a few miles down the path as the one change leads to another. 

Somebody once told me that there are only around 5-7 inflection points in any life and if you think about it, you can probably identify them. They are rarely the big, shocking events we think of. The road to Damascus type conversions are the ones we mark, but they may actually be the culmination of a long process of change, not the beginning.  By the time you make the public announcement, or even know it yourself, it may have been stewing for a long time.

Looking back, my decision in 1980 to vote for Ronald Reagan was one of those little decisions that changed the way I thought of myself and ended up changing lots of other things too. So like all Americans, I can thank Ronald Reagan for what he did for the country, but I also have a personal reason to be happy that he came along.

February 01, 2011

Charismatic Religions

My area studies today featured religion in Brazil. These are some notes and impressions.  

 

Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology, thought that religion would disappear and that Protestants would lead the way, since they embraced rationalism that would come to make religion redundant and expendable. Students of sociology and political science still study his ideas those they spawned & there are lots of good ideas. But embedded in the classic sociological system is the assumption, common in intellectual circles in at the turn of the last century, that religion was old-fashioned and in the future would atrophy. Max Weber died in 1920 from complications from the Spanish flu. Religion has shown no signs of dying out and among most dynamic and expanding types of religion are the charismatic protestant denominations.  Maybe the reports of the death of religion have been exaggerated. 

One of the most interesting places to watch the religious dynamic is Brazil.  Brazil remains the world’s most populous Catholic country.  This doesn’t surprise most people for a mostly Catholic country with a population of 190+ million.  More surprising, perhaps, is that Brazil is also home to the world’s largest community of Pentecostal Christians.  The numbers of protestants in Brazil is has been growing rapidly. A couple generations ago, there were almost no Protestants outside immigrant communities in the south. Today some surveys indicate that Protestants make up as much as 30% of the population and their numbers are growing rapidly.

The Protestants are also among the most active.  As I mentioned above, Brazil has the world’s largest population of Pentecostals.  They currently make up between 15-21% of the population, but they are very much involved in their religion. They attend church services in very large numbers and account for around 40% of all contributions to churches in Brazil.

Many of the new Protestants come from the poorer parts of society. The church gives them not only spiritual guidance, but also social benefits. The church provides social networks and encourages members to stop drinking, gambling and cheating on their spouses.  All these things translate into generally better life outcomes on earth as, presumably, in heaven. Compared with others in similar social-economic circumstances, Brazilian evangelicals have higher incomes. Americans would recognize some of the methods Brazilian evangelicals use to reach potential converts and keep in touch with the flock. There are what we would recognize as mega-churches, but more often the secret of success is to be local and close to the customers, as illustrated above.  The new churches know their communities and satisfy both their spiritual and social needs.  Brazilian evangelicals were among the first to take advantage of television.  One of the biggest denominations,  the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus)  owns a television network, Rede Record. Brazilian evangelicals are having significant effects overseas, especially in Africa.

What marketers might call closeness to the customers is a big advantage that evangelicals have over the Catholic Church, which tends to be a little more distant. Catholic priests are also thin on the ground.  There is only one priest for every 8600 Brazilians. With that kind of ratio, it is hard to get close and personal.  This is exacerbated by the fact that many priests in Brazil are foreign born. Brazil doesn’t produce enough of its own.  The Catholic Church is trying to counter the loss to the charismatic Protestant churches with its own version. The leader of this movement is a priest called Marcelo Rossi. Despite these efforts, the Protestant numbers continue to grow.

For now, it is the Protestant charismatics who are reaching the poor. They preach a personalized salvation, as opposed to the “liberation theology,” which was the largely unsuccessful attempt to reach the poor a generation ago.  That does not mean that the Protestants stay out of politics, however.  Leaders have learned to deploy their numbers as swing voters.  In recent elections, they have supported the left leaning PT (Lula’s party) but not reliably (hence the swing vote status).

Those of us who graduated from secular-based programs in secular universities have a little trouble understanding the power of religion in motivating people. Our world view just doesn’t include the power of faith. We tend to look beyond the religion and seek secular explanation based in sociology or psychology. These factors probably have some validity, but maybe religion is a big part of some people’s lives because they really believe it is true.  IMO, we need to respect that a little more than we do and treat beliefs as a goal in themselves, not merely a means to achieve some material goal. 

BTW – I have sometimes used the term evangelicals. This does not mean exactly the same thing to Brazilians as it does to us. In its Portuguese version, it is more inclusive of all Protestants, but it is true that the fastest growing portions are those that might fit in well with our connotations.

You can find more about Brazilian statistics at www.datafolha.com.br.


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