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

November 9, 2001

Air Date: November 9, 2001


Progress Made at Marrakech Climate Talks

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Representatives of nations around the world met in Morocco to put the finishing touches on the Kyoto climate treaty. President Bush calls the treaty "fatally flawed" and the U.S. has refused to participate. Still, Climate Change Convention officials believe the agreement will be ratified by next September. Living on Earth's Steve Curwood reports from Morocco. ()

Whither Weather / Jane Holtz Kay

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Commentator Jane Holtz Kay says, with temperature fluctuations caused by global climate change and high-tech meteorological forecasts, weather isn't what it used to be. (03:00)

Biz Note: Canning CO2

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on a deal that will ultimately package Shell Chemical's carbon dioxide emissions in a can. That is, a soda can. (01:15)

Almanac: Celebrating Darkness

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This week, facts about Flagstaff, Arizona's Celebration of the Night. The newly-declared International Dark Sky City makes it a point to turn out the lights to see the city's stars. (01:30)

Morocco Sun / Peter Thomson

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Peter Thomson reports from Morocco on a surge in solar power. An innovative financing model is bringing together corporations, entrepreneurs, and Moroccan residents to supply affordable power in rural areas. (12:50)

Duck Stamp

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Host Pippin Ross talks with wildlife artist Joe Hautman about his painting of black scoter ducks which will grace next year's federal duck stamp. (03:00)

Health Note: Sweaty Antibiotics

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on a new antibiotic found in sweat. (01:19)

Listener Letters

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This week we dip into our mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:15)

Invasives / Clay Scott

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From the Chinese mitten crabs infesting San Francisco Bay to Zebra mussels clogging waterways in the Midwest, producer Clay Scott travels across the country and brings us this survey of foreign, invasive species. (10:00)

Natural Capitalism / Wallace Kaufman

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In the wake of a hurricane that brought down his tallest trees, commentator Wallace Kaufman muses about the winners and losers in the economy of his backyard. (02:55)

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Progress Made at Marrakech Climate Talks

ROSS: This is Living On Earth. I'm Pippin Ross, in this week for Steve Curwood, who's on assignment in Morocco at the United Nations Climate Change negotiations. Delegates to the talks have been meeting in Marrakech to hammer out the final details on how to implement the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty. A tentative agreement was reached in Bonn, Germany this summer, even though the United States withdrew from the process. Still, progress is being made. Convention officials expect the Kyoto Accord to be ratified by enough nations to make it international law by next September. From Marrakech, Steve Curwood reports.


CURWOOD: It's the first time in a decade of UN climate change negotiations that delegates have had a belly dancer for their lunchtime entertainment. But then, there's a lot different about this meeting. For example, it's the first time the Kyoto Accord negotiators have met in an Islamic nation, and it's the first time they have come to Africa. And many of them will be back soon, coming as delegates or observers to the massive World Summit on Sustainable Development planned in Johannesburg, South Africa for the fall of 2002.

Paul Desankar is Malawi's head delegate to the meeting in Marrakech. His mission at the seventh conference of the parties: to negotiate climate change aid for African countries. Mr. Desankar says putting the final parts of the Kyoto Protocol together here means a lot to Africans.

DESANKAR: For the African group, it's very important. It sets up the World Summit on Sustainable Development next year very well. People are very anxious to see concrete results from this, to set a good example for the World Summit next year.

CURWOOD: How crucial is the question of climate change to Africa?

DESANKAR: It is very crucial. It is critical for poverty alleviation, food security, water problems. It's quite fundamental to development in Africa.

CURWOOD: African nations were among the poor countries who came to the Conference looking for assistance to help them cope with climate change. The funds were promised as part of the original Global Warming Treaty ratified in 1993. The U.S. is among the many industrial nations who have yet to finance these initiatives to help the poorer countries respond to climate change. When the U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Accord this spring, it said an undue burden was being placed on industrial nations because there are no caps on greenhouse gas emissions for developing nations. John Beale is Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He participated as a senior member of the U.S. delegation in Marrakech. I asked him why the U.S. came to this meeting after opting out of the Kyoto Protocol.

BEALE: The United States, like every other country represented here, takes the issue of climate change very seriously, and we are committed to a multi-lateral approach to climate change. We are parties, and active parties, to the framework convention on climate change. So, we are here participating fully in all of the issues under the framework convention, and we're also, while we're here-- we're making our expertise available to all parties on issues relating to the Protocol. You're right. We're not going to be participating in the Protocol; we're not going to ratify the Protocol. But we remain committed to addressing the climate change issue. We disagree with folks here on whether the Protocol is the right vehicle, but there's no disagreement that climate change is a serious issue, and we need to be taking action now to address it.

CURWOOD: I've heard a lot of criticism from developing countries in particular, that under the framework convention on climate change, which the U.S. has ratified, is fully committed to, there's been really no money, no support, to help developing countries deal with the devastating impacts of climate change that they are predicting in a place like Morocco, where they feel that they're seeing it already with drought.

BEALE: The United States has been working internationally on climate change and issues related to air quality, water quality, desertification, for over 10 years. And in those 10 years, we spent over 18 billion dollars addressing these issues. And that's more than any other country. It's more than Japan and the EU put together. So, we do take these issues seriously. We have a whole range of programs addressing those issues. The State Department has programs, USAID has programs, Department of Energy has programs, EPA has programs. And these cover the range from capacity building, developing inventories, things like that, to projects specifically designed to help increase the efficiency of motor vehicle fleets in countries, improve water quality, and fight desertification. So, the United States and, I think, other countries in the developed world, have invested significant sums of money. And it doesn't mean we can solve the problems completely, but we are addressing them and working on it.


CURWOOD: In the meantime, the other major industrial countries, aside from the U.S., spent much of the two week session sparring over compliance issues. But well before the end of the meeting, all the parties had settled the most contentious issues of compliance, and the final hours were spent hammering the last technical details.

Photo courtesy of IISD/ENB-Leila MeadPhoto courtesy of IISD/ENB-Leila Mead.


CURWOOD: While security measures at this conference were less visible than the heavy presence of police last summer in Bonn, the movement of army trucks and squads of SWAT teams kept just out of sight were reminders of the dangers of these times. It seems that the tragic events of September 11th may have softened the edges of many of the parties here. In fact, in a delicately worded welcome to the delegates, the King of Morocco, Mohammed the VI, noted that no nation has all of the right on its side. Ministers from many countries ranging from Belgium and Finland to Morocco and Japan all expressed their hopes that the U.S. would eventually ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

One of them was Bagher Asadi, the UN Ambassador from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and chairman of the Group of 77 and China, which is the principal negotiating team of developing nations at these talks.

ASADI: Now it appears that the Americans have realized the benefit of multilateralism. After September 11, the Americans have come to the United Nations in a more strong, more effective manner, in a more meaningful manner, but only as far as peace and security is concerned. We say multilateralism, as you have realized now, is beneficial, and you need it. But it's not only in the area of peace and security that you could need it. If you look at Kyoto Protocol, it means that multilateralism also is needed in economic and development area and environmental climate change processes and everything. Of course, at this stage they are not ready, but I suppose some time in the future they will be.


STEVE CURWOOD: In the end, what seemed to matter most to the more than 150 countries in the Kyoto process is that it kept going here in Morocco. And it goes with the hope that enough industrial countries will ratify the agreement so it can come into force by the time of the World Sustainable Development Summit in South Africa next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood in Marrakech, Morocco.

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Whither Weather

ROSS: And now, this weather report from Marrakech. You can expect more hurricanes, droughts, and floods if the planet continues to warm. That's the message delivered by leaders of some of the world's top insurance firms to delegates at the Climate Change Conference. Insurance executives say they've had to pay out huge sums of cash in recent years because of damage caused by extreme weather events. It's making commentator Jane Holtz Kay think weather just ain't what it used to be.

HOLTZ KAY: "Weather makes us dirty weeds," says a friend. "I love the heat," she says; "the cold as much." And so do I. I am a partisan of the cruel climate that defines the fiber of New England. Weather hardiness has enabled us to spawn a culture, to forage a field, to live in any place and climate. New England weather gives us the twists of temperature that make a four-season society. Listening to Dallas folks bewail the heat and scamper underground on days when a simple fan would cool the New Englander, I dote on the climate diversity that makes us strong. We alpha dogs of weather laugh at Washingtonians stuck in a scant inch of snow as we go about our ice fishing in near zero weather. We empty out of our subways for a Red Sox game, traipsing confidently through a downpour that will surely bring out the tarpaulin and send us home.

Some of us, I confess-- my family high among them-- are weather wimps. While everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything, my clan of climate-phobes does something. We hit the phone in hail or hurricane, or did so before today's weather maps in all their pastel splendor and perpetual lip motion meteorologists silenced us. And yet, as these weather reporters go on, their satellite-bred graphs begin to show what their breezy words ignore: the climate is changing, the globe's suffering its swings, and their predictions are less than finite. Erratic weather, record breaking weather, weather warped by global warming, heats and chills us. Not the chilling solved by jackets and galoshes, not the warming eased by air conditioning or the turning on the fan to beat the heat. Today's longest, coldest, wettest, hottest weather turns the whole planet into a changeable New England. Can we ever be innocent of weather again? Can we ever go back to the notion of the benign climate, when our man-made one becomes ever fiercer? As our fossil fuels heat the atmosphere, we drift in meteorological mayhem.

How can we agents of destruction diminish the greenhouse gases from our smokestacks and tailpipes that could slay our place on this planet? Our seeming skill at climate control has allowed us to spread and shelter where we will. Our power to set the thermostat has let us think we can tame the weather. Global warming tells us otherwise. To err is human, but to continue to do so is lethal. Change we must, and some begin to do so. Will we, or won't we modify our life patterns to re-pattern weather? Will we survive or in the course of ages vanish? Whatever our will and fate, one thing I know: weather is no longer a fragrant memory, no more a poetic nuisance joke or joy.

ROSS: Commentator Jane Holtz Kay is author of "Asphalt Nation."

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Biz Note: Canning CO2

PIPPIN ROSS: Coming up, under a Moroccan sun sprouts a solar power industry. First, this environmental business note with Jennifer Chu.

CHU: Soda makers will soon get more fizz for their pop. That's thanks to a deal between Shell Chemicals Corporation and a French owned natural gas provider in Canada. The fizz is carbon dioxide and the deal means that tens of thousands of tons of it, which would normally be released into the atmosphere as waste from Shell's fuel combustion and chemical processing, might now turn up in your next soft drink.

Now, the excess carbon dioxide is sent through a pipeline to a neighboring gas company called Air Liquide. The pipeline pumps out carbon dioxide that's about 98 percent pure. The next step is to take the moisture out of the gas, burn the contaminants away, and then liquefy what's left. The liquefied carbon dioxide is then trucked off to various soft drink manufacturers.

The carbon dioxide comes from one of Shell's chemical plants in Alberta, and represents more than 60 percent of that plant's total emissions. Shell's plan is to eventually sell 62,000 tons of carbon dioxide to Air Liquide each year. In return, Air Liquide will be the Shell plant's sole supplier of steam and electrical power. The deal comes on the heals of final negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty that aims to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. That's this week's Business Note. I'm Jennifer Chu.

ROSS: And you're listening to Living On Earth.

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Almanac: Celebrating Darkness

ROSS: It's Living On Earth. I'm Pippin Ross.


ROSS: Walk in a typical city at night and look up. You could be blinded by glare from street lamps. But in Flagstaff, Arizona, you'll probably see stars. In October, the International DarkSky Association declared Flagstaff the first International DarkSky City, and the city is just finishing a month-long Celebration of the Night. Festivities include poetry, dance, and art exhibits, all to honor a clear view of the heavens.

To combat the very modern problem of light pollution, local storytellers described the amazing skies Arizona natives used to see generations ago. In most cities today, only the brightest constellations are visible. But protecting the night from light pollution is not just important to star gazers. The International DarkSky Association estimates that the U.S. wastes one billion dollars every year in light energy.

Artificial light spills up into the sky instead of onto the ground, where it's supposed to help people watch where they're going. The desert is an appropriate place to lead the fight on light pollution. Flagstaff is home to several deep space research observatories and the Arizona deserts have long been an ideal spot to take in all the glory of the Milky Way. And that's this week's Living On Earth Almanac.

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Morocco Sun

ROSS: Night light pollution isn't much of a problem for the two billion or so people on the planet who don't have access to reliable sources of electricity. Bringing power to these people is a major environmental and economic challenge. But in many places, photo-voltaic cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity may be a solution. One place where the sun is bright and bountiful is the North African desert nation of Morocco, host of the latest round of talks on climate change. From the Living On Earth archives, Peter Thomson has this report on the complex economics of bringing solar power to the developing world.


THOMSON: It's early evening in the Place Djemaa el Fna, the marketplace in central Marrakech. Audiences gather in tight clusters around musicians, snake charmers and storytellers. Throngs of people surge through the plaza stores, music shops, and food stalls, and a labyrinth of ancient streets beyond. Veiled Muslim women, traditional men in hooded robes, more modern Moroccans in jeans and jackets, and tourists in t-shirts.


THOMSON: The plaza is a cyclone of sound, color, and culture. And light: neon, fluorescent, incandescent. This is Morocco's Times Square.


THOMSON: But you don't have to leave Morocco's cities far behind to find yourself in a deep, dark place. Driving through the countryside at night, the darkness is striking. Even near many schools, houses, and mosques, there's barely a light to be seen, and rarely more than one illuminated window per house. Almost a third of Morocco's 26 million citizens have no electricity, and many of them have grown tired of waiting.


THOMSON: Under a bright sun, a man hammers braces into the beams of a thatched roof. The braces hold a cable that runs from the darkened doorway up onto the roof, where it connects to a small blue and silver photo-voltaic array.

BENALLOU: We will have electricity from the array today.

THOMSON: Abdelhanine Benallou is the President of SunLight Power Maroc. His crew is installing a 50-watt solar system at the home of Abdallah Baloutti. This household is pretty well off, by local standards. The family raises cattle and grows wheat, barley and beans on their farm on an isolated hillside east of the city of Fez. But Mr. Banallou says that in remote areas like this, even wealthier residents aren't hooked up to the power grid.

BENALLOU: All this region is not economically feasible for the grid. Depending on the landscape, 100 meters from the grid is thought to be not economical. And also, it's not only the landscape. You have to look at the dispersion of the population. It's not a one cluster to which you're going to draw one line. If you look at this, for example, you're going to have a big line going in this direction and that direction, etc. And you can't do that.

THOMSON: Without a connection to the grid, Mr. Baloutti's family has been spending about 30 dollars a month on other sources of energy.


BENALLOU: So, he was using exclusively for lighting butane gas, and for TV-- he had a TV set, and he was using car batteries that he would recharge on diesel somewhere.

THOMSON: Now the family will be able to stop lugging around batteries and gas canisters. They're replacing them both with a solar electricity system, for less money: an initial deposit of about 40 dollars, then a monthly fee of 20 dollars. The SunLight Power crew has promised Mr. Baloutti that the electricity and television will be on by four o'clock.

BENALLOU: Why four o'clock? Because there is a soccer game at four p.m. Morocco is playing, I think, Nigeria. He is waiting to watch that.

THOMSON: Inside, an electrician finishes installing a switch. A small fluorescent bulb flickers on and casts a pale white light. This is the first electric light ever in this house.

BENALLOU: Exactly. So this moment is historical. (Laughs.)

THOMSON: The advent of electricity in the Baloutti home is part of a sudden surge of solar power in Morocco.


THOMSON: For many Moroccans this flurry of solar activity begins in places like this: a dusty lot in a tiny village, where men in robes or wool jackets dodge cars and mule carts in a hurly-burly market called a souk. Souk customers wind their way through stalls piled high with vegetables, clothing, household goods and cassette tapes, and some stop at a tiny van with a SunLight Power Maroc decal on its side and a small photo-voltaic array on its roof.


THOMSON: At the back of the van, there are glowing bulbs and a battery. Speaking in both Arabic and Berber, a SunLight technician explains to a small group of men how the system works. He tells them that light from the sun excites electrons in the panel's silicon crystals, and electricity lights the bulbs, and some of it is stored in a battery, so lights and a TV can be used at night.


THOMSON: Photo-voltaic energy isn't entirely new to Morocco. Scattered businesses have sold PV systems here for years. They've long been an alluring option in a country with virtually no conventional energy resources, but an average of 300 days of sun a year: free solar fuel. PV systems are cheap to operate, but they're expensive to manufacture. And since this is a poor country, there just haven't been many buyers. Abdelhanine Benallou of SunLight Power says there's one big stumbling block:

BENALLOU: Financing.

THOMSON: In his office in Morocco's capital, Rabat, Mr. Benallou says it's been difficult to bridge the gap between the short-term cost and the long-term savings of solar electricity.

BENALLOU: People would like to have access to the solar energy, but you would have to solve the financing problem. If you take a solar module, today it's between 500 dollars and 1,000 dollars, but it's something that can last for 20 years. If you factor that, you're going to see that it's going to be cheaper than using candles, cheaper than using butane gas.

THOMSON: About 80 percent of rural Moroccans regularly buy candles, butane gas, or kerosene, or recharge car batteries, and they might spend 1,000 dollars or more on these things over 10 years. But they almost never have that kind of cash all at once. So Mr. Benallou's company has adopted a new payment scheme for its solar installations. SunLight sells photo-voltaic electricity, based on what customers already pay every month for light and power. Essentially, they've turned the transaction from a very expensive one-time purchase into a much more affordable long-term service. Mr. Benallou says it's like signing up with your local utility. You pay for your electricity, but you don't have to buy the whole power plant. He thinks this solves the problem of PV's high cost.

BENALLOU: You are going to be asking these people to pay only their electricity consumption monthly. You're not asking them to pay for the investment and you are offering them something which is cheaper than the candle, cheaper than the kerosene, and that's it.

THOMSON: It's a seemingly simple innovation, but it doesn't eliminate the expense problem for PV systems. It merely shifts the big up front cost from the customer to the company. So firms like SunLight Power need a lot of capital, and they need investors who aren't afraid of the uncertainties of a new market in the developing world, and who aren't concerned about making a quick profit. That's a tall order, and solar companies have had trouble filling it. In fact, it's such a tough challenge that there's an international network of interests working to jump-start the market for solar power in the developing world. It includes the governments of countries like Morocco, the World Bank, American foundations, and venture capital companies that are trying to attract big piles of money with small, strategic investments. It's become a grand experiment in sustainable development, and it may be starting to work.

VAN DE VEN: Okay, Jos van de Van. I'm responsible for global rural electricification within Shell Solar.

THOMSON: That's Shell Solar, as in the giant multi-national oil company, Royal Dutch Shell. Mr. van de Ven says Shell now sees itself as more of an energy company than a petroleum company, and he sees a huge market for non-petroleum energy.

VAN DE VEN: There's two billion people who don't have electricity today. We want to take part that market. We consider Morocco one of the 14 countries that are on the top of our list to be active in.

THOMSON: Big companies like Shell, it's hoped, with deep pockets and the ability to provide lots of solar panels, will help take care of the supply side of the photo-voltaic market. Small local companies like Noorweb and SunLight Power, meanwhile, are showing that there are millions of rural residents who can and will pay for photo-voltaic systems. They're helping take care of the demand side. Executives of Noorweb, the company in discussions with Shell, say they see the forces lining up to develop a permanent market for solar power in Morocco, even after the government subsidies are gone.

AMIN BENOUNNA: When you create a market, sometimes the market stimulates additional demands.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna is Noorweb's technical director. He says that once rural Moroccans have met their initial needs for light and television, many will want more electricity for things like refrigeration, small appliances, and machinery.

BENOUNNA: Most of these people have no water in their houses, not even a tap in their village. What about pumping? We think that between ten and 45 percent of these people may need system extensions. Basically, they will need a lot of additional stuff.

THOMSON: And Mr. Benounna, a physicist by training, has learned another important economics lesson.

BENOUNNA: I'm not an economist, but I remember that the market penetration increases when you reduce the prices.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna says he hopes that the market for solar energy is on the verge of what he calls a scale change, in which increased demand will stimulate increased production, which will eventually help bring prices down. And that, in turn, will create still more demand in countries like Morocco and even in the U.S. So, poor rural Moroccans buying photo-voltaic panels today could eventually help lead the way to more affordable solar power for Americans.


THOMSON: Back at the Baloutti house, the last copper wire for the television hook-up is being twisted and tucked into place. At 4:05 p.m. the TV is plugged into the home's first electric socket and clicked on. The Morocco-Nigeria soccer match is underway, and coming into Mr. Baloutti's living room, courtesy of the sun hitting his new photo-voltaic panel on the roof. Mr. Baloutti invites the installation crew to stay and watch the game with him. We sit around a short, round table on the floor. Soon there are cups and glasses of strong, dark coffee and sweet mint tea. There's little conversation. All eyes and ears are on the TV. Suddenly, a clean Nigerian kick sails over the goalee's head into the Moroccan net. The group gives off a quiet sigh and continues drinking their tea. After a few more minutes we step outside to say good-bye. I ask Mr. Baloutti what he thinks of his new solar system.


BENALLOU: He said "For the moment, so far, so good. Very good."

THOMSON: So he's not going to send it back even though Morocco's losing? (Laughter.)


BENALLOU: Soccer is that way. That's the ball. Goes, comes back, and--

THOMSON: So the ball goes this way, the ball goes that way. But hopefully, the sun stays on.


BENALLOU: He's saying "That's from God and it's going to stay there forever."

THOMSON: For Living On Earth, I'm Peter Thomson outside Sefrou, Morocco.

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Duck Stamp

ROSS: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth. Unless you fly in certain circles, you might not realize that there's a new federal duck stamp artist for 2002. Every year hundreds of wildlife painters vie to have their work adorn the annual duck stamp. It's the stamp water fowl hunters must buy for 15 dollars every year to validate their licenses. Stamp collectors, officially known as philatelists, and conservationists, collect them, as well. Almost all the proceeds go toward conserving wetland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system. I am joined now by this year's winner, Joe Hautman. Hi Joe. Congratulations.

HAUTMAN: Thank you.

ROSS: This is really something of a family dynasty you Hautmans have going here. Your brother Bob has handed the duck stamp crown over to you for this year, and you have a third brother, Jim, who's also worn the crown in the past. And you, yourself, have won previously. What's up with that? Or maybe I should say, "What's down with that?" Is that something in the gene pool?

HAUTMAN: (Laughs.) Well I don't know. People ask me that a lot, and I don't know how you could ever answer that question, because we all grew up with artwork around the house, too. And that's probably the main influence is our mom is an artist. We all like painting, and we all like ducks because of my dad's interest in ducks. So, I guess it's a natural thing.

ROSS: Now it's the Fish and Wildlife Service's responsibility to choose which bird is going to be on the stamp every year. And this time it was the black scoter's turn. That's a sea duck, right?

HAUTMAN: Yeah. It's found both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But growing up in Minnesota it isn't really a duck I had ever seen before I went up to Alaska and saw them one time.

ROSS: Uh-huh. Can you describe it?

HAUTMAN: Well, it's not the most magnificent looking duck, and that's the reason that it actually was the one the Fish and Wildlife chose for the artists to do this year, is that it's the only one that's never been on a stamp before.

ROSS: So, what did you do, go up to Alaska and have some of these scoter's model for you?

HAUTMAN: Yeah. We went up there and hunted them to get mounts for reference purposes and also to take photographs.

ROSS: Oh. So you hunted them.

HAUTMAN: Oh, yeah.

ROSS: Uh-huh. A little duck a l'orange, huh?

HAUTMAN: (Laughs.) Well, the scoter is not one you'd want to be doing l'orange with. It's supposedly-- although I never actually tried it-- not one of your tastier ducks.

ROSS: So when can we get our hands on the black scoter stamp?

HAUTMAN: Well, it won't be sold to the public until July first, next year.

ROSS: Oh, I don't think I can wait.

HAUTMAN: (Laughs.) Well, they're still selling my brother's stamp. He won last year, and that's the one that's in force till July first of 2002.

ROSS: Joe Hautman is a wildlife artist who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota, and he's the federal duck stamp artist for 2002. Thanks for joining us, Joe.

HAUTMAN: Thank you.

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Health Note: Sweaty Antibiotics

ROSS: Just ahead: from Asian longhorn beetles to zebra mussels, a primer on nature's unwelcome guests. First, this Environmental Health Note from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: Sweat is made up mostly of water, but it also contains trace amounts of compounds such as sodium, chloride, and ammonia. Now, it turns out that what's in sweat can help the body fight off bacterial infection.

German scientists discovered and separated out a protein in human sweat called dermacidin. They tested it against four different types of bacteria and found that the protein killed them all, including E. coli. The discovery of this anti-bacterial compound in sweat leads researchers to believe that sweat is part of the body's first line of defense against potential pathogens. It helps protect us even before more potent antibiotics in our skin jump into action to fend off infection from a cut or a wound. The bacterial fighting compound in sweat is unique, the researchers say.

Other anti-bacterial compounds in skin have a positive charge that allows them to kill microbes by disrupting their membranes. But the sweat compound dermacidin is negatively charged. Scientists aren't yet sure exactly how it kills. But if this new sweat compound works against bacteria that are now resistant to common antibiotics, it could offer a new tool for health care providers. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.


ROSS: And you're listening to Living On Earth.

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Listener Letters

ROSS: It's Living On Earth. I'm Pippin Ross and coming up, the natural capitalism of hurricanes. But first-- time for comments from our listeners.

Our story about fire look-outs had KUNM listener Bill Sayre reminiscing about summers he spent as a fire watcher on Kimama Butte in Idaho and Elden Mountain above Flagstaff, Arizona. He liked our report but had a correction. He said "Lookouts know fire like native Alaskans know snow. But, if a lookout sees flames, then they're too close. It's knowing all about smoke, not fire, that tells the difference between tree fires, brush fires, and dust rising from a gravel road."

Jan Yaeger listens to Living On Earth on KUFM from Missoula, Montana. She wrote in to clarify why the red wolf reintroduction program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park was shut down. We said the problem was too few deer in the park for the wolves to eat. But Ms. Yaeger says that's a bit misleading. Rather, the issue is that wolves need large amounts of territory, larger than the park itself could provide, and the Smokies are simply surrounded by too much development. Development surrounding our national parks and other natural areas is increasingly causing the loss of biodiversity within those areas, and the failure of the red wolf program in the Smokies is just one example.

We welcome your comments, criticisms and clarifications. Call our Listener Line anytime at 1-800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to Eight Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CD's, tapes, and transcripts are $15.00.

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ROSS: In North America, there are about 50,000 non-native plants, fish, birds, insects, and other organisms, and invasive species continue to arrive almost every day. The so-called exotics are the second leading cause of habitat destruction. One study puts the cost of fighting this biological invasion at about 137 billion dollars a year. It's a problem so huge and ubiquitous that we often don't really see it. Reporter Clay Scott recently traveled across North American and has this report.

SCOTT: Take a drive across the United States and try to find a habitat entirely free of non-native plants or animals. It's not easy to do. Almost everywhere you go you'll find the environment has been affected, in some cases drastically, by invasive exotic species.

Take San Francisco Bay. It's been called the most invaded bay on earth. Ecologist Andy Cohen of the San Francisco Estuary Institute gave me a brief tour of the Bay, or rather, of a single berth at the Berkeley Marina. On his hands and knees, reaching under the dock, he pulled a plastic boat bumper halfway out of the water.

COHEN: As we look down here, we've got these two sea squirts. They're exotic. There's one or two species of colonial sea squirt that are also exotic. There's a sponge here from the Atlantic, bryozoan from the Atlantic, another bryozoan that's sub-tropical and exotic. About eight different organisms, all of them, or almost all of them, from some other part of the world.

SCOTT: So would you say that the exotics are dominating here?

COHEN: They're very much dominating here. Virtually everything I see here is an exotic.

SCOTT: More than 200 non-native species live in San Francisco Bay. They've been showing up here for a long time. A century ago these ecological stowaways hitchhiked on the hulls of wooden ships. But with the increase in global trade the biological invasion has accelerated sharply. One of the more destructive newcomers is the Chinese mitten crab, first noticed here in 1992. Within six years its population had exploded. Millions of crabs have now made their way up the streams and rivers that feed into the Bay, where they clog drinking water systems and compete with native crabs. The problem of invasive species like the Chinese mitten crab, says Andy Cohen, is one with uniquely far-reaching consequences.

COHEN: When you introduce an exotic organism which has the potential to breed and reproduce-- and indeed, that's why we care about them-- the impact can end up over a very large area, much larger than any chemical spill could be, and it can be there forever. And rarely, in fact, will we be able to turn back the clock.

SCOTT: Half a continent away is the Mississippi River, another rapidly eroding eco-system. Here, too, much of the blame can be laid on invasive species, including several varieties of carp introduced by sports fishermen. But today, the biggest concern is the rapid spread of the zebra mussel, the tiny Eurasian invader that has already wrought havoc in the Great Lakes.


SCOTT: In Muscatine, Iowa, below lock-and-dam number 16, the current of the mighty Mississippi has slowed to a stagnant crawl. Here, the dredged-out bottom is zebra mussel heaven. State biologist Kevin Hanson is on the river, monitoring the impact of the invasion on the native mussel beds. There are more than 40 indigenous varieties here, mussels with names like monkey face, pink heel splitter, ladyfinger, pigtoe, three ridge, pimple back. Using a contraption called a brail, a kind of loose-tined steel rake fixed to a rope, Hanson drags the river bottom. Each time he pulls the brail up there are mussels attached to its tines. The bad news is there are mussels attached to the mussels.

HANSON: Another one, a couple of them. There's one of them, or they're two. Zebra mussels on this again. This looks like a little three ridge here. That looks like another pimple back.

SCOTT: And they both have zebra mussels on them?

HANSON: Have zebra mussels, yeah. See down here where there's hardly any abyssal threads? This is where they were probably buried.

SCOTT: Every single native mussel we find is encrusted with dozens of zebra mussels, weighing them down, literally choking them. The zebras have been in the Mississippi less than 10 years. Within another 10 it's predicted they will have occupied all suitable habitat in the Mississippi drainage: one-and-a-quarter million square miles. Hanson is most concerned with the endangered Higgins eye mussel.

HANSON: Because of the zebra mussel, almost every species of mussel on the river is endangered now. And the Higgins eye, to a certain extent, we're fearing that it is a losing battle.

SCOTT: A losing battle because the zebra mussels are already far too well established to eradicate. They can't be controlled with chemicals that would harm native species, as well. The real root of the problem, say many biologists-- the reason that zebra mussels have taken hold in the river systems of the eastern U.S.-- is that rivers like the Mississippi and the Ohio were already degraded by damming and channeling, creating exactly the kind of environment the zebras flourish in. As Jason and Roy Van Driesche write in the book "Nature Out of Place," the zebra mussel invasion is as much a symptom as a cause of ecosystem degradation. There are no easy fixes in the fight against zebra mussels and other invasive species, but there have been success stories.


SCOTT: On the Great Plains, ranchers are making headway in the fight to control leafy spurge, a European weed so noxious to cattle that simply being near it gives them painful sores on the eyes and mouth, a weed that has taken over millions of acres of range and grasslands. Not long ago, the fight against spurge was considered nearly hopeless. Even with expensive herbicides it was doubling its acreage every ten years. In North Dakota's Ward County, the problem was especially bad until recently. In the last six years, the county has cut its spurge acreage nearly in half without the use of chemicals.

FICKE: Right here, there's a larva of a spurge beetle that's just starting to come out of the spurge root and going to go on to the pupa stage, or they're going to come out and go right into the soil.

SCOTT: Derrill Fick is a Ward County Weed Control Officer and an expert on leafy spurge. Every year he spends weeks monitoring and collecting tiny insects called flea beetles, imports from Europe that feed on leafy spurge. On an experimental plot of spurge infested land near the town of Minot red flags mark where the beetles were released two years ago and the results are dramatic. On one side of the plot, the yellow flowered plants stand three feet tall. On the other, long-suppressed native grasses have begun to push through the dead brown stalks of spurge.

FICK: It was so thick you couldn't walk through it. And it had been there for 20-some years before that. So, once the beetles had worked in there and cleaned it out, instantly the next year the grass came back knee-high and the spurge was down low.

SCOTT: It's the flea beetle larva which does most of the damage to the spurge, burrowing its way into the roots and feeding there until the plant withers and dies. The introduction of one alien species to prey on another is known as bio-control, something that has often backfired in the past. In Hawaii, for example, in the 19th century, mongooses imported to kill rats in the sugar cane fields wound up decimating the native bird population.

The flea beetles have been effective because they are host-specific. They eat nothing but leafy spurge. This year the Ward County Weed Board passed out more than 20 million flea beetles at no cost to local ranchers. But catching the insects-- so tiny that 2500 fit into a film canister-- is time consuming and labor-intensive. And even Derrill Fick says it's unrealistic to expect to wholly eradicate the weed. The yellow flowers which homesteaders once thought pretty enough to decorate prairie cemeteries with are likely to remain a permanent fixture of the western landscape.


SCOTT: Leafy spurge, tumbleweed, cheat grass-- species that have been with us so long and are so well entrenched that we often no longer think of them as invasive and foreign. Staying with a friend recently in Idaho, I noticed a painting on his wall, a typical cowboy scene. Then I looked at it again. The cowboy, his horse, the longhorn steers he was driving, the tumbleweed, and in the foreground, the covey of chukar partridge hiding in a patch of cheat grass. It was a classic western landscape, yet nothing in the picture was native. Then I wondered, is something inherently more valuable just because it's native? And in an age where millennia-old biological niches are rapidly being overrun, is the native versus non-native distinction losing its validity? Back in San Francisco, I asked Andy Cohen.

COHEN: On a species by species basis, we can sort of make the good animal/bad animal judgment. But to the extent that we value native ecosystems, we value having that kind of native diversity, then every organism that is brought in from elsewhere that becomes established changes that and erodes that naturalness and nativeness of the system to some degree. And to that extent, every introduction represents some kind of loss.

SCOTT: Many ecosystems, says Cohen, will never be pristine again, they'll never be exactly like they were in the past. But while invasive species will continue to have an impact on our environment, he says, we do still have the power and the responsibility to try and shape that impact. For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott in San Francisco.

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Natural Capitalism

ROSS: Hurricane Michelle is just a memory now in the Caribbean where 17 people were killed on islands battered by heavy winds and rain earlier this month. Michelle spared the U.S., just glancing south Florida, and coming nowhere near North Carolina, where commentator Wallace Kaufman remembers a lesson in economics from an earlier storm.

Kaufman: In my forest where Hurricane Fran in 1996 blew down tall trees and created sun-drenched clearings, every spring ignites a green explosion. For the first two years I could walk freely in these clearings. Not any more. Rioting brush and vines compete now for the light. Sycamore and gum saplings grow six inches apart, racing each other up toward the sky.

As I survey the tangled battle, I'm watching natural capitalism. The successful green residents are those who best exercise their self-interest to gather, hoard, and transform the nutrients of the soil, the carbon dioxide and nitrogen of the atmosphere, and the energy of the sun. They do it for themselves and they're freer than any corporate raider or manager of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street.

But most will grow poorer as a few get richer. Today's small rich will become the big rich, and for the poor who can't move, their future is in waiting or in dispersing their seed, or in the biological bankruptcy called death. After six or seven decades the chaos and competition will subside and the new tycoons and oligarchs of the forest will have negotiated fixed places, and most changes will be trivial.

It will be an old growth forest, a mature market. It's no accident that the words economy and ecology come from the same Greek root, "oikos," or household. One day these new trees will also fall, though no science can predict how or when, any more than meteorologists could have predicted the strength and the exact path of Hurricane Fran.

When the winds rushed in from the north they caught the most successful trees with their full late summer crown of leaves. Everywhere in the north/south hollows, the wind seized the crowns of the tycoon trees, 80 or 100 feet in the air, and pushed on these great counter-weights, and it tore the grip of their roots from the wet earth. By the next spring, the big trees were beginning to rot. Grasses and saplings sprang up where for a hundred years scant summer sunshine had ever touched the earth.

By the third summer, everything alive was downsizing, divesting, diversifying, acquiring, and merging. The day after the hurricane, when I wandered out into the devastation of old trees I had known for decades, I was angry that nature had impoverished my life. But then I began to intervene in its marketplace. I thinned competing saplings, whacked the brush, and clipped the suffocating vines. My selected partners will grab the sunlight, and all the sooner, I will enjoy their shade. Here, too, the more your understanding of the market grows, the richer you get.


ROSS: Commentator Wallace Kaufman is author of "Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist." And for this week, that's Living On Earth.

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ROSS: Next week, Cambodian refugees in Massachusetts get access to unused farmland. The program means these once-upon-a-time farmers are working the soil again and growing their traditional crops.

FARMER: The flavor of pig weed is a little bit lighter than spinach. The reason why Asian people love eating pig weed, because to them it's just a kind of medication that provides and supports the immune system.

ROSS: Cambodians getting back to their roots, next time, on Living on Earth.


ROSS: Birds from the Canadian woods are the inspiration for this week's closing sound collage. Bernard Fort recorded their songs and took the sound back to his studio to create this composition called "Etude Sous La Pluie."


ROSS: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. 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, Chris Ballman is Senior Producer, and Steve Curwood is the Executive Producer of Living on Earth. I'm Pippin Ross. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Oak Foundation for coverage of marine issues; The W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org; The National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; The Town Creek Foundation and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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