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

March 11, 2005

Air Date: March 11, 2005



Environmental Human Rights

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Mossville, Louisiana is home to 300 residents and 14 major industrial facilities. The residents there have exhibited levels of dioxin in their blood twice as high as the average American, and they're fed up with the pollution in their town. Host Steve Curwood talks with Monique Harden. She's an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a legal group working with the Mossville residents, which is appealing for help, not from the federal government but one step higher--the Organization of American States. (09:10)

Listener Letters

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We dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (03:20)

Targeting Genes to Understand Behavior / Sheri Quinn

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Physical attributes like hair color and skin tone can be traced to the expression of certain genes in our DNA. But, what about behavior? As reporter Sheri Quinn finds, researchers at the University of Utah may have discovered a genetic link to obsessive compulsive disorder. (09:00)

City Nature

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Snakes, crows and vultures might not be the most charismatic animal specimens, but writer Lisa Couturier says there's much value to be found in these otherwise overlooked creatures. Host Steve Curwood talks with her about her new book, "The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape." (08:10)

Emerging Science Note/Curious Rats

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports that curiosity could help fight disease. (01:20)

Truth in Mileage

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The car you drive may not get nearly as many miles to the gallon that you thought it would when you bought it. Host Steve Curwood speaks with John Nielson, Director of Consumer Affairs for the American Automobile Association, as Nielson test-drives a new car to determine its fuel efficiency. Republican Congresswoman from Connecticut, Nancy Johnson, then explains a bill she is co-sponsoring that would change the way the EPA tests cars for its miles per gallon rating. (06:30)

Running on Air

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A new car called the AirCar runs on just that – compressed air. Host Steve Curwood talks with the CEO of a small business that hopes to import the car from Europe to sell in the United States. (04:30)

In Search of Oil

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With skyrocketing gas prices and U.S. determination to wean ourselves from foreign oil, companies are looking for new energy sources close to home. Rich Pliskin and his Players of Princeton, New Jersey imagine that it won't be long before drilling comes to a neighborhood near you. (02:30)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Monique Harden, Lisa Couturier, John Nielson, Rep. Nancy Johnson, Jean-Pierre Maeder
REPORTERS: Sheri Quinn
PRODUCERS: Rich Pliskin
NOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Frustrated by the lack of response from the federal government, one African-American town in Louisiana, plagued by industrial pollution, is asking an international agency to intervene on the grounds of human rights.

HARDEN: A healthy environment is a human right. But you cannot have the right to life if you are surrounded by cancer-causing chemicals and chemicals that can kill you if released in large amounts.

CURWOOD: Also, in Utah, researchers are on the verge of cracking a long-locked code. They think some compulsive human behavior could be genetic.

PEARSON: It felt like if I didn't pull my hair that I was suffocating and that it was as if I was in a pool of water, drowning.

CURWOOD: Gene targeting the obsessive compulsive, and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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


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Environmental Human Rights

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


CURWOOD: A group of citizens from the small Louisiana bayou town of Mossville recently visited the nation's capital—most of them for the first time. They did the kinds of things tourists do. They climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and marveled at the Capitol Rotunda. But they were also on business in Washington, as lifelong Mossville resident Christine Bennett was quick to point out. While she and her group were admiring the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue, she told us that they came to try and save their town from a decades-old deluge of industrial pollution.

BENNETT: We're going to do a petition for our human rights, and we're going to seek and pray for help that someone will come to the Mossville community and not just hear us but see what we're going through. I would love for the president could have been here while I'm this close to him and ask him to come and visit Mossville, too, so he can get a chance to see that while he's breathing fresh air and living well, we're dying over here in Mossville.

CURWOOD: But this isn't your typical "Mister Smith Goes to Washington" tale. The residents of Mossville are taking a new tack in their fight against the poisons in their air and water. They're going past the EPA, past the president himself to seek help from the Organization of American States, the intergovernmental body that promotes peace, iustice and solidarity in the Western Hemisphere.

The folks of Mossville have filed a petition with OAS, claiming the United States government is violating their human rights by allowing 14 major industries in their neighborhood to harm public health and welfare. In the past 30 years the town's largely African American population has drop from 2,000 to just over 300, cancer and other illness rates have soared. Residents have twice the body burden of dioxin as most Americans.

Joining me is Monique Harden is an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group working with the Mossville residents. Hello.

HARDEN: Hello, thanks for having me on.

CURWOOD: Now, you're approaching pollution in Mossville as a human rights issue. Why?

HARDEN: Because it is a human rights issue. We have a situation where, through the United States approval and authorizations, 14 toxic hazardous industrial facilities are operating inside and around the Mossville community where they have contaminated water, they've made the air unhealthy to breathe, and they have exposed residents to cancer-causing hormone-disrupting chemicals, some of which have been found in the blood of Mossville residents. As a result of this industrial development, all through government authorization, the Mossville community is a dying community, and their basic human rights to life and health and racial equality are all being denied.

CURWOOD: You say Mossville is a dying community. What do you mean?

HARDEN: What I mean by that is that historically Mossville has been a rural community where even the poorest residents were able to live well because of the rich ecological conditions and biodiversity. Today that is no longer the case because fish are poisoned with industrial toxins so they cannot be eaten. Waterways are very contaminated and people cannot even grow vegetable gardens and fruit trees like they used to.

CURWOOD: Now, you have asked the Organization of American States–there's a task force there I guess, that considers questions of human rights–you've asked them to investigate the prevalence of dioxin and other contamination in the Mossville area. Requesting the help of an international organization to investigate a domestic pollution issue could be viewed, as well, an unusual, some would say, an extreme measure. Why do you think that you had to do this?

HARDEN: We had to do this because we've been working in the Mossville community for three or so years now to try to figure out how we can make this a community that is livable, and finding that our demands for a clean environment, a healthy environment have fallen on the deaf ears of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as other public health and environmental agencies. And the reason why it's fallen on deaf ears with these officials is because the environmental regulatory system legalizes the hazardous development in residential areas, which are often communities of color. And so, we don't have any recourse under U.S. system of laws to protect the environment and protect the health of Mossville residents and so being able to find the Organization of American States and their Commission on Human Rights and presenting our case to them, to say, we need your help in promoting and defending Mossville residents who, like so many other communities in the United States, are not equally protected. Their rights to health and life and racial equality are being denied by this environmental regulatory system that allows all these toxic facilities to locate in communities like Mossville.

CURWOOD: Now, you've petitioned the Organization of American States to look into this matter. What powers do they have?

HARDEN: The Organization of American States has an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And what the Commission on Human Rights does, one of the things that it does, is it investigates cases of human rights abuses in member countries. There are 34 member countries. The United States is one of them. And by virtue of its membership, the United States is bound to uphold basic human rights, and we're talking in particular the human rights to life, health, and racial equality.

What the commission does after reviewing the petitions is asks the country where the complaints are lodged to respond. And once the United States responds to our petition, then the commission works through a way to trying to settle the problem. One of the things that we've asked the commission to do in terms of settling this human rights problem, is to recommend that the United States provide Mossville residents with health services. We've asked the commission to recommend that the United States provide relocation for residents who may choose to want to leave Mossville in order to find healthier environs. And we've also asked the commission to recommend that the United States to reform its environmental regulatory systems so that all the aggregate, cumulative, synergistic impacts of all these chemicals and all of these facilities are finally taken into account and safeguards are in place to protect people from being exposed to those dangers.

CURWOOD: Now, the pollution situation in Mossville, Louisiana has been well-documented you say, to the Environmental Protection Agency…

HARDEN: Absolutely.

CURWOOD: …to the state of Louisiana and others. What difference can the Organization of American States make if it reviews this and makes recommendations to the same agencies that have, in your view so far, refused to do anything about it?

HARDEN: Well, actually their recommendations would not be going to the agencies. Their recommendations would be going to the United States government. Which is a lot different because we have an EPA that does not have human rights as part of its mission and does not operate with a system of laws or policies that recognize human rights. However, we have a United States government that has signed on to international human rights treaties, has bounded itself to international human rights protocols and other mechanisms that the Organization of American States and the commission enforce and implement.

CURWOOD: Has the OAS heard other environmental cases involving human rights, not in the United States?

HARDEN: Yes, they have. Cases out of Brazil, cases out of Ecuador where those country governments allow very destructive developments in mining and oil drilling in particular, to a current situation (?) that it was creating severe hazards on indigenous tribes who lived in the areas where companies believed oil could be drilled or where precious minerals and other natural resources could be mined. And in those decisions the Organization of American States made a very strong ruling in favor of protecting the environment as a human right.

CURWOOD: To what extent is your venture here geared to get actual legal results versus the prospect of holding up to the world the United States as having a human rights problem, the shame factor?

HARDEN: Well, because this is a human rights petition that's well-grounded in international human rights law, we feel that we're making a case of first impression, but one that's on solid ground before the Organization of American States. Around the world there have been international judicial bodies who, whose purpose is to uphold and defend human rights, who are beginning to realize that at a healthy environment is a human right. That you cannot have the right to life if you are surrounded by cancer-causing chemicals and chemicals that can kill you, if released in large amounts. You cannot have the right to health if those kinds of conditions exist. And so, there's a solid body of law and judicial decisions from around the world that really make it very clear that what's happening in the United States and, in particular, and in Mossville, is a human rights violation.

CURWOOD: Monique Harden is an attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

HARDEN: Thank you.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time now for your comments.


CURWOOD: Our recent story, "Sacrificial Ram" evoked strong feelings from many listeners. In the broadcast writer Daniel Duane tells of tagging along with a hunter who paid almost 60,000 dollars for a permit to kill an endangered bighorn ram in Baja, California. Ninety percent of the money went toward the preservation of bighorn sheep

But Victor Gerard, a listener in western Massachusetts, says this conservation plan needs to be reconsidered.

GERARD: I think we gotta think more about this. Why don't we find rich people who want to keep them alive without hunting them donate $60,000 and keep the old man alive? Let him pass his genes on until he drops in his drawers.

CURWOOD: And a listener to WBEZ in Lockport, Illinois, found little solace in Duane's recounting of the actual kill. Whitney Cox writes, "Your guest commented that when shot and killed, the ram was in good health, was of a mature age, was among his family, eating his favorite food. What better time to be shot and killed? he asked.

I am 54, in good health, and was planning on having dinner at a nice restaurant with my family tonight. I just cancelled."

CURWOOD: Yet plenty of listeners supported the conservation effort. Dan Harasty who listens to Philadelphia's WHYY, is one of them. He writes, "I would describe myself like Daniel Duane: left-liberal east-coast environmentalist-type. I've never been hunting and, as a younger man, had similar stereotypes of the ‘redneck hunter.' However, the conservation program described in the story makes perfect sense to me, and I give praise to the organization, Mexican government, and residents near the game preserve for pulling it off."

Roger Abbott in Michigan agreed.

ABBOTT: I support the hunting for the sake of the preservation of animals, for preservation of their habitat, like the bighorn sheep program, because when it comes to helping endangered animals, the most important thing is to think of this: It's their habitat, stupid. Loss of habitat is the greatest danger to all animals who are facing extinction. It's not hunters, it's not ranchers shooting wolves, it's the preservation of habitat.

Also, some of you objected to our interview with writer Ken Lamberton who wrote a collection of nature essays while serving 12 years in prison for having sex with a 14 year old girl .

Tim Lacy listens to Living on Earth on KQED in Sonoma, California. He writes, "Regardless of the merits of his work, I do not think it is appropriate to highlight child molesters on your show. If people want to read his essays, and he can find a publisher, that is a personal choice. However, I object to making this man a celebrity."

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988.That's 800-218-99-88. Or, write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our email address is comments at loe dot org. Once again, comments at loe dot org. [LETTERS MUSIC THEME FADES IN] You can hear our program any time on our web site, Living on Earth dot org.That's Living on Earth dot org.


CURWOOD: Coming up: if you can't stop washing your hands or pulling your hair it may be in your genes. Genetics and obsessive compulsive behavior is next on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: "Come Dancing" Jeff Beck: Wired (Epic) 1976]

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Targeting Genes to Understand Behavior

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

Short or tall. Dark or light. Male or female. Just about everything that distinguishes one human being from another is determined by our genes. Our genetic code is so complex that if it were stretched out in a single line, the DNA that makes up our genes would reach the sun and back hundreds of times. But our DNA is actually in more of a tangle, and it once seemed impossible to pick out a single strand, let alone discover its role.

But in the late 1980s, geneticist Mario Capecchi developed a technique called gene targeting that lets scientists find specific genes and change them within living mice.

And now researchers at the University of Utah using this technique have engineered a mouse that may help us understand how genes may be directly linked to certain human behaviors. Sheri Quinn reports from Salt Lake City, Utah.

QUINN: Christina Pearson is paying close attention to a certain group of genetically engineered mice at the University of Utah. She believes discoveries recently made there might change her life.

PEARSON: When I would pull my hair I would feel for a certain texture, I would feel for a certain sensation, a certain type of hair and then when I found the one that worked, it was if I had found gold and my nervous system would light up.

QUINN: Pearson has trichotillomania. It's part of a spectrum that includes obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. Those afflicted are obsessed with pulling their hair out. But Pearson thinks this behavior is part of her inner core, locked into every cell of her body.

PEARSON: The urge to pull my hair was as strong as the urge to breathe. It felt like if I didn't pull my hair that I was suffocating. It was as if I was in a pool of water and struggling for air. I tried drinking myself into black outs because I found if I could black out and fall asleep, I wouldn't pull my hair. If we could develop an animal model it might helps us make sense and come up with treatments for human beings so they don't have to go through the 30 years of hell that I went through.

QUINN: Researchers at the University of Utah might just have such a model. But in order to understand why this work is happening here, we have to understand the work of a World War II refugee who became an American scientist. Mario Capecchi was born in Verona, Italy in 1937. When he was four, his mother was sent to the concentration camp Dachau for posting anit-fascist pamphlets. Capecchi survived by begging and stealing. Hunger, he says, helped form him.

Dr. Mario Capecchi developed the revolutionary technique of gene targeting.
(Courtesy of Eccles Institute of Human Genetics)

CAPECCHI: If you are going to survive, things aren't going to work out every time. You go after a certain source of food and sometimes things don't work out and you don't get food that time and so then you have to persist and try and try again. You have to set your own inner determination to be able to go after things and that's sort of a doggedness that is important also for survival.

QUINN: Capecchi's mother was released from Dachau five years later. She searched for her now nine-year old son for over a year and found him ill with typhoid in an orphanage hospital. A few days later she brought him to the United States and Capecchi began to thrive. He grew up on a Quaker commune then went to Harvard where he eventually came to know the famous biologist James Watson, the man who together with Francis Crick had discovered the structure of DNA.

CAPECCHI: If you work in a field where lots and lots of people are working in that particular area then it does not make a big difference whether you do it or you don't do it. That science will be done. And I'd rather work on something that I feel I can uniquely contribute to.

QUINN: Capecchi began teaching at Harvard Medical School. But in 1973, he moved to the University of Utah. Colleagues thought he was crazy to leave Harvard. But the University of Utah had begun to build a reputation as a goldmine for human geneticists, thanks to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormon Church, which keeps detailed genealogical records of its large families. At the University of Utah Capecchi spent a decade developing gene targeting. Scientists already knew how to insert altered DNA into cells. But out of thousands of cells, typically only a few will incorporate that altered DNA. The challenge was to identify which ones.

CAPECCHI: And so, if that could happen then that would allow us essentially the ability to change any gene we wanted in any way conceivable.

QUINN: Bob Horvitz is a Nobel-prize winning MIT biologist who is well acquainted with Capecchi's work.

HORVITZ: With Mario there is now a technology that allows the analysis of any gene in the genome. And it is the difference between night and day. No, it is much more than that. It's truly a revolution. It has led to kinds of experimentation that would have been unthinkable not very many years ago.


QUINN: This is the sound of a tiny mouse embryo, the size of a grain of rice. Once scientists see which mouse cells have taken up the new gene, they place them into an embryo that will continue to grow into a mouse. They are called knockout mice because a gene has been knocked out and replaced. With a bit of luck, when they grow up, some of these knock out mice will transmit the new gene to their offspring.


QUINN: Capecchi's 13-thousand mice are kept in a facility called the mouse house. They're cared for by a crew of biologists, former veterinary techs and pet store workers. Fred Beasley and Adine Marston often witness strange grooming behavior, and they too wondered what the research could reveal about ourselves.

FRED: Some mice like to groom themselves in interesting ways, make neat little patterns on their fur.

JUNE: Uh-huh. I had a cage where 11 other mice had a little rainbow shape above their left eye, every single one of them except for the one that was doing the grooming.

QUINN: Watching mice grooming, it's hard to imagine that a single gene could control such a complex behavior. But Joy Greer, a former graduate student in Capecchi's lab, replaced a normal copy of a gene called HOXB8 with a defective one. She was expecting to study limb deformities. Instead, she noticed the mice started grooming to the extreme. They stayed awake to do it. It looked to her like a form of OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder.

GREER: Oh, it was totally unexpected. Basically, I noticed that these mice had these huge bald patches and I had to find out why and while I was analyzing the video tapes it became very clear that what was happening was that the mice were removing their hair while they were grooming themselves.

QUINN: HOXB8 is a member of a large family of genes, collectively called the HOX genes which are mostly known for their role in designing the general body plan from flies to humans. So finding that a HOX gene could be involved in a behavior was a thrilling discovery.

GREER: And this, as far as I'm aware, is the only HOX gene that has been implicated in behavior.

QUINN: It's one thing to make comparisons between mice and humans when studying disease. But studying mouse genes to understand human behavioral disorders is new.

GREER: It's become something that I'm very passionate about. I think that these animals could provide a good animal model of repetitive behaviors. Whether or not it will be directly linked to OCD still remains to be seen.

QUINN: Since mice and humans have nearly identical genes, Greer and Mario Capecchi are now looking at people with the hair-pulling disorder to see if they can find the same gene defect they found in mice. It's unclear how common trichotillomania is, but it's not rare. It seems to cluster in families. Christina Pearson says most hair pullers aren't aware of it in their family history.

PEARSON: The problem with a disorder like this is that if your great grandmother had it you probably wouldn't know it because it's still hard for people to talk about today.

QUINN: In the 1970s, when sufferer's dared to seek help, doctors viewed them as psychotic. But now Christina Pearson is proud to be director of the Trichotillomania Learning Center with 32,000 hair-pulling members.

PEARSON: It is amazing the stories that I've heard. One father told me he was beating his daughter with a belt and she was lying there on the floor, saying, "Daddy, it won't help, it won't help." I've talked to the mothers of young women who have killed themselves, okay, put guns in their mouths because they could get no help.

QUINN: It's now been several years since Pearson has pulled her hair out. She uses medicine, therapy and group support to fight the urge.

Since the late 1980s, gene targeting has spread to thousands of laboratories throughout the world. Scientists use it to investigate the mechanisms that instruct a gene to make a limb or a wing, a hand or a paw, a behavior, even a memory. For Living on Earth, I'm Sheri Quinn in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[MUSIC: "Serenity" John Coltrane: Meditations (Impulse) 1966]

Related link:
Dr. Mario Capecchi's homepage

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City Nature

CURWOOD: Bears in suburban backyards may generate headlines, but there are plenty of other wild species quietly trying to make a living in the various corners of the sprawling megalopolis along the eastern seaboard. Lisa Couturier is out to capture them with her pen. She loves to write about animals sharing real estate with people, from backyard foxes to hi-rise pigeons.

Ms. Couturier grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and spent much of her post-college years in New York City. The creatures have adapted to these populated areas, she says. It's humans who have yet to adapt to the wildlife. Lisa Couturier's collection of essays is called "The Hopes of Snakes, and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape." And she joins me from Washington, D.C. Lisa, hello.


CURWOOD: You write about many different urban animals; in fact, many that we would consider pests. Which of these do you identify with most?

COUTURIER: (laughs) I'll say crows. I mean, they're very smart, they're playful, I find them incredibly fun to watch. They have a very high brain to body size ratio similar to that of dolphins and somewhat similar to that of humans.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read to us a portion of your essay about crows.

COUTUREIR: Yeah, sure. In this essay, "Banishment of Crows," this particular part I'm outside with my daughter and we're going to feed some of the crows.

READING: Outside in the mornings, Madeleine and I hear the cawing of crows, at first far away, echoing through the woods along the river. Slowly they close in, spot us throwing corn, bread, and sunflower seeds into the grass, and land in the tall trees around our cottage. Once, a high mound of turned earth two houses away drew hundreds of crows searching for garbage. The birds covered the roofs of several homes and lined the tree branches. Squinting at the crows through sunlight transformed them into blowsy black scarves of silk, a fabric of crow society Madeleine and I wished to enter. We walked toward them along our stone path and suddenly they fell silent as we moved below what now felt like a mountain of scrupulous black eyes. It was one of those moments when suddenly you feel you've crossed over the edge of your civilized world and into quite another. The tables turn, then, and you are not doing the turning. If you surrender to it – to the moment when perhaps the wild and tame are one – there's a light in all that black, an openness there at the edge of the question, as you wait to see what answer the world will serve you.

CURWOOD: So you like the crows, and you go on in your book to talk about the big relative of the crow–the vulture. And I come away feeling that these vultures are cultured. And, of course, that's not my perception of the vulture at all. The popular perception is that, hey, the vulture is bad news. How are people's perceptions of animals like the vulture different from how you perceive them?

COUTURIER: Well, you know, I want to tell one little story, too, about the vulture. I was outside my neighborhood, I live right along the Potomac River, and people often mistake the flying vulture for the flying eagle. And every once in a while someone will ask me. And if they're really high up in the air sometimes it's hard to tell. But this woman said, "Oh, what's that flying over us?" And I looked at it, and said "It's a vulture, most likely." And she said, "Oh, it's not an eagle?" And I said, "No, that's a vulture." And she said, "Oh, well I don't care about that then."

You know, how do you unwrap that answer, "Oh, well I don't care about that then." What does it mean that you don't care about a vulture but you care about an eagle? You know, and I guess from the looks of it, from what they do, if you're just driving along the road and you see a vulture dipping its head into a carcass, what they do does look, on the surface, dirty and ugly, and maybe it is. But they're essentially the trash people or the trash men of the natural world in a sense that they clear the land for us of the rotting carcasses.

CURWOOD: Lisa, one of your essays, you tell a story of encountering a snake at a fairground. Could we hear that now?

COUTURIER: Okay, so I was in an agricultural farm park. It was October, which is the time when snakes start migrating toward their winter dens. And during all the festivities, this huge six-foot black rat snake starts crossing the landscape, coming through all the people and around the tables and food…

CURWOOD: Six feet is a big snake.

COUTURIER: Yeah, well, the black rat snakes are one of the giants of the U.S., and they can get up to six feet, and this was a really long, large snake. People didn't even see that it was there at first, and then slowly word spread that this snake was moving under the tables, and they got really nervous. And somebody went to run for the park naturalist and to say, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do? And the naturalist took her stick and started poking the stick in front of it, which just served to make the snake more and more upset.

CURWOOD: What did the snake do?

COUTURIER: Started to rise up a little bit, and it was biting back at the stick, because she kept poking the stick in front of it. And the children, the little boys especially, started shaping their hands into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot it. And I didn't even, I partly thought about it and partly didn't think about it. I knew that it was in trouble, in some sense. So I walked up to it and picked it up, slung it over my arm sort of near my waist.

And the greatest thing, and this part isn't in the story, actually, is that suddenly, when I picked it up and started carrying it back to the woods, all the children, their whole demeanor changed. They thought it was wonderful, and they followed me all the way to the woods and they wanted to touch it and be next to it, they wanted to know about it. It's just interesting when an adult moves in one way versus another. Their parents were, "Stay away from it. It's going to hurt you," And they saw another adult pick it up and take it away to safety. I think that their whole experience of a snake changed on that day. So we took it back to the woods and we put it down by the woods, and it slithered into the woods and everybody was happy.

CURWOOD: Lisa Couturier, you call your book "The Hopes of Snakes." What do you mean by this title? What do you mean when you say that your life is nuanced by the hopes of snakes?

COUTURIER: Well, I'm glad that you said that. When I believe that non-humans have hopes or have emotions or feelings, that I, therefore, walk through the world differently, because I sense in them something similar that would be in my life. In other words, if they need to find warmth or food, they, in a sense, have a hope or a movement towards those things in the same way that I do. So, I think it changes our relationship with non-humans when we give them at least some sense of the same sorts of feelings and emotions that we have.

CURWOOD: Of course you get some static about this because it seems that anthropomorphism is a necessity in the literary world, but scientists tend to view it as a crime. What do you suppose accounts for that difference?

COUTURIER: I think that scientists and the scientific world, their education, their background is all some sort of mechanistic world; the world of Descartes. Whereas the literary world, as you said, is a little different. So I think the book somewhat blends those two worlds: the literary or the artistic with the scientific, to sort of give insights into both worlds about the animals. So, basically, taking what is real life – the scientific, rational side and the other side – and blended them, because that's what life is. We have both of those in our lives every day.

CURWOOD: Lisa Couturier is an environmental journalist and author of "The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape." Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

COUTURIER: Oh, thanks for having me.

[MUSIC: "Feed the Birds" Julie Andrews]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the truth about gas mileage. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, supporting the creation, performance and recording of new music; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: "Move" Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz) 1957]

Related links:
- Lisa Couturier's website
- "The Hopes of Snakes"

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Emerging Science Note/Curious Rats

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And just ahead a car that runs on air. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it could save the rat. That's according to researchers at Penn State, who found that more adventurous female rats survived cancer longer than their more timid counterparts.

Scientists studied 80 female rats from birth to death. Ninety-three percent of these rats developed breast and pituitary tumors over the course of their lives.

Researchers believed that rats with different temperaments might also have different ways of coping with disease. To test the theory, they built a miniature playground filled with foreign objects such as tunnels, bricks and stones. They then let the rats loose to explore, both as infants and later, as adults. Scientists noted which rats were quick to sniff out their surroundings versus those who tended to hang back. They, then, monitored the stress levels of both groups as an equal number of them developed cancers later in life.

The outcome: the curious rats lived for six more months, or 25 percent longer, than the more cautious group. They also exhibited more stress hormones than their more fainthearted sisters. Scientists suggest that hormone levels could be related to accelerated aging, and that certain personality traits could be an asset in fighting disease. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jennifer Chu.


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Truth in Mileage

CURWOOD: With the price of gasoline heading higher and higher, the miles per gallon sticker affixed to the windows of new cars may be getting a closer look these days from car shoppers. But, let the buyer beware. According to the American Automobile Association, road tests show these estimates are likely to be wildly optimistic compared to real-world driving. Joining me now is John Nielson, director of consumer information and automotive repair for the AAA. Hi, John.

NIELSON: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: John, I understand that at this moment you're driving a Chevy Cobalt, on a test run for us – cruising at about 45 down a two-lane highway near Orlando, Florida. So, just what kind of mileage are you getting?

NIELSON: Based on what I've done the last two days, my guess is that I'm about 27 miles to the gallon right now. I would say, 80 percent of my driving has been highway and 20 percent has been stop and go. And if you average all that out, we're probably, I'm going to say 14 to 16 percent below what the window sticker would say.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of assumptions about people's driving habits and conditions under which most of us drive is the Environmental Protection Agency getting wrong?

NIELSON: Well, the standards for the EPA figures that we see in the window really are based on, on the 1970s when the speed limit was 55 miles an hour and when vehicles were much different than they are today and I daresay that driving conditions were much different than they are today. Most of us travel in rush hour traffic and, other examples, during the EPA test they don't use the air conditioner.

CURWOOD: They don't?

NIELSON: No, absolutely not. In fact, they never accelerate to 60 miles an hour faster than 18 seconds. And, as we're all aware, trying to merge into traffic at that type of pace would actually be dangerous. And then there's a couple of things that people don't think about and that's, in cold weather your fuel economy will always be lower than it is in warm weather.

CURWOOD: What's the worst case you've found? What's the most egregious gap between what the so-called EPA rating is and what the real experience is?

NIELSON: I don't have the numbers in front of me, but we've seen, I believe, on a trailblazer, I believe we saw roughly 14.7 gallons real world and the sticker was, I believe in the 23-24 mile per gallon range. That's pretty substantial.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I guess so. It means you're going to fill up at the pump, what?, 60 percent more often than you thought.

NIELSON: It sure is.

CURWOOD: We'll catch up with John Nielson again in just a minute or two, but I want to check in now with Connecticut Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson. She's co-sponsoring a bill that would change the way the Environmental Protection Agency rates automobile mileage. Congresswoman, what's at stake here?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, this is an everyday pocketbook issue. As gas prices go up, I hear more and more from my constituents about what a struggle it is to afford to commute. It's skyrocketing gas prices are hitting us hard everyday in our pocketbooks. And so, when one of my constituents and I were talking about energy issues and he mentioned this to me. I looked into it. And, frankly, it is inexcusable for the government to be misleading consumers with their own tax dollars as they buy a car as to how many miles per gallon the car is going to get.

CURWOOD: And it's amazing. You walk into the showroom, those numbers are huge. It's the biggest number on the sticker.

JOHNSON: Well, they're getting, they put a lot of play on it. And with gas, two dollars a gallon. People care about it. And then to find out that it's so inaccurate. I mean there's tremendous swing in these numbers. And the AAA testing has demonstrated that.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about this legislation? What are you hoping to accomplish?

JOHNSON: Well, it's very simple. We're just directing the EPA to use common, everyday driving habits as the environment in which they test for miles per gallon. They're using 30 year-old mileage tests. Just use today's standards of driving. The EPA acknowledges that their figures are wrong. We need our tax dollars to produce honest information to guide people buying a car. Big investment, miles per gallon is important. It's everyday pocketbook stuff.

CURWOOD: Let's say, Congresswoman, that your bill goes through. It becomes law. To what extent would it affect the corporate average fuel economy or CAF´E standards which govern the fuel efficiencies of cars and light trucks in the U.S.?

JOHNSON: Well, that's a sort of a separate and different issue, but I think as we get more honest fuel figures, I think it's going to put pressure on the CAFE debate, but they're very separate. I think if people have honest information about how many miles per gallon they're going to get, they'll choose cars that are more economical from the point of view of fuel usage and, frankly, Detroit will hear that loud and clear.

CURWOOD: In whose interest is it to keep things the same, the way they are right now?

JOHNSON: It may be that Detroit benefits from these very vague and overstated miles per gallon figures that we see on the car. So, it's got to be high on the agenda of families even though it may not be high on the agenda of automakers.

CURWOOD: Why would Detroit benefit from the system?

JOHNSON: Well, because people think they're getting better miles per gallon than they are and the auto companies, therefore, aren't under so much pressure to improve their fuel economy. Detroit could improve the fuel economy lots of ways but they aren't motivated to send their research and development dollars there to really compete on that basis because the tests provide such misleading information.

CURWOOD: How do you handicap the odds of your own bill getting through Congress?

JOHNSON: I think they're pretty high.


JOHNSON: Yeah, because it's so obvious. I mean, this is the kind of bill, that if we can get it out there on the floor it will pass overwhelmingly.

CURWOOD: Nancy Johnson is the Republican Congresswoman from Connecticut. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

JOHNSON: Nice to be with you. Thanks.

CURWOOD: John Nielson from AAA, are you still there.


CURWOOD: And where are you now?

NIELSON: I am on I-4, just north of Orlando and there is very little traffic. I'm travelling at 65 miles per hour and having a very smooth ride. I have the cruise control set.

CURWOOD: So, John, while the public waits for Congress to take action on truth in mileage, what kinds of things can we as drivers do to get better mileage out of cars right now? You know, realistic things.

NIELSON: There's a couple of things we can all do quite easily and the first is to check the air pressure in your tires. And you'd want to use the specifications that are located in most of our cars, right inside the drivers' door. Just maintaining your tire pressure can have an impact on your fuel economy by as much as ten percent.

The next thing it to make sure that you're not hauling around unnecessary weight. The golf clubs in the trunk, the books, bricks, the cat litter or sand from the, up in the wintertime to get traction. Get that out, that will make an improvement.

From there, it's really, plan your trips, try to minimize the stop and go driving, plan around rush hour, if you can avoid it, by all means do, and when you do go out, make an entire run at one time. Go by the grocery store and go by the dry cleaners and go home.

CURWOOD: So, if it's ten percent for tire inflation and, maybe, a couple of percentage points for unnecessary weight and putting these trips together, we can improve our mileage by what, 20 percent just by thinking about it?

NIELSON: Absolutely, 20 percent is something we could effect.

CURWOOD: Alright, your favorite car for fuel economy of those you've tested over this time?

NIELSON: You know, I think the Prius was an outstanding vehicle. A car that I really was surprised with was the Mercedes E320 CDI Diesel which is a full-size four-door car that was well over 30 miles to the gallon average. That was a fantastic vehicle and then, in the realm of things that most of us would be in the ballpark to buy, we'd be looking at the Honda Civic, did very well. The Ford Escape hybrid did very well around town, as well.

CURWOOD: John Nielson is director of consumer affairs for the American Automobile Association. He joined us from the road the road there outside of Orlando, Florida. Thanks for taking this time today.

NIELSON: Steve, it was great to be with you.

CURWOOD: And drive safely.

NIELSON: Thank you.

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Running on Air

CURWOOD: And now, another way to save gasoline. Jean-Pierre Maeder, an engineer and CEO of ZEVCAT, a small California company, hopes to soon distribute a new European car that runs not on gas – but on compressed air. Mr. Maeder first heard about this car from his brother who's a Swiss auto mechanic. Now, while the car is still in the development stages, Mr. Maeder believes the MiniCat, as it's called, will one day be tooling up and down the hills of San Francisco and he's here to share his vision.

MAEDER: Welcome, thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, give me the basics here. How does a compressed air car, how does that work?

MAEDER: Well, it's a fascinating technology. The basic concept behind it is actually very simple physics and it works with the expansion of air and the energy that's released when you expand air. I don't know, your listeners, when you actually pump up a tire, and you touch the hose, you realize it's getting hot, so that's why you compress air in a tire…. that compression process creates heat. And the expansion process is, you might have seen when you blow air or hold your hand actually out the window, you feel it's cold, so that when air expands then it loses energy and that energy loss is actually harnessed in an engine and used for work.

CURWOOD: So, tell me about the engine that you would run with compressed air? Is it any different from an ordinary car engine?

MAEDER: The whole concept of a compressed air engine is very comparable with what's out today. But, of course, you know you have to have it a little more sealed than a gasoline engine because now you work with compressed air and higher pressures.

CURWOOD: Now, how much energy is really involved and how much does it cost to fuel it?

MAEDER: When you think about the energy, you kind of can go through a calculation really. How much, how long it would take you to fill your tank which is going to be between four and five hours if you hook it up to a 220 volt which most people have at home on their washer and dryer and it would take about 5.5 kilowatts per hour, so you're looking into something like a dollar fifty, two dollars for a tank fill.

CURWOOD: Now the only published road test that I've seen about your car has it going just four and a half miles on a full tank.

MAEDER: That's correct. That was done on the CitiCat without the right engine, the final engine was a prototype engine and it didn't have the correct tank, as well, which was a much heavier tank than it's going to be in the final version. So, weight was above specification, that's why it got much less range.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the prototypes for these cars? What do they look like?

MAEDER: The basic concept is you have a driver in the front and then you have space in the back where people can sit. It's very configurable so you can have a passenger seat and three people in the back or you can have one person in the front and four people in the back with a rotational driver's seat and then passenger's seat.

CURWOOD: So, you've been for a ride in the air car?

MAEDER: I have been for a ride in the air car and I was totally surprised by it. It's a thing that works.

CURWOOD: How soon do you think we will be seeing these rolling around?

MAEDER: Well, our hope is to see this car on the road as soon as possible which is maybe in a year, 18 months, and that is if funding goes through and we can actually get into finalizing the car, getting it tested, because there are some issues that need to be worked on and then get them into the step and market the car and get it onto the road.

CURWOOD: Jean-Pierre Maeder spoke to me from his office in San Francisco. Jean-Pierre, thanks for taking this time with me to talk today.

MAEDER: You're very welcome Steve. Thank you for having me on your show.


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In Search of Oil

CURWOOD: With oil prices topping $50 a barrel, the race is on for new sources of oil and gas to keep up with consumer demand. In Congress, efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration are underway once again. And in Texas, oilrigs are drilling deep and wide, not only in the arid plains, but also in a Houston neighborhood, in search of untapped sources of black gold.

The thirst for energy has Princeton, New Jersey writer Rich Pliskin and his Players wondering how long it will be before energy wildcatters wind up in your front yard.


ROGER: Ahh. Thanks, hon.

CINDY: Light 'n sweet. Just the way you like it.

ROGER: Couldn't live without it.


CINDY: Is that a helicopter?

ROGER: Not in this neighborhood.


CINDY: Roger, there's a chopper in the front yard!

ROGER: What the –


FOREMAN: Roger Martin? Of 10 Clampett Court?

ROGER: Yes, that's right. Who are you? And what are all these trucks doing on my front lawn!


This is it, fellas! Let's start punchin' holes!


ROGER: What's the meaning of this? Who are you?



Pound that baby down, Fred! That's it!

ROGER: NARC? There's no drug dealing here!

FOREMAN: That's "NERC." National Energy Recovery Corp. Part of the governmental-petroleum complex.

ROGER: I don't understand.


FOREMAN: NERC satellite says your yard's got the richest vein of light sweet crude this side of the Board of Ed building.

CINDY: Oil? You're drilling for oil? In my peonies?

FOREMAN: Plenty of it, m'aam. Government's under pressure to top off those tanks, at least through November.

[CALLING OUT} Get that derrick in here, Freddy! That's it!

CINDY: My yard isn't an oil field. It's – it's a yard! Roger?

ROGER: Now see here, NARC, or NERC or –

FOREMAN: Whoaaa..Comin' down!


CINDY: My hummer!

FOREMAN: You, uhh, might wanna move the vehicles off the work site, m'aam.

CINDY: It's not a work site! It's a mulch bed!


ROGER: [GROANS] AW, not Drysdale.

DRYSDALE: I hear you're sittin' on a goldmine!

ROGER: What?

DRYSDALE: They found coal under Furman's pool. Smithers has tungsten!

ROGER: Oh, my god. That's awful!

DRYSDALE: Awful? They're rich! Do you have any idea what they're paying for the drilling leases?

CINDY: Drilling leases?


ROGER: Honey?

CINDY: Zip it, Roger.


What are these leases you're talking about?

DRYSDALE: Let's just say their brokers' suddenly taking their calls. Say, what happened to the hummer?

CINDY: Hey! Hey, Mr. Energy man!

ROGER: But, sweetheart! The peonies!

CINDY: Get that wreck outta there, Freddy!

ROGER: Honey?

CINDY: Cut 'er up, drag 'er out and let's the goop outta the ground. Move it, move it, move it! Let's go!


CURWOOD: A little satire, courtesy of Rich Pliskin and his Players of Princeton, New Jersey.


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CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a promise. Here, in the Northeast we still have more snow than we can shake a shovel at. But as those of you in much of the rest of the country already know, Spring is coming. The Red Sox – excuse me – the "World Champion" Boston Red Sox open their season in just about three weeks. And for those of you who can't wait – well, here – courtesy of Lang Elliot and Ted Mack – is another harbinger of spring up north – the robin.

[EARTHEAR: "American Robin" Lang Elliot and Ted Mack: Songbird Portraits (NatureSound Studio) 1999]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Steve Gregory, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young - with help from Jennie Cecil Moore and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt, smoothies and cultured soy. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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