The Olympics May Just Be The Only Thing That Works In Brazil

Rio de Janeiro may have pulled off its Olympic feat, but Brazil's everyday problems remain unaddressed.

Watching fireworks in Rio's Mangueira favela during the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Aug. 7
Watching fireworks in Rio's Mangueira favela during the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Aug. 7
António Prata

RIO DE JANEIRO â€" I can't help but feel optimistic as I travel on Rio's shiny new "Linha 4" (line 4) subway, between the southern part of the city and the Olympic village in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. The long-promised subway extension actually exists, the escalators are working, the lights are on and trains are running as planned. The Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) is also alive and kicking, all buses have functioning windows and wheels, the engines aren't melting and the roofs remain firmly in place.

As I reach the Olympic Village, I see the biggest surprise of all: The stadiums, too, are actually here. They exist, they’re impressive and imposing, and they were finished in time for the games. Wow, did we really pull this off?

"Pull what off, you idiot," I find myself thinking just moments later, as the bus leaves the futuristic site and heads towards the old neighborhood of Engenho de Dentro, crossing through the innermost section of the city. Olympic Rio quickly gives way to a grittier Rio. Outside the window, I'm looking at Curicica, not far from the "City of God," but this might as well be Caracas or Islamabad. As Brazilian rapper Mano Brown once said: "The outskirts of a city are outskirts no matter where you are."

Its colors and yellow-clad staff make the BRT look like an alien capsule, against the ochre-and-grey construction site backdrop. Every now and then, we drive past an armored vehicle with armed soldiers around it. I came to see an Olympic event but I feel like I've ended up in an episode of Homeland.

A number of us get off at the Magalhães Bastos station to take a train. Both sides of the station are surrounded by troops. On the platform, too, soldiers, some very young and visibly frightened, are patrolling. The train arrives and it's packed. We stand out with our pasty white skin, and the passengers already on it stare at us with a mixture of amazement and hostility. Peddlers also enter the cars, trying to sell drinks. “Gringos” usually try to avoid making eye contact with them.

On the other side of the car, I spot a military jacket and, I admit, feel a bit relieved â€" that is, until I realize it belongs to another peddler.

"Your phone's battery is dead and you're stuck on the train? Here, just plug this in! It works just like in the movies! Five reais ($1.5) only! Five reais!"

A few moments later, another peddler in military clothing: "Check out my potatoes! Potatoes, onions and parsley for two reais only!"

Where could these jackets have come from? Are they leftover from the military patrols of the FIFA World Cup? The Rio+20 conference? Were they exchanged for mattresses? Potatoes? As part of a truce with drug traffickers or militias? For a Brazilian, it's impossible not to think about the soldiers who fought in the War of Canudos 120 years ago and joined former slaves once they returned to Rio in founding the city's first favela.

I finally reach my destination, the Olympic Stadium. I'm again surprised to see that it, too, actually exists. Its seats are all there, as are the flags of all countries, flapping around the stadium. On the pitch, the Brazilian women’s soccer team defeats China 3-0. A crowd of 27,000 people sing "Brazil! Brazil! Brazil!" and my optimism returns. There's word of widespread disorganization, but maybe the Olympics are actually working.

That thought alone is enough to make me sad again. It might well be that over the next two weeks, the Olympics are the only thing that will work properly in this country. The rest, outside of the Olympic capsule, will go on as usual, God willing. And at least from what can be seen in western Rio, the Lord isn't intent on giving.

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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