• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 1, 1995

Air Date: December 1, 1995

SEGMENTS

Blanton Forest / John Gregory

In the eastern United States, old-growth forests south of where the glaciers ended are fragments of an ecosystem perhaps a hundred thousand years old. In Southeastern Kentucky, a 2300-acre tract known as Blanton Forest is just such an ecosystem — and state and private organizations want to turn it into a nature preserve while developing eco-tourism for the region. John Gregory reports. (06:36)

When Corporations Rule the World

Author David Korten says the reason why money feels tighter for middle and lower income Americans is that they’re losing out to the tremendous concentration of wealth and power by giant multinational corporations . . . who are also responsible for deepening poverty, social breakdown, and environmental decline. (06:42)

The American President / Ronni Liberman

Ronni Liberman of the Sierra Club reviews this new film about a widowed President who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist. (02:20)

Gift Ideas from Listeners

Our listeners respond to a call for holiday gifts that are environmentally friendly and gentle on the human spirit. (03:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Happy birthday to the EPA. (01:00)

Civilization / Sandy Tolan

Producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through human civilizations and the causes of their environmental decline, as we attempt to understand the deeper causes of how we got to where we are today. (22:47)

Thinking About Animals / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery has been thinking about the historical relationship between humans and other animals. (01:59)

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
NEWSCASTER: David Baron
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Amy Eddings, John Gregory, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: David Korten
COMMENTATORS: Ronni Liberman, Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Do you feel worse off financially these days? If so, says a former Harvard Business School professor, you're like the majority of people. The problem he says is too much wealth in the hands of corporations, and misleading economic indicators.

KORTEN: The way we measure our progress indicates that toxic dumping is good for the economy, because producing the toxics generates economic activity, and then cleaning up the mess also adds to economic activity.

CURWOOD: Also, preserving an old growth forest that gives us a glimpse of America more than 100,000 years ago.

HOWARD: There's a peace and serenity that you can get from a day's walk back in that hilly, wooded area, that I don't think you can find in a lot of places.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

BARON: From Living on Earth, I'm David Baron. A controversial study using noise in the ocean to measure climate change has been put on hold after several whales were found dead off the California coast. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: Three dead humpback whales were discovered just days after researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography began pumping high-decibel sound blasts into the waters off the southern California coast. The cause of death is so far undetermined. The $35 million Scripps study uses sound transmissions through the Pacific Ocean as a way to measure subtle temperature shifts. Environmentalists fought the project when it was initially proposed for fear that it would deafen whales, interfere with their migration routes, and disrupt their feeding habits. Last summer, Scripps agreed to modify the blasts and commit $4.5 million to a marine mammal study. Scripps officials say they're confident the 20-minute, 195-decibel transmissions are not to blame for the recent whale deaths. But project critics disagree and say Scripps scientists have broadcast the sound blast before taking the agreed-upon steps to protect whales and other marine life. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

BARON: The hole in the Earth's protective ozone shield grew at an unprecedented rate in 1995. According to a report by the UN's World Meteorological Organization, the hole over the Antarctic covered an area twice the size of Europe at its seasonal peak in October. One of the reasons for the record size, the hole began to expand earlier than usual this year. Although ozone depletion is most severe over Antarctica, major ozone deficiencies were observed over North America and Europe with a record 35% decrease in ozone over Siberia. The ozone shield's depletion lets more of the sun's ultraviolet rays reach the Earth's surface, where it can damage crops and cause skin cancer and cataracts in humans.

The world's first test tube baby gorilla has been born in Cincinnati. Rosie, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, gave birth 5 weeks prematurely to a female western lowland gorilla in October, but the new arrival wasn't announced until late last month. It was the zoo's first attempt at a test tube gorilla birth. There have been about 10 unsuccessful tries worldwide. In March, researchers hoping to preserve the gorilla species recovered 12 eggs from Rosie and fertilized them with sperm taken from a gorilla at the Henry Dorley Zoo in Omaha. This news comes as guardians of endangered mountain gorillas are meeting to improve their conservation methods. In the past year at least 8 primates were killed in central Africa. Four gorillas were speared in Uganda in March and 4 more were killed in Zaire in August. Representatives of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, a coalition of US and African conservation groups, are meeting in Kenya to review its performance over the year, including efforts to stop illegal trade in infant gorillas. There are only 2 populations of mountain gorillas left in the world. Some 320 live in the Virunga Volcano spanning the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. A second population of some 300 is in Uganda's Bwindi impenetrable national park.

As the 10th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl nears, money to care for the victims of the nuclear plant meltdown is running out. Representatives of affected countries recently met at the United Nations. From New York, Amy Eddings reports.

EDDINGS: Ministers from the Ukraine, Belorusse, and Russia, met with top UN officials to discuss the bleak situation. According to the UN's humanitarian department, morbidity rates and contaminated areas of Ukraine are 30% higher than the population as a whole. Thyroid cancer in Belorusse is 285 times greater than pre-accident levels, and huge tracts of land throughout the area may be unusable and uninhabitable for generations. Yet UN officials say attempts to repair the damage may be halted due to a lack of money, interest, and support. A World Health Organization effort initially raised $21 million, but Reiner Schmidt, a radiation scientist of the WHO, says there's only $200,000 left. About $650 million will be needed to continue humanitarian assistance. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.

BARON: After a long and intensive review, a United Nations panel has confirmed its conclusion that human activity is at least partly responsible for global warming. At a meeting in Madrid the intergovernmental panel on climate change also said that global temperatures are warmer now than ever before during human civilization. Climatologists from more than 100 countries confirmed that, quote, "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate." that statement marked a change from a 1990 report by the same panel, which stated that, quote, "detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more."

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm David Baron.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Blanton Forest

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Despite heavy logging for centuries, there are still pockets of old growth forest in the eastern United States. Most of these have been found in the northeast, and are windows on the world of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago when forests took over from receding glaciers. But when you find old growth south of where the glaciers ended, you're looking at a fragment of an ecosystem which has been there for perhaps more than 100,000 years. And that's what's been found in southeastern Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachian coal country. It's called Blanton forest. And in one sense it's tiny, about 2,300 acres. But it is big enough to give a real taste of the original wild America, where giant sloths and even tigers might have roamed. Now state and private organizations in Kentucky are working to purchase Blanton forest. They want to turn it into a nature preserve and help local citizens develop eco-tourism enterprises in this economically depressed region. John Gregory has this report.

EVANS: Okay, we'll get moving in a ways. This is flat, and when we start going up the mountain, well, you'll know it.

(Footfalls and ambient conversation)

GREGORY: On a steamy, late summer afternoon, botanist Mark Evans leads a tour through a portion of Blanton forest. The trail starts out easy, but soon gets steeper as it ascends the southern slope of Pine Mountain near Harlan, Kentucky. The air in these woods is thick, still, and quiet, trapped between the dense rhododendron thickets that blanket the ground and the treetop canopies some 150 feet above us. Evans greets the trees like old friends, gently patting and rubbing them as he walks along the trail.

EVANS: This right here is an American chestnut. This is all that remains of what was once a very mighty forest tree that grew very, very large. It was a very important tree, so with the demise of the chestnut that greatly altered our forests.

GREGORY: Evans says Blanton is the way a forest should look: a chaotic jumble of lush undergrowth, massive rocks, and huge trees. Some straight and tall and others dead and decaying. He identified this old growth forest 3 years ago while conducting a state-wide inventory of natural areas for the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission. As the trail crosses a rock outcropping, Evans points to an expansive view of the Cumberland Mountains.

EVANS: Everything you're seeing here is old growth, original forest. This is the same thing that Daniel Boone saw, Simon Kenton, everybody else, all those other good explorers.

GREGORY: The forest is named for Grover Blanton, a local dry goods store owner who bought the property around the turn of the century. It's said that Blanton liked to visit his woods on Sunday instead of going to church. He gave the land to his children, urging them to protect it from people wanting to mine coal around it or cut trees off it, and as the timber boom swept across the Appalachians from the 1880s to the 1930s, Blanton Forest was one of the few relatively large and fairly accessible pockets of old growth that remained uncut. Again, botanist Marc Evans.

EVANS: A lot of the old growth forests that are left are high elevation, spruce-fir forests, which have stunted trees and were not economically important in terms of logging, when the big logging boom went on.

GREGORY: Blanton, on the other hand, has 23 species of commercially viable trees, some as much as 300 to 400 years old. Evans credits the survival of the forest to the Blanton family and to the rugged topography that made the woods difficult to log. Because of its pristine nature and scientific value, he was immediately concerned that Blanton should be protected from logging and from damage done by all-terrain vehicles being driven around the forest. Evans helped start a $4 million fundraising campaign to purchase Blanton and surrounding lands. It's the single largest conservation effort in Kentucky history.

(Traffic, church chimes)

GREGORY: Blanton forest is just a few miles outside of Harlan, Kentucky, population 2,686. At noon the bell tower of the Methodist church serenades the townspeople with a favorite hymn. They call Blanton forest "the jungles," and it's been a favorite campground for local Boy Scout troops for generations. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard develops a boyish grin as he recalls his own youth in the jungles searching for bears, cougars, and Indians. As an adult, though, he recognizes the financial benefits to developing an eco-tourism industry based around Blanton forest.

HOWARD: We need every job that we can get in this area. So right now, any outlook of putting people to work, you know, we're just tickled to death. We're just trying to keep our heads above water.

GREGORY: Harlan was once known as the coal capitol of Kentucky, but the industry is now in a steep decline and the area has an unemployment rate that is more than twice the national average. But state tourism officials estimate that promoting Blanton forest as a travel destination could bring more than $2 million a year into the local economy. And it could help generate new jobs in hotel, restaurant, and recreational facilities. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard.

HOWARD: For kids to come out of school and be able to stay in the area and work, I hope will be very, very rewarding for the area.

GREGORY: The trick, though, says Amanda Hilee, is creating the kind of jobs that will provide long-term growth for the area. Hilee is the development director for the Blanton Forest Project and a consultant with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED. The group helps local people build sustainable communities in Kentucky's Appalachian Mountain region, and it's one of several organizations that have joined the state in the fundraising effort.

HILEE: If it results in more people owning small businesses, to have a piece of the tourism industry like a bed and breakfast, like a local camping equipment rental place or canoe equipment rental, where a lot of different people have a real piece of the economic design, that's the kind of development that MACED would like to see the most.

GREGORY: Even though the property is not yet open to the public, Harlan has already seen some benefit from Blanton Forest. Scientists traveling to the woods to do research have kept the local hotel nearly full. State officials are eager to provide an economic boost to the area, but they say their first priority is to protect the woods, even if that means eventually limiting visitors. And as much as he wants his community to benefit, Mayor Danny Howard doesn't want Harlan to become too commercialized. More than 23,000 people drive through this region each day on Interstate 75, and some local people fear Harlan could become another highly developed tourist town like nearby Gantlenburg, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the meantime, though, Howard says he's happy the Blanton forest itself will be preserved.

HOWARD: To be back in that area as a child, you know, you can, your imagination just runs wild with you, and in my older years and going back in there there's a peace and serenity that you can get from a day's walk back in -- in that hilly, wooded area, that I don't think you can find in a lot of places.

GREGORY: About half of Blanton forest has already been purchased by the nature preserve's commission and officials are working to acquire the other half as well as a 4,400-acre buffer zone around the old growth tracks. It's hoped that parts of the preserve can be open to the public within the next 2 years. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

When Corporations Rule the World

CURWOOD: Ever wondered why, if you have a middle or lower income, that things seem to be getting worse and money feels tighter? Even though the government reports that the economy is steadily growing and the Dow Jones industrial stock average is trading at a record high. Author David Korten says that's because you are losing out to the tremendous concentration of wealth and power by giant corporations. Dr. Korten, a former professor at the Harvard Business School, says what is called growth is an illusion and that transnational corporate powers are responsible for 3 disturbing trends: deepening poverty, social breakdown, and environmental decline. David Korten's new book is called When Corporations Rule the World.

KORTEN: We're beginning to see that there's a lot of distortions involved in that. For one thing, the things that we measure in terms of growth are really just measuring economic activity, so a lot of the things that -- that we count as progress are really detrimental. For example, if we have an oil spill that requires cleaning it up; that's economic activity, it contributes to growth. If a person gets divorced that contributes to growth; they generally have to buy an extra house, that's real estate commissions, and set it up with appliances and so forth. But the thing that I've seen from my experience working in Third World countries is a very active process by which growth drives the poor off of their land, deprives them of their means of livelihood, so that those with more economic power can benefit. For example, in the Philippines, in the mountain province of Inget, the indigenous Igerope people have been doing subsistence farming for generations for their basic maintenance. They also do a little bit of small scale pocket mining for gold on their ancestral lands. Now those lands have been taken over by the Inget Mining Corporation, which is doing large-scale gold mining. As a consequence the people that live in the area find their soils and their water sources depleted, they can no longer grow rice and bananas, they have to go to the other side of the mountain for drinking water. So you have hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods are destroyed so that this one company makes enormous profits, and it all, of course, shows up as growth.

CURWOOD: Does growth have to come at the expense of people? I mean, we're told that growth means more and better jobs for people. You're saying that growth doesn't mean that.

KORTEN: It's very true that the economic growth that we're told eliminates poverty, creates jobs and so forth is in many instances actually reducing jobs and eliminating the means of livelihood of the poorest people. We now have in the world 358 billionaires. Their total net worth is somewhere around $760 billion. That's roughly equivalent to the net worth of the world's poorest 2 and a half billion people. What's -- what we face with this reaching environmental limits and this enormous inequality in the world is a need to take some very difficult decisions in the direction of equity and in terms of reorganizing how we use the sustainable output of the Earth's ecosystems to meet human needs.

CURWOOD: What responsibility do multinational corporations bear for these problems you're describing?

KORTEN: Basically, the multinational -- the phenomenon of the multinational corporation goes to the heart of it. Actually, I would call them transnational rather than multinational. Multinational is a corporation that has roots in many communities, where a transnational corporation transcends all national loyalties and obligations. And that much better describes the situation we're in now, where companies have become truly global and accountable only to a globalized financial system that places enormous demands on them to produce the maximum profits in the very short term. And that whole system is quite blind to both the social and the environmental consequences of their decisions.

CURWOOD: Is it the globalization, then, of the economy which is to blame here?

KORTEN: That's a very key piece of it. You know, we're told that the free market is the most efficient instrument for addressing the community good, and drawing back on the theories of Adam Smith. That's very interesting; if you go back and actually read Adam Smith, his ideal economy is one in which economic activity is based in small local firms. Now, those small local firms are embedded in a local community and a value system and so forth, and the owners, the small owners who are also often the workers, live in that community and they share the consequences of their decisions. When you move investment capital into a free-floating global financial system, the decision-making power becomes totally detached from community and from the consequences of the decisions being made.

CURWOOD: We're told that free trade improves things, that helps the human community. Is that true or not?

KORTEN: Well trade, as we've understood in economic theory, is trade between countries, between national economies. But the trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT are basically integrating our national economies into a single regional or global economy in which firms have complete free movement to move capital and goods wherever they wish. And what we're beginning to see is that those agreements are really bills of rights to protect the rights of corporations to operate freely in search of short-term profits without accountability to any public bodies for social standards, environmental standards and so forth.

CURWOOD: This is a pretty strong indictment of our present economic system. You're saying that under the banner of growth, in fact, transnational corporations are accelerating poverty and environmental destruction and social disintegration. Is it possible to turn back from this scenario?

KORTEN: Well, the things that are happening, and the move toward economic globalization is a result of conscious decisions. We can just as well, as a voting public, take back the power that we've yielded to corporations and change the rules in favor of more localized economies, and in favor of economies that concentrate less on providing a few consumer toys for the wealthiest among us, and instead concentrate on assuring that everyone has an opportunity to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and so forth.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much, David Korten.

KORTEN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: David Korten's book is called When Corporations Rule the World. He's a former professor of business at the Harvard Business School. Some ecological romance is just ahead on Living on Earth. Stick around.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

The American President

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This holiday season's crop of new movies is much like years past, except there's a new twist on the perennial White House comedy plot. A widowed president who falls for an environmental activist. Rob Reiner directed The American President with Michael Douglas in the title role romancing Annette Bening. We thought we'd ask a real eco-lobbyist for her review of the film. Ronni Liberman is Media Director of the Sierra Club.

LIBERMAN: Movies are all about fantasy, and The American President is no exception. If there are environmentalists out there with plush offices like the one Annette Bening has, I've never met them. Or maybe one of us makes as much money as the President. Right. And all journalists look like Robert Redford. And I won't even touch the fairy tale of an activist and the President publicly falling in love. That's really just show-biz.

But as show-biz fantasies go, this one is a lot of fun. I must admit I'm prejudiced. The American President combines 2 of my favorite things: romance and the environment. As the President, Michael Douglas's heart is in the right place on the environment, but he keeps compromising for the sake of politics. When he hears the feisty words of environmental advocate Annette Bening at a White House meeting, he's amused and intrigued. As the lobbyist hired by an environmental lobbying group, Bening's Sydney Ellen Wade learns about energy efficiency issues quickly, then gets her messages down simply and clearly. Huhhhhh! If it only happened that easily.

But love and politics is a slippery match. The President must balance swapping votes for principles. The relationship nearly hits the skids as the President tries to trade votes on environmental legislation to preserve his crime bill. Still, The American President does hit all the right environmental buttons. Bening is fighting for a 20% reduction in energy consumption by the year 2,000 to curb global warming, and even the President acknowledges global warming as the single greatest environmental threat.

Mostly the movie gets a thumbs-up for accuracy. Michael J. Fox does a great imitation of George Stephanopolis, and Martin Sheen is wonderful as the Mack McClarty-like chief of staff. Director Rob Reiner even includes the crazy traffic in DuPont Circle. The only other problem is Annette Bening's roots aren't showing. That's her grass roots. You don't win in Congress without them. And her organization doesn't seem to have the activists who write letters, make phone calls, and meet with their members of Congress back home to support important issues that give us the right to a safe and healthy environment. I guess that's another movie.

CURWOOD: Ronni Liberman is media director of the Sierra Club.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Gift Ideas from Listeners

CURWOOD: Last week we asked you, our listeners, for your suggestions of holiday expressions that are environmentally friendly and gentle on the human spirit. First we have to say thank you. A lot of you have called or written, and we wish we could put all of them on the air, but we'll share as many as we can. A listener to KSMF in Ashland, Oregon, begins our first sample.

CALLER: What I'm doing along with a couple of my friends is we're giving mathoms. I believe it's spelled M-A-T-H-O-M-S. What they are is they're gifts that one has already owned, like something that's special to me that has value, that I give away to somebody. And along with it, this is my little addition, is to write a little note as to the importance of why I'm giving them something used instead of buying something new.

CURWOOD: Renee Marion of Livingston, Montana, likes to give away gifts from her green thumb.

MARION: As my houseplants reproduce I stick the cuttings in pots of dirt and give them away. I use the offsprings from my grandmother herb plants in the garden the same way as gifts. And any extra basil or other herbs I dry from my garden I put in little jars and give away as gifts. And I use the abundance of school paper that comes home for packages.

CURWOOD: And Yan Sturrmun of Bainbridge Island, Washington, wrote us this prose poem:

STURRMUN: An alternative to the Christmas frenzy. Imagine if on Christmas morning we all gathered in groups of 2 or more, between us an apple, a knife, maybe a candle. In quiet veneration we slice slivers of crisp, sweet fruit, and tenderly lay them on each other's tongue. Feel fingers briefly, touch lips. The taste, the texture, chew, swallow. And the fruit becomes my flesh, stillness. Maybe, briefly, eyes touch eyes as I offer apple to you. Just for a moment, reverence. That's all we ask, in a spell of intimacy, the human to human apple communion. What simple, ecstatic joy would resound forth across a land, this earth on such a day. I believe then we would re-enter the Garden of Eden. So that's a thought on Christmas. Thanks. See you later. Bye bye.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Listener Yan Sturrmun of Bainbridge Island, Washington. So tell us: what's your idea for making the holidays greener? Give us a call right now. The number is 1-800-218-9988. 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. LOE@NPR.ORG. And our mailing address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

(Music up and under: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

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

(Music up and under: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the Joyce Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment, and the Ford Foundation.

(Music up and under: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, just what are the differences between animals and people, and what do they mean?

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Rome. The Mayan civilization. The Pharaohs of Egypt. The builders of Stonehenge. Over the ages, great societies have risen and fallen, and in the end an all too common denominator for their failure is the collapse of the ecosystems that supported them. The challenge of civilization in this half hour of NPR's Living on Earth. First, this week's Almanac.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago this week, the Environmental Protection Agency was created by order of President Richard Nixon. The EPA was formed to bring activities ranging from air pollution control to pesticide registration, in 5 diifferent departments, under one roof. At first the Agency employed 5,400 people. Today it has more than 3 times that number. Since the EPA's creation the US has removed lead from its drinking water and DDT and PCBs, and substantially cleaned up the air. But many challenges remain. Forty percent of all US rivers are still unfit for swimming or fishing, and one in 4 of all Americans live within 4 miles of a toxic waste site. Despite its Republican parentage, the Agency has come under fire from today's Republicans. Current GOP proposals call for substantial cuts in the EPA's budget.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "Subsequently!")

Civilization

CURWOOD: The language of environmental decline, unheard of a generation ago, is now familiar to us all. Ozone depletion, global warming, soil erosion, endangered species, smog. Words so commonplace now our eyes may glaze over when we encounter them. Now, some assign blame for particular problems to particular culprits. Logging companies, population growth, consumer demand, exhaust pouring out of tailpipes. Yet there may be more fundamental causes of environmental loss. To some the problems stem from an ethic of exploitation imported first to the Americas by Columbus, an ethic now prevailing across the world. But others say we may never emerge from our environmental morass unless we understand that the roots of the problem go much deeper, thousands of years more distant. That they are perhaps as old as humanity itself. Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through time as we attempt to understand how we got to where we are today.

(Crickets)

TOLAN: One night a few years ago I was in a tiny Indian village in South America. The village was nestled in the Amazon. It had no lights, no roads, no running water. But it was in the midst of Ecuador's oil country, and so it was a tiny island in a whirl of change. Late one evening, in a wooden shack on stilts, a young man swung slowly in his hammock, telling me how life used to be before the coming of western man only 15 years before. His name was Toribe.

TORIBE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The whole structure of our lives has changed. The changes have been so fast. So many things, one on top of the other. Our forefathers, they lived miraculous lives. We hunted in peace wherever we wanted to go. We worked our field. We lived from the natural medicines. With the coming of the petroleum companies came epidemics. We didn't know anything about the flu, the measles, almost all the region was hit. Many fled from here. Those that stayed were finished.

TOLAN: Toribe's hands cast giant shadows on the warped gray walls of the shack. They told stories of the Texaco helicopters, the seismic explosions, the pipelines and roads, the invasion of settlers, the oil spills, the poisoned river, the shaman who died of drink and a broken heart. Today, still, I hear the echoes of the American expansion west, of the Spanish conquest 4 centuries before that. Down in the Ecuadorian rainforest, history is repeating itself.

TORIBE (through translator): There were 70,000 of us. Now, there are only about 3,000 of us.

TOLAN: It's an old story: the legacy of Columbus, of colonial expansion being played out again and again. But perhaps this is just one part of an even older story, a story perhaps as old as human civilization. For it seems many people, long before Columbus, got into deep trouble themselves.

(A vehicle rolls across terrain)

FERGUSON: We're on the Sioux Indian reservation.

TOLAN: Four thousand miles to the north, in the Badlands, at the edge of Lakota Sioux Indian country, I'm in the back seat of a 4-wheel drive with a grizzly old rancher and an archaeologist heading towards a blackening sky in the snarl of canyons.

HANNUS: My name is Adrian Hannus. I am an archaeologist. I'm on the teaching faculty at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

FERGUSON: My name is Les Ferguson. I've lived in this country all of my life.

TOLAN: We slope down through fields of wild grass and sunflowers, toward the traces of the first civilization in the Americas and maybe the first environmental problems.

FERGUSON: Across right down in that brush.

(Sound of movement through tall grasses)

TOLAN: Twelve thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age, perhaps the first bands of nomadic hunters crossed the frozen Alaskan land bridge and began to populate a hemisphere. Carrying spears, these Clovis people traveled south into a new land, encountering the mastodon, camels, saber-toothed cats, beavers the size of bears, and the woolly mammoth.

HANNUS: We can probably find some fragments of mammoth bone coming out along this butte over here.

FERGUSON: Now see here, here's some of our bones that we're looking for right now, coming out clear over here, you see.

TOLAN: But it's not just mammoth bones the old man and the professor have discovered in the Badlands. Lying in the rib cages of the ice-age elephants, they found spear points from the Clovis Indians. The people believed to be the first Americans had a taste for mammoth meat and the skill to fell the 16-foot giants with their spears. But for all their knowledge and hunting skill, the Clovis may not have known how to protect their sustenance for future generations. In digs like this lies evidence for a provocative and controversial theory: that the Clovis hunters wiped out the mammoth and dozens of other species. Jared Diamond of UCLA says the Clovis people triggered an extinction Blitzkrieg.

DIAMOND: Within 200 years of the arrival of Clovis hunters, we see the extinction of the mammoths, the ground sloths, Harrison's mountain goat, other animals whose ancestors had been in the New World for millions of years. They're gone within 100 or 200 years of the arrival of the first Indian hunters.

HANNUS: At the time that this hunting was occurring, these were just about the last mammoths.

TOLAN: The Blitzkrieg theory is of course impossible to prove or disprove. Some say it's ecological revisionism designed to assuage the guilt of European descendants and make all society's ethics appear equal. Make the Clovis the Stone Age equivalents of the culture that produced the Exxon Valdez, that ruined Ecuadorian rainforest.

HANNUS: You know, this probably is, Les. It's probably elephant, it's probably mammoth. Juvenile. It's a part of a pelvis.

TOLAN: Adrian Hannus thinks the mammoths may have been done in more by massive climate change at the end of the last ice age. Yet he says perhap the mammoth, teetering on the brink, got a final push from the Clovis.

HANNUS: When you have a predator that is the ultimate predator, humans, thrown into the equation, it certainly is an important factor.

TOLAN: Even if the Clovis provided just that final push, it was only one early part, says Hannus, of a long human history of self-inflicted wounds.

HANNUS: The cultural system, if it overshoots its environment and there's nowhere for the people to move to, to a different environment that they can further exploit, you can ultimately see the end of a system or a system that breaks apart and, you know, scatters itself. And that is in the archaeological record time after time.

TOLAN: We move forward in time now, some 10,000 years. A few centuries before the Europeans came to the New World.

(Rainforest sounds, bird calls)

TOLAN: We're in the jungles of what would become Guatemala and Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It's home to an advanced society, builders of great pyramids, whose knowledge of mathematics and astronomy surpasses that of the Europeans. A society at its zenith.

CULBERT: There's really no basic mystery about what happened to the Maya. The Maya had reached a state of expansion which they simply couldn't maintain.

TOLAN: In less than a century, utter collapse for the Mayan kingdom. Archaeologist and Mayan scholar T. Patrick Culbert.

CULBERT: The Maya had grown exponentially in a whole series of ways: population, intensity of agriculture, for centuries. And anybody realizes that exponential growth cannot go on for very long it's bound to stop. And if you look at the state of Maya growth through the centuries leading up to the 9th century, almost anybody would have predicted that something was going to happen, and one of the very likely alternatives is a collapse.

TOLAN: Increasing population, over-farming, soil erosion, perhaps a terribly long drought, over-use of resources by the elite, and collapse. A collapse deciphered centuries later from stories carved in stones. The stones tell us of increasing disparity, growing tensions, open warfare, and then the collapse. No more stories. No more stones. Now the stones are left for our consideration as we step off from tour buses in the Central American jungle. With our Nikons and in our Bermuda shorts we consider the Mayan legacy. It's probably not the kind of immortality the Mayan kings envisioned.

CULBERT: One of the great kings had their pictures carved into stone, as they loved to do. They probably imagined that thousands of years from now, people would be looking at their pictures and reading their names, and in fact that's come true now that we can read the glyphs, except that it's not the Maya themselves who are doing it. It is us who are remembering the names and the legends of the Maya.

(Jungle sounds continue.)

TOLAN: And now we move up again in space and time, 2,000 miles and 2 centuries.

(The sound of wind)

TOLAN: A great cathedral of red rock, a scattering of trees and pale green sage in the sharply-lit highland terrain of what would become northern New Mexico. Another culture is at its peak, the Anasazi. Master astronomers, traders, builders of roads, holders of a vibrant culture that stretched for thousands of square miles. The center was a Chaco canyon. Now, there are ruins there.

(Wind continues)

TOLAN: The descendants of the Anasazi, including the Hopis in Arizona, don't like to talk about what happened. Not to outsiders. But some others will.

SMITH: I will sing you a song, one of those grinding songs. It goes like this. Ya yo we ho, lalawe....

TOLAN: The song is a thousand years old, says Tucson Smith. It's what the Anasazi women used to sing when they were grinding corn.

(Smith continues to sing)

TOLAN: He's a maintenance man at Chaco, one of those invisible people in the national parks who keep the roads clean and the lights burning. He's Navajo, a story teller.

SMITH: It is a very good song, but it makes me cry.

TOLAN: We stand by the side of the road in the wind and shadows of a steep mesa, in view of where the Anasazi homes once stood.

SMITH: Those people were what you call holy people. They talked to the wind, understand the wind. What is going to happen next.

TOLAN: Among the holy people, says Tucson Smith, there was a gambler. A gambler who didn't know his limits. Who in revenge for being cheated started a great fire and destroyed everything. There's a similar story about the Anasazi from a tribe to the north, near where the mammoth bones lie, where the Lakota people live today. Charlotte Black Elk, a Lakota oral historian, tells their story of the Anasazi, or the Ana Ana.

BLACK ELK: The Ana Ana, over a period of time, became so removed from the land that they took resources, too much resources from the land. And when there was nothing to hold the trees together, they began to die and because there were no trees there to block the water, all of the alive soil ran off. And then the soil that wasn't alive was left there, and it could not support the food and the grasses. That contributed to the creek areas becoming clogged and the creeks drying up.

TOLAN: Because they wouldn't let the land rest, says Charlotte Black Elk, the Anasazi devastated their own home, and so they had to leave.

BLACK ELK: And those that weren't killed by enemies were incorporated into neighboring peoples, and so they just kind of bled out of existence.

TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk's expertise is to explore the common ground between scientific hypothesis and old Lakota legends. The lesson from both Lakota and Navajo stories is this: the Anasazi created their own problems. And in fact that understanding, as passed through oral history, is now shared by many scientists.

BETANCOURT: We were driving around in an old '49 beat up Chevrolet pickup truck. We got to Chaco Canyon, we pulled out the maps, looked at the elevation, and, you know, at 6,100 to 6,300 feet in elevation that elevational range should support pinyon juniper woodland. And yet it looked like beat-up Mongolian steppe.

TOLAN: At Chaco Canyon, paleobotanist Julio Betancourt has been trying to figure out why there are hardly any trees at Chaco. He's been examining ancient piles of sticks and grasses collected for shelters by a species of local rodents, pack rats. For centuries, these pack rat middens lay undisturbed in dry caves. Then 20 years ago Betancourt came along. He knew that in order to figure out whether the vegetation was different before the Anasazi arrived, all he had to do was study the pack rat middens, the ancient time capsules of local vegetation.

BETANCOURT: Almost every sample that you picked up had pinyon pine and juniper in it, and yet pinyon pine was not anywhere in sight. And at that point I realized that something grave had happened at Chaco Canyon and not, not a long time ago.

TOLAN: Through carbon dating and pollen analysis, Betancourt could tell that the vegetation changed drastically after the Anasazi arrived. As their culture grew, the pinyons and juniper began to disappear, and this he believes happened all over the ancient Southwest.

BETANCOURT: This is not just Chaco Canyon. This is a scenario that probably played itself over and over and over again throughout the Southwest, whether we're talking about the Anasazi or the Hohokum or the Molyon. The prehistoric peoples in the Southwest, prehistoric Indians, had tremendous impact on their environment.

(Sounds of a fire and crickets)

TOLAN: Did the Anasazi lose their way? Were they themselves the engineers of their own demise? It's something to ponder, sitting by the fire under the spectacular Chaco night sky. And what of the others? The Clovis, the Maya, the builders of Rome and Petra and Tehuatihuacan? Is this destructive power inherent in human nature, or as Harvard's E.O. Wilson asks, is humanity suicidal? Wilson is a pioneer of sociobiology. He says the evolution of the human brain prepared us well for immediate dangers threatening the family, but not for seeing much beyond our own tribe, our own generation.

WILSON: It doesn't matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice. It doesn't matter because there is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening 10 generations down the line or 20. Only what is happening right at the moment. Now, with that cardinal principle of evolution, that is, evolution seen at short-sighted, then it is to be expected that human beings will be myopic. That is to say they'll have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 or 200 years hence. So we therefore work like some great all-devouring juggernaut and it takes a considerable stretch of the intellect to start thinking in terms of centuries-long future.

BLACK ELK: Our stories say that those who didn't learn no longer are here. That they've been cleansed from the Earth.

TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk lives with a different philosophy. Her great grandfather was a famous Lakota holy man. Westerners, she says, tend to gloss over differences between people, but it's too simple to lay the blame on human genetics. Societies do have real differences, Charlotte Black Elk says, based on ethics, world views, and rooted in the different values embedded in origin legends.

BLACK ELK: Look at the origin legend of Genesis, and what does Genesis tell you? It tells you that because of a transgression humans were banished. So the place of exile is the face of the Earth. It's an enemy, it produces brambles and thistles and thorns, and that man will live when it dominates this enemy. Whereas for Lakota people we say you live with the choices you make. Every single thing you do in life is a choice. It's a conscious choice. And that the result of every choice has impacts for 4 and 7 generations.

TOLAN: The Lakota oral historian will get no argument here from the Harvard professor. But E.O. Wilson says preservation ethics among Native American tribes are not innate to an Indian human nature. He believes these ethics were learned from terribly hard lessons in the far-away past.

WILSON: A general trait of early people was to eat up everything they could get their hands on, and to become conservationist only when finally they realized that it was necessary for their survival.

TOLAN: And in fact, much native legend is filled with stories of ancient transgressions. Of warnings not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is Edward Valandra of the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

VALANDRA: Certainly in Lakota oral history, we have narratives saying our conduct seriously threatened the natural world. And we paid a price for that. We were admonished. We paid a price.

TOLAN: The price: a recognition of limits. A lesson learned and incorporated into the beliefs of many native people. A lesson that E.O. Wilson says is just beginning to be transmitted into the Western experience.

WILSON: The reason why we are conspicuously lacking it in Western cultures, including the American culture, is that we have just concluded a, several centuries of worldwide colonization in which we always had another place to go. When the place that we ruined was no longer sustainable. Finally when you come to the other shore, and finally when a few generations have suffered, then you begin to think like a conservationist.

(Fog horns and shushing waves)

TOLAN: Nineteen ninety-five, Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is my home. The British set up the first fishing fleet in the colonies here in 1623. For centuries the town lived and died from the sea. Men came home in boats hip deep in cod and haddock. Now, they're closing it down. The fishermen, with their fish finders and small mesh nets, took too much. The grand banks are fished out. A way of life is disappearing.

(Fishermen speak: "You say it's the government's fault." "The government's at fault, too. You know why the government's at fault?")

TOLAN: And now I sit and talk to the old Italian men of the sea on wooden benches in front of the St. Peter's Club. The patron saint of the fishermen no longer protects them, or their schools of fish.

MAN: They stop because there are no fish. Before you had, you go fishing. You'd stay 5 days or 10 days, 11 days. You get a, $40 or $50 a pound of fish. But now you stay at all 13 days or 14 days, you know what you'll get? $10 or $15. Sometimes you get nothing. It's all over. It's dead.

TOLAN: It's all over, he says. It's dead. At least for a long time. If the grand banks ever come back, perhaps then we'll know better. And yet, says UCLA's Jared Diamond, it didn't have to be this way.

DIAMOND: We are persisting when we ought to know better. Whereas past societies persisted without being able to know better. When Mayan society was collapsing, the Mayans had no knowledge that society in the Fertile Crescent had already collapsed because of salinization. They had no knowledge of the fall of the Roman Empire several hundred years before that. So they could not learn the lessons. And similarly when Easter Island society collapsed in the 1600 and 1700s, the Easter Islanders had no knowledge that classic Maya civilization had collapsed 800 years before that. They could not learn those lessons. And yet we can.

(Fog horns and sea swells)

MAN: Before you get a lot of fish, now there's no fish. The fishermen, they get nothing.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Back to top

 

Thinking About Animals

MAN: This is all over, all over the world now, isn't it?

(Waves and fog horns continue)

MONTGOMERY: All over the world, human cultures have taken great pains to preserve the knowledge that animals are our teachers, our protectors, our kin.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has been thinking about the historical relationship between humans and other animals.

MONTGOMERY: For most of human existence animals have brought us extraordinary perceptions. They have brought rain and drought. They've provided us with meat and clothing. We have valued fellow creatures as beings who should be imitated, sought, and consulted. Among the North American Oglala Indians, a person on a vision quest would often seek an animal who would share with the person its particular secret. Sometimes it might be necessary to actually merge with the animal. Malay shaman, for instance, become possessed by the spirit of a tiger in order to heal illness. Among the Yanomamo Indians of Peru, a shaman might appear to you in the form of a jaguar. It's said there's people in Sumatra who are part tiger, part person; you can tell because they lack the groove in the upper lip. So strong is our intuitive kinship with fellow animals that the idea of creatures part animal, part human, recurs throughout our history. In the hundreds of Paleolithic rock paintings in the caves of Trois Freres in France, one image dominates: a being with antlered head, the pricked ears of the stag, the round eyes of the owl, the tail of the wolf, the paws of the bear, and the beard, legs, and feet of a man. The man animal image appears again and again, from the sphinxes and bird men of ancient Egypt to the animal garb worn by aboriginal people from North America to Australia.

There's another place you can see this, too: under the microscope. We can look at the human embryo as it develops. First we look like tadpoles. A few weeks later we look exactly like embryonic birds. At points in our development we have gills like fish, we have tails like dogs. Quite late in our development in utero, we are completely indistinguishable from fetal monkeys. Each of us, in the very plan of our bodies, remembers this important truth. There is no sharp dividing line between animals and people. We are not enemies, but co-players in the drama of life.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in New Hampshire with one of her favorite animals, a 600-pound pig named Christopher Hogwood. She comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson. Our production team includes director Deborah Stavro, producer George Homsy, associate producer Kim Motylewski, and news editor Constantine Von Hoffman. Also Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Christopher Knorr, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, and Eric Losick. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Karen Given and Laurie Forest. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthelliere and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

This Week's Books


 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.