The GOP Presidential Race and the Environment
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This election season, Republican candidates’ environmental views range from “drill, baby, drill” to dismantling the EPA. No one in the primaries seems to embrace the values of green Republicans. But a movement among anti-abortion Christians who see a link between environmental toxins and birth defects, may force candidates to soften their positions. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood speaks with the president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, Rob Sisson, and Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. (09:00)
New Recommendations for Lead Levels in Children
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An advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a new standard for blood lead levels in children. Kim Dietrich was on the advisory committee. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the acceptable lead levels should be about half what current standards allow. (04:55)
Disposal of Fracking Wastewater Polluting PA Rivers/ Reid Frazier
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Hydraulic fracturing produces large quantities of salty water called brine. In Pennsylvania, a lot of this brine ended up in rivers and stream and posed a danger to drinking water. The state thought it solved this problem by keeping brine out of water treatment plants. But, as Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front reports, the brine levels in the water are still spiking. (07:40)
Tiger Sharks Dine on Migrating Birds
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The Gulf of Mexico is a migration corridor for birds throughout eastern North America. It’s also home to about 5,000 oil-drilling platforms. The powerful lights on the rigs confuse the birds, draining their energy reserves and thinning the flock. Ben Raines, an environmental reporter for the Mobile Alabama Press-Register, speaks with host Bruce Gellerman about the problem. (05:30)
BirdNote® Bohemian Waxwings/ Mary McCann
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Some birds fly south for the winter in search of warmer climes. But Bohemian waxwings are nomads who don’t seem to mind the cold. As Mary McCann reports, the birds seek fruit from frozen orchards to sustain them. (01:45)
A Green Ocean/ Ari Daniel Shapiro
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Gene Feldman uses satellites to take pictures of the earth. The NASA scientist is especially interested in the composition of oceans and he uses the images to measure how green the water is. Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro has this profile of Feldman and his love of the green ocean. (07:30)
The Rap Guide to Evolution
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What do hip hop and Darwin have in common? According to rapper, Baba Brinkman, a lot. He’s the man behind The Rap Guide To Evolution, a musical project that finds natural selection in everything from the iPod shuffle, flashy jewelry to the act of rapping itself. Brinkman explains to host Bruce Gellerman why he, as a white Canadian, can proudly chant, “I’m A African.” (09:00)
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A warm December brings a thunder shower over the Long Island Sound. (01:30)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Rob Sisson, Richard Cizik, Kim Dietrich, Ben Raines, Baba Brinkman
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Reid Frazier, Ann Murray, Mary McCann, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Mark Seth Lender
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Right-wing Republicans, the right to life and the right to a healthy life complicate GOP party politics.
CIZIK: Regulating mercury emissions is just common sense to protect consumers and the unborn so that's what makes Senator Santorum's blast against the EPA so absurd.
GELLERMAN: Coming up: a conversation with conservative republicans about primary politics and environmental issues. Also - when Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, you can bet he never thought it would evolve into this:
BRINKMAN: Evolution is really just kind of an algorithm that goes like this - performance – feedback – revision. So the genetic code of every living thing is written like this. Performance – feedback – revision.
GELLERMAN: The evolution of beats, rhymes, and the survival of the hippest, and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around!
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The GOP presidential primary season is in full swing, and the top issues among the candidates are: the economy and jobs, taxes, the deficit and family values. Far down on the list are environmental concerns.
When Republican candidates do talk about the environment it’s often in the context of “job killing EPA regulations.” Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood invited two Republican environmental activists to discuss the party politics of environmental issues.
CURWOOD: I’m here now with, with the President for Republicans for Environmental Protection- Rob Sisson. Hi there, Rob.
SISSON: Hello, Steve, nice to be here.
CURWOOD: And the President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, Reverend Richard Cizik. Hello there Reverend.
CIZIK: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: And I want to start with you Rob. Which of these Republican candidates running for president is seeking your organization’s endorsement?
SISSON: At this point, none of them have sought the endorsement. I think as we’ve seen with the candidates so far, they’ve kind of tiptoed around the environmental issues and conservation issues. And in many cases, have changed positions they’ve held in recent years.
CURWOOD: So, lets go down the ballot, Rob Sisson, and just see how green is the Republican primary field. Lets start with Mitt Romney.
SISSON: Well, I think Governor Romney has some very good qualities and experience that would indicate he would be a good conservation-minded president. You know, some of the campaign rhetoric now- you know, talking about America’s energy resources, paring back the EPA’s purview.
[CLIP OF MITT ROMNEY SPEECH: My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.]
SISSON: I think a President Romney would approach the issues in a very business-like manner if those of us in the conservation movement do our job and show a need, I think he would weigh that very carefully and would be very pragmatic about it.
CURWOOD: Texas Congressman Ron Paul - how green is he?
SISSON: He is going to be the least green candidate in the mix right now. His brand of conservatism, it really differs from the traditional conservatism that our organization espouses. It’s free enterprise all the way, individual liberty all the way and there’s not really a role for government to help provide balance to that.
CURWOOD: And how does he view climate change?
SISSON: Uh, doesn’t think it’s an issue, doesn’t think man causes it and has no desire to address it.
CURWOOD: What about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? I recall he wrote a book called “A Contract with the Earth,” you know, very much about the environment. How green is he today?
SISSON: He has backed off from some of the philosophies he articulated in that book. Now he has come out and said that he doesn’t believe climate change is an issue anymore, or isn’t one that he thinks the government should address. He is very centered on entrepreneurialism and thinks entrepreneurialism, given the right incentives and the right environment, can help solve a lot of our environmental problems.
CURWOOD: And how green do you think former Utah governor John Huntsman is?
SISSON: You know, of all the candidates, I think that he has the strongest resume for conservation and environmental protection. But he’s also talking about balancing that with current economic realities, competition from global trading parties like China and India, so he also takes a pragmatic approach. So he is the one candidate that has come out and said: listen, we have the best scientists in the world here in the United States. We need to throw a problem at them and ask them for solutions and advice on how we approach it.
CURWOOD: Governor Rick Perry - Evangelical guy from an oil-patch state…how green is he?
SISSON: Again, not very green. You know, you go down to Texas and Texans see green in that black liquid that bubbles up out of the ground down there. He’s a product of his environment. He doesn’t see any issues with expanding offshore drilling in the Gulf and up in the arctic on public lands that we currently have preserved for future generations. So he’s going to be at the lower end of the green spectrum of these candidates.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about Rick Santorum. He’s from western Pennsylvania, coal country guy, global warming skeptic. He’s also strongly faith-based in his politics and resonates with the Evangelical community and the pro-life community - what do you think they expect from him along the lines of the environment, Rob?
SISSON: In researching Senator Santorum, I find that most of his public service, most of his statements can be traced back to his faith. And Reverend Cizik can certainly speak to this better than I do, but recently he made a comment of condemning the EPA for recent mercury rules, which he thinks will increase costs for consumers for energy. When that hit the newswires, my inbox and telephones rang up in the office with people saying: Hey, you know, Senator Santorum is probably the best pro-life candidate in the field, or the one that’s making pro-life a centerpiece of his campaign, yet he doesn’t get the connection to environmental protection with clean air and clean water and how that’s a pro-life issue.
CURWOOD: And I want to bring in Reverend Richard Cizik at this point. Distill for me why this question of toxic exposure and pro-life is coming to the fore now?
CIZIK: Well, it’s coming to the fore because we have now made the connection between the environment and our pro-life convictions. And what is occurring, we know the National Academy of Science estimates that each year over 60,000 children are born at the risk of adverse neurological effects due to in-utero exposure to methyl-mercury that comes from coal-burning utility plants. And so regulating mercury emissions is just common sense to protect consumers and the unborn. So, that’s what makes Senator Santorum’s blast against the EPA so absurd. Look, I personally think that Senator Santorum is a believer, I respect him, but he needs a conversion.
CURWOOD: So, so far, how many folks who’d identified themselves as being pro-life advocates in the electorate are concerned about mercury? How big a deal is this?
CIZIK: Well, I haven’t seen any numbers, but when you have, at the recent announcement by Lisa Jackson, our EPA administrator, you had scores of faith-based groups who came out in support for a variety of reasons. Ranging from a belief that humans have a biblical mandate to protect nature, to a commitment protecting fetal health. And they ranged from the National Association of Evangelicals to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and many, many groups in between.
So hundreds of leaders signed a letter calling for stricter mercury regulations. So I would say to all of those Republicans who are running for the nomination - who think they can, as Santorum did - just throw out this language…that the agency’s cost benefit analysis wasn’t done and the rest…and expect Evangelicals and Catholics to just buy it, are living in a dream world because times have changed.
CURWOOD: To what extent to do you think Christian conservatives are going to get more involved with environmental health issues?
CIZIK: They already are. But it’s a slow-moving earthquake. They’re waking up but they’ve not yet rousted themselves as a whole from their slumber. But they are waking up - that is, the Evangelicals - and they’re making these connections and the Republican party is 40-50 percent Evangelical by all estimations. And, when that coalesces in such a fashion that you have a forest fire: the conditions are right and a spark is lit - boom - it takes off and nothing can stop it. We’ve not yet reached that point but we will, and at that point all of the Republicans will then see the light.
SISSON: Steve, if I might add on to that - I'm really witnessing a real grassroots bottom-up effort here where that connection between faith and the environment has been made. And again, as Reverend Cizik says, I am hopeful that over the next couple of years, this trend will continue to grow and we’re going to see the Evangelical and Judeo-Christian base of the Republican party force their leaders to address these issues seriously because it’s an important priority for them.
CURWOOD: Rob Sisson is the President of Republicans for Environmental Protection, thank you, Rob.
SISSON: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: And thank you Reverend Richard Cizik.
CIZIK: Thanks Steve.
CURWOOD: Reverend Richard Cizik is the President of New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. And for Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
- Republicans for Environmental Protection
- The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good
- The Evangelical Environmental Network launched a national ad campaign about the connection between environmental mercury and birth defects
[MUSIC: Steven Bernstein’s Millenial territory Orch “Thank You For Talking To Me Africa (Bill Laswell Remix) from MTO Plays Sly (Royal Potato family 2011)]
GELLERMAN: Lead is a powerful and well-known environmental neurotoxin. But now a panel of experts says the federal level for lead poisoning in kids is way too high and needs to be a lot lower. Kim Dietrich is director of epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health.
He’s also a member of the advisory panel that recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lower the lead standard.
DIETRICH: We need a new standard because there have been studies, epidemiological studies that show there are effects well below the previous level of concern of 10-15 micrograms per deciliter.
GELLERMAN: So, this new standard that you’re recommending would be what, precisely?
DIETRICH: It’s certainly going to be at least as low as five micrograms per deciliter.
GELLERMAN: And the current standard is…?
DIETRICH: 10-15. So when I started to do this research 31 years ago, there were very few children in the United States that were below 10 micrograms per deciliter. Now, in the recent studies, we have more children who have blood lead concentrations below 10 micrograms per deciliter. But those studies still see significant dose-effect relationships even at levels below 10 micrograms per deciliter.
GELLERMAN: In terms of the brain imaging of kids who have, say, five to 10 micrograms per deciliter - what do you see?
DIETRICH: So, my studies generally involve children that have blood lead concentrations above ten. But we do see children who had higher blood lead concentrations when they were infants and toddlers as adults.
They have lower volumes of cortical gray matter in the frontal lobes which are associated with judgment, reasoning, anticipation of consequences - what we call the executive functions - and in the same children, we find higher rates of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality - this is all well-documented and published in peer-reviewed journals.
GELLERMAN: So, let me ask you - is there any safe level of lead in a kid’s blood?
Kim Dietrich (Courtesy of University of Cincinnati)
DIETRICH: No one knows. The only safe level would be zero but that’s impossible because we’ve been exposed to lead for centuries. But I think that the committee arrived at a very appropriate reference level where pediatricians should be alerted to the possibility of environmental sources for a child, and alerted to talk with the parents about preventing future exposure.
GELLERMAN: But I thought they got the lead out of paint, they got the lead out of gasoline - where are kids getting exposed to lead?
DIETRICH: Mainly from paint - they got lead out of paint in the mid-1970s. But one of the useful aspects of lead is that it makes paint very durable and it stays there almost forever, so it continues to be on the interior surfaces and exterior surfaces and it’s in the soil and the dust.
People often think of children as eating paint chips, but it’s not paint chips that's the problem, it’s the lead dust in these homes that’s the real problem because it sloughs off the wall over-time, gets into the dust, and even if you clean it up, it will appear again several weeks later because it continues to come off the walls.
GELLERMAN: So, right now, something like a quarter of a million kids are classified as being…
DIETRICH: This will probably expand the number of children within the reference range to about half a million. It will probably double the number of children who are at five to about half or above. One of the things that the committee tried to do was to put the emphasis on the environment rather than the child as a barometer of the environment - that we need to eliminate lead hazards in the first place, in order to eliminate the developmental deficits associated with childhood lead poisoning.
I was involved with the clinical trial, for example, that tried to use drugs to extract the lead from children’s bodies after they had been exposed, and what we found from these studies is that it’s really important to prevent the lead exposure in the first place. Once it occurs, the effects seem to be largely irreversible at least by pharmacological means.
GELLERMAN: So, what is the practical effect of this recommendation to the CDC?
DIETRICH: You know, my hope is that children who have a history of lead poisoning will be followed up as if they had other diseases that might affect their neuro development. If they have problems in terms of their development, they will receive the kinds of services they need to remediate any developmental deficits they have in terms of reading or attention or other deficits that we know are associated with early exposure to lead.
GELLERMAN: Kim Dietrich is director of epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Environmental Health. Thank you very, very much.
DIETRICH: You’re very welcome, thank you.
[MUSIC: Steve Cropper “Help Me Somebody” from Dedicated: A Salute To The 5 Royales (SLG.LLC 2011)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: migratory birds, blinded by lights on oil platforms, die in the Gulf of Mexico. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Joe Farrell w/ John McLaughlin: “Follow Your Heart” from The Essential John McLaughlin (Columbia Legacy Records 2007) Happy 70th B-Day]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.Until last March there had never been an earthquake recorded near Youngstown, Ohio. But since then there have been 11- the last one on New Year’s Eve. The epicenter was near an injection well used by gas drillers to dump millions of gallons of wastewater from hydro-fracking - much of it from nearby Pennsylvania’s gas-rich shale deposits.
Did the disposal of the fracking waste cause the Ohio quakes? Well, the jury is still out, but the polluted fracking water is filled with chemicals and it is extremely salty - 5 times saltier than seawater. Before they began pumping Pennsylvania’s fracking waste into Ohio wells much of it ended up in rivers and streams, and posed a risk to drinking water.
Pennsylvania officials thought they solved the problem when they banned fracking water from treatment plants, but that didn’t work. Reid Frazier of the radio program The Allegheny Front reports, scientists are now scrambling to find out why not, and what to do about it.
FRAZIER: Frank Blaskovich is standing on a catwalk over a pool of water near the Ohio River. He points at a series of pipes draining into the far end of the pool.
BLASKOVICH: What we're seeing is out of those seven standpipes over there… that's the river water coming in.
FRAZIER: Blaskovich manages the Wheeling, West Virginia, water treatment plant. His job is to take water from the Ohio and make it into safe drinking water for his city of 30,000. But since 2008, the Ohio has been too salty. So he's had to dilute it with groundwater from backup wells. Blaskovich doesn't like doing this because each added step costs money.
BLASKOVICH: The price of water will eventually go up which probably will lead to a possible rate hike.
FRAZIER: But he's blending the river water anyway because it's got high levels of bromide. Bromide is a salt, and by itself it's harmless. But combined with chlorine, at a drinking water plant like this one, it forms chemicals called trihalomethanes. Long term exposure to trihalomethanes increases the risk of bladder and other cancers. Because of high bromide levels in the rivers, Wheeling and dozens of plants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have violated the EPA's limits on trihalomethanes over the last three years.
Bromides come from many places--sea water, coal-fired power plants, and chemicals. But the Ohio's spike in bromide occurred three years ago, and Blaskovich thinks that's no coincidence.
BLASKOVICH: That's when deep drilling for gas sort of took off up in this area of the country.
FRAZIER: Each Marcellus shale gas well produces millions of gallons of salty water. The water is full of bromides, and until recently, drillers in Western Pennsylvania trucked this brine to wastewater plants for disposal. The plants could treat the water for metals and other pollutants, but not bromides. That requires expensive new technology. The plants would simply release the treated water--bromides and all--into rivers and streams.
But after trihalomethane levels started creeping up at drinking water plants, regulators took interest. In March, the EPA expressed concern over Pennsylvania's handling of Marcellus discharge, and a month later, the state's Department of Environmental Protection asked drillers to stop sending wastewater to treatment plants. DEP secretary Mike Krancer said a voluntary program would simply be quicker than making a new rule.
KRANCER: The industry-- and I knew they would--did the responsible thing and complied, so we had compliance in 28 hours instead of 28 months.
FRAZIER: According to DEP records reviewed by The Allegheny Front, the request stopped most, but not all drillers from sending Marcellus shale brine to these plants. After the request was made, some facilities, like the Franklin Brine Treatment plant, south of Erie, saw their oil and gas wastewater shipments drop by 70 percent.
Drillers say they are recycling more of their water now, or sending it to Ohio, where it's injected into deep storage wells. So if drillers are sending much less of their salty water to treatment plants, bromide levels in the rivers should be going down. But, at least this year, that hasn't been the case. Jeanne Van Briesen is a Carnegie Mellon scientist who's monitored bromide on the Monongahela River for the past two years.
VAN BRIESEN: We thought in such a wet year, we would see almost no bromide, it would be below our detection limit in most of our samples, and it was not.
FRAZIER: But the question remains, where is the bromide coming from? Answering this question has been a mission for Stanley States.
[SOUND OF A CAR DOOR SLAMMING SHUT]
FRAZIER: States is director of water treatment at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
STATES: Yeah, we're here monthly and we're getting close to having full year's worth of data now.
River water from this jug will be tested for bromides, which can create carcinogenic compounds when combined with chlorine in drinking water.(Photo: Ann Murray/Allegheny Front)
FRAZIER: He and another water authority scientist are testing bromide levels on a chilly November day. He's on the banks of the Clarion River, in Elk County. States slips on a black and yellow dry suit and gets into the water.
FRAZIER: Into the current, he hurls what looks like a wire milk crate with a plastic jug inside.
FRAZIER: This is how he collects his water sample. He's here because the water in the Clarion ends up at his plant's intake about 100 miles south on the Allegheny River.
STATES: Source-water protection is part of what we're supposed to do as drinking water people; our treatment doesn't begin at the plant, it begins up in the river system.
FRAZIER: States has been working with University of Pittsburgh researchers to identify bromide hot spots. They've sampled above and below places like municipal and commercial treatment plants that have taken Marcellus Brine in the past. Back in his office, he says coal-fired power plants can raise bromide levels. But he found these aren't the biggest bromide producers.
STATES: It's pretty clear the only places where there’s significant increases in bromides are downstream of these industrial waste water plants.
FRAZIER: Krancer, the DEP secretary, says it's probably too early to declare an on-going bromide problem in the rivers. But assuming the data are accurate, and that bromide levels are still high - does it mean that Marcellus brine is still the cause?
That is unclear, says Carnegie Mellon's van Briesen. She says there could be other potential sources of bromide. These include wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling--the kind that's been produced in Pennsylvania for decades.
VAN BRIESEN: So, almost anything to do with fossil fuel production has the potential to contain amounts of bromide we should manage and think about.
FRAZIER: So does this mean that water from hydraulic fracturing wasn't really a problem in the first place? That's what some plant operators are saying. One of these operators is Paul Hart, who owns three oil and gas wastewater treatment plants. Hart declined to speak on tape for this story. But off the air he said DEP used "bad science" in asking drillers to steer clear of his plant. But Van Briesen, of Carnegie Mellon, disagrees.
VAN BRIESEN: We know this wastewater has bromide in it. Any waste you take out of the system that contains bromide will reduce amount of bromide in the basin.
FRAZIER: In the spring, the EPA will tighten its standards for trihalomethanes--those carcinogens formed by bromides that end up in drinking water. That has water plant operators, like States, worried.
STATES: And the public will be very upset if they have to receive public notification that their water doesn't comply with the safe drinking water act. They're going to want answers.
FRAZIER: Chief among their questions, States says, is who's responsible for getting bromides out of the rivers. For Living on Earth, I'm Reid Frazier.
GELLERMAN: Ann Murray of The Allegheny Front helped report our story.
[MUSIC: Frazier” Robert Plant/Alison Krause “Stick With Me Baby” from Raising Sand (Rounder Records 2007)]
GELLERMAN: Something very strange is happening near oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. On dark and overcast nights, migratory birds become stuck in the cones of light from the powerful beacons on the drilling rigs. The birds swoop and circle overhead - flying round and round - until, exhausted - they drop into the sea.
Environmental reporter Ben Raines has written about the unusual and often deadly phenomenon for the Mobile, Alabama, Press-Register:
RAINES: You have to imagine what the platforms are down here. I mean, we’ve got 5,000 in the Gulf, and they’re out there over a formerly dark ocean, and each one is lit up with several hundred bright, bright flood lights - think of streetlights. They’re like these beacons out on the horizon. If you’ve ever been close to a bright light outside like a lantern, you look away from it and you can’t see anything and it’s the same phenomenon on these platforms.
GELLERMAN: So how does that affect the birds?
RAINES: Well, on cloudy nights in particular, where the stars are obscured, birds migrating across the Gulf, which is a long trip - a couple hundred miles, takes 20 to 30 hours - will fly and they’ll become sort of disoriented and bamboozled by the lights on the platforms, thinking that those are, you know, navigation cues like stars because they can’t see the stars.
And, so, they just start flying in a circle around these platforms, and you have to remember the platforms - some of them are very big. I mean - you know, the top deck might be the size of a football field.
GELLERMAN: So what happens to the birds? They fall onto the platform?
RAINES: Well, some fall onto the platform, some are eaten by migrating raptors - you know, hawks and things, and some are eaten by sharks. We had some scientists here that work out of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab who began dissecting sharks - tiger sharks in particular - and finding a lot of songbirds in them. Brown thrashers, scarlet tanagers, you know, birds you would associate with the woods that could only be out there - 20 and 50 miles offshore - because they are migrating.
GELLERMAN: I know that tiger sharks, they're, they’re kind of considered the garbage disposal of the sea!
RAINES: I watched them cut one open and it had a two foot shark inside it - whole! But then there was this big black mass and… it was feathers! Mixed in there were some bright yellow feathers for instance, some red feathers, which didn’t come from marine birds. There were some little bitty feet.
Scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama have removed woodpeckers, meadowlarks, swallows and other songbirds from the stomachs of tiger sharks. The birds seem to be disoriented by oil platform lights, flying in circles until dying of exhaustion. (Photo: Ben Raines)
We’re in what’s known as the Dauphin Island trans-migration throughway, which is one of the biggest bird migration corridors in the US, and this hemisphere. A tremendous number of these migrating birds definitely pass by these platforms.
GELLERMAN: How many birds are being killed by these platforms?
RAINES: Well, no one knows. It’s hard to say how big of a problem it is - if a bird flies around the platform and falls in the water, it disappears - there’s no carcass to count. But, in the North Sea, they’ve documented bird clouds, up to 100,000 birds, flying in circles.
Well, that becomes an issue if you’re migrating across the Gulf on this 30-hour flight, because you’ve only got enough energy to make it across. The US government first did a study in 2005, but as best I can tell there has been no science whatsoever since 2005, looking at this.
GELLERMAN: So the feds have known about this problem for years - seven years now!
RAINES: Yes. But the Bureau of Ocean Management put something in one of their recent lease-sale documents, which said that more platforms in the Gulf would be an adverse but not significant effect. Well, 2005, the study concluded further development of the Gulf will not be benign for migrating birds.
GELLERMAN: Isn’t there an easy fix: turn of the lights!
RAINES: Well, with OSHA rules and stuff they have to keep the lights on because it’s a working environment 24-hours a day, and you’ve got, you know 100 people on a platform. But in the North Sea, where they’ve got, you know, the same phenomenon, nocturnal circulation - birds flying in circles for hours during their migration from, you know, Finland to middle-Europe - there was an experiment done.
I believe it was on a Shell platform. And Phillips invented a light that is green and they found that it would reduce the circulation behavior by 90 percent. So, you know, it’s possible that just switching light bulbs could virtually stop the problem altogether here in the Gulf. Yet, you know, no one has tried it here.
GELLERMAN: So they want to build more platforms in the Gulf and there’s now this comment period for the environmental impact statement - have you had any further response from the federal government?
RAINES: Well, in that impact statement is several thousand pages. And on page 796 of volume 2 of the impact statement, they devote about a page to this phenomenon. They say that the platforms are good for hawks because they get to eat the tired birds that are sitting on the platforms, and they say that they will have an adverse but not significant effect on the migratory birds.
And they talk about the nocturnal circulation event, but as best as I can tell in conversations with the government - no further study has ever been done, although the earlier 2005 study called for further study. The comment I got when I called most recently was: we may look at it in 2013.
GELLERMAN: Ben Raines is an environmental reporter with the Mobile, Alabama, Press-Register.
GELLERMAN: Some birds migrate to warmer climes during the winter, but others are more nomadic and fly wherever they can find the best food. One of those is the Bohemian Waxwing - as BirdNote®’s Mary McCann reports.
[SOUND OF WINTER WINDS]
MCCANN: A light dusting of snow whitens the hillsides along the Columbia River, a quiet backdrop to scores of apple orchards. Most of the fruit was harvested in autumn, but apples litter the ground, and a few still hang, frozen and thawed again and again. Suddenly a flock of hundreds of birds rises from the ground beneath the apple trees, swarming in tight formation, wing-tip to wing-tip.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS WINGS FLAPPING]
MCCANN: The flock lifts and perches in orderly ranks, in the top of a nearby poplar.
Photo: © Nick Saunders
[BUZZING AND TRILLING OF BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS]
MCCANN: These are Bohemian Waxwings, occasional visitors during the winter, down from their nesting grounds in the boreal forests of the north. They’re nomads, come in search of fruit to sustain their winter wanderings.
Bohemian Waxwings, larger kin of Cedar Waxwings, are exquisite, with silken-plumage, a jaunty crest, black mask, and wings daubed as if with sealing wax in red, yellow, white, and black. Add to this a tail dipped in yellow, and you have a bird that seems to have sprung from a painter’s palette. Quickly the flock is off again -
MCCANN: - swirling up the canyon to adorn the winter branches of another orchard.
[BUZZING OF THE BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS]
GELLERMAN: That’s BirdNote®’s Mary McCann. To see some fab photos of Bohemian Waxwings, feast your eyes on our website LOE dot org.
- Call of the Bohemian Waxwing provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, recorded by W.W.H. Gunn.
- BirdNote® Bohemian Waxwing was written by Bob Sundstrom.
[MUSIC: Jazzanova “Fedimes Flight (Kyoto Jazz Massive Remix)” from Jazzanova Remixed (Sonar Kollektiv 2003)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – Darwin evolves: a hip-hop origin of species. Keep the beat at Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communication and collaboration in solving the world’s pressing environmental problems. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gillman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John McLaughlin: “Hearts And Flowers” from My Goals Beyond (Polydor Records 1970)]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. From their vantage places in space, NASA satellites have kept an eye on Mother Earth for more than 50 years. The space agency’s first satellite to be used for Earth observation purposes was Explorer VII, launched in October 1959.
Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro has this profile of a NASA scientist who helped revolutionize our understanding of Earth by peering from afar.
SHAPIRO: Gene Feldman has been with NASA for over 25 years. He uses satellites to monitor and study the oceans. He’s quick to point out that sometimes a pretty picture can have a deep and lasting impact.
[MUSIC: PHILIP GLASS’S ETUDE NO. 5]
FELDMAN: If you think back, what’s one of the most iconic images of all time? It’s that picture of the entire Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts when they went to the Moon. The Moon pictures were fine: gray moon with craters. But what really touched the hearts of the world was that picture of the Earth, this beautiful blue and white orb dangling in the black of space from the Moon.
Feldman explaining his science to an audience.
That really, really crystallized in people’s minds: one, how fragile this planet is. And more importantly, how countries and states and borders don’t mean anything. When you look at it from the vantage point of space, it’s one Earth interconnected by oceans and atmosphere.
SHAPIRO: Feldman also takes pictures of the Earth. He uses a NASA satellite that’s got an instrument called SeaWiFS. This sensor lets him keep track of the colors of the ocean.
FELDMAN: Most people think, ok, the ocean’s blue. Well, for most of the ocean, it indeed is blue. But whenever you put anything in the water, it will change the color of the ocean because it either absorbs or it reflects light differently that comes into the ocean from the sun.
And the thing that I study that impacts the color of the ocean more than anything else are microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Entire ecosystems depend on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton form the base of the food web. And without phytoplankton in the ocean, it’s safe to say there would not be life on Earth as we know it.
And phytoplankton, because they’re plants, have this molecule called chlorophyll, which is green. And the basic idea is, the more chlorophyll you have in the water, the greener the water and the less chlorophyll, the bluer the water. So what we’re able to do from space is actually measure how green the water is.
SHAPIRO: If you had a globe in front of you and all the oceans were, say, dark and you were to take a palette of paint and start painting on it, how would you apply that paint?
FELDMAN: Before I start painting, I need to understand why different parts of the oceans would be different colors. And phytoplankton, being plants, they need certain things to grow. They need light, which there’s plenty of in the surface waters. They need nutrients, which generally is found in the deeper, colder waters in the ocean. So anytime you can bring those cold, nutrient-rich waters up near the surface, you stimulate phytoplankton growth.
So if I had my little brush in my hand, what I would do is along all of the coasts where there’s a lot of mixing and nutrient input from the land, I would paint those green. So you’ve got this green ribbon around all of the coasts. And then you’ve got places where the broad oceanic currents or wind systems stir up the waters even in the very, very deep parts. So I’d probably paint a green line along the equator. But the large central portions of the Pacific and the Atlantic – those would not be green. Those would be essentially blue because there’s not a lot of nutrients near the surface.
SHAPIRO: SeaWiFS doesn’t just measure chlorophyll in the sea. It keeps track of it on land too. So you get a picture of what Feldman likes to call…
FELDMAN: I call it the global biosphere. The Earth is not just ocean or just land or just atmosphere. All of these different pieces work together in beautiful harmony to create an environment in which life can flourish.
And when you look at these global biosphere images and more importantly, when you look at the animations over time, you can literally watch the Earth breathe. You can watch it respond to the changing seasons, to the changing location of the sun. It’s really amazing to watch the living Earth respond to the change in its environment.
SHAPIRO: In addition, Feldman and his team have been able to track how warmer temperatures in large areas of the ocean over the last decade are leading to lower phytoplankton numbers.
FELDMAN: And that has huge consequences for fisheries and for the environment.
SHAPIRO: Feldman’s global accounting of the phytoplankton and of the carbon has caught the attention of a handful of high profile people, like this guy.
Former Vice President Al Gore with SeaWIFS biosphere in lower right. (Photo: Gene Feldman)
GORE: It’s only a few kilometers to the top of the sky. And the engines of our civilization are now filling that small space with global warming pollution, as if it were an open sewer.
SHAPIRO: Back in 1999, then Senator Al Gore was interested in having a copy of Feldman’s global biosphere image. Naturally, Feldman said yes.
FELDMAN: We printed out one of these images and framed it up, and I took it down to his office. And so he jumped up on his couch and took whatever the picture was that he had behind his couch off the wall and put this one in its place. And we just sat there for a while, talking about what the colors meant and what the different patterns showed and what it meant for the kinds of things that he was doing environmentally.
[CLIP FROM INCONVENIENT TRUTH TRAILER: GORE: We have to act together to solve this global crisis. Our ability to live is what is at stake.]
SHAPIRO: Similar to Gore, Feldman feels compelled to reach out to and teach the public. But in Feldman’s case, he’s communicating his own science.
FELDMAN: I sincerely believe that part of the responsibility I have is to give back whatever it is that I’ve learned and the information that I’ve been able to gather to as broad an audience as possible. I think that our future and the future of this planet can only be made safe if people understand how the Earth works, and how we as just one creature on this planet might be impacting that.
SHAPIRO: Feldman’s giving back by offering public lectures and by going into classrooms and talking with students.
[GUITAR MUSIC OF “HERE COMES THE SUN”]
SHAPIRO: And when he’s not exploring the planet and talking to people about this blue marble that we call home, Feldman likes to spend time with his dog Max, and to play his guitar. For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELLERMAN: Our story, A Green Ocean, comes to us from Ocean Gazing, a podcast about our seas produced by COSEE - NOW, with support from the National Science Foundation. You’ll find more at our website, loe.org.
[MUSIC: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band “Here Comes The Sun” from Beatles Instrumental Renditions (Purple Pyramid Records 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Beats, rhymes, and evolutionary biology are what you’ll hear on the musical project - A Rap Guide to Evolution.
[MUSIC: “Natural Selection”…(SINGING: So long, the weak and the strong. We’ve got it going on. Creationism is dead wrong - the weak and the strong. Who got it going on? Whoever leaves the most spawn. Darwinism has got it going on. Creationism is erroneous. Erroneous…]
GELLERMAN: In the lab with a pen and a pad is Baba Brinkman. He’s a Canadian rapper with a Master’s degree in English and a passion for Darwin. Baba, welcome to Living on Earth.
BRINKMAN: Thanks a lot, Bruce, thanks for having me on!
GELLERMAN: So where did the idea for the Rap Guide to Evolution come from?
BRINKMAN: It came from a scientist. I don’t take credit for it - it was a commission. The thing that I was doing at the time was another project called the Rap Canterbury Tales and it was, you know, Geoffrey Chaucer remixed as hip-hop.
And a scientist saw that show - heard that show - and his name is Mark Pallen - he’s in Birmingham, UK- he studies bacterial genetics, and he said, you know, if you could do the Canterbury Tales, could you do the Origin of the Species next and he had a budget from the British Council to create an event for Darwin’s birthday and the Rap Guide to Evolution was the entertainment.
GELLERMAN: We’re going to listen to a selection from your album, it’s called “Natural Selection,” naturally.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Natural Selection 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: Whoever is left to believe that species are immutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction…For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed. Be removed…
BRINKMAN: That’s Richard Dawkins reading The Origin of Species, reading Darwin’s words. That’s basically, if you believe in evolution, you need to tell people that you believe in evolution because that’s what’s going to make all of the prejudice or the misunderstandings or the tension around it disappear.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Natural Selection 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: So what you know about natural selection? Go ahead and ask a question and see what the answer gets you. Try being passive aggressive or try smashing heads in and see which tactic brings your plans to fruition. And if you have an explanation in mind, then you’re wasting your time because the best watchmaker is blind. It takes a certain base kind of impatient mind to explain away nature with intelligent design. It’s time to elevate your mind-state and celebrate your kinship with the primates (monkey sounds). The way of the strong, we’ve got it going on, we’ve lived in the dark for so long.
GELLERMAN: By my understanding, this may be the first scientifically peer-reviewed album in history.
BRINKMAN: That does seem to be the case, yeah! Which, you know, wasn’t really my original intention with it, but it basically came from the scientist Mark Pallen and he said: Look, you know if you’re going to rap about evolution, you need to make sure that you represent evolution accurately and don’t misconstrue what it actually means and how it works. So, I’m going to ask you to send me drafts of your rap lyrics so I can check them for accuracy. So I had all of my raps checked before the performance.
GELLERMAN: So, how has it fared on stage, have you found success?
BRINKMAN: Yeah, well, it started onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and it won an award there and a Broadway producer saw it and she optioned the rights to it and we started in June. We had over 10,000 people come see it in New York and now it’s going to be touring to colleges and performing arts centers around the country.
My hope is to take it to places that are slightly less culturally friendly towards evolution. If you can make people laugh at evolution and tap their feet along with it - it just makes it less scary.
GELLERMAN: We’ll have to see how your music evolves…
BRINKMAN: Yeah. The process is called “Performance, Feedback, Revision,” you put it on stage, you try it for people, you get their impressions, you talk to them, you get the feedback and then you fine-tune based on what they say.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Performance, Feedback, Revision 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: Well, sometimes people ask me, well how does your show get written. Like this: Performance, feedback, revision. And how do I generally develop my lyricism: Performance, feedback, revision. And how do human beings ever learn to do anything? Like this: Performance, feedback, revision. And evolution is really just kind of an algorithm that kind of just goes like this: Performance, feedback, revision. So, the…
BRINKMAN: I mean, I noticed similarities between things that rappers were saying and things that biologists were saying and ways in which hip-hop was a kind of showcase of the kinds of behaviors that evolution has been applied to: cooperation, aggression, mating dances, costly signaling displays…
GELLERMAN: In evolutionary terms, is there a role for “bling” in the rap world?
BRINKMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, bling features quite broadly in the off-Broadway show. The peacock’s tail is the classic example because if you have some kind of a flaw in your genes, or you’re, you know, not strong - then it’s impossible to grow that large of a tail and carry it around and not get killed by a predator.
So the tail is a handicap that’s an advertisement of its own cost and I think that’s what bling is as well. If you can afford to carry bling around, then it means you’re winning the game. You know, I’ll just say, anybody who looks down on bling needs to look at themselves in the mirror and figure out what their bling is - because everybody’s got bling.
Whether it’s your fashion sense, or your Harvard degree that you're showing off that hangs on the wall or the fact that you raised a couple of kids that are whip-smart or winning at something. You know, there are a lot of things that we display to each other to try to advertise something about ourselves. And bling just happens to be the sort of symbolism that hip-hop has settled on but anything could suffice as long as it’s difficult to fake and costly and represents your resources.
GELLERMAN: You know, I don't think I’ll ever listen to rap or look at a peacock again the same way.
BRINKMAN: Well, that really is my goal, as well as teaching people about evolution. I want people to appreciate rap, and you know, not just as some kind of aggressive chest-beating display. A lot of people take it for negativity and materialism and misogyny and all that, but it comes from a specific cultural context and it’s not just about the material bling - it’s about the verbal bling - the skill with storytelling, craft.
And it’s a sort of virtuoso display of linguistic ability, which is also difficult to fake. And look at all of the benefits in resources that accrue to the people who put on the best displays, you know. I think - er - anybody who doesn’t get it is either missing something - very similar to evolution actually, both rap and evolution are massively hated on, and I’m trying to redeem them.
Professor Sehoya Cotner plays Baba Brinkman in her " Biology of Sex" at the University of Minnesota. The Rap Guide to Evolution inspired several students responses. Disclaimer: Professor Cotner says she never taught "we're all sex machines."
GELLERMAN: Tell me about the cut “I’m a African.” It’s not “I’m AN African.” You’ve got a master’s degree in English - shouldn’t it be “I’m an African?”
BRINKMAN: Well, that’s me being respectful of the social context of the original track that that remixes. So “I’m a African” is actually a track by Dead Prez which is a rap group originally from Florida. Their version is based on Peter Tosh - that says: As long as you’re a black man, then you’re a African.
It’s sort of a reggae song that Peter Tosh made, sort of basing it on Garvey. And I'm just making the point that actually, that’s true for all black people if you go back 500 years. But it’s true for all living humans if you go back 500 centuries. Between 50 and 70 thousand years ago is when the first modern humans first left Africa and all of the races are descended from those first emigrants. And then, that’s actually not that much time. That makes racial differences superficial.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: " I’m a African 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: I wasn’t born in Ghana but Africa is my momma, because that’s where my momma got her mitochondria. You can try to fight it if you wanna, but it’s not going to change me because it’s plain to see Africans are my people. It’s not plain to see that your eyes deceive you - I’m talking primeval. The DNA in my veins tells a story that reasonable people find believable but it might even blow your transistors. Africa is the home of our most recent common ancestors which means human beings are our brothers and sisters…
BRINKMAN: I feel like the whole human race can shout it in unison:
[MUSIC: “I’m a African.” (Rapping: I’m a African, I’m a African and I know what’s happenin’… yeah.)]
BRINKMAN: And by the way, the grammatical thing, it’s all about the rhythm, right? I’m a African, I’m a African, but if you say I’m an African, and you say it that way and say it grammatically properly, it becomes I'm a Nafrakin and the word “Naf” just sounds wrong in there. In this case, you’ve gotta drop that “n” and make it into a sort of (staccato sounds) I’m a African - make all of the syllables pop.
[MUSIC: “I’m a African:” (Raps: “I’m African and it’s plain to see because I’m gonna be a homo sapiens for life.)]
GELLERMAN: So, what’s next, a Rap Guide to String Theory? A Rap Guide to the Higgs Boson?
BRINKMAN: Well, I’ve got a couple of projects I’ve got a half an eye on but I don’t have anything that I’m 100 percent confirmed. I’ll tell you, one thing I’m interested in doing a rap about is climate change, global warming, environmental sustainability. I think that’s another subject that there’s a scientific consensus on - scientists all agree that yes, the world is getting warmer and yes, it’s human caused to a large degree.
There’s not complete agreement on what the political response should be. That’s one thing I’ve been interested in doing a rap on, although I haven’t been able to figure out how to make that entertaining enough yet, I think, so I’m still taking notes.
GELLERMAN: Well Baba, I love it.
BRINKMAN: Cool. That’s why I make it!
GELLERMAN: Baba Brinkman is the man behind the Rap Guide to Evolution. You can find the link to his songs and his brand new music videos at LOE dot org. Well, Baba, thank you so very much.
BRINKMAN: Thanks for having me on the show, I appreciate it.
[MUSIC: “I'm a African.”]
[SOUND OF THUNDER, RAIN]
GELLERMAN: This has been one of the warmest Decembers on record. Almost no snow here in New England, but lots of rain, thunder and lightning …which is definitely unseasonable.
(c) Mark Seth Lender
GELLERMAN: Producer Mark Seth Lender recorded this out-of-season thunderstorm as it passed over Long Island Sound.
[SOUND OF DECEMBER THUNDERSTORM OVER LONG ISLAND SOUND]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Jack Rodolico, Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth - that's one word. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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