Demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on Earth Day 1970. (Photo: South Coast AQMD)
ANNOUNCER: This is a CBS News special. Earth Day: A question of survival—with CBS News Correspondent Walter Cronkite.
CRONKITE: Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending: a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival.
FITZPATRICK: Earth Day was part teach-in, part mass mobilization. Its organizer, Dennis Hayes, spoke at a rally in Washington.
HAYES: We are systematically destroying our land, our streams, and our seas. We foul our air, deaden our senses and pollute our bodies. That's what America's become. That's what we have to challenge.
FITZPATRICK: It was a challenge not everyone was willing to accept.
CRONKITE: Some quarters saw more than coincidence in the fact that Earth Day occurred on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the father of Soviet communism. And, the Comptroller General of Georgia, James Bentley, sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day might be a communist plot.
FITZPATRICK: But, Earth Day events attracted 20 million participants: more than enough to dispel the critics and create the political momentum that Dennis Hayes was seeking.
HAYES: What we wanted to have was people at the end of it who understood these issues, cared about them passionately, were prepared to vote on the basis of such issues, were prepared to make changes in their own lives–in everything from the number of children that they had to the kind of automobile that they drove, on the basis of what they learned.
FITZPATRICK: It worked. It grabbed the attention of Congress. Leon Billings, then chief of staff for the Senate Air and Water Committees, says Earth Day turned environmentalism into an unstoppable political force.
BILLINGS: There was a tremendous wellspring of goodwill among young people who were looking for something to be for, after the bloodletting of the Vietnam War demonstrations and so on. And, the environmental issue was a perfect opportunity.
FITZPATRICK: Politicians had to support the environmental cause simply to survive, even President Nixon.
NIXON: Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment, the federal government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards. We can and will exercise leadership. We are providing the necessary.
FITZPATRICK: Leon Billings says Nixon didn't really care about the environment. What he cared about was the environmental vote, which was lining up to support Senator Edmund Muskie's bid to challenge Nixon for president.
BILLINGS: The whole White House strategy was to try to cut Muskie off from that constituency through pre-empting those issues. We got into one of those wonderful points in American politics where you had political one-upmanship as between Congress and the president.
FITZPATRICK: In short order, this one-upmanship resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency; all these environmental landmarks were approved in just three years. The early 70s had become an environmental renaissance. The environment was even the province of musical superstars.
[MUSIC LYRICS]: Whoa, oh, mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and sea.
HAYES: Suddenly, here was a movement in which a–a middle-class housewife who had never done anything activist before in her life but cared passionately about the kind of world she was passing on to her kids–there was a role in this one for her.
FITZPATRICK: Dennis Hayes and other activists won praise from all directions, even Republicans, like Williams Ruckleshaus, head of the newly-formed EPA.
RUCKLESHAUS: As a society, we owe a debt to those who have made the environment a call to action. They are for the most part sincere, dedicated and fair-minded advocates of environmental responsibility.
FITZPATRICK: But, it wasn't an unbroken string of environmental victories; there were major defeats. The first big fight under the Endangered Species Act was lost when Congress approved a dam that wiped out a fish called the snail darter. In the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved. As the 70s drew to a close, environmentalism had lost some of its magic. But, then came Love Canal.
BROADCASTER: An unusual hostage incident is underway in Niagara Falls, New York tonight. No weapons are involved, as two officials of the Environmental Protection Agency are being held against their will by members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association at the group's headquarters. The two hostages are...
FITZPATRICK: Residents of Niagara Falls, America's honeymoon capital, were getting sick because of chemical leaks from the Love Canal dump site. Angry homeowners were fighting back. This was a blue-collar town. People like Lois Gibbs hadn't been part of the environmental consciousness that swept the country.
GIBBS: When I lived in Niagara Falls and we smelled chemicals and we had black clouds, we had brown clouds, we had white clouds, I mean, it was terrible. We smelled that and we thought: good economy. We didn't think air pollution poison because we didn't understand because nobody was talking about it at our level.
FITZPATRICK: But, soon the entire nation was talking about toxic waste. This was just the first of many communities to learn that chemical dumping could threaten human health. Love Canal was evacuated; so was Times Beach, Missouri. Then, the Superfund list was developed, detailing America's worst hazardous waste sites.
GIBBS: The release of the list woke up America in a way that they had never been woken up before, because every local paper took the list and talked about the sites in their community. And, so people really became concerned. They saw their self-interest and they wanted something done immediately.
FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs founded a clearinghouse to help others who were fighting toxic dump sites. It was the beginning of a second wave of environmental awareness among working class people.
GIBBS: None of us were trained organizers. None of us had any experience in even being an environmentalist. If you were to ask my neighbors today if they were an environmentalist they would say no. What we're about is fighting for justice.
FITZPATRICK: Other events continued to strengthen support for the environment, most notably the nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island. But suddenly, in 1981, the movement was on the defensive. Ronald Reagan took over the White House. To Reagan, environmental groups were special interests that hurt the economy. It was time for business to have a stronger voice. Leading the charge was Secretary of the Interior James Watt.
WATT: Businessmen pay taxes. Businesspeople have rights. All Americans won in November and those liberals from the special interest groups are furious that the positions of power have been opened up to America for Americans. And, that's our objective.
FITZPATRICK: Watt wanted to roll back environmental programs and open more public lands to things like mining and grazing. But, the Reagan revolution foundered when it came to the environment. Congress was unwilling to water down the landmark legislation that Leon Billings had helped to craft a decade before.
BILLINGS: We survived the Reagan-Watt era, these policies survived, because of their militancy. People, the American public, saw what they were proposing as too radical.
FITZPATRICK: Watt unwittingly helped his opponents. He showed a remarkable lack of political finesse, such as this comment when announcing his appointments to a federal commission.
WATT: I've appointed the Lenos Commission, five members: Three Democrats, two Republicans. Every kind of mix you can have. I have a black; I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And ...
FITZPATRICK: Watt undermined the administration's credibility on environmental policy. Even Vice President George Bush distanced himself from the Reagan record. In his run for the White House in 1988, Bush said he'd be the environmental president. Later, events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill hardened public resolve to protect the environment. But, as the movement approached its 20th anniversary, activists were worried by the lesson they'd learned during the Reagan years: that legislative gains are vulnerable to changing political tides. Dennis Hayes was steering the emphasis of Earth Day 1990 toward a broader societal goal and away from a focus on government.
HAYES: There was a widespread correct perception that some of those laws had not worked terribly well and that we probably had to do some things that affected the culture, affected the society in ways other than by placing legal restrictions and regulatory restrictions upon something that reached into people's behavior.
WOMAN: We have three types of trash bins around; they're not hard to miss. We have one for aluminum only, one for bottles and one for just trash. So, help us trash your trash. Thanks.
[MUSIC: "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" Jeff Beck: Best of Beck (Epic) 1995]
CURWOOD: That report from Terry Fitzpatrick. The evolution of environmentalism from individual action to global responsibility is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" Jeff Beck: Best of Beck (Epic) 1995]
International Earth Day
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the 1990s began, the focus of Earth Day began to shift from protecting the environment of our nation to protecting the environment of our planet as a whole. John Adams was the very first employee and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC, which began at the same time as the first Earth Day. He's now president of the NRDC, which since has grown to more than 100 lawyers and scientists and a million members. John Adams and the NRDC are credited with successfully lobbying such seminal pieces of environmental legislation as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Hello, John.
ADAMS: Hello, How are you today?
CURWOOD: Um, John you've been an environmental activist since there's been an Earth Day. How has the event changed since the environmental achievements of the ‘70s and the backlash of the ‘80's? What's been it's trajectory since 1990 over these past 15 years?
NRDC President John Adams.
(Photo courtesy of NRDC)
ADAMS: Well, we really are on the same march. We're looking at it from a different perspective, but it's the same march. It seems to me that we've learned about the big problems and all of us have tried to face up to these big problems like global warming and the energy issues. And the ocean issues and bio-diversity. And so, it's understanding these complex systems that has changed our work and, I think, the work of our efforts on Earth Day.
CURWOOD: Now this year, your organization NRDC is attempting to leverage Earth Day to generate public support for alternative energy sources. What are you calling your campaign? I think it's "Re-energize America"?
ADAMS: That's right.
CURWOOD: And my question is how effective is Earth Day for focusing attention on environmental issues?
ADAMS: Well, it's amazing. I mean the fact that you're interviewing me here and there will be millions of people around the world talking about these issues. In fact I think this Earth Day, I see and feel more energy than I have felt in perhaps the last five or ten years of Earth Days. It just...people are very concerned and very aware that the things that we need to be doing to protect our world are not happening and they want it to happen. And that's what this Earth Day is all about.
CURWOOD: What do you think is catalyzing people now? Why the difference over the last five or ten years?
ADAMS: Well I think the catalyst is that people are recognizing that we're having weird weather. That we are seeing heat, storms. We're seeing the snows of Kilimanjaro, a thing of history. We're reading and seeing the pictures of the melting Arctic and hearing that polar bears may not be around in 25 or 30 years unless we get snapping.
CURWOOD: Why did you pick alternative energy as the focus of Earth Day for your organization?
ADAMS: Very simple. We think that global warming is absolutely critical here and the message has to go out. It's essential that we move into the field of high technology for several reasons. One, national security. We need to get ourselves out of places where war is going to take this huge toll to get our oil. We need to think about our jobs and job security and it's very important that we turn to new technology that will help us get to solving our global warming problem.
CURWOOD: Now, your organization and you're involvement with the environmental movement are as old as Earth Day itself. What are your memories of that first event?
ADAMS: Well, you know, I have such fond memories. I was alone yet at NRDC, I was still the only employee, and the only member and I remember meeting with Friends of the Earth people and the Sierra Club people – the chapter here in New York – and uh, had a celebration together. It was very, very much a family affair and I was being welcomed in to that very small family.
CURWOOD: John, we've heard a lot this year about the so-called death of environmentalism; that the movement has somehow fallen out of touch with mainstream Americans. How valid is that criticism?
ADAMS: Well, you know, criticism is always valuable. You do learn a lot and it makes you think through what people are saying. Personally I think the environmental movement is far from dead. I mean, just look at the scope of the membership. Take a look at the size of the land trusts and take a look at what's going on locally in every community across the board from recycling to the purchases of parks and so on. It's just impossible for anybody to believe that environmentalism is dead. More importantly, on the key issues we're taking on the establishment which has untold amount of money – remember, we're talking about oil, coal, cars, and the White House – and we are doing it unbelievably effectively. We have been able to block a bad energy bill. We've been able to get 43 U.S. senators to support the McCain-Lieberman bill.
CURWOOD: The McCain-Lieberman, of course, is the legislation proposed by those two senators that would put mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
CURWOOD: Now in the past, John Adams, you've been an advisor to President Clinton in the Environmental Protection Agency. How much influence does the environmental movement have these days with politicians – national politicians and the public at large?
ADAMS: Uh, I think that we have a lot of influence, uh, with the politicians because I think we've earned their respect. We don't have an open avenue into the White House, though we do know the various people who head the agencies and they hear our voice. So while it's not as easy a relationship as we had with President Clinton or with George Bush the first, it's, uh...the message can be sent there. We obviously work lots of United States senators and congressmen because we're professionals in the field and they want to hear from us and we have a very, very strong scientific staff as does the rest of the environmental movement. And in terms of governors, uh, with the problems with the administration, we turn to the states. And I would say that the environmental movement has penetrated the political structure of this country very, very well in a very straightforward, business-like way.
CURWOOD: In your view, how could a public official be against the environment; something that arguably a lot of people believe in and feel that it's important to protect the living systems that make the ecology work on this planet?
ADAMS: You know, I think if you were talking to those senators or those congressmen, most of them would say they're not opposed to the environment, they just want to do it a different way. Those of us who have seen it done a different way and have worked our way through the process of establishing laws and rules and regulations that have made this country one of the leaders in the world – and indeed we were the leader in the world when we had strong enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act – they wish to make it easier for business to do business without paying the true cost of the impact on the environment. We can't have that. We don't want to return to the 1970's and we don't want to be like Eastern Europe was under the old Soviet Union. It's very important to protect these laws for all of us and for our generations to come.
CURWOOD: John Adams is president of the National Resources Defense Council. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
ADAMS: Thank you very much Steve. I appreciate it.
Natural Resources Defense Council
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CURWOOD: For the first time in history, more people on the planet live in cities than anywhere else. So it's appropriate that World Environment Day, which was established by the United Nations in 1972, should bring together mayors of cities from around the world. At the beginning of June, these mayors will gather to sign a group of accords that will, in their words, help build a sustainable, dynamic and equitable future for citizens around the world. With me now is Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, which is hosting this five-day event... the first American city to ever do so. So why was San Francisco chosen to host World Environment Day this year?
NEWSOM: Well, I'd like to think it's because we are in every way, shape and form ahead of the curve in terms of environmental initiatives. That being said I imagine it has as much or more to do with the fact that we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing and founding of the U.N. which was done of course, here in San Francisco. So it's a wonderful opportunity to talk about best practices and how it relates to the environment but also it's a wonderful celebration of the founding of the U.N.
CURWOOD: What do you expect to come out of this?
Mayor Newsom announces San Francisco's selection as host of United Nations World Environment Day in 2005. (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Department of the Environment)
NEWSOM: Well I think the most significant thing is the signing of these urban environmental accords and the feedback we've gotten from mayors and their staffs that we've sent these accords to is overwhelming with enthusiasm. And it just establishes a new precedent where we can either sit back and wait for our respective governments to get aggressive and recognize the challenges of global warming and the real challenges of global warming - the challenges in the environment generally - or we can actually be proactive and lead by example.
CURWOOD: For example?
NEWSOM: Well, I'd like to see cities really focus on their recycling efforts. San Francisco has 63 percent recycling rate, our goal is to get up to 75 percent in just a few years. I think renewable energies is the opportunity for sustainable economies. Uh, we talk about an energy policy in this country. Well, it's all talk. It's all rhetoric. The reality is we don't really have one and I think it's incumbent upon cities to lead by examples ‘cause I'm not – as mayor, I don't want to wait 20, 30 years until these things evolve. We've got to take action and we've got to fight against the status quo.
CURWOOD: To what extent do mayors have a bigger stake in environmental issues than other politicians?
NEWSOM: Well, I think it's a direct stake. Again, I mean, you look at San Francisco – it enjoys some of the most scenic beauty of any major city in the world, and I go down to Los Angeles, I see smog everywhere and there's something fundamental about that and immediately, the mayor of Los Angeles is burdened with that reality. So I think again, you can talk globally, but you've got to proverbially act locally and what's at stake is actually making things different – making things better. And increasingly, mayors around the world have the power to do that.
CURWOOD: Who, who is coming here? I understand you have the mayor of Kabul in Afghanistan, mayors in Africa, South America – these are very different places then the United States.
NEWSOM: Yeah, it's absolutely incredible. We have, you know, from Belarus, from Cambodia, from India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, I mean all over the map literally and figuratively, and of course mayors from across the United States of America. And that's what so dynamic and so extraordinary about this is the different perspectives, the different challenges. Where water might be the dominant issue for example, in a third world country – the opportunity for that mayor to learn about what we're doing for example with one of the cleanest water systems in the world – our Hitetchi water system in San Francisco. But to also learn from the mayor of Manila about what they're doing on issues of energy and open space and we can take that back here in our respective cities. So this is a pretty incredible opportunity, just to meet, greet, but also to represent our city's best and our city's worst in terms of the challenges we have.
CURWOOD: We're just about out of time but let me ask you this before you go: when you invite the world's mayors to a city, it's quite a do. And I'm sure you've been at this for a while. What have you already learned?
NEWSOM: I've just been amazed by the responsiveness of mayors and how eager and enthusiastic they are and that's very humbling. And very encouraging.
CURWOOD: Gavin Newsom is Mayor of San Francisco and host of this year's World Environment Day in June and, by the way, Living on Earth will be broadcasting from there in cooperation with member station KQED. And if you'd like to be involved, details are on our web site, livingonearth.org. Mayor Newsom, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.
NEWSOM: Thank you for having me on.
World Environment Day
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(MUSIC FADES IN WITH VIOLIN CONCERTO)
CURWOOD: This is the violin concerto of Ludwig von Beethoven, a favorite piece of music of a woman without whose work and dedication there might be no Earth Day.
LEE: I didn't know what to do. All that was clear to me was that the information had to get out. People had no understanding of the risks they were being asked to make. We had all been made so well aware of the benefits of these pest controls. But why had no one alerted us to their potential dangers? I decided to write the book.
(Adapted from "Silent Spring"
Copyright © 1962 by Rachel L. Carson
Copyright © renewed 1990 by Roger Christie
Used by permission of Frances Collin, Trustee)
CURWOOD: Rachel Carson called her book Silent Spring. "Silent" spring because Ms. Carson wanted us to consider what our world would be like without the sounds of nature. Published in 1962, Silent Spring was a wake up call for an increasingly technological society and a bible for a fledgling environmental movement. To mark this Earth Day, we asked writer and actress Kaiulani Lee to read a few passages from a play she has written about the life of Rachel Carson, called "A Sense of Wonder."
LEE: In Lansing, Michigan, there was a study linking the death of the robin population to the spraying of the elm trees. The elms, which were being treated for Dutch Elm disease, were sprayed in the spring and again in July with two to five pounds of DDT per tree. In the autumn, the leaves fell, and as they decomposed, the earthworms fed on them, accumulating and concentrating the DDT in their bodies. Some of the earthworms died, but those that survived became biological magnifiers of the poison.
In the spring, the robins returned to Lansing, Michigan, and they ate the worms. Eleven large earthworms can transfer a lethal dose of DDT to a robin. A robin can eat eleven worms in as many minutes.
Not all of the robins ate a lethal dose, but the few that survived were unable to produce a single living offspring. How did we get to this?
(From "Silent Spring"
Copyright © 1962 by Rachel L. Carson
Copyright © renewed 1990 by Roger Christie
Used by permission of Frances Collin, Trustee)
(Violin concerto fades up)
LEE: I knew that by writing honestly about chemical contamination I was plunging myself into a sort of war with the chemical industry. But I never imagined the full force of the industry's fury. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent attempting to discredit not only the book, but the hysterical woman who wrote it. Fortunately the attack seemed to have backfired, creating more publicity than my publishers ever could have afforded. But the controversy has been exhausting. Is it any wonder I don't want to leave the state of Maine?
(From "A Sense of Wonder," the play based on the life and works of Rachel Carson by Kaiulani Lee, and used by permission of Frances Collin, Trustee.)
LEE: To stand here at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of the mist over the great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shorebirds that have swept up and down these continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
(From "Under the Sea Wind"
Copyright © Rachel L. Carson 1941
Copyright © renewed Roger Christie 1969
Used by permission of Frances Collin, Trustee u-w-o Rachel Carson)
LEE: I'll never forget the night Mr. Shawn telephoned me. William Shawn is the editor of the New Yorker magazine. He had just read my manuscript and he telephoned saying everything I could have asked or hoped for. That night, after Roger was asleep, I came back in here, and I put on the Beethoven Violin Concerto — it's one of my favorites — and suddenly, the tension of the four years was broken, and I let the tears come. And that night, the thought of all the birds and the other creatures, all the loveliness that is in nature, came to me with such a surge of deep happiness. I had done what I could. I had been able to complete it. And now it has its own life.
("From "A Sense of Wonder," the play based on the life and works of Rachel Carson by Kaiulani Lee, used by permission of Frances Collin, Trustee.)
CURWOOD: Kaiulani Lee reading from her play "A Sense of Wonder," based on Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and "Under the Seawind," as well as material from the Carson biography "The House of Life," by Paul Brooks.
(MUSIC FADES DOWN)
CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and Verizon, providing 411 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of non-profit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org. The Annenburg Fund for excellence in communications and education and; the W.K. Kellog Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR—National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: "Bye Bye Blackbird" Miles Davis and John Coltrane: Miles & Coltrane (Columbia Jazz) 1988]
- Rachel Carson
- Kaiulani Lee
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and coming up: What if intelligent life from across the Universe blasted the Earth to bits to make way for an intergalactic freeway? Could we find another Earth? Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, had some answers. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.
CHU: "The best part of waking up" may no longer be the "Folgers in your cup." In fact, it may be the sound of an alarm clock. A group of sleep-deprived students at Brown University have invented a new alarm clock to help combat typical a.m. inertia. Recent studies suggest that sleepers suffer from the worst case of "morning blues," or grogginess when woken during deep sleep versus light. "SleepSmart" measures your sleep cycle and wakes you during the lightest phase of sleep—so you feel refreshed in the morning. Here's how it works. After programming a special clock to your latest possible wake-up time, you go to sleep wearing a headband outfitted with electrodes and a microprocessor. The headband records the pattern of brain waves produced during each phase of sleep—light sleep, deep sleep and Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep. This sleep information is passed wirelessly to the clock unit, which then triggers the alarm to sound during the light sleep phase closest to your wake-up time. So, rather than waking you at exactly 7:00 each morning, "SleepSmart" will ring during your light sleep, say, 30 minutes before that time. The alarm clock is the brainchild of a Brown University graduate student, who was inspired when a fellow student blamed grogginess for his poor grades. A warning to Starbucks: The finished product will hit stores sometime next year. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jennifer Chu.
Brown University graduate lab
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CURWOOD: Hold on to your hat and grab a towel because one week after Earth Day, the planet, at least on the big screen, will become intergalactic asphalt.
VOICEOVER: From the celebrated best-selling novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...
ARTHUR DENT: What is this thing?
FORD PREFECT: It's The Guide. It's got everything you need to know to survive in the universe.
VOICEOVER: Losing your planet isn't the end of the world. It's the beginning of an adventure unlike anything on Earth.
[MUSIC FADES DOWN]
CURWOOD: It's this far-out adventure that's earned its creator, the late Douglas Adams, the adoration of millions of fans around the world. The friends of Douglas Adams saw a bit of him in all the characters he wrote into his stories, from the extraordinarily ordinary Arthur Dent, to the ultra-hip man-about-space Ford Prefect. What many people might not know is that not only did Douglas Adams write for the Monty Python troupe, he was also a conservationist. And, underneath all the absurdity of "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" is an environmental message. Robbie Stamp was a business partner and close friend of Adams for years. He's also executive producer of the much-anticipated movie version of the series and he joins me to talk about Douglas Adams' vision for the planet. Robbie Stamp, hello!
STAMP: Hi there.
Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman). (Photo: Laurie Sparham)
CURWOOD: So, I understand the two of you were great friends. How did you meet?
STAMP: We met–I was a documentary producer, in fact, an environmental documentary producer—I'd been producing a series of different films on different environmental subjects–and a mutual friend introduced us and we just got along really well. I mean, from the first time we met, we enjoyed each other's company and I was lucky enough to go on to both become a close personal friend and to start a company with Douglas as well.
CURWOOD: Now, before Douglas Adams died he was working on a screenplay for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it finally is going to come now to the big screen. So, let's just hear a bit of the trailer here for kicks.
[SOUND OF SPACE DOORS OPENING]
ANNOUNCER: Attention people of Earth. I regret to inform you that in order to make way for the new hyper-space express route, your planet has been scheduled for demolition.
[SOUND OF GROANS]
ANNOUNCER: Have a nice day.
MAN: Hang on, we're hitchin' a ride.
CURWOOD: (laughs) A galactic super-highway paves over the world—It definitely sounds like an environmental story.
STAMP: (laughs) Well, I think there were a couple of core strands, really, that underlay Douglas' world-view. I mean, one was a deeply held wish that humankind, the human species have a little bit more humility about its place in the grand scheme of things then it seems to. And, the other was a deep reverence and awe for the beauties and wonders of, you know, what we do have on this little lump of rock.
CURWOOD: So, what's the environmental plot then or perhaps sub-plot of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?
STAMP: Well, I mean, it's nice to be doing this interview because I haven't done too many interviews on this subject and I've always felt it was a subject very, very close to Douglas' heart. I mean, I suppose that if there is an environmental or a conservation sub-plot in the Hitchhikers, and certainly there in the movie, it's that usually in a movie of this kind, the Earth gets blown up within the first nine minutes. I mean, normally people are, you know, racing to save the Earth and they manage to save it. Well, in this instance, they don't. But, what we have at the end of the movie is we have a back-up Earth and there's another Earth that's being built by these planet-builders when we discover that in fact the original Earth was a giant computer built to calculate the ultimate question. And we have another Earth and we get another shot at it and I think there's something really quite powerful and redemptive about that thought as we see life springing back at the end of the movie. And, I think, it's very gently done but it is just a gentle message which says you know, take care of what we've got because it's fragile and, you know, you can't count on it being here forever.
CURWOOD: And, what is the answer, by the way, to the ultimate question?
STAMP: Well, we don't know the ultimate question but the answer to life, the universe and everything was famously 42, which, of course, doesn't make a lot of sense. And, the computer that calculated that, Deep Thought, said, "Well it would have helped if I knew what the question was." And so...
STAMP: It was the (laughs)—it is one of the great iconic things about Hitchhikers–42. I'll tell you a little story here. For movies, you do a thing called tracking which is you're keeping a very close eye on how many people want to come see your movie. And, I was talking to the marketing guys yesterday about this and they said we've had a very, very high number indeed, which we're really impressed by. We don't normally see numbers quite this good at this stage of a movie and it's the number of people that said they are definitely going to come see the movie and it was 42 percent of the people that they asked. It was great. And, the tax code, the tax code that we're using to make the movie over here in the U.K. is section 42. There's a lot of these 42 coincidences. Poor old Douglas, it was just a joke, but they crop up everywhere.
CURWOOD: So, Douglas Adams fans, of course, know him from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the various books and shows that came as sequels. But, he also did this book called Last Chance to See and, I guess, despite the topic, which is about endangered species, it certainly has a fair amount of wit in it. And, Robbie Stamp, you have a copy of the book with you now and there are some favorite passages of yours that I'd like you to read to us right now. Could you, please?
STAMP: Yeah, I have. I've chosen these because I think they really sum up for me a lot of what makes Douglas special, not just in terms of the thinking about endangered species but what I think was special about his capacity to make us think about things in a different way. And, here he is in Africa and he's having a close encounter with the silver-back gorilla in the Varunga Hills.
I crept closer to the silver back, slowly and quietly on my hands and knees until I was about 18 inches away from him. He glanced around at me unconcernedly as if I was just someone who'd walked into the room and continued his contemplations. As I moved again, he shifted himself away from me–just about six inches–as if I'd sat slightly too close to him on a sofa and he was grumpily making a bit more room. Then he lay on his front with his chin on his fist, idly scratching his cheek with his other hand. I sat as quiet and still as I could despite discovering that I was being bitten to death by ants.
STAMP: After a quiet interval had passed, I carefully pulled the pink writing paper out of my bag and started to make the notes that I am writing from at the moment. This seemed to interest him a little more. I suppose he'd never seen pink writing paper before. His eyes followed as my hand squiggled across the paper and after a while he reached out and touched first the paper and then the top of my ball-point pen, not to take it away from me or even to interrupt me, just to see what it was and what it felt like. I felt very moved by this and had a foolish impulse to want to show him my camera as well. He retreated a little and laid down again about four feet from me with his fist once more propped under his chin. The most disconcerting intelligence seemed to be apparent from the sidelong glances he would give me, prompted not by any particular move I'd made but apparently by a thought that had struck him. I began to feel how patronizing it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence as if ours was any kind of standard by which to measure. I tried to imagine, instead, how he saw us, but, of course, that's almost impossible to do because the assumptions you end up making as you try to bridge the imaginative gap are, of course, your own. And, the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don't even know you're making. But somehow, in the genetic history that we each carry deep within every cell in our body, was a deep connection with this creature as inaccessible now as last year's dreams, but, like last year's dreams, always invisibly and unfathomably present.
CURWOOD: Why did you pick that?
STAMP: Well, I picked that because, A, I know from talking to Douglas that he always described that encounter with the silver-backed gorilla as one of the most amazing moments of his life. But, also because I think it sums up a lot of what makes him special intellectually. I mean, his writing—that phrase actually that he talks about–the imaginative gap and the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don't even know you're making–I think that Douglas was a great one for giving us different mental models for thinking of the world. I talked earlier about his desire that we should all have a little bit more humility. One of the great images as I remember him using quite frequently when he spoke was of a puddle. And he says, "a puddle wakes up one morning and it looks around in the hole in which it is and it thinks, ‘Gosh this hole fits me very nicely, in fact, this hole must have been made just specially for me!'
STAMP: And, it continues to think so as the sun comes out and dries it up. And, I think Douglas felt a little bit the same about our world view where we look around the world that seems to fit us and think, ‘Gosh this has been made just specially for us hasn't it?' And, I think that way of challenging assumptions, making us think again about things, that's something that runs absolutely though Hitchhikers.
CURWOOD: Now, we were able to find some old recordings of Douglas Adams himself, reading from this book, The Last Chance to See, and, you know, as with movies themselves, sometimes the outtakes are funnier than the actual cut that gets shown to the public. So, let's take a listen.
ADAMS: Now, you may think that I've managed to read this book very, very impressively, perfectly without any errors all the way through. I have to tell you, this is by no means the case. And, here, for your amusement is a compilation of some of the things we mixed out.
[FROM OLD RECORDINGS]
ADAMS: The reason I'm having difficulty is about the written sentence. They get terribly upset if they hear words they don't understand the meaning of. And, here's one—They think it's a communist plot. Nevermind.
[SOUND OF VOCAL GURGLES, A HOWEL]
ADAMS: Did I swallow some air?
[SOUND OF SHRIEK]
ADAMS: Was discovered in—bleep! One black rhino in Kenya caught me off guard once and severely dented a car's friend.
[CURWOOD AND STAMP LAUGH]
STAMP: There we go. That's a very fine set of out-takes.
CURWOOD: (laughing) Now, Robbie Stamp, is this what you would call rather normal behavior for this famous author?
STAMP: Ooh, I recognized Douglas. It's always lovely to hear his voice and I certainly recognize Douglas in that–the humor and the wit and the language. No, I certainly recognized Douglas there.
CURWOOD: Speaking of high jinks, his high jinks, I understand there was an incident in a rhino costume?
STAMP: Yeah, I mean, Douglas was a patron of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and Save the Rhino International and he went on a sponsored walk wearing a rhino costume in Kenya. I don't know if he did any of the really steep bits of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but he certainly walked along the road in great heat wearing a rhino costume. I mean, he put himself, I mean, he was a big man–six foot five–it was hot. This was very definitely going the extra mile.
CURWOOD: Robbie Stamp was co-founder with Douglas Adams of the production company Digital Village. He's also executive producer of the new movie, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And, I suppose I should say, so long and thanks for the fish.
STAMP: Well, thanks very much for having me. And, I really hope we've done Douglas proud.
[MUSIC: "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND" THE BOSTON POPS ORCHESTRA/JOHN WILLIAMS: THE SPIELBERG WILLIAMS COLLABORATION (SONY CLASSICAL) 1991]
- "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Movie Site
- Douglas Adams
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CURWOOD: And now, these thoughts. Being human is a risky business. In fact, genetic research suggests that, perhaps 70,000 ago, there were only about 2,000 humans alive and we were just a hoot and holler away from the drought or plague that would have meant extinction. Now, of course, at six billion and climbing, there are other risks and Kate Ravilious, a writer for the British newspaper, The Guardian, recently asked ten scientists what they thought might get us in trouble in the next century. She asked them to consider both the gravity of the threat and its likelihood. It's likely, one responded, that we'll have a global viral pandemic, but it is unlikely to wipe out the human species. All-out nuclear war is a far graver threat, said another, but the odds of it happening before the end of the century are low. On the other hand, climate change is likely to happen to a significant extent, although The Guardian analysts didn't think it would delete humanity, just civilization as we know it. But, there is something that has an even greater combined risk of danger and likelihood than climate change and this one was a surprise to me. The Guardian quotes Hans Morevic at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg as saying there is a good chance robots could take over things before 2100.
"Robot controllers double in complexity (processing power) every year or two," says Professor Morevic. "They are now barely at the lower range of vertebrate complexity, but should catch up with us within a half-century. By 2050, I predict, there will be robots with human-like mental power, with the ability to abstract and generalize," he says. So, while you may have joked that a cranky police officer or high school principal was an android, what would it be like to have the real thing? Uncompromising robotic voice mail systems already provide a taste of what could be coming. So, is there any good news here? The self-awareness of our species means that we can, in fact, take action to address dire but distant threats. Environmental advocates have succeeded in sounding the alarm about climate change and already billions are being spent and invested in response. Even if governments are still squabbling about the details and dimensions of the problem, citizens are already snapping up climate-sparing hybrid cars and planting trees. The signs are good that these efforts could not only blunt the worst effects of climate disruption but they might become powerful drivers of job creation and prosperity as well. So then, what about the robots? During the last two decades, activism has brought down the Berlin Wall, freed Nelson Mandela from prison to lead a multi-racial South Africa and set the world on the path of confronting global warming. So, don't be surprised to see green activism doing its part to make sure robots are used to make us more human, rather than less. Robots may eventually do some things better, such as long distance travel in space, but they can never replace the feeling of joy that is life itself.
Guardian Unlimited article "What a Way To Go"
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CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth–The gasoline additive MTBE is tainting water supplies around the country and the energy bill would shield the chemical makers from lawsuits. MTBE killed the last energy bill and senate Democrats say it could do it again.
SCHUMER: These folks don't quit. They don't learn. And, we're going to have a bipartisan coalition fighting the MTBE provisions, which is one of the most pernicious that's come around in a long time.
CURWOOD: The energy bill at risk of running out of gas. That's next time, on Living on Earth.
[EARTHEAR: Apollo Nine Liftoff: NASA]
MAN: There's one minute and counting. T-minus 55 seconds and counting...
CURWOOD: We leave you this week at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 3, 1969.
MAN: We're now on internal power with the three...
CURWOOD: Apollo 9 readies for lift-off as it begins its ten-day mission. The spacecraft was the first manned flight of all the lunar hardware in Earth orbit.
MAN: Thirty-five seconds and counting. The vehicle now completely pressurized. The vents closed. We are go. Thirty seconds and counting. (Pause). T-minus 25 seconds and counting. All aspects still go at this time as the computer monitors. Twenty seconds. (Voices talking). Guidance released, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, ten, nine. We have ignition sequence start—six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Commit. Lift off! We have lift off at 11 a.m. eastern standard time.
[SOUNDS OF ROCKET BLASTING OFF, VOICE TALKING]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory and Ingrid Lobet—with help from Christopher Bolick, James Curwood and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. 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.
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