• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 2, 2004

Air Date: January 2, 2004

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Fast Food O’Natural / Bruce Gellerman

(stream / mp3)

Bruce Gellerman reports on a number of entrepreneurs who are out to quench America’s thirst and palate for healthy food served up fast. “Healthy Fast Food” can be organic or just good for you, and it may just change the entire fast food business. (09:00)

Commodified Oxygen / Miriam Landman

(stream / mp3)

Commentator Miriam Landman tells us about her first visit to a new bar in San Francisco – one that serves up oxygen instead of alcohol. (03:15)

Almanac/Spindletop

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about Spindletop. This gusher in 1901 ushered in the oil era in Texas. (01:30)

The Sounds of Nature / Guy Hand

(stream / mp3)

Join us for a visit to a nature sound recording workshop in the Sierra mountains of California. Photographer and producer Guy Hand tells us about learning to make the transition from sight to sound. (10:30)

()

Gecko Tape

(stream / mp3)

Geckos are lizards with amazing stickiness, thanks to millions of tiny hairs that line their feet. Host Steve Curwood talks with Andre Geim, a scientist at the University of Manchester, who has modeled a dry adhesive tape on the gecko’s extraordinary ability. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Infrasound / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on research showing that extremely low sound vibrations called infrasound may lead to strange emotional and physical responses. (01:20)

The Politics of Petroleum / Sandy Tolan

(stream / mp3)

A giant gas-drilling project in the Peruvian Amazon was supposed to set a standard for environmental and cultural responsibility. But it lies in an indigenous area and since work began, it's raised questions. Part of a new series "Worlds of Difference" from independent producer Sandy Tolan and Homelands Productions. (15:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Andre GeimREPORTERS: Bruce Gellerman, Miriam Landman, Guy Hand, Sandy TolanNOTES: Cynthia Graber

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Coming soon to a strip mall near you, fast food that’s good for you, and your waistline. As Americans become more concerned about health and less happy about getting fat, some organic entrepreneurs are setting out to change an industry.

HIRSCHBERG: As companies like O’Naturals grow we will force the MacDonalds, the Burger Kings, the Wendys to come to us. And frankly, they’re here. You’ll see them walking through and taking pictures, and frankly we welcome them.

CURWOOD: Also, from sight to sound - how choices change and expand when one shifts from capturing nature with cameras to capturing it with microphones.

DORRITIE: It’s time for the voice of the planet to be heard; it’s time for the voice of nature to be heard.”

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth Comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Back to top

 

Fast Food O’Natural

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Let’s face it, we’re fat. Two out of every three Americans are either overweight or obese. And many say the culprit is fast food. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader calls the double cheeseburger a weapon of mass destruction. A growing number of consumers have seemingly gotten the message from the U.S Surgeon general that the supersizing of America is a public health hazard. Still, the hamburger reigns supreme at Burger King, MacDonald’s and the like. But a new breed of so-called “healthy fast food” restaurants is shaking up the nation’s food chain. Bruce Gellerman has our story.

GELLERMAN: Go to a typical fast food restaurant and you might find a poster of a colonel or a plastic clown greeting you. But visit O’Naturals and it’s possible you’ll be met at the door by president and chief executive officer Mac McCabe.

MCCABE: Hello.

WOMAN: Hi.

GELLERMAN: Do you always greet people at the door?

MCCABE: Yeah. You know, you’re only as good as your next customer, and you can have a great idea for a restaurant, but if the customer doesn’t have a great time there, they won’t come back.

GELLERMAN: O’Natural’s idea is to create a chain of all natural, organic “fast casual” restaurants. Right now it’s the first and only all-organic chain in the nation. Admittedly, O’Naturals is nothing more than a single sesame on a huge bun. There are only 4 O’Naturals. They’re all in New England. McDonald’s, by comparison, has 13,000 in the United States alone and serves millions of customers a day. But Mac McCabe sees those customers as naturals...for O’Natural.

MCCABE: You know, early on people would say, oh it’s a vegetarian restaurant. It’s like, no it’s a natural and organic restaurant.

GELLERMAN: But when somebody drives in – they don’t know this place – and you say vegan, you’re going to scare them to death.

MCCABE: Yes, but it’s sitting right next to a steak sandwich.

GELLERMAN: That’s a steak sandwich made from free range beef. It’s made with organic whole wheat flat bread baked right before your eyes. O’Natural’s doesn’t serve french fries – it serves organic heirloom roasted potatoes. There is bleu cheese, there’s brie. That’s not your typical fast food fare. Nor are Asian style noodles, or wild salmon, or bison burgers. The bison are harvested on Nature Conservancy land by Native Americans.

This may all sound like a throw back to the 60’s, but O’Naturals is anything but a hippie fast food fantasy. This is a consumer-tested business – from vegan soup to organic nuts.

HIRSCHBERG: I think part of what set out to do here is redefine what fast food is all about.

GELLERMAN: Gary Hirschberg came up with the concept for O’Naturals. He’s a legend in organic food circles. Hirschberg started out 20 years ago with 5 cows and an idea. Today, his Stonyfield Farm company is the largest organic yogurt company in the world. Hirschberg wants to apply the same principles to create a chain of healthy fast food restaurants.

HIRSCHBERG: I’m not going to tell you what’s healthy for you, but I am going to tell you that by being organic, there is the absence of bad stuff. I’m going to guarantee you that every drop of dairy in this place is made from cows who are not injected with synthetic hormones. I can tell you that every bite of bread is going to be pure organic.

And you know, a lot of people say organic isn’t proven, but the reality is it’s chemicals that aren’t proven

GELLERMAN : The O’Naturals concept doesn’t stop with food. It includes the restaurants. This one in Acton, Massachusetts has brown leather couches and wood chairs and table. Hirschberg says the restaurants are environmental statements.

HIRSCHBERG: It’s very important that the experience be green. The panels here is post harvest wheat chaff. We even have plastics here, on the tables that are made from recycled yogurt containers. We have all recycled materials. All the wood in the place. The doors and windows are taken from an old Naval air station – swords into plowshares I guess.

GELLERMAN: It’s an ambitious plan but it’s not unprecedented. Healthy fast food restaurants have been tried before. In the 1980s there was D’lites. The lite burger chain quickly grew to a hundred units. Then the company went belly up. McDonald’s came out with it’s McLean Deluxe a few years ago – that was a low-cal burger. It, too, was a belly flop. So were Taco Bell’s recent Border-lite offerings.

Robin Lee Allen is an editor at “Nation’s Restaurant News,” a trade publication that follows the fast food industry.

LEE ALLEN: The biggest problem is that consumers say they want one thing and then they choose not to buy it when it’s available. And it’s the perception, whether it’s right or wrong, that if things that are more “healthful,” they do not taste as good as things that come out of the deep fryer or come out laden with chocolate sauce.

GELLERMAN: But Robin Lee Allen says tastes and demographics are changing. Aging boomers want more than a burger these days. They’re increasingly health conscious, and their kids are more sophisticated about food. It’s a changing landscape, with more fast food restaurants that cater to health conscious consumers

[SOUND OF BLENDER]

GELLERMAN: Here at Fresh City in Newton, Massachusetts they’re whipping up a Berry Best smoothie. That’s a blend of strawberries and blueberries. I go for one with a so-called Stress Reducer. That adds ginseng, bee pollen and calcium to the mix.

Bruce Reinstein and his brother built their first Fresh City a few years ago. Now there are 11. Like O’Naturals, Fresh City serves up wraps, sandwiches, salads and stir-fries. It even has miso. Bruce Reinstein says the food at Fresh City is fresh, but it’s not organic.

REINSTEIN: You know, it’s nice to have healthy foods, but more importantly it’s nice to give people the options to what they want. Because people want to eat healthy but a lot of people want to feel they’re eating healthy, and it’s really up to them to decide what sauce, do they want sesame noodles on their wrap, or do they want simple jasmine rice. It’s really their choice.

GELLERMAN: But it can be difficult to choose the healthy from the potentially harmful. Fresh City does have many low cal, low fat offerings, but its Teriyaki wrap, while fresh, has as much fat as a Big Mac and nearly twice the calories.

LEE ALLEN: Because something is fresher doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more healthful.

GELLERMAN: Again, “Nation’s Restaurant News” editor Robin Lee Allen.

LEE ALLEN: I think what happens is that people get confused between – you’re talking about two different things –..one side is what’s more healthful, what’s low fat, what’s lower in calories, lower in sodium, lower in cholesterol – and what’s fresh. I mean you can have something that is fresh that is not necessarily low in calories.

GELLERMAN: Likewise you can have something that is organic that’s not necessarily low in calories. Still, public preferences are changing. Customers are telling the fast food industry that fast is no longer enough. They want their food fresh, healthy, and even organic. You can see it in the proliferation of new “good for you chains:” Healthy Bites Grill and Health Express. And you can see it in the reaction of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast food giants.

McDonald’s recently started serving a new line of salads and low-fat yogurt. And it’s entered a licensing agreement with Fresh City. McDonald’s now runs 6 Fresh City outlets. What’s more, McDonald’s is phasing out the use of antibiotics in its meat and trans-fatty acids in its fried foods.

Slowly, but surely, the fast food chains are changing their menus, and the nation’s food chain as well. Before, it didn’t matter so much what kinds of ketchup, cheese, and buns McDonald’s bought from its suppliers. Now it does, according to O’Natural’s Gary Hirschberg.

HIRSCHBERG: When I look at who has now launched organic in the last few year, it’s brands like Frito Lay, Heinz, Kraft. I assure you these folks are not coming to organic because they’ve suddenly had a religious experience. This is because consumers are asking for this stuff. We’re all reading labels.

GELLERMAN: Organics is now a $13 billion a year industry. It’s almost tripled in size in the past 3 years. And Hirschberg says the future is just as bright.

HIRSCHBERG: I think there’s no question we’re going to spawn a whole new generation of restaurants. But as companies like O’Naturals grow, we will force the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings the Wendys to come to us. And frankly, they’re here. You’ll see them walking through and taking pictures, and frankly we welcome them.

GELLERMAN: But they may have to stand in line. The average O’Natural’s restaurant makes more money than the average McDonald’s. If the trend continues, Hirschberg and his O’Natural chain could, one day, eat McDonald’s lunch.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: In the interest of full disclosure, one of the subjects of the healthy fast food story is the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an underwriter of Living on Earth. Our story was independently edited by Ken Bader.

Back to top

 

Commodified Oxygen

CURWOOD: Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty. And for critical issues such as air quality, commentator Miriam Landman hopes hindsight and foresight will win out over our typically shortsighted perspective. She brings us this wake-up call from the future.

[RINGING ALARM CLOCK]

LANDMAN: It’s a typical morning in the year 2020. I get ready for work by climbing into my full-body bubble suit. I zip it up and glance in the mirror to make sure my oxygen tank is on straight. Sound absurd? Well, we already buy bottled water, and we pay more for it than for gasoline. And on smoggy days we reach for our inhalers. And now, some of us even duck into an oxygen bar for a 20-minute hit of pure, unadulterated air.

The first time I heard of an oxygen spa, I was skimming through a magazine. There was an ad featuring a model with clear plastic tubes inserted into her nostrils. The ad was for the “O2 Spa Bar,” a stylish Toronto salon offering "oxygen sessions" for $16 a pop. The ad stated: "It may sound weird at first. But think about how much smog and car exhaust you breathe into your lungs every day."

Well, that certainly is something to think about. Unfortunately, instead of actually solving that problem, oxygen bars have sprung up all over the world— first in smoggy Asian cities like Tokyo, where there are also coin-operated oxygen booths on the streets, and later in Europe and North America. So when an air bar opened up in my fair city of San Francisco, I just had to go check it out.

[MUSIC: Telepopmusik “Breathe (Extended Mix) Breathe {CD-Single} Emi Int’l (2002)]

It was a long, dimly lit room that felt like a cocktail lounge. Twenty-something hipsters were lounging around on pleather couches, while a DJ spun ambient techno music. I sidled up to the bar and perused the menu of aromatherapy oxygen blends with names like Euphoric, Release, and Relax. I ordered a dose of Release from the bartender, and I asked him if I was about to get high. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “It just makes you feel better. And it lasts longer than the feeling you’d get from drinking a beer.”

Soon, I was hooked up a tank of the herbal oxygen concoction. There was a tube in my nose. I can’t say I felt as glamorous as I would had I been holding a martini, and I can’t say it actually did anything for me - other than inject the scent of Lavender into my nasal passage. But that’s not surprising, since there’s no sound evidence that oxygen spa treatments are at all effective in cleaning pollutants out of our lungs.

The original website for Woody Harrelson's Los Angeles oxygen bar declared: “Up your nose with a rubber hose” and “join the rest of society who laughed at the idea of bottled water.” It is hard to take oxygen bars seriously, but the implications are serious, as serious as a heart attack. Medical studies have found that breathing dirty air can actually trigger fatal heart attacks in people with cardiac problems. And roughly 17 million people, in the U.S. alone, suffer from asthma. That’s three times as many as there were twenty years ago.

Recently, I read a magazine blurb about a new high-fashion jacket that came equipped with a smog-filtering mask attached to its hood. Jackets with breathing masks and oxygen-hocking establishments, to my mind, belong in a bleak, futuristic, sci-fi world. But while we were sleeping, the future arrived. The surreal is now the real. So I can’t help but wonder: What’s next?

CURWOOD: Miriam Landman is a freelance writer and a green building consultant with Simon & Associates in San Francisco.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sound can make you speechless. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Almanac/Spindletop

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

[MUSIC]

The folks who gathered on Spindletop Hill this week back in 1901 had little idea they were about to witness the birth of the Age of Petroleum. Indeed when oil was struck at about 10:30 in the morning, the wife of the leaseholder had him hurry back from the barbershop in town. She was worried the oil would stop and he would miss all the action. But Spindletop didn’t stop.

It gushed for years, and would shoot one hundred and fifty feet into the air if it wasn’t capped. At the time oil was used mainly to make kerosene and to grease wagon wheels. It would take the automobile and its thirst for gasoline to make the oil business huge. Even so, thousands of boomers inundated the small southeast Texas town of Beaumont, eager to get their share of black gold.

The Spindletop oilfields produced millions of barrels per year until the salt dome that formed the hill was depleted. In the 1950s, the area was strip-mined for sulfur and today Spindletop looks like a swampy sinkhole. But, prospectors say there are still huge gas and oil reserves deep below the site and descendents of the original leaseholders still draw oil royalty checks to this day. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

The Sounds of Nature

CURWOOD: Everything we know about the world – the smell of pine, the feel of granite, the glow of distant stars – comes to us through our senses. Photographer Guy Hand has found that favoring one sense over another can skew our perception of that world. He sent us this story from a nature sound recording workshop in the California Sierras, where he tried listening to a landscape he had up until then only looked at.

[SOUNDS OF WALKING OUTSIDE]

HAND: It's five in the morning, and I can barely see the pine trees on the far edge of the meadow, and the mountains beyond. Twenty of us stumble out of our cars, half-awake, sip coffee and flick flashlights over a tangle of gear: headphones, recorders, mics, cables.

MATZNER: Keep your headphones on when you're recording and put them around your neck when you're not.

HAND: I'm here to get advice on recording birdcalls and waterfalls from the experts, but also to make a little comparison. I've switched careers, sliding slowly from photography to radio, from sight to sound.

MATZNER: Let's meet back here at ten o'clock.

HAND: When I first began fiddling with sound recording, I was struck by the similarities it shared with photography. I didn't even have to buy a new equipment bag, I just stuffed the old one with microphones instead of lenses, with digital recorders instead of cameras.

MALE: Oh, I see, so that's actually an external way that you can monitor the volume control.

HAND: Through the darkness, I hear another thing sound recorders share with photographers: a love of technobabble.

MALE: It comes out of here and goes into this box, and lets me do the switching and the volume control.

HAND: This new vocation feels familiar because sound, like sight, is a recordable sense, the only two of the five you can catch on tape.

MALE: You're hearing the snipe now.

HAND: But it's different, too. In the field, as soon as I put the camera away and pull on a set of headphones, the world seems to shift.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

HAND: With a camera around my neck, I passed this meadow by a dozen times. I was oblivious to the swirling world of willets, swallows, snipes, and wrens.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

HAND: I wonder what else draws people to nature sound recording.

HAND (In the field): So why are you doing this?

STORM: Well, because it's fun, because it's music. We're making music with creation, with the natural world.

STUART: Well, I think you can really sort of get into the moment, when you're sitting with your headphones on, and the birds are around you, and you're just enveloped.

CHRISTOPHERSON: The real reason I come out here is ‘cause it's a good excuse to go out in nature and shut up. [laughs]

HAND: Shutting up is one of the things I really like about sound recording. It requires a kind of passivity, a willingness to settle in and let the world come to you. Photography, on the other hand, feels active to me, even predatory. After all, we use hunting terms to describe it: shooting pictures, taking photographs, firing off a roll of film. Maybe that's why when we really need to listen, we often close our eyes.

CHRISTOPHERSON: My family said, well, you're going to take the cameras? But no, no, this time I have no cameras. I'm not going to be distracted by the visual images. I'm going to just go for the sound images.

HAND: Arlyn Christopherson is only the first of many here who bring up photography as a potential distraction. They say that sight too often dominates sound, and in effect blinds us to all the other senses.

MATZNER: There's so little attention put in the world of sound, even when natural history is the topic.

HAND: But Paul Matzner, curator of the California Library of Natural Sounds and one of the workshop leaders, reminds me that sound can also be distracting.

MATZNER: Many people in the large cities like New York, they wake up every morning to the huge sounds of garbage trucks out in the streets at five in the morning. They wake up at the same time as our ancestors would have woken up to bird song.

HAND: Paul puts a finger to his lips, then cocks his head to a birdcall he can't quite identify.

MATZNER: Uh…

HAND (In the field): Hear something?

MATTSNER: Yeah, I’m listening…

HAND: It takes him a moment to shift back to our conversation.

MATZNER: Um, I think that what sound recording does, and what the workshop does, is it helps to give us back our ears.

[LOUD MACHINERY NOISES]

HAND: I know what Paul means. Just getting to this workshop required I run the auditory gauntlet of the Reno, Nevada airport, with its slot machines, canned music, and crowds.

[CROWD NOISES]

HAND: But this forest of noise also made my arrival to the banks of this mountain stream that much sweeter.

[STREAM NOISES]

STORM: One of the nicest places where you'll find delicate and beautiful water sounds are where the gradient is very shallow.

HAND: Jonathan Storm is trying to teach our group how to listen to the sounds of water.


Richard Doell concentrates on the sounds he's picking up with a short shotgun microphone. (Photo: Guy Hand)

STORM: Or where you have occasional gradient steps, like here, you have these little, these tiny little rapids with pools in between.

HAND: The way he floats over this stream, ear tuned to every little ripple and rill, I can't help but catch the excitement of seeing his eyes. I wonder why more people aren't hooked on the musicality of moving water.

STORM: It has a really nice low frequency, some mids and highs. It has a typical water sound people will recognize, as well as a little unusual water sound that people might not recognize.

HAND: As Jonathan critiques the creek, Rudy Trubitt, another veteran sound recordist, tells me why he thinks a picture of a stream is easier for most of us to appreciate than the recorded sound of that same stream.

TRUBITT: If you're looking at a piece of videotape and you pause the tape, what do you see? Well, you see a still image. If you're listening to a sound recording and you pause that sound recording, you hear silence. There is no way to experience an instant in sound, and spread that experience out over time in the same way that you can stare at a painting or a photograph for as long as you want. So that makes sound unique, in that it's more ephemeral.

STORM: That single little bit where it's bouncing up over the rock, and the air underneath it…

TRUBITT: Yeah, that little burbling.

STORM: That's making the burbling. That's pretty loud, though.

HAND: I begin fishing this high Sierra stream with my recorder, trying to hook the perfect little burble with a dangling microphone. But after an hour or so, boredom starts to seep in, like water into my boots. I mean, who is really going to listen to my little collection of slurps and gurgles anyway? But Frank Dorritie says, you never know.

DORRITIE: Every time you roll tape you're making a historical document. Some are more important than others, but some of them are really important. Some of them are profound.

HAND: Frank is a Grammy-winning audio producer and trumpet player. He reminds me that nature sound recording can capture nothing less than the fading voices of endangered species or the quiet call of some as-yet-undiscovered wonder.

DORRITIE: This is powerful stuff. You don't trifle with this. This is important, visceral…


Relaxing while amplifying bird calls with a parabolic dish microphone. (Photo: Guy Hand)

HAND: Frank waves his arms over his head, turning his bearded face to the trees. Practicalities are only partly why he's here.

DORRITIE: How can you not be affected by this? You would have to be on novocaine not to be affected by the sound of that brook, or the sound of a meadowlark. Have you ever heard a meadowlark? I mean, I grew up in New York City. I never heard a meadowlark until I was 35 years old and somebody took me to Yosemite when I came to California. I mean, yeah, I know birds. I heard a pigeon, I heard a robin, that's a bird. No, no. You haven't heard a bird until you've heard a meadowlark. And once you hear that, you never forget that.

[BIRD SINGING]

HAND: Frank thinks nature sound recording isn't as popular as photography simply because it hasn't been around as long. Way back when Kodak Brownies were snapping up every family vacation in America, an amateur recordist would have needed a trust fund or a truck to catch anything in the field with high-quality audio gear. Now, portable recording equipment is shrinking to the size and cost of a good point-and-shoot camera. Frank thinks this audio accessibility, coming at a time when so many voices in nature are fading, gives us an opportunity and an obligation to get out there and record.

DORRITIE: It's time for the voice of the planet to be heard, it's time for the voice of nature to be heard.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

HAND: Diane Ackerman in her book “The Natural History of the Senses”, says that 70 percent of human sense receptors are devoted to sight. That certainly suggests that our preference for the visual is deeply biological. But Ackerman also says our senses work best in concert, not competition.

So if this nature sound workshop gives me back my ears, it's really giving me back my sensory balance. It's firing up some forgotten circuits in my head, and that feels good. After all, the universe speaks to us across a wide field of wavelengths, and it's only through all our senses that we can truly hear what it's saying.

[NATURE SOUNDS]

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand in the Sierra Mountains of California.

[MUSIC]

Related link:
The Nature Sounds Society

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: Last year, we gave away a free African safari to one lucky sweepstakes winner. Now, we want to give everyone else another chance. In May, a group of our listeners will join me on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas.

The tour will include a special walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park. The park’s 16 ecosystems are home to over 700 different species of birds and mammals. It’s a land of diversity, but Kruger is most famous for an abundance of the “Big Five”: Lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. You’ll have the rare opportunity to see all these animals up close, as guides take you on day hikes and night drives.

There are two ways that you can join the caravan. Go to livingonearth.org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our Web site – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for another chance at the trip of a lifetime.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is liviingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. You can reach us at comments@loe.org. Once again comments@loe.org. Our postal address is 20 Holland St. Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. And you can call our listener line at (800) 218-9988. That’s (800) 218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsburg, in support of excellence in Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Your listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

Back to top

 

Gecko Tape

CURWOOD: Geckos are lizards with the astounding ability to stick to any surface. They can cling to a glass ceiling with just a single toe. Now scientists have modeled a new tape on the gecko and produced an amazingly adhesive product. Andre Geim heads the project at the University of Manchester. Professor Geim, what makes the gecko so sticky?

GEIM: Their toes are covered by millions and millions of very small hairs. Each hair produces a very small, minute force, but when all those forces from millions of hairs has added up, then you get a very large stickiness, a formidable force.


Gecko upside down on a glass window (Photo: Prof. Andre Geim)

CURWOOD: Tell me exactly how you recreated in your laboratory the gecko’s ability to stick to walls.

GEIM: Well, initially, after actually a few weeks, we make the sort of hairs on a solid, rock-solid substrate, they didn’t stick at all. So we had to spend a couple of years to learn how to put the tape on a flexible substrate, so to force all billions of hairs we have on our tape to work in unison, collectively.

CURWOOD: Ah, ha.

GEIM: The problem is that any surface, however you believe it’s smooth, it has bumps, it has dust on the surface. Therefore, not only hairs of geckos are flexible; also their fingers, toes are flexible to attach to the whole surface at the same time.

CURWOOD: When you think in the years ahead of the gecko tape being used, how do you fantasize it might be used?


Micrographs of gecko tape (Photo: Prof. Andre Geim)

GEIM: For the moment, all possibilities are open. You can imagine even gecko gloves for rock climbers or window cleaners. But we have to see what would be the final material, what would be its characteristics, its cost before deciding about any particular application.

CURWOOD: So if I wanted to be Spiderman, how well would your tape work for me?

GEIM: For the Spiderman, it’s probably a bad reference, because Spiderman, he’s supposedly using mechanism which is based on spiders-- tackiness. This mechanism, I believe, is not scalable. You can stick only small insects using this mechanism; while geckos use a completely different mechanism. And it’s our contribution to this area that we have shown that Geckoman is a possibility. It’s no longer science fiction, unlike the Spiderman, which probably remains forever in comics and in Hollywood.

CURWOOD: André Geim is a professor of condensed matter physics at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Thanks for explaining your research to us.

GEIM: Okay. Thank you very much.

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Emerging Science Note/Infrasound

CURWOOD: Coming up: the promise and perils of digging for natural gas in the Peruvian Amazon. First, this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

GRABER: An odd feeling in the pit of your stomach. A sense that someone is watching you. Chills down your spine. Scientists say these often-inexplicable emotions might that e explained by infrasound.

Infrasound is extremely low frequency sound played at levels most human can’t hear. To test the effects of infrasound on humans, a team of scientists in England used a pipe to create a twenty-hertz tone. Then, they reproduced the tone during a concert, mixing it in and out of the contemporary music being played on stage. Almost a quarter of the 750 people in the audience reported strange feelings during the pieces that included infrasound, such as a sensation of sorrow or fear, or getting chills.

Scientists don’t know exactly how infrasound causes these responses. The psychologist on the team says emotional responses might occur when the brain tries to interpret low frequency sounds. Volcanoes and earthquakes, for example, make infrasound when active. But to understand why some people have physical responses, such as feeling hot or cold sensations, the researchers have invited a physiologist to join the continuing study.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

The Politics of Petroleum

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

Long ago, in the hot, moist folds of the Amazon, a people walked and walked, to keep the sun from setting. According to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the Machiguenga Indians, believed that if they stopped walking, the sun would fall from the sky. Then missionaries came, with other beliefs. Soon after, settlers arrived to Machiguenga territory. Today, businessmen tell the Machiguenga about a new kind of sun - a source of energy below ground - to be transformed into power, and money. For energy companies, the vast natural gas deposits on Indian land at Camisea represent energy independence for Peru and major exports to the U.S., where demand for gas is rising. For the ten thousand Machiguenga, it means change, the unkown. Now, this story, part of "Worlds of Difference," a series on global cultural change. It is reported by Jason Felch, Chris Raphael and Sandy Tolan, who narrates the story.

[SOUNDS OF JUNGLE, RIVER]

TOLAN: We move slowly, down river, in the thin light of crescent moon. Three of us North Americans, with three Machiguenga guides, in a long wooden boat powered by 55 horses in the back. We edge along the eddies of a small amazon tributary, looking to the shore for our place to land. Flashlights blink out at us like fireflies.

[SOUNDS OF WATER, BOAT ENGINE]

TOLAN: This is the edge of the new El Dorado, called Camisea. Beneath us lie trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. It’s said this will light up Peru, that this nation will use its Amazon to become an energy powerhouse, and that what’s left over will be turned into liquid and sent by ship to help power gas-hungry California.

[SOUND OF BIRDS]

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) They say that there, under the ground, there is light that illuminates, but I’ve never seen it.

TOLAN: Morning now, in a Machiguenga village directly above the vast deposit of gas. An old woman sits cross-legged on a wooden porch.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) I don’t know what this gas is. Is it over there, or is it up above? Where might it be? I don’t know.


While young Machiguenga are hopeful that the Camisea project will bring wealth to their communities, elders such as Teresa Provencia maria remain skeptical. (Photo: Jason Felch)

TOLAN: Teresa Provencia Maria covers her face with her hand, smiling shyly and looking up at us from her work. She twirls a spool of cotton from her field, pulling out the single white strand to knit a traditional shirt called a cuchma.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) I think in the future, when I no longer exist, there will be hard changes. Now I hear noises in the mountains. What might it be? I don’t know.

TOLAN: The noises, and the changes, come from the men who dig under the ground. Mrs. Maria knows about these men, because her grandson works for them – a boat ride away, at Camisea, where the gas will emerge from the belly of the earth.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) My grandson already has another way of being. He’s educated, he generates income. But me, I can’t read. I don’t know what money is.

TOLAN: The reporters ask the old woman: so, do you think this is a good thing, this gas project? What do I know? she asks. I have one foot in the grave. I see that the animals have run away, from all the noises. But my grandson has work. Go ask him.

[BLARING CUMBIA MUSIC]

TOLAN: Fifty yards away, outside his one-room shack, Mrs. Maria’s grandson lies back in his hammock. It’s a day off for Wilfredo Marvaredi Vargas, who does maintenance for the consortium of gas companies.

MARVAREDI: (Speaking Machiguenga) I’m happy with the job I have. I don’t want to be lazing around the community. When I’m at home, I’m losing time. I like to work. I have something to earn. I can buy the things I need.

TOLAN: Things, like the stereo in his room, hooked up to a car battery. Things, like money, which helps him court a Machiguenga woman in a village down river.

MARVAREDI: (Speaking Machiguenga) We could be equal to the settlers. They have comforts, they have light. Now that the companies are here, we need to take advantage to improve our houses, to assimilate ourselves into society.

[SONGS ON THE RADIO]

TOLAN: Between Wilfredo Marvaredi and his grandmother: hope for progress, and fear of irreversible change. Mr. Marvaredi tells us he agrees with his grandmother that the animals are fleeing the noise from the machines. All along the river now, there are fewer animals and fish to eat. And many people here remember the 1980s, when gas workers first came to the area and nearly half of the tiny Nahua tribe was reportedly wiped out by epidemic disease. Wilfredo wonders about the price of gas.

[TRAFFIC SOUNDS]

TOLAN: But if you follow the gas, by pipeline out of the Amazon, across the frigid Andes, and down to the hazy capital of Lima, you will find officials who promise Wilfredo Marviredi and his grandmother need not worry.

DEL SOLAR: We have done everything by the book, following World Bank standards in the way we treat the environment.


Energy companies hope that by 2004, the San Martin 1 rig will begin pumping gas into a pipeline that travels 400 miles to Lima’s coast. (Photo: Chris Raphael)

TOLAN: Carlos Del Solar of Texas-based Hunt Oil, the lead company among seven that will ship liquefied Amazon Gas up the Pacific, toward California.

DEL SOLAR: You cut a tree, you have to plant another tree. And what you see is a very professional handling of the environmental and also the relations with the communities, preserving their heritage, their customs.

TOLAN: Royal Dutch Shell once held the Camisea contract. Hammered by disastrous PR after oil-rich Nigeria executed the activist Ken Sarowiwa, Shell promised to make Camisea its model rainforest project. The company promised to leave scarcely a footprint on the floor of the Amazon, but Shell pulled out a few years ago amid questions about the market for gas. People close to the project also say Peru's Fujimori administration was trying to extract bribes. Now demand is up again, both for export to the U.S. and in Peru. Officials in a new government say they’ll convert Lima buses, taxis and factories to run on cleaner natural gas. And the companies that took Shell’s place say they, too, will treat the rainforest with respect, and help the people modernize.

DEL SOLAR: But also giving them the opportunity to form part of the civilized communities, in order to integrate themselves to the community. By working, being trained, being educated.

[SOUND OF RIVER]

TOLAN: Back in the Amazon, in the Machiguenga Villages along the Urubamba River, many people see their choices in much the same way as Wilfredo Marvaredi and his grandmother: to aspire, and get on board, or to remain wary, and simply watch.

[SOUSNDS OF WATER, FROG CALLS]

TOLAN: We’ve come to Shima’a, a village of muddy paths snaking through thatch huts, coconut palms, bananas and a living pharmacy of plants. To the south, a yellow halo behind a hill: the gas workers camp.

VICENTE: (Speaking Spanish) In 2000, work began. And it is no longer like it was.

TOLAN: Village elder Pedro Vicente sits in a folding chair. He remembers Shell and its promises of a model project, but he says these new companies are not following through. Company officials point out they’ve installed new drinking water taps in part of the village. And they paid $170,000 to the community as compensation for putting the pipeline through here. This hasn’t pacified Pedro Vicente.

VICENTE: (Speaking Spanish) We can’t live calmly now. The land, the trees are destroyed. There is change now, a transformation.

TOLAN: The next morning, we can see the transformation, laid bare on a hillside where the pipeline crosses. Alongside a vertical path, a hundred feet wide, lie hundreds of mud-coated trees, strewn wildly like so many toothpicks. Villagers say after the trees were cut, a landslide thundered down and buried an empty house, polluting a major source of the village drinking water. Machiguenga activist Walter Kategari stands in the pounding sun, surveying the damage from above.

KATEGARI: Now the companies with their community relations people always say with the best technology they will remediate the impacts, but it doesn’t work. We have seen the erosion here. We always say, they never do what they promise.

[SOUND OF HELICOPTER]

TOLAN: Within minutes, a helicopter approaches us as we walk down from the pipeline route and onto the village soccer field. Suddenly we realize the chopper is landing. Kids abandon their game and scatter. Everyone’s hair is flying in the rotor wash.

[VOICES IN SPANISH]

TOLAN: Two pipeline workers emerge to scold us: we needed written permission, plus hard hats and long sleeves, to be walking that pipeline route.

[HELICOPTER NOISES]

TOLAN: Walter tells them, your people treat us like we Machiguenga are just in your way.

[SOUNDS OF CONVERSATION]

TOLAN: No, no, the pipeline workers say. We’re here because we are concerned about safety. They repeat: you didn’t have permission to walk along the pipeline. The reporters ask the representatives: but, did you have permission to land unannounced in this village? No, they admit.

[SOUND OF HELICOPTER]

TOLAN: The workers board the chopper again, and leave. Walter starts to laugh.

[LAUGHTER]

TOLAN: Walter says they don’t really care about security. They’re worried that reporters saw the erosion and landslide. And, he says, the Machiguenga accept cultural change; they just want a say in how it’s done.

KATEGARI: (Speaking Spanish) Modernization, development, access to a better life. That doesn’t mean a town has to be destroyed. Culture and moderinzation. They have to go together.

TOLAN: The workers and their machines are here now, but soon, they’ll be gone. Meanwhile, the Machiguenga will have had a taste of modern life. For some, the long-term worry is dependence. A company anthropologist told us the villagers see the gas operation as the big papa. The attitude, he says, is while the company is here, let’s get what we can. The companies say payments to a village like Shima’a as an exchange for a right of way to pass through here, a sharing of natural wealth. Now it seems, villagers increasingly see the money as simply compensation for damages.

[VOICES, WATERFALL]

TOLAN: We move down river from Shima’a, across the great rapid known as the Pongo de Manique, where it’s said the souls of the Machiguenga go when they die; where they say it rains every time a gringo passes through here. And it did. Back in the lower Urubamba, moving again toward the source of the natural wealth, we learn that the worry over damages is growing.

MALE: (Speaking Spanish): This was the 15th of May 2002. The spill went all the way to Urubamba. It’s all contaminated now. And there was another one on the 17th. And the 20th of May. And the 20th of July.

TOLAN: A young man stands in a boat tied to the shore below his village of Chocoriari. He works for the pipeline company – one of five witnesses who told us of a total of six diesel spills from storage tanks used to run heavy equipment. All the spills reportedly ran into the Urubamba. He recounts the first spill:

MALE: (Speaking Spanish) It was during the night. There where special sponges to suck it all up. We all suffered as well. Petroleum burns. The skin peeled off our hands.

TOLAN: In each case, he tells us, giant black rubber bladders burst. Each contained 4000 gallons of diesel. Now, the man tells us, there are no fish worth eating and less protein for the village. Now another man steps forward, claiming the company told him to stay quiet after he witnessed a spill.

MALE 2: (Speaking Spanish) They told me: You as a peon, as a worker for this company, don’t tell the community what has happened. But, my children, my family and the future of our community, we are all hurt by this. They say if I talk about this, they will fire me. But I don’t care.

TOLAN: Company workers on the river would not answer the reporters‚ questions. Via email from Lima, an official acknowledged some spills, but said they were contained.

[SOUND OF HACKING THROUGH BRUSH]

TOLAN: Our last stop is the headquarters for the Camisea drilling operation, a large square of gravel and trailers housing petroleum workers from around Peru and the world. There, in a gully near the bank of the Urubamba is young Wilfredo Marvaredi, in his orange jumpsuit, hacking away at brush with his machete. His grandmother may not understand how light can come from under the ground. Mr. Marvaredi says he doesn’t either, but he does know that money comes from there. And he’s working for that, as fast as he can.


Wilfredo believes that Camisea could bring light to villages such as Segakiato, but he also suspects the project has harmed the environment. (Photo: Chris Raphael)

MARVAREDI: With this money, I’ve bought this battery and light. With the money I hope to make my house better, for when I get married. With the compensation, they should make a neighborhood with houses, and once that’s done they should bring electricity. It’s necessary these days.

TOLAN: Soon, the wells with be drilled, most personnel will leave, and Wilfredo Marvaredi may not have any more work. If that happens, he says, he’ll get married, grow yucca and banana, and be by his grandmother’s side.

MARVAREDI: I’m very close to my grandma, I cannot go somewhere else. But I couldn’t live like she lived before. It’s different. I’m educated. I need to know how to live in a house, not like she did, in the headwaters of the rivers.

[SOUND OF HACKING BRUSH]

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, with Jason Felch and Chris Raphael, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

CURWOOD: Our story on natural gas development in the Peruvian Amazon was made possible, in part, with funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Rockefeller Foundation. Production assistance from Ellen Yuan. "Worlds of Difference" is a project of Homelands Productions. For more information, visit our Web site at livingonearth.org.

[MUSIC]

Related link:
The Politics of Petroleum/UC/Berkeley project

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: Before we go – get your pail and buckets. It’s milking time at Wingstone Farm in Manaton, England where these ladies were recorded as part of the “Sounding Dartmoor” community project the sonically document this region of the British Isles.

[MOOING COWS]

[EarthEar: Sounding Dartmoor “Milking Time at Winsgstone Farm, Manaton” Sounding Dartmoor i-DAT (2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, Diane Toomey and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Andy Farnsworth mixes the program. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundatio n, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.