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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 5, 1998

Air Date: June 5, 1998

SEGMENTS

Testing Fallout

India and Pakistan say they have stopped testing nuclear weapons for the moment after both countries' recent spate of underground detonations. The tests confirmed the rumored nuclear capabilities of these two rival nations, and rekindled a sense of nuclear peril that abated with the end of the cold war. These tests also bring back public health risks that were first unleashed by the U.S. and former Soviet Union. Underground nuclear bomb blasts are not very visible, but radiation can escape through vents or into ground water. Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He says it's difficult to assess the effects of the tests as neither Pakistan or India have come forward with much data. (06:30)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Part 5 - The Benefits of Bottled Water / Daniel Grossman

Over the last couple of months, Living on Earth has been exploring the problems confronting America’s drinking water supply from concerns about pesticides in rural areas and industrial pollutants from factories, to potentially-deadly microbes and the dangers of some of the chemicals used to kill them. These aren’t problems that every American has to worry about every day, and in fact the Environmental Protection Agency assures us that in general, we have among the safest water in the world. But the problems are real enough that there are widespread calls for stronger protection of our sources of drinking water, and better treatment of water before it gets to our homes. And for millions of us, the concerns cause us to spend billions of dollars each year on bottled water and filters. But are these alternatives actually safer than tap water? What are we getting for our money? We decided to begin our inquiry right here at our own Living on Earth office water cooler with this report from LOE's Daniel Grossman and Steve Curwood. (14:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Zebra mussels. (01:30)

Mexican Fires

An area the size the state of Rhode Island is currently being ravaged by fire in southern Mexico and other parts of Central America over the past few weeks. And valuable biological diversity is burning up in it. Authorities say an El Niño related drought, and slash and burn agriculture are to blame for the fires. Winds have also blown a cloud of smoke and haze north, affecting the health of Mexican people and their nation's economy. Guillermo (gui-yer-mo) Castillaja (cas-ti-yeh-ha) runs the World Wildlife Fund's program in Mexico. He's been monitoring the spread of the fires from his base in Mexico City. He spoke with Steve Curwood and explained how a rainforest can go up in smoke. (05:00)

Raising a Ruckus! / Vicki Monks

Environmental activists have long turned to civil disobedience to put their causes in the public spotlight. Protesters have sat in front of bulldozers, sailed into nuclear test sites, chained themselves to oil rigs and dangled from tall buildings and treetops. The methods are designed to stir controversy, and their practitioners are always on the lookout for yet another way to garner media attention. Producer Vicki Monks reports on the latest front-line tactics from a direct action training camp in San Marcos, Texas. (11:30)

Just One Child

A few years ago, writer Bill McKibben and his wife agreed that their daughter, Sophie, would be their one and only child. He then decided to write about it. Population, Mr. McKibben tells Steve Curwood, is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed. His new book is titled "Maybe One." (06:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Vicki Monks
GUESTS: Arjun Makhijani, Guillermo Castillaja, Bill McKibben

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As India and Pakistan flex their muscles in the nuclear club, there's more at stake than peace and politics. Underground atom bomb testing can pose risks to public health.

MAKHIJANI: It's been a very sorry fact of the history of nuclear weapons production and testing, that all of the nuclear weapon states have been ready to harm their own people under cover of national security.

CURWOOD: Also, bottled water may be no safer than what comes out of your tap, and you can't find out by checking the label. Industry doesn't want you to know.

OLSON: We have to wonder what the bottlers are afraid of. Why is it that it's such a bad thing for them to have to reveal to the public what contaminants have been found in their bottled water?

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, but first, this roundup of the news:

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[Music up and under]

Testing Fallout

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. India and Pakistan say they have stopped testing nuclear weapons, for the moment, at least. After the string of underground detonations begun by India late last month. These tests, meant to confirm the long-rumored nuclear capabilities of these two sub- continental rival, rekindle the sense of nuclear peril that had abated with the end of the cold war. And these tests also brought back the deadly risks to public health that were first unleashed by the United States and former Soviet Union. An underground nuclear bomb blast may be mostly out of sight, but in many cases, radiation escapes into the atmosphere, or into ground water. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Takoma Park, Maryland. He says, it's difficult to assess the immediate effects of the recent rests, as neither India nor Pakistan have been forthcoming with much data.

MAKHIJANI: The governments have said that no radiation was released. We do know, from press descriptions of the Indian tests, that there was some kind of a dust cloud that came up. Now, "something of a dust cloud," in a desert environment, would be expected from an underground test that did not release radioactivity. But you would also expect underground tests to throw up a dust cloud if they did vent, or accidentally release radioactivity.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at a story from the Reuters news service that was datelined May 17, saying that several residents of a village near the testing sites have complained of nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, vomiting, loose bowels; those are symptoms consonant with being exposed to radioactivity. Do you know anything about these reports?

MAKHIJANI: Yeah, I have seen the Reuters report and I have also read some other similar accounts. Now, the village that is being reported on, I think is only a couple miles from the test site. So it's conceivable that if there were a substantial amount of radioactivity in the dust, and it came down on the village, that some villagers may have had high levels of exposure. But that would only happen if there were a serious venting, and that has been denied by the government.

CURWOOD: What do we know about the immediate environmental impact of the Pakistani testing?

MAKHIJANI: Well, we haven't had any comparable information from Pakistan. We have no information that would indicate, or not indicate, what happened there in regard to dust clouds or possible venting or complaints about similar symptoms.

CURWOOD: Overall, in the world, what's been the extent of underground nuclear testing?

MAKHIJANI: There've been about 1,600 underground tests, worldwide.

CURWOOD: Most of them done by the United States?

MAKHIJANI: Over half of them have been done by the United States, yes.

CURWOOD: And the rest by what, mostly the Soviet Union.

MAKHIJANI: In all there have been about 2,000 nuclear weapons tests; somewhat more than 1,000 have been done by the United States. The estimate for the Soviet Union is somewhat over 700; Britain, 41, of which 20 were at Nevada; France has done about 200 tests; India has done 6; Pakistan is reported to have done 6; China has done about 40. And there is one questionable test, which may have been an Israeli, or Israeli-South African joint test, but that is not a confirmed test.

CURWOOD: Is there any danger to the groundwater, when you have an underground nuclear test?

MAKHIJANI: Yes. Most of the radioactivity from the test stays underground. Some of these radioactive materials are extremely long-lived. For instance, if you have a plutonium test, you only use up 20% or 30% of the plutonium. Two-thirds of the plutonium is still unexploded, and remains underground. Now, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, and so essentially you have got a big source of potential contamination underground and the question is whether it will be contained or whether it will migrate and contaminated groundwater. The official line, both in the United States, France, and elsewhere, has been "This stuff will not migrate." The explosions create a high temperature in the rock and melt the rock and the radioactivity is just captured in that glassy, rocky melt, and will stay there forever. One would wish that this theory were true. However, plutonium from one particular test at the Nevada test site has already migrated a mile.

CURWOOD: What, historically, have we learned from tests? Is it likely that something went wrong in the Indian tests that resulted in a venting? I mean, did the United States or the Soviets have that kind of experience have that kind of experience?

MAKHIJANI: Well, the United States had many very serious ventings from underground tests between 1962 and December, 1970. There were several tests that resulted in huge releases of radioactivity. I will give you a sort of a yard-stick. The Three Mile Island accident released 15 curies of iodine-131. The Hanford plutonium plant, in Washington State, which was a very dirty plant, released 3/4 of a million curies of radioactivity during its plutonium production operation, during the worst years.

CURWOOD: Whoa!

MAKHIJANI: There were several individual tests that released about that same quantity of radioactive iodine from underground test venting, and the cumulative of atmospheric testing iodine- 131 releases, which contaminated milk and produced serious dangers for children who were drinking that milk; the cumulative iodine-131 releases from US testing at Nevada alone were 150 million curies. That's 10 million times more than Three Mile Island, and 10 to 20 times more than Chernobyl. It's been a very sorry fact of the history of nuclear weapons production and testing that all of the nuclear weapons states have been ready to harm their own people under cover of national security.

CURWOOD: Dr. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He's co-author of 2 books about nuclear issues: "Radioactive Heaven and Earth," and "Nuclear Wastelands." Thanks so much.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you, very much.

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[Indian sitar and tambla music up and under]

CURWOOD: For a tape or transcript of this program, please call (800) 218-9988. Just ahead, a consumer's guide to bottled and filtered water. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[Western music, harmonica-style]

The Thirst for Safe Water: Part 5 - The Benefits of Bottled Water

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Over the last couple of months, Living on Earth has been exploring the problems confronting America's drinking water supply. We've heard about concerns about pesticides in rural areas, and industrial pollutants from factories. We've reported on potentially deadly microbes, and the dangers of some of the chemicals used to kill them. Now, these aren't problems that every American has to worry about every day, and in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency assures us that, in general, we have among the safest water supplies in the world. But the problems are real enough that there are widespread calls for stronger protection of our sources of drinking water, and better treatment of water before it gets to our homes. And for millions of us, the concerns about unsafe water are real and immediate enough to cause us to spend billions of dollars a year on bottled water, and water filters. But are these alternatives really safer than tap water? What are we getting for our money? We thought we'd start our own investigation right here, at our office water cooler.

[Thumps of water bottle delivery]

CURWOOD: Every couple of weeks, the Poland Spring company delivers huge plastic bottles of water from Maine to our office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which we load into our cooler.

[Water tinkles, gushes]

CURWOOD: It costs about $1.35 a gallon. That's about 450 times the price of our tap water. But while our tap water has a slightly chemical taste, Poland Spring water tastes, well--it tastes pure and fresh.

[Slurp, gurgle, "ahh!"]

CURWOOD: And the label on the jug shows a bucolic scene: a mountain range an a tree-lined river. Ahh! Nature! But we've heard reports of such images on the labels of bottled water that actually comes from urban areas or even municipal water systems. So we wondered if it looked as nice up there in Maine as the picture.

[Touch-tone phone dialing]

CURWOOD: We called Kevin Mathews, US quality control chief of the Perrier Group, which owns Poland Spring and more than a dozen other brands of water.

MATTHEWS: If you come up here to Poland Spring, you will see that we sit on over 400 acres of protected wilderness, and you can see mountains in the background. We're surrounded by lakes and streams and rivers. It's an absolutely beautiful place. I would invite anyone who enjoys nature and wants to actually come into this area and see just where we collect our water, to feel free to travel this area in Maine.

CURWOOD: Sounds great! So we asked Mr. Matthews if we could tour the Poland Springs operation itself. The welcome mat suddenly vanished.

MATTHEWS: Normally, it would be possible to visit the plant. However, right now is an extremely busy period of time, and unfortunately we can't allow for tours or visits at this time.

CURWOOD: We tried a couple of other water bottlers in the area, including Belmont Springs, just a few miles from our office. That's owned by Suntory, International, a beverage empire that includes Pepsicola. They said no. Monadnock Spring in southern New Hampshire? Nope. They all said no. We began to wonder if water bottlers had something to hide, or if the industry, and Poland Spring's owners in particular, the Perrier company of France, was still smarting from a public relations disaster back in 1990. That's when Perrier had to recall more than 70 million bottles of French fizzy water that was contaminated by the cancer-causing chemical, benzene. More likely, the companies are reluctant to ruin their advertised image. Churning out millions of gallons of water, after all, involves a bit more than sticking a few bottles into a babbling brook. It's an industrial operation, as we discovered when Perrier did agree to let us visit another bottling plant they own, outside Allentown, Pennsylvania.

[Hissing roar of water pouring, assembly line clinking]

CURWOOD: This is where Perrier bottles its Deer Park brand of water. It's a huge building, almost as big as a city block. It churns out about a half a million plastic bottles of water every day. The air inside is permeated by the pungent smell of hot plastic.

[Water pouring sizzle. Man: "We'll walk over we'll see blow- molding first, and then we'll walk our way over the top."

CURWOOD: Quality inspector David Thorpe explains that the odor comes from bottle-blowing machines.

THORPE: We blow-mold all our bottles here. They go from the blow-molding process, they travel on an air conveyer. Each bottle is rinsed. It's then filled with spring water, capped, and then labelled.

CURWOOD: Between the spring and the bottle, the water is filtered and zapped with ultraviolet light and ozone gas to get rid of microbes.

[Gas-zapping hisses]

CURWOOD: It's an expensive process. Perrier's Kevin Mathews, who met us at the plant, said it justifies the premium price.

[More hisses]

MATTHEWS: What you're really paying for here is confidence, and purity. When you consider all the various steps that are taken in order to identify a pure, protected source, to sanitarily collect the water, to transport that water sanitarily, in the method that we do, and then to protect it, all along each one of those steps, and then in through our manufacturing process, it's a very fair price to pay for a superior product.

[Continual short hisses]

CURWOOD: But is the product superior? Not always, according to the Food and Drug Administration's records. In 1994, more than 25,000 cases of Deer Park water were recalled, due to complaints about taste. Its sister company, Poland Spring, had to withdraw some bottles contaminated with chlorine. Federal records show that other bottlers have also had quality problems. In 1993, mold was found in bottles of Virginia's Homestead Natural Spring Water. And in 1995, bottle caps of Pennsylvania's Rockwood Spring Water Company, were stored where they might be contaminated by peeling paint. Many people drink bottled water because they think it is safer than tap water, and by and large, they might be right. These reported incidents of contamination have been relatively few, and carbonated water tends to kill germs. But you can't know for sure about relative quality, because federal standards are generally no tougher for bottled water than they are for tap water. And federal inspections to make sure those standards are being met, are infrequent, as little as once every 5 years. And there's some concern about a very few harmful bacteria that are able to grow in bottled water, especially if it's stored a long time before being used. In one study, the FDA found the microbe "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" in at least two brands of domestic bottled water. Fred Rosenburg, a microbiologist at Northeastern University, found the same bug in some bottled water back in 1990.

ROSENBURG: You don't see it in the water; I mean, it doesn't doesn't look like chicken soup when you get all these bacteria in there, but obviously, if you examine them, and use the proper medium, and realize that's what's in there, you know that, "Hey, wait a minute! This is problematic!"

CURWOOD: Dr. Rosenburg says that especially for people with weak or undeveloped immune systems, these microbes could cause trouble.

ROSENBURG: In your typical individual, it would probably lead to possibly intestinal symptoms, possibly diarrhea. If you use the water, for example, in making infant formula, then you've got a potential problem.

CURWOOD: "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" is prohibited in bottled water sold in Canada and western Europe, but not in the United States. I asked Terry Troxell, a top water official at the FDA, why.

TROXELL: We've discussed that at the FDA, and that's still under discussion. We do not, at this point, have a basis to set a standard for "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" in bottled water.

[Breathy sigh]

CURWOOD: Critics say it's not too early to regulate the microbe. And they say this is just one example of the FDA's hands-off attitude toward bottled water. The FDA says the industry record is good, so closer scrutiny isn't necessary. But Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defence Council, says, if that's the case, water bottlers shouldn't be resisting calls to require detailed labels on their product.

OLSON: We have to wonder what the bottlers are afraid of. Why is it that it's such a bad thing for them to have to reveal to the public what contaminants have been found in their bottled water?

CURWOOD: Some companies will send out chemical analyses on request, and some states do require labels. But the EPA may soon mandate tap water suppliers to give complete chemical audits to all their customers. Erik Olson says bottled water suppliers should too.

OLSON: It seems to us that people that are drinking bottled water ought to be given the same information.

[Chunka, chunka]

CURWOOD: Back here in the Living on Earth office, the bottled water dispenser doesn't look quite as reassuring as it once did. Hmm...maybe a filtered system would be better. Or at least just as good, for a lot less money. We decided to see the expert, Geoffrey Martin, at Consumers Union, the group which publishes "Consumer Reports" magazine. Dr. Martin was in charge of testing water filters for a recent article.

[Footfalls down a corridor; Steve: "Well, Jeff, let's take a look at your laboratory."]

CURWOOD: Dr. Martin's lab is in a low-slung building, just north of New York City.

[Footsteps; Dr. Martin: "All right, here we are." Door click, skreeks open, Steve says, "Whoa. Check this out. This looks like, the flight deck of the starship Enterprise, except, you've got drains in the floor."

MARTIN: We have drains here as a precaution. We're proud to say that we rarely have floods here, but when we have them, those drains are great.

CURWOOD: Give me a quick primer about filtering water.

MARTIN: There's really a couple of things you can do with filtering water. There's just straight mechanical filtration, if you have a lot of sediment in the water, just a sediment filter is enough to get that cleared out of the water. But by far the largest number of filters which are sold to homeowners these days are based on activated carbon. Generally speaking, the carbon filters work on organic material such as trihalomethanes, and...]

CURWOOD: Trihalomethanes are byproducts of the disinfection process, when chlorine is added to water. Chlorine kills dangerous microbes, but it can create other compounds which cause cancer, and have been recently tied to miscarriages. Dr. Martin tells me that carbon filters get most of these and other organic chemicals out, and there are other filters available for other contaminants.

MARTIN: The main thing that you're likely to find is a special material that will remove lead. There are a number of different materials which will take lead out of the water, and they're very often packaged in connection with a carbon filter as well, so you can remove lead and organics.

CURWOOD: What's the most cost-effective way for me to filter the water? Should I get one of these little carafes? You have one here on your test bench--I don't even know how to say this brand name.

MARTIN: Britta?

CURWOOD: Britta. And I see a lot of these in people's kitchens.

MARTIN: Oh yeah, they're selling.

CURWOOD: Is this a good way to go?

MARTIN: Actually, these pitcher models are very satisfactory for people who have aesthetic concerns about the water; chlorine taste comes out very well with these. They also claim to remove some organic materials and lead, and they do that moderately well, so if you have low levels of those things, it'll reduce it. If I knew I had a lead problem, I'd move up a step and probably do a little more elaborate solution.

CURWOOD: Okay, and what's that? MARTIN: Well, there are specific devices which I would plumb under my sink. You can see here some of these filters have one, two, three cartridges. Usually one of them will remove sediment, another will remove organics, and another one will remove lead.

CURWOOD: I'm thirsty. Can I get some water here? What do you guys have?

MARTIN: Well, here in Yonkers, we get water from the New York City watershed. I drink the water straight out of the tap here, but I must say that it tastes better if I just put it in a bottle and stick it in the 'fridge before I drink it.

[Poured water gurgles]

CURWOOD: Alright, I'm gonna try this now. First the nose, over the top of the cup, huh?

MARTIN: Very good.

[Breath in and out. Slight smacking sounds]

CURWOOD: Hmm. Actually, it's pretty good. Dr. Martin says if your problem is a slight chemical taste from chlorine, you might do just as well to take water straight out of the tap, as he does, and let it sit in the 'fridge over night. Otherwise, he says, filtration systems are a generally a reliable way to take out some of the contaminants that can be found in tap water, as long as you remember to change the filter. And, he says, even the more elaborate systems are a pretty good buy compared to bottles; the water ends up costing between about 5 cents and 50 cents a gallon, as opposed to $1.00 or more from a bottler.

[Water pouring out of faucet, clicks off]

CURWOOD: By the way, we tested out tap water in Cambridge, and we found that, along with a slightly off flavor, there are low levels of trihalo methanes. Dr. Martin says that a simple filter should get rid of that. So, maybe we can discontinue our delivery service. I guess we're lucky. There are places in the country where private wells or city water are so contaminated, that a heavy-duty filter or a good bottled water supply really is needed. The only way to find out is to get some good kits, and check the results. Our web page has information on how to find a qualified laboratory. But ultimately, safe drinking water activists like Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council say, safe water is a social concern, not an individual one, and that no one should have to resort to bottled waters or filters.

MARTIN: I think as a society, we lose something if our tap water's no longer safe to drink. The real solution is not every man and woman for himself or herself. We shouldn't all be turning to bottled water. The real solution is to make the water safe coming out of the tap.

CURWOOD: Next week, in the final installment of our series, "The Thirst for Safe Water," we look at new approaches to providing cleaner water to communities around the country. Our report today was produced by Daniel Grossman. The Living on Earth web site is at www.livingonearth.org. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.

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(Liquid music up and under: synthesized sounds)

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 and the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Bullitt Foundation; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility, the makers of Arm and Hammer baking soda, the standard of purity.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up, a school for folks who want to get arrested. Environmental activists learn the art and science of civil disobedience. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[Fiddle music up and under]

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund, and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt's profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

(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: It's been a decade since zebra mussels were first discovered in North America. Native to Russian waters, they were introduced here accidentally. The story goes that they came from the dumping of a freighter's ballast water. At any rate, the striped mollusk reproduced quickly have few natural predators, so they soon spread to all the Great Lakes and didn't stop there. Zebra mussels are now found in 18 states and 2 Canadian provinces, where they're blamed for eating all the algae and starving out native species of mussels and fish. And unfettered colonies of zebra mussels have also been a nuisance to humans. They once plugged up intake pipes, blocking the flow of water to the city of Monroe, Michigan, for 2 days. But one group isn't complainng. People who fish on Lake Erie say the small-mouth bass population is picking up, and they have the zebra mussels to thank. The lake's water is cleaner because it's being filtered by the masses of mussels. In fact, zebra mussels are so efficient at cleaning water that scientists at Southern Illinois University are studying how the little mollusks can be used to treat polluted streams. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Mexican Fires

CURWOOD: Imagine an area the size of the state of Rhode Island, ravaged by fire. And imagine losing some of your most diverse wildlife and most valuable forests in the blaze. That's been the reality in southern Mexico and other parts of Central America for the past few weeks. Authorities say an El Nino- related drought and slash and burn agriculture are to blame for the fires. To make matters worse, winds have blown a cloud of smoke and haze north, hurting the health of the Mexican people and the nation's economy. Guillermo Castillaja runs the World Wildlife Fund's program in Mexico. He's been monitoring the spread of fires from his base in Mexico City. He explained to us how a rainforest can go up in smoke.

CASTILLAJA: Of course, it is counter-intuitive, because one thinks of the rainforest as being so wet that fire wouldn't simply go through it. The fact again is that we are going through a very severe drought, and there is a lot of material in the forest that can burn easily, and the fires can sweep very, very large areas. Now, I must say that in the case of the tropical rainforest, the fires don't destroy the entire forest. It means that the trees in the rainforest don't seem to be burning completely. What seems to be happening is that the fire spreads in the understory, that means below the canopy, of the forest. And what it destroyed is all the understory vegetation, which includes small trees and shrubs and all kinds of herbaceous species and plants, and of course lots of animals living in the forest.

CURWOOD: What's happening in the area of Oaxaca, that has an especially diverse, biologically diverse area at Chimalapas?

CASTILLAJA: This area is by far, we would say, one of the richest pockets of biodiversity in Mesoamerica, and that includes Mexico and Central America. A lot of the species that have been reported as inhabiting the area are what we call endemics. That means that these species oftentimes are restricted to a given area, in this case, for example, an area like the Chimalapas, that cannot be found anywhere else. And so, once these species are affected by fire or loss of habitat or some other threat like this and they disappear, they basically disappear from the planet.

CURWOOD: What's causing these fires?

CASTILLAJA: Well, there are many reasons behind the different fires, but I would say that 9 out of 10 fires that we are seeing in Mexico are started up by a match. So there is someone lighting an open match. In most cases I would say that this is in connection to agricultural practices.

CURWOOD: Further south in Guatemala and the rest of Central America, there's quite a bit of burning going on as well, right? What do you hear about the damage there?

CASTILLAJA: We have reports of fires basically in all of Central America, especially the northern part of it. Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and the north of Nicaragua. In these cases as well, the cause seems to be fires that are started by slash and burn practices or other agricultural practices.

CURWOOD: This year there were just devastating fires in the Amazon. It happens to be the same year that Brazil has adopted a stricter law about slash and burn settlement in the Amazon. This year there were devastating fires in Indonesia and the fires were still going, are still going I guess, in some areas. And it is a factor I think that perhaps contributed to the downfall of the Suharto government there. What will be the political repercussions, do you think, in Mexico of these fires?

CASTILLAJA: Well, they can be quite severe. I mean, not in Mexico, but we have heard in the case of Honduras, for example, that the person in the government who was in charge of trying to curb down the slash and burn this year was murdered by we still don't know who. But was murdered apparently in connection to his efforts to try to curb slash and burn agriculture. And so this is, I guess, an extreme example of the kind of reaction that government agencies are expected, if they, you know, want to interfere in these cultural practices.

CURWOOD: What's the mood there in Mexico about these fires? Are people really upset and scared, or is it just well, you know, these things happen?

CASTILLAJA: The mood right now is one of outrage. I think that people now realize that something is happening that someone is not taking care of the natural resources of the country, and as a consequence very precious ecosystems and species might be going up in smoke.

CURWOOD: Guillermo Castillaja runs the World Wildlife Funds program in Mexico. He joined us on the line from Mexico City. Thank you, sir.

CASTILLAJA: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

Raising a Ruckus!

CURWOOD: Environmental activists have long turned to civil disobedience to put their causes into the public spotlight. Protesters have sat in front of bulldozers, sailed into nuclear test sites, chained themselves to oil rigs, and dangled from tall buildings and ancient trees. The methods are designed to stir controversy, and their practitioners are always on the lookout for yet another way to garner media attention. Producer Vicki Monks observed the latest front-line tactics in a direct action training camp in San Marcos, Texas.

(Clanking sounds; ambient voices in the background.)

WOMAN: Put your neck out against that bar. And she's locked and I'm taking away her key.

MONKS: Diane Wilson, a tall, rugged 49-year-old with curly black hair, sits on the floor of an outdoor pavilion. A U-shaped Kryptonite bicycle lock around her throat secures her to a steel post. Two other women lean against her on the floor. The bicycle locks around their necks are fastened to Ms. Wilson's lock. As a trainer explains, its an effective yet somewhat precarious method for staging a protest.

WOMAN: The thing is, I move, she moves, and we're connected by the neck so, you know, you don't really want to choke the person you're next to.

MONKS: Diane Wilson is no college rabble rouser. She's a fourth generation commercial shrimper, and one of about 60 women who've gathered on a rainy spring morning at the Stonehaven Ranch in the Texas hill country. This is activist boot camp, an intensive week of training in the latest tactics of nonviolent direct action. The sponsor is The Ruckus Society, a California- based nonprofit group that trains individuals in the nuts and bolts of modern civil disobedience in techniques for hanging banners from skyscrapers, scaling redwoods, or halting bulldozers in their tracks.

WILSON: I went to great lengths to get here. I've got 5 kids. I've got fishing that's going to hell in a bread basket. But I was determined I was going to go here because I could do my struggle a lot better.

(More clanking, voices)

WOMAN: And you run it, you lay down, and glue them on.

MONKS: In this class on human blockades, the women are learning how to chain their arms to metal rods welded inside of steel pipes.

WOMAN: Practice and practice with your lock box. Know your lock box before you do it.

MONKS: Gone are the days when protesters used ordinary chain. Police learned long ago to carry heavy bolt cutters. These chains encased in steel pipes would take the police hours instead of minutes to remove.

WILSON: I know when I was on my first hunger strike, I was determined in the middle of that hunger strike to chain myself to a gate and I had not the first concept of, you know, I was going to go down to Walmart and get some chain and wrap myself and lock myself in. And I didn't realize there was actually a strategy you could use and there's techniques about even being arrested. I was totally winging it.

MONKS: The advanced techniques taught in the Ruckus camp are new territory for Ms. Wilson, although she's no stranger to civil disobedience. She came to environmental activism in the mid-80s after watching dolphins die off in record numbers and fish stocks dwindle in the Texas bays where she catches shrimp. Then she learned that the petrochemical plants and plastic makers there ranked among the worst polluters in the nation. So for more than a dozen years, she's all but single-handedly kept up a protest.

WILSON: And here are people that are doing the same thing, and they, they're gutsy. I love gutsy people.

MONKS: The women at this camp come from as far away as the Philippines, Alaska, and Bulgaria, and as nearby as Austin. Most are young and nearly all have participated in direct action campaigns. Some travel the country from one event to the next. These activists say as civil disobedience has become more professional, the stakes have gone up as well.

WOMAN: Just by wearing chains in general, there's going to cause a lot of friction on your wrist and especially when you're being yanked it can hurt really bad.

MONKS: This Texas gathering is the first time Ruckus has offered a boot camp just for women. Camp coordinator Donna Parker says women can be especially effective at direct action, as she found out when she and another woman rappelled from the top of a San Francisco skyscraper to hang a banner on the building.

PARKER: I really didn't think about it being women. And later I heard that people stopped on the street and said, "Those are women?" And it didn't really click until after I heard the response of the people on the ground that they were so surprised those were two women doing this, and not two men up there.

MONKS: The techniques the women learn here are innovative and risky. Although trainers stress safety, in the heat of the moment the activists can get hurt.

WOMAN: And so you're going to go underneath (zipper sounds) and you're going to start your weave...

MONKS: This morning trainees are lashing together tall logs, making a teepee-style barricade used for blocking logging roads.

WOMAN: ... because if it falls, there goes your head. Safety first.

MONKS: When the logs are bound together a climber ascends 30 feet or more to the top. When police try to get climbers down, it's always possible that the whole rig could topple over, causing serious injuries. It's a hazardous business that Diane Wilson knows well.

WILSON: I've had the boat sunk on me, I've had family shot at, I've had a dog killed, I've had 300 construction workers picket me.

MONKS: As the tactics of demonstrators become more refined, police tend to match them in sophistication. In many cases that's resulted in more confrontational encounters, and decisions like the one authorities made in Humboldt County, California, last year, to dab pepper spray directly into protesters' eyes. Police say they were within their rights. But activists sued, saying the police used excessive force.

WOMAN: He held my eye open and applied it right to eyeball.

WOMAN: It escalates every year. It escalates every incident to another level.

WOMAN: I've seen some really bad things. I've been hurt several times, watched people dragged by their nostrils.

MONKS: In addition to techniques, trainees are taught how to remain calm and nonviolent amid chaos. They attend lectures with titles like "Ecopsychology," "Site Surveillance," and "Dealing with Despair." Diane Wilson says she especially appreciated the discussions on the history of civil disobedience.

WILSON: When I did hunger strikes, all I had was people telling me how crazy I was and the only one who ever did it was some little skinny man in India. And so it gave me a sense of my, of the history and the amount of social change that has come with this type of civil disobedience.

(A bell rings. A woman yells, "Circle!")

MONKS: The Ruckus logo shows a monkey wrench stuck in a set of gears, and monkey-wrenching is what Ruckus intends its trainees to do: to go out and grind the machinery of environmental destruction to a halt. Ruckus critics say this brand of confrontational direct action sometimes goes too far and gives environmentalism a bad name. That's not a problem for Texas philanthropist and oil company heiress Genevieve Vaughn, who allowed the Ruckus women to use her ranch for free. She's a civil disobedience veteran.

VAUGHN: I think it really calls attention to the problems, because unfortunately the media ignores a lot of the problems that are really out there. And it takes people who really care a lot and are willing to put their time and sometimes their lives on the line to even bring it to public attention.

MONKS: The Ruckus Society does not advocate some of the more extreme direct action techniques, such as driving spikes into threatened trees, a tactic that has injured some mill workers. Donna Paker.

PARKER: We don't teach any destruction of any property or person. We feel that the techniques that we teach are the techniques that get the issue into the media and into the public.

MONKS: The trainees are trying out their skills here. But it's when they move from the realm of theory into practice that the risks multiply and the unpredictable can happen. Donna Parker says one of her most successful actions in recent years was also one of her most dangerous.

(Traffic sounds)

MONKS: It happened on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, a 6-lane, half-mile-long structure 135 feet above the water. Much of Seattle's fishing fleet must sail through the passage the bridge spans. In a dramatic action in August of 1997, Ms. Parker and 6 other Greenpeace climbers lowered themselves off the side of the lofty bridge on slim ropes, dangling their bodies in the path of a massive factory fishing trawler. According to the activists, the huge trawlers essentially strip mine the ocean, destroying miles of underwater habitat in a single fishing expedition.

PARKER: We hooked into the bridge, tied our anchors. A cop happened to be going by at that time and he made a U-turn on the bridge and took out a knife and started cutting lines without knowing what he was cutting. And he was yelling, "I've cut your lifeline! I've cut your lifeline!" And it was just this really intense moment, because I looked at my support person, and I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "You're safe. You're fine. Go." And I just jumped. And I just stepped back and jumped off the bridge. He could have endangered all our lives.

(Foghorns)

MONKS: The climbers were tied together with a single rope, so that if the trawler had come through while they were dangling in front of it, it would have snagged the entire group of 7 people, sending them plummeting toward the ocean.

PARKER: I've never seen a ship this large before, and that close. And I was toward the middle, so I got a good view of the ship (laughs).

MONKS: The captain stood down and returned to port.

NBC ANNOUNCER (backdropped by news theme music): This is NBC News at sunrise, with Linda Vester.

VESTER: In Seattle, members of the environmental group Greenpeace have staged a dramatic protest...

MONKS: The action made news across the US. On national television, fishing industry officials branded the activists as extremists. Donna Parker says the risks they took for the protest were worth it.

(To Parker) You could have been killed.

PARKER: I don't think about that. I think about what has to be done, and sometimes this is what you need to do. And the being killed aspect just doesn't seem part of it. And there's no choice; it has to be done.

MONKS: Each activist here must assess if and when such life-threatening risks are worth taking. Ruckus has scheduled more camps in other locations across the US. The women here say after a week of training they're ready for action. Donna Parker and Diane Wilson, no doubt, will be on the front line.

WILSON: There is power in putting yourself on the line and putting yourself out there. I think it shows your commitment and also it makes things happen. I think it is such a peaceful, nonviolent way of making change and it's so amazing that people see that as radical. As peace being radical.

( So I've got the anchor, I've got the four lines...)

MONKS: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.

WILSON: ... I've got it locked down, I've got it hooked to the double belt. Okay-doke. Lemme see.

WOMAN: You got it.

WILSON: This is going to be a hobby, big time.

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CURWOOD: We welcome your comments about our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our Web page is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. And our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Coming up: one man's decision to have just one child. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Just One Child

CURWOOD: A few years ago writer Bill McKibben and his wife Sue Halpern made what they say is the most important decision in their lives. They agreed that their daughter Sophie would be their one and only child. Bill McKibben then decided to write about it. Population, he says, is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed. His book is called Maybe One.

McKIBBEN: For each of us, there's probably no more fundamental decision than whether or not to have kids and then whether or not to have another kid. Because each one is so important. And in terms of our environmental impact, there's certainly no choice we make in the course of our lives that's as important as how often and whether we reproduce.

CURWOOD: Was it difficult for you and your wife to decide to stop at just one kid?

McKIBBEN: Well, on the one hand it was hard because Sophie is so wonderful that we were sort of eager to see what might come next. And on the other hand it was kind of easy, because Sophie is so wonderful.

CURWOOD: And you got out the scissors, right? You went snip?

McKIBBEN: Well, I didn't actually do it myself. I had a doctor do it, which I highly recommend. But that's right; I had a vasectomy and it was an odd feeling. Andin some ways sad to put yourself out of the evolution business.

CURWOOD: If you consider this the most important decision that you've made, Bill McKibben, what were the factors that went into making this decision?

McKIBBEN: Well, I tell you. I'm not such a good environmentalist that if I'd thought that it was going to do damage to Sophie, it's not a decision I think that I would have made. So I began by making sure that those myths and stereotypes about only kids, that they're spoiled, lonely, unhappy, asocial, to make sure that those really were myths. I mean, the most interesting part of the whole book, Steve, was going back and figuring out where these myths had come from. At the end of the 19th century there was a man named G. Stanley Hall, the first child psychologist. And he did this big study of what he called "peculiar and exceptional children." He collected a thousand case studies. Some of these were children he'd met, some of them were children people had described to him, some of them were children that he had read about or people had read about in novels. And he broke them down by what their peculiarity was. Some of them were ugly. Some of them had birth marks. Some didn't like to share their candy with other children. So on and so forth. He just grouped all those children together as peculiar and exceptional and then he said, "What can we tell about these children?" Well, the two things he thought stood out were that there were a lot of children of immigrants in that group, and that there were a lot of only children. And from this he drew the conclusion, as he put it, that "being an only child is a disease in and of itself." Well, needless to say, this was about as useless a study as one could possibly have done, but it was the only study anybody did on this topic for the next 35 years. And newspaper after newspaper, I mean hundreds of them, quoted this study and its findings, and over the course of that time the series of myths and stereotypes were embedded deeply in our culture. So deeply that the flood of studies that have come since have done little to dislodge them, because they've all been in obscure psychological journals and things. What I want to do is get some of those findings out to people, to show them that only children achieve at as high or higher a rate than other children, probably because they have a certain amount more undivided parental attention. And then in terms of personality, they're no more spoiled, selfish, bratty, unhappy, than any other child. In terms of personality adjustment, they're indistinguishable.

CURWOOD: So you decided it was safe psychologically for Sophie to be an only kid. What else went into your decision?

McKIBBEN: What really brought it home to me was just understanding that the way in which we live made population in some ways more of an issue for us than it is even in places with much faster growth rates, places like sub- Saharan Africa. You know, a Somalian can cause all sorts of problems in Somalia by having lots and lots of kids. And you run out of firewood, you run out of cropland, there's not enough school buildings for all the kids, so on and so forth. But they live at such a low level that they don't do fundamental damage to the world's ecosystems. They're not, among other things, releasing the vast clouds of carbon dioxide that trigger global warming. They're not, you don't meet a lot of Somalians driving Ford Explorers.

CURWOOD: You're on the record, you've written in the New York Times and elsewhere, as being in favor of stricter limits on immigration. Isn't it true, in fact, that virtually the entire projected rise in the US population really is a function of immigration rather than people having babies?

McKIBBEN: No, it's about half and half.

CURWOOD: Okay.

McKIBBEN: I've taken a kind of middle position on this. I don't think that we need or should have the severe cuts to virtually no immigration that some people, including some environmentalists, have called for. That strikes me as somewhat piggish. On the other hand, we cannot let unlimited numbers of people in forever. Our country is a great idea. It's also a physical place that can support so many people, and it lives on a, it exists on a planet that can support so many people. There's a real environmental cost that comes with making other people into Americans.

CURWOOD: What if we follow your advice and have just one child per couple here in America? Or many people do. How would things change?

McKIBBEN: In some ways what would be most obvious is that things wouldn't change so much. Instead of going to 400 million people our population would plateau. We wouldn't have to build the next ring of suburbs, the next, you know, 2 or 3 rings of malls and everything else. We'd be pretty much where we are, still in a hard place, still coping with a lot of environmental problems, but have some margin to deal with those.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

McKIBBEN: Well, Steve, thanks as always.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben's new book is entitled Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Joyce Hackel is the senior editor. And our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our production staff includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jim Frey and Elsa Heidorn. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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