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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 12, 2001

Air Date: January 12, 2001

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Clinton's Legacy

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Health Update

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Cap and Trade

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Mad Tagger

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Depleted Uranium Shells

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Animal Update

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Clinton's Legacy

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. President Clinton is moving out of the White House. Historians are already looking at his legacy, and our eyes, of course, are focused on the environment. Joining us are George Frampton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Myron Ebell, director of international environmental policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute; and Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Gentlemen, let's go back eight years. It wasn't a smooth start. President Clinton proposed a broad energy tax to attack the problems of energy use and the budget deficit. But up on Capitol Hill, this got watered down to a four cent a gallon fuel tax, and then it went absolutely nowhere. What happened? Mark Hertsgaard, let's start with you.

HERTSGAARD: Sure, Steve. Well, part of it is that he didn't call it an energy tax. They ended up calling it a BTU tax. BTU stands for British Thermal Units. And that was a real big part of the problem. The average American had no idea what a BTU tax was, and so it was very difficult to build any kind of understanding, much less support for the policy. In addition, they did not pay attention to something that Al Gore had written in his own book, Earth in the Balance, that if you want to do environmental tax reform, you have got to balance it out fiscally. And they didn't do that. And as a result, they ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. And Mr. Clinton, the new kid in town, promptly blinked in that confrontation and backed off.

CURWOOD: Let me turn to you now, Myron Ebell. What do you think happened here when the BTU tax went down?

EBELL: Well, I think that environmental fantasy met reality. I think the basis of our economic prosperity is abundant and inexpensive energy. I think that the entire episode was misguided, and I'm extremely grateful that opposition in Congress arose and it got watered down to four cents a gallon on gas. I wish it had been watered down to nothing.

CURWOOD: George Frampton, you've been in the White House now for a while. What's the analysis there of what went wrong with the BTU tax?

FRAMPTON: Well, I think obviously it was a faltering step out of the box, but an indication that this administration from the beginning was willing to take on very difficult, major environmental challenges. And I think what the president and vice president learned from that is that in order to do that, you've really got to build support, bipartisan support, in the country. And I think some of the fruits of that lesson have in fact enabled the administration to make some major, major progress in the last four or five years.

CURWOOD: Let's look now at climate change. It's been a big issue for the administration, particularly Vice President Al Gore. What kind of progress has there been on this issue? Let me start with you, George Frampton.

FRAMPTON: Well, the vice president went to Kyoto three years ago, staked his reputation on trying to help arrive at a strong but economically viable plan for reducing greenhouse gas. The Congress has been a huge roadblock in the last three years to doing some of the things we wanted to do domestically. In the meantime, the administration has started more than 50 major initiatives to improve energy efficiency, develop clean energy. But I think there's a lot more to do.

CURWOOD: But at the end of the day I think some would say, Mr. Frampton, that the breakdown of the whole Kyoto process just a few weeks ago in the Netherlands was blamed on the United States for being intransigent.

FRAMPTON: Actually, we came to an agreement at the end of that meeting in the Hague, which the European Union eventually backed away from, to great criticism by the environmental community. And it was an agreement that you can say was a Clinton-Gore agreement, but it was also an agreement that was supported pretty strongly by a growing segment of the international business community.

CURWOOD: Myron Ebell?

EBELL: What happened this fall in the Hague, the U.S. position going in was essentially jettisoned, and the Clinton negotiating team, under President Clinton's direct orders, apparently, if you believe the news accounts, essentially sued for surrender. And the European Union refused to accept the terms of surrender because they have discovered how almost impossible it's going to be for them, because they have weak political will in their governments, and they have, will have to make massive economic sacrifices to comply with the limits in the global warming treaty. So they don't want a treaty now. What they want to do is to blame the United States.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard?

HERTSGAARD: I think when it's looked back upon, that this will be seen as one of the major failures of the Clinton-Gore administration in regard to the environment. In my reporting for my book Earth Odyssey, I remember talking to an official in the Czech government, in Prague, and he said, "You know, people out here around the rest of the world, we may like the United States, we may not like the United States, but one thing we all know, it is the future." And so when you look and see how little Clinton and Gore have done on global warming, it makes you very discouraged, because it gives the excuse for other nations to say, "We're not going to do anything."

CURWOOD: Let's turn now to some urban issues. In particular, I want to ask: What has the administration done to clean up the air and water and polluted urban areas? And start with you, Myron Ebell.

EBELL: Well, again, I'm somewhat critical of the administration's record on air and water pollution. I think that many of the resources of government have been misdirected. And so, we have had, for instance, policies to have reformulated gasoline that were extremely ill-conceived and are now causing environmental problems because of the use of MTBE. At the same time, they've had extremely minimal impact on air quality. We have the ozone and particulate matter rule under the Clean Air Act. That rule, even the EPA's own advisory council was very critical of, because many of the things are very costly but have almost no benefit. I'm for benefits, but I think the benefits have to be weighed against costs occasionally.

CURWOOD: George Frampton. What about the cities?

FRAMPTON: This administration tripled the number of clean-ups compared to the last 12 years in Superfund sites. We have 130,000 new jobs in the environmental area, and leveraged billions of dollars of private sector money to go into so-called brownfields cleanups in our center cities. Those are sites that need to be cleaned up but don't rise to the level of Superfund sites. In the air quality area, three major sets of rules. The Soot and Smog Rule, the so-called Tier II rule setting the next ten-year standards for cleaning up emissions from cars. And a third set of rules that deals with diesel and big truck engines and diesel fuel, I think, are going to make our air 95 to 99 percent cleaner ten years from now.

CURWOOD: I'd like to turn now to look at this recent surge of action by the White House to protect wilderness areas. There's what, four-and-a-half, almost five million new acres of land, that's been designated as national monuments. There's about 60 million acres in the national forests that have been designated as roadless areas. What will the impact of all this be? Myron Ebell, how do you feel about this as the Clinton legacy?

EBELL: This is not about preserving land. This is about restricting access and locking up land. One thing that particularly bothers me is the massive and intense campaign against private property by the whole administration, but particularly by the Department of the Interior and Secretary Babbitt. Private property is the basis of sound environmental protection because it is only when you own something that you have an incentive to take care of it, and that includes wildlife. If people are threatened with the loss of their farm or their ranch or their timber lot because of an endangered species, then they clearly are going to be hostile to the regulators. And the result will be damaging to the species, because they will change their management practices. They will destroy habitat. They will do anything to keep the regulators off their property. And many of the environmentalists, including some in the administration, have recognized this for a long time.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard?

HERTSGAARD: I think this is going to be remembered as probably his finest achievement in terms of conservation and natural resource policies. Of course, again, we're going to see very strong efforts in the new administration and the new Congress to overturn these. But it's not going to be very easy. For example, in the case of forests, 58 million acres there, the oil industry is joining the timber industry in trying to get that overturned because they want to get in there and drill for oil. But you can't just overturn this. The Clinton Administration was very careful about how they did it. They engaged in long public hearings and had 1.5 million responses from citizens around the country. So in order for the Bush administration to overturn this, they're going to have to go through that whole same process.

CURWOOD: George Frampton?

FRAMPTON: I think the Clinton-Gore land conservation record is much broader and deeper than just additional protection for federally-managed lands. The administration started out to take on some major resource challenges in places like the California Bay Delta and the Everglades, which really required building partnerships with state and local government and stakeholders. And those have been huge successes. We created new parks in the California desert, and pioneered, really, in making the Endangered Species Act work on private lands, in partnership with private landowners and local government.

CURWOOD: Gentlemen, I want to ask you to think about grading the Clinton administration here. Imagine, now, there you are, you're the teacher, the Clinton administration has been your pupil. The subject has been environmental protection. How about a letter grade and a very brief comment to go on the report card? Why don't I start with you, George Frampton? A self-evaluation.

FRAMPTON: Air quality and land conservation: A. Water quality: B or B+. Superfund and brownfields: at least a B+, A-. Climate, I would say internationally we've done everything we could with a hostile Congress, so I would give us a B or B+, although we may not be viewed that way in the world. On domestic actions, not so good.

CURWOOD: All right. Myron Ebell.

EBELL: I'd say a gentleman's D. I think that the whole idea behind the Clinton administration's environmental policy has been so flawed that real achievement became very difficult.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard.

HERTSGAARD: I think that I'd give them two different grades. Domestically, their initiatives, I'd give them a B+. And internationally, much harsher, a C-. And I'd probably make them stay after school and write some sentences. Because the real disappointment here is that Al Gore in particular, and also Bill Clinton, knew better. They knew better and they could have done better.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you all for taking this time with us today. Myron Ebell is director of international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. And George Frampton is the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

EBELL: Thank you.

FRAMPTON: Thank you.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Coming up: one man's crusade against gas-guzzling SUVs. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: It's been announced that a three-month-old rhesus monkey is the world's first genetically-modified primate. A simple genetic marker was inserted into ANDi when he was still an unfertilized egg. The name ANDi is DNA spelled backwards plus the letter "i" for "insert." The technique, called germ-line engineering, involves genetically modifying sperm or egg cells, and could produce primates that carry genes associated with specific medical conditions. For example, researchers could insert a gene associated with Alzheimer's and use the animal and its offspring to test vaccines against that condition. But the possibility of human germ-line engineering remains controversial. Critics say it opens up the use of genetic engineering to enhance desirable characteristics or create so-called super-beings. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Cap and Trade

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Chicago is among the many U.S. cities that often flunk federal clean air standards. A key source of pollution is industry's use of solvents and other airborne chemicals, which help form what most of us know as smog. The state of Illinois wants to try a new program to reduce Chicago's smog. It says it wants to issue abatement credits that can be traded among companies so that overall emissions can be cut efficiently. The emissions trading plan would be the first of its kind in the nation. And as Gary Johnson reports from Chicago, it's already sparking controversy.

JOHNSON: The primary goal of Illinois' so-called cap and trade program is to cap or limit industry's total emissions to help the region meet federal ozone standards by the year 2007. Chicago industries that release 25 tons of volatile organic compounds a year are required to participate in the program, which sets a cap at each company's 1996 ozone emission levels. The company then agrees to reduce emissions by another 12 percent. Allotment trading units are issued by the Illinois EPA for these emissions. If at year's end the company reduces more than 12 percent, it can sell its extra credits to a company that has not met its 12 percent goal. John Summerhays is a U.S. EPA environmental scientist in Chicago. He says the program allows the state to set emission limits rather than having the federal government decide how emissions must be reduced.

SUMMERHAYS: What excites me most about the program is that it gives companies the incentive to find new ways of reducing emissions. And in fact, companies have found very novel ways of reducing emissions that we never would have even thought to require in the old system.

JOHNSON: The challenge, goes the market-based argument, is to reduce emissions equitably, so industry, regional economies, and people's health do not suffer. Modern plants generally have an easier go of meeting standards, while dinosaur facilities face staggering costs to upgrade pollution technology. Alan Jirik is the director of environmental affairs at Corn Products International, just outside Chicago. This year his company sold their extra emission credits. He says the beauty of the program is that industry is rewarded for innovation.

JIRIK: It's very cost-effective. The environment gets what it needs. It gets the 12 percent reduction. But the economy of Chicago is benefited in that we're effecting these very significant reductions at the least possible cost. Which means goods and services are not impacted. The business climate is more positive. You don't have a very Draconian condition where companies are either leaving or not expanding.

JOHNSON: Some environmental advocates, meanwhile, want to be sure trading is not simply a shell game that shifts pollution to low-income neighborhoods where most older plants are located. Joanna Hoelscher is a policy analyst with the Chicago office of Citizens for a Better Environment. She appreciates the cap on total emissions, but wants assurances that pollution credits will be tracked accurately, and that trading be an apples to apples exchange of pollutants.

HOELSCHER: This is the first time ever that U.S. EPA has suggested approving a state program that would allow the trading of toxic air contaminants. And that's where the real problem lies. Because we're allowing companies to trade chemicals that are not equal. Some VOCs, volatile organic compounds, are non-toxic. Some are a little bit toxic. Some, like benzene, are known human carcinogens.

JOHNSON: The EPA's John Summerhays says there are pollution programs already in place that address toxic air emissions. And the state must review the trading program's effects on low-income areas on an annual basis. The U.S. EPA is accepting public comment on Illinois' cap and trade program until January twenty-sixth. Michigan and
New Jersey are also seeking federal approval for similar pollution trading initiatives. For Living on Earth, I'm Gary Johnson in Chicago.

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Mad Tagger

CURWOOD: Many environmental activists work with lobbying and political groups, but some prefer a more direct approach. Consider Robert Lind. Mr. Lind is a one-man campaign to make people who drive sport utility vehicles in the San Francisco area feel guilty about their gasoline consumption. His targets find a bumper sticker on their SUVs that reads, "I'm Changing the Climate. Ask Me How." Deirdre Kennedy caught up with the mad tagger on an expedition in the San Francisco suburb of Corte Madera.

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KENNEDY: On any weekend of the year you can find Robert Lind stalking luxury sport utility vehicles on the streets of San Francisco. On this particular Saturday he's staked out a spot in the parking lot of an upscale shopping center in Marin County, armed with a backpack full of "Changing the Climate" bumper stickers.

LIND: The first thing is peel. (Peels, crumples) You can get the bumper sticker all ready to go. I stalk my prey. Here we have a large V8 land cruiser. And very simply, stoop [peels] and tag.

KENNEDY: Although he aggressively pounces on land rovers, land cruisers, and pickup trucks camouflaged as family vehicles, Lind leaves the small fry alone. No Jeeps or RAV4s. In fact, he's kept himself to a fairly narrow diet.

LIND: I don't tag commercial vehicles. I only tag the largest SUVs. I call them the super-predators. The big Expeditions, Excursions. I don't do Explorers or anything with a V-6. I don't re-tag. If I know that an SUV has been tagged, I don't tag it a second time. You know, I want to be somewhat civilized about this.

KENNEDY: Surprisingly, Lind doesn't consider himself to be an environmentalist. In fact, he's been a car buff since childhood. And he himself drives a 1988 BMW 320-I. He objects to what he sees as SUV drivers' ignorance that they're polluting more than other cars.

LIND: When they passed the Clean Air Act, they exempted pickups and commercial-type vehicles. They had much lower standards to meet. Because there weren't that many of them on the road and they figured, well, we'll help business out a little bit by not having them have to equip the cars with the latest technology. But now that the SUVs have come along, half of the cars fall in this category and are exempt from normal emissions and fuel economy standards. So, that is the problem. If the SUVs got good mileage and didn't pollute, I don't care if they drive them.

KENNEDY: Lind and a friend came up with the bumper sticker idea when they noticed that more and more SUVs were turning up on the streets.

LIND: When we were thinking of slogans to put on the bumper sticker, we were thinking at first "Screw the Environment" or, you know, something kind of very obvious. But we decided on, "I'm Changing the Climate." You know, there is a little bit of humor in there, which I think makes people scratch their head and chuckle.

KENNEDY: But SUV owners don't usually appreciate the humor in Lind's message. While we were in the parking lot, a driver and his father returned to their Toyota Land Cruiser to find one of Lind's stickers securely fastened to the bumper.

MAN 1: I consider it vandalism.

MAN 2: Yes.

MAN 1: Absolutely. This is private property. I was not asked whether I wanted that on my car or not, and clearly I don't. So, I mean, I choose to drive this. I made that choice. And someone shouldn't be messing with my private property.

KENNEDY: Does it make you think about gasoline consumption?

MAN 1: No, not really.

MAN 2: No.

MAN 1: It makes me think about people who --

MAN 2: Makes me angry.

MAN 1: Makes me angry is what it makes me.

MAN 2: Why would you worry about gasoline consumption? It's not changing the environment.

KENNEDY: You don't think so?

MAN 2: Not at all. There's plenty of evidence to show that it's not. Just look at the figures on Greenland in the year 845, and then later on in 1350. The changes in the climate at that time. I don't think we were burning much coal or oil then, were we?

KENNEDY: Lind has never been cited or arrested for his tagging activities, though he says he'd like to be, to draw attention to his cause. And he invites his victims to contact him directly.

LIND: I have the website on the bumper sticker. So when a person gets tagged they can e-mail me in person and complain about the fact that I defaced their private property. [Kennedy laughs] And I will tell them, "You've defaced the public air supply, so there, we're even."

KENNEDY: The entire time we're talking, he's peeling and sticking tags on vehicles with all the confidence and authority of a parking enforcement official. Inside of about a half an hour, he's tagged more than 20 cars.

LIND: Ah, here's an Insight hybrid by Honda. He is changing the climate, but he's doing it in a positive way. So I'm leaving a bumper sticker under his windshield wiper. Hopefully he'll enjoy that.

KENNEDY: So far, Lind has been spending his free hours trying to change the minds of individual drivers. But I asked him, why doesn't he go after the really big game, the car manufacturers?

LIND: I'll wait till they contact me. When things get so painful and their profits are plummeting because my campaign has reduced SUV purchases by 80 percent, they'll be crawling out to me, begging. Yeah, maybe.

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

LIND: There's a black one, a black Suburban. The Darth Vader of GM products.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is National Public Radio. When we return: Mounting concern about the fallout from using depleted uranium shells during the Balkan wars. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Operation Broken Arrow is military-speak for any situation involving a missing or damaged nuclear weapon. Thirty-five years ago this week that phrase gained urgency when an American B-52 and a KC-135 tanker collided during a refueling operation high above Spain, along the Mediterranean coast. Four hydrogen bombs plummeted toward earth. Three hit farm land near the tiny village of Palomares. Luckily the nuclear warheads did not go off. But one bomb remained missing until a fisherman named Francisco Simo Orts told authorities he saw something plunge into the sea. Using Senor Orts' siting, the U.S. Navy located the five-megaton nuclear device about a mile offshore. The recovery operation lasted 80 days. All in all, 1,600 tons of plutonium contaminated soil were scraped from the farmland near Palomares and sent to the U.S. for containment. So far, no adverse health effects have been identified in villagers, and produce grown in the area does not exceed international radiation standards. By the way, Francisco Simo Orts claimed that since he saw it fall into the sea, ancient mariner laws gave him rights to the bomb. He wanted five million dollars in compensation from the U.S. government. In the end he got a $10,000 reward, and another $4,500 for the use of his boats during the recovery operation. And for this week that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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Depleted Uranium Shells

CURWOOD: Another incident of radiation exposure is plaguing Europe right now. At issue: NATO's use of anti-tank shells tipped with depleted uranium. The U.S.-made ordnance was used in Bosnia and Kosovo by NATO forces, and a number of European governments now suspect exposure to the material has caused cancer in some of their troops. Both the U.S. and NATO don't believe that's the case. At the same time, a UN inspection team has found remnants of depleted uranium at a number of sites in Kosovo, some in the middle of villages. Pekka Haavisto heads up the UN depleted uranium assessment team. Welcome, Mr. Haavisto.

HAAVISTO: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me about what your team did there. You gathered soil, water, and vegetation samples?

HAAVISTO: Yes. We spent two weeks in Kosovo in November, visiting 11 out of those 112 sites where depleted uranium has been used. And really made, I would say, full environmental sampling, which included soil samples, vegetation samples, groundwater, taking water from wells, even milking some cows in the fields. And also, of course, we collected all that radioactive material that we could find at those sites.

CURWOOD: What are you concerned most about, here? Where you can find this depleted uranium in the food chain, or in the form of shrapnel in the ground?

HAAVISTO: In the food chain, of course, if you have these kind of DU particles in the ground, in the soil. The main risks are connected to the toxicity of depleted uranium because the radioactivity level is very low. I think both of these risks are marginal, but anyhow, they exist. And especially, we are concerned when visiting these sites that these are not war sites, but sites where children are playing in the middle of the villages. And in some cases we saw children in the middle of this kind of depleted uranium remnants. And that of course concerned us a little bit.

CURWOOD: How dangerous is depleted uranium the way it is on these battlefields, in terms of its radioactivity?

HAAVISTO: I think everyone agrees that the biggest danger is when the depleted uranium is used as ammunition, and when it explodes or burns. And just a couple of hours after the attacks, when the depleted uranium dust is around, if you inhale that or get that to your lungs. For people living at these areas, the risks are marginal, mainly connected to the possibility that people are collecting, picking up these remnants of war, putting them in their pockets. Children probably playing with them, putting their hands in the mouth afterwards. These kinds of situations, of course, include also some health consequences or health risks.

CURWOOD: What were local civilians told about the use of depleted uranium?

HAAVISTO: Locally, people knew very little, and usually they didn't know actually that in these sites there have been DU attacks. So this was a new topic for the local population.

CURWOOD: What would you estimate are the health effects in the civilian population from this depleted uranium ordnance?

HAAVISTO: I think it's very clear that actually, depleted uranium is not the biggest health or environmental problem in Kosovo. There is serious air pollution from factories, and there are bad quality drinking water problems, which certainly have bigger environment and even health impacts to the population. Whether it has had any impacts, or whether we should, for example, test people, I think it depends what we found from our samples, vegetation samples, soil samples, water samples. If we of course locate any higher contamination from these samples, then the next step is, of course, look at the health of the population. But I of course hope that we don't find that type of pollution.

CURWOOD: What do you know about the health effects on the Serbian soldiers who were the direct target of this depleted uranium?

HAAVISTO: First of all, you have to know that these people certainly had some other problems as well. It's not only depleted uranium when they were under the attacks. But there might be some survivors. And certainly, these survivors then have been inhaling the DU dust. But unfortunately, from the Serbian side or from the Yugoslav government, we don't know too much about the health situation of these soldiers.

CURWOOD: In 1999, those of us here at Living on Earth were in touch with the Pentagon, trying to determine whether or not depleted uranium had been used. They were quite evasive with us. I want to ask you, do you feel that NATO was forthcoming with the information that you were seeking about the use of depleted uranium, or was NATO and the United States government evasive and difficult to deal with?

HAAVISTO: Well, of course, the facts about the use of depleted uranium, and then finally the coordinates where it has been used, came something like one year after the conflict ended. And in my time, this was a little bit long period. I think this kind of environmental exercise should have been already summer '99.

CURWOOD: What recommendations do you have about what should happen?

HAAVISTO: The sites should be marked, and there should be clear signs, even fences in some cases. People should avoid these sites. Also, the other sites, not only these 11 that we visited, but all the other 100 should be visited and there should be collection of that kind of radioactive remnants that are just lying on the ground.

CURWOOD: Pekka Haavisto is the chair of the UN's depleted uranium assessment team. Thanks for speaking with us today.

HAAVISTO: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: Move over, Mr. Merlot. The olive is making a comeback on California's hillsides. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

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Animal Update

VILLIGER: What's an ant to do when its nest is threatened by flood? If you're a Cataulacus muticus ant living in Malaysia, you'd better have a contingency plan, because you make your home in the hollow nodes of giant bamboo plants deep in the rainforest. These ants build only one colony in a lifetime, so holding back the frequent deluges is a matter of life and death. Plan A: Batten down the hatches by blocking the doorway with your head. If this collective sandbag technique doesn't hold back the waters, move on to Plan B: Start drinking. Hundreds of ants fill up on the unwanted water seeping in their colony and head outside to excrete it away from the nest. Scientists dub this behavior "communal peeing." The ants keep at it in a kind of reverse bucket brigade until the waters recede and their home is dry. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Few trees are as deeply rooted to human culture as the olive tree. Domesticated long before we learned to put words to paper, the olive holds tremendous symbolic power for peace, strength, and resurrection. But in California, producer Guy Hand found the olive can also symbolize something else: the distance we put between ourselves and our agricultural past.

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HAND: That's the sound of olives falling. The days are short, the air crisp, and olives clustered in olive trees all over California are turning deep black, dead ripe. Some will be picked and pressed into olive oil, or cured for eating. But many will be ignored.

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HAND: They'll fall like black hailstones. They'll bounce off cars and people's heads.

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HAND: They'll slicken sidewalks, clog gutters. They'll leaves chunks of winter-time California awash in unwanted olives.

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J. REED: And there are sections of the sidewalk up here that are just impassable because there are so many olives on them. And the sidewalk is completely black, and stretches where people have just given up on the olives.

HAND: Jack Reed grew up on Santa Barbara's aptly-named Olive Street. One of those places where homeowners and olives have been at odds for years. His mother Gertrude was just a young girl when the city of Santa Barbara planted an olive tree in front of her family's new home, the house she still live in today.

G. REED: We moved here in '22, and the tree was planted in '23. And if we had known what the olive tree was going to be like, we'd have pulled it up. (Laughs) Probably we would have been fined for doing it.

HAND: In the 20s the city of Santa Barbara planted olive trees all along Gertrude's street, intending to harvest olives for oil while making a profit for the city. Gertrude remembers the olive pickers coming every year until the 50s, when the market fell and they quit harvesting the trees.

G. REED: It's been a big nuisance ever since, with the olives dropping, and it's a constant rake, rake the olives.

HAND: In 1993, Gertrude had had enough with living in a neighborhood that felt as if it was slipping away on a sea of salad dressing. She and a neighbor decided to act, gathering names on a petition to make the city cut the olive trees down.

G. REED: I did. I canvassed the whole street from Olive Avenue clear down to Ortega. But it didn't -- I turned it in. It didn't do any good at all.

HAND: Do you remember at all how many names or how many people were interested in signing?

G. REED: Around 100 people.

HAND: So, would you say most of the people in the neighborhood were in favor of getting rid of the trees?

G. REED: Yes, they were.

HAND: All Gertrude has to show for her work is a dining room table covered in newspaper clippings generated by her failed petition drive. In one photograph this sweet, silver-haired woman stands defiant, petition in hand, next to her olive tree.

(To Reed) You and that tree sort of grew up together, didn't you?

G. REED: Yes, we did. We sure did. Seventy-seven years.

HAND: Irony clings to these unwanted olives. After all, for millennia the olive tree was not reviled but revered. To ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Muslims, the olive was an integral part of daily life. Mourners placed cured olives in the tombs of Pharaohs. Olive oil anointed the brows of kings, greased the axles of chariots. Olive wood gave strength to the walls of both regal palaces and humble homes.

(Olives drop)

BUSH: See, first of all, olive oil itself has been historically very, very precious. Certainly, in the church's experience, it goes all the way back to the time of Christ and before.

HAND: Jesuit father Bernie Bush -- that's Bernie as in Bernard, by the way -- stands on a ladder in straw hat, suspenders, and work boots, looking more like an Iowa corn farmer than a priest. He's picking olives from one of the hundred trees that grow at El Retiro San Inigo, the Jesuit retreat house in Los Altos, California, where he works and lives.

BUSH: The olives were first brought from the Mediterranean to Mexico and to Latin America by Jesuit missionaries. And then the olives were brought north from Mexico into the California missions by the Franciscans. Each mission had its own olive grove, and that oil was very precious. As I said, use it for lubricating wheels, they use it for cooking, they use it for light. They burn the oil. So it was a multi-purpose oil.

HAND: Spanish missionaries harvested olives from San Diego to Sonoma until 1834, when with secularization most mission orchards were abruptly abandoned. The culture of the Mediterranean quickly gave way to that of northern Europe. These new immigrants had no practical or cultural experience with the olive. The Sacramento Bee at the time mentioned that not one American in 10,000 had ever tried olive oil. Ralph Waldo Emerson described olives like life at sea: both exotic and distasteful.

(Olives drop)

HAND: Father Bush only recently started thinking about olives.

BUSH: Well, about, oh, five years ago, we started doing a monthly healing service here. And we take olive oil, and we blessed it, and we have people come and pray. And we anoint them. And that original one we did by buying a can of oil from Safeway. Then one day not long after that, I was sitting in my office, and right outside my office door is an olive tree, and it was loaded with olives. And I looked at those olives and I said to myself: Wouldn't it be fun if the olive oil we used in our healing service came from our own trees? And I knew we had a grove down in here, but I hadn't been down in here much. I didn't know how many trees there were here. So I said well, let's look into it. So I had no idea how to get from olive to olive oil. Nor did I have any idea how to get an olive off the tree.

HAND: So Father Bush did some research and found Dan Sciabica, a member of an Italian family with a commercial olive oil business in Modesto, California. There was only one hitch. To work, the company's machinery needed a ton of olives.

BUSH: And I said a ton of olives. And he said, "Yeah, that will make you about 30 gallons of oil." And I said, "Thirty gallons of oil is not the scale and magnitude I was thinking of. I have more in mind a pint." And I said, "Well, gee, how do I get a ton of olives?" So Dan Sciabica came over here and looked at our grove. And we had a lot of olives here. And he says, you know, you pick these olives. And he said, "I'll leave a box off." So he left off one of those fruit bins and said, "You fill these up and we'll make the olive oil for you." Well, as it turned out that first year we had no idea what we were doing. We were down in here in the orchard, you know, without tarps or any of that kind of thing. We didn't know how to pick very well. But as it turned out, in the three days that we worked on Thanksgiving weekend, we picked a thousand pounds, half a ton, took it over there, and they made us 27 gallons of oil.

HAND: So the next year, Father Bush refined his technique. Got rakes, tarps, and buckets, and asked friends and neighbors to come to the retreat the day after Thanksgiving to pick olives.

(Children's voices)

BUSH: There's an instruction sheet. Sign in. Put your name, address...

HAND: In this, the sixth year, whole families are on ladders picking by hand, or raking olives off the trees onto tarps.
(Various voices)

HAND: And as the sun fades, the crate fills to overflowing with a thousand pounds of bright green and iridescent purple olives. While tired, muddy volunteers haul their last bucketfuls up from the grove, another volunteer, Chelsea McNeil, a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, composes an impromptu olive-picking song in the parking lot.

McNEIL: (Sings to the tune of Shenandoah) For one small bottle of olive oil on the hills of El Retiro , I broke my back before lunch break. Away, let me get away to my chiropractor. (People laugh and clap)

HAND: At about the same time Father Bush and his volunteers were refining their picking skills, Gabrielle Leonhard was wandering old mission groves doing research for a book about olives.

LEONHARD: And when I went to the missions, they really could not tell me about the history. When I looked at the trees, many of them looked like scarecrows or dense thickets that I couldn't even look through. They weren't trees any more, they were bushes down to the ground. And I said my gosh, this is a living legacy. It is a culinary heritage for California, and we're losing it.

HAND: Gabrielle was stunned enough by what she saw to form The Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration, and Education Project. She and a group of volunteers contacted the northern and central California missions and began working directly with them.

LEONARD: The Soledad Mission was very interested in restoring their olive history, and they harvested two years ago and made an oil. The Santa Ynez Mission has harvested, now, for the third year. The Sonoma Mission has harvested their olives for I think three harvests now, and that oil is being sold.

(Spanish music)

HAND: Today, Gabrielle is attending the Blessing of the Olives Festival at the Sonoma Mission in Sonoma, California -- an event organized to pay homage to olive history. And perhaps to help secure its future.

(Music continues, to applause)

DURVEN: Good morning. I'm Daphne Derven, and it's a real privilege for me to welcome you all here again. This is our third blessing of the olives here at the Sonoma Mission...

HAND: On this Saturday in December, 100-some people gather in the mission's adobe-walled courtyard, standing under the gray-green canopy of olive trees.

DERVEN: And now it's a real privilege to introduce Father Aurelio Villa of St. Leo' Church.

(Audience applause)

VILLA: Oh God, from the very beginning of time you commanded the earth to bring forth vegetation and fruits of every kind. Grant, we pray, that this land these trees, enriched by your bounty and cultivated by human hands, may be fertile with abundant crops...

HAND: Father Aurelio, dressed in vestments, white beard, and beatific smile, sprinkles holy water on mounds of freshly-picked olives. It's as if California's past had rematerialized before our eyes.

VILLA: ... and thank you for coming. And I hope that you will enjoy the olive and the oil that we produce.

(Audience applause)

HAND: A surge of interest in Mediterranean food and the well-publicized health benefits of olive oil have people all over California looking with a newfound interest at neglected olive trees. Some are even planting new ones. Others are building olive oil presses. Just ten years ago there were only half a dozen presses in California. Now there are at least 24.

(Ambient voices)

HAND: One of those presses is located in Glen Ellen, just north of the Sonoma Mission. Today, it is offering to process olives for anyone who wants to bring them by. Peggy Loar, director of the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts.

LORE: One of the wonderful things that happens here is that people who are planting, you know, 50 trees or even 30 trees or fewer will actually pick their olives, go into a community olive press, and then they get their percentage of oil on the other end. And it just brings the whole community together.

(Wood moves.)

WOMAN: Take this inside and pay for it.

HAND: People stand in line, harvest in hand, waiting to have it weighed, combined with other olives, and dumped into a hopper.

(Spilling)

HAND: To be crushed and pressed into olive oil. Some bring large crates of olives. Others bring just a bucket or two. Some children bring olives cupped in their bare hands.

(To children) Did you guys pick olives?

CHILD 1: Uh huh.

CHILD 2: Off our tree.

CHILD 1: It's in our front yard.

HAND: How many trees do you have?

CHILD 1: One, but it makes a lot of olives.

HAND: Do you like olive oil?

CHILD 1: I've never really tried it. My mom and dad usually eat it the most.

HAND: They just make the kids pick them.

CHILD 1: Yeah. (Laughs)

HAND: Coming to California from Sicily, Mike Troia is here with his brother Sal and their 83-year-old father. None of them can believe that here, olives were left to fall to the ground and rot.

TROIA: In Sicily, having an olive tree is like having a little reserve in the bank.

HAND: The Troias don't have their own olive tree, but they found plenty to pick in the neighborhoods where they live.

TROIA: If you see usually the olives in the tree, the people don't use them. So all you've got to do is just go knock on the door and ask, you know, can we pick the olives? And they more than are willing to say yes.

(Cheering)

HAND: One group is elated to hear they've picked nearly 300 pounds of olives.

(To group) Did you guys pick these?

WOMAN 1: Yes, we did. We did. Had a great time picking them.

WOMAN 2: We worked the hard trees first, and then we went down below and worked the easy trees, and that seemed to work -- that worked much better than the first year we did it, where we worked the easy trees first and then all we did was gripe about the hard trees, you know what I mean? (Laughter) It's easier this way.

WOMAN 2: And it's interesting, because some trees have a lot of olives on one side, and then the other side is totally bare and they don't have any olives on them. And so, we kind of learned the nature of the trees.

WOMAN 1: And we'll come back for pickling. You're going to pickle some, I'm going to pickle some, yeah.

WOMAN 2: It's not much cheaper than buying olive oil, but it's just much more fun and it's great to give it away and say I made this.

WOMAN 1: It's a whole new respect for every drop of olive oil.

WOMAN 2: Yeah, yeah.

WOMAN 1: You know, you go to the restaurant and they slop that stuff in the bowl for you to dip your bread in. I'm like, every berry was picked by hand. You just know it, because there's no other way to do it.

HAND: I don't know if this resurrected interest in olives will stop them from staining the sidewalks around Gertrude Reed's Santa Barbara home. But the glee I hear in the voices of those crowded around this olive press makes me optimistic. It's as if these friends and families had discovered something new and wondrous in the olive grove: agriculture. In one sense, their enthusiasm simply shows how far we've removed ourselves as a culture from the act of growing things. Yet, it also shows just how hungry we are to get back to it. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

(Music up and under)

HAND: So, you're going to do it next year?

MAN: Yeah.

WOMAN 1: Yeah, let's do it again next year.

WOMAN 2: There's a second harvest in January, if there's berries left we'll do it again.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: For years scientists have been warning us about the dire consequences we could face if the planet surface continues to warm. Drought for some, famine for others, rising sea levels, and spreading disease are all part of the downside of the scenario. But there's also an intriguing side to global warming. In western Canada, receding ice is revealing hidden archaeological treasure.

MAN: This one is just a remarkable specimen. It's about two-and-a-half feet long. It's got a barbed antler point at the end. It's tied on with sinew. There's three feathers tied at both ends with sinew. There's ochre decoration at least in five places down the arrow. This arrow has got to be a thousand years old, and it's in nearly perfect condition. If you had a bow you could shoot and hunt with this arrow today.

CURWOOD: Ancient artifacts from the unfreezing north next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under)

 

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