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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 12, 1999

Air Date: February 12, 1999

SEGMENTS

Russian Environmental Journalists Get the Look

In the past three years, two Russian journalists have been arrested and charged with high treason for reporting on nuclear waste dumping by Russia’s navy fleets. Host Laura Knoy talks with Natalya Shulyakovskaya (shool-yah-kove-SKY-yah), of the Moscow Times, about the impact these trials might be having on environmentalism in the former Soviet Union. (04:00)

Russian Nuclear Nexus / Bill Gasperini

The Arctic port city of Murmansk is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. That's because it hosts what may be the world's largest collection of nuclear waste stored in precarious conditions. Much of the waste floats in rusting atomic submarines that can leak into the rivers and sea. As Bill Gasperini reports, the city's residents are too preoccupied with daily survival to press for greater nuclear safeguards. (06:00)

The Peace Dividend that Wasn't / Pippin Ross

In the mid-1990's the Clinton White House vowed to transform the U.S. arms industry. The administration offered weapons makers grants to turn their technological expertise to peaceful pursuits. Few arms producers were enticed to make the switch. But as Pippin Ross reports, several firms who did turned a handsome profit. (07:30)

Valentine's Massacre

Both a songbird and predator, the Northern Shrike (as in "strike") is not the most welcome visitor in New Hampshire in the winter. It has the most unfortunate habit of impaling its prey. (02:50)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... hares. The Chinese New Year begins on February 16 and this year is the year of the hare. (01:30)

When Ice Skating is not Good for your Health / Patrick Cox

A combination of bad ventilation plus the noxious toxic fumes from gas-powered ice re-surfacers (a.k.a. Zambonis) can lead to respiratory problems for those who spend a lot of time in ice rinks. As Patrick Cox reports, improving the air quality is an expensive undertaking. (04:15)

The Grass is Greener / Steve Tripoli

Dairy herds aren't getting out to pasture much any more. In recent decades, farmers have been keeping the barn doors shut, preferring to feed grain to their cows to increase their milk output. But farmers in Vermont are challenging the conventional wisdom with a practice called management intensive grazing. The technique is turning out to be lucrative and kinder to the land, as Steve Tripoli reports. (09:30)

Decline in the World's Languages

Although there are thousands of languages spoken today, lingua-diversity is in steep decline. More than half the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. And more than a quarter are spoken by fewer than 1000 people. Guest host Laura Knoy talks with Peter Ladefoged (laud-eh-FOE-ged), a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles who travels the world, studying and recording these rare languages. (07:15)

Eat Chocolate and Support the Environment

Embracing global issues, such as rain forest protection, is often a problem for many people. Now supporters of rain forests have a rallying support -- chocolate! (02:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Bill Gasperini, Pippin Ross, Patrick Cox, Steve Tripoli
GUESTS: Natalya Shulyakovskaya, Peter Ladefoged
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Suzanne Elston

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

From Murmansk in the frozen north to Vladivostok on the Pacific Rim, the neglected Russian nuclear fleet comes home to haunt the nation it was supposed to protect.

ZOLOTKOV: This ship has more than 600 spent fuel rods on board that have been pulled from the nuclear icebreaker Lenin. The ship is very old. Any accident to the ship could result in horrible damage to the bay and, indeed, the entire city.

KNOY: Also, the effort to turn Cold War swords into ploughshares hits a snag. And the remains of the day in the courting life of one unusual song bird.

MONTGOMERY: You know it's a really bad day when you find a finch skewered on the hawthorne tree and a mouse impaled on the barbed wire fence.

KNOY: Our own funny little Valentine and more, this week on Living on Earth. First news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Russian Environmental Journalists Get the Look

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In Russia, a journalist named Grigory Pasko sits in jail awaiting trial on charges of treason. His crime? Producing a television documentary about the dumping of radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan by Russia's Pacific Fleet. Pasko claims he was exposing unsafe nuclear waste disposal. But the FSB, one of the successors to the KGB, says he revealed critical secret military information. Pasko has been in prison for 14 months, but his trial, which was supposed to begin last week, has been delayed indefinitely. Joining us now to talk about the case is Natalya Shulyakovskaya. She covers the environment for the Moscow Times. Natalya, why did the security service consider Pasko's work so dangerous?

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: Well, Pasko basically was accused of passing documents that had nothing to do with ecology or the Far East region to the Japanese. But he denies that any information was secret. He says that all the information he collected was collected from public documents, and from approval of his naval command.

KNOY: There are some tricky rules in Russia about what's classified, what's public record, and what is not.

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: Yeah, there is. And the law on state secrets has been expanded by a presidential decree in October of 1997, and now it does include nuclear installation with defense significance. But the law is fairly broad, so basically FSB has the freedom to decide what is a nuclear installation with defense significance, and what is not.

KNOY: Now, Mr. Pasko is not the first journalist to be charged with treason for this type of reporting. Correct?

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: Yes. Alexander Nikitin, a military, well, Navy captain who retired and lived in St. Petersburg was working for Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian-based environmental group. And he compiled parts of the report that Bellona Foundation put together on the abuse, environmental abuse, done by the Northern Fleet on the far north of Russia. It's actually, it's also, they documented dumping of nuclear waste into the seas, the northern Russian seas.

KNOY: Natalya, what sort of effect do you think these 2 cases, the cases of Mr. Pasko and Mr. Nikitin, will have on the overall environmental movement in Russia?

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: Well, people who now participate in environmental movement in Russia, there are few people, and they're real enthusiasts. But what it will do, actually, it will create a much harder, harsh environment for them to collect necessary hard data, hard information, to fight environmental abuse. This sends a message not only to environmentalists, but to bureaucrats who are responsible for releasing environmental information, that they can deny it. And more, that if they release any of the information, FSB could be on their case, too. And in fact, during our reporting on Pasko's case, we interviewed a colonel who represents FSB, a spokesman for FSB, who said directly that it is a well-known fact that environmental activism is often used as a cover for agents.

KNOY: So what's next for Mr. Pasko, Natalya?

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: In Russia, the Russian legal system allows the cases to be sent back for additional investigation. In fact, that's what's happening in Nikitin's case. And there is no real legal limit on how long it could be dragged on for. And as far as I can see, there is very little political will, probably, within the court system, to stop this.

KNOY: Natalya Shulyakovskaya covers the environment for the Moscow Times, the capitol's main English-language newspaper. Natalya, thanks for talking with us.

SHULYAKOVSKAYA: Thank you.

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Russian Nuclear Nexus

KNOY: The fate of Russia's environmental whistle-blowers is especially important to the residents of northwestern Russia, in the city of Murmansk north of the Arctic Circle. During the Cold War, Murmansk was home to more than 150 atomic submarines. It was considered a prime target for a Western attack in the event of a nuclear war. Today, some of those vessels are rusting hulks. The region is thought to have the highest concentration of nuclear materials stored in deteriorating conditions anywhere in the world. As Bill Gasperini reports, it may be a nuclear accident waiting to happen.

(A woman speaks into a microphone in Russian)

GASPERINI: Many people around the world wake up listening to the news, traffic, and weather on the radio. Here in Murmansk they get the temperature and the daily radiation count. Today the radiation level is low, only 4 regnans per hour, the level normally found in nature. But that could easily change. For this region far above the Arctic Circle has perhaps more potential for a nuclear accident than anywhere else on the planet.

(Clicking sounds)

GASPERINI: As home to Russia's Northern Fleet, almost 100 nuclear submarines are moored in these icy waters. There's also a nuclear power plant, as well as atomic-powered ice breakers, which can churn their way through thick ice all the way to the North Pole. All of which make Murmansk the hottest place in the Arctic, with multiple sources for radiation contamination. Sergei Fillipov works with Bellona, an environmental organization based in nearby Norway that's helped focus world attention on the problem.

FILLIPOV: We have more than, I guess, 200 nuclear weapons here. And nuclear wastes. It means that of course concentration of the radioactive stuff. We have one of the most concentrated places.

GASPERINI: Bellona has published reports about the nuclear stockpile, including the dumping of nuclear wastes generated by all of those reactors.

(A door slams, footfalls)

GASPERINI: The Russian military has repeatedly used its coastal waters as a disposal ground for unwanted materials. The key whistle-blower on this was a former Naval officer named Alexander Nikitin, who was arrested after helping write a report for Bellona on nuclear security. But Nikitin has always maintained that the information in the report was all in the public domain, as he reiterated in an interview in the city of St. Petersburg.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: We set out to do everything above-board, totally professionally. The report was publically funded by the ecological committee of the European Parliament.

GASPERINI: For 3 years Nikitin has been on a legal treadmill, which included a long stint in prison waiting for formal charges to be filed. This led Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience, the first in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andrey Zolotkov is a nuclear engineer who also works with Bellona. He says perhaps the greatest danger to Murmansk comes from an old ship now moored in the harbor, which has become a giant receptacle for nuclear waste.

ZOLOTKOV: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: This ship has more than 600 spent fuel rods on board that have been pulled from the nuclear ice-breaker Lenin. Now we know that removing this fuel is very dangerous. The ship is very old, and it's docked right here in the Kola Bay. Any accident to the ship could result in horrible damage to the bay and, indeed, the entire city.

GASPERINI: Environmental activists say part of the problem is Russia's secretive military, which refuses to allow outside inspections of facilities in the region. Murmansk has always been one of the most strategic places in Russia, largely because it's an ice-free port due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Norway lies just a short drive away. It's the only NATO-member country which shares a border with Russia. Relations between Moscow and Oslo are relatively good, especially since the end of the Cold War. This winter, tons of food aid have been sent from Norway to Murmansk after the region's governor made a direct appeal for help. Last summer, the devaluation of the ruble and the virtual collapse of Russian banks left millions of people vulnerable. The Murmansk region had already been hit hard with the downsizing of its military industries.

(A woman speaks in Russian)

GASPERINI: Galina Galiyeva is a single mother with 6 hungry children to feed, living in a small, cramped apartment.

GALIYEVA: [Speaks in Russian]

GASPERINI: Making just $15 a month as a cleaner in a hospital, Galina needs all the flour, cooking oil, and other foodstuffs she can get. Given the difficulties of just making ends meet, she says fear of a nuclear accident is far from her mind. With so many people worried about just getting through the winter, life goes on in spite of the ever-present nuclear danger.

(Children playing; rock music plays in the background)

GASPERINI: This central square is always a bundle of activity, even late into the long Polar night. On the surface all appears tranquil. But it's what lies beneath the surface which is so troubling. The danger that deadly radiation could escape from the rusting submarines, or the stockpiles of nuclear waste stored just outside the city. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Gasperini in Murmansk, Russia.

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(Music continues, fades to Russian folk music up and under)

KNOY: How a song bird's Valentine can be the kiss of death for some of nature's creatures: the butcher bird of the north is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The Peace Dividend that Wasn't

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. During President Bill Clinton's first term in office, the White House launched a plan to get defense contractors out of the arms business and into producing environmentally-friendly consumer products. It seemed a logical idea. The post-Cold War economy didn't bode well for arms manufacturers. And the world market for environmental technologies was estimated to be double that of the demand for weapons. But now, several years later, only a handful of companies have made the switch. Pippin Ross reports that despite a booming market for ecologically sound products, the political will to turn arms into ploughshares has faded.

(Clanking sounds)

ROSS: At Film Microelectronics, Incorporated, in Andover, Massachusetts, factory workers in sterilized garb spray liquid gold onto resister panels used in cell phones. The gold is being used instead of a toxic chemical called beryllium oxide. With cell phone use skyrocketing, Micro Electronics' general manager, Gary Colello, says popular demand for a non-toxic replacement is strong.

COLELLO: We're making 180,000 of these in the next couple months. You can, you know, literally break this up, breathe it. I mean you could eat it, I guess. I assume you wouldn't but --

ROSS: The resistors are one of many high-tech, environmentally-friendly products Micro Electronics' parent company, SatCon, manufactures. A decade ago, SatCon worked exclusively for the Defense Department and NASA. Now, says former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and SatCon CEO David Eisenhauer, the government gives grants to contractors like SatCon to diversify into consumer products while meeting the needs of the Defense Department.

EISENHAUER: The money that's available from the government is about $60 billion a year that's available for R&D for new product development. And, you know, the total amount of money that's spent by US corporations is about $140 billion a year. So it's an enormous opportunity for everyone.

ROSS: With strings attached. Before they accept the government's money, companies must first do the Pentagon's bidding. For instance, when the military put out a request for non-toxic electrical insulators, SatCon rallied, convinced they could develop a product that doubles as the main ingredient for a cell phone. Sifting through a bin of resistors, general manger Colello says the government money has enabled him and his colleagues to invent all sorts of safe, useful products.

COLELLO: The bottom line is, it costs less. When it comes right down to it, you know, the government pays less, Boeing pays less, Raytheon pays less. Whoever else, commercial customers, they pay less. It's not only cleaner but costs less.

ROSS: And it makes money. Since 1992, SatCon has turned $30 million in government research and development grants into 70 patents.

PEMBERTON: Their enthusiasm isn't, as far as I know, shared by a lot of the Defense prime contractors or the subcontractors.

ROSS: Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She authored A Tale of Two Markets, a report showing there's a lot more money in exporting environmental technologies than sending arms abroad. Pemberton says there's a $400 billion demand for environmentally-friendly consumer products. That's twice the current demand for arms. But, she says, companies like SatCon are the exception among defense contractors. Most arms manufacturers aren't enticed by what they consider comparatively small government grants.

PEMBERTON: They basically will go where the money is. If there's strong, you know, public investment on the civilian side, then they're happy to go there. But there hasn't been in the post-Cold War period, and so they haven't moved there.

(Milling voices at a large gathering)

ROSS: Two hundred top executives from the Raytheon Corporation, one of the country's largest defense contractors, are having cocktails in a Boston hotel following a day-long meeting on the company's future. Although Raytheon has turned some of its defense-related technologies into useful consumer products, conversion is not a company priority. Senior executive Edmund Woollen says it's not government grants that have inspired Raytheon's consumer products, but the inventive researcher and scientist with initiative.

WOOLLEN: And he decides, or has some idea of how this would be valuable in a consumer market, without any real market survey or market analysis. So he will invent his solution to a problem.

ROSS: The Internet, air traffic control, beepers, and cell phones are among the best-known spinoffs of defense technology. But when the government spends 12 times more exporting arms than it does on consumer technologies, there's little incentive for big contractors like Raytheon to make the shift to consumer products. In addition, says Woollen, the government has done little to show defense contractors the ropes.

WOOLLEN: Usually, what we found is the people who have a good technology but don't ever succeed in converting it commercially, you can usually trace that back to their lack of understanding of how to go to market, how to do pricing, how to do distribution, how to do service, how to do customer support. The sorts of things that consumers value.

(A phone rings. A woman answers: "Security Studies Program.")

ROSS: The Security Studies Department at MIT is a spawning ground for military innovation. Department chair Harvey Supulski says that since the end of the Cold War, roughly a million contractors have gone into other businesses, or out of business altogether. But, he says, there remain at least 2 million contractors with no intention of moving out of this very lucrative line of work.

SUPULSKI: You go to your Congressman instead of converting, for big facilities. And most of them are still open. It raises the issue of how much jobs we want to preserve. And I think we're preserving, in this field, too much. How to convert them, what to do? Well, that's a big issue, and the government once had a program, but it got laughed away and it shouldn't have.

ROSS: But SatCon's Gary Colello made the program work for his company. He says using government money to move out of defense was the smartest thing his company could have done.

COLELLO: So a lot of great technology was developed and a stake was put in the sand. Now, that work kind of slowed down the last couple of years. But we didn't slow down, because now we're sitting on sort of what all that came to.

ROSS: SatCon recently received a new client. The Chrysler Corporation thinks the company's low-cost, non-polluting insulator should play a significant role in the company's latest generation of high-efficiency electric cars. But few contractors are likely to follow SatCon's lead in the short term. The Clinton Administration has recently proposed adding $110 billion to the defense budget over the next 6 years. That gives defense contractors even less incentive to move into alternative lines of work. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross.

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(Music up and under)

Valentine's Massacre

KNOY: It's perhaps appropriate that Valentine's Day falls in the cold, dreary month of February. It reminds us to look for love at unexpected times and in unexpected places. As Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery warns us, you never know where a Valentine might show up, or just what form it might take.

MONTGOMERY: It's worse than finding a dead rat in the basement. It's worse than discovering a smooshed squirrel on the driveway. You know it's a really bad day when you find a finch skewered on the hawthorne tree and a mouse impaled on the barbed wire fence. It looks like the handiwork of some demented youth. But no, it's stranger still. This is the work of a song bird.

This avian version of Vlad the Impaler looks much like a mockingbird but has a distinctive black stripe through the eye and a curved beak. It's the infamous butcher bird of the north, a.k.a. the northern shrike. Perched high in a tree, sitting up right like a hawk, the northern shrike considers most little birds and mammals fair game. Chickadees, finches, sparrows, voles, mice. It will even kill prey larger than itself, including big bluejays, starlings, and rats.

A predatory song bird is a concept disturbing enough. But what the shrike does after the kill is even more unsettling. It will fly to a perch beside a thorn or along some barbed wire, and then carefully skewer the victim there, leaving it impaled like some furred or feathered cocktail frank.

To a biologist, the shrike's unique enthusiasm for impaling other creatures is as intriguing as it is gruesome. The behavior almost certainly first evolved to help these little birds eat. Butcher birds lack the tearing talons of hawks, owls, and eagles, so they use those skewers as utensils to help them eat their meat, the way we use knife and fork.

But that's not the whole story. Males impale more prey than do females, and they do so especially during the breeding season. At that time, the birds may skewer not only their usual victims but also pieces of cloth and eggshells. Why? To find out, Israeli researcher Ruben Yosef conducted an experiment. Like a crazed Robin Hood, the researcher robbed impaled prey from rich male shrikes, and then skewered the stolen items on thorns in the territories of shrikes less fortunate. The result: the ladies took notice, and went for those males who, thanks to the researcher, had the best collection of corpses.

The sometimes gruesome larder is a courting male shrike's equivalent of flowers and candy. A song bird's Valentine.

(Music up and under: "My Funny Valentine.")

KNOY: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

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(Music up and under)

KNOY: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Music up and 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; 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; and Church and Dwight, 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.

KNOY: Coming up: grazing in the grass is a gas, and some Vermont dairy farmers are digging it. A revival of putting the cows out to pasture is underway in the Green Mountain State. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

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

(Theme music up and under)

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Valentine's Day isn't the only holiday to celebrate this week. February 16 marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and this is the Year of the Hare. Though hares are usually called rabbits and rabbits are sometimes called hares, each is in a genus of its own. In general, hares are larger than rabbits, but the main distinction between the 2 is that hares are born with a full coat of fur and with their eyes open, whereas rabbits are born blind and hairless. Hares generally have grayish-brown fur, though some species molt to white in winter. So-called jackrabbits and snowshoe rabbits are actually true hares, while the Belgian hare is really a rabbit. And to get even pickier, cottontails aren't exactly rabbits or hares. They're in another genus altogether. And then there are those famous fictional hares, of course. The fabled rival of the tortoise, for one, and perhaps the most popular hare of all, Bugs Bunny, who will celebrate his 60th birthday next year. Though known as a "wascally wabbit," his first cinematic role reveals his true scientific moniker. The cartoon's title: A Wild Hare. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under: theme from The Bugs Bunny Show)

When Ice Skating is not Good for your Health

KNOY: And now, on with the show. You might think that skating around an ice rink is good exercise, and it is. But spending too much time on some of the nation's 800 or so ice rinks can also damage your health. A combination of bad ventilation and noxious toxic fumes from ice resurfacers can make for air rich in nitrogen dioxide, a chemical known to cause respiratory problems. Many of the nation's rinks are improving their air quality. But as Patrick Cox reports, it's an expensive undertaking.

(Skates clapping on ice; a man shouts, blows his whistle: "Let's go!")

COX: The Malden Catholic Lances, one of the region's hockey powerhouses, practice every weekday at the Ammons Horrigan O'Neal Rink in Boston. For more than 30 years this rink had little ventilation, and when a gasoline-powered machine, better known by its trade name Zamboni, came out to smooth the ice, the air got really fouled. But 2 years ago new ventilators were installed, and a new electric-powered Zamboni replaced the gas-burning one. Malden Catholic senior Ben Barbieri, who's been slapping pucks on this rink since he was 11, says he can smell the difference.

BARBIERI: I think it's better because before, you used to be able to smell, like the exhaust and everything. It used to really not be good, getting into your lungs and all that stuff. But it's easier to breathe now, so.

COX: Barbieri's experience is shared by many young skaters, according to Brian Kerans, who's with the Massachusetts state agency that runs this rink.

KERANS: A lot of kids who are active in our rinks were coming down with headaches. And this is something that actually is happening nationwide more and more. And a lot of the medical people were zeroing in on possibly the machinery that's in the rinks to groom the ice.

COX: So the state started taking steps to improve the air hockey players and other skaters breathe. State lawmakers passed first in the nation ice rink air quality standards. Then Massachusetts earmarked more than $2 million to improve the rinks it manages. Sixteen of the Boston area's 20 public rinks now use electric Zambonis.

(A Zamboni over the ice)

COX: Electric Zambonis have been available for about 10 years, but they still only corner less than 10% of the market. The reason could be that at $100,000 each, electric Zambonis cost almost twice as much as their gas-powered cousins. But the findings of a new study by the Harvard University School of Public Health may help spur sales. It found rinks that used electric Zambonis had acceptably low levels of nitrogen dioxide. Rinks that use propane and gasoline-powered Zambonis, says one of the study's authors, Jonathan Levy, had far dirtier air.

LEVY: They tended to be on average 100, 200 parts per billion. So, about, you know, 3 to 5 times higher than what you might typically be exposed to outdoors.

COX: The highest reading out of 19 rinks surveyed had nitrogen dioxide levels 30 times higher than clean air. Enough, says Levy, to cause bronchitis, chronic cough, and wheezing.

(Fans whirring)

COX: Skating rinks with the biggest air quality problems are most likely to be small, private operations, where profit margins are often slim. For owners who can't shell out the big bucks for a new, pollution-free Zamboni, the State of Massachusetts' Brian Kerans offers this advice.

KERANS: One thing that they should do at all times is leave the doors open, particularly when they're making a new sheet of ice. If they cannot afford an electric Zamboni and they are forced into purchasing a gasoline-driven, then having it properly tuned at all times is the key.

(A coach blows on a whistle)

COX: And rinks here in the United States may have some catching up to do. The latest international study on skating rink air quality found nitrogen dioxide levels in US rinks the highest out of 9 nations surveyed. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Boston.

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(Skaters on the ice)

The Grass is Greener

KNOY: The modern dairy cow spends most of her life on a concrete slab. She has only to lift her snout to the trough for a twice daily meal of specially mixed grain. That leaves farmers to do most of the work, growing or buying high-priced feed, storing it, serving it, and then disposing of mountains of manure. Now a small but growing group of farmers is updating an old-fashioned alternative: turning the cows out to pasture and letting the animals do the work. It's called management-intensive grazing, a sophisticated technique that involves moving cows to fresh sections of pasture throughout the day. In addition to lower overhead and higher profits, keeping Bessie on the move is also good for the environment. Steve Tripoli of WBUR in Boston explains.

(Wind)

MAN: You need some white cedars here to block that thing.

MAN 2: Oh, yeah.

MAN: It's not blowing much today. How come?

TRIPOLI: The biting breeze on this steel-gray day isn't considered an especially stiff one on Henry Forgues' farm. The wind is constant here, sweeping enough Lake Champlain out front. One step off the back pasture and you're in Canada. At 47, Henry Forgues is a lifelong farmer. He bought these 240 acres in tiny Alberg Springs 22 years ago. As we stand in a pasture, curious calves tugging at our pants cuffs, Henry Forgues talks about how he's owned this land through some rough times. Especially before he met Bill Murphy, who's here again today.

FORGUES: This type of farming here is what Bill introduced us to, which changed our whole life here on the farm.

TRIPOLI: Forgues says he's not exaggerating.

FORGUES: It's real. Because there's no place else to go with the efficiency and the price of milk wasn't getting any better. And the work load is just getting to be too much.

TRIPOLI: Henry Forgues was caught on a treadmill all too many of his dairy farming neighbors are on. Endless punishing work, not enough income, and way too much debt. What's become the norm in American dairy farming since World War II is this. You grow lots of hay and grain to feed your cows. Then you harvest it, store it, and deliver it to their stalls. Some farmers buy some of their feed as well. The cows pretty much stay in the stalls, which means you have a lot of cleaning up to do. But in exchange for all your effort and the cow's relative lack of effort you get huge amounts of milk. It's called confinement farming. Many farmers make good money this way, but quite a few don't, and New England's losing 5% of its dairy farms each year as a result. When Henry Forgues met Bill Murphy, a farmer himself, but also a professor of agronomy at the University of Vermont, Forgues decided he had to listen to Murphy's advice and try a new twist on an old idea.

FORGUES: Instead of having machinery coming out with a maw and a chopper and blowing it into the silos that we do still have that are empty, most of the harvesting's done with the animals. The cows come out and we let them do the grazing.

TRIPOLI: Putting cows to pasture for most of their feed is the way it used to be, and still is, even in industrialized countries like Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Forgues says the rediscovery of grazing on his farm has made life almost unimaginably easier. Cows stay outside in all but the coldest weather so no barn clean-ups, and there's no moving manure to the fields. Less work and less of the polluting runoff associated with manure piles. And growing their own grass makes it easier for many of these farmers to be certified organic, which gets them 10% more for their milk. Best of all, Forgues doesn't have to grow, harvest, and store tons of grain.

FORGUES: Talk about anxiety and stress. You have to take this whole farm and push it through an 8-inch pipe before you can make any money. You have to harvest all the feed, and it has to all go through an 8-inch pipe to be put in that silo. And then, to get it out of the silo, you blow it through a 4-inch pipe (someone laughs in the background), so that's that's intensity.

TRIPOLI: It's not that grazing is as simple as just letting the cows out. This method is called management-intensive grazing, and it involves ensuring that cows are on the most productive fields at the most productive times, as well as breeding cows readily adapt to pasture. But on top of everything else, Henry Forgues says the system has freed him from needing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of silos and farm equipment, cost that got him into debt in the first place, and from the time it takes to pay for and maintain equipment. Despite all that, plenty of farmers don't see intensive grazing as their solution.

BESSETTE: With our number of cows, there's one way to do it.

TRIPOLI: Jim Bessette is one of them. His Bestview Farm in nearby St. Albans has 500 milking cows to Henry Forgues' 70. Sipping coffee in his kitchen one morning, country music on the radio, Bessette says just 3 workers raise all the feed for his much bigger herd. Sure, it takes machinery, he says, but economies of scale pay for it. Bessette says he's not feeling stressed by confinement farming.

(Country music plays)

BESSETTE: I was told a long while ago, probably 25 years ago when we put up our first Harvestar silo, you drive down the road, this guy's got a Harvestar and he's making a decent living, and then you go down the road a little further and this guy with a $7,000 bunker, and he's making a decent living. And you drive down a little further and this guy's got a pile of corn just sitting on the ground, and he has more spoilage but he's making a decent living. So it's mainly management.

TRIPOLI: Bessette's neighbor Ted Yandow is a grass farmer, just like Henry Forgues. I asked Bessette, do you ever discuss the advantages and disadvantages of your 2 ways of farming with each other? A moment of silence.

YANDOW: No. He does things, his is the right way.

TRIPOLI: It turns out, Ted Yandow is as ecstatic about intensive grazing as Henry Forgues. He used almost the same words to describe it that Forgues used. "It saved my life." But Yandow says he doesn't approach neighbors about his way of farming, either. In Vermont's tight farming towns, no one wants to be seen as a meddler. The lack of discussion is too bad, say grass farmers, because unlike Jim Bessette they believe that grazing can be done at almost any scale, and that it brings substantial environmental benefits like less chemical use on the land. Henry Forgues' grazing mentor, farmer and agronomist Bill Murphy, says ingrained beliefs also keep farmers from switching.

MURPHY: One thing for sure is pastures have a very bad reputation in this country, from a couple hundred years of mismanagement. The people just don't think they will produce, and they refuse to believe that they will. I know when we first started talking about it here, I only had results from New Zealand to show people. And they'd say wow, yeah, that's New Zealand, it won't work in Vermont. But then we got a few farmers to try it, including on my farm.

TRIPOLI: Experts disagree about the 2 systems, but grass farming is gaining adherence. Vermont grass farmers have formed chat circles to discuss what they've learned with each other, if not with their non-grazing neighbors. A web page called grassfarmer.com lists grazing farms and research in more than a dozen states. There's even a national magazine called The Stockman Grass Farmer. Its catchy subtitle is, "The grazer's edge." But concerns remain. One extension service agent said he worried that grass-based diets are too rich, and that cows will use too much energy processing the extra protein.

(Clanking sounds. Man: "I'd hate to have to start that in the middle of the winter.")

TRIPOLI: Back at Henry Forgues' farm that doesn't seem to be a problem. Forgues says 68 of his 70 milking cows were successfully impregnated this fall, a high percentage for any farm and a sign of good health. Grass farming has led to some pretty uncommon scenes at the Forgues' farm.

FORGUES: They think of this as a fairly unorthodox use for a silo.

TRIPOLI: (Laughs) Yeah.

The door of a silo that no longer stores grain is carefully opened.

(A latch unhooks; loud clucking ensues)

TRIPOLI: To reveal a predator-proof haven for chickens to earn the farm extra income. With debt and overhead way down, the Forgues son has returned to the farm. There's a living there for 2 families now. The Forgues' profit per cow is nearly 3 times what it was before grazing started, and it beats Vermont's average for confinement farmers. And the Forgues aren't the only winners. Grass farmer Ted Yandow, the farmer who says intensive grazing saved his life, says he has almost wiped out a $3-quarter-million debt in a dozen years of grass farming.

(Chickens continue, their clucks echoing)

TRIPOLI: The benefit of management-intensive grazing seem unmistakable to grass farmers. Nevertheless, only about 200 of Vermont's 1,700 dairy farmers make it their primary way of dairying. Still, agriculture officials say grazing has left its mark on the other 1,500. More of them graze more of their cows these days, and they may be creating a hybrid of the 2 methods that will save more dairy farms, even as their once grain-stuffed silos turn to other uses.

(Chickens continue)

TRIPOLI: For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Tripoli in Alberg Springs, Vermont.

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(Chickens continue; fade to music up and under: "Grazing in the Grass")

KNOY: We welcome your comments on 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. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Just ahead: one man's tongue-twisting task: keeping track of the world's vanishing languages. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(A man speaks in !Kung)

Decline in the World's Languages

KNOY: You're listening to the passing of linguistic history. These are 2 Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa speaking a language that is going extinct. It's just one of many languages around the world that will vanish in the not too distant future. There are thousands of languages spoken today, but lingua diversity is in steep decline. The 10 most common languages are spoken by 48% of the world's population. More than half the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. And more than a quarter are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Peter Ladefoged, a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles, travels the world studying and recording these rare languages. He joins us from the studios of KUSE in Los Angeles. Welcome.

LADEFOGED: Very delighted to be here.

KNOY: Tell us about those voices we just heard.

LADEFOGED: Well, there were a couple of Bushmen. One was just telling the other, "Oh, terrible life. Hunting's terribly bad. We're all going to starve, it will be awful."

KNOY: What's the name of the language that they're speaking?

LADEFOGED: That language was called !Kung. It's a language of about 1,000 people in the Kalahari Desert.

KNOY: What's unique about that language?

LADEFOGED: (Laughs) What isn't? (Knoy laughs) Well, of course, nearly every language has got something unique to it. Even English. But that particular language has got 83 different ways of beginning a word with a different click sound. And over half the words in that language begin with a click.

KNOY: So the clicking is the most unique part of the language.

LADEFOGED: I think so. Although (laughs) you know, you might expect a language like that, which has got all those clicks, to sort of go easy on the vowels or something of that kind. But no, not at all. They've got a very curious set of vowels, so-called strident vowels as well. They've got words like !khaaaaow with a haaaa-type vowel going on at the same time. So they've got odd consonants, odd vowels, just an unusual language from the sound's point of view.

KNOY: Could you give us some examples of other unusual sounds found in other rare languages that you've studied?

LADEFOGED: Well, recently I was in the Amazonian rainforest, working with 2 or 3 different groups down there. But one of the groups, the Oro Win, had a sound which is made by a kind of T-sound followed by a trilling of the lips, so that the word for a small boy would be something like trrrrm. You get totally different sounds from any that occurs except in half a dozen other languages. There are other languages that trill the lips, but actually none of them have that t-sound before it.

KNOY: Do you have other words from that Amazonian language that you could share with us?

LADEFOGED: Yes indeed, because interestingly enough, they've used that sound when they have to coin a new word. Every language develops new words for new things. So the word for a helicopter is known as trrrm trrrm.

KNOY: Now, this has been your life work, preserving rare languages. Why do you think it's so valuable to do this?

LADEFOGED: Well, it's largely because I'm just interested from my point of view in the way the human mind works. I want to be able to say all these different sounds could be part of a language, and we've got to have a notion of what is a language and how the human mind creates a language by taking all these different sounds into account.

KNOY: Can you give us a sense of how many languages are in trouble?

LADEFOGED: Oh, yes. Mm. Roughly speaking, there are probably about 7,000 languages in the world. It depends on what you mean by a language, of course, but about 7,000. And of those 7,000, probably about half won't last for another century. Maybe that's an exaggeration, because it's very difficult to predict. But in many parts of the world, like the United States or Australia, the number of languages spoken by Native Americans has just gone down, or native Australians has just gone down at an amazing rate. So that we used to have several hundred American Indian languages in the United States. There are probably now about 20 that are really viable and able to last for some time.

KNOY: You have made some predictions about what language diversity will look like in the future.

LADEFOGED: Clearly, there will be fewer different languages spoken. And if you don't mind my saying so, it's all the fault of people in your profession, to a great extent. Everybody wants to listen to National Public Radio and other things, and so they all have to learn English to be able to do so.

KNOY: I understand that English is being used as the language of business and a language of journalism and international trade and conventions and so forth. But people can still speak their second language as well.

LADEFOGED: Yes, but what happens is that people, for reasons of wanting a better job or whatever it might be, learn English. When they are talking to their children they start thinking well, maybe I should talk to my children in English for a little bit. Same would apply to other language groups, where the language may be Swahili or something of that kind, the national language of Tanzania. It's the little languages that go because parents, wanting to get a greater advantage for themselves or for their children or both, stop using the language in the household. And as soon as the mothers don't speak to the children in that language, consistently and always in their home language, the language will slowly fade away as people get older and older.

KNOY: How do the people who speak these rare languages feel about that?

LADEFOGED: Well, that's a very difficult question. Because there are so many languages and so many different feelings. I know several groups of people who say things like, well, we must have our language because it's the way we keep in touch with our ancestors. It's a part of our whole tribal being to be able to speak this language and to be able to keep our history and to know our beliefs. Whereas other people don't view it that way. In other parts of the world, some people might well say, oh well, I suppose we've got to lose our language if it means that we can lead a more comfortable life, a better life, and my children can go to school. It's progress for some and perhaps retaining your language and retaining knowledge of your ancestors is something that other people want to do. And to lose it would be a backward progress.

KNOY: Peter Ladefoged is a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles. He's currently at work on a new book, Vowels and Consonants. If you'd like to hear more unusual language, check out our Web site at www.livingonearth.org. Professor Ladefoged, thanks a lot for joining us.

LADEFOGED: Thank you indeed for asking me.

Back to top

 

Eat Chocolate and Support the Environment

KNOY: Languages, of course, are not the only things vanishing from the Earth. Acre upon acre of the world's rainforest are lost each day, and along with them a certain plant species is disappearing. For years conservationists have searched for an issue that would motivate all levels of society to protect the rainforest. As commentator Suzanne Elston explains, they just may have found one.

ELSTON: One of the problems that we've had relating to big environmental issues is, well, they're just too big. Take protecting the rainforest, for example. Everyone knows they're the lungs of the planet and contain more than half the species found on Earth. But the impact of their destruction has never hit home for most people. Until now.

It turns out that as we destroy the rainforest, we're also destroying our ability to produce chocolate. The source of chocolate, the cocoa bean, is usually grown on large plantations. Unfortunately, this style of farming leaves the plants vulnerable to pests and disease. When that happens, the farmers just move on. They clear another strip of rainforest and plant new trees.

Now the problem is, we're running out of rainforest. Given the rate of deforestation and the fact that the demand for chocolate is rising steadily, chocolate officials say we're facing a global shortage within 10 to 15 years. Scientists, hoping to head off the potential crisis, discovered that cocoa plants prefer to grow under the canopy of the rainforest. So now, the huge multinational chocolate corporations that have helped to destroy the rainforests are actually working to protect them.

Within the next month or 2, a global cooperative funded by chocolate companies will be announced. Development agencies, conservation groups, agricultural experts, and even the United Nations will work alongside local farmers to create a sustainable system of cocoa farming. One of the more interesting projects will involve using cocoa plants as part of a reforestation effort to revitalize war-torn areas of Vietnam.

Now, the cynic in me is disappointed that it takes a chocolate crisis to motivate people into protecting one of our most valuable resources. But if corporate concern about the bottom line actually protects the rainforest, then I'm all for it. Who knows? In our efforts to save the endangered cocoa bean and the rainforest, we might even save the planet in the process.

(Tropical bird calls)

KNOY: Commentator Suzanne Elston lives in Courtice, Ontario. She comes to us by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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(Bird calls continue; fade to music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. On next week's program we look at PCB contamination in New York's Hudson River and nearby Housatonic River in Massachusetts. We'll find out how science and politics play a role in getting, or not getting, the dangerous chemicals out of the water.

MAN: If I dredge certain areas, will it make a difference? Will the difference be better or worse? How will I do it? Would it be nice if I could wave a magic wand and say here it is, and I know all the answers, I'm all-knowing, and this is what we're going to do? That would be wonderful. Unfortunately, we don't have those answers.

KNOY: That's next week on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alexandra Davidson, Aly Constine, and New Hampshire Public Radio. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

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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