Nuclear Power Safety Assessment Raises Concerns
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently released an assessment of the American nuclear plant fleet, and a set of recommendations to increase safety at these plants. But Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that these recommendations are not stringent enough, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. He talks with host Jeff Young. (05:30)
Conservation Funding on Chopping Block/ Mitra Taj
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As Washington seeks ways to shrink the national debt, Republicans propose deep cuts to public lands programs. A House bill for next year's budget would drain funding for new land purchases, and a five-year plan would cut funding for all natural resources and environment programs by more than 40 percent. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Mitra Taj reports on concerns that spending cuts could leave the country with a nature deficit. (05:25)
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Today’s shelves are stocked with a stunning spectrum of new light bulbs. But old incandescent bulbs aren’t efficient enough, according to federal requirements. New types of bulbs have to outshine their diverse competition. And as Brian Clark Howard, author of “Green Lighting” tells host Jeff Young, they also have to overcome complaints that they can’t compare to traditional lighting. (06:20)
Can the Bluefin Bounce Back?/ Jeff Young
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Tracking the mighty, mysterious Bluefin Tuna. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tags along on a tuna tagging expedition. Science is slowly unlocking the secrets of the Atlantic Bluefin, a highly evolved swimming machine that’s highly coveted for the sushi market. After decades of overfishing and an oil spill in its spawning grounds, there are now signs of hope that the Bluefin can bounce back. Photo: High-tech tags let scientists follow the tuna’s wide-ranging migration. Dr. Molly Lutcavage says not all the big Bluefin go to the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe they have a secret spawning ground? (Photo: Paul Murray Courtesy of Large Pelagics Research Center) (10:30)
Few “Like” Environmental News
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It’s easier than ever to share news. But sharing of information is biased against complex and depressing news. So where does this leave the complex and depressing world of environmental news? Host Jeff Young asks Eli Pariser, founder of MoveOn.org and author of “The Filter Bubble,” what the internet is hiding from us? (07:10)
More Roads, More Traffic
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It sounds like a Buddhist koan - more roads means more traffic - but Professor Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto calls it the Fundamental Law of Road Congestion. He explains to host Jeff Young that even though we spend billions expanding roads and adding transit, neither will affect congestion. (05:40)
Evolution in Action/ Ari Daniel Shapiro
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Biologists at American University are tracking evolutionary changes in the red-shouldered soapberry bug. In just 50 years, the bugs’ beaks have become shorter and they are making more babies. As Ari Daniel Shapiro reports, researchers are excited about these rapid adaptations and want to know just which genes make this bug diversity possible. (05:30)
HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: Ed Lyman, Brian Clark Howard, Eli Pariser, Matthew Turner
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Jeff Young, Ari Daniel Shapiro
YOUNG: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Jeff Young. The battle over light bulbs. Republicans say their fight against efficiency standards is a stand for freedom of choice.
BURGESS: The American people should be able to choose what type of lightbulb they use in their home. They should not be constrained to all of the romance of a Soviet stairwell when they go home in the evening.
YOUNG: Others say it's regulation that’s driving innovation. We’ll hear about some bright ideas in lighting. Also:
STEWART: This is a big fish guys! This is not a little fish!
YOUNG: Tracking one of the most valuable and mysterious fish in the sea…
STEWART: I mean how little do we really know about a fish that can swim the ocean? We’ve really only just begun to scratch the surface on Bluefin Tuna.
YOUNG: Scientists see some signs of hope for the amazing and imperiled animal: those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER:Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, President Obama told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, to reevaluate risks at this country’s 104 reactors. The NRC’s report is just out and calls for a new definition of adequate protection. We’ve asked Dr. Ed Lyman to walk us through the report. He’s a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Lyman says U.S. reactors were designed decades ago with a set of assumptions about what sort of accidents or natural disasters a power plant should withstand.
LYMAN: That raises the question, what happens if something occurs that’s actually worse? As in Fukushima where they have protection against a tsunami no bigger than about 18 feet, yet they ended up with one that was 45 feet. So the question is - is the level of safety at our nuclear plants, safety enough against these extreme natural hazards, and the NRC has concluded, no.
YOUNG: We have had, just in the past few months, some close calls along these lines. I’m thinking of the severe flooding in Nebraska that threatened the Fort Calhoun power plant there, a tornado in April that knocked out power temporarily to a nuclear power plant in Alabama. Do these events also tell us that our plants are somewhat vulnerable?
LYMAN: Well, in both those cases, they did escape disaster, but like you said, they were close calls. We do need to increase that safety margin so that we don’t have to get to the point that was experienced at Fort Calhoun with workers bailing out water with buckets and building inflatable dams in the lake - we shouldn’t have to resort to those kinds of measures.
YOUNG: Let's talk a few specifics here - one of the obvious concerns is the power goes out and they can’t maintain cooling systems - what does the NRC recommend there?
LYMAN: Some people don’t realize that a nuclear power plant actually needs external sources of power to keep the plant running and the core from melting down. At Fukushima, one saw the results of an event where the plant loses both offsite power and onsite emergency power as you get to a situation where the nuclear fuel can overheat and melt. However, the NRC never believed that this was a very credible accident, so even though they had procedures in place, they didn’t require any plant to be able to cope with a station blackout condition for more than 16 hours. In fact, most plants only had to show that they could deal with this event for four to eight hours. So the NRC is upgrading its requirements for plants to be able to cope. However, it’s still not clear that what they’re proposing is going to be adequate.
YOUNG: Tell me about the emergency evacuation plans - what lessons NRC is taking from Fukushima there?
LYMAN: Well after the Fukushima accident, the NRC advised Americans living in Japan to evacuate from within 50 miles from the site. And this caused quite a lot of consternation back home because the requirements for US nuclear plants are only 10 miles. The NRC’s view is, “well, if there were an accident as bad as Fukushima, you know, we wouldn’t stop at 10 miles, we’d advise people 20, 30, 40 miles.” But the problem there is, if you haven’t actually put the infrastructure in place so that such an evacuation is possible, then the likelihood that you’re going to have a successful evacuation is very low. So we think that there needs to be a reevaluation of the emergency planning regulations here in the United States. But the NRC is just reasserting the status quo.
YOUNG: In the Japanese disaster, it wasn’t just the reactors causing problems, it was also these pools of spent fuel rods. What does the NRC recommend that we do with our spent fuel - keeping in mind that some of the plants here in the US have a lot more of it!
LYMAN: Well, here in the United States, nuclear power plants have spent fuel pools that are densely packed, and as a result, if there were an event that caused cooling to be cut off to that pool, the fuel in the pool could actually potentially catch fire and melt. We think that the remedy for that situation is to move some of that fuel into what are known as dry casks - steel and concrete cylinders where cooler spent fuel can be placed safely and stored for decades. Now the NRC and the industry are very reluctant to do that because it would cost them some money. And so, the NRC maintains that the current configuration is safe.
YOUNG: The NRC task force report is subtitled: ‘Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.’ What do you think - is our government really learning the lessons of that disaster?
LYMAN: Well, it really is like pulling teeth to get real safety improvements. Take the September 11 attacks for example, where the NRC realized that there needed to be more security measures. Those are expensive and the industry fought hard to keep any additional requirements as low as possible. There are still some plants that have not fully implemented security enhancements. And it will take a sustained effort on the part of the public and Congressional oversight to make nuclear plants safer. If that doesn’t happen, another Fukushima, perhaps in the United States, could really take the nuclear power option off the table.
YOUNG: Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, thank you.
LYMAN: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Jazzanova “Fedimes Flight (Kyoto Jazz Massive Remix) from Remixed (Sonar Kollectiv 2003).]
YOUNG: Washington is mired in negotiations over the national debt. Nearly everything is on the table when it comes to spending cuts. As fiscal-conservatism dominates the debate, some fear environmental-conservation will be sacrificed. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj explains how this might play out on our public lands.
TAJ: To get a feel for Republican spending priorities on the environment consider the recent markup of a House spending bill for 2012
[GAVEL. ROGERS: MEETING WILL BE IN ORDER]
TAJ: The bill would cut EPA funding 18 percent, and keep the agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. That's no real surprise -- Republicans have vowed to limit the EPA’s power since winning a majority of House seats last year. More surprising are deep budget cuts to popular public land programs, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil and gas royalties to provide matching grants for conservation projects —cut 80 percent. Or a federal program that encourages voluntary efforts to keep species from becoming endangered — cut 95 percent. Overall, funding for new land acquisition is drained. This year the President asked for $900 million to help establish public lands. Instead:
SIMPSON: We fund it at $62 million in this bill to complete land acquisitions currently under consideration. While I would personally like to see more funding, the problem is, we just don’t have the money.
TAJ: Mike Simpson, the Republican chair of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, easily pushed the spending through the full appropriations panel dominated by his party, but not without a fight from Democrats like Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia.
MORAN: This bill is too short on needed funds, and too long on anti-environmental riders. It’s not so much a spending bill as a wish list for special interests.
TAJ: Moran opposed many of the couple dozen riders that were voted onto the bill, like one that would open land around the Grand Canyon to new uranium mining.
[ROGERS: ALL TIME FOR DEBATE HAD EXPIRED. ALL IN FAVOR OF THE AMENDMENT SAY AY, AY! OPPOSED, NO. THE AMMENDMENT IS AGREED TO.]
TAJ: While committee members voted on amendment after amendment, the ghost of President Teddy Roosevelt lingered in the halls outside the meeting room, in the form of Roosevelt impersonator Joe Weigand, sent by Pew Environment Group as a reminder of the Republican Party’s conservationist roots.
WEIGAND: A century ago I said, “Do nothing to the Grand Canyon - that man can only mar it,” and I think we see that uranium mining is just the sort of marring of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River of which I spoke.
TAJ: Marring of the nation’s wetlands might also result. The bill takes a 60 percent cut to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, which provides matching grants to preserve the habitat of migrating birds. Mary Pope Hudson is a council member of the fund. She says healthy wetlands are important economic drivers:
HUDSON: The 1.8 billion dollars in federal funds over the past 20 years has added about 3.5 billion in additional economic activity. You know, waterfowl hunting has generated 2.3 billion in total economic output, birding is a significant portion creating close to 700,000 jobs.
TAJ: But tough economic times call for tough decisions, says Chairman Mike Simpson of Idaho:
SIMPSON: I wish we had more money to spend on a variety of programs that I, and other members, believe are important. I also wish we didn't have a 1.6 trillion dollar deficit this year. I wish the economy were booming and the unemployment was something you only read about in history books. Unfortunately, wishing does not make it so.
TAJ: Proposed cuts to conservation funding now could foreshadow cuts in years to come. Debt negotiations behind closed doors between Republican leaders and the President could lock Congress into a funding pattern for the next ten years. Bob Bendick is the legislative director of The Nature Conservancy:
BENDICK: We hope those negotiators, somewhere in the back of their mind, keep in mind that conservation is an important part of the future of America.
TAJ: Bendick says deep cuts in conservation could leave the country with a nature deficit.
BENDICK: It certainly means that some land that everybody agrees ought to be public, will never be purchased. Shorelines that could be places for the public to go and enjoy will be condominiums. I don’t want to leave my grandchildren a big bill to pay, but I also want to leave them a nation with clean water and clean air, really the basis for our survival.
TAJ: Spending on natural resources and the environment might make up just 1 percent of the federal budget now, but spending is spending, and the Republican proposal to reduce the deficit over the long-term, would cut that by 43 percent in the next five years. At a recent event at the National Press Club, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, called on Obama to defend conservation.
BABBITT: It's clear to me now that the House of Representatives will not only block progress, but will continue to sustain this assault on our public lands and water. Therefore, it's imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation – something that he has not yet done in a significant way.
TAJ: The House will vote on the Interior and Environment spending bill later this summer, as negotiators try to wring out an agreement on the debt ceiling by August 2nd. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.
[George Clinton “Lickety Split” from Plush Funk (George Clinton Enterprises 2005).]
YOUNG: Just ahead – what scientists and fishermen are learning about the mighty Bluefin Tuna. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Milt Jackson: For Someone I Love” from Sunflower (CTI Records/Sony Music 2011).]
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives pushed their latest bright idea on energy - an attempt to block efficiency standards for light bulbs. The energy act signed by President George Bush in 2007 required lighting that uses at least 27 percent less electricity. In recent House floor debate Texas Republicans Mike Burgess and Joe Barton argued that the rule forces consumers to use inferior products.
BARTON: Why in the world does the federal government have to tell people what kind of lights they use in their home?
BURGESS: The American people should be able to choose what type of lightbulb they use in their home. They should not be constrained to all of the romance of a Soviet stairwell when they go home in the evening.
YOUNG: The so-called ‘bulb ban’ has become a rallying cry for some conservatives. Environmental writer and blogger Brian Clark Howard is here now to, well, shed some light on the subject. He’s co-author of the book “Green Lighting.” Hi, Brian!
HOWARD: Hi! Thanks for having me!
YOUNG: Let's start here with my favorite line from the House floor debate - that compact fluorescent bulbs cast a light that quote: “has all the romance of a Soviet stairwell.” This is a common complaint that we hear about CFLs - that the light is kind of harsh.
HOWARD: Well, I think that there are some discount CFLs that have been flooding the market in recent years and a lot of them are of a lower quality. It’s true that a lot of them have poor, what is called, color-rendering index - CRI. What I always recommend that consumers do is only buy CFLs that are Energy Star certified, because this covers a broad range of specifications of qualities of the bulb - it goes beyond energy efficiency. An Energy Star labeled bulb must turn on in a second, it also has a limit on the amount of mercury, and it must produce a minimum quality light.
YOUNG: Now, what about the mercury issue, let’s address that. A lot of people, including some members of Congress, we heard on the floor, are worried about the mercury that’s in compact fluorescents.
HOWARD: In my experience, the fear over mercury in CFLs is very overblown. The average amount of mercury in a CFL is four milligrams. It’s been dropping steadily. There’s now a number of CFLs that have one milligram of mercury or less. The average old school mercury thermometer has 500 milligrams. And an old thermostat on the wall has 3,000 or more milligrams of mercury.
YOUNG: Now tell me about other stuff that’s just coming on the market in a big way. Particularly I’m interested in LED - light emitting diodes.
HOWARD: Well LEDs are really exciting technology. They’ve actually been around for a long time. For decades they’ve been used for indicator lights in electronics. A lot of pundits think that they are really the future of lighting, and they last for an incredibly long time. In the laboratory, LEDs have lasted literally hundreds of thousands of hours.
YOUNG: What about cost? I mean, that’s really the big knock on these new forms of lighting, isn’t it? That they simply cost too much next to plain old fashioned light bulbs?
HOWARD: Efficient lighting technologies have down significantly in price. LEDs are halving in price about every year. The current generation of LEDs, the payoff period is roughly around three years, but a three-year payoff is pretty good on a product that could last eight to ten years or more. Good quality CFLs typically pay for themselves in just six months if you use the bulbs for six hours a day or more. People are more used to having bulbs very cheap but paying a lot for energy. It’s actually a lot better in the long term to pay just a little bit more for the bulb because they pay less for energy. 90+ percent of the money that we spend on lighting is for the energy. In fact, the efficiency standards, one of the reasons why they were passed is specifically to help low-income Americans, because those are the ones that are most affected by energy bills. The current lighting standards, when fully implemented in 2020, will decrease the need for 33 large power plants in America. So it has a huge environmental impact.
YOUNG: And how much of our power goes to our lighting?
HOWARD: In America, about a quarter of all energy we use goes to lighting. That’s the equivalent of about $37 billion a year.
YOUNG: I’ve got to say, hearing you describe all these options, it didn’t used to be this way. It used to be you bought a light bulb, and if you got lucky, you bought, you know, a colored light bulb. Now there’s just tons of choice. What’s going on?
HOWARD: Absolutely! Americans have more lighting choices than every. GE and others have been working hard in laboratories to bring up the efficiency of incandescents in order to be able to meet the standards. There’s been great innovation in halogens, which are incandescent bulbs. There’s literally hundreds of different LED products on the market. The rise in efficiency standards is really helping to drive the innovation.
YOUNG: Now, hold on a minute. You’re saying it’s because of the efficiency standards that we’re getting the choice, but just a moment ago, we heard these Congressmen saying ‘give us choice, block the efficiency standards!’
HOWARD: Right, that’s really a false argument. The efficiency standards themselves resulted in more choice than ever.
YOUNG: Hm. One thing I found remarkable about this whole uproar over new rules on light bulbs is the amounts of intense anger and vitriol. Like the incandescents, it seemed to generate a lot more heat than light, this debate. Why is that?
HOWARD: Well, I think lighting is a symbol. A lightbulb is a very simple thing and I think it’s natural for people to say: ‘I don’t want the government interfering in the hardware aisle.’ I would ask people: Is the symbol worth paying an extra utility bill every year? Is that symbol worth a higher chance of their kids getting asthma?
YOUNG: Brian Clark Howard - thank you very much!
HOWARD: Thank you.
YOUNG: Now you didn’t think we’d get through this segment without a light bulb joke, did you? Our conversation sparked this from Brian.
HOWARD: How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
YOUNG: Um… I don’t know?
HOWARD: Two, one to screw it in almost all the way, and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.
YOUNG: (Laughs) Well, what’s your favorite light bulb joke? Send us your best and brightest to firstname.lastname@example.org - or post them at our Facebook page - it's PRI's Living on Earth.
[Norman Hedman “Light At The End Of The Tunnel” from Taken By Surprise (Palmetto records 2000).]
YOUNG: Scientists at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently published gloomy assessment of the world’s tuna. Five of the eight tuna species are now in the “threatened” or “near threatened” categories on the IUCN’s Red List. All Bluefin Tuna, the All Bluefin Tuna, the report warns, are “susceptible to collapse under continued excessive fishing.” The U.S. government last month named the Atlantic Bluefin a “species of concern.” It’s been overfished on both sides of the ocean for decades. And last year’s Gulf oil spill struck spawning grounds just as eggs and larvae were in the water. But on a recent fishing trip I learned that some scientists tracking the Atlantic Bluefin are starting to see a few hopeful signs that this amazing animal can make a comeback.
[WATER SOUNDS, BOAT ENGINE]
YOUNG: We push off from Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod at 4 a.m.,Normal hours for Capt. Eric Stewart. Stewart is 47. He’s been fishing here since he was a teenager. How big are tuna to him? For his 20th wedding anniversary, Stewart got a new wedding band engraved with Bluefin Tuna. Not what Mrs. Stewart had in mind.
STEWART: (Laughs) Well, she said I’m not gonna have a bluefin ring! And so that was the end of the discussion. Then all of a sudden she says, “I think that’s a great idea.” I said, “oh great, well what are you gonna get?” She says, “Oh don’t worry, don’t worry.” So uh needless to say my new tuna ring cost me a little bit more than I thought it was going to! But I got my wish.
YOUNG: (Laughs) Stewart’s surrounded by reminders of what’s on the line with his charter fishing business. This boat, the Tammy Rose, is named for his wife. His first mate is his son, Corey. If he can’t fish, they’re all sunk. Mere talk of the Bluefin as an endangered species hurt business.
STEWART: It was frustrating for me and it impacted tackle sales and impacted charters. And you know, it’s given Bluefin like this bad mark when there is nothing farther from the truth.
YOUNG: Away from the microphone Stewart tells me some of his fishing colleagues were not happy with him making this trip. Bad news about the Bluefin comes from three types of people, scientists, environmentalists and reporters — and Stewart has all three on this outing, organized by the Pew Environment Group. But he thinks it’s important for fishermen tell their story.
STEWART: We’re out here every day. The number of fish that I’ve seen in the last five or six years clearly shows that the population is growing, not declining.
[WATER AND SOUND OF TROLLING BOAT]
YOUNG: About six miles off of the Cape, Humpback Whales breach, sending spray into the dawn light.
YOUNG: Stewart follows the whales. Where they feed, so do Bluefin.
STEWART: See all the birds and everything up here now? So this is really looking good.
YOUNG: Corey sets the seven trolling lures at staggered lengths behind the boat. And we wait.
[TROLLING MOTOR, RADIO CHATTER]
YOUNG: Then, a powerful swirl at one of the middle rigs.
[REELS SPINNING LOUDLY]
STEWART: Big fish. Here we go! Gotta clear the other lines guys! Big fish!
YOUNG: The reel dumps line. The deck is chaos as the fish crosses lines.
STEWART: Get the other squid rig in the boat! Get the squid rig in the boat! Right there in the short corner! Someone get that squid rig in the boat! This is a big fish guys, this is not a little fish.
YOUNG: Reporter Lisa Densmore straps into a harness and takes the rod and reel.
STEWART (SHOUTING): What do you think Lisa? Is this worth waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning for or what? (Laughs) Come on!
YOUNG: You got a guess on this fish here?
STEWART: You know what, he made a really strong run…He’s possuming us! There he goes.
YOUNG: Possuming, what’s that?
STEWART: He’s just gonna trying to reverse directions. Playin’ possum. Uh, this fish could be 58 inches. He made a huge run. But you just can’t tell. You really can’t tell till he comes up.
YOUNG: Stewart maneuvers the boat as his son coaches Densmore back and forth on the deck — a move called the tuna tango. After some 25 minutes the big Bluefin shows a flash of color near the surface. Stewart’s early guess at its size was way off. This thing’s as big as me.
STEWART/YOUNG: There he is! Oh, wow there he is, wow!
YOUNG: Up close, a Bluefin is a marvel; a bullet of pure, hydrodynamic muscle. They’re among the few fish that regulate their body temperature. Warm muscles move them faster and farther than just about anything in the water. One tuna tagged on this side of the ocean was caught just 53 days later on the other side, in Norway. Andre Boustany watches this one fight. He’s a Duke University marine biologist who's tagged about 500 fish in his study of Bluefin.
BOUSTANY: In the past decade or so we’ve learned more about Bluefin Tuna than we did in, you know, maybe a hundred years before that. It’s just been an amazing flurry of scientific discovery in the last decade or so.
YOUNG: A tagged fish can reveal a wealth of data. A harvested fish can fetch a small fortune. In January, a giant Bluefin caught near Japan set a new record at auction: $396 thousand. For a single fish. If this fish is over 73 inches, it’s a keeper. Boustany’s not sure which way things will go.
BOUSTANY: I don’t know actually, what they’re gonna do, that’s a good question. (laughs) If it’s a legal commercial size then they’ll stick it with the harpoon. If it’s too small they’ll tag it with a conventional tag and let it go.
YOUNG: Will this Bluefin swim away with a tag or be sushi on someone’s table? We’ll get back to that. But let’s talk about just what we’re learning about Bluefin Tuna, and why there’s cautious optimism about its future.
LUTCAVAGE: There are signs we believe that Bluefin, if properly managed, and if taken good care of, can rebound much more quickly.
YOUNG: That’s Molly Lutcavage. She directs the Large Pelagics Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She says fishing quotas are finally cutting chronic overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea. She’s seeing more juvenile bluefin. And there’s the intriguing data from the high tech tag she uses, called a pop-up satellite tag. It’s a mini computer that tracks the fish’s location, depth, and water temperature for a year.
LUTCAVAGE: So the tag pops up to surface and then starts transmitting the log data to receivers’ onboard orbiting satellites. That recorded information is then relayed to the tagger, in this case me, via email.
YOUNG: That is so cool. This changes whole set of questions you can ask of your data.
LUTCAVAGE: Absolutely. We were among first people to use this pop-up technology. And of course the first year we used it, the tags came off the fish and the fish weren’t where they were supposed to be, which was in the Gulf of Mexico during the presumed spawning period. So it was first sort of volley back by the fish, saying, ‘hey, we’re not doing what you scientists think we’re doing.’
YOUNG: Lutcavage and her team have a couple of theories. The first is that Bluefin along the eastern U.S. coast are likely shifting farther north and east, in some cases out of U.S. waters. Second, and more controversial, is that Bluefin have other spawning grounds beyond the Gulf of Mexico, some spot the fish have kept secret.
LUTCAVAGE: From our tagging we’ve seen only about a third to half of the fish that we tag each year entering the Gulf of Mexico. What that suggests to us is either Bluefin don’t spawn every year or they’re spawning in these other locations. We think it’s highly unlikely that such a large number of adult Bluefin Tuna, that appear to leave their feeding areas in really good condition, would take a year off. It could happen, but if it does, it means that Bluefin Tuna are violating life history.
YOUNG: That idea’s hotly debated. But all the scientists I spoke to agree that while they’re still concerned about Atlantic Bluefin, the fish could be turning the corner. It all depends on strict enforcement of fishing quotas and stopping illegal fishing, especially in the Mediterranean. And that’s where another kind of tuna tagging might help. Lee Crocket of the Pew Environment Project says electronic catch documentation could track harvested fish much like grocers use bar codes to keep inventory.
CROCKETT: You would tag the fish with a wire tag that has a bar code that can be scanned into a computer system. And then, as that fish travels through the system, it’s accounted for in this database. So it’s something that, you know, we think would be important to be able to prevent illegal fishing and unreported fish, but it’s not there yet.
YOUNG: A few companies are using this system. Pew is pushing the international body that regulates tuna fishing to adopt it.
[BOAT SOUNDS, LIGHT ENGINE NOISE]
YOUNG: Meanwhile, back on the Tammy Rose, it’s the moment of truth for Captain Stewart and his big Bluefin.
STEWART: That’s a pretty big fish. I’d like to get a good look at him, though.
YOUNG: It’s 70 inches. Big — but not big enough to harvest. Stewart puts in the tag and then it’s back in the water with a little help. Stewart gently places the hook of a long handled gaff under the tuna’s pectoral fin. Cory Stewart explains.
CORY STEWART: He’s reviving him. He gets very tired. Just like if you work out you build up a lot of lactic acid. These fish do the same thing. So, big fish like this, you swim him for a little while, get oxygen back into his gills, back into his system, get lactic acid out of him. And then he starts kicking, he starts really swimming again, and you can release him and you know he’s gonna be okay.
STEWART: Alright, let’s let him go!
YOUNG: There he goes.
YOUNG: Stewart’s not too upset that this one that got away.
STEWART: It was 3 inches short. It’s a really nice fat healthy fish, too, which is good. Today’s all about trying to tag and release 'em. So actually in a lot of regards I’m really happy. (Laughs) What I’ve also learned from working with scientists is how little we really know. I mean, how little do we really know about a fish that can swim the ocean? We’ve really only just begun to scratch the surface on Bluefin Tuna. And they are an amazing, magnificent creature and certainly, almost like the king of the sea.
YOUNG: For the sake of the fish and the fishermen: Long live the king.
[Jorma Kaukonen “There’s A Bright Side Somewhere” from 2009 Blues Summit (Fur Peace Ranch Inc/The Orchard 2010).]
YOUNG: Just ahead – how the new virtual landscape of the internet could decide the fate of real-world environments. That’s coming up, on Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: Soulful Strut” from Monty Meets Sly And Robbie.]
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.
YOUNG: It's Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young. Now, if you and I both do a Google search on the same environmental issue, let’s say 'climate change'…
[SOUNDS OF KEYBOARD TYPING]
YOUNG: You’d probably guess that we’d both get the same search results. Google is Google, right? Not necessarily, says Eli Pariser. Pariser, the internet organizing guru behind MoveOn.org says companies like Google are pushing a personalized internet experience. And that personalization, combined with the influence of social media, forms something he calls the “filter bubble.” That’s the title of Pariser’s new book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You.” Eli Pariser, welcome to Living on Earth.
YOUNG: So if we have two people of different stripes searching on the term climate change what do you think they’re likely to come up with - do you think that they’re going to see the same news, same opinions, about climate change?
PARISER: Well, they may not. Google may decide that one person is clearly clicking more on links with a certain kind of valence or a certain kind of perspective on climate change. And that the other person has a different perspective and shows them more links on that. For two different people with two different search histories and different political perspectives, that may be very different. What it means though is that they’re each getting a pretty different view of the world. They’re getting a different sense of what the main topics are on climate change - of what the lay of the land is.
YOUNG: So when we look at these public opinion polls that show this great polarization on climate change, and disagreement even over what scientists would tell us is very settled science, we say, “well, gee, it seems like these people are getting totally different information!” What you’re saying is “yeah, they are.”
PARISER: That’s right, yeah. I did this last spring with two friends who Googled for BP. One person had search results that were full of information about the oil spill, about the environmental consequences. The other person literally had nothing about the oil spill on any of the search results.
YOUNG: Now, we’ve detected a little bit of push-back against some of your claims, with people trying to recreate your experiment. And, what people find is that they get more or less the same results. Do your claims stand up?
PARISER: Well, there is a good academic paper that just came out. It basically found that about
64 percentof Google results will differ from each other after you have about 3,000 queries. So that’s about a year’s worth of use, maybe a little less. As you’re using Google again and again, it means you’re seeing a pretty different view of the world.
YOUNG: So this is what you’re calling the ‘filter bubble,’ right?
PARISER: Well, the filter bubble is sort of this personal unique universe of information that is created when we have these sort of personalizing algorithms following us around everywhere we go online. And because it’s not just sort of Google search, it’s also Facebook, it’s also Yahoo and Netflix, but increasingly it’s also the news sites that we visit. On the front page of the New York Times which now has a recommended section; the Washington Post just invested in Trove - a company that tries to provide this totally personalized news experience, and the problem with that is, there are certain kinds of topics that just won’t do very well in that kind of world.
YOUNG: Hm. So what kind of story makes the cut in a world where we’re each other editors – via, say, Facebook and we’re clicking the ‘Like’ button, we’re sharing the links, what gets shared? What gets ‘Liked’?
PARISER: Well, the ‘Like’ button is really worth thinking about for a moment, because Facebook is becoming this place, for better or for worse, where people are increasingly getting their news, they’re getting their information about the world. And the primary way that you spread information across Facebook is that you click ‘Like’ on it. But, ‘Like’ has a very particular valence as a positive word and it’s easy to click ‘Like’ on “I ran a marathon” and it’s hard to click like on, you know, “Global Climate Continues to Climb.”
YOUNG: Right. What does it say about me if I click ‘Like’ on “Climate Change Worse than We Thought.” It’s a value judgment that’s going to keep me from hitting 'Like'.
PARISER: Topics like a lot of environmental issues or climate change don’t get the kind of attention that they need. There’s no ‘Important’ button that balances out the effect of the ‘Like’ button on Facebook.
YOUNG: You write here, "The filter bubble will often block out the things in our society that are important but complex or unpleasant. It renders them invisible." I read that and I thought: complex and unpleasant…hm…that describes I don’t know, three quarters of the stories that we do here - what are the implications here for the public getting, say, environmental news?
PARISER: Well, I don’t think they’re good. You know, one of the ways to think about this is, you know, the best media give us a kind of balanced information diet. They give us some information vegetables and some information dessert. They give us some stories about the ongoing effects of the BP oil spill, and some stories about Justin Bieber. You know, when these companies talk about what, giving you what you want, the question is, what you, which self? And it’s really sort of balancing those two things that can fall out of the equation in this filtered world.
YOUNG: Well, if the game of the personalized, tailored, filter bubble internet is ads, basically, is advertising then a possible route for getting environmental messages across?
PARISER: It may be, but even that is increasingly susceptible to these same pressures. The way that advertising increasingly works is that it’s cheaper to run ads to people who are receptive to the message that you’re sending. And so actually reaching the people that you most need to reach with these messages is a much more expensive project then reaching the people who actually agree that, say, climate change is a problem.
YOUNG: You give an example here of the ocean advocacy group Oceana, which tried this route. Buying ads as part of its campaign to get cruise ships to stop dumping sewage at sea. What happened there?
PARISER: Well, Google took the ads down. Their advertising policies do not have to balanced. And, it means that it’s easier to advertise for a brand than to advertise against the brand. In fact, you can’t run Google ads that mention a brand if you’re not the owner of that brand. But it means that it’s very hard to propagate these ideas or to get the word out or to hold these companies accountable. Everybody who depends on this medium now, and increasingly, that’s most of our society, you know, we have to kind of take some ownership of it and push it in the right direction.
YOUNG: I like that you use an environmental analogy to get that point across in your book. You write “to rescue our digital environment, we’ll need a new constituency of digital environmentalists.”
PARISER: That’s right. I think we need a new group of digital environmentalists along with real environmentalists. There are some really strong analogs in a lot of ways - this is a space that, for too long, has been primarily shaped by these commercial interests. And I think that it’s time for all of us who love that medium and want it to be the sort of beautiful connective thing that we all hoped it would be to actually get engaged in pushing it in the right direction.
YOUNG: The book is called: “The Filter Bubble.” Eli Pariser, thank you very much!
PARISER: Thanks so much for having me on.
YOUNG: Eli Pariser has tips on how to push back against the filter bubble, they’re on our website - loe.org. And we got this response from Google: Gabriel Stricker in Google’s public affairs office wrote - via Gmail, of course: “We actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page. On the other hand, personalization helps you find answers that are more relevant to your life. We will continue thinking about how best to combine personalization and diversity."
Learn more about popping the bubble
[MUSIC: Traffic “Freedom Rider” from John Barlycorn Must Die (Universal Island Records 2001).]
YOUNG: Summer, the season synonymous with the American Road Trip is also known for gridlock. And when you’re stuck in traffic – maybe you are right now - you might wish for wider roads. But a new paper in the American Economic Review warns: careful what you wish for. Here to explain is University of Toronto Professor, Matthew Turner - a true roads scholar - who studied what’s known as "the fundamental law of road congestion." Professor Turner, what happens when we build more high ways - we all drive free and happy as the automotive gods intended, right?
TURNER: Well, that’s actually not quite what happens!
TURNER: What we find is that traffic or driving increases almost one for one with the amount of roads. So if you build it they will come, if you add one percent more roads to a city, you’ll see almost exactly one percent more driving.
YOUNG: So we can’t pave our way out of traffic?
TURNER: You can’t pave your way out of traffic.
YOUNG: Why is that what happens when we build those extra roads?
TURNER: Well, there seem to be three main contributors. As you build more roads in a city, people change their behavior, so they’ll take…they’ll drive more. They’ll take another trip to the store; they’ll commute a little bit further. That seems to be the biggest reason for this. There also seems to be a big response in trucking, so as you build more roads, there will be a big increase in the amount of trucking in the city. And finally, people migrate to cities with more roads. If you add ten percent to the city’s road network, then you’ll see about one and a half percent increase in population over 20 years.
YOUNG: You’ve got some very interesting data in the study here - you compared the amount of time that we Americans were spending in cars in 2001 to data from 1995. And just in that short time period, you found…what?
TURNER: We found that people were driving about 20 percent more, spending about 20 percent more time in their cars to accomplish the same amount of driving. When I started doing this, I had no idea how important driving was to the American economy. If you look at the numbers for, on the order of one dollar in six that the average households spends, is spent on cars or driving. They spend three hours per day in the car.
YOUNG: Well, what about public transit - what if instead of building the new lanes on highways we built more bus routes, more rails, things like that?
TURNER: Well, what we found is that if you add capacity to the road network, then people use it. What public transit does, is it adds transportation capacity. What we find is that if you take someone off a road and put them on a bus or on a light rail system, then someone takes their place. So adding transit is just like adding capacity. It doesn’t affect the level of travel on the existing roads. So the short story is that as you build transit, it doesn’t reduce the amount of driving.
YOUNG: So, if pavement is not the answer, public transit is not the answer, where should we be looking for answers? Because we’ve got this traffic problem, what should we be doing about it?
TURNER: Oh boy, well that’s exactly the right question to be asking. So the saddest response that we have to congestion is really quite small - it’s capacity increases, public transit increases and congestion pricing.
YOUNG: What is congestion pricing?
TURNER: Congestion pricing is when you charge people for the right to use the road at particular times and in particular places where the roads are crowded. And this is something which has been tried in a number of cities around the world: Singapore, London and Stockholm are the big examples. Well, the tolls to get into Stockholm are on the order of 0.50 cents or two dollars a day, and they’re seeing 100 percent increases on speed on congested arterial roads.
TURNER: Well, we think it’s pretty ambitious. I’ve been in this business for a long time now and I have never seen empirical results which were as unequivocal as the ones that we find. And, I’m pretty excited about that - facts are scarce in the social sciences and I think we may have found one.
YOUNG: Professor Matthew Turner teaches economics at the University of Toronto. His paper is in the upcoming issue of American Economic Review. Thanks very much!
TURNER: Thank you for having me on the show.
[TRAFFIC SOUNDS, HONKING]
[Lovin Spoonful “Summer In The City” from Lovin Spoonful’s Greatest Hits (Buddah Records 2000).]
YOUNG: Evolution has slowly, slowly shaped life on our planet, with genetic adaptations arising over the millennia. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you can actually watch something evolve in real time. Ari Daniel Shapiro has our story.
SHAPIRO: When you keep red-shouldered Soapberry bugs, that’s Jadera haematoloma – in the lab, it’s only a matter of time before one’s on the loose.
ANGELINI: Whoop. Great.
SHAPIRO: David Angelini moves vials and flasks to the side…
ANGELINI: Come here…
SHAPIRO: …as he corners a female Soapberry bug who’s scuttling away. Angelini’s a biologist at American University.
ANGELINI: Here we go.
SHAPIRO: At last he picks up the thumbnail-sized bug and places her on what looks like a mini air hockey rink. Low levels of carbon dioxide pour out of the little holes, gradually anesthetizing the bug.
[SOUND OF MICROSCOPE ADJUSTING]
SHAPIRO: Angelini adjusts the focus of his microscope and I peer down at her. She’s beautiful. Her wings are a glittery black.
ANGELINI: Yeah, looks like asphalt after a rainstorm. It’s very nice.
SHAPIRO: And right where her wings connect to her body are two flashes of bright red. Angelini’s eager to show me her other side.
ANGELINI: We can flip her over. She won’t object.
SHAPIRO: She’s that same bright red underneath. And she’s got a lineup of little black appendages.
ANGELINI: The antennae, the legs, the genitalia, the mouthparts.
SHAPIRO: These mouthparts are called the beak, and it looks like a long straw.
ANGELINI: It looks more like an elephant trunk, honestly.
SHAPIRO: Except that it doesn’t extend out in front. The beak tucks under a Soapberry bug, pointing backwards. It works like a tiny syringe that can pierce the dark, round seeds of a plant called the Balloon vine.
ANGELINI: That’s Cardiospermum, a native vine in Florida and the U.S. Southeast.
SHAPIRO: Before the Balloon vine releases its seeds though, they grow inside these leafy capsules or pods shaped like little balloons.
ANGELINI: The pod is full of air. It’s just the covering keeping bugs away from the seeds.
SHAPIRO: But the pods don’t keep a Soapberry bug away. It perches itself on the balloon, punctures the pod with its beak, and skewers the seeds inside. The beak’s the perfect size to do the job – about 70 percent of the bug’s total length. Or at least that’s how big it was before 1950.
[DOOR NOISE AND THE SOUNDS OF WALKING ACROSS CAMPUS]
SHAPIRO: Angelini and his graduate student Stacey Baker walk me across campus towards the chemistry building.
BAKER: So right outside of that building is where the Goldenrain tree is.
SHAPIRO: The Goldenrain tree, or Koelreuteria peniculata, is originally from Taiwan. But around 1950, this tree – among others – was shipped to Florida for landscaping purposes. And the Goldenrain tree – it’s related to the Balloon vine. It has the same kind of leafy pods, except a little smaller. It’s got the same sort of dark round seeds. And it wasn’t long before the Soapberry bugs of Florida started dining on them. In the last 60 years, Goldenrain trees have been planted throughout the US, as far west as California and as far north as Washington DC; in backyards, in gardens and on college campuses like American University where Angelini works.
ANGELINI: When I first started this, I had no idea how prevalent Goldenrain trees were. We started getting tips so we drove all over creation looking for them, and then we discovered this one right on our doorstep, so…
SHAPIRO: Sorry, was that one of them?
Baker: Yes, so this is a baby.
ANGELINI: The really large tree that’s behind these hollies, that’s a Goldenrain tree.
SHAPIRO: You know, it’s funny. They don’t look out of place. They blend right in.
ANGELINI: I know, a Taiwanese tree, but here in DC you’d never know that it was anything special.
SHAPIRO: And as the trees have traveled the U.S., so have the Soapberry bugs.
ANGELINI: So this sidewalk and down by the base of that tree is where we’ve actually collected most of the bugs that we used.
SHAPIRO: Used, that is, back in his lab.
[SOUNDS OF LAB DRAWER OPENING, GLASSWARE CLINKING]
SHAPIRO: You see, Angelini studies evolution. And something remarkable has happened to the population of Soapberry bugs feeding on Goldenrain tree seeds. They’ve adapted. Fast.
ANGELINI: It was discovered that their mouthparts were now about 30 percent shorter.
SHAPIRO: That’s because the seedpods were smaller. And that’s not all.
ANGELINI: They were making more babies, the babies lived at a higher rate, and their flight muscles were also smaller. Basically all this evolutionary change had happened in about a hundred generations, so in about 50 years. And in evolutionary terms that’s remarkably fast.
BAKER: Very fast cause if you think about evolution we think millions of years, thousands of years. We can see it in a lifetime.
SHAPIRO: Baker and Angelini want to know which of the Soapberry bug’s 15 thousand genes have made these evolutionary changes possible. But it’s not just about this bug.
ANGELINI: I mean, it’s easy to look around in the world and see biological diversity and that arises through evolution. And what we really want to do is we want to be able to understand at a fundamental, at a genetic level, what is producing this diversity that we see.
SHAPIRO: Darwin’s theory of evolution relied on observing species that had already diverged from one another. But the Soapberry bug is an example of evolution in action – in the wild. And inside the span of a single researcher’s career. Angelini wants to know all the genetic differences between the new population of bugs on the Goldenrain tree and those still living on the Balloon vine in Florida. That’s the big dream. But until then, he and Stacey Baker will go on corralling hundreds of Soapberry bugs.
BAKER: Got ’em.
BAKER: Oop, lost ’em.
SHAPIRO: For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
One Species at a Time
[The Headhunters “Ms Wum Wum” from Straight From The Gate (Arista Records 1977).]
YOUNG: Ari’s story comes to us from the series One Species at a Time, which is produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. Learn more at our website: loe.org.
YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, and Ike Sriskanderajah, 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 - and check out our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living On Earth. While you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony which pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. And you can follow us on twitter - at livingonearth - that’s one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Jeff Young. Thanks for listening!
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