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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

September 7, 2001

Air Date: September 7, 2001

FULL SHOW

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New Source Review

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A battle's brewing in Washington over clean air. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon Greenbaum talks with host Steve Curwood about how the Clean Air Act might soon face changes. (06:00)

Wave Power / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Researchers have been trying to harness the power of the waves for more than thirty years, and they're beginning to succeed. Living on earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (05:30)

Health Note

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on Catnip, an herb that is known to attract cats, of course. Now researchers have discovered that it might also be a mosquito repellent. (01:15)

Almanac: Green School Supplies

(stream / mp3)

This week, facts about green school supplies. As kids head back to school, paper and pencils are getting more environmentally friendly. (01:30)

Native Virus / Ingrid Lobet

(stream / mp3)

It's long been assumed that Europeans were the bearers of the massive plagues that devastated Mexico in the 16th century. But now some scientists say the diseases may have been native to Mexico. And as Ingrid Lobet reports, drought, not colonialists, may have been the crucial factor in their spread. (09:30)

Lily Pads / Sy Montgomery

(stream / mp3)

Commentator Sy Montgomery describes the hidden and complicated world that exists on and beneath a lily pad. (03:30)

News Follow-up

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

Tech Note

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on a new use for beer in environmental clean-ups. (01:30)

Eco-labels

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A proliferation of food products with environmental labels are showing up on supermarket shelves. Host Steve Curwood talks with Los Angeles Times business reporter Melinda Fulmer about how consumers can use them. (05:00)

Great Plains / Clay Scott

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The steady shrinking of rural communities across the Great Plains has been underway for decades. But in many areas the exodus has reached critical proportions. Clay Scott reports from North Dakota. (11:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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New Source Review

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may recall about a month back we talked about a Clean Air Act provision that's raising a lot of controversy. It's called New Source Review, and it requires any power plant making major modifications to upgrade its emissions controls, even if that plant was built before the Clean Air Act was passed, in 1970.

A couple of years ago, the Clinton Administration charged many of the nation's utilities with violating those rules, and since then, the utilities have argued that the regulations are too complex and that they limit their ability to produce electricity. Now, the Bush Administration is reevaluating New Source Review. I've got Anna Solomon-Greenbaum on the line now from Washington. Anna, the last time we spoke you said the results of this review were supposed to be out in the middle of August.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I did say that, that's right.

CURWOOD: And now I think it says September, and I haven't heard about any decisions. What's going on?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, the official story EPA is giving is that they postponed the New Source Review decision because they want to incorporate it into a broader plan that they're coming out with later this month, and that's what they're calling the Three Pollutant Plan. It's basically a system that would cap nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, and then establish a trading system so companies coming in under the cap could sell credits to those who maybe didn't do so well.

Officials at EPA tell me this program that they're designing will reduce emissions far more than anything in place now, and that New Source Review and some of the other Clean Air Act regulations just wouldn't be necessary anymore. But because the issue is so sensitive, they didn't want to just come out of the box saying, "No more New Source Review," or NSR as insiders call it. Here's Jeff Holmstead. He's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA.

HOLMSTEAD: We were concerned that we would be unfairly criticized if all we did was talk about NSR. Because there seems to be at least some people out there that are looking to be critical of the administration, no matter what we do on NSR, and portray that possibly as a rollback of the Clean Air Act, when that's really not what we're all about.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, tell us what the unofficial story is here.

SOLOMON- GREENBAUM: Well, it seems like what we're seeing is a split within the Bush administration. I've talked with folks at the EPA and environmental groups, Congressional aides, and they tell me the real pressure here came from the Department of Energy. Officials there weren't liking what they were seeing in EPA's draft report on New Source Review. Apparently, it wasn't as critical of the regulations as industry had hoped it would be. And Energy was also concerned about EPA's proposal for the Three Pollutant plan. It said the emissions cuts were too drastic, particularly those from mercury, and that they'd hurt energy production, that they'd hurt industry, particularly the coal-fired power plants.

CURWOOD: Well, meanwhile, what's going on with the actual plants and refineries that were charged with violating the law under New Source Review? Now, they were sued back in 1999 by the Clinton EPA, along with many of the Northeast states. I understand the Bush administration has been looking over those cases at the Department of Justice, and the idea is that they may, in fact, not continue prosecution of those cases. When will we get a final decision on that, do you think?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: They haven't set a specific date, but we do know that they're starting to feel the heat on this. We've seen Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, and that's one of the states that's filed these lawsuits that you're talking about. He's come out saying that until President Bush makes a decision about whether the feds are going to stay on with these cases, he's going to hold up the nomination of Donald Schregardus for the top enforcement position at the EPA.

Mr. Schregardus is former head of the Ohio EPA and there's been a lot of controversy over his tenure there, whether he was too lax in his enforcement. In addition, he's been opposed to these government suits against the power plants. Here's Senator Schumer.

SCHUMER: It's a crisis situation. The waters of New York are basically dying, because of a small number of power plants in the Ohio valley that spew sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide over our air. And Donald Schregardus has been one of the people who has said that the way we have of curbing those either lawsuits or legislation, is ill-advised.

CURWOOD: So, what happens if the Bush administration does drop these lawsuits?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Senator Schumer told me he thinks the state suits are probably going to collapse in that case, and people I've talked with at the Attorney General's Office in several of the Northeast states, they say the same thing. They want to press forward with the suits whether the feds are in or out, but they admit that most of their resources, both in terms of personnel and in terms of technology, are in Washington. One point worth mentioning here: I've spoken with various aides in Congress and it seems pretty clear that if the administration does follow through on these enforcement actions, there might be some willingness, even from some fairly green lawmakers, to see New Source Review be replaced by some other kind of program. But, if the administration doesn't stay on in the suits, those same members of Congress are likely to come out strongly in favor of preserving New Source Review. And this is simply for political reasons. They really have to do this if they want to avoid a huge backlash from the environmental community.

CURWOOD: Let me see if I have this right, Anna. It sounds like everybody is waiting to see what somebody else does.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: To some extent, that's the case here. We are starting to see some action from Congress, though. Again, it's not focussed as much on New Source Review; it's centered more on this multi-pollutant plan idea and what form that's going to take. You remember Bush's campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions? Well, later, of course, he went back on that. But now there are bills in both Houses to get carbon back in the mix, and these are being called Four Pollutant bills.

Probably the most interesting part of this story is that the utilities themselves are split on this. Some of them oppose any mandatory cap of any kind, but then there are others that are willing to go further than the administration itself. They say they know that carbon's going to be regulated at some point down the road. They'd rather see it regulated now, so they can know what's going to be required of them. The EPA, meanwhile, says it has no intention, at this point, of introducing any kind of mandatory carbon cap.

CURWOOD: But what about the other three pollutants, Anna? When will we see a three pollutant plan from the EPA?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, they haven't set a solid date yet, but they're saying it will come out sometime this month.

CURWOOD: Hey Anna, thanks for taking this time with us today.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

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Wave Power

CURWOOD: For billions of years, waves have rolled relentlessly across the surface of the oceans. And now, humans are trying to harness the energy generated by the pounding of the surf. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports.

GRABER: If you've ever been in the ocean, you've felt the knock-down, drag out power of the waves. Wave power is actually concentrated solar power. Here's why. The sun heats up the earth, but it does so unevenly. The differences in temperature create wind. Wind over water creates waves. Scientists and engineers have spent the past three decades trying to harness wave power for our own use, and, last fall, the first wave power electricity generator began providing power for a few hundred homes on a small Scottish island.

THOMSON: It's off the west coast of Scotland, the lowest of the western isles, and it's very rugged. It's more famous for its malt whiskeys. I won't list them all because there's quite a lot of them.

GRABER: Allan Thomson is managing director of Wavegen, the company that operates the Scottish facility called the Limpet. Thomson says the coast of Scotland is ideal for a commercial wave power generator.

THOMSON: Well, it has to be where there's a resource to begin with. The longer the wind has to blow on the sea, the bigger the wave. The west coast of Europe is fantastic.

GRABER: The device is basically a concrete box built into the side of a cliff, with an opening at the bottom. Thom Thorpe, of AEA Technologies in the U.K., is an expert on wave technology and consultant on the Scotland project. He says this particular system is called an oscillating water column. As the waves crash into the concrete box, the water level inside the box rises and falls.

THORPE: Above that column of water is an air space, and as the water goes up it compresses the air and drives it through a narrow funnel, and in that funnel is placed a turbine. That basically is a simple description of quite a complicated bit of technology which has taken a long time to optimize.

GRABER: Indeed, it hasn't been easy to get to this stage. Harnessing wave power comes with one big risk: the ocean itself. Following the oil shortage of the 1970s, the U.K. took the lead in wave energy research. But a massive prototype power station, many times larger than the current facility in Scotland, was destroyed in the water.

THORPE: If I've learned nothing else in wave energy, it is the fact that the sea always holds surprises, and we can never be 100% confident of how something is actually going to behave in the sea.

GRABER: Later tries were also destroyed. But in these first attempts the power stations were located off-shore. The Limpet has been more successful because it is located on the shore. Although waves lose much of their power by the time they reach it, they retain enough to create electricity. Electricity generated by the Limpet costs about three times as much as energy generated by conventional coal or gas-fired plants. Experts expect the costs will quickly come down as larger generators are built. The Limpet's continuing success is drawing an influx of government and private funds into wave research. But this device is only one of many on and off-shore devices currently in development.

[SOUND OF HYDRAULIC WAVE MAKER]

McCORMICK: This is a hydraulic wave maker. This thing, all it does is, you push it back, push the bulkhead back and forth and it generates waves, as you'll see.

GRABER: Michael McCormick is an ocean engineer, and probably the American expert on wave power technology. He's standing in front of a huge tank full of water that simulates waves in the ocean. Here at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he used this tank to test the prototypes for an off-shore wave power pump expected to go into the water off the coast of Ireland in October. McCormick believes that it is much more efficient, and more useful, to take wave energy and use it to make potable water from the sea, rather than electricity.

McCORMICK: I would say that 95% of the projects are devoted to electrical energy conversion, and it's simply because we have been so ingrained with the idea that we cannot live with electricity. But, quite honestly, I can go a couple of weeks without using electricity. I'd suffer a little bit, but I'd suffer a lot more if I didn't have water.

GRABER: The pump will take salt out of enough water to supply the needs for an American town of about 2,000. It works like this: The energy from the waves is transferred to a hydraulic pump. The pressure from the pump forces sea water through a membrane, letting the water through and leaving the salt behind. The process costs a fraction of what it takes to desalinate sea water using conventional methods.

McCORMICK: I'm not saying that the McCabe wave pump is going to solve the water crisis throughout the world. I'm saying it's a start. Let's look at the island population. We have 100,000 inhabited islands. One McCabe wave pump can sustain a lot of life on a desert coast or on an island community.

GRABER: Whether to provide drinking water or electricity, wave energy is still very much in its infancy. This year, at least three different models for electricity generation will be placed in the water around the world, with more in development. The best designs will take advantage of the vast amount of energy embedded in the rise and fall of the swells, and be able to withstand their force.

For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC]

Related link:
Wavegen">

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, it wasn't just the Conquistadors: the link between weather and disease in the deaths of native Mexicans centuries ago. First, this health note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: Any cat owner will tell you, put out the catnip and the cats will come. But the herb seems to have just the opposite effect on mosquitoes. Entomologists from Iowa State University discovered this when they tested the oil found in catnip for its insect repellent qualities. They coated half a glass tube with the oil, then filled it with mosquitoes. After ten minutes about 80% of the bugs moved away from the site of the tube treated with the oil. The same test was done using DEET, the compound found in most commercial insect repellents. In that case, only about 55% of the mosquitoes retreated from the coated side of the tube. What's more, only a tenth of the amount of catnip oil is needed to produce the same effect as DEET. No one knows if the oil would be effective if applied to human skin, and, since this is the same ingredient that makes catnip irresistible to cats, users might be substituting one problem for another.

Researchers don't know why mosquitoes shy away from catnip oil. They think the substance might act as an irritant, or maybe the mosquitoes just don't like the smell. That's this week's Health Update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

[CUTAWAY MUSIC]

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Almanac: Green School Supplies

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

[MUSIC: School Days]

CURWOOD: Kids across the country are back in class again, and some of them have the latest in eco-friendly school supplies. There's a bio-degradable pen, with a cap and barrel made from corn starch. And there are pencils covered, not in wood, but in recycled denim. Among the most ingenious items: notebooks made from banana stalks left over from harvest in Costa Rica. Stalks form the truck of the banana plant and are usually thrown away after the fruit is harvested. This created a quarter of a million tons of waste in Costa Rica each year. Now, the stalks are ground to a pulp then mixed with recycled paper to make stationary, notebook and copy paper. A Japanese company has even published a children's book called, "The Miracle Banana." The slender volume on the making of banana paper is printed on, well, take a guess.

Crayons, too, can come in many colors and still be green. Some brands use non-toxic oil from soybeans instead of petroleum. Just one acre of soybeans, by the way, could produce more than 80,000 crayons, all bio-degradable, but they're still not edible. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: SCHOOL DAYS]

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Native Virus

CURWOOD: Spanish ships first set anchor off the coast of Mexico in 1519. A hundred years later, nine out of every ten native Mexicans was dead, mostly from disease. Smallpox germs from Europe were responsible for the first colonial plague in Mexico, in 1520. But now, some scientists say there were two subsequent epidemics that may have been caused by viruses native to the region. And those diseases may have been brought on by extreme drought. Ingrid Lobet has our report.

[CHURCH BELLS, BIRDS, ANIMALS]

LOBET: Although Dr. Rodolfo Acu–a Soto is an epidemiologist, often you'll find him in a Catholic church, the guardian of so much of Mexico's past. He's a student of his country's rich history of plague, trying to understand what might happen in future epidemics. Here, and not for the first time, he talks a priest into opening a dusty archive.

[talking in Spanish]

LOBET: From a back room at the main cathedral in Oaxaca, a young cleric brings out a leather-bound city record dating to the late 1700s. It's a foot and a half high and three inches thick.

[talking in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Gorgeous, look at these letters scripted in gold. Pure cellulose paper, imported from Spain. And how much must this weigh, 11 pounds?

LOBET: The records paint a vivid picture of death in colonial Mexico. Here, Acu–a reads from an old municipal burial record.

[talking in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Fever, tuberculosis, chicken pox, gastroenteritis, enteritis, enterocolitis.

LOBET: No one, it seems, died of old age.

TRANSLATOR: Infant seizure, pneumonia, fever, pneumonia, typhoid fever, cholera, diarrhea, diarrhea, cholera.

LOBET: Even though the sweeping plagues happened centuries ago, they're well- documented. One reason is providence. It turns out, King Philip of Spain sent his personal physician to the New World just as the Great Plague of 1576 was sweeping Mexico. So Dr. Hernandez, the King's doctor, perhaps the best-trained western physician in the world at the time, witnessed the epidemic. He was examining patients, performing autopsies, and making notes about a plague so violent it would still be in the history books 400 years later. Yet, these notes lay forgotten until Dr. Acu–a and another research team stumbled upon them.

ACUNA: The descriptions are horrendous. It started with fever, chills, and in four or five days, they died. They bled through the noses, ears, mouth, everywhere. They become jaundiced, yellow. And also, they have these kind of ulcers in the lips and the genitals. They become mad, kind of insane, absolutely. And they were very anxious. And, enormous thirst.

LOBET: Dr. John Marr is a New York epidemiologist. He and his partner, Dr. Barry Kiracofe, an architectural historian, have been looking at this same 16th century record of the King's physician, as well as even older native accounts of epidemics in the Americas. Dr. Marr agrees it's clear that the common belief that Mexican Indians were killed off by smallpox is not scientifically viable.

MARR: So it was clear to me, at least, because Dr. Kiracofe had collected a number of primary resource papers, written by Spaniards, that the signs and symptoms of this disease that killed so many Aztecs included bleeding from the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, vaginal bleeding, bleeding from the stomach, bleeding into the urine, bleeding under the skin, and a fulminant, rapid death within three or four days.

LOBET: Marr and Acu–a say modern medicine recognizes these symptoms. They are characteristic of a class that includes Ebola Fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and certain kinds of Dengue-- a class Americans have been hearing more about recently--hemorrhagic fevers.

MARR: I would say, unequivocally, I fortunately had some guidance from some of the experts at the CDC. I talked with many people who are expert virologists and epidemiologists, and I think they would all conclude that it was a hemorrhagic fever.

LOBET: But what that disease was, whether it was transmitted by insect or mammal and under what conditions are still open questions. One hypothesis is tied closely to draught, a calamitous draught, stretching across North and Central America, one far worse than the Oklahoma dust bowl.

[SOUNDS OF WALKING]

LOBET: A team of researchers is working in the forests of Oaxaca's Sierra Madre mountains, taking core samples out of the oldest trees, mapping that famous draught, the 16th century mega-drought, in detail. Because of its perch on the Pacific, Mexico has felt the cutting edge of Earth's changing weather patterns throughout the centuries.

[SOUND OF DISCOVERY]

CLEVELAND: Whoa. Beautiful. This is a nice tree. Oooh, lovely. Okay. Sometimes, getting it started is the hardest thing, which is why I use this starter.

LOBET: Malcolm Cleveland and Matthew Terrell are tree ring researchers, or dendrochronologists, from the University of Arkansas. Cleveland crouches beside a Douglas Fir.

CLEVELAND: Probably 250, 300 years old.

LOBET: The cores are pencil thin. They say it doesn't harm the tree at all.

CLEVELAND: Break the core off.

LOBET: Terrell explains Douglas Fir is famous for its ability to reliably put on new wood every year, wood that varies in thickness with rainfall.

TERRELL: Douglas Fir is like the holy grail for dendrochronologists, not only because it has an incredibly extensive range, but it has a very good climate signal almost everywhere you find it.

LOBET: Using the core samples and slices of downed trees, the University of Arkansas team, together with Mexican foresters, have painted the first real climate history of Mexico, including a map of the mega-drought. Epiphany can come when unlike spheres collide. Epidemiologist Dr. Acu–a Soto just happened to be in the audience when the Arkansas researchers presented their climate charts at a conference. He saw that there were two tall tent poles of peak drought in Mexico just at the same time as the two most notorious 16th century plagues.

ACUNA: A very, very interesting pattern appeared. Very severe, long drought, and then suddenly within the drought is a period of rain, exactly that of the time the epidemic appears.

LOBET: Dr. Acu–a and the Arkansas team began collaborating and developed a hypothesis that involves drought, brief rain, and disease carrying rodents.

ACUNA: If water becomes scarce in the countryside, rats and, in general, all the rodents get kind of clustered around the very scarce water sources, and this is a huge fight among them. Most of them die, but the very few survivors, they have to fight all the time. If you have in this population you put water and then a plain full of food, suddenly they will explode, but the virus will also explode.

LOBET: This is very similar to what many scientists believe happened in 1993, in the American southwest, with the hanta virus outbreak that killed 26 people. Rain interrupted a drought. Suddenly, the mice had more food and their numbers exploded, bringing them and their deadly feces into more contact with people. But the idea that such a rodent-borne epidemic wiped out the Mexican Indian population four centuries ago, is new.

CLEVELAND: The story of Cocoliztli and the whole idea that a lot of what I learned in college about Mexican history and the history of the new world could be wrong, basically. I was really shocked by that.

LOBET: Acu–a and the others stress the drought rodent connection is only a hypothesis. There is another theory to explain why rodents might suddenly have come into more contact with people. Drs. Marr and Kiracofe suggest that when the Spanish demanded the Indians grow and store wheat, it meant people moving in on the rodents territory, and the stored wheat created a magnet for them.

[MANY VOICES]

LOBET: Two days later, back in Oaxaca, Matthew Terrell stumbles out of the forest, with 40 pounds of slices from downed Douglas Fir imprinting his pack straps onto his bones. They'll take the slices and the core samples back to Arkansas to analyze, to see if they've pushed the climate record back, or, at least, bolstered their shakier data.

TERRELL (in background): I mean, I feel like I was going to blow my knee out, man.

LOBET: Though they're fascinated by the past, their real hope is that it will help understand current climate change. Dr. Acu–a, too, believes climate could influence future plagues, and he likes to remind Americans that great civilizations like Mexico's Mayan and Tule empires collapsed in mid-splendor, probably because of desiccating drought.

ACUNA: Most epidemics happen in the worst drought in the last 2000 years. We have been very, very lucky not to have something like that, and nobody can say we will not have that in the future.

LOBET: It's hard to say if we're in the middle of our splendor as a civilization. Our mastery of agriculture can seem breathtaking. But it still depends on rainfall. It's something Acu–a says he can't help contemplating during his commute, as he crests the hills that separate suburban Cuernavaca from the smoky bowl of Mexico City and looks down on the largest concentration of people in human history.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

Related link:
Medical History article on Huey Cocoliztli
Tree-Ring Laboratory
Dr. Marr's website on ten plagues of Egypt
Dr. Marr's work">

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Lily Pads

CURWOOD: Take a look at the knee-deep shallows of your local pond. Cast your eye past the blue spiked flowers of pickerel weed, the white blossomed arrow heads and the standing armies of cattails. Now you can see lily pads forming an ecosystem as unique as a beach forest or an alpine meadow. Our commentator Sy Montgomery has been studying them lately and says the lily pad is more than a plant, it's a place.

MONTGOMERY: If there was one place on Earth where you can believe that time stands still, it's on a pond blanketed with water lilies in summer. The blossoms themselves seem to promise peace. The first position in hatha yoga is named for the lotus. Lily pads invite repose. Many animals know this. Look closely at the still life resting on the pads and you'll see the black, thumb-shaped heads of painted and spotted turtles and yellow-eyed bull frogs. The lily's leaves provide landing pads for dragonflies and their kin, the damselflies, as well as for beetles and bees.

Turn the lily pad over and it may surprise you. The flip side of the rich green leathery pad of the sweetwater lily is often crimson, and hairy. And here you may find snails, flatworms, and, if you're lucky, you might spot furry-looking moss animals who live in colonies, like corals. Every strand of what looks like their fur is really a tentacle-wreathed head, whirling in the water.

And glued beneath the lily pad's strange underside you'll notice lots of eggs. Whose are they? Tiny, oval white eggs, glued separately to the leaf, belong to the whirligig beetle, the flattened oval insects who circle round and round on the surface of still waters. Little white eggs, arranged in curving rows around a small hole, belong to the long-horned beetle. You'll often see the adults, handsome, metallic green or bronze, walking along the top of lily pads, touching the surface carefully with arched antennae.

In late summer, the female long-horned beetle bites a quarter inch hole through the pad and lays her eggs on the underside. Her offspring, when they hatch, will use the lily stem as an airhose, stuffing their heads inside it to tap the plant's supply in order to breathe. The flood of bubbles you see breaking the surface in these calm pools is often the exhalation of a baby long-horned beetle. It's no wonder, really, that so many creatures are born among the water lilies. In Hindu mythology this plant symbolizes the opening to the womb of the universe: a place at once ever changing and timeless. The fragrance of the new blooms lingers long and heavy, as we wish summer itself might.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

[MUSIC]

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News Follow-up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. Last spring we talked about the search for the perfect orchid. A new report, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, tells about another kind of orchid fever. Folks in Tanzania are harvesting orchid tubers to make a meatless sausage delicacy called chickanda. Tim Davenport is an author of this report. He says the trade with Zambia is pushing these rare orchids towards extinction.

DAVENPORT: As well as the harvesting, the business is highly unsustainable. I would guess, and this is a guess, that the business will not last more than another two or three years, at the current rate.

CURWOOD: All orchids are protected under the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, or CITES. But until recently, the full extent of this orchid tuber harvest was not known by the Tanzanian government.

(Music)

CURWOOD: Nighttime light pollution is the nemesis of astronomers. Now, for the first time, a world atlas of so-called artificial sky brightness has been published by Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. Taking data from 1996 and 1997 satellite photos, scientists figured out how well one can see the stars from sea level, all over the planet. Physical scientist Chris Elvidge, of NOAA, says regular folks are just as interested in the atlas as astronomers.

ELVIDGE: The fact that they no longer live in an area where you can see the Milky Way was not something they were aware of before. And they've become aware of the fact that they're no longer able to do something that they would probably find very enjoyable.

CURWOOD: Scientists overlaid the map with population numbers, and discovered that more than two-thirds of the people in the U.S. can't see the Milky Way from where they live.

(Music)

CURWOOD: Earlier, we reported about the treatment of antibiotic resistant strains of malaria with a compound made from the herb artemesia. Now scientists have developed a new drug that attacks malaria infected red blood cells the same way the herb does, but is completely synthetic. Johns Hopkins University chemist Gary Posner says the manmade drug has advantages over artemesia.

POSNER: It's obviously an agricultural source, so you have all the variations of climate and weather, in terms of how much of this material the plant produces. Plus, the content of this material in plants is low and therefore you have to grow many thousands of acres to obtain a good supply.

CURWOOD: The new drug is a carboxyphenyl trioxane and has been highly effective in small animals. Researchers now hope to produce a larger quantity of the compound and test it in large animals and humans.

(Music)

CURWOOD: And finally, thanks to the needlework of knitters around the world, the little penguins of Australia have a stockpile of protective sweaters. The Tanzamanian Conservation Trust had put out the call for help earlier this year, and now, 3,100 penguins can be outfitted with little woollies in the event of oil spills, to make sure they don't ingest oil while grooming their feathers.

And that's this week follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Tech Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, a way of life gone by on the Great Plains of America, but first, this environmental technology note from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: A scientist at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has come up with a novel way to treat pollution using beer. Tom Harris was experimenting with using wetlands to clean up waste from old mining sites. It's known that a certain mix of bacteria that live in wetlands can cause heavy metals to separate out of the water and become trapped in soil where they can be easily removed. The problem is, these hardworking bacteria eventually lose energy. Mr. Harris thought he could reenergize the bacteria if he fed them a diet high in complex carbohydrates. As luck would have it, Tom Harris was at a cocktail party and heard about a local distributor who each month threw away hundreds of gallons of beer that had passed their expiration date. So he and colleagues started lab experiments with beer, to see if it would boost a wetlands clean-up capacity. So far it's worked, and, if field tests show similar success, the expired beer will go into wetlands instead of down the drain, and the bacteria will get some additional calories to help them conduct their clean-up jobs. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC]

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

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Eco-labels

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Browse the aisles of your local grocery store these days, and you'll find products labeled "Eco-OK," "Protected Harvest," and "Bird Friendly." Eco-labels like these seem to be multiplying faster than you can say dolphin-safe, but exactly what do they mean? Melinda Fulmer joins me now. She's a business writer at the Los Angeles Times and has been looking into this proliferation of green-friendly labels. Melinda, what's behind this trend?

FULMER: Foodmakers see this as an opportunity to sell their products. They're appealing to consumers who don't have the time to volunteer or support the environmental movement in other ways. And for environmental groups, it's a way for them to try and get their message out and at the same time, in many cases, gain more funding.

CURWOOD: Okay. I'm looking now at a Nature Valley crunchy granola bar, right here in the studio. I'm not really allowed to bring food into the studio, so I hope my technical director isn't watching, but, it comes in a box that has the Nature Conservancy logo, the oak leaf, and they say that having their logo on the box of granola bars doesn't mean that they're endorsing these granola bars or evaluating them as organic or anything like that. They told us that their logo simply accompanies a statement that the Nature Valley Company is a proud supporter of their campaigns and that on the back of the box a consumer can learn more about a particular Nature Conservancy campaign.

What's wrong with a relationship like that, if anything?

FULMER: I don't think anything's wrong with it, but I think it can be a little confusing for shoppers. I mean, when you have a group like the Nature Conservancy putting its logo on kind of a wide range of products, everything from granola bars to beef products to potato chips, I think it could be a little confusing about what it actually means. There are just very different standards for each of those programs, and I'm not sure consumers understand exactly what they're getting every time, when they see that logo.

CURWOOD: And I understand that the Nature Conservancy is getting $115,000 from Nature Valley granola bars as part of this marketing partnership. Melinda, how much do you think these kind of eco-labels are a way for the food companies to cash in and the enviro-groups to cash in, versus real information to help consumers?

FULMER: Well, I think some of these labels are definitely just feel-good labels, but some of them have clear, verifiable standards and have made a difference. Dolphin-safe tuna, fair trade coffee, some of these things, they're clearly making a difference. There's some that are less than meaningful, and that's when basically when a foodmaker or a person that's selling a product develops its own standards and has nobody else to verify that it's meeting those standards or that it's doing what it says it's doing.

CURWOOD: Let's go over some of these labels now. Nutri-clean.

FULMER: Nutri-clean is program which offers consumers produce that has only trace amounts of pesticide residue, so it's supposed to come in somewhere between organic and conventional produce. In the stores, it's advertised as the finest produce available and laboratory tested, but yet it doesn't tell consumers what this means, what is it tested for, that kind of thing. And there's no other information there for shoppers to take a look at and get more information.

CURWOOD: Free range eggs.

FULMER: That claim is not monitored by anybody. There's just no guidelines in place, so it's just something that egg producers are putting on the label.

CURWOOD: So if somebody opens the barn door for a minute and calls that the range, the eggs are free range.

FULMER: Yeah, well, not even that. I mean, there's no guidelines in place for that. Now, with free range chicken there's no set amount--even though there are guidelines in place for that, there's no set amount of time chickens are supposed to have access to the outdoors for. I mean, it could be five minutes a day. So, even with government regulations in place, it may not be exactly what you think.

CURWOOD: Melinda, there's a phrase, caveat emptor. It's Latin for "let the buyer beware." Where do these eco-labels fit in? Is this a lot of hooey, hokum? Are these helpful? Someplace in-between?

FULMER: Well, you know, I think these labels are just at the beginning; we're just starting to see a lot more of them come to market. But I think they're kind of at the same place that organic was about 20 years ago. Consumers want to feel like they're doing good, that they're helping out. And I think that they can contribute to efforts that they support. But they just have to do their homework. They have to take a look at what these programs mean, how they're set up, who's making sure they're doing what they say they're doing.

CURWOOD: Melinda Fulmer is a business reporter with the Los Angeles Times who covers the food industry. Thanks for joining me today, Melinda.

FULMER: Thank you.

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Related link:
Consumers Union site on Eco-labels">

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Great Plains

CURWOOD: A century ago, homesteaders flocked to the Great Plains, lured by the promise of free land. They came from places such as Scandinavia, Bohemia, and the Ukraine. They were encouraged by the government, which wanted to settle the prairies. The railroads also promoted settlement, hoping to make money hauling grain from the region that was intended to become America's bread basket. The immigrants persevered, year after year, planting wheat where native prairie grasses once grew. But much of the land was poor and prosperity always just out of reach. Little by little, the communities they carved out of the prairies began to wither, as people left for the cities in search of work. From Canada to New Mexico the shrinking of the rural plains communities has been under way for decades. But in many areas the exodus has reached critical proportions. Reporter Clay Scott has the story from North Dakota.

SCOTT: The Bethel Lutheran church is a modest structure, but you can see the steeple for miles, white against the late summer fields of golden durum wheat. The door is unlocked. There are no signs of recent visitors, no footprints in the dusty aisle between the pews. In the unmown cemetery, three dozen hand-carved headstones mark the graves of immigrant homesteaders. "God bless our darling daughter," reads one, in Norwegian. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." A truck rattles down the road, kicking up a trail of dust. The white haired man behind the wheel slows at the sight of an out-of-state license plate, then pulls to a stop. His name is Ellsworth Jacobson and he is eager to tell a rare stranger stories of the old days.

JACOBSON: Born right here in Wild Rose, and I lived on the farm all my life, 1925. So I haven't gotten very far although I have traveled around some, but not too much. But I know I used to like to ride with my dad, in a sleigh, to Wild Rose, ten miles away, and freeze most of the time, or walk behind the sleigh to keep warm. I don't know why I done it, I didn't have to, but I just wanted to go.

SCOTT: Ellsworth has lived here all his life, until a month ago, that is. That's when he and his wife Eunice decided they were too old to keep up with the rigors of farming in western North Dakota, too old to live in such isolation. They moved to an apartment in the town of Williston, two hours away. Today is his first visit back since the painful decision to leave.

JACOBSON: And I guess that's about the hardest thing I ever done. I spent my entire life here, and I was proud of what I'd done, it isn't so much, but I was still proud of it, and it's hard to leave it, it really is. But I don't know what the answer is, I just don't know.

SCOTT: Ellsworth and Eunice Jacobson, children of immigrants, are now part of a growing out migration from the farm communities of the Great Plains. In western North Dakota some counties have lost up to a quarter of their population in the last ten years. The landscape here is dotted with abandoned farm buildings, while dozens of once thriving towns have all but dried up. Places like Zahl, where only fifteen people remain, in a town that once had three banks, four churches, two lumber yards, a livery stable, two bars, two grain elevators, and a general store. It's an exodus that shows no sign of slowing down.

AUCTIONEER: Selling choice by the jar, on the marbles. Twenty-five, thirty dollars, [auctioneer patter]--Choice, by the bottle.

SCOTT: On a recent Sunday, in the town of Westby, more than 100 people have come from as far as 75 miles away, drawn by the excitement of an auction. They are also here to pay their respects to 86 year old Alice Wittmeyer, the latest to leave the community. She sits in a lawn chair, hands folded in her lap, watching impassively as her possessions are sold off one by one.

AUCTIONEER: Ten buys, ten dollars.

SCOTT: These are items she won't need in the nursing home she's going to: antique marbles, a German chamber pot, a .22 caliber rifle, two fox belts, a kerosene lamp. Auctioneer Butch Haugland, also a full-time high-school teacher and wheat farmer, is busy most weekend at sales like this one. He knows as well as anyone how quickly the Northern Plains are changing.

HAUGLAND: If it continues the way it is now one more generation, and there's not going to be much left out here but two or three big farms. I think that could come pretty quick. It's pretty scary.

SCOTT: It's not so much the natural landscape that's being transformed out here--those who leave don't abandon their farms, they sell or rent to other farmers, so the land is still in production. But, with mechanized farming methods, it takes far less labor to work the land. In the 1930s, North Dakota had 86,000 farms, with an average size of about 500 acres. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 farms, but the average size has nearly tripled. Larger farms mean fewer people. Demographer Richard Rathge, from North Dakota State University, explains the impact of that trend on Plains communities.

RATHGE: Now, as agriculture changed from a fairly labor intensive industry to a capital intensive industry, what happened is we drove away the labor. Now, when we displace farmers we also displace those who serve the farmer, which include the small businesses, from retail to agricultural products and what have you, and it's a downward cycle.

SCOTT: One of the towns caught in that downward cycle is Ambrose, just south of North Dakota's border with Saskatchewan. It was once a bustling place with four churches, a cinema, a beauty salon, even a florist. As recently as the 1960s hundreds of people still lived in Ambrose. Today, only 20 are left. One of them is 53 year old Jon Ness.

NESS: The farm I lived in town here, and there was around 300 people that lived in town, and there were several families with children. So we played and had a great time, in a Norman Rockwell setting, and it was excellent. It was vibrant.

SCOTT: Like most people here, Jon Ness has more than one job. He teaches science at Divide County High School and works with learning disabled children. His wife is a teacher's aide, and both of them work on their 1400 acre farm where they grow wheat, flax, peas and lentils. Despite the difficulty, he says, he loves the farm life he grew up with. But he also makes an unusual admission: that much of the land he and his family have stubbornly worked for generations never was suitable for farming; that agriculture here was doomed from the start.

NESS: You don't want to tell a farmer, you're done. You don't want to tell somebody that this ground is kind of iffy, you shouldn't probably have been farming it in the first place. So we knew, we know. We're not stupid out here. We're all fairly educated people. But when it's that close to home, it gets emotional. Nobody wants to be told that the end is near.

SCOTT: But, in contrast to the shrinking towns and the aging population, there is a remarkable renewal on the prairie, a redefining and strengthening of community. Like the days of the early homesteaders, the focal point is often the church, the same traditional, unadorned service brought here by the immigrant pioneers.

WOMAN: Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God, King of the universe.

CONGREGATION: ...you have formed us.....

WOMAN: You feed the hungry and the small children--

SCOTT: Today, Wild Rose First Lutheran Church is meeting outdoors. For medical reasons, church member Chris Gillun is unable to travel, so the scattered congregation has driven out to her farm. Sixty people sit in collapsible chairs on the edge of a wheat field. Most of them are elderly: the women in flowered dresses; the men, with cowboy hats held on their laps.

[SINGING OF AMAZING GRACE..]

SCOTT: After the service, Chris Gillun, one of the few people here under 50, talks about what she calls the reawakened sense of community on the great plains.

GILLUN: Everybody has this frontier attitude that I think is still alive today, and that is that you don't have to be a victim of circumstance but you can persevere.

SCOTT: When Chris fell ill earlier in the year, her neighbors planted her garden for her. When another farmer broke his leg during planting season, those same neighbors got together and put in his crops. And, the people of Wild Rose raised enough money to build a grocery store for their town, the only one for an hour's drive in any direction. But even with their brave optimism, almost everyone here acknowledges that much more is needed to keep their communities intact. In towns like Ambrose, Zahl or Wild Rose, there's a grim sense of inevitability about the change taking place.

On a warm night in Ambrose, Jon Ness leans against the wall of a deserted building on the deserted main street and talks about a way of life he says he knows is coming to an end.

NESS: I'm a musician, I used to play in a band, and we still do once in a while, but we've been relegated to funerals now, because there's not enough people to even have a real good gathering. So, it's those kind of things you really miss: the memory of old friends, and gatherings, and being taught to dance by a big-busted woman, you know, when you're a little kid, and at a barn dance. That's just not going to ever happen. And our kids are never going to enjoy that community.

SCOTT: It's a community that's almost certainly on the verge of disappearing and it's unclear what, if anything, will take its place. That's something the homesteaders could never have imagined, out here on the Plains that were to have been American's bread basket, where the rain was said to follow the plow. An anonymous farmer-poet gives voice to the enthusiasm of that time, a time when prosperity seemed only a harvest away: Have you not all heard of Ambrose, the town that's on the Sioux, where the land is very fertile and we all have work to do? Where we raise the big potatoes, a peck in every hill, cabbage, carrots or tomatoes or anything you will? Where the crops have never failed us and the prospect's looking grand for another bumper harvest on our 20 dollar land?

For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott, in Divide County, North Dakota.

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Related link:
North Dakota State University - Photographs from the Northern Great Plains - 1880-1920">

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week: each year, about 50,000 people leave their homes and farms in Mexico's countryside and head north, for the border town of Juarez. They come for the promise of a better life in the city, but the newcomers are sucking the city's aquifer dry.

MAN: There isn't enough water available there to support the population, so the population will probably move away. The trouble is, is that that interim period can be quite confrontational.

CURWOOD: Whither water for Juarez, next time on Living on Earth.

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[bird sounds]

CURWOOD: We leave you today with bird wars. Lang Elliot recorded these varied calls of the sharp-tailed grouse, as a number of the birds faced off across territorial boundaries. The setting was the Jay Clark-Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, in North Dakota. And the recording is called "Dance of the Grouse."

[bird sounds]

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, Jennifer Chu and Gernot Wagner, along Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, Bunny Lester and Ernie Silver. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinksy 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 David and Lucille Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues; The Turner Foundation; The W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, supporting coverage of western issues.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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