Nation’s Icebreakers in Trouble
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Icebreakers are huge ships that can cut through ice up to twenty feet thick. They're crucial for science research, national security, and economic protection of the U.S. Arctic Territory. But the fleet’s in trouble. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Anita Jones, an engineering professor at the University of Virginia who chaired a committee on the future of U.S. Polar Icebreakers. (06:30)
Climate Heads to High Court
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A case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by Massachusetts and eleven other states will call for CO2, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming, to be classified as a pollutant, and regulated by the EPA. Host Bruce Gellerman turns to professor David Driesen of the Syracuse University College of Law, and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, to explain the case and what it could mean. (05:30)
Arctic Thaw/ Stephen Beard
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A new oil and gas region is opening up for the American market and it’s in an unexpected place: the Arctic Circle. As Radio Deutsche-Welle’s Stephen Beard reports from Hammerfest, Norway, receding ice caps are making oil and gas exploration less expensive and easier. (09:00)
Pond Scum or Planet Savers?
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Pond scum just might be the answer to solving the CO2 woes of the Industrial Age. Host Bruce Gellerman visits with Dr. Isaac Berzin, founder of GreenFuel Technologies Corporation. Berzin is working on a prototype that uses algae to convert power plant emissions into biofuels. (05:15)
Surf’s Up!/ Bonnie Auslander
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Commentator Bonnie Auslander ponders the pros and cons of sanitized nature CD’s. (03:30)
Night-time Illuminated/ Willie D. Jones
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There’s new technology that improves night vision for late night car drivers. The technology uses infrared bulbs mounted next to car headlights that reflect off objects ahead of the car. But we’re still in the dark as to whether the technology will catch on. Willie D. Jones of IEEE Spectrum Radio reports. (04:30)
Sociology of Shopping
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American consumers have both their genetic disposition and the manipulative science behind consumerism to thank for that nagging desire to go shopping. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with shopping expert Paco Underhill about just how big a role malls play in our lives. (07:15)
This Year’s Hot Picks/ Bruce Barcott
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From global warming to Darwin to America’s food: Outside magazine’s Bruce Barcott gives us his list of favorite environmental books of the year. (03:30)
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HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Anita Jones, David Driesen, Paco Underhill
REPORTERS: Stephen Beard, Willie D. Jones
COMMENTATORS: Bonnie Auslander, Bruce Barcott
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
[THEME UP AND UNDER]
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. The U.S. fleet of icebreakers is vital to national security but crashing into 20 feet of solid ice has taken its toll on the ships…and now it’s the icebreakers that are breaking.
JONES: It would have been better to address this problem in the early nineties, but that didn’t happen. We now have a crisis, and the nation needs to address the problem now.
Also, shopping malls…consumers say “bye-bye” to the place where they buy and buy and buy.
UNDERHILL: We are visiting the mall less frequently. We are going to fewer stores but it is still the principal crossroads of Americans living in a suburban location.
GELLERMAN: A retail anthropologist digs into the culture of consumption. And, ‘tis the season for a good read. We unwrap some of the year’s best environmental books. These stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
Icebreakers are incredible ships. They can smash through 20 feet of solid ice, freeing channels in the frozen waters of the North and South Poles. The powerful vessels enable supply and research ships to reach the ends of the Earth, and they’re vital for national security. But while the United States has three icebreakers, only two actually work and they’re old and need to be replaced. That’s according to a recently released report by the National Research Council.
Anita Jones is professor of engineering and applied science at the University of Virginia, and chairperson of the subcommittee that prepared the Congressionally mandated report. She joins me on the line. Thank you very much, Professor.
JONES: Very pleased to be here, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: We have just three polar icebreakers? I was really surprised to learn that.
JONES: Just three, and these are ships that only operate about 200 days a year because, unlike most ships, they deliberately ram into hard objects.
GELLERMAN: So, how is it that only two of them actually work?
JONES: Two of the three, the most capable of the three, were built about thirty years ago. And so they are both at the end of their service life as planned. One of them has recently had some maintenance done so that it can be maintained in mission-capable condition but the other is sitting in caretaker status at the dock in Seattle.
GELLERMAN: So, we’ve got two icebreakers, they are very old. What are the plans? Or what is your report suggesting that we should do?
JONES: Congress asked the National Academies to look at this issue of what in the current time and in the future are the needs for ice breaking. And this report is an answer to that question, an answer to Congress.
GELLERMAN: But why are they asking this question now when they knew thirty years ago that these things had a life span of thirty years?
JONES: Bruce, it would have been better to address this problem in the early nineties but that didn’t happen. We now have a crisis and the nation needs to address the problem now.
GELLERMAN: Why is it important that the United States have icebreakers?
JONES: Oh, there are many reasons. The icebreakers are multi-mission ships and they address several really important missions. One of those is protection of our economic interests. As the ice is retreating in the summer in the Arctic, there promises to be much more shipping moving through the northern latitudes because if one can move, for example, oil from one side of a continent, either Russia or the United States, to the other side by going to the north, it is much shorter than going either through the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. That’s the same for cargo because the ice is retreating, the fishing fleets are moving north as the schools of fish do. We have increasing economic exploitation of natural resources in the Alaskan area. We are drilling for oil there, we mine minerals in the Alaskan Territory and the ships are designed to not just break ice but to be science platforms, and they are used in both polar regions for that. So there are many reasons.
GELLERMAN: Now, I know from seeing pictures of icebreakers, I think we all have, you know, have seen them plow through the ice and it’s usually to deliver supplies. But your report suggests and says that these are vital for national security. How is that?
JONES: The national security issue arises in the Arctic. The U.S. is one of eight arctic nations. We have territory, namely Alaska. We actually have an air force base in Thule, Greenland which is in the arctic area. The U.S. needs to be able to protect its territory wherever it is. I think, at this point, the issues are less national security, although that is always a concern of this nation, but law enforcement, economic protection, and environmental protection of the area.
GELLERMAN: Do icebreakers do any damage to the polar region?
JONES: The short answer is no.
GELLERMAN: What’s the long answer?
JONES: They break the ice and this is a minor incursion. It does not pollute. It is sometimes unfortunate for them, it is not permanent, the ice starts freezing back as soon as it’s broken if the climate conditions are right for that.
GELLERMAN: I understand that being aboard one of these icebreakers is a pretty miserable experience even when they are not going through ice because they don’t have a keel and so that they’re not very steady in the water.
JONES: They don’t have good sea-keeping properties when they are designed to be the best at icebreaking. So, they are more difficult to ride. There is a lot of new technology. For example, they have something called a double-acting hull where if the ship is going in one direction, the hull is good for ice breaking. When the ship is going the other direction, the other hull is good for sea-keeping, for traversing open water. So there is new technology that makes it much more attractive to build new ships rather than re-outfit, upgrade our older ships.
GELLERMAN: These icebreakers are very expensive. What is the going price for your basic Antarctic icebreaker?
JONES: It is roughly going to cost half a billion dollars to build a new icebreaker of the large size that the Coast Guard now needs.
GELLERMAN: Well, how badly do we need a large icebreaker?
JONES: Well, I think we need it critically. The United States needs to be able to project an active and influential presence in two polar regions that are very far apart. And our committee looked at this and even with the dramatically increasing needs in the Arctic because of the increased commercial traffic, resource exploration, increased tourism by the way, you need to have several ships and the ships need, in some cases, to be having routine maintenance because they are treated very harshly by the ice. And so the committee believes that it is quite urgent to actually replace the two larger ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea. We don’t think we need to increase the fleet because new technology allows a ship of the future to do more than the ships that we have today.
GELLERMAN: Professor, thank you very much.
JONES: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Is the carbon dioxide that comes out of the exhaust pipe of your car a pollutant? On November 29th, the U.S. Supreme Court is going to be confronted with that very question in one of the most important environmental cases to come before the High Court.
Massachusetts and eleven other states, along with numerous environmental groups, argue that CO2 from cars is a pollutant and causes global warming, and, therefore, the federal Clean Air Act requires that the EPA regulate it.
Joining me is David Driesen. He’s a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and visiting professor at the University of Michigan. Hello.
GELLERMAN: Professor, the section of the Clean Air Act that this case hinges on seems pretty clear. The act authorizes EPA to regulate any air pollutant that may endanger public health and welfare. But the Bush administration and the EPA say the law simply doesn’t apply in this case. Is that right?
DRIESEN: EPA’s position is actually more radical than the question embodied in that section. EPA has actually said, it’s not a pollutant, greenhouse gases just aren’t a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That’s even crazier in terms of the literal language, because the literal definition of pollutant in the statute is a pollutant is any substance that goes into the air, it doesn’t even have to harm anybody. If it goes into the air, it’s a pollutant. And once it’s a pollutant, then they look at this other question you are talking about. Does it endanger welfare? And EPA hasn’t even gotten there, it hasn’t really decided whether greenhouse gases endanger public welfare because it took this rather radical stance that carbon dioxide and the other gases that are warming the Earth are not pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
GELLERMAN: So the administration is saying what?
DRIESEN: Well, the administration is saying, first of all we don’t have authority to do it because Congress didn’t mean for these particular things to be pollutants. And they are saying, even if we had authority we wouldn’t do it because it is piecemeal regulation; it will help if we don’t regulate to get China on board. They have a whole bunch of reasons why they think it’s a bad policy idea to regulate, and that’s really what’s driving their decisions. I don’t think it is a legal decision. It’s really a political decision that they just don’t want to regulate greenhouse gases and then they are doing their best to justify that in law.
GELLERMAN: So, when all is said and done by this Supreme Court, what do you expect the ruling to be?
DRIESEN: Well, it really depends on how the court treats the case. If the court treats it as just a straight literal case and we are just going to apply the rule of law, then it seems to me Massachusetts wins, it goes back and EPA has to then grapple with whether to regulate and what sort of regulations to write if they do regulate. On the other hand, if the court thinks that the rule of law shouldn’t apply here, that this should be political, it may find a way of avoiding hearing the case.
GELLERMAN: Professor, are you surprised that the Supreme Court took up this case?
DRIESEN: I was a little surprised. Mainly because the case below, there are three different opinions. And that’s not the kind of clear opinion the Supreme Court usually likes to review.
GELLERMAN: So, why did they take this one?
DRIESEN: Well, I think it’s got to be because of the importance of the global warming issue. This addresses global warming. They read the newspapers. They know this is a big deal.
GELLERMAN: Professor, if the Supreme Court does side with Massachusetts could this be construed or considered legislating from the bench?
DRIESEN: I don’t think so. It would simply be an application of the rule of law. The Clean Air Act is very clear, if the court follows literal language of the statute it has to rule from Massachusetts. And by the way that wouldn’t obligate EPA to regulate strictly, they still will have some discretionary decisions down the line about whether to regulate, and if they do regulate, how strictly.
GELLERMAN: So here you have, if you believe the scientists, the clock ticking on climate change and global warming, and yet when all is said and done, more will be said than done here.
DRIESEN: Well that’s the big problem. And it is a huge problem. Right now the action we are getting on this is not from the federal government its from the states, it’s from California and the Northeast states, and it’s a very serious problem and the negative economic consequences, and the health consequences, and so on, and the environmental consequences of global warming are very serious and these gases are accumulating every year. It’s a very serious situation and it’s a shame the federal government hasn’t addressed it.
GELLERMAN: Now, you are the author of the book “Economic Dynamics of Environmental Law”. What are the economic implications of this?
DRIESEN: I think there are two major economic implications. One is if EPA were to regulate this could provide very big benefits for consumers. The second is it could help the competitiveness of the auto industry. The reasons for the benefits for the consumers is that the auto industry could address this problem by trying to increase the energy efficiency of the vehicles and that will save on fuel costs. In terms of the competitiveness of the industry, there’s a dynamic out there where people are competing to try to make cleaner cars. They are going to have to because the governments around the world are going to demand it. I think the companies with the cleaner cars in future—as fossil fuel prices rise, as they become more scarce, as we do more to address global warming—I think those companies are going to have an advantage.
GELLERMAN: David Driesen is a professor at Syracuse College of Law, and visiting professor at the University of Michigan.
Professor, thank you very much.
DRIESEN: Thank you.
- U.S. Supreme Court Docket
- Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism’s list of links to
- Massachusetts Attorney General’s web page detailing its history with the case
- The High Court case has split some companies in the electric industry, with some arguing for regulation of CO2, as Jeff Young reported in this piece for LOE on September 15, 2006
[MUSIC: Tagaki Masakatsu “J.F.P.” from ‘Journal for People’ (Carpark Records – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, the prospects for a new oil and gas boom. Drilling beneath the polar ice cap. Just ahead on Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Piggleswick Folk “Teddy Bears Picnic” from ‘Fuzzy Felt Folk’ (Trunk Records - 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Researchers believe a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies in the Arctic Circle. Until recently, it was considered too difficult and expensive to extract.
But now, the melting of the polar ice cap is making the search for oil and gas in the Arctic financially more attractive and technically feasible. Radio Deutsche Welle’s Stephen Beard reports from a small town called Hammerfest, on the northern-tip of Norway.
BEARD: For a town which lies deep inside the Arctic Circle, is whipped by icy winds every winter, and lives in twilight round the clock for two months of the year Hammerfest sounds pretty cheerful.
[LOCAL MUSIC FOLLOWED BY LAUGHING]
BEARD: At their weekly rehearsal, the Hammerfest Ladies Choir reflects the lighter mood. Gloom has lifted. After years in the doldrums this harbor town is bustling again. Most people here welcome the giant industry stirring just off shore.
WOMAN: I think it’s a good opportunity for Hammerfest to grow and it’s good. We are the only town in the northern part of Norway where we have no unemployment. And that’s a good thing.
WOMAN 2: People are a lot happier and a lot more optimistic about their future than they used to be.
[HISSING SOUND, PEOPLE SPEAKING NORWEIGAN]
BEARD: Here’s the source of the new optimism. Just off the coast a massive natural gas terminal called Snow White [Snohvit] is under construction. Three thousand workers from all over Europe have swelled the local population by 50 percent. The town is already getting an extra 20 million dollars in annual tax revenues. More money will flow when the terminal opens next year and the U.S. becomes one of Snow White’s biggest customers.
ROBBERSTAD: These two vast concrete storage tanks, they hold enough energy to keep about one million American homes going for ten days. And we’re looking at about 70 shipments….
BEARD: Knud Robberstad of the Norwegian energy company Statoil, which is building Snow White. He says that within a few years America could be getting up to 10 percent of its liquefied natural gas from this terminal. And this could be just the start. Snow White is a pioneering project, he says, in a new politically stable area of non-OPEC oil and gas exploration.
ROBBERSTAD: We are opening up a new oil and gas region in the Arctic areas of Europe. So, this is opening up a new and stable and long-term gas and oil province also for the American market.
BEARD: Statoil denies that the terminal depends on global warming. It would have built Snow White even if the polar ice cap had not begun to thaw. The terminal will draw its gas from the southern Barents Sea, which has always been ice-free. But Truls Gulowsen of Greenpeace says the terminal will likely play a part as Statoil pushes much further north.
GULOWSEN: Clearly, it has a big role in total strategy to open up the whole Arctic seas for oil and gas development the areas that are currently covered in ice but may open.
BEARD: As the ice recedes, he says, vast new energy fields could become accessible. U.S. government scientists agree. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that one quarter of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves lie in the Arctic. Like many environmentalists, Samantha Smith of the World Wildlife Fund in Oslo opposes any drilling in the high north. But she also fears that Snow White could be the beginning of an Arctic scramble that will intensify as the Arctic ice cap melts.
SMITH: You have to have service facilities, oil spill response, landing strips, places to keep helicopters, harbors and so forth along the coast of northern Norway. And if you build that out for Snow White then, presumably, it could also be used if there’s development farther north.
BEARD: Snow White, she says, is the thin edge of the wedge….the first step which will lead eventually to the ruination of one of the planet’s last unspoiled wildernesses.
SMITH: The Arctic is a place without a lot of human footprint. If, indeed, one is going to have this very large-scale rapid development for oil and gas it’s going to mean a huge development for infrastructure in many parts of the region. And in addition to infrastructure just for development itself you’re going to have to have a lot of transport. A lot of it will be by ship. A lot of those ships will be oil tankers. When you add all of these things up and you also add pressure on the region from climate change, it’s warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world, what you get is a region that will look very very different in terms of its environmental quality, in terms of the amount of roads, harbors, human activity and so forth within a generation.
BEARD: The oil companies are anxious not to be seen threatening the ecology of the Arctic, and certainly they do not want to be seen actually profiting from global warming. But there’s little doubt they’ve caught a whiff of big profits in the melting Arctic ice. Jan-Gunnar Winter of the Polar Institute, Norway’s main center for polar research, says he’s been contacted by half a dozen oil companies including Statoil, BP and Conoco Phillips, asking about the feasibility of drilling in the high north.
WINTER: They approach us more and more frequently. They ask for meetings. They ask for our views. There is a growing interest from oil companies. Of course, the oil price, which is very high currently, is a driving factor here. But even before the oil prices was at the level we see today there is an interest. And I think the main opening factors, the driving factors for a more active utilization of the Arctic from an oil company’s point of view is the climate change that will actually improve access to the Arctic, maybe quite dramatically in the coming years.
BEARD: No one knows for sure whether there is much or indeed any oil waiting beneath the ice. But the countries bordering on the Arctic are taking no chances. A kind of land grab is underway. Russia has already laid claim to half the Arctic Ocean floor. The Danes insist the North Pole belongs to them. And Norway is claiming more than 60,000 square miles of Arctic seabed.
[JACK HAMMER SOUND]
BEARD: There is some evidence that there may be energy riches beneath the polar ice. When scientists drilled this the first and only bore hole into the ocean bed not far from the North Pole, they found something to gladden the heart of any oilman.
BRINKHUIS: What we found were significant amounts of organic rich sediments. And that is one of the three key things you would need for oil accumulation.
BEARD: Marine biologist Henk Brinkhuis took part in that test drilling two years ago. They did not strike oil. Nor did they find all three conditions required for fossil fuels. But he says the sediment was rich enough to suggest there could be oil and in large quantities.
BRINKHUIS: That is really truly significant. That is really what you would need to have a good source rock. And the other indications are that it is vast, it is covering the entire Arctic Ocean.
BEARD: The prospect of an Arctic oil and gas boom has brought new hope to Hammerfest. The price of real estate here has risen by 20 percent over the past year. The town’s unemployment rate has shrunk from over ten percent a couple of years ago to zero today. Support for Snow White is almost universal here. Almost.
VESTIK: I don’t believe that to produce gas and oil for the Americans are the only way to survive today in the world. So I am a bit critical.
BEARD: Local journalist Helle Vestik is the only dissident I discovered. She dismisses the economic benefits of Snow White. She doesn’t want to see her town in the forefront of arctic oil exploration benefiting from and adding to the problem of global warming.
VESTIK: How long can we live in this world if we are destroying the atmosphere around us and if we are destroying the nature?
BEARD: Statoil is clearly nervous about an environmental backlash along those lines. As one official told me, “We’re already accused of melting the polar ice cap with our products. Now we’ll be accused of gaining more oil and gas in the process and making money from the meltdown.”
GELLERMAN: Our report on the Arctic thaw was produced by Stephen Beard and comes to us from Radio Deutsche Welle.
[MUSIC: Lloyd Cole “Dry Ice” from ‘Plastic Wood’ (One Little Indian – 2004)]
GELLERMAN: A few years ago, Isaac Berzin traveled from Israel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with two goals in mind--to get his post doc in chemical engineering and save the world.
Well, he got his degree and now he’s closing in on the other goal: saving the world from global warming by using one of the most primitive forms of life: algae...you know, the yucky stuff that grows on the side of fish tanks and swimming pools…pond scum…just don’t call it that in front of Berzin.
BERZIN: Okay, they’re not pond scum, they’re great. So, I want you to think differently. They’re not ugly or whatever. They’re the sweetest creatures.
GELLERMAN: Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But according to Berzin, algae-- primitive one cell plants--are the world's champs at photosynthesis, capturing the suns rays and converting it to chemical energy. That makes the microscopic plants very special, and potentially very useful, in reducing greenhouse gases. On his laptop, Berzin shows me a video of the algae up close and personal.
BERZIN: So, what you're going to see on the screen now is a microscopic view of the algae. Belly dancing around, they have a little mustache. They touch each other with the mustaches.
GELLERMAN: So, this is a plant? It’s a one-celled plant?
BERZIN: Algae are the fastest growing plants on Earth. Their doubling time is measured in hours. My kids ask me, ‘oh Daddy it’s so cute. It’s like pets. So, what do you do with them in the end?’ I say, ‘uh oh, I burn them.’
GELLERMAN: Berzin grows algae because they're super rich in oil. In some species, oil accounts for half the little creature’s body mass. In fact, algae synthesize 30 times more vegetable oil per acre than plants like sunflowers or rapeseed. The algae biodiesel can be used to run engines, or converted into methane or fermented into alcohol. And here's the best part: algae eat carbon dioxide for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And one thing the global warming world has too much of is CO2 from fossil fuel burning power plants.
[SOUND OF DOOR; WALKING]
GELLERMAN: Not far from his office, Berzin takes me to his algae laboratory. It’s outside on the roof of MIT's 20 kilowatt power plant. A yellow brick smokestack towers overhead, and some of the power plant’s exhaust is fed through a row of Plexiglas tubes. Inside, the gooey green algae feed on the CO2 and NOX, nitrogen oxide.
GELLERMAN: Can you describe what we are looking at? It looks like, I don’t know, water gurgling through a bunch of tubes.
BERZIN: Actually, in professional terms it’s called a bioreactor. It’s nothing but three tubes connected together with some sea water and algae in them. And you can see the bubbles bubbling through the system. And you can kind of look at the bubble and follow it, and in the ten seconds or so that the bubbles are spending in the bioreactor 80 percent of the CO2 is moved and 85 percent of the NOX. And at the end of the day you harvest the algae, whatever was growing during the day, you take out of the system. It’s like a cow you milk it and you make biofuels from the algae.
GELLERMAN: So, you’re a farmer, you’re a high-tech farmer.
BERZIN: Yeah, that’s exactly the point. It’s really, really a new age of farming.
GELLERMAN: Granted, this prototype is just small potatoes. But, theoretically, if you created an algae bioreactor twice the size of New Jersey, you could supply the entire petroleum needs of the U.S. The motto for Berzin's company is “waste not, profit more.”
BERZIN: We believe that if you want to make an environmental revolution it should not come as the law. Okay? It should come as a great business. And if it’s a great business, it has life of its own. So, you don’t come to the power industry and tell them, ‘you guys are the worst polluters and I have to shut you down. I have to fine you for every…like a carbon tax, whatever.’ I think that’s the wrong approach. I think the right approach would be, ‘guys, you’re throwing all this CO2 away? Are you crazy? Let’s make more money.’ And that’s how the world will change. That’s how it will become a reality.
GELLERMAN: So, I was taught, you know, if it sounds too good to be true it usually is. What am I missing?
BERZIN: I’ll tell you what the problem is. You have to produce algae in a cost that will be cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. Then you think, ‘wait a minute, what does this technology need?’ It needs land, and you need water, and you need CO2. So, CO2 is not an issue. You’re located next to a CO2 generating facility. Water, you get to use any quality of water. Treated sewage water, brackish water, ocean water, any water available. The third thing is, the land, usually near these big power plants, no one wants to live. It’s non-fertile land. Nothing grows there even. So, you don’t really compete with agriculture. So, how realistic this is? We believe it is realistic.
GELLERMAN: Isaac Berzin...founder and chief technology officer of Greenfuel Technologies Corp. You can see for yourself if algae are pond scum or planet savers; check out our web site: loe dot org.
[MUSIC: Susan Rawcliffe “Aquaknots” from Gravikords, Whirlies, & Pyrophones’ (Ellipsis Arts – 1998)]
GELLERMAN: If you’re having trouble falling asleep reading might help you relax. But commentator Bonnie Auslander has another remedy - even though it may well keep you up at night.
AUSLANDER: Every night my family falls asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. When we hear the water gather, lift, slosh and churn, it’s as if our beds are turning into beaches--the baby in his crib beach, the five year-old on her big-kid beach, and us, the weary parents, sprawled on the queen-size beach. The grown-ups are too tired for even a goodnight kiss yet still desperate for something to swamp the voices in our heads that tell us ‘worry, worry, you've got too much to do. Worry, worry, you owe too much money.’
Here's the thing: we live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so what we listen to, to help us get to sleep each night is a CD of ocean surf sounds. Every night, it's just waves crashing over and over, the aural equivalent of snowflakes, each one just a little bit different from the last. This time the water eddies before it rises again, the next time it sounds like it's raining a little. Somehow, it all adds up to a snowbank of sound so sweet you can rest your head on it and drift away.
But this week, the part of me that likes to question everything has begun to wonder about the integrity of the sound. Isn’t it just a little too pure? A little too clear? These are surf sounds from a world that is far removed from the polluted one I live in. Oh yes, the refuge feels good, but am I being lulled into not just rest and restoration but some kind of passive complacency? Maybe our surf CD is nature porn for the ears in the way some nature photography is nature porn for the eyes? You know those photos on calendars and greeting cards where the apples' cheeks are too red and too cheeky, the lawns too vibrantly green. There are no dark spots on those apples, no dog crap on those lawns, of course, and also no smog, no clearcuts and no fishkills. Those photos can send the message that we don’t have to lift a finger to ensure a safe environment for our children.
And, I wondered, is the surf CD having that effect on me? Did the sound engineer edit out the drone of an airplane or the roar of a hi-speed motorboat? And, just what is the sound of an oil slick, hitting the shore?
On the other hand, maybe I'm just making trouble for myself. After all, our ancestors crossed the Savannah and stood open-mouthed at their first glimpse of the sea. And then they built boats to go exploring. Isn't it a human trait to sense the ocean as the beginning of something magical, a place that is both a part of yourself and separate from you, where you can be transformed?
So maybe the surf CD is just a glorious way to help get us to that place of transformation, back to those very first water sounds any of us ever heard as we sloshed around inside our mothers. Well, tonight, I'm too tired to figure it all out. And, so, I put on the surf and go to sleep. And, in the morning a different set of water sounds, the gurgle and chuckle of the coffeemaker, will wake me up to face a fresh round of contradictions.
GELLERMAN: Bonnie Auslander now lives closer to the ocean but still uses nature cds to help her sleep.
[MUSIC: Brian Eno “Another Green World” from ‘Another Green World’ (Virgin Records – 2004)]
GELLERMAN: Because you enjoy listening to Living on Earth, chances are you have some pretty good ideas about things that the program should cover. Good news, bad news or just plain interesting--if you think it would make a worthwhile radio story, please get in touch. You can zap us an email at comments @ l-o-e dot org. Or call the Living on Earth listener line, at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-99-88. Or write: 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144.
It’s Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[Pierre Arvay “Merry Ocarina” from ‘Fuzzy Felt Folk’ (Trunk Records - 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Some twenty percent of all fatal crashes in the United States occur when just three percent of cars are on the roads. That’s between midnight and 6 a.m. Some carmakers think they have a solution to this nighttime hazard. IEEE Spectrum’s Willie D. Jones has our story.
[SOUND OF CARS PASSING AT HIGHWAY SPEEDS]
JONES: Maybe you’ve seen night vision goggles on TV news or in the movies. Now this military technology is being borrowed by car manufacturers. The technology that allows soldiers to pick out targets at night will improve civilian drivers’ chances of spotting hazards like pedestrians, deer, or disabled vehicles after dark. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are offering night vision systems, which add two or three thousand dollars to the sticker price of their top-of-the-line models, this year.
WOLFRAM: Night Vision allows the driver of the vehicle to see in difficult driving conditions such as night or fog, further than the human eye would possibly be able to see.
JONES: That’s Bert Wolfram, a vice president at Siemens VDO, an automotive supplier that introduced two Night Vision systems for cars last year.
WOLFRAM: You can almost describe it like you’re driving like your high beams are on. Obviously, you can’t drive with your high beams on all the time because you would blind the traffic. So, therefore, that’s not possible.
JONES: Night Vision extends the driver’s visual acuity by detecting energy in a portion of the spectrum that humans can’t see and translating it into visible images.
WOLFRAM: For example, in so-called near infrared Night Vision systems, special bulbs mounted next to the standard headlights emit infrared light that reflects off objects ahead of a car. A sensor, like to the ones used in digital video cameras, picks up the reflections from its perch behind the rearview mirror and image processors translate it into a format that can be viewed on a black-and-white head-up display in the instrument panel behind the steering wheel, or in the center console.
JONES: From the driver’s perspective, the main difference between Night Vision and conventional headlights is that warm objects appear much brighter than cooler objects.
WOLFRAM: Human bodies, animals like a deer or so, would really stand out in the image versus a tree or the road, or the countryside.
JONES: But not everyone thinks Night Vision in cars makes sense. Marc Green is a professor of ophthalmology at West Virginia University whose research focuses on perception, attention, and reaction time.
GREEN: I have doubts about how much good the Night Vision aids are going to be. They remove cues like variations in texture, brightness. And they accent and highlight various aspects of the scene which are likely to draw a driver’s attention and which might be irrelevant to driving. The Night Vision set up is going to possibly prevent them from using these cues to help them steer the car.
JONES: Green sees psychological risks, as well.
GREEN: If people perceive that Night Vision helps them and that there is less risk in driving, they’re going to take more risks, because whenever people feel safer, they tend to compensate by taking more risk.
JONES: But Bert Wolfram doesn’t believe that Night Vision systems are unsafe.
WOLFRAM: It’s really additional information for the driver who ultimately has to make the decisions and, obviously, is ultimately in charge of his vehicle.
JONES: So, I asked a few New York drivers what they thought about Night Vision technology.
WOMAN: I have really bad night vision and I think it would really help me.
MAN: There’s enough gadgets in the car today where people don’t pay attention to the road. That’s all they need is another gadget.
WOMAN: Is it totally necessary? Why would they need night vision in cars?
WOMAN: Some people can’t see at night, and I think that’s great. I can’t see at night.
WOMAN: People do stupid things. They would take extra risks and say ‘well, now because I have this safety feature, I could take these risks because I’ll be alerted.’
JONES: But the real test may be whether consumers will plunk down an extra two or three thousand dollars for Night Vision driving technology. And whether it proves to be as valuable, and widely accepted, as seatbelts and airbags in years to come. For Living on Earth, I’m Willie D. Jones.
IEEE Spectrum Radio
[MUSIC: Lloyd Cole “Glass Jar” from ‘Plastic Wood’ (One Little Indian – 2004)]
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GELLERMAN: ‘Tis the shop ‘til you drop season…a time for holiday cards and credit cards when millions of Americans do what we do best; head to the malls and shop. There are about twelve hundred shopping malls in the United States and store consultant Paco Underhill has visited more than his fair share. Underhill is what you might call a retail anthropologist. But instead of studying the culture and customs of remote societies, Underhill observes, measures, and records how modern men and women shop in stores and malls. He’s the author of “Call of the Mall, the Geography of Shopping.”
Paco, welcome to Living on Earth.
UNDERHILL: Thank you, sir.
GELLERMAN: Paco, in your book you cite a statistic going back to 1970 in U.S. News and World Report. They conducted a poll and they found that Americans spend more time in malls than anywhere else except for work and home. Do we know how much time the average American actually spends in a mall?
UNDERHILL: Well, one of the issues is that whatever that average time is it is getting less. We are visiting the mall less frequently we are going to fewer stores. But it is still the principle crossroads of many Americans living in a suburban location.
GELLERMAN: Well, what is it then about Homo-consumer that has us going to the mall less?
UNDERHILL: Well, some of this is about the changing status of women. If we think about mall culture it’s based in sort of the family of the fifties where you have a working father and a mother at home. The mother was desperate to see other people’s faces and went to the shopping mall.
GELLERMAN: You write that shopping is a social activity performed by couples and families..,..wherein the female takes the lead role but all others must equally be catered and cared for.
UNDERHILL: I think one of the issues we face as a species is that we have uncoupled ourselves from our traditional roles. It used to be that men were hunters. If they went into a store they had to kill something and drag it out the door to feel successful. On the other hand, the female of the species was programmed to be a gatherer. She actually got some pleasure from the act of looking and got some reward for being the family purchasing agent. In 2006, many women are working. They don’t have the same amount of time. They’re also, while there still may be the family purchasing agent, they have money of their own to spend. So the traditional relationships that we have had to shopping are very much in transition.
GELLERMAN: How are shopping malls dealing with this decline in the number of customers and the changing status of women?
UNDERHILL: Almost all developers across the world have recognized that they have to make the transition from being landlords to being place makers. I saw in a shopping mall in South Africa a couple of really neat innovations. One is they took the roof of the mall’s parking garage and turned it into a drive-in movie theater. The other was they put in a stadium for high school sports off of their food court.
GELLERMAN: I’m reminded of what Yogi Berra said and what you do. He said you can observe a lot by looking and you do a lot of looking.
UNDERHILL: Well, we observe or follow or track in a typical year about 40,000 people. And we have developed a database that uses more than a thousand different measures to look at how people move in a variety of public settings.
GELLERMAN: The stores with the smallest windows like Cartier, Tiffany, the jewelers, the high level jewelers….it seems to me that they’re telling you ‘don’t come in.’ At least they’re telling that to me.
UNDERHILL: If you’re a high-end merchant you desperately want your audience to self-discriminate. You don’t want the average bloke walking down Fifth Avenue to come in and take up valuable space in your store. In general, the more open the storefront is the more low-end the market they’re serving.
GELLERMAN: When you walk into a mall you see people couples walking around. They’re not talking to each other. They’re talking on their cell phones. I’m thinking about how a shopkeeper, the store, might exploit the cell phone. You know, you’re walking in front of their store and you get an advertisement.
UNDERHILL: Well, this is certainly one of the technological possibilities. It is perfectly possible now for them to track that a cell phone user is walking past the store to be able to segment that cell phone user based on data mining. So that they know what their age, where they live, their income level, even how much money they make or what size they are. And then deliver either a call or a text message going you know if your interested in a size 14 Missoni blouse why don’t you come on in because it’s on sale. I think that’s a little scary.
GELLERMAN: This whole subject really does cut through who we are as a people it seems to me.
UNDERHILL: You know something? One of the things I love about my job is that I think retail is one of the dipsticks to the changes in our culture. That what makes a good store, what makes a good shopping mall is in a constant state of evolution. And that merchant culture has to respond to the changes that we are going through as a species. And, therefore, the manifestations of those changes are ones that we see as we look at stores and shopping malls across the globe because the truth is always transitory.
GELLERMAN: I thought it was very curious that Mohamed Atta, the terrorist, who went shopping the night before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center, isn’t that kind of bizarre?
UNDERHILL: You know something? There is something called shopping therapy and it’s true for both men and women. The act of moving through a shopping setting is one that gives us distance. We find it curiously therapeutic.
UNDERHILL: Distance. It means that it turns our fantasy life on. As I move through a store and I’m looking at goods my mind is taking whatever it is and dividing it into the lifestyle that I have versus the lifestyle that I might want to have. This is part of the reason why particularly two women can go to a shopping mall, spend an entire day, buy nothing and have a fabulous time.
GELLERMAN: Well, Paco Underhill, it was a real pleasure. Fascinating stuff.
UNDERHILL: Thank you, sir.
GELLERMAN: Paco Underhill is president and CEO of Envirosell, a consulting company based in New York.
GELLERMAN: Well, books make great presents this time of year. Whether you go to the mall, local bookstore or shop online, Bruce Barcott has some suggestions for family or friends. He’s a contributing editor for Outside magazine and has this list of favorites for 2006.
BARCOTT: In the world of environmental books, 2006 was dominated by one big story: global warming. After years of apathy, a majority of Americans now believe that climate change is happening, is human-caused, and requires immediate action.
That tipping point came, in part, because of three of the year's best books. In “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert took readers on an engaging ramble to the planet's hot spots, including Greenland, Iceland, and the village of Shishmarif, Alaska, which is drowning under an angry Bering Sea. Along the way, Kolbert unpacked the issue's politics and blew away the smokescreen thrown around climate change by the oil and coal industry.
Australian scientist Tim Flannery presented the year’s clearest, most convincing explanation of the greenhouse effect in his book “The Weather Makers.” In sharp, simple prose, Flannery showed why atmospheric CO2 levels are rising and why that increase is melting glaciers around the world.
Joining Flannery and Kolbert on the warming shelf was Al Gore. The book version of his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was much more than a cheap movie novelization. Gore laid out his evidence in spectacular side-by-side photos that forced readers to ask: Are you going to believe the skeptics, or do you trust your own lying eyes?
It was a vintage year for non-warming books, too. 2006 gave us "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," David Quammen's delightful portrait of Charles Darwin, the driving force behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. In his book, Quammen distilled the story of Darwin and his world-shaking idea into a slim, accessible essay that
reminded us why Darwin's theory is worth fighting for.
In “The Worst Hard Time,” New York Times reporter Timothy Egan recounted the history of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in vivid scenes that left his readers weeping over the devastation. Egan’s book, which recently won the National Book Award, illustrated the link between environmental destruction and human suffering, a connection that's too often lost in discussions of issues like, say, global warming.
Finally, my personal award for top book of the year goes to “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” Michael Pollan's brilliant and controversial exploration of America's food: Where it comes from and why we eat it. “Omnivore's Dilemma” followed Pollan's quest to investigate four simple meals: A McDonald's lunch, an organic dinner from the supermarket Whole Foods, a meal cooked with food from small local farms, and his own foraged-in-the-woods concoction. Pollan uncovered a nation sustained by cheap corn: corn flour, cornstarch, corn oil, and corn-fed beef.
In recent years, books like “Fast Food Nation” and films like “Supersize Me” have made Americans take a second look at what goes in their bodies. Food-based environmentalism is exploding, and with “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” Pollan stakes a claim to become the Rachel Carson of the movement. I can't wait to read what he comes up with next.
GELLERMAN: Bruce Barcott reviews books for Outside magazine.
[MUSIC: Christmas Baubles “A” from ‘Christmas Baubles and Their Strange Sounds’ (Lo Recordings – 2002)]
GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth, if the mosquitoes and bears don’t get you, the water will.
TAYLER: There was no point of wearing a life jacket, given that if we’d fallen in we could never have… the cold would’ve given us hypothermia so we wouldn’t have been able to get ashore.
GELLERMAN: Up Russia’s Lena River, even with a paddle, is tough-going. Next week on Living on Earth.
- “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert
- “The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery
- “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore
- “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin” by David Quammen
- “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan
- “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Tobin Hack, Ingrid Lobet, Emily Taylor and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Ian Gray and Jennifer Percy. Dennis Foley is our technical director. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. Alison Lirish Dean composed our theme. You can find us at LOE dot org. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for Listening.
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