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

May 1, 1998

Air Date: May 1, 1998


Climate Change Misinformation Campaign Charges

The Global Climate Coalition is a prominent oil industry group opposed to the Kyoto climate accord. At a recent meeting at the Washington D.C. headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute, a campaign to counter the emerging consensus of climate researchers was set in motion. Steve Curwood spoke with Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington DC advocacy group, to discuss the effort. Mr. Clapp says he was given correspondence about the campaign by industry insiders. (Living On Earth did contact the American Petroleum Institute for a response. William O’Keefe, an API vice- president says meetings at his headquarters and correspondence about them were the personal initiative of a low-level employee.) (05:01)

The Thirst for Safe Water Part #3: Pesticides in Drinking Water / Brenda Tremblay

This year, U.S. farmers will apply one billion pounds of pesticides to their crops, much of which will runoff the soil into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Costly big city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but the plants in many smaller towns lack that capability. So every year, millions of Americans living in rural communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides in their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, the third in our series "The Thirst for Safe Water." (13:00)

Dracut Water War / Jane Brox

The price of clean, drinkable water is not cheap, and there are folks who get accused of stealing it. The commissioner in Dracut, Massachusetts recently resigned after being accused of diverting millions of gallons of water to Dracut at the expense of citizens in the neighboring city of Lowell. Commentator and Dracut resident Jane Brox says the water case has become the talk of the town. Ms. Brox is the author of "Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and its Family." (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Dandelions. (01:30)

Sierra Votes No

In a widely-watched vote, Sierra Club members have rejected a proposal calling for limits on immigration into the U.S. Supporters of the measure argued limiting population growth by restricting immigration is needed to protect the environment. Opponents said the proposition carried too many racial overtones. Steve Curwood speaks with Mark Dowie who is author of "Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century." (04:00)

Gavoitas, Colombia: A Radio Documentary / Alan Weisman

27 years ago, a group of South Americans envisioned a society in which limited resources would form the base of a sustainable future. To bring their experiment to life, they chose a site in the sparsely populated and nearly arid plains of eastern Colombia. They called their village "Gaviotas" and from which they created a host of ingenious and relatively affordable technologies. A book on Gaviotas has just been published. Its author is Alan Weisman who produced a documentary on Gaviotas for National Public Radio a few years back. Mr. Weisman provides an update on Gaviotas later in the program, but first, here is his original report. (15:25)

Gaviotas Book Out and Update

Since producing his radio documentary in 1994, Alan Weisman has maintained an avid interest in Gaviotas. He's returned to the village several times in the past few years, and has just finished writing a book that updates the Gaviotas story. It's called "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," and it's published by the Chelsea Green Press. He spoke with Steve Curwood from station K-U-A-T in Tucson, Arizona. (05:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Brenda Tremblay
GUESTS: Philip Clapp, Mark Dowie, Alan Weisman

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Big oil and coal interests are under fire from environmental activists. They charge the industry with preparing a multi-million dollar campaign to fool the public about global warming.

CLAPP: What the American Petroleum Institute is talking about doing is taking the views of a very tiny minority of dissenting scientists and trying to make them appear as if they are the majority view. That's deceptive.

CURWOOD: Also, concerns about drinking water in the nation's farm belt. Pesticides put on crop lands are coming out of the spigots of many homes.

COHEN: In some ways we're doing a giant controlled experiment on a large part of the population of Midwestern America to see how sick they'll get if we have them drinking for years at a time tap water that's contaminated with up to ten different cancer-causing chemicals.

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

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Climate Change Misinformation Campaign Charges

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In a recent issue of Nature magazine, scientists document that the 20th century is the warmest in the last 600 years, and the 1990s the warmest decade since 1400. That's the latest in a growing stack of studies that show that human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and heating up the entire planet. Even some of the big oil companies are taking note. Last year British Petroleum unveiled plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and last month Royal Dutch Shell announced it was withdrawing from the Global Climate Coalition, a prominent industry group opposed to the Kyoto climate accord. But so far, most major oil producers remain unconvinced, and recently, at a meeting at the headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, DC, a campaign was devised to counter the emerging consensus of climate researchers. We asked Philip Clapp, President of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington advocacy group, to discuss the effort. Mr. Clapp says he was given correspondence about the campaign by industry insiders.

CLAPP: It's a very insidious plan. It is exactly what the tobacco industry did for thirty years on the science of smoking and lung cancer. It's a plan in which the industry lays out step by step methods to undercut all of the mainstream science on climate change and try to convince politicians and journalists that there is no science showing that our climate is changing.

CURWOOD: Mr. Clapp, from what you have seen and read and heard from the folks at the American Petroleum Institute, what exactly is it that they want to do here? Can you give us some details of their plan?

CLAPP: Yes. Among the things that they're planning to do is spend about $600,000 to recruit a variety of scientists, train them in public relations skills, and put them on airplanes all over the country to talk to reporters, put them on radio programs like this one. They are planning to create something called the Global Science Data Center, which would attempt to magnify any studies that might come out that would question the science of climate change. They were planning to do briefings for governors, state legislatures, members of Congress, with scientists who question the mainstream view on climate change. They were planning to spend several million dollars of that prior to the Buenos Aires negotiating session in an attempt to undercut what is really the completion of the Kyoto Accord in November of '98.

CURWOOD: Now, in this country we do have the First Amendment that allows people to question, to petition, to write and talk. There are in fact some scientists who have sincere doubts about global warming. Isn't the American Petroleum Institute plan just an effort to be sure that those views are heard?

CLAPP: It would be fine if the American Petroleum Institute were just making itself heard. In reality, however, what they're trying to do is extemely deceptive. There is...an overwhelming majority of the climate scientists in the world have warned us very strongly that we need to move to take action to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases now. Twenty-five-hundred scientists signed onto a statement like that made by the inter-governmental panel on climate change which was convened by the UN. What the American Petroleum Institute is talking about doing is taking the views of a very tiny minority of dissenting scientists and trying to make them appear as if they are the dominant majority view. That's deceptive.

CURWOOD: Why is the oil industry doing this now?

CLAPP: They have no reason to want any reduction in the growth of their sales of their fossil fuel products, and that's simply what controlling greenhouse gas emissions means. It doesn't necessarily mean that the consumer has to change their lifestyle. What it means is we have to have more fuel efficient cars. We have to have more fuel-efficient homes. And all those things are going to lead to a slowing in the growth of sales of oil. It's that simple.

CURWOOD: Philip Clapp is President of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.

CLAPP: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth did contact the American Petroleum Institute for a response. William O'Keefe, an API vice-president, says reports of the public relations plan have been blown out of proportion. He says meetings at his headquarters and correspondence about them were the personal initiatives of a low-level employee.

O'KEEFE: I have not seen the document. I did not ask that it be prepared. This was an informal brainstorming activity. It wasn't something that people were told to go off and develop a plan or that it is somehow that we want to manipulate the media.

CURWOOD: The American Petroleum Institute's William O'Keefe.

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The Thirst for Safe Water Part #3: Pesticides in Drinking Water

CURWOOD: This year in the United States, farmers will apply one billion pounds of pesticides to their crops, and a lot of those pesticides will run off the soil and into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Expensive big-city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but the plants in many smaller towns lack that capability. So, every year, millions of Americans living in rural communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides along with their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, the third in our series The Thirst for Safe Water.

(Fiddle music up and under)

TREMBLAY: At the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum near the Missouri River in central Missouri, it's meeting night for the Old Time Fiddle Club. About thirty people sit in a circle, swaying back and forth to the music as they play. After a few waltzes, a short, wiry man named Ivan Crane balances his guitar against the back of his chair and ambles out into the hallway toward the drinking fountain. He takes a long drink and then pauses in the entryway to watch the rain fall onto the parking lot outside.

CRANE: I used to work on the river when I was, oh, about sixteen, seventeen years old, and we used to drink water out of that river. Just go out and dip with a wooden keg and stir down with alum and put ice in it, and we'd drink it.

(Music continues)

TREMBLAY: Mr. Crane says he probably wouldn't drink straight out of the river now because it's too polluted. But he still does drink river water. It's just that, like his neighbors, he depends on the local water treatment plant to remove the pollutants before the water gets to his tap. But it turns out that some pollutants may be getting through.

(Car door slams, footsteps in gravel, cat meows)

A few miles to the north, farmer Keith Schnare steps out of his pick-up truck and glares up at the gray and rainy sky.

SCHNARE:What you plan and what happens, Mother Nature sometimes don't follow the book. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: It's officially spring, but it's still too cold for Mr. Schnare to sow his spring crops. When he can get to work, he'll plant corn, and then he'll apply a chemical called atrazine to his fields to prevent weeds from competing with the corn.

SCHNARE: So this is our spray rig that we use, and we just bought this rig this winter and it's a Patriot sprayer. Uh, the chemicals we don't pick up until needed. It's all ordered, it's all spoken for.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Schnare will use this sprayer to apply more than four thousand pounds of atrazine to his corn crop this year. Across the country, farmers apply more than forty-five million pounds of the chemical every spring. Atrazine is the most commonly-used herbicide in the U.S., and at certain levels it's known to cause a host of human health problems, including damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and even cancer.

(Creek sounds)

After Mr. Schnare sprays his fields, the spring rains will wash over his farm and rinse the atrazine and other agricultural chemicals into dozens of creeks and streams. Eventually, those streams flow into the Missouri River. On the bank of a creek along the way, researcher Bob Lersch is collecting water samples in a small wooden shed. (Clinking bottles)

LERSCH: There's eight bottles in this rack, and we would then bring each of those back into our laboratory and filter those and then we have a way of extracting the herbicides out of the water and analyzing those.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Lersch is a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After conducting the same tests over and over again every year, he knows what to expect this spring.

LERSCH: After the farmers apply their chemicals in April and May, we'll see a huge spike in concentration at the watershed scale. Essentially we're looking at probably somewhere around a thousand-fold increase, and that will last for probably most of the months of May and June, as you get pulses of rain, the water washes off the field and comes into the creek.

(Creek flows)

TREMBLAY: Scientists call this annual event the "spring flush." It happens throughout the United States, everywhere pesticides are applied to fields, to lawns, and to roadsides. High concentrations of many chemicals flow into the streams and rivers which provide drinking water sources for places like Boone County. Most communities treat their water for organisms which cause disease, but many small agricultural towns can't afford to treat water for pesticides. So these chemicals are getting into people's tap water. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that in the Midwest alone, nearly three million people drank water that exceeded federal standards for atrazine and other chemicals for weeks at a time after spring planting.

MALEY: We do have significant concentrations of atrazine in many of our lakes and rivers in the springtime.

TREMBLAY: Randall Maley is an environmental specialist with the Missouri State Department of Health. He says that atrazine will start to show up in the Missouri river in April and it'll peak in June. Then the chemical will concentrate in reservoirs. But he's not worried about the health effects of spring flush.

MALEY: On an annual average most of those do not exceed the public drinking water standard but for that short period time you do have concentrations significantly higher than that.

TREMBLAY: Under federal standards, levels of atrazine and other pesticides in drinking water are not considered dangerous unless they exceed a certain average over the course of a year. Violations of annual standards are relatively uncommon, and short-term spikes aren't considered a big deal. But the Environmental Working Group thinks there could be a problem, both with short-term spikes and long-term exposure.

COHEN: In some ways we're doing a giant controlled experiment on a large part of the population in Midwestern America to see how sick they'll get if we have them drinking for years at a time tap water that's contaminated with up to ten different cancer-causing chemicals.

TREMBLAY: Brian Cohen is an analyst with the Environmental Working Group. His group and other researchers are primarily worried about cancer, but they are also concerned about more subtle effects, especially in groups which are more sensitive to chemicals, such as children and developing embryos. Dr. Jim Haynes is a biologist at the State University of New York in Brockport.

HAYNES: We're talking about certain kinds of chemicals that have the potential to alter some function of the endocrine system which can effect reproduction, behavior, and the immune system. The kinds of effects we're talking about seem to be taking place at concentrations of chemicals that are ten to a thousand times lower than the concentrations that cause cancer.

TREMBLAY: Researchers like Dr. Haynes and Brian Cohen of the Environmental Working Group say federal standards just aren't strict enough to guard against these kinds of threats.

COHEN: The problem with EPA standards is that they don't take into account things like the fact that children drink more water than adults. They don't take into account the fact that an individual may be exposed to many different pesticides in a single glass of tap water, and they don't even take into account the fact that individuals may not only be exposed to atrazine in their tap water but through other avenues as well.

TREMBLAY: In fact, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington share these concerns. They've started to look at this issue of the total load of chemicals, and depending on what they find, could change their standards. In one of their first significant findings, researchers working for the EPA recently reported that chemicals from one common group of pesticides can have an effect when found together which is greater than the effect of the same levels of each chemical alone. In other words, the researchers say, if you have a glass of drinking water with four of these pesticides in it, they may have a combined effect that's the same as one of them at a higher concentration. This may not be true for all pesticides, but researchers are studying them one group at a time. While it searches for answers, the EPA is also handing out money to small water treatment facilities to help them deal with the spring flush of agricultural chemicals. Gail Hutton directs the water, wetlands, and pesticides division of the EPA for Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

HUTTON: We're finding a lot of interest in all four of our states from communities to use that money. There is a tremendous need out there.

TREMBLAY: But in the long run, Mr. Hutton says, the answer isn't just to try to remove pesticides from the water, but to keep them out of the water in the first place.

HUTTON: That's where as a society we need to be is focusing on long-term prevention as opposed to automatically assuming that we will have the technology to treat.

TREMBLAY: The philosophy of prevention is starting to gain popularity in small farming communities.

(Sounds of a spillway)

Near the Kansas-Missouri border, Hillsdale Lake sparkles under a blue, cloudless sky. The lake provides drinking water for people in the town of Spring Hill, Kansas.

MCCRAE: Would you like a glass of water?

(Ice clinks, faucet runs, sips)

TREMBLAY: In the kitchen of her split-level house, Janet McCrae draws a glass of water from the tap, hands it over, and watches closely while I take a sip. She chairs a citizen's group that's trying to control pollutants in Hillsdale Lake.

MCCRAE: We have been tracking and looking at the atrazine and phosphorus levels. Right now we have a study that's underway to see if those are really the things that we should be taking a look at.

TREMBLAY: Janet McCrae's organization hands out brochures at local fairs and schools. Volunteers draw water samples from the lake for regular testing. They also channel federal money to farmers to help cut their use of chemicals. Their efforts are starting to pay off. Over the past five years, the atrazine level in the lake has dropped thirty percent. Ms. McCrae says when farmers learn there's a problem, many are eager to try to make changes.

MCCRAE: It's part of the Midwest atmosphere of you take care of what you create. You take care of your heritage. And they also knew that they needed to take care of the water quality for their children.

TREMBLAY: But not all farmers are easily persuaded.

FARMER # 1(Speaking into a walkie-talkie): Yeah, there's one of these heifer calves is on the wrong side of the fence there behind the pond dam, he's trying to get through, somebody go help him.

FARMER # 2: Yep.

TREMBLAY: Back in Boone County,Missouri, farmer Keith Schnare says people just don't understand what farmers have to do to be successful. The atrazine that he relies on to kill weeds is under review by the EPA. There's talk in Washington of banning it altogether. Mr. Schnare's jaw clenches when I ask him what he would do if he were presented with evidence that the chemicals washing off his fields could be causing serious health problems.

SCHNARE: Farmers are, if it's factual and fair and true scientific data (clears throat) I think farmers are willing to accept that, but when it's just not real factual and it's scare data or political data, that's what we have a lotta problem with.

TREMBLAY: Despite his skepticism, Mr. Schnare has already voluntarily reduced the amount of pesticides he applies. He says he used to pour "gobs" of atrazine on his corn crop. This year he'll spray fifty percent less.

SCHNARE: Now your chemicals are real low volume and you use ounces where we used to use quarts and half gallons of the product per acre, we're down to ounces per acre.

(Fiddle sounds)

TREMBLAY: Here in Boone County, Missouri, many people aren't concerned about agricultural chemicals in their tap water. They're more worried about over-development and crime. But because they live in an agricultural area, they may be more vulnerable to unsafe water. And whether they worry or not, officials are worried. Researchers are looking for answers and the EPA will make its first announcements about its review of the most commonly-used herbicides next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Boone County, Missouri.

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(Fiddle music out)

CURWOOD: Next week: Living along the Mississippi River means living with millions of pounds of chemicals that wash downstream from farms and cities hundreds of miles away. Whether they end up in your drinking water can depend on whether you're rich or poor, whether you live in a small town or a big city, as well as a good measure of plain old luck. “Drinking from the Mississippi,” next week, as our series The Thirst for Safe Water continues.

(Music up and under)

Dracut Water War

CURWOOD: The price of clean drinkable water is not cheap, and there are some folks who get accused of stealing it. Take the water commissioner in Dracut, Massachusetts, for example. He recently resigned in the face of allegations that he had diverted millions of gallons of water to his town at the expense of citizens in the neighboring city of Lowell. Dracut resident and commentator Jane Brox says the water case has become the talk of her town.

BROX: When we heard the news about stolen water, most of us in town just shook our heads and cracked a little smile as if to say the old boys aren't gone, are they? We have a notorious political history here in Dracut, though I know we'll sober up when we figure the costs and the goodwill lost. But behind our head-shaking also, I think, is the idea that water should be free. It all seems like such a gift: rains out of the heavens, the melting snow pack, all the small incipient rivers that stream out of the north and feed the Merrimac, which gives us our drinking water.

But the Merrimac hasn't been free for centuries. Carefully controlled and exploited and used for our purposes, locked and dammed for commerce, and then for industry. The 19th century was a strong moment in the valley's history, and it is by that time we are largely identified. Most of us still see the Merrimac as the river that powered our mill towns. Red brick factories line every drop on the lower course.

Those mills poured their dyes and scourings into the river, and when the textiles went south other industries continued to use the Merrimac for their wastes in the belief that all would wash into the Atlantic. A belief that held into the 1960s when I was a child and the Merrimac was, as the joke goes, "too thick to pour, too thin to plow."

The Clean Water Act of 1972 went a long way toward improving the river, and now I can be startled by white sails gracing its waters, startled by the waters themselves glinting in the May sun. Something as a child I never dreamed of seeing. A consolation, those sails and that glinting, and partly an illusion.

Pollution now comes from less obvious sources: storm drain overflows, runoff from farms, salts and oils from highways, the acid rain, acid snow. The balances we strike can only be attained by testing the waters and counting the spring fish runs, by capturing the hundred salmon that still come up the river and bringing them to a fishery to propagate.

A pristine river is a complexity we can't begin to imagine, and with all the works and laws of our days we can't attain. No matter how clear the source, by the time the water reaches the purification plant in Lowell it has accumulated the histories and ambitions of our lives. The Merrimac doesn't fall through the New World, but through the world of our making, and we have to pay for it.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox is the author of Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: An ecological utopia in the high plains of Colombia. The great experiment of Gaviotas coming up right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Some of the brightest signs of spring are those orangey-yellow bursts of color against the green backdrop we've already begun to see in the northeast. Dandelions are back. And while folks in Vineland, New Jersey, celebrate the flower with an annual festival, many lawn tenders call the plant a nuisance. Dandelions are hard to weed. They reproduce underground as well as through those white seed puffs kids love to send flying. Its botanical name is Taraxacum, from the Greek word for disorder remedy, and originally dandelions were found in Europe and Asia. This edible plant has long been used to treat digestive, liver, and gallbladder problems. It's high in potassium and vitamin A, and it's said to be useful for treating night blindness. Some people get their dose through herbal tea. Others prefer dandelion wine. Or if you're in a fancy restaurant, just order the “salad dent-de-leon”. The plant's name comes from the French, meaning "teeth of the lion," a reference to the jagged shape of its leaves. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Sierra Votes No

CURWOOD: In a widely-watched vote, Sierra Club members have rejected a proposal calling for limits on immigration into the US. Supporters of the measure argued limiting population growth by restricting immigration is needed to protect the environment. Opponents said the proposition carried too many racial overtones. Mark Dowie is author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century. He says that the margin, 60% to 40, shows that times at the Sierra Club have changed.

DOWIE: Well, ten years ago the club was pretty much dominated, as reflected in the board, by Republican backpackers, people who didn't have the social conscience that seems to be developing in the club in more recent years. So I would have thought that during that era of the club's history that they would have supported a resolution that limited immigration.

CURWOOD: Now that it's been voted down, do you think the vote was still significant?

DOWIE: Oh, I do. I think that the whole episode is very significant, because this is an issue that has been discussed behind closed doors throughout the entire environmental movement for quite some time. This brought it out in the air. It forced both sides to articulate their arguments, and the anti-immigration side has been forced, really, to expose their xenophobia and their latent racism. I mean, if you read the material that we were sent, the members of the club were sent, you would see that they talked about and bemoaned the fact that California would soon be a white minority state. They were saying this in their literature. Well, that has nothing to do with environmentalism, but it has everything to do with xenophobia and racial xenophobia.

CURWOOD: Now, this measure was pushed by some folks as you identify xenophobic, anti-immigration. But there were some pretty respected leaders within the environmental movement who signed up in favor of this. I'm thinking of Greenpeace founder Paul Watson, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, E.O. Wilson at Harvard. What do you make of their support?

DOWIE: I think that had they known who was prominently behind the anti-immigration referendum, I think they might have reconsidered their positions. I think that they were looking at it in a purely American, purely environmental perspective. And if you look at it that way, that makes some sense. But I think if you look at it more globally and look at it socially and politically as well as environmentally, you start to see that it doesn't make as much sense.

CURWOOD: I take it you were very much against this measure.

DOWIE: Yeah. I voted the other way. To stay neutral. I think that staying neutral doesn't mean you can't discuss it. It just means that you don't have to take a position on it. And the Sierra Club, believe me, discusses this all the time. They have a separate committee that deals with this issue separate from every other issue in the club. And that will continue. And I think that's the way it should be; it should deal with the issue but sustain a position of neutrality on immigration.

CURWOOD: Now, even though the Sierra Club ultimately voted down this measure, do you think all this publicity surrounding the vote has hurt the Sierra Club?

DOWIE: No, I think it's helped the Sierra Club. On either side there were people who had promised they would cancel their membership if the vote went one way or another. But I think that the Sierra Club has been a reflection of American environmentalism for too long. Classic American environmentalism being a secular religion of the white middle class. And it's time now that the club became a truly American association. And if you followed the press conference that they had announcing the vote, there were many, many people of many national origins saying they were now going to join the club. So that will make this club more diverse, more American, more multi-cultural, and it will broaden the environmental agenda, which needs to happen in this country.

CURWOOD: Mark Dowie is author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century, and one of the most outspoken members of the Sierra Club. Thank you for joining us.

DOWIE: You're welcome.

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(Music up and under)

Gavoitas, Colombia: A Radio Documentary

CURWOOD: Nearly three decades ago a group of South Americans envisioned a society in which limited resources would form the base of a sustainable future. To bring their experiment to life, they chose a site in the sparsely-populated and nearly arid plains of eastern Colombia. They called their village Gaviotas, and created there a host of ingenious and affordable technologies that are now used in other nations, both in the developing as well as the developed world. A book on Gaviotas has just been published by Alan Weisman, who produced a documentary on the village for National Public Radio a few years ago. And we'll get an update on Gaviotas from Alan later in the program. But first, let's listen to his original report.

(Creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: Driving to Gaviotas takes sixteen hours over a rutted track through the llanos of Colombia, a barren plain that stretches over half the country clear to the Venezuelan border.

(An engine revs; more creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: The road bumps for miles past huge cattle haciendas belonging to drug barons and through checkpoints where travelers are searched and questioned, sometimes by the Army, sometimes by leftist guerillas.

(A man shouts)

WEISMAN: Except for a few sparse grasses, little grows in these thin, sun- baked soils. The sluggish rivers swarm with piranhas and malarial mosquitos. But I recall what Paolo Lugari, a Colombian founder of Gaviotas, told me back in Bogota.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. If we could do it there, we could do it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of the imagination.

WEISMAN: Twenty-three years ago Paolo Lugari, the brilliant son of a tropical geographer, flew across the Andes behind Bogota, over the llanos and had a vision. One day, Lugari thought, savannahs like these would be the only place to put growing populations. This was a perfect setting, he decided, to design the ideal civilization for the tropics.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: All our development models have been created in countries with four seasons, with totally different conditions from tropical countries. When we import solutions from northern countries, not only don't we solve our problems, but we import theirs.

(More creaking and engines)

WEISMAN: A few miles from Gaviotas, I see the first signs of the new civilization Lugari has in mind. What appear to be bright aluminum sunflowers begin to dot the landscape. They are windmills, unlike any I've ever seen: light compact units whose blade tips are contoured like airplane wings to trap soft equatorial breezes. They were designed by engineers that Lugare lured here from Bogota's finest universities to create the right technology for the tropics.

(More creaking; fade to bird song)

WEISMAN: The first thing I see as I enter Gaviotas are the town's steeply vaulted, nearly aerodynamic roofs, studded with solar panels. The buildings are shaded by mango trees and bougainvillea filled with yellow warblers and dazzling crimson tanagers. The air smells like gardenias.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish, no translation]

WEISMAN: For the next few days, my guide is Gonzalo Bernal, administrator of Gaviotas. Paolo Lugari is meeting in Bogota with the president of Guyana and the prime minister of Jamaica, who want Caribbean versions of Gaviotas. Gonzalo, formerly a journalist, tells me he arrived here in 1978.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I grew up in the 60s. My friends and I had romantic dreams of a better world. Back then there were just two alternative paths: become an artist or become a guerilla. Then I saw a TV program on Gaviotas and learned that what I dreamed already existed.

(Bird song; a cock crows)

WEISMAN: For years Gaviotas has been a nonprofit foundation, a model for the United Nations Development Program. But to finance themselves, the Gaviotans must also market their technology. That isn't so easy, Gonzalo says, since Gaviotas refuses to patent their inventions, preferring to share them.

(Metal clanking; an engine revs up)

WEISMAN: The factory at Gaviotas employs many of the 130 Gaviotas residents, as well as people from surrounding communities. Here they produce the innovative devices that Gaviotas uses and sells, such as the windmills I saw on the way here.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We studied 56 different windmills from all over the world until we got to this version.

WEISMAN: Its design has since been copied from Central America to Chile. In one corner Gonzalo shows me stacks of solar panels that can heat water with diffused sunlight in rainy climates. Then he leads me across the factory floor to a machine resembling a stationary bicycle, which uses pedal power to strip stalks of cassava.

(Mechanical sounds, clanking)

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish; no translation]

WEISMAN: Gonzalo and factory foreman Juan Navoa next take me outside to what they call Gaviotas' most significant achievement.

(Bird song)

WEISMAN: All I see is a yellow pump handle attached to a covered well.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: This double action pump pumps water six times deeper than normal models. Instead of raising and lowering the heavy piston inside a pipe, this one leaves the piston stationery and lifts the pipe made of plastic tubing.

(Creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: I try it. It's so light a child can do it.

(Splashing water)

WEISMAN: This simple, inexpensive pump has revolutionized rural life across Colombia for people who used to haul their water in buckets from muddy tropical rivers. But Gonzalo has something even more imaginative to show me.

(Women and children singing; creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: When we arrive at the open-air Gaviotas preschool, children are on the playground. Their see-saw is actually a pump in disguise. As they rise and descend, water gushes from a vertical pipe into an open cement tank.

(Splashing water and creaking)

WEISMAN: Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards, using kid power to provide villages with clean water.

(Woman calls and children repeat: "Buenos dias!")

WEISMAN: We're joined by Gonzalo's wife Cecilia, who's a therapist, and their son Federico.

(Cecilia calls out in Spanish)

WEISMAN: Besides schooling for their children, I learn that housing, health care, and food are free here, and everyone earns the same above minimum wage salary. With no poverty, Gonzalo and Cecilia suggest, perhaps that's why families remain a manageable size and why there's no crime in Gaviotas.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We have no police or jail because nothing gets stolen. There is no need for laws or written rules. In Gaviotas we just have codes of common sense.

WEISMAN: Anyone who violates these unwritten social protocols, Cecilia adds, is simply ostracized by the community. What about crimes of passion, I ask, or adultery?

C. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It's not a problem, because no one gets married here. Couples live in free union.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: There is no judge, no politicians either. Politics and religion don't matter here. We respect what others believe, but we don't need them in Gaviotas.

WEISMAN: Cecilia points to a family of monkeys swinging over the children's heads.

C. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: For me, God is in the birds, in the monkey, in the trees. That's how I explain it to the kids. People ask how I left a world where I was a successful professional. But here I feel I'm in Paradise.

WEISMAN: It's been years since I've heard anyone talk like this. Yet these aren't free-love hippies. They're serious people committed to flourishing in a world of shrinking resources. After nearly a quarter century Gaviotas makes already stale phrases like "sustainable development" and "appropriate technology" seem not just believable, but fresh and surprising.

(Mooing cows)

WEISMAN: Not far from the hydroponic farms where the Gaviotans grow the produce they eat, I visit the corrals where they raise their beef.

(More mooing, cranking sounds)

WEISMAN: One of them is a water tank surrounded by a sloping cement floor. As cattle come to drink, their cow pies slide down to an enclosed vat.

(Splashing water, more cranking)

WEISMAN: Atop the vat, a Gaviotas cowboy turns a large hand crank to make a sort of dung soup.

(More splashing and cranking, bubbling)

WEISMAN: Inside, natural fermentation converts the slurry to compost and methane.

(More bubbling)

WEISMAN: The methane flows through pipes to an extraordinary building set on a rise, a maze of angles formed by sky lights, glass awnings, solar collectors, and brushed steel columns. A Japanese architectural journal has named this, the 16-bed Gaviotas hospital, one of the 40 most important buildings in the world.

(Voices speaking in echo)

WEISMAN: Inside, Gonzalo shows me the air conditioning system, a blend of modern and ancient technology.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: These underground ducts have hillside intakes that face north to catch the breeze. Egyptians used this kind of wind ventilation to cool the pyramids.

WEISMAN: In the hospital kitchen we meet the head of the Gaviotas hydroponic farm, Carlos Sanchez, who's brought a load of vegetables. He explains how the methane generated by Gaviotas cows provides the gas for stove-top burners. But most of the cooking is done with something truly novel.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: These are solar pressure cookers. Photovoltaic cells on the roof run this pump.

(Water runs from tap)

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: You add water, put in the food, and turn on the solar motor.

(A small motor runs)

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: And solar heated oil circulates around the stainless steel pot.

WEISMAN: Yet even more impressive than all the solar gadgetry is a separate hospital wing that's a large thatch ramada, built for llanos-dwelling Guahivo Indians.

(Children and adults speaking)

WEISMAN: Instead of beds, these patients lie in hammocks hung from wooden beams.

(Voices continue)

WEISMAN: While the doctor treats the sick, their families stay with them because the Guahivo believe that to wall someone off away from his people is the ultimately unhealthy confinement. To earn their keep, the relatives tend vegetables in an adjacent greenhouse. If Paolo Lugari, the Guahivo Indian shamans, and the pharmacology department of Columbia's National University can find the money, this greenhouse will also become one of the finest medicinal plant laboratories in the tropics.

(Harp and percussion music plays)

WEISMAN: On my final evening, the community gathers for a concert of traditional Yanos music by Gaviotas musicians.

(Singing and playing)

WEISMAN: After a while, Gonzalo and I slip away to see what the Gaviotans hope will be the key to their future.


WEISMAN: By the moonlight I can see it: a forest rising up from this formerly empty plain. Twelve years ago researchers here discovered that pines from Honduras thrive in these thin soils. Since then, Gaviotas has planted more than a million. Instead of cutting them for timber, they're selling the renewable sap for making paint and turpentine. They don't earn as much money this way, but Gonzalo reminds me that's not the point.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We believe austerity is a better path to happiness than too much comfort. In Colombia's oil camps what have they gotten? Prostitution and alcoholism because salaries are too high. Then the oil is gone. What's left is misery. Meanwhile, we plant trees so the atmosphere won't disappear.


WEISMAN: Although ecologists originally questioned bringing a Central American species into Columbia's Llanos, something amazing has happened.


WEISMAN: In the moist understory of the Gaviotas forest, dormant seeds of native trees probably not seen in Los Llanos for millennia are sprouting. Biologists have now counted at least 40 species which are sheltered by Caribbean pines. Over the coming decades, Gaviotas will let these new native trees choke out the pines and return the Llanos to what many believe was their primeval state, an extension of the Amazon. Already the population of deer and anteaters is growing.

(Crickets; fade to guitar music up and under)

WEISMAN: Elsewhere they're tearing down the rainforest, but I've come to a place where they're actually putting it back. Even as they create more liable space for people. I remember asking Paolo Lugari back in Bogota if Gaviotas is really Utopia.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Not Utopia, but Topia. In Greek, a prefix U signifies "no." Utopia literally means "no place." It's just an idea. But Gaviotas is real. We've gone from fantasy to reality, from Utopia to Topia.

(Music continues)

WEISMAN: I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

Back to top


Gaviotas Book Out and Update

CURWOOD: Since producing his documentary in 1994, Alan Weisman has maintained an avid interest in Gaviotas. He's returned to the village several times in the past few years and has just finished writing a book that updates the Gaviotas story. It's called Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, and it's published by the Chelsea Green Press. Alan is in the studios of KUAT in Tuscon, Arizona. Hey, thanks for joining us.

WEISMAN: Sure, Steve. Good to be here.

CURWOOD: Alan, I think it's safe to say that once you went on your first trip to Gaviotas it became a very important part of your life as a journalist. When did you know that you just had to tell this story and keep going back there again and again?

WEISMAN: Well, for a few years I was doing several stories that were taking me to some of the worst environmental disasters on Earth. I was at Chernobyl. I was in Antarctica looking at the ozone hole. I was in Brazil where forests were coming down. And in Colombia, which some people consider to be the most problematic country on Earth, I had found this place that was always reassuring to me, always encouraging to me, that there was an opportunity to get things right. It became the place that I could escape to. It just feels like life the way it's supposed to be.

CURWOOD: In the Afterword of your book you talk about some of the recent developments in Gaviotas. And maybe you could take some time now to give us an update on some of the changes there. Let's talk about what happened to the medicinal plant labs that you mention in the report.

WEISMAN: A couple of years ago Colombia began a national managed health care plan, under which rather absurdly the wonderful Gaviotas hospital became illegal, because it didn't staff enough specialists or see enough patients every month to qualify. So the Gaviotans renamed the building the Gaviotas Medicinal Plant Research Center, and they converted to an all-herbal pharmacy, which has been stocked by one of South America's most celebrated medicinal plant experts. They also set up a water bottling plant to distribute clean water to all their neighbors as a preventative measure, since 80% of all tropical diseases are water-borne. And a former Gaviotas doctor, who's now a plant pharmacology professor at a university in Cali, has pledged to make Gaviotas the university's field laboratory.

CURWOOD: What about the energy situation at Gaviotas? That's one of the most fascinating aspects of your documentary and of your book. The way that they invented just so many different things to get energy to run their systems. Are they self-sufficient now at last?

WEISMAN: They have moved extremely close to it. When I was there originally they had a diesel plant that they used during the dry season when their turbine wasn't running. But now they've hooked up a steam-driven turbine to the boiler of their new pine resin processing plant, which is making them basically self-sufficient in energy to run the town. They still use gasoline for some of their vehicles. But as a result, they were awarded something called the 1997 World Prize in Zero Emissions from the United Nations Zero Emissions Research Initiative.

CURWOOD: Are people moving to Gaviotas? Is its population picking up?

WEISMAN: Well, the civil unrest in Colombia these days has, I think for the moment at least, halted any huge stampede of people crossing the Andes to take advantage of Gaviotas' kind of life. But yes, the place is growing, slowly now, as their pine resin industry comes on line.

CURWOOD: What if your book is so successful that hordes of people decide to move to Gaviotas?

WEISMAN: I think that Gaviotas will find a way. They envision in the near future starting smaller satellite communities all within no more than a twenty minute bicycle ride of either each other or of the original Gaviotas, and that way they'll be able to have sort of a manageable type of balance between human occupation and the ecosystem that supports them. They realize, they understand, that outreach to the world is part of their mission. That they don't live in isolation. They've always had commerce with the outside world. They've always used products, and they've used ideas that have come from elsewhere in the world.

CURWOOD: What do you think are the major lessons from Gaviotas for the rest of us?

WEISMAN: There is a sense at Gaviotas that you never give up. That if something doesn't work, you try something else. The founder of Gaviotas, Paolo Lugari, once said to me, there's nothing more unstable than stability. And I thought there was a lot of wisdom in that; trying to maintain something perfectly is bound to make it rigid, and when something gets rigid it starts to crack. The Gaviotans simply respond to whatever is going on around them and they try to move in a direction that will preserve their ideals of living a sensible environmentally harmless existence and be part of the greater world around them as it moves. If you can do it in Columbia, there's really hope that we can do it anywhere.

CURWOOD: Alan Weisman's new book is called Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Alan.

WEISMAN: Thank you, Steve.

Back to top

(Guitar music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Today's documentary on Gaviotas was edited by Pat Flynn and mixed by Sandy Tolan with help from Marta Valentine. Our production staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christenson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Jeremy Jurgens and Vanessa Melendez. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and Church and White, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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