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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

May 25, 2001

Air Date: May 25, 2001



James Jeffords

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Host Steve Curwood speaks with reporter Cat Lazaroff about what the defection of Vermont senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party may mean for environmental issues on Capital Hill. (05:30)

Waxman Demands Probe

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Host Steve Curwood speaks with California Congressman Henry Waxman about why he has called for an investigation into the Bush administrations energy task force. (06:00)

Health Note

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Living On Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on how drinking black tea can help prevent cavities. (01:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

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This week, facts about Cooper Hills Cheese Roll. Almost every year, thousands gather in Gloucestshire, England to watch the reckless run and roll after a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. (01:30)

Flavr Savr

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Host Steve Curwood talks with author Belinda Martineau, about her new book, Fresh Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. (06:10)

Animal ER / Vicki Croke

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Reporter Vicki Croke visits the New England Wildlife Center in Massachusetts which houses an emergency room for animals. (06:40)

News Follow-Up

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New developments in stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)

Technology Note / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earths Jennifer Chu reports on out-of-state business developers who are promising cheap and abundant energy to California companies if they move to their states. (01:30)

Kofi Speaks

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During a commencement address at Tufts University; UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly pressured the Bush administration about its position on global warming. An excerpt from the speech airs. (02:00)

Straw Bale Homes

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During a commencement address at Tufts University; UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly pressured the Bush administration about its position on global warming. An excerpt from the speech airs. ()

Straw Bale Homes

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A poor community in Sonora, Mexico is replacing rows of tarpaper shacks with functional straw bale homes for little money. As part of Homelands Productions "Border Stories" series, producer Alan Weisman brings us the story of a town finding a semblance of dignity and pride in their surroundings. (13:40)

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James Jeffords

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The delicate power balance in the U.S. Senate has tipped away from the Republicans. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont says he's now an Independent and has bid the GOP goodbye. As the Democrats take control of the Senate for the first time since 1994, big changes are underway on Capitol Hill. To discuss the impact of the party change by one of the Senate's most pro-environment members, I'm joined now by Cat Lazaroff, the Washington bureau chief of Environment News Service. Hi there, Cat.

LAZAROFF: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Overall, what do you think will be the environment impact of Senator Jeffords' party switch?

LAZAROFF: I think this is going to have a major impact on the ability of the Bush administration to push through its agenda. There was a lot of concern last fall when Bush won over Gore, that environmental issues were really going to have to take a back seat over the next, at least the next, four years. I think now there is a sense that environmental issues may now be able to push to the forefront again, at least in the Senate.

CURWOOD: Now, Senator Jeffords was part of, what we might call, the green elephants: moderate Republicans, largely from the northeast, who were supportive of environmental causes. How well do you think he's going to be able to get along with those moderate Republican colleagues now?

LAZAROFF: Jeffords said, when he made this decision, that he needed to stick by his own principles. And in general, the moderate Republicans, the green elephants, as you call them, have been doing that all along. They have felt a little bit stifled under the Bush administration. They have felt as though the more moderate side of the Republican Party has not had as much of a voice, particularly in the Senate, as it might have in the past under past administrations. So I think that the moderate Republicans, Jeffords' colleagues, are really going to welcome this change as giving them more of an ability to make their voices heard.

CURWOOD: Senator Jeffords is likely to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He chairs Health and Human Resources, but of course, Senator Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, has seniority there when the Democrats take over. So, what would be the impact of Senator Jeffords on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and what issues in particular do you think he would embrace?

LAZAROFF: I think that as the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, we're going to see Jeffords pushing his own agenda, which includes keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling, which includes making a lot more positive moves to combat global warming. And a lot of public lands preservation. And those are things that we have not seen under Bob Smith, who has been much less open to supporting traditionally Democratic, liberal environmental issues.

CURWOOD: What other committee changes are we likely to see as the Democrats take charge? I'm particularly thinking of the Energy Committee, and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico would be next in line with seniority there.

LAZAROFF: Yes. That's going to be an enormous change as well. Bingaman has voted about 70 percent of the time pro-environment, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And he's going to be taking over from Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, who has voted zero percent of the time pro-environment over the last two Congresses. Bingaman introduced his own comprehensive energy package earlier this month, and his package differs from President Bush's on a number of very important ways. Particularly, it strongly addresses climate change and combating global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. It would boost the fuel efficiency of vehicles. It would cap electricity prices, something that the Bush administration is strongly opposed to. And it would also oppose opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. All of these things are now going to be open to much more debate in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee than they would have been under Murkowski, who, as an Alaskan, strongly supported opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, for example.

CURWOOD: Let's look for a moment at the Appropriations Committee. Ted Stevens from Alaska has had that committee for a number of years and influenced the environmental agenda there. Robert Byrd from West Virginia will take over now. How will that change the environmental approach of the Appropriations Committee?

LAZAROFF: Well, Ted Stevens has done a very good job of pushing the interests of Alaskans, and that has included a strong emphasis on revenues from oil drilling, which directly benefit Alaskans. And also, keeping the timber industry active in the Tongass and other national forests in Alaska. Robert Byrd has his own agenda. He is very interested in keeping mountaintop removal mining, coal mining, alive in his home state of West Virginia. So, I think we may see a situation in which Senator Byrd is willing to compromise on things like logging and oil drilling in order to keep the coal industry healthy in West Virginia.

CURWOOD: What do the environmental activists say about this switch in the Senate?

LAZAROFF: Well, what I'm hearing from groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters is that they've been very happy in the past working with Senator Jeffords, and that they're really excited that Jeffords may end up chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. And in particular, they're just thrilled that the Senate is now going to be controlled by the Democrats, who traditionally have voted a lot more consistently in favor of environmental initiatives than have the vast majority of the Senate Republicans.

CURWOOD: Cat Lazaroff is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Environment New Service. Thanks for filling us in, Cat.

LAZAROFF: Thank you very much.

(Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Crossroads")

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Waxman Demands Probe

CURWOOD: By now, the content of the Bush administration's energy plan has been well-dissected and debated. But how that energy plan was created is still shrouded in secrecy and very much in the news. Two Democratic Congressmen are requesting information about the task force and what the decision-making process was inside that group. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has agreed to look into the matter. I am joined now by one of the petitioners, Representative Henry Waxman from California. Hello, Sir.

WAXMAN: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, the Vice President's office, I understand, has given you some of the information that you and Representative John Dingell requested. What is it that you still want to know about the Energy Policy Task Force?

WAXMAN: We've asked the General Accounting Office to investigate questions such as: Who was on the task force? Who has met with the task force? The costs the task force has incurred. And astonishingly, this week, the task force asked the GAO to stop its inquiry and declined to respond to their request for basic information. When we had the Clinton administration set up a task force to organize their health plan, the Republicans went crazy, and they demanded the right to know everything. They had subpoenas and they had lawsuits. And you have to look at that and the stark contrast to the way the Congressional Republicans are looking at this issue. They could care less that this task force may be meeting only with the energy providers, but not with consumers or environmentalists.

CURWOOD: In your letters to the GAO and the Vice President's office, you write that, quote, "The process of energy policy development needs sunshine." Congressman, what do you mean by that?

WAXMAN: I think that when an administration makes a proposal, we ought to get the full benefit that their task force had of hearing the arguments so that we can evaluate them, and also understanding the reasoning behind it. And if the administration directs its policy and develops its positions based on these secret meetings with these special interest groups, without even giving an opportunity for others to be heard and to evaluate their arguments, I think the American people ought to know about it and look at their proposals in that light. That they're not genuine proposals that deal with our national needs. They are proposals that deal with the needs of their major contributors.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say, look. When government bodies come together they sometimes need to deliberate in secret. The Supreme Court doesn't have outside observers come. What's dangerous about having these kinds of policy decisions being made behind closed doors?

WAXMAN: The Vice President, the President, should be able to talk with each other. They ought to be able to talk to their cabinet officials behind closed doors, in a very candid way, without anybody having access to that. But if they have a task force, well, we ought to know who's on that task force. What kind of information are they getting? It's not a judicial function, which is what the Supreme Court would do when they meet behind closed doors. It's what ought to be a transparent process so the public can evaluate the arguments that are made and participate through influencing their elected officials, not only the Congress but the President of the United States and people in his administration. It's a perversion and distortion of the whole idea of executive privilege.

CURWOOD: Now, you must have some information about who, in fact, attended these sessions of the task force and participated. What do you know? Who, in fact, was there, and what was the balance of the spectrum of the stakeholders who were represented?

WAXMAN: We do know that the big oil, big gas, coal, the industry people, have been well-represented in the deliberations within the administration. But we also know that those industry groups gave millions of dollars to the Republican campaign. So they got special treatment. But not only special treatment, they got a one-sided opportunity to give their point of view. They were the only ones that were given an audience. Maybe the administration doesn't even realize it, but when you only hear from one side you start thinking that that's the full story. .You start accepting that point of view.

CURWOOD: Congressman, recently the Peabody Coal Company, one of the biggest coal companies in the world, made an initial public offering of their stock to raise almost half a billion dollars. This all happened just after an energy plan really boosting the prospects of coal came out. This company has made substantial contributions in soft money to Republicans recently. Some investigative types would say something could be going on here. What's your response?

WAXMAN: I don't know the answer to whether there was any collusion with a government announcement and the issuing of the stock. But I know that there are investors that watch very carefully the tea leaves and the announcements of government policy, and, as a consequence, see a stock go up or down based on those announcements. So, they might have guessed that the energy policy was going to be so favorable to coal and took advantage of it. Or they may well have had inside information. It could be that the people in the coal industry, maybe even from Peabody, were on the task force. That's one of the reasons we ought to have the information as to who was on the task force and who was giving them information.

CURWOOD: California Democrat Henry Waxman is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform. Thank you for speaking with us today, Congressman.

WAXMAN: Thank you for your interest.

CURWOOD: A spokesman from Peabody Energy Corporation told Living on Earth that the company's chairman and CEO, along with the vice president for technology and environment, did participate in the Bush administration's transition team. But the spokesman could not confirm whether anyone from Peabody had attended any energy task force meetings. The spokesman did verify that Peabody Coal contributed about a quarter of a million dollars to Republican campaigns between 1999 and 2000.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: It was supposed to taste better and last longer. The rise and fall of genetic engineering's Flavr Savr tomato. First, this environmental health note from Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under: Allison Dean, "Health Note Theme")

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Health Note

GRABER: A strong cup of black tea can be a good pick-me-up. Now, new research shows it might also help prevent cavities. Most research on health benefits of tea have focused on green tea, and previous research had shown that drinking green tea can lead to fewer cavities. Green tea and black tea come from the same plant, and 80 percent of tea consumed worldwide is black tea. So, researchers decided to look and see if black tea had the same beneficial dental effects. In a study, volunteers rinsed their mouths with black tea five times for 30 seconds a pop, waiting three minutes between rinses. The researchers found that the compounds in black tea kill or suppress the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. It also stops bacteria from producing acid, which weakens teeth. In addition, these compounds counteract a bacterial enzyme and prevent it from turning sugar into the sticky stuff that binds plaque to teeth. So enjoy that cup of black tea. And, if you want, swish it around in your mouth a bit to hit all those hard-to-reach spots before brushing. That's this week's health note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

(Music up and under: Fly Pan Am, "de Cercle")

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

(Music up and under: Ethereal, "The Hamster Dance")

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Two hundred years ago, an historic cheese was sent flying down Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire, England. The act was a show of defiance by commoners to proclaim their rights to farm crops, raise chickens, and graze cattle on public land. And almost every year since, the Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll marks the event. It all begins with a specially-made Double-Gloucester that weighs in at eight pounds and measures two feet across. It's pushed down a 300-yard, 50-degree slope. While the cheese does most of the rolling, thousands gather to watch people go running and rolling their way down the hill after the tasty wheel. The Cheese Roll has had its ups and downs. In the midst of World War II when cheese was rationed, a wooden model careened down the hill. And three years ago, a few too many bumps, broken bones, and bruises forced the people of Cooper's Hill to cancel the roll. Safety precautions were put into place and medics put on standby. But, alas, this year they'll have nowhere to go. Foot-in-mouth disease has quarantined many of the event's participants. Even the master of ceremonies and the traditional Double-Gloucester cheese maker are confined to their farms. So, like Red Sox and Cubs fans in the U.S., the folks in Gloucestershire, England, have adopted the familiar refrain, "Wait till next year." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Flavr Savr

CURWOOD: In the late 1980s, scientists at a small Davis, California biotech company began working quietly and feverishly on what was to become the world's first-ever bio-engineered consumer food. The company was called Calgene, and the Flavr Savr tomato was the fruit of their labors. The scientists pulled off their genetic manipulation. The tomato got FDA approval, was test-marketed, and flopped miserably. Calgene hit hard times and Monsanto eventually bought out the startup. Now, there's an inside look at this failed biotech venture. It's called First Fruit: the Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods. The author is Belinda Martineau, a member of Calgene's original research team, and she joins me now. Welcome.

MARTINEAU: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Tell me, why was the Flavr Savr tomato created?

MARTINEAU: The way tomatoes are handled now, they're picked when they're absolutely green. There's not a speck of color on them. And then they're rock hard, so they can put them in a big truck and get them to the grocery store. Now, the dream was the idea that if you could prevent the cell walls from breaking down, you could keep a tomato firmer as it ripened on the vine. It would stay firm enough to survive trucking to market. And you would have a much better tasting tomato.

CURWOOD: And, if I understand this correctly, what you did was--not have its own genetic information that tells it to go ahead and rot --

MARTINEAU: Exactly. A gene was isolated from a tomato, flipped upside-down and backward, and re-inserted. And by doing that, that interfered with the expression of the natural gene. And, in this case, it was a gene encoding for a protein that's involved in breaking down cell walls in a tomato.

CURWOOD: Tell me why Calgene decided to do this genetic engineering on a special tomato, and then go into the huge fresh tomato business. I understand the expertise in genetic engineering, but in the tomato business?

MARTINEAU: Right, that's a good question. And that was debated at Calgene. And the idea was that the company, their business strategy was going to be one of vertical integration. That they would be in the tomato business from the farmer to the consumer, from the ground up.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a bit about how the scientists in your company communicated with the business people and the business people communicated with the scientists, and how that all got turned around as to what was said to the public.

MARTINEAU: Well, Calgene was a very small company. The scientists would get together with their business staff and hash things out. But time was of the essence, and we knew this was going to be the first product out there. And so, being as transparent and up-front as possible was in our best interest. And Calgene put a 1-800 number on the Flavr Savr tomato. So I think that just giving the public the opportunity to seek more information is going to go a long way toward easing the controversy over these foods.

CURWOOD: And how did the public respond?

MARTINEAU: The public loved the tomatoes. They were only sold in two grocery stores nationwide several days after we received approval from the FDA. And the story in Davis, where Calgene is located, they had to ration the tomatoes. The store owner said you could only buy two a day. And literally, Calgene couldn't keep up with the demand. They were that popular.

CURWOOD: So then, what went wrong? I mean, people are clamoring for this stuff. You have to ration the sale at the grocery store.

MARTINEAU: Well, people wanted to try. If they really could save flavor, then the taste tests, you know, where some people loved them, some people didn't think they were that great -- but the flavor wasn't really there.

CURWOOD: So, you got a tomato that would sit around looking prettier but really tasted no better.

MARTINEAU: Correct. Plus, on top of that, Calgene didn't have very much experience handling tomatoes. You know, we were gene jockeys and very new to the tomato business. And we didn't have, really, the experience to handle them as well as we should have.

CURWOOD: Other companies haven't been so transparent. In fact, the company that bought your company, Monsanto, has been pretty closely held about what it does to develop the bio-engineered products that it has. And it's also had a pretty tough time with consumers and protests over a number of their products. Any advice for the Monsantos of the world, from your experience?

MARTINEAU: My only concern, at this point, is that while that was a very transparent process, the FDA, when they proclaimed that the tomato was as safe as any other tomato, they also said, you know, this thing is so safe, we're not going to require this kind of a regulatory assessment for the products that come after it. And that's where I'm a little uneasy. The industry claims that every single company has come forward with every single product and gone through a consultation process with the FDA. And if that's so, then it should be no big deal to make that process mandatory.

CURWOOD: What came up in the course of all this that you really didn't anticipate?

MARTINEAU: Well, I feel I was a pioneer in this new technology. And we all believed that this was going to make a big difference, and that we were going to help feed the world. And what I learned was that the promise of a new technology is not as easy as all that. And there's a lot of hard work involved. And a lot of studies need to take place before you go to market with that technology, no matter how great its promise might be. And that we need to take it a little slower.

CURWOOD: Belinda Martineau's book is called First Fruit: the Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

MARTINEAU: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me here.

(Music up and under: Monks of Doom, "Tangue dia (for Astor Piazzola)")

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Animal ER

CURWOOD: If you're injured in an accident, someone can dial 911 for help. But where do wild animals go for care? There are hundreds of wildlife clinics and thousands of licensed rehabilitators around the country who treat squirrels with broken legs, pigeons who can't fly, and owls with vision problems. Cars injure the majority of animals carted in by Good Samaritans and animal control officers. Many of these ERs operate on a shoestring, caring for animals with donated supplies and a volunteer work force. Vicki Croke visited one animal ER in Massachusetts.

(Animal calls)

MERTZ: All right. Take care. Good to see you. Bye-bye.

CROKE: Its name is practically bigger than the place itself. The New England Wildlife Center is headquartered in a squat and scrunched little building that once served as a storage area for Navy explosives. Today, it's teeming with songbirds and snakes, raccoons and rabbits. Turtles lounge in their bubbling spas, while volunteers and students in shorts and scrubs dance around each other, feeding and medicating all the patients. The space is choked with medical equipment, feed bags, and supplies. In the center of it all, wearing his trademark baseball cap and jeans, is the director, veterinarian Greg Mertz.

(To Mertz) What have you got in your hand?

MERTZ: I have a black racer snake, and he was hit by a car. And you see that he's sustained a fair amount of damage to his right eye.

CROKE: An anonymous Good Samaritan, charmed by the sick snake, carried him in from a nearby street.

MERTZ: The interpretation is that it was hit on the road. It could be something else. We never know for sure.

CROKE: I wonder how a person knows that a snake is in distress. Just because it's not moving?

MERTZ: I'll show you. If I leave go of this snake, he will tilt to his left.

CROKE: This isn't just a sanctuary for snakes. All animals are welcome here and no creature is turned away, no matter what its HMO. Last year alone, 4,000 animals were treated. Everything from pigeons, geese, and squirrels, to Arctic fox, weasels, falcons, and owls. As Greg says, the staff is non-species-ist.

MERTZ: The common animals are more commonly brought to our hospital, and we treat them, first because it's a humane thing to do, and second, if not more important, each and every one of these animals is a learning laboratory. And, you know, teaching somebody how to care for a pigeon is as valuable as teaching somebody how to care for a peregrine falcon or an eagle or an Arctic fox.

CROKE: From the patients, though, there isn't always a lot of gratitude. And that's fine by Greg. He's not in it for the thank-yous. Take his favorite bird, the cormorant. It's probably the least likely creature to ever show affection.

MERTZ: Yeah, I've learned my lesson the hard way, actually. I had a cormorant one time grab me between my eyes, and grab me by the nose, and was literally hanging off of my nose. And it hurts.

CROKE: And you're thinking, I love this bird.

MERTZ: Yeah, I just love this. (Laughs)

CROKE: Like any emergency room, this one practices all kinds of medicine on the fly: setting legs, cleaning infections. And, often enough, operating on wounds. Today, though, we're here on a more delicate mission. It's not quite a heist of a coyote's family jewels, it's more like a restringing. Our patient is a young orphaned coyote, who looks like any other pup. Soft brown fur, rounded belly, and enormous ears he hasn't grown into yet. The eight-week-old is going to live in a nearby zoo with a mate. Zoo officials want him to act like a normal, virile coyote husband. But they don't want him to reproduce. So Greg is giving him a vasectomy that will leave his hormones and his hubris intact.

(A shaver runs)

CROKE: We prepare for the operation by shaving the puppy fuzz off his belly and groin and laying out sterile surgical equipment. The whole operation should take about 20 minutes.

(To Mertz) Are you making progress, Greg?

MERTZ: I am making progress. It's slow right now because what we're trying to isolate is on the order of the thickness of -- certainly maybe half the size of a pencil lead.

CROKE: Greg hones in on his target. It's a white, threadlike duct.

MERTZ: And there it is.

CROKE: Since I'm already scrubbed, masked, and gloved, I am recruited as a surgical assistant.

MERTZ: All right. Now, Vicki, right beside you is a blue-handled instrument. It's a hemaclip holder.

CROKE: We are using what appears to be tiny surgical staples known as hemaclip. My job is to remove the staples from a plastic dispenser and hand them over to Greg. He attaches two tiny staples along the length of the duct.

MERTZ: Now, what I do is I'm going to go between the two clips and I am going to clip the ductus. Now the ductus is in half.

CROKE: It's ductus interruptus.

MERTZ: It is ductus interruptus.

CROKE: The little coyote has a groggy but uneventful afternoon ahead of him. And within a few weeks, he'll be off to his enclosure at the zoo. Most animals here, however, those who make it, are released back into the wild.


CROKE: Wow, kind of looks like a golf course with all these Canada geese.

(Geese honking)

MERTZ: The golf course with all the Canada geese. You can see how beat down a waterfowl enclosure gets. It's amazing. Their feet, they're constantly busy padding around and picking at whatever they can find in the enclosure.

CROKE: The Canada geese are kept in an outside pen and are free to fly away as soon as they're willing and able. And like all the animals the center releases, once they're back in nature, they're on their own. At the edge of the woods that surround the center, a pile of feathers is mute testimony to that.

MERTZ: Now here's not a good sign. (Laughs) This is not a good sign at all.

CROKE: Outside the center, predators such as hawks and owls make it a bird-eat-bird world. The feathers probably belong to a pigeon.

MERTZ: As I said, we don't take care of, or we don't protect the animals once they are released, except as we need to. And here's a pile of feathers that indicates that some predator has come through and, I think, probably killed and eaten a pigeon. It's part of the belief in what we do, is that natural cycles are good cycles. And we cannot take care of every individual animal out there. And here's evidence that we can't and we don't.

CROKE: Maybe the care here is a little like an HMO after all.

(Honking geese)

CROKE: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Croke in Hingham, Massachusetts.

(More honking)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under" Update Theme & Stings")

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News Follow-Up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately.

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CURWOOD: It was a year ago that the National Park Service lost control of a prescribed burn in New Mexico that was designed to thin out dense growth. More than 47,000 acres burned, and more than 400 families lost their homes. The landscape is recovering now, thanks to the nutrients in the ash left behind by the fire. Julie Habiger works for Los Alamos County.

HABIGER: Even though we have a lot of, what we call, our burnt toothpicks, a lot of tree stalks with nothing on them, we also have a lot of new vegetation, brush, shrubbery, wildflowers, that are just beginning to come on strong just within the last couple of weeks.

CURWOOD: The mountain area is preparing for monsoon rains, which could bring more soil erosion and flooding.

(Music up and under" Update Theme & Stings")

CURWOOD: Chemicals like DDT and dioxins are known to cause serious health effects. Now, 127 countries have agreed to a treaty banning DDT, dioxins, PCBs, and nine more of these so-called persistent organic pollutants. EPA administrator Christie Whitman was on hand in Sweden to represent the United States at the treaty signing. The persistent organic pollutants, better known as the POPs treaty, will go into effect once 50 countries ratify it.

(Music up and under" Update Theme & Stings")

CURWOOD: Over the years we've reported on attempts to rebuild whooping crane populations. Scientists use sandhill cranes, a close cousin of the endangered whoopers, to test different rearing techniques. These cranes don't know how to migrate when they are born in captivity, so researchers teach them to fly south by getting them to follow an ultralight aircraft. This spring, for the first time, a flock of sandhill cranes returned on their own to where they were raised in Wisconsin. Jennifer Rabuck of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge says the sandhills' return means that scientists have chosen a hospitable area that the birds like, too.

RABUCK: Having the sandhills return to this spot means that it's very, very likely that the whooping cranes that we would raise this year, under the exact same set of circumstances, would also come back to that exact same location.

CURWOOD: Biologists in Wisconsin anticipate leading about ten whoopers south to Florida this fall. They hope to establish a migrating flock east of the Mississippi River.

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CURWOOD: And finally, there's a new way to help wildlife recover after an oil spill. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust has put out the call for penguin sweaters. The tiny wool jerseys prevent penguins from preening and ingesting oil. Sure, the birds don't enjoy being covered from neck to ankle, but hey, sometimes you have to suffer for fashion. If your knitting needles are raring to go, check out our Web site, www.loe.org., for a link to a pattern for sweaters that fit Australia Fairy penguins. And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

(Music up and under" Update Theme & Stings")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Changing lives with simple straw bale homes. Mexicans combine the powers of ecology and economy. First, this environmental business note from Jennifer Chu.

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Technology Note

CHU: In the past, out-of-state business developers had a hard sell trying to entice Silicon Valley companies to relocate. Tax breaks weren't always enough, and even Fairfax, Virginia's offer of free parking and no marauding SUVs couldn't convince the dot-coms to move out of sunny California. But now, several state commerce departments have started using California's energy crunch to attract business. Tennessee is one state advertising cheap and abundant power. It recently distributed flashlights to 1,000 California businesses with the message, "The next time the lights go out, use this to find your way to Tennessee." Utah mailed off several hundred packages of batteries with the question, "Are you in the dark about where to grow your business?" Even Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura is getting in on the power play. A billboard sponsored by his snowy state welcomes commuters to San Jose with the words, "Whiteouts occasional, blackouts never." State officials say they'll follow up their pitches with letters and phone calls, and wine and dine company CEOs while whispering sweet kilowatts in their ears. With more than 30 days of rolling blackouts expected in California this summer, many other states will be keeping their lights on for companies in the dark. That's this week's business note. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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

(Music up and under: Drowning, Not Waving, "Willow Tree")

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Kofi Speaks

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The international fallout continues over President Bush's decision to abandon the Kyoto global warming treaty. And on May twentieth in Medford, Massachusetts, the diplomatic imbroglio took an unexpected twist.

ANNAN: I want to talk to you today about climate change.

CURWOOD: Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, delivered the commencement speech at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And in doing so, he took the unusual step of aiming his remarks, in part, at one particular UN member state. He urged the United States to reconsider its stance on the Kyoto negotiations. Here is an excerpt from the Secretary General's speech.

ANNAN: The United States, as you probably know, is the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it is the world's largest and most successful economy. That makes it especially important for it to join in reducing the emissions, and in the broader question, for energy efficiency and conservation. Indeed, there is concern throughout the world about the decision of the new administration to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. Today we face the very real danger that the hard-won global gains in combating climate change will experience a grievous setback. Contrary to popular belief, we do not face a choice between economy and ecology. It is often said that protecting the environment would constrain or even undermine economic growth. In fact, the opposite is true. Unless we protect resources and earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth. We must stop being so economically defensive and start being more politically courageous.

CURWOOD: United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, delivering his commencement speech on global warming at Tufts University.

(Music up and under)

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Straw Bale Homes

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The international fallout continues over President Bush's decision to abandon the Kyoto global warming treaty. And on May twentieth in Medford, Massachusetts, the diplomatic imbroglio took an unexpected twist.

ANNAN: I want to talk to you today about climate change.

CURWOOD: Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, delivered the commencement speech at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And in doing so, he took the unusual step of aiming his remarks, in part, at one particular UN member state. He urged the United States to reconsider its stance on the Kyoto negotiations. Here is an excerpt from the Secretary General's speech.

ANNAN: The United States, as you probably know, is the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it is the world's largest and most successful economy. That makes it especially important for it to join in reducing the emissions, and in the broader question, for energy efficiency and conservation. Indeed, there is concern throughout the world about the decision of the new administration to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. Today we face the very real danger that the hard-won global gains in combating climate change will experience a grievous setback. Contrary to popular belief, we do not face a choice between economy and ecology. It is often said that protecting the environment would constrain or even undermine economic growth. In fact, the opposite is true. Unless we protect resources and earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth. We must stop being so economically defensive and start being more politically courageous.

CURWOOD: United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, delivering his commencement speech on global warming at Tufts University.

(Music up and under)

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Straw Bale Homes

CURWOOD: In the last 50 years, human habitation on earth has gone from being two-thirds rural, one-third urban to nearly the opposite. It's the lure of higher incomes and a more exciting lifestyle that helps draw people to the cities. But once there, they often encounter a different reality. There are few well-paying jobs and no land for poor people to feed their families with subsistence farming. Instead, they now fill immense shanty towns that ring the cities of the developing world. These poor cities will remain squalid unless people find a way to have dignity and take pride in their surroundings. As part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions, Alan Weisman takes us to the northern Mexican state of Sonora to meet people who are trying to do just that.

(Beeps and motors of heavy machinery)

A. STEEN: Look how many of these things there are. There's thousands of them. And they're going up -- I keep wondering, well, who's occupying them all?

B. STEEN: We were just on one segment of it, Alan. If we drove you around the city, you can see it's surrounded by these things.

WEISMAN: I'm driving with homebuilders Bill and Athena Steen through one of the many housing projects shooting up around Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, birthplace of the green revolution. Obregon is known as Mexico's bread basket because it's surrounded by over a million acres of wheat. But lately, more and more fields are disappearing under rows of identical, uninsulated concrete boxes that go for miles.

B. STEEN: Puny little houses with no space for anything. No space to grow anything, no space to do anything. Just, you know -- and particularly in the hotter months of the year, just to suffer and just swelter in these things.

(Heavy machinery)

WEISMAN: Nevertheless, Mexico wants to build 760,000 of these cubes a year to meet its exploding housing demand. Yet, at $20,000 for a unit under 500 square feet, and with a 20-year federal mortgage automatically garnished from your paycheck, you have to have made it to the middle class to own one.

A. STEEN: What shocks me is that there are all this many people who would want to live in these things.

B. STEEN: Oh, God.

A. STEEN: There's a lot of them.

WEISMAN: Athena Steen is from New Mexico's historic Santa Clara Pueblo. She first met her husband Bill when he came to see a house she'd built with super-thick walls made from bales of straw stacked like giant bricks and then mud-plastered. Bill, who is part Mexican and grew up in an adobe home in Arizona, was impressed. Years later, married, they co-authored a best-selling book titled The Straw Bale House. In 1994, the Steens got a call from the Save the Children Foundation here in Ciudad Obregon. The director wanted to know if a locally abundant waste product, wheat straw, which just gets burned after harvest, might serve as building material for people too poor even to live in faceless housing projects.

(To the Steens): So where are we going now?

B. STEEN: We are going out to an area totally on the outskirts of town, beyond colonias, called Xochitl... These people that we're going to be visiting, the houses that we'll be seeing, are actually squatters on what was, what was, what is ejido property, community property.

(Mexican singers and guitars)

WEISMAN: The ejidos were public lands worked communally by Mexico's small farmers since the days of the Mexican Revolution, until the government recently privatized them. The displaced former peasants now are part of Mexico's huge underclass, clinging to urbanity's edge in huts of discarded sheet metal, plywood scraps, cardboard, and laminated tar paper. Most can't even afford straw bales.

(Singing continues)

WEISMAN: Yet this Sunday, 60 people are gathered at a church construction site outside Ciudad Obregon. They are giving prayers of thanks. Miraculously, they all now have snug, beautiful homes.

(Children shouting, voices)

A. STEEN: There will be lots of mud. You can make miracles with mud. (Laughs)

WEISMAN: Athena Steen, Juanita Lopez, and Juanita's sister-in-law Guillermina stand at a trough made from a 55-gallon drum sliced lengthwise. They're up to their elbows in chocolate-y muck, mixing it with handfuls of straw tossed in by Juanita's daughters. The women wear long skirts. The girls are in lacy white Sunday dresses with purple ribbons. But no one seems to mind the mud spattering their clothing.


WEISMAN: Athena, what is the percentage of straw to mud? Do you have any idea?

A. STEEN: (Laughs) That's a good question for Bill, since I don't think that way. (Laughs)

B. STEEN: What's that?

A. STEEN: What's the percentage of straw to mud?

B. STEEN: It depends who mixes it. Emiliano said about 60-40.

A. STEEN: Yeah. So that's about right.

WEISMAN: That mixture produces bricks much lighter than conventional adobe, but with the great advantage of straw bales: cool in the summer, warm in the winter. They're also water-resistant and strong enough to use for the tall church underway here in Xochitl. And they can be cut with machetes to special size without crumbling, like for this vaulted roof that Juanita's husband Emiliano is putting on the house he's building for his mother.


B. STEEN: In traditional brick and block construction, they dig a hole, toss the earth aside, and pour in something else. We're using the earth they tossed. Nice mud?

A. STEEN: Ooh, nice mud, like cream. Whipping cream. (Laughs)


WEISMAN: Over a pan of sizzling chili peppers, sisters Elizama and Rebeca Lopez recount how things have changed around here.

ELIZAMA [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Here there is no water or power. It would get so hot in a cardboard house you felt like you were in an oven. Many kids were dehydrated and had stomach ailments.

WEISMAN: Their husbands had promised they'd build better houses, but years passed and they were still living in shacks.

REBECA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We waited and waited, but the men were always away working, even though they earned very little. Barely enough to eat on, certainly not enough to build with.

WEISMAN: Then the Steens were invited down by Save the Children. They soon realized, however, that many people spurned humble materials like straw and adobe. Only cement symbolized value and progress. They decided they needed to build a showcase. The result was Save the Children's 5,000-square-foot office building, a classic courtyard design with vaulted and domed roof, its walls executed in straw bales plastered with richly-colored natural clays. It immediately became known for its striking beauty and comfort. These sisters were among the women hired to make bookshelves and benches from local bamboo, straw, and clay.

B. STEEN: They had formed an association or a group, Mujeres Activas de Xochitl or something of that sort. That group of initially maybe 30 or so, it really settled in to about ten who went on to really stick with and to build their own places.

WEISMAN: When the office was done, the Steens got a letter, signed by the entire women's group. They asked to be taught how to build. The first house was for the neediest among them, a young woman with four small children, whose husband was in prison. Gradually, each got her turn.

E. LOPEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: My husband said flatly he wouldn't let me do it, but little by little when he wasn't around, I built a kitchen, then this roof, and the hallway. Now he lets me work in mud all I want.

WEISMAN: She learned they could make their own bricks of straw and mud for free, instead of having to buy straw bales. Old chunks of broken concrete could be turned into floors that look like flagstone. Lime discarded from a local acetylene plant could be recycled and mixed with clays for colored plaster. The result was a house picturesque enough for Santa Fe, New Mexico, but costing at most a few hundred dollars. Best of all, it was always comfortable.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: They used to joke, you know, that you'd have to go outside in the winter to get warm, right? And the same in the summer to get cool, because it would be so cold on a winter morning or it would be so hot in the summer evening that the only place of comfort was out of it.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: All these tar paper shacks built out of scraps and corrugated asphalt, they call casas de carton, houses of cardboard scraps.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

B. STEEN: You know, I was just thinking about it one day, and it was, like, became an obvious jump from carton to --

A. STEEN: Well, casas que cantan is, you know, something that's more traditional building material and it's more beautiful --

WEISMAN: And casas que cantan means?

A. STEEN: Houses that sing.

B. STEEN: But yesterday I was watching just them sort of picking up on it. Now that the women who are involved in that first phase seem to have their houses quickly, they were adapting it yesterday to casas que me encantan: houses that enchant me.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

VALENZUELA: When we build our office is when the people get more confidence. And when they see these models of different type of roof, different type of floors, different color of clays, so is natural. Everything is according to what the earth and God has given us.

WEISMAN: Jorge Valenzuela is the director of Save the Children in Ciudad Obregon.

VALENZUELA: Now people are coming from different communities to see our building, and they want to build like this. The problem is that we don't -- the bank, local banks, we don't have credit for these houses. They say they need to be constructed by brick. So we cannot get credit for this kind of construction, is the problem.

WEISMAN: Are you trying to convince the banks?

VALENZUELA: The problem is that they belong to Mexico City, all the banks we have here in this state, long, long way from here. And the best way is families here, local fundraising. And now that we are getting some funds from Inter-American Foundation, it will be good for a lot of people.

WEISMAN: And so, despite closed-minded bankers, in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, the enchantment has continued and is starting to spread. More than 200 comfortable, attractive, low-cost houses have now been built here using local clay and the straw that otherwise would have been burned into clouds of soot and carbon dioxide. And with joint private and municipal sponsorship, work on 300 more is about to begin. One simple answer to Mexico's modern urban stress, it turns out, is to return to its ancient earthen architectural heritage.

VALENZUELA: One advantage of this house is the whole family can participate. Women, children, women working with the straw, the straw is easy to manage and to build. And children, they like to play with mud, and it's very -- they feel very proud that they built their own house.

WEISMAN: Proud enough, perhaps, to show others how. Like the women of Xochitl have done. Maybe even proud enough of their community of cozy new houses to want to stay instead of fleeing across the border.

VALENZUELA: For Mexican people to have a house, I think, is a dream in all life. And to have this fresh and comfortable house is, I think, one of the dreams for each family in Mexico.

WEISMAN: And where does comfort come from? To builder Athena Steen, it's more than just the right temperature. It's in the right materials, the ones that carry our imprint.

A. STEEN: You walk in here and you can definitely feel the hands of the people who worked it.

B. STEEN: It's not machines. It's not, you know, it's not just a mechanized product.

A. STEEN: I watch people coming to the workshops or come here to work, and they haven't touched earth for years. And it's amazing what happens to them after a day of mixing mud. They become like little kids again. There's a new life. Their eyes light up. They -- something so simple, so basic, can supply so much. I mean, that's -- that's hopeful.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

WEISMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

CURWOOD: Our story on the straw bale homes of Sonora is part of the Border Stories from Homelands Productions and funded in part by the Ford Foundation. We had production help from Rhonda Bernstein and Sandy Tolan.

(Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble)

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: One writer's quest to find his place in nature by taking a ground-level look at the world around him.

POLLAN: This book was born of a little epiphany in my garden, when I tried to answer a question for myself. And that was what do we have in common with the bumblebees, if anything? And to answer that question you really have to think or try to think like a plant.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan and The Botany of Desire, next time on Living on Earth. (Music up and under: Mexican guitar ensemble; fade to drips)

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a few well-chosen drips. Well, more than just a few, really. It's the resonant chorus of water dripping into pools in a cave, recorded by Jean-Luc Herelle.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bonnie Lester. We had help this week from Stephen Belter, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; Town Creek Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the James and Kathleen Stone Foundation; and the Oak Foundation.

(Music up and under)


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