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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

July 2, 2004

Air Date: July 2, 2004

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Monitoring Pollution / Jeff Young

(stream / mp3)

The government's Toxic Release Inventory keeps tabs on industrial pollution. But a new report says actual emissions of some cancer-causing chemicals may be four to five times higher than what the inventory says. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on new doubts about the inventory's accuracy. (06:30)

Green Candidate Speaks

(stream / mp3)

The Green Party has nominated its presidential candidate, and it’s not Ralph Nader. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Cobb, who won the nomination by a narrow margin, about his strategy for this year’s election cycle. (06:00)

Red Sky at Morning

(stream / mp3)

James Gustave Speth has worn many hats throughout his environmental career. Twenty-five years ago, he advised President Jimmy Carter on how to globally deal with emerging environmental problems like climate change and deforestation. Since then, he’s founded the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He talks with host Steve Curwood about his observations over this key period in environmental progress, and about his new book, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.” (12:30)

Listener Letters

(stream / mp3)

We dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:00)

Environmental Health Note/Mother’s Remedy / Jennifer Chu

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that finds breast milk may help get rid of stubborn warts. (01:20)

Got the Beat / Susan Shepherd

(stream / mp3)

Tod Machover is a professor, classical musician and inventor at the MIT Media Lab who is overseeing the design of a new class of electronic instruments. These beat bugs, shapers and other musical inventions are now used by children, handicapped adults and orchestras around the world. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd reports on the new frontier of Hyper Music. (12:15)

Aurora Borealis / Barrett Golding

(stream / mp3)

The sounds of charged solar particles hitting the atmosphere and the voice of the man who records them, set to a swirly rock n’ roll beat by producer Barrett Golding. (03:40)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: David Cobb, James Gustave SpethREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Susan ShepherdPRODUCER: Barrett GoldingHEALTH NOTE: Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.

[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

Every year companies that discharge toxic chemicals into the environment must report to the government. Now it turns out that gross underreporting of pollution may have skewed the accuracy of the federal toxic release inventory.

HARAGAN: It’s off by huge amounts and it’s significant because these things are so dangerous. Benzene and butadiene are both rated by the EPA as some of the biggest risks for cancer. So, the purpose of our report was to show how big this problem is and to hope that EPA would start paying attention.

CURWOOD: Also, using technology to unlock musical creativity from just about anyone, including young children.

MACHOVER: It’s one thing to turn kids into musicians and performers and composers. But there's no reason we can't turn kids into instrument designers and inventors of new kinds of music play also.

CURWOOD: A new horizon of music, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

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

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Monitoring Pollution

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

For more than 15 years, a database called the Toxic Release Inventory has helped governments, businesses, activists, and just ordinary citizens keep tabs on the poisonous chemicals discharged into our air, water, and landscape. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency collects reports from industry on how much toxic matter is emitted into the environment. That information in the TRI, as it’s known, has played a major role in reducing pollution from industry by guiding regulators and arming environmental groups with real data.

But a recent report calls into question the accuracy of the Inventory and calls on the EPA to approve the quality of the data. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young joins me now from our Washington Bureau. Jeff, why is this new report about the Toxic Release Inventory causing so much concern?

YOUNG: Well, environmental groups had long assumed that the Inventory’s numbers were low, but no one had a way to measure just how low. The Washington-based group Environmental Integrity Project says they now have a way to do that. They partnered with an air quality group in Texas to compare the emissions reports on the Inventory with actual measurements of chemicals in the air in the Houston/Galveston area, which has a lot of refineries and chemical plants. State officials in Texas had already determined that ten kinds of toxic air emissions were underreported to TRI and the report applied the same method across the country and found the Inventory’s numbers for those ten chemicals are way off.

CURWOOD: Way off meaning what, Jeff?

YOUNG: The report says the actual emissions of some these chemicals may be more than 400 percent higher than what’s reported on the Inventory. This is Kelly Haragan who co-authored the report.

(Photo: MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences)

HARAGAN: It’s off by huge amounts and it’s significant because these things are so dangerous. Benzene and butadiene are both rated by EPA as some of the biggest risks for cancer. Um, so the purpose of our report was to show how big this problem is and to hope that EPA would start paying attention.

CURWOOD: Well, how much is EPA paying attention to this?

YOUNG: Well, the Agency made its annual release of Inventory data a little early this year in part to respond to Haragan’s report. And EPA spokeswoman Kim Nelson expressed some doubt about the report’s numbers but said the Agency would look into it.

NELSON: If that number turns out to be scientifically valid then I would say yes, I’m concerned. But that’s a number that has not been analyzed by anyone else. It hasn’t been scientifically validated by a peer review process.

YOUNG: An industry representative I spoke with also questioned whether the method that Environmental Integrity has used for this report can really be applied across the country. But this is not the first time that EPA has been told that its numbers need some work. Congress’s General Accounting Office pointed to problems three years ago, EPA’s Inspector General this year said emissions factors that EPA uses to calculate emissions were not reliable.

CURWOOD: Well, wait, Jeff, you’re saying that these numbers in the Toxic Release Inventory are calculated. They’re not actually measured?

YOUNG: Yeah, only about five percent of numbers on the Inventory come from direct monitoring and the rest come from calculated estimates. The critics here say that’s the root of the problem. They want more direct measurements and improvements in the way that the emissions estimates are calculated.

CURWOOD: Jeff, with all this talk about numbers, we don’t want to forget that these numbers actually represent poisons in the air that we breathe. What does this mean for people who want to use the Toxic Release Inventory to find out if the air in their neighborhood is okay?

YOUNG: Well, on the whole, the Inventory is an amazingly useful tool. But I found a few examples where community groups working for cleaner air found what they think are highly inaccurate numbers on the Inventory working against them. Louisville, Kentucky is a good example. There’s an industrial complex there called Rubbertown. It’s a collection of a dozen or so plants with residential areas and schools bumping right up against the industry’s fence line. And people there had long complained about unexplained illnesses, smelly air. So they organized, they got some funding for air monitors and those monitors showed high levels of toxins. Now the community member Tim Duncan told me that when his group would ask for an explanation from the companies, the companies would respond with the much lower emissions numbers on the Toxic Release Inventory.

DUNCAN: On the one hand, the chemical plants are able to point to the TRI information and say look, it’s safe, it’s no problem, we’re not presenting a hazard to the community. When we look at the air monitor readings though, they tell us something completely different.

YOUNG: And this report on the Inventory’s inaccuracies addresses the leading polluter that Duncan is dealing with there in Louisville. And the report says that company’s actual emissions may be four times what the company reports to EPA for the Inventory.

CURWOOD: So, Jeff, what do critics want to see changed here? What do they think might make the Toxic Release Inventory better?

YOUNG: Well, the recommendation is that EPA should use more direct monitoring and improve their estimate techniques and nearly everyone I spoke with says, yeah, that’s a good idea. The concern from critics of EPA say the Agency may be more concerned about reducing what the Agency calls the industry’s burden of reporting emissions data.

CURWOOD: What do they mean by industry burden, Jeff?

YOUNG: Well, direct monitoring costs more money than estimating and, of course, the industry would like to avoid extra costs if they can, so they’ve sued, they’ve lobbied and critics say they’re making some headway. The EPA is entertaining some ideas like switching away from more regular monitoring to less frequent monitoring.

CURWOOD: So, Jeff, what does all this mean in terms of getting information about industrial pollution to the public?

YOUNG: Well, I spoke with a lot of people -- academics, activists, researchers who use the Toxic Release Inventory data in a lot of different ways -- and some are kind of philosophical about it. They say, we’ve always known that this was an imperfect set of data and that it had problems and we would have to do additional work, that TRI as a starting point for additional monitoring that you’re going to have to do. And over time the data will improve in quality. Others I spoke to looked at it and said, boy, the magnitude of the potential error that we’re talking about in this report, two, three, four times off, that’s a real problem and they seriously wonder if the Agency is serious about the job of approving the data.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Steve.

Related links:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory Program
- Environmental Integrity Report [PDF]
- Scorecard is a clearinghouse on environmental pollutants
- The Right-to-Know Network provides public access to information on the environment, including the Toxic Release Inventory.

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Green Candidate Speaks

CURWOOD: David Cobb isn’t exactly a household name. But the Green Party is not banking on name recognition for the November elections. At its recent convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Green Party members chose the little-known lawyer from Texas as their Presidential nominee over their longtime media star and consumer activist, Ralph Nader.

The nomination is an upset for Mr. Nader, who had hoped for an endorsement from the Green Party, in order to get his name on the 22 state ballots where the Greens have secured a space. Now those slots will go to David Cobb. He’s been a member of the Green Party since 1996 and was pivotal in getting Ralph Nader on the Texas ballot in the year 2000. Now Mr. Cobb is in the running, but he says he’s not out to win the presidency. His strategy stems from lessons learned during Ralph Nader’s 2000 run for the White House. David Cobb joins me now. Welcome to Living on Earth, hello, sir.

COBB: Hello Steve, it’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, your staff says that you’re running in this race but you’re not out to win the presidency. So, why are you running?

David Cobb, Green candidate for president

COBB: Well, I’m running in order to ensure that there’s a candidate and a political party represented that’s running on an end to the Iraq war and bringing our troops home. I’m running in order to ensure that there is a genuine grassroots movement ready to continue to advance progressive causes, regardless of whether John Kerry or George W. Bush wins the White House.

CURWOOD: Now, why do you think the Green Party rejected Ralph Nader?

COBB: Well, I wouldn’t say that the Green Party rejected Ralph Nader, so much as the Green Party chose one of its own who was actually seeking the nomination. Ralph Nader chose to run as an Independent, and asked for the endorsement, not the nomination, of the Green Party.

CURWOOD: What would you like to achieve for the Green Party?

COBB: I would like to see more ordinary citizens actively engaged in politics. And that doesn’t mean just voting, it means getting involved in their local communities working on issues. It means registering in the Green party which is the only political party based on fundamental core values of peace, racial and social justice, economic democracy and genuine ecology. I want to see more local candidates get elected on the Green Party ticket, I want to see an actively engaged citizenry that’s going to be able to advance a progressive agenda regardless of who wins the White House.

CURWOOD: The Green Party is on the ballot in 22 states. To what extent are you concerned that your campaign will hurt the Democrats in those states?

COBB: Well, you know, it’s really not my job to help or hurt the Democrats. The reality is that more and more Americans are feeling disempowered and disconnected by both corporate parties. And what Greens are doing are bringing more people into the electoral process, and the Green Party is providing a home for genuine progressives to do our work.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve said that you’re not concerned about hurting Democrats but as I understand it, you have a “safe state” strategy, and that you’ve indicated you won’t campaign in certain battleground states, states that are expected to be close between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. Or that’s not true?

COBB: No, it’s not true. What I’ve said is I’m going to get on every ballot that I can possibly get on. The reality is this: listeners in roughly 40 states, they’re called “safe states,” but I call them neglected states. The corporate parties and the corporate candidates are not going to actively campaign there because they are, quote, “safe.” In those states, I say, “Progressives, don’t waste your vote. Invest your vote.” A vote for John Kerry in those states won’t help to un-elect Bush. All it will do is signal support for the Democratic Leadership Council and the corporate policies that it represents. In the other states, I’m acknowledging that there is a profound responsibility on the citizens, and they should weigh their options and decide how to spend their very precious vote.

CURWOOD: You say that you’re in this race to energize a Green Party. What are the races across America that you are campaigning hard for and hope to win?

COBB: Well, it’s important to put this into perspective, Steve. In 1996 there were approximately 40 Greens elected to office. In 2000, there were 87 Greens elected to office. Today, there are 205 Greens elected to office. We’re running more candidates, we’re getting more candidates elected, and when Greens get elected, we are proving that we can govern, that we can actually make lives better. What I’m going to be doing is working in partnership with Greens in various states, at various local chapters. I’m going to be going to Pennsylvania and Ohio to focus on ballot access issues immediately. I certainly hope you’ll agree with me that the Green Party has a right to participate in elections. And I certainly hope you’ll agree with me that we ought to have the right to be on the ballot.

CURWOOD: I don’t think that anyone who subscribes to the Constitution of the United States would want to deny anyone the right to form a party or have a party on a ballot. But you yourself have said that the differences between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are such that progressive folks would find life a good deal more comfortable with Mr. Kerry in the White House. So campaigning actively in a place like Pennsylvania or Ohio where the vote might be very close might in fact serve, at this point in our electoral law and structure, to hand a victory to Mr. Bush.

COBB: Steve, it’s up to John Kerry to campaign in those states, as it is up to John Kerry to campaign in every state to convince voters to vote for him. I’m going to try to ensure that there is a Green Party ballot line in every single state. It’s going to be a difficult election cycle but what we’re saying is, “We are not going away.” And that most Americans are so disgusted and disempowered that they’re not even participating in the elections. I think that we should spend a little more time talking about how we can actually actively involve ordinary citizens into participating in elections, rather than worry about what the Green Party will or won’t do in a given state.

CURWOOD: David Cobb is the Green Party’s nominee for president in this election cycle. Thanks so much for taking this time with me, sir.

COBB: It was a pleasure, Steve, thanks so much.

CURWOOD: Just ahead a solution for today’s environmental problems called “green jazz”. Stick around for more of Living on Earth

[MUSIC: Albert Hammond “It Never Rains in Southern California” SUPER HITS OF THE ‘70s VOL. 10 (Rhino – 1990)]

Related links:
- David Cobb’s website
- The official website of the U.S. Green Party

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Red Sky at Morning

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

Twenty-five years ago, climate change, deforestation and a host of other environmental problems started to become international concerns. James Gustave Speth, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality at the time, took these problems to his boss, President Jimmy Carter. In turn, the President supported the controversial idea of reducing fossil fuel consumption to combat global warming during his run for a second term. Jimmy Carter’s attempt at re-election was unsuccessful, so Mr. Speth moved on.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, he also founded and led the World Resources Institute and then headed up the United Nations Development Program. He’s now dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, and you can find his latest project on bookshelves now. It’s called, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.” In it, Gus Speth, as many call him, says U.S. environmental leadership has faltered since the days of the Carter White House.

SPETH: In the Carter administration, we got lots of information that there was this set of emerging global scale issues, which were very different from the domestic issues. So we began to get information about climate change, about deforestation, about species loss, about spreading deserts, and the problems in the tropics, and declining fisheries. They’re global scale problems and Carter initiated an effort to put together a program to deal with these issues, and then it sort of fell by the wayside when he didn’t come in for the second term.

After that, there has been an international response to these issues, but with very, very few exceptions, the U.S. has been a foot dragger in those efforts, and not a leader. The one exception was the protection of the ozone layer which the U.S. really led on and it worked. But since that time, both Democrat and Republican administrations have not really given strong international leadership on these issues.

CURWOOD: Can you just briefly tick off the missed opportunities of the administrations after yours in the Carter White House?

James Gustave Speth (Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)

SPETH: Well, I think we had in 1992, we had the Earth Summit at Rio, and the U.S. goes down there very reluctantly, sort of not really very supportive of the agenda, refuses to sign the biodiversity treaty, for example, to protect biodiversity. So, and then, all during the Clinton years, we had a period in which the administration did some things on these issues, but did not make them a priority. Focused on domestic issues, did a good job on domestic issues on the environment, but neglected these global scale issues. Got hung up on the Kyoto Protocol. Congress was not supportive, and I grant them that it was not entirely the administration’s effort, to say the least, Congress was not willing or able to move. But we didn’t get a lot of leadership on these issues from the Clinton administration.

And then, of course, Bush has really reneged on his promise to do something about climate and ignored these other problems, pushed the wrong energy strategy, and neglected, basically, can’t find an international agreement that he likes, best that I can tell.

CURWOOD: Tell me the difference between our approach to domestic problems and international problems, how effective the U.S. has been in those two arenas.

SPETH: Right, well, I think we’ve been, at least moderately, and some would say even more effective in dealing with our, over the long term, in dealing with our domestic issues. The air is cleaner, the water is cleaner. Yes, we have a long way to go domestically with protecting our natural areas and cleaning up our air and water. But things are better and we’ve made substantial progress.

The problem with the global scale issues in terms of deforestation, desertification, species loss, decline of marine fisheries, and, the most serious of all, the problem of climate change, global warming, is that we haven’t made much progress at all here at home. And, you know, global warming promises to be extraordinarily disruptive. It could change the pattern of rainfall, it could lead to sea level rise. And I think there, far beyond the local consequences, globally it could be very disruptive of social stability, of economic prospects, and other things. I mean, my message is one of a plea finally to take these problems seriously, 25 years after they were first put on the docket. We’ve only got a little bit of time, and we need to get very, very serious.

CURWOOD: This is all very depressing. What’s to be done?

SPETH: Well, there are lots of things to be done, and the good news is that, over this quarter century, we really have studied these problems nearly to death. I mean, we know so much about the nature of the problems, and we know so much about what needs to be done. Well, for starters, here in the U.S. we need a new energy strategy for our country. We use twice as much energy per dollar of GDP produced as the rest of the industrial countries. Another way of looking at is, we could almost double the size of the U.S. economy with the same amount of energy that we have today.

We also have to get serious about making the international agreements work. We have toothless treaties today. The process of negotiating these treaties will give you toothless treaties over and over again. So basically, what we did on climate, internationally, we got a climate convention. We were worried about biodiversity -- we got a biodiversity convention. We’re worried about fisheries loss -- we got a law of the sea. The big response over the past 25 years to these issues has been to negotiate agreements. And the problem is not weak enforcement of these agreements, it’s not weak compliance with these agreements, it’s weak agreements. And unless we get a new system put in place to toughen up these agreements, we’ll be stuck with them, and we’ll be stuck on these problems.

CURWOOD: One of the problems you bring up in your book, Gus, is that regulators try to treat symptoms of problems rather than the problems themselves. What do you mean by this when it comes to the environment?

SPETH: Well, I mention that the principle thing that we’ve done so far to deal with these issues was to put major treaties, conventions, protocols in place to deal with these issues. And in a way that’s a dodge, because while we do need them, we have to deal with the underlying problems, with the underlying drivers also. I think the biggest issue, in a way, the biggest driver, is the fact that we have a market economy which is giving consumers and purchasers very, very bad signals about the environment. Prices don’t reflect environmental scarcities, don’t reflect environmental realities. I mean, you know, polluters pollute, that cost is not in the price of the good that is on the marketplace. Worse than that, we come along and subsidize bad environmental performance, deeply now, to the tune of over $800 billion a year internationally. And, as a result, consumers get all the wrong signals from the market about what to buy and how much of something to buy.

CURWOOD: You say subsidized by $800 billion a year. What are you talking about there?

SPETH: Well, governments step into the picture, and they subsidize energy use, they subsidize water use, they subsidize agricultural practices that are bad for the environment. And as a result, the prices of water, the prices of energy, the prices of food products, particularly those that are heavy consumers of the environment, are too low. And we have over-consumption of things that destroy the environment.

CURWOOD: Now, how much is advertising and the other calls to consumption, how much is that increasing?

SPETH: Well, in the last 20 years, global advertising has doubled in volume. I’m not anti-consumption but I sure do want to see consumption shifted to sustainable patterns. For example, in Europe they now have increasingly stringent laws about returning products. So, my car, your car, your refrigerator, the TV, the computer, when you’re through with it, it goes back to the producer. So you get, all those materials then become useable materials for the producer, and are recycled into new products. And we need that, and we need very strict controls on emissions of green house gases.

And glad to see that California is taking the initiative in regulating the greenhouse gas, climate changing gas emissions from automobiles. State’s really giving leadership. And Massachusetts giving leadership on regulating climate emissions from power plants. These are the kinds of things we need to get serious about.

CURWOOD: What’s the role of corporations in this, and how much of the part of the problem, and how much of the part of the solution do you think they are?

SPETH: Well, corporations are the main actors on the world stage. So they are the main emitters of the gases that are disrupting global climate. But the interesting thing is the steps that a lot of corporations are taking today to deal with these issues, ahead of government. There are now scores of companies organized on the Chicago Climate Exchange making real commitments to doing something about the climate problem. And so, rather than sort of dump all the blame for these problems on the corporate sector, I think we need to be encouraging these very positive initiatives that a number of companies are taking.

CURWOOD: By the way, can you explain for us what’s going on at the Chicago Board of Climate Exchange?

SPETH: Well, this is a remarkable initiative that’s being taken in Chicago. Companies, more than 20, maybe a good bit more, have come together and made a voluntary commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And to do it in the most efficient way, they are trading among themselves. So one company will go further than their commitment and another company for which reductions is very expensive, will buy that extra reduction from them. So it’s basically what is called a cap and trade scheme. It’s a market-based mechanism for achieving greenhouse gas reductions in the most efficient way possible. And some universities participate, but mostly it’s big companies, and they’re off and running. And they’re doing something about climate change.

CURWOOD: How much business are they doing?

SPETH: Well, they have, in their membership, the companies that participate have greenhouse gas emissions equal to about half of German emissions. So you see, it’s considerable. But basically, basically, let’s face it, the corporate community has got to step forward and say, “We want to be regulated on these issues.” Because they will never do the things that they need to do to deal with climate until they’re all in the same boat. And just as they did step forward to deal with the ozone depletion issue, and say, “Let’s have a global treaty that has real teeth in it, they’ve got to step forward and say, “We know that there’s a climate problem. We know that we can’t deal with it acting alone, even though we can take some good steps. We need an international agreement.”

CURWOOD: Ok, you’re now at the academy, you’re not in government, so you can put on your philosopher’s hat, and tell me, all these years studying, advocating, lobbying for the environment, what’s the core problem here?

SPETH: Well, I think the core problem is that all of our patterns of thinking and doing, in a way, almost all of them came up in a world that was not a full world. It was a world of abundance where you could throw things away and they would disappear. But we have now grown so large that we are in a full world. We have increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by a third. We have accidentally depleted the ozone shield of the planet. I mean, we are a force now as big as nature. We’ve transformed the world. And, as you know, if you tame something, you own it, and you have to care for it.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book “Red Sky at Morning,” you get to a point where you talk about green jazz. What’s green jazz?

SPETH: Well, I basically think there are three ways forward. One is to deal with the underlying driving forces that are promoting these problems. The second way is to really change the way we do international treaties. But the third way is the way that’s really working right now, and that’s green jazz. And jazz is all the things that institutions and people are doing to deal with these issues on a voluntary basis. So I call it jazz because it’s un-scripted, it’s improvisational, but they’re making music.

So, what’s happening in our country is really quite extraordinary. Because below the radar, there’s real movement at the state level, the city level, at the consumer level, at the individual investor. We have at the beginnings in our country of, I think, a real revolution. The infrastructure is being put in place for a bottom-up movement that can really change things, and eventually it will force the political process to change. So things are beginning to stir, but it’s in this realm of jazz, it’s not in the realm of global governance.

CURWOOD: Former White House advisor and Yale University dean and professor Gus Speth’s new book is entitled “Red Sky in the Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.” Thanks for taking this time with me today.

SPETH: Thank you, Steve.

Related link:
“Red Sky at Morning”

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Listener Letters

[LETTERS THEME]

CURWOOD: Time now for comments from you, our listeners.

[LETTERS THEME UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: The image of bears in cages that are hardly big enough to hold them prompted many listeners to write. We interviewed Jill Robinson, founder of the China Bear Rescue Project, about bear farming, which has become common throughout Asia to meet consumer demand for bear bile. Barbara Skapa, in Mt. Vernon, Maine, called to relate this story:

SKAPA: I was in Vietnam several years ago on a mission for the United Nations and came upon a bear cub in a village, caged. And when I asked my interpreter what this was all about he said, “Madam they are taking this bear to a restaurant in Hanoi where he will be caged outside and a straw put into his stomach to extract his bile for the restaurateurs clientele.”

CURWOOD: Our segment “The End of Cheap Oil” also generated a lot of response. Some took us to task for interviewing John Felmy from the American Petroleum Institute.

Roger Blanchard, of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan says that Mr. Felmy’s assertion that we have vast supplies of oil are based on country reserve figures, which Mr. Blanchard claims are notoriously unreliable.

“The problem with (these) figures,” he writes, “is that the energy agencies of individual countries assess and report the reserves. Because there are big incentives for countries to exaggerate them, I consider these figures to be worthless.”

And John Cunningham of Miami, Florida wanted to know “why it is that citizens in Germany and England have docilely submitted to gasoline taxes of three to four dollars per gallon, yet in the United States proposing similar taxes would be political suicide?”

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. Or write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. Our e-mail address is comments at loe dot org. And you can hear our program, and all our previous programs, for that matter, by visiting our web site Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot org.

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Environmental Health Note/Mother’s Remedy

CURWOOD: Just ahead: a new world of music. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: It’s been reported that a cream containing human breast milk can destroy stubborn warts. A study from Sweden shows that when applying the cream daily for three weeks, all of the 20 participants on the treatment found their warts reduced by at least 75 percent. Twenty other participants who received a placebo cream saw their warts reduced by only 15 percent. When allowed to continue the treatment, three-quarters of the volunteers found their warts disappeared entirely.

Researchers believe an active ingredient in breast milk, known as alpha-lactalbumin, causes this reaction. This compound forces the wart cell to self-destruct by gathering in the cell's nucleus and inhibiting its control process. While doctors have long known breast milk contains a natural antibiotic, its effects on tumors and viruses have only recently been discovered.

Warts are caused by the human papilloma virus, the same class of virus that causes cervical cancer. Scientists hope this new discovery will go beyond eliminating common growths to aid in fighting cancer. With that idea in mind doctors plan to begin a study of the compound’s effect on women with cervical cancer. That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Aveda, an earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: The Ventures “The Fourth Dimension” THE VENTURES PLAY TELSTAR (EMI – 1992)]

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Got the Beat

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Among the things that distinguish humans as a species is our ability to make and recreate music with instruments as well as our voices. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor is gaining worldwide attention for his unusual inventions.

For the past two decades, Tod Machover has been designing a variety of electronic gadgets that help non-musicians learn about and create music in unconventional ways. Professor Machover has worked with the youngest of children to the severely handicapped to the most famous classical musicians and composers. And the common thread is that all of his inventions are turning traditional music on its ear. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story.

SHEPHERD: Tod Machover’s office at MIT’s media lab is crammed with inventions that look a lot like toys, but they’re really instruments designed to teach kids about music in non-traditional ways. Some of the gadgets focus on beat and rhythm. Others teach kids how to invent new sounds and lets them compose their own music. And some offer kids the chance to create something entirely new.

MACHOVER: It’s one thing to turn kids into musicians and performers and composers. But there's no reason we can't turn kids into instrument designers and inventors of new kinds of music play also.

[ELECTRONIC BEATS – UP AND UNDER]

SHEPHERD: Take, for example, the beat bug. The beat bug is a palm-sized plastic invention that looks like a ladybug complete with antenna. Machover calls it a toy with personality.

A beat bug (Photo: MIT Media Lab)

MACHOVER: It’s actually a little like electronic hot potato since one of the reasons for passing it around is you never know when it’s going to come to you and you have to react right away.

SHEPHERD: Machover designed the beat bug with one of his students, Rob Einey, and like a proud father, Einey spreads eight of his creations out on a table and hooks them up them to a computer.

EINEY: You begin by creating a pulse, and then you can play a simple pattern like [ELECTRONIC BEATS].

And then it hops over to another of the beat bugs.

[MORE ELECTRONIC SOUNDS]

EINEY: And then you can use these antennas on it to control the pitch of the note and to ornament it with these extra notes. And when you’re happy with your transformation of it you hit it again and it jumps over to another beat bug.

SHEPHERD: And then the next child whacks the beat bug and creates yet another rhythm. Like all of the gadgets the Media Lab makes for children, the beat bug is designed to remove the often huge threshold of technical difficulty that normally separates a child from the ability to learn traditional musical instruments. The point, Machover says, is to give a child something that doesn’t - by nature - limit his or her skills. The more the child plays, he says, the better he or she gets.

MACHOVER: Often what we do is set up a workshop where you work with a group of kids maybe every day for a week leading up to a concert. Then you can really do things like start with clapping and think about how rhythm works and play some rhythm games, and then finally a piece that’s written that they really have to practice.

[MUSIC]

SHEPHERD: Tod Machover is a little like one of his beat bugs. He starts with an idea, then sends it off to someone else who changes it and sends it back. Then Machover lets it go without knowing or fearing the consequences.

MACHOVER: I mean, obviously, part of it is making a stab at putting things out in the world, which we think are worth using as models and worth sticking. And also, realizing that you put these things out there and the way people react to them and what they build in relationship to it and what it becomes is out of our control, of course.

SHEPHERD: The ideas that spill out of Machover and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab have attracted high praise. The New York Times calls Machover “brilliantly gifted.” The French Cultural Ministry has awarded him the equivalent of its Pulitzer Prize. And symphony orchestras are now incorporating Machover’s lab instruments in their performances.

[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Nature Suite” TOY SYMPHONY (BBC Broadcast – 2002)]

Tod Machover with music shaper (Photo: Webb Chappell)

SHEPHERD: A few years ago, one of Machover’s graduate students, Hugo Solis Garcia, invented an instrument called a shaper.

[STRANGE SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: A Shaper is a round soft ball that looks like a sea creature and is designed for kids not old enough, or dexterous enough, to play a traditional musical instrument well.

[MORE UNUSUAL SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: To create music with a shaper all you have to do is squeeze it, and the computer feeds back a corresponding sound.

[MORE SHAPER SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: The idea behind the shaper, says Hugo, is to let children improvise based on what they hear.

GARCIA: Musicians are playing, they are playing the score and everything – and then the children say, “okay, I like what the trumpet is doing now, I want to talk with the trumpet.” So I have my instrument and then I talk with the trumpet, no?

[TRUMPET-LIKE SOUND]

[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Nature Suite” TOY SYMPHONY (BBC Broadcast – 2002)]

SHEPHERD: In this BBC recording of Machover’s Toy Symphony, performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra with violinist Joshua Bell, you can hear shapers being played live by children on stage.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

SHEPHERD: New instruments are only part of Machover’s plan for getting children interested in music. Part of this team’s work is also focused on prompting kids to write their own compositions using a computer program called “Hyperscore.” This program allows people with no knowledge of music to create a symphonic score by simply drawing on a computer screen.

Hyperscore Screen Shot (Photo: MIT Media Lab)

Hyperscore can be taught in just a few minutes, and the MIT Media Lab has provided the software to children around the world.

JOHAN: So, basically, you start with a little window like this.

SHEPHERD: Grad student Tristan Johan shows me how anyone using Hyperscore can create notes by clicking onto a little musical graph on a computer screen, listening back, and then deciding how to alter the sound.

[FOUR MUSICAL NOTES]

SHEPHERD: It’s possible to change the length of the notes:

[AGAIN, FOUR MUSICAL NOTES]

SHEPHERD: Or, change the tempo:

[FOUR NOTES AT FASTER TEMPO]

SHEPHERD: Then, when the composer is satisfied with the musical phrase, it’s assigned a color and the phrase will be repeated over and over.

JOHAN: And you can also bend the line so then the pitch changes.

SHEPHERD: The result is a musical composition, like this work written by a 14 year old boy from Dublin, called “The Attack of the Headless Chickens.” This is the computer-generated version.

[MUSIC ON COMPUTER: “The Attack of the Headless Chickens”]

SHEPHERED: This is the version performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.

[ORCHESTRAL VERSION]

SHEPHERD: Hyperscore proved so successful at teaching children how to compose that the MIT Media Lab decided to take the program to adults at Tewksbury State Hospital, a residence in Massachusetts for people with long-term disabilities.

[HOSPITAL SOUND, PEOPLE MILLING]

SHEPHERD: Dan Elsie is thirty years old and has lived at the hospital for the past four years. Wheelchair bound, he can’t use his arms and legs. They are curled up, thin and lifeless. His head bobs around on a neck that doesn’t seem sturdy enough to hold it. He’s been physically disabled since birth, but there isn’t anything wrong with his mind. Elsie communicates via a computer. There’s a sensor strapped to his forehead, which he uses to pluck away - one letter at a time - on a screen attached to his wheelchair.

[CLICKING SOUND]

SHEPHERD: Using Hyperscore with this painstaking process Elsie wrote this composition called “Our Musically.” His piece was performed at the hospital by the Lowell Philharmonic, which was invited to play residents' compositions.

[MUSIC: Elsie’s composition]

SHEPHERD: After the performance Elsie, his computer speaking electronically for him as he types in the words, celebrates with Adam Boulanger, the student who helped him learn the Hyperscore program.

ELSIE: I want to say think you for letting me try.

BOULANGER: Dan, well, thank you for letting us work together, for letting us compose together. It was great. It really was.

SHEPHERD: Beyond the hospital and the classroom, you can also find the influence of Machover’s work in the rarified world of classical music. Machover has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and, more recently, with the Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz.

HAIMOVITZ: Tonight I’m going to be playing John Cage arrangements of everything I normally play (Laughter).

[HAIMOVITZ TALKING TO AUDIENCE FADES UNDER]

SHEPHERD: Haimovitz has spent the last year touring bars, punk rock clubs, and coffee houses with a repertoire that includes Bach, Machover, and Jimi Hendrix. On this night, he performs at TT the Bears in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the crowd ranges from 18-year-old college students to 70-year-old classical music lovers.

[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Begin Again Again” HYPERSTRING TRILOGY (Oxingale – 2003)]

SHEPHERD: The last time they teamed up, Haimovitz performed Machover’s composition “Hyperstring Trilogy” which features the hypercello, another Machover invention. The hypercello is a flat wooden instrument shaped like a cello that’s connected to a computer. As Haimovitz plays sensors embedded in the bow collect information about his technique, measuring speed and pressure, and transforms the data via a computer program to create different effects.

[MUSIC UP AND OUT]

[STREET AMBIENCE]

SHEPHERD: On an overcast morning following his late night performance Haimovitz meets Machover at an outdoor cafe in Harvard Square.

HAIMOVITZ: Are you getting rained on?

MACHOVER: Some really big piece of water or liquid just fell on my shoulder.

HAIMOVITZ: It might be an idea [LAUGHS].

MACHOVER: Yeah, an idea, that’s right.

SHEPHERD: Under an umbrella, drinking tea, they talk about their next joint project.

MACHOVER: One idea is to create this…

SHEPHERD: Machover wants to design a new instrument made of giant strings and pipes. He wants Haimovitz to stand inside it and play his cello, so that his motions trigger notes and tones from the huge contraption.

MACHOVER: It just all of the sudden occurred to me that if we built a sculpture around you and the sculpture was literally strings that could be vibrated and maybe things that could be resonated and things that could be struck or hit and there wasn’t anything coming out of a loudspeaker. This was the instrument, this environment.

HAIMOVITZ: So this is also acting as a resonating chamber?

MACHOVER: I think resonance would be part of it.

SHEPHERD: But Haimovitz is pushing for something different – he wants a new technology that will help him on tour, something that will add to the excitement of being in a small setting playing music that takes the audience to new places. In the end, Machover will want to try out both ideas.

MACHOVER: What can I do that uses all this emotion and thought that’s inside me that maybe not -- it’s hard to choose the right adjective -- it’s not better than what you could do just with a cello because Bach did everything you could ever want to do with a cello, but there is a different kind of a parallel path, a different kind of richness and complexity in this idea of rich life-changing activities that are also very direct. I think it’s exactly the same reason that I build these hyperinstruments.

SHEPHERD: For Machover’s next project he’ll put a new hyperscore-written piece on the Internet several months before a concert in San Diego. People can listen to his piece on the web, make changes to it, even compose their own versions.

MACHOVER: I also want to do this before I start writing this next opera. So, let’s get started.

HAIMOVITZ: Let’s get started.

SHEPHERD: Machover wants to start changing people’s lives immediately – while he’s drinking tea, while he’s living his abundant life. For Living on Earth, I’m Susan Shepherd.

[MUSIC UP AND OUT]

Related links:
- Tod Machover website
- Hyperstring Trilogy
- Download Hyperscore
- Listen to Song of Penance: Reflective from the CD Hyperstring Trilogy [mp3]
Listen to an excerpt from Toy Symphony [mp3]">

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Aurora Borealis

CURWOOD: The northern lights, or aurora borealis, make some of nature's most sublime performances. They're pulsating sheets of white and colored lights streaming down from the heavens above the North Pole. Auroras appear when surges of charged particles from the sun hit the earth's magnetic fields. The particles emit light, and, it turns out, they emit sound as well. But unlike the lights, you need special equipment to hear the sound of the aurora. Steve McGreevy has some of that special equipment. He calls himself a natural radio recordist, and he travels around in a van capturing the sounds of natural phenomena. Steve McGreevy invited producer Barrett Golding to turn these sounds of the aurora borealis into radio. The result is called Sun Song.

[CRACKLING AND WHISTLES ACCOMPANIED BY GUITAR]

McGREEVY: There's just a whole litany of different natural radio sounds to record.

[CRACKLING AND WHISTLES ACCOMPANIED BY GUITAR]

MCGREEVY: Whistlers and growlers and howlers and tweaks.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

MCGREEVY: Particles from the sun are hitting earth's magnetic field and generating these noises, probably several thousand miles out in space.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

MCGREEVY: It's beautiful. It's primordial. It's Mother Earth singing.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

McGREEVY: Space weather.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

McGREEVY: And it's wild. Oh, listen to this. Oh, this is beautiful.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

McGREEVY: Wow.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

McGREEVY: It's Mother Earth singing.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: Sun Song was produced by Barrett Golding with natural radio recordist Steve McGreevy and the sound of the aurora borealis. Music by Jeff Arntsen and the band RacketShip. Sunsong was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of the Hearing Voices series.

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[STREET CAR NOISE AND LOTS OF TALKING]

CURWOOD: And now we take a stroll through the Ame Yoko shopping district in downtown Tokyo. Sarah Peebles recorded this scene where the lively banter of merchants competes with the passing streetcars.

[EARTH EAR: Sarah Peebles “Merchants at Ame Yoko” WALKING THROUGH TOKYO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (Post-Concrete – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young, with help from Carl Lindemann and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Diana Schoberg, and Monica Wright.

You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. That’s living on earth dot o-r-g. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Al Avery runs our website. Alison Dean composed our themes. And special thanks to Ernie Silver and James Curwood. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earthear. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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