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

October 6, 1995

Air Date: October 6, 1995


Back Door Enviro Policy

Since President Clinton has taken office, many important environmental protection bills such as the Endangered Species Act, Superfund and the Clean Water Act are up for renewal. But only one major environmental law has made it through Congress and been signed. The slow down in enviro legislation hasn't stopped some lawmakers from trying to ease environmental protection. Steve Curwood speaks with NPR reporter Philip Davis about how the Republican majority is trying to push through sweeping policy changes using . . . the budget process. (06:25)

Living on Earth Profile #15: Richard Nixon, Environmental Hero / Terry FitzPatrick

Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the largely-forgotten environmental legacy of one of our most controversial Presidents, Richard Nixon. The peculiar politics of the man and the moment put Nixon in a position to preside over the creation of the country's most important environmental laws and institutions: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. (04:58)

Understanding the Asthma Epidemic

Host Steve Curwood discusses the Asthma epidemic with Dr. Mike Lenore, head of the Allergy Service at San Francisco General Hospital. (05:04)

The Smog-Eating Car? / Stephanie O'Neill

Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles on a possible new weapon in the war against smog — a chemical which uses heat from a car's radiator to convert smog back into breathable oxygen. (02:59)

The Living On Earth Almanac


The Geography of Childhood

Steve explores the relationship between kids and nature with five children and Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan, authors of the book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Nabhan and Trimble argue that children need contact with nature for healthy emotional and physical development. This feature is part of Living on Earth's ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and the human mind. (14:10)

Unheard Voices / Sy Mongomery

Living on Earth commentator Sy Mongomery explores the hidden world of animal communication--and what it tells us about our own senses. (03:11)

Lawn Outlaws / Jeff Rice

Producer Jeff Rice explores the whys and wherefores of our culture's obsession with lawns, and Salt Lake City's law that every house has to have one. His inquiry leads him from the savannas of humans' early history to the homestead of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young to the front yards of some Salt Lake residents who are living outside the law. (07:58)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.


HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Doug Phillips, Terry FitzPatrick, Stephanie O'Neill
GUESTS: Philip Davis, Mike Lenore, Steven Trimble, Gary Paul Nabhan
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Today we look back at the Republican president who created the Environmental Protection Agency and pushed through the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The environmental legacy of Richard M.Nixon.

SHABECOFF: Nixon was, whatever anyone else wants to say about him, a very canny politician. He responded to what he saw was an important impulse among the electorate. And that made him the right person at the right time.

CURWOOD: Also, we take a look at how Republicans in Congress are handling the environment today. And inner city asthma: it's reaching epidemic proportions.

LENORE: You see that there's more crowding. There's more pollution. There's more smoking. There's more increased exposure to allergens like cockroach, especially. And importantly, there's decreased access to quality health care.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Latin American and European nations have agreed to limit the number of dolphins killed by their fishing fleets if the United States agrees to lift an embargo on tuna from those countries. The embargo has cost the fishing industries of nations such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama hundreds of millions of dollars. In exchange for limiting dolphin deaths to 5,000 a year, the United States will lift bans on tuna imports imposed under the 1990 Dolphin Protection Act. A number of activist groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation, support the deal, but some Democratic lawmakers call it consumer fraud. They say it would undermine the integrity of the Dolphin Safe label used by many American tuna companies.

The EPA's Science Advisory Board has put its seal of approval on a controversial evaluation of dioxin as a dangerous substance even at low levels. The advisory board, made up of independent scientists, urged the agency to put the dangers of dioxin into better context. But Dr. William Farland of the EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment says that won't change the report's bottom line: that dioxin is a probable carcinogen which may cause other non-cancer diseases, and that it can be dangerous in microscopic amounts. Farland expects to have the final report on dioxin ready by the end of 1996: five-and-a-half years after reassessment of the toxic chemical began.

A fleet of supersonic planes may be the dream of international travelers, but it could be a nightmare for the ozone layer. A study published in the journal Science found the exhaust of the supersonic transport Concorde contained tiny particles similar to those found in the atmosphere after a volcano erupts. Some ozone loss occurs after a volcanic explosion, but the damage is limited, since the particles settle out of the atmosphere relatively quickly. But that settling would not occur with regular supersonic travel. Scientists believe a fleet of supersonic planes could permanently increase the amount of ozone-eroding particles in the atmosphere by a factor of 3 to 10 times their present level.

Solar power may be making a quiet comeback. The new study in Florida shows that more and more people are putting the sun's rays to work. From Miami, Doug Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: Solar power usage suffered a setback during the 1980s, when the Federal Government ended tax rebates for solar water heaters, the most practical home use for solar energy. But Ingrid Melody, with the Florida Solar Energy Center, says about 100,000 Florida homes have installed solar water heaters during the last 5 years, partly because of cheaper and improved technology and renewed environmental awareness.

MELODY: Currently, there's more than half a million solar applications actively operating in Florida homes. And if our state is any indication, we're going to continue to see that grow by 25% a year.

PHILLIPS: In the US, it has also become common to us solar energy to power repeaters used by cellular telephones, and for portable roadway message boards. Still, Melody says the greatest use of solar energy is in developing countries which lack sophisticated power grids to distribute electricity. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Phillips in Miami.

NUNLEY: A US Appeals Court says media reports on the dangers of the chemical alar were fair and based on a reasonable interpretation of the facts. The court dismissed a lawsuit brought against CBS by a group of apple growers. The suit alleged that a 1989 segment of 60 Minutes examining the potential cancerous effects of alar in the food supply misrepresented the scientific data. As a consequence of that report and the ensuing alar ban, Washington apple growers claim they lost $140 million. Alar is a plant growth regulator used as early as 1968 to promote uniform ripening and help prevent cracking in apples. The apple growers say they will not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

One of the world's rarest birds, the Philippine eagle, has laid an egg in the wild. Now that might not sound like much, but scientists say it's the first time it's happened in almost a decade. Only 77 of the birds are still alive, 18 of them in captivity. Philippine scientists say the offspring will be a big boost to the eagle's gene pool, and raise hopes of saving theendangered species. Illegal logging, hunting, and destructive farming and mining practices have decimated the bird's habitat, but the fiercely territorial eagles refuse to relocate despite the destruction.

Thailand has declared war on crocodiles. The Associated Press says heavy flooding freed hundreds of the large reptiles from farms, and the crocodiles have slipped into rivers which run through Bangkok. Although none have been sighted in the capital, two villagers fishing nearby were reportedly bitten by the escaped reptiles. The government mobilized the navy to capture the fugitive crocs, whose hide are used to make belts, shoes, and purses. There is a $120 reward for them. That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Back Door Enviro Policy

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since President Clinton took office nearly 3 years ago, only 1 major environmental law has reached his desk: the California Desert Protection Act. In the meantime, several major measures have gone nowhere. The Endangered Species Act, the Superfund, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. These are all overdue for renewal, but they have become stalled in Capitol Hill debate, along with a number of other bills designed to enhance environmental protection. But the Congress is moving ahead with budget measures that would have a major impact on how the government handles the environment. Joining us now is NPR Washington correspondent Philip Davis. Hi there.

DAVIS: Hello, Steve; how are you?

CURWOOD: Good. Philip, first, can you list for us the major environmental items that have been written into the budget measures?

DAVIS: Well, it's interesting that you mention the California Desert Protection Act in your introduction there, because that was the one major piece of environmental legislation that was signed into law last year, and this year, the Congress and some of its budgetary bills is providing no money at all for the management of this new park. There are a lot of other budgetary shenanigans, shall we say, going on, including cutting the EPA budget by about 35% and zeroing out the National Biological Service, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had put together to inventory the nation's flora and fauna. But beyond that, in the budget bills that Congress is now considering, there are lots of policy provisions, policy pronouncements, that are sort of tucked away in there that don't have really have any monetary value but could possibly lead to big changes in environmental policy in this country. They would restrict the EPA, for example, from enforcing rules covering wetlands and stop the EPA from putting into place its new program for centralized auto emissions and inspection stations across the country, and from enforcing new rules for arsenic and other chemicals in drinking water. There's also going to be a 90-day moratorium on all new listings of endangered species. So there's a lot going on.

CURWOOD: And this list goes on and on. Am I correct?

DAVIS: Yeah. Well, not only that; there's " in the big Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Bill, there is a provision there that would open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. There's also provisions in there that would possibly lead to more timber harvesting, in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, and there would be changes in grazing and mining policy and even a provision to set up a commission to look at closing down some of our national parks.

CURWOOD: So what's the common theme here?

DAVIS: Well, the common theme is that Republicans who have been out of power for quite some time have built up quite a store of hostility to environmental regulations which they feel have unduly hampered businesses, developers, miners, and ranchers. And what they are trying to do now is tip the balance away from environmental protections and toward development and business concerns.

CURWOOD: Now, why are they doing it this way? I mean, why put all this policy in the budgetary process instead of straight-up legislation?

DAVIS: You're right; this is sort of a back door policy. Democratic critics and even some moderate Republicans are saying that these amount to an admission by the Republicans that they can't get these sort of environmental policy changes through actual changes in the law. That if they did this in that sort of up-front fashion, that these bills would never pass Congress. It's much more difficult, say, to change the Clean Water Act or to change national park law than it is to slip in riders in a budgetary bill that are supposedly dealing with nothing but dollars and cents.

CURWOOD: Now, there's plenty of historical precedent for using the budget process to get through policy. Democrats have done this in the past. What's different about what's going on right now?

DAVIS: That's true. I mean, some of what the Democrats are saying about "this is horrible," that we're putting policy in appropriations bills " well, the Democrats have done it before. For example, there's now a moratorium on offshore oil drilling. That is something that has never been passed as a straight up and up law, but it has been part of appropriations bills since the Bush Administration. But the scale of this is so much different this time around. I mean, in the EPA budget bill, for example, there are 13 separate riders telling them to do all kinds of different things, and you just haven't seen the kind of, that kind of scale in the past.

CURWOOD: Do you think it's likely to succeed?

DAVIS: Well, at this point in time, I think that the number of changes to the nation's environmental policy won't be quite as great as is being feared right now. There's actually a growing coalition in Congress right now of a combination of moderate Republicans who still feel that environmental protection is a key national priority, and with conservative deficit hawks who think that some of these bills actually not only are bad for the environment, but are bad for the budget as well. Along with that, you have the prospect of Presidential opposition to these budgetary policy pronouncements. President Clinton has threatened to veto a number of these bills and he very well may. He is also making environmental issues part of his preliminary presidential re-election campaign. He thinks that " and the polls support him in this " show that a lot of people in the country are starting to get worried about what they see as a Republican attack on natural resource and environmental policy. And so, this is a battle that both sides think they might be able to win.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much. We'll be watching very closely. Philip Davis of NPR's Washington Bureau. Thanks for joining us.

DAVIS: Thanks, Steve. It was a pleasure talking to you.

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Living on Earth Profile #15: Richard Nixon, Environmental Hero

CURWOOD: Some Republicans may be skeptical today of the effectiveness of governmental management of the environment. But 25 years ago, a Republican president fostered the greatest era of environmental legislation in modern times. In fact, many of the current environmental fights in Congress that we just heard about involve measures developed by his staff. The president was Richard Nixon. As part of our series about 25 environmental pioneers, we look back this week at the Nixon years. Our reporter is Terry FitzPatrick, at our Northwest bureau at member station KPLU in Seattle.

(Flowing water with waves, gulls)

FITZPATRICK: The beauty of Puget Sound has stirred the hearts of environmentalists for decades. Curiously, this is where Richard Nixon first learned about the problems confronting America's environment. In 1962, well before his election as president, Nixon went boating here with a Seattle lawyer and Republican activist named John Ehrlichman.

EHRLICHMAN: I had really planned a few days off for him, and thought that it would be very refreshing to go up among the islands, and it was.

FITZPATRICK: Inspired by his surroundings, Ehrlichman had become a local hero for blocking industrial development on a pristine island in Puget Sound. His boating discussions with the future president became Nixon's environmental primer.

EHRLICHMAN: It was really the fundamentals. He didn't really understand what the issues were.

FITZPATRICK: Hardly anyone understood environmental issues back then. But Nixon never forgot his boating trip and tutor John Ehrlichman. Their relationship would lead to an explosion of environmental legislation.

(Campaign music and marching bands)

FITZPATRICK: As Nixon campaigned for the White House in 1968, pollution was beginning to emerge as a national issue. Nixon never spoke about it during the campaign. Instead, he spoke of healing the social wounds created by the Vietnam War.

(Nixon: "That will be the great objective of this administration at the outset: to bring the American people together.")

FITZPATRICK: Protecting the environment became a part of Nixon's attempt to unify the country. John Ehrlichman, who'd been picked by the President to coordinate domestic issues, persuaded Nixon that fighting pollution was both the right thing to do and politically popular among young voters. Nixon gave Ehrlichman and his staff tremendous freedom to draft environmental policy.

EHRLICHMAN: We would tell him what we were doing. When we got into a political pickle we would come to him for his decision as to what he wanted us to do. But otherwise, we had a pretty free hand.

FITZPATRICK: As the first Earth Day unfolded in 1970, members of Congress were also climbing aboard the environmental bandwagon. They competed with the President's staff in an unprecedented struggle to outgreen one another. This competition resulted in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, all passed by Congress and signed by the President in just 3 years. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

(Nixon: "The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings. The destiny of our land, the air we breathe, the water we drink, is not in the mystical hands of an uncontrollable agent. It is in our hands.")

FITZPATRICK: Was Richard Nixon an environmentalist? Reporters covering the administration say not really. Phil Shabecoff covered the White House for the New York Times.

SHABECOFF: Nixon was, whatever anyone else wants to say about him, a very canny politician. He responded to what he saw was an important impulse among the electorate. And that made him the right person at the right time.

FITZPATRICK: But Administration insiders like Ehrlichman give Nixon credit as a risk taker. Without Nixon's support, the environmental movement could have languished amid the gridlock of Washington.

EHRLICHMAN: I guess I would put it, he was a passive sponsor. He lent his name, he lent his clout, he lent his staff, and he let them do what they thought was right in invoking his name and power and prestige to bring about those results.

FITZPATRICK: The Administration's environmental accomplishments will never outweigh history's judgment about its actions in Vietnam and its disintegration amid the scandal of Watergate. As well, Nixon has a checkered environmental record. He allowed the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He approved the Alaska Oil Pipeline. And he vetoed a massive funding bill for sewage treatment plants. Still, President Richard Nixon and his advisors presided over the most productive period of environmental legislation in history. They set a direction for the country that has lasted more than 25 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead on Living on Earth: why more and more people are having trouble breathing in the inner city: the asthma epidemic. Stay tuned.

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Understanding the Asthma Epidemic

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. This year, 5,000 people in the US will die from asthma, many of them children and many of them in the inner city. Asthma is up sharply in the past decade, and according to doctors, many of these deaths are preventable if people recognize the signs of an acute asthma attack in time to get the victim medical help. Doctor Mike Lenore heads up the allergy service at San Francisco General Hospital. I asked him how parents can tell if their child is developing asthma.

LENORE: Well I think most parents recognize the seriously ill child with asthma because that's a child that's difficult to ignore. That's a child who has air hunger. You can see them working to breathe; you can hear the wheezing sometimes audibly. Where we see children who have had asthma who, their parents have not recognized, the symptom is almost always chronic cough. A child who coughs when he runs or coughs when he laughs or coughs incessantly or all the time at night, that's the child that we often miss with asthma.

CURWOOD: What causes this? Does this come from air pollution? Does it come from infectious disease? Where does it come from?

LENORE: Well I think the first thing we'd have to say is it comes from your parents, because most people with asthma have either an immediate family member or another family member who also has asthma. So that's one thing. The second thing is that a number of people who have asthma develop it because they become allergic to certain things: things like pollens, grasses, trees and weeds, house dust, mold, animal dander and in some cases even foods. And then once you have the sensitization to asthma, once you have the problem, there are a number of different things that could aggravate you. Infections of any type can make people with asthma much worse: smoke, smog, changes in weather, even emotional upset can trigger asthma symptoms.

CURWOOD: I see. So this is really a " the connection between pollution and asthma is one that if you've already got it and there's some pollution, then you're in trouble.

LENORE: Absolutely. With the, whenever we have these inversion layers all over the country, you notice that a number of people with asthma, the number of people in the emergency room and the number of people in the hospital, those numbers increase.

CURWOOD: So why has there been such a rise in asthma among the young, and particularly among African Americans in the city?

LENORE: Well, I think there's been a rise among young people and African Americans for a number of socioeconomic reasons. There is no data to suggest that, from a genetic point of view that African Americans or Hispanics have an increased predisposition to asthma. But it is true that if you look at the statistics for who gets sick and who dies, the numbers in many instances across America are shameful. In most instances, African American children die three times more often from asthma. There are some studies to suggest that even in the same city, that an African American male in East Harlem has 10 times the death rate than other males in New York City. Now the reasons, I think, are, I think, if you analyze the dynamics in an urban inner city, you see that there's more crowding. There's more pollution. There's more smoking. There's more increased exposure to allergens like cockroach, especially, tends to be a very difficult one. And importantly, there's decreased access to quality health care.

CURWOOD: People are allergic to cockroaches?

LENORE: Cockroach is a real big one. You know, I grew up in Texas, where we always gave great credence to the cockroach.

CURWOOD: You have Texas-size cockroaches there, I suppose.

LENORE: We had Texas-size cockroaches there. But, and I always felt that they would be a major contributor to allergy and in fact, over the last 15 years we've started to recognize how important they are in developing sensitivity that leads to asthma.

CURWOOD: What can parents do to cut down their child's risk of getting asthma?

LENORE: Well I think that's a very interesting question and one that we haven't quite answered yet in medicine. Because we do know that if you take young children that tend to have asthma on, basically from 2 different, 2 major reasons. One is that they get viral infections, which somehow change the airway. The other cause is certain types of allergens: house dust and food. Now let's take the food and the allergen situation first. It's pretty clear that breast-fed infants have less problems with allergy as infants. You can reduce some of the symptoms by keeping their bedroom dust-free, keeping that favorite animal out of the toys, out of the child's face, and also not buying animals that tend to cause problems with asthma, particularly cats. In terms of viral infections, it's very difficult in a modern society to get away from viral infections because of the crowding. But you also have to look at the kind of daycare center you select for your child, the number of children in that daycare center, who is around that child on a regular basis. And in households that smoke, the seriousness of symptoms, the increase of symptoms with asthma and deaths from asthma is very significant. A child who lives with asthma who lives in a house where anyone smokes, even outside, has many more emergency room visits and many more hospitalizations.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for taking this time with us. Dr. Mike Lenore is Chief of the Allergy Service at San Francisco General Hospital. Thank you, sir.

LENORE: Thank you for asking me.

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CURWOOD: If you'd like to know more about how you can protect yourself or your children from asthma, give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And you can reach us by mail at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes of the program are $12. Your comments are always welcome.

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The Smog-Eating Car?

CURWOOD: Among the pollutants that aggravate asthma is ground-level ozone. This is not the upper-level ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet light, but rather, hyperactive oxygen molecules that are formed when sunlight interacts with car exhaust. The fancy name is photochemical smog. Ozone is horrible for lungs, but if it can be converted into ordinary oxygen of course it's wonderful to breathe. And now a New Jersey company is testing a way to use heat from cars to convert ozone to oxygen by putting a chemical catalyst on car radiators. Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Tones from a car; a motor revving up)

O'NEILL: This new Ford Windstar van is a test vehicle for the Premair Catalyst. Joshua Roycht is one of 6 students chosen to drive the van and 2 other smog-eating cars along Southern California's busy highways.

ROYCHT: We have sampling ports in front of the " in front of the radiator and behind the radiator, and they actually suck the air that's going through the radiator back and analyze it to tell us how much ozone it contains. Right now, in this parking lot, we're looking at 23 parts per billion ozone.

O'NEILL: The van's radiator is coated with a catalyst which does the seemingly impossible. It transforms ozone, one of the most dangerous components of smog, into oxygen. But while there are high hopes for the technology, until the road tests are completed it's uncertain just what impact the Premair Catalyst will have, especially in large, smoggy regions such as Los Angeles.

BENSON: You're dealing with 400 square miles in the LA Basin, roughly. It's an enormous quantity of atmosphere that you'd have to clean up.

O'NEILL: Dr. Sidney Benson is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, and member of the Locur Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

BENSON: And then you have to look at the fleet of cars that we have, which are, and buses and trucks, and you're talking something on the order of about 10 million. And the question is, can that really make a dent on that many cubic feet of gas?

O'NEILL: Another big question is whether the Premair will eat more smog than the car it's on will produce. If the Premair Catalyst does what its designers hope, it could be used on other so-called heat exchangers, such as stationery air conditioners. Lou Ross is a vice chairman at the Ford Motor Company, which is sponsoring the Premair road tests.

ROSS: In areas of high ozone, I believe it will end up by being on all air conditioning units that are used in hope and office buildings. And the LA Basin, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, it will have broad application, far broader than the auto industry.

O'NEILL: The smog-eating technology created by the New Jersey-based Englehard Corporation, the same folks who brought us the catalytic converter, will undergo intensive testing through March, with the catalyst available soon after if it proves successful. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. This is Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt " whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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The Living On Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Researchers say children need contact with wild places and other creatures to grow up healthy, even if the wild place is a bit of weed-filled back yard and the creatures are common squirrels and frogs. Why children need nature in this half-hour of NPR's Living on Earth. But first, let's turn the pages of our weekly almanac.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: This month marks the 375th anniversary of the birth of English conservationist John Evelyn. His 1664 book Sylva, about protecting trees and forests, was a runaway bestseller for its time, selling more than 1,000 copies.

The Federal Government says nearly 250 million trees were chopped down for construction and paper products in 1993. The National Wildlife Federation says those trees were from many different species, up to 200 feet tall, and as much as 500 years old. The seedlings that replaced them were usually just one species: Douglas fir.

Americans built 1,119,000 single-family homes last year, with each house averaging 8,000 board feet of wood. That's equal to about 6 western old growth trees, or 32 younger Southern pines, per house.

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The Geography of Childhood

(Children: "I caught a frog!" "He's jumping around." Laughter. "I caught a butterfly." "Let's see if he eats radishes!")

NABHAN: Children need wild places for several very important reasons. I think that the first of those is as a place of refuge, as a place for restoration. A place where we can maintain our self-esteem. A place that's non-judgmental that we can go to. And of course, nature is a great place to be; it's a joyful place to be.

(Child: "I'm going to be put my and into..." Scream. "I don't feel anything.")

CURWOOD: That's Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley, in their suburban Boston back yard. They're with friends Anna and Christina Barbo, doing what many kids still do on a late summer's afternoon: chasing frogs and one another, exploring the woods, and getting wet.

(Child: "Whoa, he's sloppy!")

CURWOOD: They're the kind of children Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan have written about in their book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, published by Beacon Press. Both authors are professional naturalists and parents. Gary Nabhan says to grow up healthy, children need to connect with wild places and wild creatures.

NABHAN: Our species has evolved in contact with the natural world. Throughout the course of our evolution, our sensory capabilities, emotions, and rational faculties have been triggered in response to natural phenomena. In the absence of contact with the natural world, I believe that those faculties and capabilities atrophy and that human life is impoverished because of it.

TRIMBLE: You know, this is just about the only time in history when we can even discuss such issues. Less than 2 percent of Americans now live in the country, and that number's dropping all the time.

(Child: "I saw a blackbird. But it flew away.")

CURWOOD: What about a sense of place? Is that important for children?

NABHAN: Oh, I think a sense of place is incredibly important for children. We make that first bonding with our home landscape as kids. And I think all of us as grownups can think back to the place where we first made that connection. The open fields at the edge of town or the stream at the edge of the local park. Of connection with frogs, as they might catch frogs along an irrigation ditch. Or lying down in the grass at the edge of a field and watching the clouds go by beyond a big sycamore tree. All of us have those kinds of images from our childhoods, and treasure them.

(Child: "Can you pass me the branch?" "I can't; I have a frog and a radish in my hand.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: what's the difference between children who are exposed to a fair amount of nature and those children who are not? What does that mean for their lives?

TRIMBLE: Let me give you a very concrete example. Children of Inuit communities, the people that are commonly known as Eskimos, for centuries have had very good long distance and short distance vision. They very early on go out on hunting expeditions with their parents and grandparents and deal with long vistas. They also have to learn how to hold a knife and help with butchering and manipulate items very close to them, often in poor light. With the advent of television and books in Inuit communities, and this is within one generation's time, over 50% of the children in some of those communities have developed myopia. Why? Because the stimuli that they needed to allow their eyes to develop the full range of vision were lacking. They were exposed to stimuli immediately in front of them: TV screens, books, as the primary source through which they obtained information about the world.

(Footfalls. Child: "We're going in the woods here. This is woods. There's woods around here." "There's buttercups, and you see if there's any butter and see if you like butter." Laughs. "That's what my sister did." Laughs.)

CURWOOD: Tell me, how does the outdoors affect emotional development in children?

NABHAN: Kids start out in early childhood and begin to explore away from home base. We hope they start from the safe environment of their family and then move outward from there, and there's this constant tension between what they know and what they don't' know, and the safety of home base and the growth and independence that come from moving outward. And as we navigate our world, we begin to think of the world in terms of mental maps.

(Child: "I like to walk through the grass 'cause it's nice and tall. And sometimes I like to go out to that big table over there. And sometimes I go in the real big woods. There's a trail that you follow out here..." "I sometimes find bats, and there's one bat house or bird house, I forget, over there.")

NABHAN: They learn a little bit differently than if they're learning to negotiate mazes on a video screen than if they're negotiating the bushes in the local park.

(Child: "I'll take you where I like to play on, that tree that fell down. Because a lot of trees fell down on top of it, so it's really fun to climb.")

TRIMBLE: They're much more engaged with the immediacy of the natural world right in front of them. The smallest animals, leaves, sea shells, burrows of animals.

(Child: "And some of the leaves near here, like those ones, are sticky. Sometimes I play house on this, and that's the fireplace in there. I always show my friends this spot and they always say cool." "I can't!")

TRIMBLE: Children, when they're not told what to do, tend to go towards the shrubbery on the edge of the playground and make little nests, and burrows, and refuges. And look out. They're basically going through nesting behavior, and finding a very secure, small place that makes them feel comfortable, and keeping a lookout for wolves and other threats out beyond that nest.

CURWOOD: That sounds very primal, doesn't it?

TRIMBLE: It is very primal, almost universal behavior among children.

(Child: "Girls like to do different things than boys, like the girls that I play with, they, like, don't know how to climb as well as me.")

TRIMBLE: There is a tendency for boys to challenge one another more to go out of the nest and grab something and bring it back without being seen, and for girls to engage in, say, making something together within the nest. Or looking out, showing each other things beyond the nest, and discussing those. Those are very, very preliminary generalizations, though.

(Child: "Matthew, he likes to do wild things like climbing and sliding and things. But girls like, that's one of the things that girls do, too, but he likes to act really wild when we play tag and things.")

NABHAN: We just don't encourage our girls to be out there turning over rocks looking for spiders the way we do our boys. In one piece of research done in a small New England town in the 1970s, the researcher found that boys were ranging freely more than twice as far away from home as girls all through elementary school. And even when they begin to have small jobs, boys deliver papers and they learn the lay of the land, and girls start to baby-sit and they're often driven to that baby-sitting job. We deny the freedom to our girls that is going to lead to confidence. And that all accelerates as they reach adolescence and we tell even the tomboys to come down out of the trees that they love. And we do that at the very time when their self-esteem is assaulted by the society.

(Child: Let's go back to the house so we can explore some more things." "Yeah, there's too many bugs back here." "Whoa, I'm trying to chase the butterflies!" "Sometimes, it's really noisy because we have parties at our house anyways. And like, whenever it's really noisy, or I'm not having fun because, like, someone's being mean to me, I go outside to play by myself.")

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example here of some child who's had this kind of outdoor experience and what's happened to them as a result?

TRIMBLE: Well, I don't want to single out any child. But we had asked a number of urban children if they had even been alone for more than a half hour in a place devoid of human beings. There was one young woman that I interviewed with my children who grew up in a very remote part of the desert, and when we asked this young girl this question, she said no, then yes, then no. And then finally said, "Well what do you mean? Every night at sunset I take my pony and we gallop out as far from the house as we can and watch the sunset and watch the wildflowers and the mountains and watch the ravens come over the crest of the mountains. But I don't think of that as being alone. I think of that as being with my horse; it's almost as if I'm with another person." And that kind of intimacy, as well as the self-esteem to say I have the capability of going out and discovering the world with my own imagination and with my own relationship with this other animals, I thought was a remarkable statement.

(Child: "My favorite kind of flowers is smell, is forsythias. I can't say it." "Forsythias?" "Yeah. And I sniff the air because I think it smells good.")

NABHAN: I'm afraid that a certain amount of alienation from nature is bound to creep in, as we have fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature. Fewer and fewer direct experience with birth and death of animals and watching plants grow from seeds. Another thing that kids lose in that they have most of their experiences with nature simply by watching television, is a sense of patience. You know, when you go out in the field and go looking for birds or hope to see big mammals, you find that not a lot happens, and you may go a long time between seeing birds or mammals or any other creatures. And when the entire life histories of animals are sandwiched into the half an hour between 2 TV programs, it's a very different sense of reality.

(Child: "I like wolves and coyotes and dogs and stuff. I see them in pictures and on TV and the encyclopedia.")

NABHAN: To be full, fully developed human beings, to be sane and humane human beings, we do need a connection with the Earth. The biologist E.O. Wilson at Harvard suggests that this is built right into our genes, and he calls that biophilia, a love for other creatures. And to think inclusively, to think as members of a planetary society, really, that includes all cultures and all creatures, rather than simply as human setting out to dominate all other creatures, is a value that I think can't help but do good for us.

(Child: "Well, we were making a little home for it. And I, I got a bunch of dirt and grass and made a home for the caterpillar.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: how wild do these wild places have to be? I mean, will a suburban lot do? How about an abandoned city lot?

TRIMBLE: That's a great question. I think the places that we call urban waste places that may have weeds and a few rodents and a few birds can give many kids that sense of discovery and participation in nature.

(Child: "It has white spots and see that orange one right there, that has orange eyes?" "Uh huh." "And it has blue. I don't know how many legs it has.")

NABHAN: Little kids don't need big wilderness. It's those small places, the park, the gully, summer camps, gardens. That's where they make their connections. It's any direct contact.

CURWOOD: Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan are the authors of The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, from Beacon Press.

(Child: "They make the cocoon." "And they turn into a butterfly. Ooh, there's a bug on my shoe.")

CURWOOD: Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley catch bugs and frogs with Anna and Christina Barbo in their back yard in Reading, Massachusetts.

(Child: "And we have a nice ant...")

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Animal voices we can't hear, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Unheard Voices

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. Animals have some astonishing powers that we humans are only beginning to understand. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has been exploring this hidden world.

MONTGOMERY: No one could explain it. When elephants were being slaughtered in one area in Zimbabwe, in a different area other elephants grew restless, flapping ears, swinging trunks, pacing, as if they knew what was happening to the other elephants miles away.

Another mystery. Fin whales, unlike other migratory whales, don't return to traditional wintering grounds year after year. They choose new spots each year. From around the world, all the fin whales know to come here, this year, to breed. How could these things be? For decades, scientists were baffled, but Henry Beston, not a scientist but a naturalist, knew something. He watched the life at the edge of the sea near his Cape Cod home. When this century was still young, he reached this conclusion in his book, The Outermost House: "We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals," he wrote. "In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear."

More than half a century later, scientists are beginning to explore whole worlds of sensation outside of human experience. Echoes of voices we can never hear. Bats and dolphins use a form of sonar, known as echolocation, to probe their worlds with beams of sounds: sounds we can't hear. Elephants, whales, hippos, and alligators, and probably many other species, can create and hear infrasounds below the threshold of human hearing. In water, infrasound can travel farther than the widest ocean basin, enabling fin whales to find each other halfway around the world. It explains how groups of elephants can stay in touch with one another when they're miles apart.

Using sensitive recording and playback technology, scientists are now beginning to document that many animals' social systems may be far richer, more complex and wide-ranging than previously suspected. Long before television, telephone, or the Internet, some of these creatures may have been broadcasting information far beyond their immediate family herd or pod, to call, warn, or inform other animals miles away. The mystery now is, how did Henry Beston know years before infrasound was discovered? About the unheard voices governing animals' lives. Perhaps, he, too, possessed a sense we have not officially discovered or named. A sensitivity, an intuition, that allowed him to look at other lives and imagine them to be more, not less, than what is immediately apparent to our dim, human senses.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is a commentator for Living on Earth. Her latest book is called The Spell of the Tiger.

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(Music up and under)

Lawn Outlaws

CURWOOD: Have you ever stopped to think about your lawn? No, I don't mean that feeling of dread on the weekends. I mean, have you ever really wondered why the lawn is such a totem of American culture? In India, grass is seen as a weed. But here in the US, we spend some $25 billion a year on the care and feeding of lawns, not to mention all those weekend hours. Despite its desert climate, Utah is no exception. In fact, Utahns may be even more obsessed with their lawns than the rest of us. Producer Jeff Rice recently set out to find out why.

(Music up and under: woman singing, "He rakes and trims the grass. He loves to mow and weed. I cook like Betty Crocker...")

RICE: If you're like a lot of people, suburban utopia means living somewhere that's green, in a house with a lawn. And i f you know anything about Utahns, you know we're serious about our turf.

(A lawn mower runs)

RICE: Despite the fact that Utah is the second driest state in the Union, there are green lawns here as far as the eye can see. My guess is you can hit a nine-iron from yard to yard here for the rest of your life and never hit the same shot twice. I grew up pushing a lawn mower, and as a young entrepreneur I was recognizable by my stained-green tennis shoes and my regular bouts of sneezing from my allergies to grass clippings. Lawns are second-nature to me, but one day I woke up and couldn't help asking: why are we so obsessed?

(A mower motor comes to a halt.)

RICE: In the spirit of cultural anthropology, I started checking around. One biologist I read about suggested that on a grand scale our deep attachment to the lawn comes from humans' early evolution on the savanna grasslands. That was where we spent our formative evolutionary years, he reasons, and may explain our current choice of grassy habitat. Not a bad theory, and it may also explain the phenomenon of the backyard barbecue. There is, after all, nothing more primal than the combination of fire and meat. Still others hold for a more recent origin.

(Water sprinklers running)

RICE: A lot of Utah's early settlers came from the Midwest, where it actually rains on a regular basis. So, according to this theory, Utah's desert settlers were homesick for green, and this led them to become some of the greatest irrigators that ever lived. Or, it could be our pioneering need to control the land, our distrust of wilderness, our conquering nature. All these are valid possibilities, but I think I came upon the most pressing reason at the City and County Building. The reason there are so many lawns in Utah is, because that's the law.

(A gavel is banged.)

TAYLOR: Section twenty-one point eight oh point two hundred of Salt Lake City Code, and that's from Title 21, which is a zoning ordinance.

RICE: Randy Taylor is the zoning coordinator for Salt Lake City.

TAYLOR: Yes, it is the law in Salt Lake City and every other city in Utah that I know of, at least.

RICE: Everybody has to have some green grass in their front yard.

TAYLOR: Well, everyone to be in compliance should, yes.

RICE: A quick look into Salt Lake City legal history revealed that probably the first example of civically mandated grass planning was the grass on the roads during the days of the first settlers. Grass served to hold the soil together so wagons and oxen wouldn't get bogged down in the mud on the rare occasions when it did rain. Later, grass became more fashionable and moved from the street to the front yard.

(Sound of a wagon being pulled.)

RICE: The epitome of Utah's love affair with the lawn seems to be the estate of pioneer Mormon church leader Brigham Young. Today, people can tour the estate on covered wagons. I did this recently and I noticed that, sure enough, the yard has a nicely manicured lawn of Kentucky bluegrass. I could picture it: Brigham Young tending to the barbecue, one of his 55 wives bringing him a glass of cold lemonade as they smile happily in their green oasis in the desert. But it turn out that there was a dirty little secret beneath that grass. The tour guide didn't really like to talk about it, but I dragged it out of him.

GUIDE: The Historical Society, when you look at old pictures, you know, it's dirt and you've got weeds growing up here and shoots of grass here and there. That's about what it was.

RICE: It turns out that when it came to his lawn, Mr. Young was not with the program. This is a fact that the park seems to have gone to great lengths to conceal. No doubt they suspect that if people found out that the founder of the community himself did not have a lawn, it might unravel the very fabric of our current system of lawn law. And it got me wondering. Is there anybody out there now who is so far out on the fringe of society that they don't even have a front lawn? Are their lawn outlaws?

(A car door closes; a motor revs up.)

RICE: It was a long search, but sure enough, I began to find what I was looking for. The warm glow of cultural consensus was beginning to fade. Here, in a hillside residential area, was a house with, of all things, native flora, and not a blade of grass to be found anywhere. In short, illegal.

WOMAN: I just don't know how to respond.

RICE: This woman was understandably cautious when I told her about the law.

RICE: Consult your lawyer, perhaps?

WOMAN: Yeah, yeah, I better consult him first. (Laughs)

RICE: Another woman was proud to show me her yard.

WOMAN: I've got a lot of, like, natural landscaping. I've got pine trees and ground cover and fitzers and quaking aspen, and some...

RICE: Until I told her about the law and pointed out the dearth of grass in front of her house. The things people will say to weasel out of trouble!

WOMAN: We inherited these (laughs) this design. It was some reverend that owned our house before. (Laughs.) It was Reverend Johnson. (Laughs.) He moved away a long time ago. (Laughs.)

RICE: And then there was one case where I just wasn't sure what to think. As I passed by one yard bordering a busy street near the University District, I had a vague sense that something wasn't quite right. It was green, yes. But ... I walked up to it for a closer look.

(Sound of brick landing on cement)

RICE: The brick test clinched it. I checked with one of the tenants.

TENANT: We have a landlord who had a cement patch in front of his apartment building and he wanted it to look, I suppose, a little more homey. And so he had some friend of his come in and paint it green, to make it look like a lawn.

RICE: So I'm wondering, like, are you guys lawn outlaws?

TENANT: Well, I " I never really thought of it that way. It's sort of a romantic idea, really.

RICE: I asked him if, perhaps, by painting the front cement green, his landlord was making an ironic statement on the dominant paradigm. Maybe it was a coercive gesture. Or maybe it was just an attempt to fool the lawn police.

TENANT: It's a fake-out, is what I'd say. Because I think the first thing you said about being coercive, I think that's far beyond our landlord. So yeah, it's a fake-out. That's all it can be now that we know about the law. I'm glad to be in on it.

RICE: So if you've ever wondered why there are so many lawns in Utah, now you know. And if you're allergic to grass or you prefer the low maintenance of green cement, consider yourself warned. The lawn police could be out there.

(A lawn mower revs up.)

RICE: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Rice in Salt Lake City.

(A police siren is superimposed on the lawn mower.)

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(Music up and under: "Grazing in the Grass")

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our segment on the geography of childhood was produced by Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, David Dunlap, Susan Shepherd, and Catherine Gill. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Special thanks to Jane Pipik, KUAT Tucson, and KUER Salt Lake City. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR Boston and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Joyce Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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