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

June 17, 2011

Air Date: June 17, 2011



The Fire and Climate Change Feedback Loop

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Wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense, lasting on average 78 days longer than they did just two decades ago. Northern Arizona University Biology Professor Bruce Hungate tells host Bruce Gellerman about research that shows a relationship between fire and the release of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. (06:00)

FDA slaps new regulations on sunscreen

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After 33 years of discussions, the Food and Drug Administration has finally released its new sunscreen regulations. While they make some strides in restricting advertising claims – no more “waterproof” or “sweatproof” – some feel the new rules aren’t restrictive enough. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, about the regulations and their shortcomings. (06:00)

Cool Fix for a Hot Planet / David Ogden

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Looking for ways to decrease your contributions to global warming? Listener David Ogden of California suggests when you use your oven, turn it off early. (01:30)

Earth Enters Period of Turbulent Solar Weather

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During a solar storm the sun’s magnetic field becomes unstable and we get space weather. The Earth is now coming off a quiet period and entering a period of heightened solar activity. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space weather predictor Joseph Kunches who says that space weather can affect systems like the electric power grid and GPS. (07:15)

Predicting the End of the World / Bruce Gellerman

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The Mayan Long Count Calendar comes to the end of its 5125 year cycle. New age prophecies, based on the ancient calendar, warn the world will end when the cycle concludes in December 2012. Host Bruce Gellerman travels to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza to track down the truth. (08:50)

Author Looks to Thoreau for Balance

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Tom Montgomery Fate finds the competing demands of home, work, and modern technology daunting. But his cabin in the woods, and the words of Henry David Thoreau guide his quest for a more deliberate and satisfying life. Fate speaks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his new book “Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.” (08:10)

The Life and Legacy of a Creative Scientist / Ike Sriskandarajah

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Few American icons have been so poorly understood and widely appropriated as George Washington Carver. He has been held up as a hero by both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the NAACP; by Christian fundamentalists and gay rights activists. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah travels to Macon County, Alabama and discovers that Carver’s real legacy may be his vision for sustainable agriculture. (09:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman.
GUESTS: Bruce Hungate, David Andrews, David Ogden, Joseph Kunches, Tom Montgomery Fate.
REPORTERS: Bruce Gellerman, Steve Curwood, Ike Sriskandarajah.


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. It's a new day for sunscreens - after 33 years the FDA finally comes up with new rules for labels and sun protection factors.

ANDREWS: Our concern is that the higher SPF numbers really provide a false sense of security and allow you to be overexposed to UV radiation even though you think you may be even better protected.

GELLERMAN: We shed some light on sunscreens. Also - the sun sets on the long count Maya calendar - don't say we didn't warn you…

VENTURA: 2012 the Maya prophesy says the world that we know is going to change. What is going to be ending is going to be a term of time of 5,125 years, and we are part of that but we don't know what's going to happen in 2012!

GELLERMAN: And an accidental discovery finds bugs in the soil fuel climate change - We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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

The Fire and Climate Change Feedback Loop

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Nitrous Oxide is commonly known as laughing gas, but there’s nothing funny about its effects on climate change.

Biologist Bruce Hungate accidentally discovered that during wild fires, huge amounts of nitrous oxide in the soil are released into the atmosphere. It all has to do with microscopic bugs in the soil that give off laughing gas. Bruce Hungate is a professor at Northern Arizona University.

HUNGATE: Bacteria called denitrifiers use nitrate in respiration just like humans use oxygen, and in the process, they produce nitrous oxide. Fires promote conditions in the soil that favor production of nitrous oxide by these soil microorganisms. They’re microscopic, but their impacts are global by producing this greenhouse gas. And in fact, most of the nitrous oxide in the atmosphere comes from these tiny creatures.

GELLERMAN: So how potent is nitrous oxide as a greenhouse gas, compared to, say, carbon dioxide?

HUNGATE: So on a molecule-per-molecule basis, nitrous oxide is three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. That’s a very potent greenhouse gas.

GELLERMAN: So you studied grasslands, right?


GELLERMAN: Would I find nitrous oxide and these little bugs that produce it in forests?

HUNGATE: Denitrifiers are everywhere. They’re in soils all around the world. And they produce nitrous oxide from these soils all around the world. And there actually have been a lot of experiments looking at the impacts of fire on nitrous oxide production from forests as well, it turns out, especially in the tropics - and often there what you see is after a fire, you get more nitrous oxide emitted from soil.

Bruce Hungate is a professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University. (Northern Arizona University.

GELLERMAN: And we didn’t know about this forest-fire and nitrous oxide relationship before?

HUNGATE: What we did know is that, in general, after fire, nitrous oxide emissions often go up. So we knew that before. What we didn’t know is how fires interact with these other components of the changing environment and in our experiment that was the real surprise.

GELLERMAN: You were running a series of experiments and you had a bunch of test plots, as I understand it, and that’s where you made your discovery.

HUNGATE: That’s right. We started this experiment back in 1998 in a grassland in California where we actually changed the physical environment around test plots to try to simulate the environment of the future. We focused on four on-going global environmental changes. More CO2 in the atmosphere, so some plots have tubes that release extra CO2 into the atmosphere around the growing plants, and also warming, we have infrared heat lamps over some plots to make them warmer. Extra nitrogen deposition - some plots get an extra dose of nitrogen simulating higher industrial activity and its effect on the atmosphere in the future. And also rainfall, some plots have sprinklers that simulate more rain. So we had each of these changes by itself, and then in every possible combination with the other global changes - it was really complex.

And then a downed power line caused a fire that burned part of it. At first we were really worried about damage to the experiment, but it turned into an opportunity. The fire burned only part of it, so we still had controls to quantify the impact of the fire along with the background of all these global environmental changes. So instead of losing the experiment, we got an even more complex experiment - very complex, but also interesting and exciting, with these new results.

GELLERMAN: So this accidental fire leads to this surprising finding that you can have accelerated global warming due to the nitrous oxide in the soil being released, essentially.

HUNGATE: Yeah, that’s exactly right, it was a surprising result. When we looked at each of these things by itself, we wouldn’t have been able to predict the result we got.

GELLERMAN: So you get this intense burst of nitrous oxide - so it’s not long lasting? Or…

HUNGATE: Well, actually it is. It was a delayed reaction. The pulse of nitrous oxide after fire lasted about three years. And that was another surprising finding, because past work on fires and nitrous oxide emissions haven’t shown quite as long lasting an effect. We think that might have to do with a combination of the global environmental changes along with the fire that really promoted nitrous oxide production.

The Wallow fire burning in Arizona. (Arizona Emergency Information Network)

GELLERMAN: So, Professor, let me play out the scenarios. So if you have a wildfire it releases this nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, it affects climate change dramatically, it gets warmer and causes the conditions for more wildfires - you’ve got a feedback loop here.

HUNGATE: That’s exactly right. It’s where climate change leads to more fires, which in turn lead to more climate change. And it’s not just nitrous oxide, these fires also produce carbon dioxide and methane, so they’re important sources of greenhouse gasses.

GELLERMAN: Whoa! Well, we’re having intense wildfires around the United States - Arizona, Texas, Florida - we’re having wildfires that are unprecedented in terms of their size and in terms of their intensity and their duration.

HUNGATE: That’s right. I’m really concerned about these fires.Wallow fire in my home state - Arizona - has burned over 450,000 acres - it’s the largest in our state’s history. But I’m also concerned because we can expect more of these large and intense fires in the future. Warming promotes fire-weather and the forests of the southwest are loaded with fuel - many and densely packed trees. That combination makes these systems especially susceptible to intense fires.

We’re playing with loaded dice with our climate system. And when we look at things like fire, having more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere appears to make a longer fire season, a more intense fire season, more likely. The fact that we’re seeing some of those effects now is exactly consistent with what we expect from climate change.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

HUNGATE: Thank you very much, I enjoyed it.

GELLERMAN: Bruce Hungate is Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University - he joined us from a conference in Iceland.

Related links:
- Report: Global Change Could Amplify Fire Effects on Soil Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Bruce Hungate: Northern Arizona University

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[MUSIC: Mungo Jerry “In The Summertime” from Greatest Hits Vol 1 (A.M.I. 2009).]

FDA slaps new regulations on sunscreen

GELLEMAN: It's time for fun in the sun. So grab your bathing suit, your beach towel, and don’t forget your sunscreen, the stuff you slather all over your body and your kids to keep away those summer rays. But while it says “sunblock,” it may not be blocking as much sun as you thought.

After 33 years, there’s something new under the sun - the FDA is finally taking action on the labeling and ingredients in sunscreen. David Andrews is senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group – which has been investigating and assessing sunscreens for many years. David, thanks for joining us.

ANDREWS: Thank you, a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: 33 years. Why has it taken more than three decades for the FDA to come up with regulations for sunscreen?

ANDREWS: It’s taken 33 years this far, and it’s still continuing at this point. The FDA has just released a small portion of the regulations that cover sunscreen. And really, this announcement taken in its entirety is relatively underwhelming considering the amount of time that it’s has taken to get here.

GELLERMAN: Well, let’s look at exactly what the FDA has come up with so far.

ANDREWS: Well, the FDA has taken a few actions with this recent announcement, specifically related to not allowing unsubstantiated claims. So this includes the use of “sunblock,” “waterproof,” and “sweat proof.” These are advertising claims that are, in fact, incorrect.

GELLERMAN: You can’t use the word sunblock anymore?

ANDREWS: That’s correct. None of these sunscreens completely block the sun, but they do provide a level of sun protection.

GELLERMAN:So what didn’t the FDA do that you would have liked to have seen done?

ANDREWS: We would have really liked to see the FDA limit the SPF to 50.

GELLERMAN: SPF being the ‘Sun Protection Factor,’ that number we see on the bottle.

ANDREWS: Correct, SPF being the number that everyone associates with sunscreens. This was in their proposed 2007 rule that SPF should be limited to 50, and in this case, really, FDA has decided to delay action on this even though they have noted that they see no benefit to higher SPF.

GELLERMAN: Some of these things have sun-protective factors of, you know, 65+.

ANDREWS: There are a large number of sunscreens on the market that are claiming increasingly higher number in terms of the sun protection factor. This year we see a number of products that claim SPFs of 100 or greater.

GELLERMAN: So, if I had an SPF of 100 would that be twice as good as 50?

ANDREWS: In terms of sun protection, it provides a very marginal difference. Maybe 1 percent, it blocks 1 percent more of the UV radiation. Our concern is that the higher SPF numbers really provide a false sense of security and allow you to be overexposed to UV radiation, even though you think you may be even better protected.

GELLERMAN: Now, we all know the sun has two major components, right. It has UVA - ultra-violet A, and ultra-violet B. I always forget which one causes sunburn. Which one’s that?

ANDREWS: UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn. It’s a higher energy radiation and causes direct skin damage. UVA is a lower energy radiation, it’s more prevalent, but penetrates deeper into our skin and causes longer-term health damage - melanoma and skin damage as well as skin aging. And yet, at this time, there is not direct scientific evidence that sunscreen use alone can prevent or even reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Enjoy the weather, but don’t forget sunscreen. (Photo: Ricardo Diaz, Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Boy, talk about a false sense of security! You think most people are putting this stuff on to prevent sunburn and prevent skin cancer.

ANDREWS: That’s my primary concern, or motivator, for using sunscreen on myself and on my children - it’s really that long-term risk of skin cancer is always in the back of my mind when I apply it. And I think the public really needs to be aware that sunscreen needs to be used in conjunction with a sun protection strategy that includes clothing, umbrellas – all these steps to reduce exposure to UV radiation.

GELLERMAN: So what do you slather on your kids?
ANDREWS: Primarily I look for sunscreens that provide very strong UVA protection. And currently on the market there’s two active ingredients that are in the majority of products that may provide this strong UVA protection, and that’s zinc or avobenzone. By and large, these products are the safest and the most effective, currently on the market in terms of providing sun protection.

GELLERMAN: Are there ingredients in sunscreens that we should avoid?

ANDREWS: One ingredient that Environmental Working Group has really highlighted as a chemical of concern in sunscreens is retinyl-palmitate, or vitamin A – a form of vitamin A. And this ingredient is relatively prevalent in sunscreens - over 30 percent of the sunscreens have this ingredient - and yet, in 10 years of studies that have been conducted by the FDA, it has been shown that this ingredient really promotes skin tumor growth in animals exposed to sunlight. So the concern is that you’re applying this ingredient onto your skin, and you’re going into the sun and the ingredient breaks down and may actually speed the growth of skin tumors.

GELLERMAN: So, what happens now? They released these new regulations - when do they go into effect?

ANDREWS: Early next spring the regulations are in effect for the large manufacturers. So consumers will be seeing the updated sunscreen bottles next summer on the shelves.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m going into the sun this summer - what do I do?

ANDREWS: Well, use sunscreen as part of a larger sun-protection strategy, and when you’re looking for specific sunscreens make sure to look for products that provide broad-spectrum protection and really dig down and look for specific ingredients - zinc, avabenzone, and to a lesser extent titanium dioxide, as these products, or these ingredients, provide broad-spectrum protection.

GELLERMAN: Well, David, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.

ANDREWS: My pleasure, thank you.

GELLERMAN: David Andrews is senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. For more information and a list of recommended sunscreens, go to our website, LOE.ORG.

Related link:
Visit Environmental Working Group's 2011 Sunscreen Report.

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[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Every Summer Night” from Letter From Home (Geffen 1989).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - weather that's out of this world. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Joe Krown: “Down By The River” from Triple Threat (Joe Krown Music 2011).]

Cool Fix for a Hot Planet

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. From time to time we offer up a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet ----no sweat ways to cut energy use and save some money in the bargain. And we always challenge you to come up with cool fix ideas, and here’s one from Walnut Creek, California.

OGDEN: My name is David Ogden. I listen to Living on Earth on KQED in San Francisco. My energy saving idea is to turn the oven off ahead of time when you’re heating up a frozen dinner or other frozen item. By turning it off five or ten minute ahead of the actual done time, you’re going to shut the oven off and save some gas or electricity. I found that after five minutes there’s a temperature drop of 29 degrees, after 8 minutes the temperature drops 56 degrees, and after ten minutes, temperature drops 68 degrees.

(Photo: Gary Gerbrandt, Wikimedia Commons)

So if you’re doing something like baking a cake or bread or something that needs a very specific temperature, you probably don’t want to do this, but for other items like frozen entrees, and TV dinners, seems to me that that’s a good way to save some energy.

GELLERMAN: Thanks, David. And if you can’t stand the heat, send your Cool Fix tip our way. Our email address is: coolfix – that’s one word – coolfix@loe.org – or post it on our Facebook page, that’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And if we use your great idea on the air, we'll send you a shiny electric blue tire gauge! So you can keep your tires properly inflated, save some dough, and cool the planet.

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Earth Enters Period of Turbulent Solar Weather

GELLERMAN: If you think the weather on earth has been weird lately, wait till you hear about the weather in space. In terms of sheer destructive potential, storms from intense solar flares striking the planet make terrestrial weather puny in comparison. And we're on the cusp of a period of increased activity. Joseph Kunches is a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to the program!

KUNCHES: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, space weather. What’s space weather?

KUNCHES: Well, space weather is the condition that occurs when the sun erupts, basically. And the sun is an interesting star, given the fact that it's our closest star and it’s basically responsible for all life on Earth, but other than that, it also has a magnetic field. And the magnetic field sometimes strengthens and sometimes wanes, and when it’s strong, the magnetic field can become unstable and let go its energy and we get all sorts of stuff that we refer to as space weather.

GELLERMAN: Lately, in the last few years, we’ve been going through a quiet cycle.

NASA Video of the solar flare eruption on 7 June 2011

KUNCHES: Yes, that’s right. It’s known that sunspots are markers for these strong magnetic fields. And the record is pretty conclusive that there is about an 11 year season- the so-called solar cycle. And as you suggest, it’s been very quiet, but has, as you suggest in the last six months or so - conditions are starting to change and that’s the emergence of the brand-new solar cycle.

GELLERMAN: Well, you’re one of the chief sunspot predictors and solar weather forecasters, what are you predicting?

KUNCHES: Well, I think the activity will continue to pick up. We saw a big flare a few days ago, we saw one this morning. Through the rest of 2011 we can expect an increase in these eruptive types of activity. The height of the solar cycle is probably going to be around two years from now in the middle of 2013.

GELLERMAN: I guess the real thing that we have to worry about is called: ‘coronal mass ejections ’- do I have that right?

KUNCHES: The first manifestation of the eruption is what’s called the solar flare, which is a little bit like a lightning bolt. Another part of the eruption is when the outer solar atmosphere, the corona, gets blown away in conjunction with the flare, and we refer to this as a coronal mass ejection. And the sun goes about throwing out coronal mass ejections as it will and sometimes we just happen to get in the way.

Joseph Kunches says that we especially need to be wary of coronal mass ejections. (Photo: NASA/SDO)

GELLERMAN: So you have to predict, not just when we will have one of these events, but if it is going to hit us!

KUNCHES: We absolutely have to predict the path of it. It’s a little bit like being a hitter in a baseball game. We watch the coronal mass ejection be the pitch and we have to estimate if it’s coming right at us and if it's fast or slow, and even if it’s going to curve or not.

GELLERMAN: And if I’m on Earth and there’s a solar storm, I’m not going to know it, or I will know it?

KUNCHES: Space weather is kind of esoteric to people. It isn’t the wind that blows the hat off your head or your garbage can down the street, but rather it’s the conditions far up in the atmosphere that affects systems, electric power being one. So when then sun is eruptive, a byproduct of that is a problem for electric power grid operators.

In the extreme, those currents go quickly out of control, and, for example back in 1989, there was a solar eruption that caused the power grid in eastern Canada - hydro-Quebec - to go from proper, functioning conditions, to a total black-out in 92 seconds, as a consequence of the induced currents from the space weather.

GELLERMAN: So we have systems like power grids that could be zapped. What about things like GPS satellites? If there was bad weather, would it affect my ability to find directions?

KUNCHES: Bad space weather could affect your ability to find directions because the signal that comes from the GPS satellite, not the satellite, but its transmission, gets affected as it tries to make its way through this charged-particle environment that lies overhead and is very turbulent and irregular when space weather is bad.

GELLERMAN: What about critical national security systems that depend on GPS?

KUNCHES: I think it’s fair to say that every use of GPS, be it a defense or national security use, be it a commonplace use of GPS - the single largest error source of that system is space weather.

The Aurora Borealis is a manifestation of solar weather. (Photo: Senior Airman Joshua Strang, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: I was reading that we had intense solar weather back in 1921, and then the granddaddy, at least in terms of recorded history here in the United States, was 1859.

KUNCHES: Yes, there are indications that in 1859, the so-called Carrington Event was really quite spectacular in terms of the impacts on the technology as they existed in those days. The telegraph wires were actually affected and lit up, literally, with sparks and all sorts of indications of electrical currents.

GELLERMAN: Would you say that our electric grid, would you say that that’s more vulnerable today?

KUNCHES: I think the power grid is more vulnerable today. It is highly interconnected, and a pulse to a part of the grid will ripple through it, will have to be accounted for, even if that pulse occurs very distant from where you are. If it’s in the northeast United States, here in the west, the operators would have to know of this condition so they can take that into account, just because things are so very interconnected now.

GELLERMAN: A recent National Academy of Science report paints a very bleak picture of what could happen to our society if we really do get zapped by powerful solar weather.

KUNCHES: The National Academy report tried to look at these technologies and tried to put some estimates as to if things went badly, what would be the effects on satellite navigation and power grids and other things. And one of the issues with the electric power grid is that many of the key elements, the transformers, are not off-the-shelf devices. And if you were to damage a few of them there aren’t many ready spares around, so some of the angst would be related just to the delay time in terms of trying to replace these things and get the grid back up and running again.

GELLERMAN: And building transformers when you don’t have electricity is probably pretty darn difficult.

KUNCHES: That would be a real trick, wouldn’t it? (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: The National Academy report about the potential damage from solar weather says that it could cost an estimated two trillion dollars and the chaos could last 10 years.

KUNCHES: I think the National Academy tried to expose some of the soft-spots in terms of technologies and make estimates given the kinds of dependencies we’ve developed now. If the sun were to erupt - and there’s no reason to think that it won’t - the only question is when, and will we be ready for that when it occurs.

GELLERMAN: Joseph Kunches, thank you so very much.

KUNCHES: Bruce, you're welcome.

GELLERMAN: Joseph Kunches is a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Related links:
- Visit the National Weather Services’ Space Weather Prediction Center
- For more videos and pictures, visit NASA’s “Having a Solar Blast Update.”

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[MUSIC: The Bad Plus “Super America” from Never Stop (The Bad Plus LLC/eOne Music 2010).]

Predicting the End of the World

GELLERMAN: Since the beginning of recorded time there have been predictions of the end of time. The last time was just last May.

RADIO VOICE: On May 21, 2011, the date of the rapture, each and every saved person goes to heaven. How can anyone dare to dispute with the Bible concerning the absolute truth that the beginning of the day of judgment together with the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.

GELLERMAN: Of course, in the end, the end didn’t occur. The apocalypse was delayed due to matters of Biblical interpretation and math errors.


GELLERMAN: But wait, the end is near, again. The internet is filled with fire and brimstone videos and books prophesying the approaching apocalypse, based upon the exquisitely precise astronomical calculations of the ancient Maya.

[ANNOUCNER: According to the Maya calendar, this cycle of creation will cease to exist at precisely four ah-how, three ken-ken. Sunday, December 23, 2012.]

GELLERMAN: According to this new-age interpretation of ancient Maya time-telling, Doomsday is just around the corner.

[ANNOUNCER: Will you be ready…?]

GELLERMAN: Well, it depends. Seems there’s some dispute even among Maya end-of the world watchers. Doomsday could either be December 23 2012 - when a cosmic collision with Planet X Nibiru destroys Earth, or our demise could come on Dec. 21 at exactly 11:11 universal time. That’s the winter solstice, and, for the first time in 25,765 years the sun will align with the center of the Milky Way.


GELLERMAN: But before abandoning all hope and earthly possessions, I decided to find out what’s behind the Maya doomsday prophecy. So I traveled to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.

Maya ruins at Chichen Itza. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

VENTURA: I love Chichen Itza. I like Chichen Itza a lot. That’s why I like to be here, and I like to show to the people and share with people my history, my culture.


GELLERMAN: On a warm windy day I met veteran Chichen Itza guide Jorge Marina Ventura at the magnificent, thirteen hundred-year old ruins.

VENTURA: Chichen Itza was a religious capital for the Mayas. It was one of the most important cities of the whole Mayan territory of the pre-Hispanic time.

GELLERMAN: By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived at Chichen Itza in 1526 the city had been abandoned for nearly 500 years. The collapse of the Maya Civilization at Chichen Itza, and the disappearance of their ancestors who lived centuries before in the lowlands of Central America, comprise one of the great archeological mysteries of our time. Scientists have searched these ruins high and low looking for answers. So did I:

Whoa, look at this….

VENTURA: This is the pyramid of Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl, and both words mean the feathered serpent.


GELLERMAN: The pyramid at Chichen Itza towers over the landscape. Sound echoes as tour guides clap to demonstrate the extraordinary acoustics of this sacred place. At the equinox, a shadow of the feathered serpent can be seen slithering down one of the 4 staircases. Each has exactly 91 steps. Added together with the top platform, that equals 365, the days in a solar year.

The Maya had only stone tools and lacked the wheel, yet they were master mathematicians, architects and astronomers.

Guide Jorge Marina Ventura with Yulia Govorushko at Chichen Itza's Sacred Cenote in Mexico's Yucatán. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

VENTURA: What happened is the pyramid, it was working as a calendar, and at the same time was an astronomical observatory.

GELLERMAN: Was it accurate?

VENTURA: Oh yeah, definitely yes. Mayan calendar, I dare say it was the most accurate calendar that a human being ever had. Right after the Maya, the next one is our calendar, the Gregorian calendar. So these people had a great knowledge of astronomy.

GELLERMAN: The Maya had not one calendar, but three – the solar calendar, a religious calendar of 260 days, and the Long Count: precisely 1,872,000 days, or 5,125.36 years, starting from the time the Maya believed the world began. The Long Count ends: in December 2012.

VENTURA: 2012 the Maya prophecy says the world as we know it is going to change. What is going to be ending is going to be a term of 5,125 years, and we are part of that. But we don’t know what’s going to happen 2012!

GELLERMAN: Well, I searched for, and found, an expert who really should know.

SATURNO: I’m William Saturno. I’m an archeologist at Boston University, my specialty is the ancient Maya.

GELLERMAN: Is the world going to end on December 21, 2012?

SATURNO: I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s unlikely. I mean, I guess it’s as likely to end on that date as any date before it or after it, in reality.

GELLERMAN: Professor Saturno says time is relative. It’s all a matter of which calendar you use.

SATURNO: Now there may be different calendars, you might be in year 5264. The Jewish calendar uses different numbers. The Chinese calendar uses different numbers. But all of them represent a count since we started counting. And the Maya Long Count is just that. Now the Maya Long Count is sort of interesting to us because it works sort of like an odometer in your car. Now just as in a car you used to only have enough digits in an odometer for 100,000 miles, although that marks a great passing, most of us are pretty sure that our car isn’t going to vanish in 100,000 miles; that a car doesn’t in fact come to an end. Right? That, “Oh my God, I’m approaching 100,000 miles, it’s going to explode, it’ll disappear, I’ll be in it, what if my kids are in it?” We don’t bother ourselves with that. We know that even if all of the zeros go back to zero, we know that it’s not going to disappear.

Archeologist Bill Saturno. (Photo: Cenzo Saturno)

GELLERMAN: Actually, scientists believe 65 million years ago much of life on earth did disappear when a giant meteorite struck the northern Yucatan coast, not far from Chichen Itza. Jorge, my guide, says the cataclysmic impact also helped create the cenotes, or underground limestone sinkholes, that today store most of the water on the arid peninsula.


VENTURA: This is the sacred Cenote. They believed that the rain god was living at this cenote. Actually at the Chichen Itza area, there are about eight of them. Eight!

GELLERMAN: In this dry place with no above ground rivers or sizeable lakes, the water filled sinkholes were life sustaining. And some were sacrificial sites, as archeologists discovered when they drained the Sacred Cenote.

A cenote. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

VENTURA: In this one the archeologist took out 251 human skeletons so far. They were sacrifices, sir. They would jump alive into the sinkhole.

GELLERMAN: An offering to the god ---?

VENTURA: An offering to the god, to the rain god Yun Chaac that they thought was living in this sinkhole here.

GELLERMAN: Apparently, the sacrifices weren’t sufficient. The rain god didn’t deliver. Around the 9th century, the Yucatan suffered a severe drought, made worse by deforestation. The Maya had cut down the forest, clearing the land to grow crops for their cities.

VENTURA: You know the drought would bring a lot of problems like no food, and fights, you know, invasions, and at the end of the season the people went away looking for a better place to live.

SATURNO: The people don’t die and vanish.

GELLERMAN: BU archeologist William Saturno:

SATURNO: When we talk about the collapse of Maya what they’re really talking about is the collapse of government. There’s evidence for drought, you know, a few drought years would lead to big problems on a social level. Is it the cause? Well, it’s not the drought that causes the collapse. It’s the human response that causes collapse.

GELLERMAN: So what is the lesson, if any, that we can learn from the Maya?

SATURNO: The lesson is a very poignant one. The lesson is really that we need to be more flexible, that we need to have the flexibility that enables us to see the writing on the wall and then react to it. Because if we can’t react, all the lessons we can learn are simply lessons for the next generation - the generation that rebuilds after collapse.

[MUSIC: Various Artists “Tila, Fiesta De Santa Lucia” from Modern Maya: The Indian Music Of Chiapas Mexico Vol 2 (Smithsonian Folkways 1977).]

GELLERMAN: Boston University Archeologist William Saturno. And, as the Maya Long-Count completes its cycle, a reminder that all things come to an end, and navigating the time left for our civilization is in our hands.

Related links:
- Visit Bill Saturno’s website
- Learn more at NOVA’s Maya site

Back to top

GELLERMAN: Coming up – taking a page out of Thoreau's lessons for living - Stay tuned - it's Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, welcoming students back to college with SIERRA magazine’s annual ranking of America’s “Coolest Schools.” Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth.
This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Larry Goldings: “A Rose For Emily” from In My Room (BFM Jazz 2011).]

Author Looks to Thoreau for Balance

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Henry David Thoreau wrote about living “deliberately” - taking up residence in the woods to learn what the natural world could teach. Writer Tom Montgomery Fate took Thoreau's words to heart to see if he could also live deliberately. He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood about his new book: “Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.”

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery Fate, your book is about the challenges and the chaos of modern life, of being a father to three, a husband, a college teacher, wrestling with the high-speed technological world we now live in, while, at the same time trying to live what Thoreau calls a deliberate life. How difficult is it to find that balance?

MONTGOMERY FATE: I think it’s hard, and I think if I say anything in here I hope it’s that it is a balancing act, that it’s not really achievable - it’s just kind of the process of always trying to find the balance.

I think when I first read Walden when I was 17 and I was really struck by that line - ‘I went to the woods to live deliberately,’ then it meant more like to live intensely or intentionally, but in middle-age, I was reading it again and I took a moment and looked the word up and saw that it was tied to the word ‘Libra’- and then I thought, “oh- that fits my life now as a search for balance” - the two-panned scale of justice always trying to weigh things and balance things because there are too many things.

CURWOOD: So you have this cabin out in the woods, how does this affect your parenting, having this cabin?

The cabin in the Michigan woods. (Photo: Tom Montgomery Fate)

MONTGOMERY FATE: Well, in a couple of ways. I mean, one is, and sometimes my wife Carol goes up alone, not, admittedly not as often as I have, and sometimes we go with one kid or two kids or sometimes we all go. I think having the time apart and having a chance to kind of re-energize and do a little discernment, like anybody, you come back to the, rather chaotic life, a little more balanced, and I think that’s one of the real benefits of it. And, also, when we go with kids - of course it’s a chance for them to tune out a little bit - there’s no VCR or all the technological gadgets or anything like that- we walk a lot. And so I think it’s a good space for them as well.

CURWOOD: Why call your book Cabin Fever?

MONTGOMERY FATE: You know, it was meant as kind of a conversation with Thoreau, so when I think about cabin fever during the era he lived, in the 19th century, you think of people living in Iowa or Nebraska or Ohio snowed in, in the middle of January, and for them cabin fever meant isolation, it meant maybe depression, it meant a longing to get out - a longing to escape that isolation to get back to more people and technology and more choices and maybe an apple and maybe some other food choices, etc., etc.

But the paradox for me in what I’m trying to write about is, I think, and this is admittedly a kind of a middle-class desire maybe more, I don’t know, is that now cabin fever is the desire to escape to that isolation - to get back to some quiet, less choices, maybe a closer connection to the natural world, those kinds of things.

CURWOOD: Except that at one point in your book you, you feel too lonely, you’ve escaped to this, this is a dream, you’re on your cellphone and you’re trying to call your kids and your wife!

Tom Montgomery Fate and his children walking on a log.(Photo: Tom Montgomery Fate)

MONTGOMERY FATE: That’s true. (Laughs) And I suppose, that’s revelatory of my human failings in this kind of difficulty of living between - this is one thing we balance is loneliness and solitude. Solitude being a positive emotional and spiritual state where maybe we’re doing a lot of discernment, and loneliness, feeling bad and lonely and wanting to get back to the people that matter to us most.

CURWOOD: Now, Tom, the subtitle of your book is ‘A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild’- and I’ve got to say after reading your book that your cabin is not exactly the most wild parts of Michigan - you’ve got, what, a six or an eight lane highway, it sounds like within earshot of the place, and if you go for a walk you can hit the local bar. How possible is it to have a Thoreau-ian experience, of wilderness and communicating with nature, when you’ve got 18-wheelers rumbling as the soundtrack?

MONTGOMERY FATE: Well, I think the idea of the wild that Thoreau talks about is not so much pristine or exotically pristine fauna or flora. I mean, I think it’s more about the search for this kind of deep connection among all things - or the sense of relatedness. When he references the word religion, I often think of the etymology of that word - relegare, which means to tie together again. And I think for him, religious experience even is the search for this deep connection of all things and creation, this relatedness. And I think he found that in his study of Indian philosophy- i.e. American Indian philosophy.

CURWOOD: At this point I’d like you to read an excerpt from Cabin Fever, it’s on page 54, this is where you write about Henry David Thoreau’s mention of a certain fertile sadness, the sadness that he finds joyful because it saves his life from being trivial.

MONTGOMERY FATE: “When this joyful sadness wells up in Thoreau’s work, I feel an odd mix of envy and admiration about the exuberance he always finds. Both in the woods and in the words. In "Walden" he discovers joy in everything from a stinking, decaying horse carcass to a weedy bean field. Though I don’t readily find joy in sadness, I’m trying to read that way. To think more like Thoreau. To see light merging with darkness, hope lingering in shadow.

But, it’s not working. I keep getting stuck in the mud of my trivial life. Should Bennett try out for travel soccer or is he too young? Why is our sewer line clogged again when I just rodded it? How did our entire yard become a Creeping Charlie plantation? When are Carol and I ever going to have a night to ourselves?”

CURWOOD: A joyful sadness.

MONTGOMERY FATE: Right, that’s right. And also just the idea that again, joyful sadness is the balancing, you know, that that’s the beauty of things. Another place in the book I talk about the relationship between patience and passion that they both share the Latin root pati, which means to suffer. And this idea is that patience and passion seem to be opposites but they’re actually - they share this common Latin root - and again the idea is that suffering isn’t always a bad thing. And that patience isn’t always a bad thing - that there again balancing these things is where one finds happiness. That sadness actually defines joy, that without sadness, we can’t discover joy, that kind of thing.

CURWOOD: So reading your book it occurred to me that this isn’t only about your exploration of how to live a more deliberate life as Henry David Thoreau did, but also about the circle of life - that how you see yourself and your children who want to experience life and the world around you with them, more deliberately.

MONTGOMERY FATE: Right, the continuity. I think that’s part of the reason why I write about the cabin in Michigan is because I went there with my father when I was my son’s age and younger- 5,6,7. He was a pastor in Illinois, and there was a church camp very near where our cabin is and we went there every summer.

And so when I walk through those woods and along Lake Michigan, and in the water, it’s a very powerful continuity for me - I feel like a child and I feel like a father.

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery Fate’s new book is: “Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.” Thanks so much, Tom.


CURWOOD: To listen to some more excerpts from Tom’s book, go to our website LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood.

Related links:
- Cabin Fever – A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild by Tom Montgomery Fate (Beacon Press)
- Tom Montgomery Fate’s webpage
- Listen to Tom Montgomery Fate on Father and Son
- Listen to Tom Montgomery Fate on "Walking"

Back to top

[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Sounds of Silence” from What’s It All About (Nonesuch Records 2011).]

The Life and Legacy of a Creative Scientist

GELLERMAN: Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States - first announced in June of 1865. But life for former slaves didn't improve immediately. Many of those newly freed men and women, forced to work as sharecroppers, found a champion in George Washington Carver. Carver was an educator, inventor and botanist - perhaps most famous for his work with the peanut.

But he also worked tirelessly to pull black farmers out of poverty through sustainable farming practices, and the work he started at Tuskegee Institute continues today. Ike Sriskandarajah reports for Living on Earth and our sister program, Planet Harmony.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Tuskegee Institute was famously founded by Booker T. Washington, it’s famous for its Tuskegee Airmen and infamous for its syphilis experiments. Before that, this area in Macon County, Alabama was the center of American cotton production. Nearly a half million slaves lived in this “black belt” region – named not for the people but the dark, rich soil they worked.

When George Washington Carver stepped off the train from the Midwest in 1896, pests and cotton monoculture had severely depleted the fertile earth - and the people along with it. Carver had grown up a frail, sick child with a voice damaged by illness. But he felt he had been chosen by God to serve. Here he reads from a favorite poem, called “Equipment.”

CARVER: And a man who has risen, great deeds must do/Began his life with no more than you/You’re the handicap you must face/You’re the one who must choose your place.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver chose Tuskegee - committing his life to helping the exploited people and exploited land. To him, these were the same target. Sustainable agriculture was his silver bullet. And peanuts were a part of his plan. Legumes were grown as a cover crop to feed the depleted soil with nitrogen. Carver took this bioremediation crop into the lab and came up with countless ways to take the lowly goober to market.

His hundreds of innovations brought him fame - but didn’t bring prosperity to the impoverished farmers. Dr. Walter Hill is dean of the Agriculture school at Tuskegee.

HILL: We are going try to complete the job that he didn’t quite finish. Getting back to our people; those poor farmers and families get a better quality of life and at the same time, improve the environment.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill took me to the fields to show me what they’re doing. But before that, I went in search of Carver with Dana Chandler, Tuskegee Institute’s archivist.

CHANDLER:Archivist - yeah - whatever that means (Laughs) I want to take you in here, we’ll start in here, actually, show you some things about Carver.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In a basement room, cardboard boxes full of Carver’s belongings are piled up to the ceiling. Chandler squeezes between overstuffed shelves, stopping to point out a microscope from Carver’s lab, a well-worn Bible, and picks up one of Carver’s field notebooks.

CHANDLER: Ike, you want to hold it? I mean, it’s a piece of history, buddy, that nobody has seen in many years.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The notebook smells of smoke - it was rescued from a fire- it’s crinkly and flakes to the touch, but the pages are alive with Carver’s observations about the natural world; notes on crop rotation, tables with soil measurements, crawling with drawings of vines and flowering plants, sketched in pain-staking detail. But there’s little here about peanuts, even though most school children learn about Carver’s 300 uses for the peanut.And it’s inspired countless jokes. Here’s Eddie Murphy on Saturday night Live:

MURPHY (ON SNL): “This tastes pretty good, man. Mind if we take a peek at the recipe?" And Dr. Carver says, "Take a peek? Man, you can have it. Who's gonna eat butter made out of peanuts? No, I'm working on a method to compress peanuts into phonograph needles." (Laughs).

CHANDLER:(Laughs) You know, peanut butter wasn’t invented by Carver - it was not - that’s a common mistake, you know. The peanut was kind of forced on him by the peanut growers (LAUGHS) association. Took advantage of him as the peanut man.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In 1921 the Peanut Association asked George Washington Carver to make a case to Congress for a favorable peanut tariff. So he trekked to Washington with his peanut-based milk, instant coffee, ice creams, dyes, pomade, and entire peanut-inspired meals. As Carver began his show and tell, one Congressman from Connecticut asked if he’d brought any watermelon too.

Carver sidestepped the racist dig; “You know,” he said, “we can get along pretty well without dessert.” His expertise and wit won over the committee, won the tariff and won him the status of an American icon.

HERSEY: People can read into him what they want to read into him.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark Hersey, an Assistant Professor of history at Mississippi State University just wrote an environmental biography of Carver,“My Work is That of Conservation.” It’s only the third scholarly book on the famous scientist. Hersey met me in a small cemetery, at the heart of Tuskegee’s campus - by Carver’s simple headstone.

HERSEY: (reading) "George Washington Carver died in Tuskegee Ala., January 5, 1943: a life that stood out as a gospel of self-forgetting service. He could have added fortune to fame but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful in the world. The center of his world was the south where he was born in slavery some 79 years ago and where he did his work as a creative scientist."

SRISKANDARAJAH: The creative scientist’s legacy may be in legumes, but Hersey argues that Carver’s real contribution was conservation.

HERSEY: He had a great appreciation for wild areas, a great appreciation for beauty and for forest but he was mostly interested in this sort of lived-in world, and as our population grows, there’s more and more lived-in places. I think he saw more clearly the directions in which the environmental movement would eventually go and has since come.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver could be seen as a father of the environmental justice movement, working in impoverished and resource-poor environments. But his brand of science and spirituality is still singular.

HERSEY: Carver could see - he would call it God’s hand - he could see the beauties of nature everywhere. You know, when he was conducting his experiments he would sometimes see the miraculous nature of what was happening.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The place where he worked is now called the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment station. Dr. Walter Hill now sits in Carver’s chair as the head of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences at Tuskegee. We drive up to the windy fields.

HILL: Turn on the car, and we’re getting ready to proceed into the experiment station. And you can even see on our left, you see the fields in front of us, the grasslands, cattle grazing lands, you see the greenhouses in the distance. Now we’re passing the goats. You’re going to see a lot of that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The dirt road cuts through hundreds of acres of University farmland. Hill pulls over at a part of the farm where Carver conducted his experiments - it’s still an active research site today.

HILL: See if we can get the gate open. This is where we do most of our field crop work.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Dr. Carver developed field techniques to help impoverished sharecroppers - promoting compost, manure, and leaves from the swamp instead of expensive chemical fertilizers. Some farmers prospered, but many of the poorest, most vulnerable left.

HILL: His people, my people - the African American, the black American in the black belt region left the south, seeking better opportunities, but many stayed and the time we are in now, many are returning.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill has carried Carver’s vision into the 21st century, and gotten assistance from an unlikely source. Walmart’s “sustainable agriculture initiative” is buying blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, melons, strawberries and peppers from small farms, including some in the black belt. It’s still early, but Dean Hill is optimistic.

HILL: The good thing is that the conversation like that between a giant like that, a global giant and these small farmers is just amazing, just amazing. Boy, you bring joy, happiness into their lives and the people work harder than ever. And the children get to see their parents working hard so they get all excited about it.


HILL: I get excited, man! I’m excited!

SRISKANDARAJAH: As Dean Hill speaks, he paints a vivid picture of Dr. Carver.

HILL: He could walk along a little patch of grass like we see here and he would see a thousand things, whereas we’re here looking and we may see only 10. You know? And, he would get a little closer and in that micro area he’d see another 50. Then he would also turn the soil - he would go deeper.


HILL: Because he understood --and he could project down two, three, four feet down in his mind’s eye and see the horizons - the different colors and shapes that hold water and hold moisture and hold nutrients in different ways. That’s what it’s all about, too, we’ve got to understand the soil, the water, the grass, the air, and we have to understand each other.

SRISKANDARAJAH: He whispers something inaudible to a handful of soil and carefully pats it back into the earth, in the very place where George Washington Carver once dug. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Happy Juneteenth.

Related link:
Carver wows Congress in 1921 with an array of peanut-based products.

Back to top

GELLERMAN: For photos, check out our website LOE.org. And for more about our sister program Planet Harmony, join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com.

[MUSIC: Carolina Chocolate Drops “Behind The Bridge” from Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch records 2009).]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Mitra Taj and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at loe.org. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making – on the web at paxworld.com. Pax world, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.


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