07/04/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2012

Snorkeling Underneath Half-Dome: A Fragile Paradise?

Miniature versions of Half-Dome perch over the palm-spangled tropical slopes of Ilha Grande as they tumble down into the cerise waters of Bahia Angra dos Reis where green meets blue, granite islands evoke Penobscot Bay on tropical steroids, and fishing villages recall the Mediterranean Coast before Cannes became famous.

This region is a uniquely Brazilian blend of lushness and grandeur -- and it's being taken care of so far.

But a few miles out in the bay, and across on the mainland, lurk stark reminders of how fragile this island -- even protected as it is as a National Park -- and its surroundings on Brazil's Costa Verde are. In the midst of bay sit two off-shore oil rigs -- not, we are assured, searching for crude, but merely parked in the quiet waters for repairs. But across the waters on the mainland squats the main Petrobraz oil import terminal, recklessly located here in this pristine marine channel under the military regime of the 1960's. And a few miles down the coast sit Brazil's only experiments with nuclear power -- the Angra nuclear complex, whose safety record is somewhat sketchy and therefore scary. Both are grim reminders of the price this nation paid in the 1970's, when the first oil embargo drove its economy into a decade long tail-spin, one from which some Brazilian families and communities have never recovered.

Brazil has focused strategically on energy independence ever since -- and today it is basically there, thanks both to significantly expanded domestic oil production -- mostly off-shore -- and the world's second largest bio-fuels program, harnessing ethanol from sugar-cane, about a half million barrels a day worth.

This all took a major national commitment, not only to producing the ethanol (which has a much more favorable carbon and environmental footprint than US sugar cane ethanol) but also ensuring that the nation's auto fleet and distribution system were set up for non-petroleum based fuels.

So among the BRICS nations -- the emerging powerhouses of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- Russia is a major oil exporter and Brazil in balance. That leaves India, China and South Africa at the mercy of oil prices and industrial world laziness in failing to follow the Brazilian example and take energy independence seriously for the last 40 years.

Our collective dependence on oil remains, as it was back then, a fundamental threat to our economies, our security, and the very lands and waters upon which we depend and which we love. Brazil has done its part -- when will the rest of us join?

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."