When Brazil became rich through the exportation of sugar, there was no way of debating the destiny of the resources it brought. We were a mere colony, and the idea of economic progress had not yet been created. When the gold prospecting began, Brazil, likewise, was still a slave-ocrative colony, and the gold did us no good.
The income from the gold departed Minas Gerais for Lisbon, going to English cities to satisfy the luxury and the lavishness of the wealthy Portuguese and thus serving England’s industrial progress.
Instead of investing in the new machines that emerged – the mechanical looms – Portugal bought English cloth and eschewed becoming an industrial country. The inventors were English, and Portugal had neither the scientific and technical capacity nor the education for its own industrialization.
At that time, neither the Portuguese nor the Brazilians had the means to understand the logic of the development process. They were also incapable of projecting the future.
When Getúlio Vargas, and then Juscelino Kubitschek, initiated the process of economic development, the desire for progress, as well as the knowledge to induce development, already existed.
What we did not yet know was that, besides the good things progress brought, it also led to income concentration, violence, global warming, pollution, urban decay, inflation, indebtedness, dependency, corporativism, as well as other negative effects.
Fifty years of continuous development had to pass before we discovered the existence of both good and bad progress.
Now, with the possibility of exploring the new pre-salt oil reserves, we already have the knowledge to imagine the future, and we have sufficient experience to know that progress must be directed.
In his speech on the night of the Seventh of September, Brazilian Independence Day, President Lula asked the population to pressure the Congress for rapid approval of the projects of law that will provide the resources for pre-salt exploration and will define the use of the results obtained with it.
But he forgot to ask the Brazilian people – the students, teachers, businesspeople, housewives – to organize the debate over which progress they desire for Brazil’s future: If we should accelerate our speed on the course of bad progress or if we should set out for a good progress that will bring us income distribution, knowledge economy, ecological balance, peace in the streets and in the countryside, ethics in politics.
Only then, after choosing the standard of progress for the future, the population must respond to the questions about the pre-salt. Does it in fact exist in the dimensions presented? What are the future prospects for oil prices, in view of the certainty of the replacement of fossil fuels by clean fuel?
What are the climatic effects of the burning of these oil reserves? How will the oil economy compete with the ethanol economy? And if everything works out, what will we do with the resources obtained?
Above all, the people must debate the tragic consequences of waiting for the “pre-salt” results instead of investing, beginning now, in education, healthcare, security, defense, science and technology, with the resources that Brazil already has.
Other, poorer, countries without oil have already made their revolutions. Perhaps this has happened precisely because they do not have abundant natural resources, sugar, gold or oil. They thus had to develop their scientific and technological capacities, educate their people, and promote the greatest of all energies of a people – the brains of their inhabitants.
We did the exact opposite: The gold, the iron, the sugar, and the coffee all advanced our mechanical industry until the middle of the 20th century. And now, with the oil, when the time has come to reorient the destiny of the progress, Brazil is running the risk of not using this new wealth to change course.
We can forgive the past generations but future generations will not forgive us because we already know what progress is and because we already know its consequences, both good and bad.
We have the obligation to do more than make progress. We have to make progress of the progress.
Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.