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

June 28, 2002

Air Date: June 28, 2002




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Acrylamide is a probable human carcinogen that was recently discovered in baked or fried starchy foods. A recent World Health Organization meeting called for more research on the chemical since it is present in so many staple foods. Host Steve Curwood talks with Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest about what consumers can do. (05:00)

Utah Waste

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The nation's high level nuclear waste may well be headed to a small Indian reservation in northern Utah. Many residents of Utah oppose the idea but ironically, the decision may hinge on the proximity of an Air Force training range. (06:00)

Animal Note/Hopping to Safety / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on the discovery that frogs use audio cues to flee fire. (01:20)

Almanac/In the Fast Lane

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This week, we have facts about speed limits. On July 5, 1865 England passed the first speed limit law, a measly 2 mph in the city. (01:30)

Urban Eco-village / Alan Weisman

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In the center of Los Angeles, where natural ecology is a thing forsaken, one neighborhood discourages cars, grows its food, and even tries to get off the grid. Alan Weisman reports. (12:45)

Return of the Brown Pelican

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Pelican numbers have dramatically rebounded since the pesticide DDT was banned in the U.S. So much so that the birds are now having to deal with crowded conditions. That’s why Maryland is now the northernmost part of the birds’ range. We’ll take you to one of their island nesting sites. (03:00)

Health Note/Nicotine Vaccines / Jessica Penney

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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on a new vaccine being developed to fight nicotine addiction. (01:15)

King of Corn / Bruce Barcott

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Milford Beeghly built an empire and a science out of corn when, in the 1930s, he started working on hybrid seed corn. His grandson, Montieth McCollum, has pieced together a documentary of Beeghly’s successful, yet closeted, life. Bruce Barcott reviews "Hybrid: One Man’s Passion for Corn." (04:00)

To the Edge and Back

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Scott Weidensaul has hiked through forests and swamps to bring back the dead – dead species, that is. He’s written a book on the search for extinct species, from the famed Ivory-billed to the secretive Semper’s Warbler. He talks with host Steve Curwood about his book "The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species." (11:00)

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HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Sheri Quinn, Alan WeismanREVIEWER; Bruce BarcottGUESTS: Michael Jacobson, Dave Brinker, Scott WeidensaulUPDATES: Jessica Penney, Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. There’s word of a possible missing link in the relationship between diet and cancer. The World Health Organization sees mounting evidence that a probable carcinogen is formed when making common foods like ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, potato chips and french fries.

JACOBSON: Acrylamide in food is not causing as many cancers, say, as tobacco causes. But it’s not negligible. And that’s why the World Health Organization has just issued a memorandum calling this a serious problem.

CURWOOD: The controversy over acrylamide. Also, people on a mission to find species that no one else thinks exist anymore.

WEIDENSAUL: I lie awake nights literally thinking about the notion that there’s this lost soul out there. And you start thinking that you’re the one who can find it.

CURWOOD: Lost species and more, this week on Living on Earth, right after this.



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CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The World Health Organization is voicing concern about a probable human carcinogen found in a wide range of popular foods. Acrylamide is the culprit. And, it’s formed in the preparation of fried and baked starchy foods such as the cereals on your breakfast table, and the fries at your local fast food joint.

According to the WHO, acrylamide’s potency as a carcinogen is on par with cancer-causing substances found in other food, for instance, those formed in charbroiled meats. The WHO is calling for more research.

I’m joined now by Michael Jacobson. He’s the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. Mr. Jacobson, your organization sent off a number of food brands that U.S. consumers would be very familiar with, to be tested for acrylamide. What kind of results did you get?

JACOBSON: Potato chips and french fries were amongst the most contaminated foods. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, cold cereals, crackers contain some contamination. Bread contained a little bit of contamination. So it appears that acrylamide forms when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked at a high temperature, more than boiling, baking or frying. So, potato chips and french fries are at the top of the list.

CURWOOD: Now, some of these foods that appear to have relatively high levels of acrylamide are also foods that I think of as relatively healthy. Cheerios, for example, bread. What should a confused consumer do?

JACOBSON: Well, I think the point, now, is not to be totally paranoid. There’s no way to avoid every microgram of acrylamide. But I think we ought to focus on changing our diet with respect to the most contaminated, least nutritious foods. And those would be french fries and potato chips. Now, nutritionists have been saying for decades to cut back on those foods. And now we have, yet, another reason to do so.

CURWOOD: So, how does this fit into what we know about the influence of diet on cancer, do you think?

JACOBSON: Cancer experts believe that diet accounts for about one-third of all cancers. So, that may be 150,000 a year. That’s cancer deaths. There are actually more cancers. We estimate that acrylamide, it’s probably maybe several percent of diet-related cancers. You know, it’s a moderate number. Acrylamide in food is not causing as many cancers, say, as tobacco causes. That’s, obviously, the big, number one cause of cancer. But it’s not negligible. And that’s why the World Health Organization has just issued a memorandum calling this a serious problem.

The big challenge is, first, to figure out what leads to acrylamide formation. What are the chemical reactions? And then, how do you block those chemical reactions? There was a similar situation 30 years ago when scientists discovered that nitrite preservatives in bacon and hot dogs led to the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines. Fortunately, scientists were able to figure out that if they added a safe additive, ascorbic acid or Vitamin C, that greatly inhibited the reaction. And we need to try to find something like that in potato chips, french fries, breakfast cereals, and whatever.

CURWOOD: In California, there’s a law called Proposition 65. It has a list of over 700 toxic chemicals that this law says businesses cannot intentionally expose anyone to without first providing a warning. And acrylamide is on that list. Now I understand that attorneys in California have notified companies, including McDonald’s and Burger King, that they should have a warning on their french fries. How responsible do you think that action is?

JACOBSON: If Proposition 65 resulted in warning labels on thousands and thousands of foods, it could get to a situation of nobody paying any attention to warnings, if they’re everywhere. It may be that its main benefit will be to force companies to reformulate their products, change the way they’re produced to avoid the presence of the carcinogen.

This has come out of the clear blue sky to fast food companies, to breakfast cereal-makers and others. And, it’s going to take some time to sort out. And, I think the public has to hope that the government will give sensible advice, and that scientists will figure out a solution to the problem.

CURWOOD: Michael Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

JACOBSON: Thanks so much, Steve.


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Utah Waste

CURWOOD: Even if the controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada gets final approval from Washington, experts say it may take a decade or so before it’s ready for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. Between now and then, the spent fuel for nuclear reactors may go to a far less scrutinized corner of northern Utah.
This land belongs to the Goshute Indians. This impoverished tribe wants the millions in cash the nuclear trash would bring. But, the government must still approve that arrangement. Its decision may rest on the chance that a jet from a nearby Air Force base could crash into one of the radioactive holding sites. From Utah’s Skull Valley, Sheri Quinn reports.

QUINN: When you hear decision-makers worry that airplanes could crash into pillars of nuclear waste in the Utah Desert, you might imagine acts of terrorism. But that’s not their concern.


QUINN: What dominates this place, Skull Valley, Utah, is not the oceans of sage brush or the layered mountains. It’s the sky, the nation’s largest overland combat training range is right next door. It’s where fighter pilots learn how to become warriors, and test weapons, a military treasure. Retired pilot, Colonel Ron Fly, says the Air Force wants to keep it that way.

FLY: There’s a transition corridor to get from the civilian airspace into the range airspace where we do all of the real aggressive type of training.


PROTESTERS: Nuke waste, go away…

QUINN: Despite fierce protests from the state of Utah, environmental groups, and even some members of the small Goshute Tribe, Skull Valley tribal leaders agreed to lease a large chunk of their land to a consortium of eight power companies called PFS. If the company gets its way, rows of cement casks filled with highly radioactive waste will line the Skull Valley Desert, like 4000 giant soldiers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out whether the fighter jets and the above-ground storage facility are a safe mix. At least 3000 F-16s fly over Skull Valley every year. Over the past decade, 140 of them have crashed.


MAN: He’s got an F-5…

QUINN: That’s the sound of an actual cockpit recording made while pilot Frank Bernard was on a combat training mission in Canada. This was not a simulation. Bernard was having engine trouble, as he explains.

BERNARD: Because of the type of exercise it was, with other aircraft against us, we were basically fighting our way out against opposition aircraft. In the midst of that, I had an engine failure.

QUINN: Despite the danger, Bernard found he did not want to give up his mission or his plane. He stayed in the cockpit as long as he could.


RADIO: Warning, Warning…

QUINN: No matter what he did, the plane was going down. Traveling at 150 miles per hour, he pulled the ejection handle.

RADIO: Warning, Warning…

QUINN: The F-16 slammed into the Canadian tundra, and Bernard safely ejected at the last minute.

According to people close to the NRC proceedings, how he and other pilots like him behave in this life-threatening situation, is what will probably decide whether nuclear waste can be stored on the Goshute land. The storage company, PFS, says the risk of a plane crashing into the site is less than one in a million per year, which the NRC would find acceptable.

But to arrive at this low rate, the NRC allowed PFS to change its initial evidence which showed the odds were much worse, one in 365,000. PFS contends pilots will be able to steer a crashing plane away from any structures or populations before they eject. Some pilots aren’t so sure. Hugh Horstman, who also used to fly F-16s, says when an Air Force pilot is losing a plane, he or she may not have time to think about exactly where it will fall.

HORSTMAN: And I agree that they’re the most wonderful pilots in the world. But, if that’s the case, then why are half of the F-16 accidents caused by pilot error? We’ve reviewed a number of accidents where pilot error is the one factor, and they make mistakes on a routine basis. And the assumption from the proponent is that the pilots will never make a mistake. And that’s simply not valid.

QUINN: PFS says the chance of a crash at the site is extremely low. Therefore, the facility doesn’t have to be designed to withstand one. Spokeswoman Sue Martin.

MARTIN: There’s all sorts of risks that we face every single day of our lives that have a much greater probability than this. Driving your automobile is the primary one that comes to mind, smoking cigarettes.

QUINN: Hearings on this issue are now underway and will conclude July 3rd in Washington, D.C. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Board is expected to make a decision by early December.

SINGERS: This land is my land, from California to the New York Islands..

QUINN: Moving the nation’s nuclear waste to Skull Valley, Utah would mean the same shipping of the same waste on American rail lines as Yucca Mountain. But it just hasn’t won the same attention, largely because Congress is not involved. That’s because this site is on Indian land. So, it’s a decision between the power companies, through PFS, and the Goshutes, requiring only the approval of the NRC.

Utah residents, state officials and environmental groups, nevertheless, hope they can bring some kind of pressure to bear, even if it means something as subtle as singing together at this rally in Salt Lake City.

SINGERS: From the rivers waters…

QUINN: But their hope for keeping the nation’s stockpile of nuclear waste far away most likely hinges on the behavior of a pilot when ejecting from a crashing F-16. For Living on Earth, I’m Sheri Quinn in Skull Valley, Utah.


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Animal Note/Hopping to Safety

CURWOOD: Coming up, greening the city. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: When fire approaches, most animals flee or try to seek shelter. Scientists assume visual cues, the smell of smoke or perhaps the heat of the fire tell an animal to head for safety. All these warning signs are useful over relatively short distances, and work best for large animals that are able to move fast and far.

But researchers knew that a small amphibian called the Reed Frog can also detect the threat of fire. And they suspected another sense might be involved. So the scientists snuck up on individual frogs as they rested in the midday sun of the West African Savannah, and played them recordings of fire. Here’s what the frogs heard.


VILLIGER: This sound effect was like a blaring fire alarm for the Reed Frogs. Right away, they would lift their heads, scan their surroundings, and start hopping toward a tall tree or dense bushes, whatever would be the closest refuge.

A few months later, toward the end of the dry season, scientists repeated the experiment and discovered frogs were now less likely to flee the sound of fire. They think it’s because by the end of the dry season, the frogs are extremely weak. Any action that expends extra energy, such as hopping into a tree, means almost certain death for the frogs.

Researchers are now investigating what influences a frog’s choice whether to run from fire or stay put and take his chances. That’s this week’s Animal Note. I’m Maggie Villiger.


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


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Almanac/In the Fast Lane

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Whether you’re crawling through a traffic jam or riding on cruise control, consider that the world’s first speed limit was enacted this week in 1865. Britain’s Red Flag Act capped all those horse-less carriages at two miles an hour in town, and four miles per hour in the country.

Connecticut set the first U.S. speed limit back in 1901 at 12 miles per hour for town, and 15 miles an hour for the country. Speed limits kept on climbing until 1974 when President Richard Nixon put on the brakes. A national maximum speed limit was set at 55 to counter the effects of the OPEC oil embargo.

President Clinton repealed that law in 1995, leaving it up to the states, again, to set limits. Now, some allow speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. Certain sections of the autobahn have no limits, only suggested speeds of 130 kilometers, or 80 miles an hour.

Lead-footed drivers may want to steer clear of Finland, though. Traffic laws there base the price of a speeding ticket on the size of the speeder’s salary. That makes Anssi Vanjoki the payer of, what may be, the world’s largest speeding fine. The Nokia executive had to cough up nearly $104,000 for doing 47 in a 31 mile per hour zone. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.


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Urban Eco-village

CURWOOD: When you hear the word "eco-village," images of lush green countryside dotted with organic gardens may come to mind. Or you may picture geodesic domes, their roofs glistening with solar panels. Well, among the 60 or so sustainable settlements in the United States that belong to the global eco-village network, there are some like that. But, the place where reporter Alan Weisman takes us today isn’t one of them. Instead of a pastoral paradise, we’re headed to a poor, urban neighborhood in Los Angeles.


WEISMAN: This is Vermont Avenue in Central Los Angeles, one of those 30-mile long gashes of relentless commerciality that criss-cross the city. There’s a Subway shop, an Auto Zone, an English Korean karaoke bar, El Café Don Quixote, whose menus also come in English and Korean, and a babble of storefronts where money can be sent to Guatemala or received from the Philippines. There are Chinese groceries, computer outlets and, of course, McDonald’s.

MALES TALKING: You can mount it to the back, to the bottom…. To the bottom of where?… To the boiler.

WEISMAN: A block away, four men atop an aging 40-unit apartment building install a homegrown solar water heater made from 60-feet of copper tubing coiled inside a black box.

MALES TALKING: Is water coming out?….It’s coming out of the pump….It should be going through the coils…Is it warm?…..Woooo!

WEISMAN: The building is home to a community that grandly calls itself "Los Angeles Eco-village." It’s a pretty bold claim. On this decaying residential street called Bimini Place, you might not notice anything special. Yet, each week people from as far away as Japan visit this 1920s structure whose once peeling Spanish-style facade now sports a bright coat of environmentally friendly water-based yellow paint.

ARKIN: So, welcome everyone. Welcome to Eco-village. I know you’ve

WEISMAN: Our tour guide is Eco-village founder, Lois Arkin, a former LA probation officer. Arkin is a trim, vigorous woman in her early 60s who has lived across the street for years. Back in the 1980s, she worked on city plans for a sustainable neighborhood in the hills above Pasadena. But it never got past the endless meetings stage.

ARKIN: Well, we’re going to have a solar ecological urban village with a community land trust limited equity housing cooperatives. Of course, no one ever knew what we were talking about...

WEISMAN: Then, in 1992, LA exploded in flames, following the acquittal of four white policemen who had been videotaped clubbing a black man named Rodney King.

ARKIN: Our committee began to have a conversation about "what are we doing developing this new, sexy solar urban village when neighborhoods like this are just so sick, and so dysfunctional." And so, we began to think about how we’re going to retrofit our existing neighborhoods to make them healthy.

WEISMAN: But her concept of sustainable living, Arkin learned, meant little to people of different ethnic groups, so frightened, they wouldn’t look at each other. So she started small. She asked people to introduce themselves when they saw a neighbor they didn’t know and ask their name.

ARKIN: Just in the period of six months, you have like 25 people calling out to 25 or 50 more by name and waving and saying, "hi," and particularly the children...

WEISMAN: Next, she tore out her front lawn and got local school kids to help her plant vegetables. Soon, to their parents’ amazement, children starting bringing home fresh produce.

ARKIN: And so the parents would start eating these fresh vegetables, or see their kids eating the vegetables. "Oh, my kids never ate vegetables before. Maybe we should have a little garden, too." And so, we started having these little micro-gardens all over the neighborhood...

WEISMAN: With her neighbors and other Los Angelinos intrigued by the idea of an eco-village, Lois Arkin formed a non-profit coop and bought this building with low interest loans. They lowered rents for people already living here and began to renovate.

New residents had to agree to really be neighbors and to produce minimal waste and pollution. Since they lived within ten minutes of 26 bus lines and two subway stops, they were offered rent breaks for doing the unthinkable in LA--living without a car.

ARKIN: So, Mara, would you like to join us?

MARA: Yes, ...I’m coming to join you right now.

ARKIN: Oh great. This is Mara, everyone.

MARA: Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you.

ARKIN: And her daughter, Egshell (phoentic). And, she lives in Eco-village now, about five months.

WEISMAN: Outside, Lois explains that Eco-village now owns a second apartment building and rents several nearby homes. You wouldn’t call this an urban oasis. But there’s a succession of tiny front yard gardens and fruit trees--persimmons, plums, guava, apples, lemons, peaches, figs --that add up to a lot of food growing here.


MALES TALKING: This is cabbage…that’s broccoli.

WEISMAN: Joe Linton directs a key Eco-village campaign, redesigning neighborhood streets to slow traffic. They’ve won a $600,000 grant from the city to build micro-parks that flare out from curbs, narrowing roads and eliminating some parking. The idea is to persuade cars to drive and park elsewhere. Their project has become a pilot for all Los Angeles.

LINTON: The plan is to do 20 to 30 of these streets over the next 30 years. And so, the thought is is that these neighborhoods should really have an orientation toward pedestrians and not toward the cars.

WEISMAN: Over on busy Vermont Avenue, they’ve got the city to invest in ornamental bike racks and cork trees. And they promised storekeepers three new pedestrian shoppers for every parking space they get rid of. They’ve had no takers yet. But they’ve convinced LA to close one of their streets to vehicles.

ARKIN: The other thing I want to point out on this block is that we believe that there is a creek, Sacatela Creek, from some of the research we’ve done that runs down this block, White House Place. And we have a plan to bring Sacatela Creek above ground and make it an integrated ecosystem once again, again as a gift to the school.

WEISMAN: This was more than just a wetland. This shabby neighborhood was once a famous spa known as Bimini Hot Springs. The apartment buildings were hotels for guests who came to take the waters alongside Hollywood starlets. But the baths were segregated.

After World War II, LA Civil Rights Movement ignited right here. But after the courts integrated the baths, most whites stayed away. The Hot Springs went into decline and finally closed. Today, the capped spring lies buried beneath an auto repair shop. Some day, Lois vows, they’ll resurrect it.

ARKIN: Bimini means sacred site of healing. And so, what a wonderful thing it would be to, of course, have baths restored and accessible, financially, to people of all income levels and of all ethnic groups.


CULHANE: Welcome to the Los Angeles Eco-village solar demonstration unit where electricity is a commodity that we produce ourselves, and produce for all of the modern high-technological things that people normally associate with a consumptive lifestyle….I’ll just turn off the electric guitar for a second...

WEISMAN: When Iraqi-American T.H. Culhane moved here, the first thing he asked was if they could cut him off the power grid. He then started putting solar panels on the roof to run his guitar and lights.

CULHANE: And then, when I got four more solar panels last month, which meant I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to get the microwave and the refrigerator freezer. And now, I have a completely, I think, normal, modern lifestyle.

WEISMAN: There’s even solar-powered air conditioning.


WEISMAN: His TV runs off a generator hooked to a stationary bike so he doesn’t become a couch potato. But Culhane wasn’t satisfied with merely severing ties with the electric company. Not only did he build an odorless composting toilet inside his apartment, but...

CULHANE: Now, when I take a shower, as soon as the shower water goes on [SOUND OF WATER], I turn the pump on [SOUND OF PUMP], and the bathtub doesn’t fill because it’s pumping into the bushes right out in the front yard.

WEISMAN: T.H. Culhane is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning at UCLA. He used to live in Beverly Hills. Now, he takes his bicycle on a city bus to commute to class.

CULHANE: When I found it was possible to move in here, I put myself on the waiting list and proved to them that I walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

WEISMAN: He majors in sustainable development for poor countries like Guatemala where he’s been working. But there’s also plenty to sustain close to home.


This is 59th and Compton, South Central LA, a part of the city known for gangs, drive-by shootings, and just plain danger. T.H. Culhane once taught high school down here. And he stayed in touch with his former students.

VOICES GREETING: How’s it going? Give me a hug, Al.

WEISMAN: In his hometown studio, Alvaro Silva and his friend Ramon Navarro have been mixing a rap song by Alvaro’s brother, Bernardo.


SILVA: You’re in Solar South Central. And, this is my studio that’s being run with solar power. And, everything from the bathroom, here and here, all these rooms, solar power all the outlets here.

CULHANE: How are we doing? Is the battery holding out?

SILVA: Well, I just got to change the batteries. Well, money-- money is a problem right now.

(MUSIC IN BACKGROUND: I’m making a dramatic change in my life…")

WEISMAN: Money is always a problem in South Central. But Alvaro and Ramon go up to Eco-village frequently. And they think renewable energy is the answer.

SILVA: Here is a Aztec calendar. That’s to give me a reminder that we’re the people of the sun. We come from the sun, and we worship the sun. So, that’s an example that our ancestors were able to use the sun.

NAVARRO: We wanted to use a better way without, you know, polluting the air. You know, we live in the city. And the city is always, you know, full of pollution and everything. So, you know, we’re like-- why we don’t build something where we won’t destroy the atmosphere, and we can use it as much as we want without burning fuel.

WEISMAN: Alvaro’s family has put in mango trees, a compost bin and an earthworm farm. But their latest project sits in the driveway--a 1988 Ford Escort Pony, its original motor gone.

SILVA: Low-rider cars are the same thing as electrical cars. But instead of an electrical motor, they have electric shocks, and makes it pump, makes it jump up and down. It’s the same process you use for electrical motor.

WEISMAN: And they’ve been waiting for T.H. to come down for the first test of the new engine.


MALE: Woooh!

CULHANE: All right! Gentlemen, we have an electric car.



ARKIN: Good morning.

MALE: Good morning. What’s happening?

ARKIN: Well, we’re having a little brunch in the street trying to demonstrate that we can slow our traffic down on our street and invite our neighbors to come join us who often times don’t have time to get out of their cars.

MALE: That’s probably not a good idea.

ARKIN: Thank you.

WEISMAN: It’s a bright Sunday morning at Eco-village. A long table, complete with tablecloth, has been set in the middle of the intersection of Bimini and White House Place. About a dozen Eco-villagers, and several guests, are partaking in fruit, oatmeal, coffee, and a big batch of scrambled eggs. Several cars must pick their way carefully around them.

MALE: Hey, how are you?

FEMALE: Hey, want a banana?

MALE DRIVER: Thank you, thank you.

WEISMAN: Some drivers actually do stop and join them. It’s their Korean neighbor Mr. San who has the auto repair shop.

ARKIN: This city, more than any other city on the planet, is responsible for the state of the planet. So we have shaped the values, the unsustainable values, of people worldwide. So, we have a particular responsibility to change that here, to really reshape what it is that they write music about, scripts about.

WEISMAN: So, as breakfast ends, they sing.


MALE SINGING: Imagine there’s no cars, It’s easy if you try,
Nothing to honk or curse at,

WEISMAN: From Eco-village in Los Angeles, I’m Alan Weisman.

MALE SINGING: Above us, clear blue skies.
Imagine all the people walking down the streets.
Imagine no more freeways…..


Related link:
Los Angeles Eco-village">

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Return of the Brown Pelican

CURWOOD: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth. Ever since the pesticide DDT was banned three decades ago, many bird populations have made dramatic comebacks from the brink of extinction. Among them, the Brown Pelican. Pelicans used to nest from Florida to North Carolina. But as their population has risen, they have extended their range as far north as Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.


CURWOOD: We take you there now. Our guide is Dave Brinker. He’s an ecologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. And he’s out on remote Spring Island checking up on the birds.


BRINKER: These are the pioneers. They’re at the edge of their range. It’s like the old, "Go West, young man." These birds are finding North Carolina too crowded. And, they’ve found plenty of fish up here in the Bay, and a nice remote island. So, it’s like, "Let’s set up housekeeping there."


BRINKER: You have to watch your feet everywhere you walk out here. You can easily step on an egg and crush it.


BRINKER: You saw what happened when we walked in. They all flushed. If people came here time and time again and disturbed them all the time, you risk a lot of egg loss.


BRINKER: So you look out, right over here on the shoreline, there’s probably 150 Pelicans sitting right there. It’s like a city, really nice and dense.


BRINKER: You’re hearing Great Black Back Gulls and Herring Gulls. Pelicans have just basically a little croak. You don’t really hear a lot of vocalization out of them.

You see these nests with the smaller blue eggs. The Pelican eggs are the large white ones. And then you have cormorants nesting in amongst the Brown Pelicans. And they have that real pretty small blue egg.


Courtesy of Maryland Department of Natural Resources

BRINKER: So far, no chicks. I band at a certain age where the chicks are not very mobile. You get a whole bunch of people, and you try and build a human corral, and keep these great big, gangly juvenile Pelicans in the middle while you, one by one, pull them out and band them. And, it’s hard work.


BRINKER: Brown Pelicans, when they’re flying, have a wingspan of about six feet. And, of course, they have this pterodactyl-like bill sticking out in front of them. That’s what everybody sort of focuses on. People really like Pelicans.


BRINKER: Everybody remembers the poem, "What a wonderful bird is a Pelican. Its beak can hold as much as it’s belly can."


CURWOOD: Dave Brinker says he expects to band about 400 Pelican chicks this season. To see a photograph of him doing just that, visit out website at www.loe.org.

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Health Note/Nicotine Vaccines

Just ahead, the life and hard family times of a man obsessed with corn. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jessica Penney.


PENNEY: Scientists are developing a unique weapon against cigarette smoking. Researchers at a British drug company are testing a vaccine designed to stop the body from developing a nicotine addiction. Usually, when someone smokes a cigarette, nicotine enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain.

Once in the brain, nicotine gives the smoker a pleasurable buzz and physical addiction begins. But, after receiving a series of these experimental vaccines, the immune system produces antibodies that bind to nicotine and prevent it from entering the brain. Because nicotine doesn’t enter the brain, the smoker experiences no pleasurable effects. And so, no addiction develops.

But, by the same token, smokers can no longer satisfy their nicotine cravings and get a cigarette high. This makes for a possibly unpleasant, but effective, way to quit smoking, since the smoker is forced to go cold turkey. And, once the nicotine addiction is broken, the vaccine negates cigarettes’ pleasant effect on the brain so there’s no incentive to pick up the habit again.

And, if fighting nicotine addiction wasn’t enough, the company is also working on an anti-cocaine vaccine. That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Jessica Penney.


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


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King of Corn

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up, nature’s lost and found department. But first, his name might not ring a bell for you. But, if you were a farmer from the 1930s to the 1950s, you knew that Milford Beeghly was the King of Corn. That’s because Mr. Beeghly perfected a technique of breeding hybrid seed corn that grew straight and tall and, most of all, produced a high number of ears.

Milford Beeghly starred in his own TV commercials and built a small empire selling his seed to farmers throughout the nation. His contribution to corn and country is the subject of an upcoming PBS documentary. Bruce Barcott reviews "Hybrid: One Man’s Passion for Corn."

BARCOTT: In his faded overalls and feed store cap, Milford Beeghly looks like one of those wizened old timers who congregate in coffee shops during the Iowa caucus season. But Beeghly is no ordinary corn farmer. Back in the 1930s, he began experimenting with corn pollenization. He hoped to create a heartier, better yielding strain that would relieve the hunger of the world.

At that, he succeeded. During the ’40s and ’50s, the Beeghly Hybrid Seed Corn Company spread the gospel of hybrid corn throughout the American Midwest and, ultimately, around the world. Thousands, perhaps millions, avoided starvation because of Beeghly’s advances.

But as Milford Beeghly obsessed about creating a more perfect kernel, his own family withered on the vine. At that, at its heart, is what Monteith McCollum’s remarkable one-hour film "Hybrid" is about.

McCollum happens to be Milford Beeghly ’s grandson. He tells his grandfather’s story in a series of interviews with Beeghly’s children, and the old man himself, who was in his late 90s and still sharp as a pitchfork when "Hybrid" was made.

Don’t expect another Ken Burns’ sepia photofest, though. McCollum shot the whole film in black and white, and combined stop-action montages, eerie landscape portraits, the use of crackling phone lines, and a haunting violin score to create a documentary flavored with the creepiness of a David Lynch film.

"Hybrid" never directly confronts today’s controversy over genetically engineered crops. But the parallels between the alarm raised by Milford Beeghly’s hybrid corn and today’s Frankenfood fears are too obvious to miss. Back in Beeghly ’s day, his crude cross-pollenization techniques were condemned as "unnatural," even sinful.

BEEGHLY [ON TV]: We spoke of the dangers of closed in breeding as if it were wicked. Indeed, orthodox agronomists called it "plant incest."

BARCOTT: Beeghly overcame this resistance with relentless salesmanship. He pitched in person, and also in some hilariously corny television ads.

BEEGLHY [ON TV]: Let me introduce myself. I’m Milford Beeghly of Beeghly Best Hybrids. Better order your corn now from your local dealer.

BARCOTT: If you I mightthink Beeghly ’s TV persona sounds repressed, you should have seen him at home. Around the dinner table, his wife and three kids were lucky to get two sentences out of the old man. All their years on the farm, Beeghly ’s children watched him steal time away from them, and lavish it on his beloved corn.

"I think he related to his plants where he couldn’t relate to us," says one daughter who hints that she ended up working out her relationship to dad in therapy.

Monteith McCollum started out to make a film about the creation of hybrid corn. But somewhere along the way he unearthed an even better tale--the poignant story of lonely Midwesterners isolated by geography and culture, yearning for the comfort of human contact.

CURWOOD: Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about the environment for Outside Magazine.


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To the Edge and Back

CURWOOD: Every hour, three or four rare plants or animals go extinct. That’s nearly 96 species a day, about 30,000 a year. But every now and then a species the world nearly forgot resurfaces. For example, just recently in Tanzania, the Wildlife Conservation Society captured rare footage of the Lowe’s servaline genet. That’s a three foot long relative of the mongoose that no one had seen for more than 70 years. Other lost species are waiting to be rediscovered and there are people who go to great lengths to find them. Scott Weidensaul is one of them.

He’s a naturalist and author of "The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species" and he joins me now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

WEIDENSAUL: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how do we know that a species is really extinct or, as you put it, lost? I mean, what makes this final determination?

WEIDENSAUL: Well, that’s the difficult of it, actually. You can’t really tell for sure if a species is gone. Now, if it has a very limited range and it’s possible to scour that range and you can say with reasonable certainty that the species isn’t there. But, you know, you can’t prove a negative. And what happens so often is that many of these animals and plants are simply overlooked for long periods of time in the wild. And then years, decades, sometimes centuries later they reappear again. And in our history, when we’re losing so much in terms of natural diversity, it’s rather wonderful when these things suddenly re-appear again long after we’ve given up on them.

CURWOOD: Now, there are a lot of people who, when they hear that something is really extinct, set out to prove that the pronouncement is wrong. What do you suppose drives them, if so few efforts are successful?

WEIDENSAUL: Well, I think it’s a combination of a couple things, Steve. One is just the fact that we don’t want to let go of things. Sometimes we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone and you get these reports that drivel out of the wild from time to time of lost birds, lost mammals. And so, by searching for these lost animals and occasionally finding them, you know, in a sense you’re kind of restoring something that’s been lost. And people have a tendency toward obsession, some people a little bit more than others. I feel that within myself, dealing with these animals sometimes. You can just get this burr under your skin sometimes that sends you out time after time after time looking for something, whether or not you really, truly believe it’s there. Sometimes the search is as much fun as the finding.

CURWOOD: Now, what happens in those cases lost species have been found? What does it do to the surrounding community and governing bodies, or what changes in terms of environmental thinking?

WEIDENSAUL: Sometimes nothing, unfortunately. But frequently what happens, you know, there’s a progression when one of these animals is rediscovered, or plants. You know, there’s a sense of rejoicing, because something we thought was irrevocably lost has been brought back again. But then you suddenly have a reality check, because now, instead of having this mythic lost animal, now you have a conservation problem. One example here in the U.S. is the black-footed ferret, which is a beautiful weasel of the western prairies. And it was written off as extinct twice during the 20th century, once in the 1970’s and again in the early 1980’s. It was rediscovered twice.

The second time, it was rediscovered in northwestern Wyoming on cattle ranches. And each time it was rediscovered, you know, the whole mechanism of wildlife protection kind of ground into action. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, biologists crawling all over these ranches, and, you know, this did not necessarily always sit well with the folks on whose property these animals were found. Many of them at the time thought that there was just a little bit too much manhandling, a little bit too much direct intervention with these animals.

And in fact, that assessment was somewhat borne out when a canine distemper epidemic swept through the black-footed ferret colony in the 1980’s and wiped them out in the wild. And there was some speculation that that canine distemper may have been brought in by one of the very researchers who were studying the black footed ferrets. We can’t be sure about that, but some of the ranchers in that area on whose property the ferrets were found have later said, "Boy, if we had to do all over again, we wouldn’t have told anybody they were up here."

CURWOOD: From all your research and experiences, tell me, what do you feel was the most inexcusable extinction, the one that we really screwed up?

WEIDENSAUL: One of the worst examples, one of the most egregious examples, probably was the thylacine, which was the Tasmanian tiger. It’s not really a tiger. It’s a marsupial equivalent of a dog or a wolf. And this is an animal that was at the pinnacle of the food chain for a very, very long time until European colonists showed up and turned Tasmania into a penal colony and a sheep farm. And first the wool growers inflicted a bounty on them and that caused the death of an awful lot of thylacines, and then in the late nineteenth century, the Tasmanian government posted a state bounty, so that by the 1930’s the thylacine was virtually extinct.

Now, we’ve lost a lot of predators over the years. But what made the thylacine particularly a hard loss to bear is that it was the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. This was really kind of at the pinnacle of marsupial evolution in terms of predatory behavior. There’s nothing else like it even remotely in the world. Unless somebody finds a thylacine in the wild it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to see them again.

CURWOOD: Something interesting just came up on the thylacine. There’s a group of researchers at the Australian Museum who say that they have some genetic material, they’re starting to isolate it and they think that perhaps in another decade they could somehow clone a thylacine. What do you think of that effort?

WEIDENSAUL: Well, this is actually the brave new world now for lost species resurrection. It used to be the only way to find them was to actually go out and look for survivors in the wild. But with cloning technology, with molecular technologies, there’s a chance that we could actually literally raise the dead from old tissue. And you’re absolutely right. The folks at the Australian Museum are putting a great deal of time and money to try to clone the thylacine from reserve specimens left over from the 1860’s.

It’s really very much science fiction because nobody’s ever managed that before. We’ve cloned mammals by taking live cells from live animals, but we’ve never done it with the dead cells of the long extinct animal. And yet even if they managed to do this, there are a lot of people who say that they shouldn’t be trying. There’s one group of people who say that you shouldn’t do it simply because it’s too expensive. You know, instead of taking that $80,000,000 and using it to clone one extinct species, give it to conservationists and use it to save the literally hundreds of endangered species of plants and animals that still exist in the wild in Australia.

And then there’s another group of people who say that the cloning project also sends the wrong signal to the public at large; it tells them that even for something as permanent and profound as extinction there’s a technological quick fix. And, you know, we don’t have to save endangered species, we don’t have to save endangered habitat. We’ll just save some tissue in test tubes, we’ll cryogenetically freeze it and, you know, some day later we’ll raise up some babies in a test tube.

But then, there’s also the third group of people who say that the whole thing is moot because the thylacine isn’t really extinct, that it still exists in the wild in parts of the mountains of western Tasmania which is, you know, a very rugged wilderness area. Certainly, the context is there for these animals to possibly survive.

CURWOOD: Scott Weidensaul, the subtitle of your book is "Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species." Could you please read us a little about the wishful thinking part of this and about what keeps the search going?


"Time and again, against logic, against sense, I would start to imagine. I could see the striped coat of the thylacine moving through the Tasmanian bush, or summon up in my mind the manic call of an Ivory Bill echoing off ancient tupelos deep in some soggy forest. Imagining leads to a germ of hope, and hope sometimes leads to belief, to obsession and piles of old maps, to fruitless expeditions and squandered life savings. All of which would seem a sad and farcical pathology, except that just often enough some lucky searcher hits pay dirt, and the world stands surprised and delighted with the discovery."

CURWOOD: How frequently does such a discovery happen?

WEIDENSAUL: It happens a lot more often than people realize. It happens, in some cases, almost on a monthly basis. It doesn’t often get a lot of attention because sometimes these are animals that are, you know, not terribly well known or people don’t get all worked up when a new species of lost fruit bat is rediscovered in Papua, New Guinea. But for those of us with an interest in the natural world, for those of us to whom the loss of a species is kind of a personal loss, these are occasions for great joy.

CURWOOD: Scott Weidensaul, you write-- and I’m quoting here-- "For many lost species there is one canonical moment that defines the hope for its survival." Did you have such an experience?

WEIDENSAUL: I had moments when your heart leaps, when you suddenly see something that you think "Oh my God, that could be it." And then a heartbeat later you realize, no, it’s just a Caribbean alainie (phonetic) or some other common species of bird. I was looking for a bird called the Cone-billed Tanager, however, in Brazil. This is a bird that hasn’t been seen since 1938. And I was in a fairly remote area of Montegrosso, fairly close to the Bolivian border, by myself, and a mixed flock of Tanagers flew through. And we’d been in the field, my friends and I, for weeks by this point, and we were a little bit burnt out dealing with bugs and heat and humidity and all the stuff that you normally deal with and so, I wasn’t thinking that clearly.

But I’m going over these birds through my binoculars and, you know, Cinnamon Tanager and a Black-masked Tanager. And then, suddenly, there was this greenish bird that looked vaguely familiar, like I’d probably seen it in a field guide somewhere but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And there wasn’t that blinding slap your forehead and go "Oh my God" moment.

It was just that dull realization that "Oh, that could very well be the female Cone-billed tanager"-- which nobody has ever described. We only know what the male looks like. And then 30 seconds later the flock took off and disappeared, and I’m left standing there scribbling notes as fast as I can, wondering whether I should bolt off into the trackless bush in search of this bird or go back and try to find my colleagues. And as luck turned out, they showed up moments later and we went off after this bird and didn’t find it.

So I wonder, you know, to this day, what did I see? My gut tells me that, logic being what it is, I didn’t really see a Cone-billed Tanager. It might have been a juvenile of another more common species of Tanager. And yet, I can’t shake the notion that if that was, indeed, a Cone-billed Tanager that it looked exactly the way it should have looked. But I can’t prove it. And you come back to obsession here because I lie awake nights, literally, thinking about this, scheming to get back into that area with more time and better equipment and a better sense of what we’re looking for. And, you know, it gets to you in some fashion, the notion that there’s this lost soul out there, and you start thinking that you’re the one who can find it. It’s this is almost your mission, this is almost your calling in life.

CURWOOD: Scott Weidensaul is a naturalist and author of the book "The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species." Thanks for talking with me today.

WEIDENSAUL: Thanks Steve. It’s been a pleasure.


Related link:
"The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful thinking and the Search for Lost Species" by Scott Weidensaul.">

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, proponents say we can improve human health by removing genes that can lead to disease, or add a gene and make a better baby. But critics say genetic manipulation raises the specter of a super-human race.

MAN: The individual who wants to make a species-altering change in a human being or wants to change what it means to be human can act like a moral terrorist. It’s, if you will, a modern day Frankenstein.

CURWOOD: The debate over designer genes, when our series "Generation Next: Remaking the Human Race" continues next week on Living On Earth.

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a bit of a bicycle race, as it winds its way to the streets of Cochiti Lake, New Mexico. Recordist David Dunn says listen for the delicate, almost fragile sound of the spinning bike wheels, in contrast to the more cumbersome rumble of treads on the pace cars.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Jennifer Chu, and Al Avery, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepard, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jamie McEvoy, Max Morange, and Emma Uwodukunda. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley, Ingrid Lobet heads our Western Bureau, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of Western issues; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded Internet service.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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