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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 19, 1999

Air Date: February 19, 1999

SEGMENTS

Genetic-Engineering Treaty: U.S. Misses the Vote

In Cartagena, Colombia, delegates from 170 nations are developing a treaty on the international trade in genetically-modified plants and other products. The U.S. delegation disagrees strongly with the trade limits proposed by developing countries, but ultimately it has no say in the matter: the Senate never ratified the 1992 convention from which this treaty arose. Living On Earth talks with Charles Margulis, a member of the Greenpeace delegation in Cartagena. (04:30)

A Thirsty City / Bob Carty

Water was the key resource that first attracted Mexico City's ancient residents, but may be a problem for the almost thirty million residents today. The interconnected lakes and deep aquifers that lie beneath the capital are drying up, and Mexico City is sinking. The water supply, treatment, distribution and waste disposal are all in jeopardy. And unless swift action is taken, the taps in the world's most populous city may soon run dry. Bob Carty reports. (15:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Ian McHarg on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Design with Nature. His concern to minimize the impact of development on natural formations led to the concept of the environmental impact statement. (01:30)

A Wildlife Sanctuary from Silt / Amy Burnstein

"Dredge or Die" is the motto in Baltimore and other port cities that must compete for the next generation of huge container ships. And in the Chesapeake, they are taking silt, sand and muck from the bottom of the harbor to re-create an eroded harbor island that will now become a wildlife sanctuary. Amy Bernstein reports. (05:35)

Dire Warnings for the Fate of Rain Forests

New Research at Britain’s Hadley Climate Research Center shows that global warming will bring on changes to weather that could cause rain forests, including the Amazon, to die by the middle of the next century. (04:55)

Ecoconsumerism Gone Awry / Caroline Cleaves

Buyers beware. Buying "green" is not always the environmentally friendly thing to do, according to commentator Caroline Cleaves. (02:35)

Trapping: Worthwhile Tradition or Needless Torture? / Neal Rauch

Connecticut trappers are up in arms. Local animal rights activists are buying up exclusive trapping permits and using them to protect animals instead of ensnaring them. Trappers say the activists are allowing the populations of fur-bearing animals to grow out of control. Neal Rauch reports. (10:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Amy Bernstein, Neal Rauch
GUESTS: Charles Margulis, Jeffrey Jenkins
COMMENTATOR: Caroline Cleaves

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The Aztecs built their empire in Mexico City centuries ago, in part because it was lush with a series of lakes and a deep aquifer. But now the city of 20 million is running out of water and buildings are sinking into the ground.

ARIDJIS: The national palace is sinking. Every day we have to inject thousands of liters of water to keep the national palace floating. But it looks like a sinking ship. Now the place where the Aztecs choose as full of water is going to die for the lack of water.

CURWOOD: Also, developing nations want a treaty to protect biological diversity from the dangers of genetically-engineered crops and products. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

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Genetic-Engineering Treaty: U.S. Misses the Vote

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Delegates from about 170 nations are in Cartagena, Colombia, hammering out the details of the first ever international treaty on genetically engineered plants and animals. And it's the details that are causing the controversy. Developing countries are especially concerned that genetically-modified organisms could harm native ecosystems. They want the right to decide whether to import such products. But US food companies argue this would devastate international trade in biotechnology. There's just one problem: the US has no vote on the treaty. The Senate never ratified the 1992 convention on biological diversity from which this bio-safety protocol was developed. Charles Margulis is with the Greenpeace delegation in Cartagena. A big concern, he says, is that when you modify a genetic trait there's no telling where it could end up. Consider what could happen if you make a plant resistant to herbicides.

MARGULIS: If that trait transfers to a weed, obviously you have a problem of a weed that is now uncontrollable by conventional herbicides, which will require more and more toxic herbicides to be developed to try to control these now super-weeds.

CURWOOD: I understand the major reason the US is opposed to strict limits here is that the food industry is very concerned that products containing genetic engineering will be tightly regulated, and they feel that while perhaps the seed might spread genetic material, that a product wouldn't pose the same risk.

MARGULIS: All right. This is the argument of industry, and this is simply not the case. All the developing world is asking is that the companies that are introducing this technology prove that it's safe. Products of biotechnology can transfer genetic material. Even processed food products have been seen to be able to have competent DNA that can transfer in the environment and in the food chain. This is an issue that's certainly not decided scientifically. There's still a widespread scientific uncertainty about how diverse these transfers can be in nature, and in the food chain. And this should require a precautionary approach to this technology, that countries should be able to say no to the introduction of these products into their environment.

CURWOOD: A number of European countries have bans on genetically- engineered products and such. How does that impact these negotiations?

MARGULIS: As you say, there are bans, now, of genetically-engineered crops in Austria and Luxembourg. Norway has a ban on genetically-engineered crops. The UK has a 3-year moratorium on certain genetically-engineered crops. And we're hopeful that this movement toward strong regulations of this technology in Europe will play out here at the negotiations.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how is the rest of the world viewing the United States at these negotiations? There are what, 170 countries there? The United States is the only major country who is not a signatory to this. How are people regarding us?

MARGULIS: Well, it's unfortunate that the United States has probably the most anti-environmental position of any government at these negotiations. They're consistently on the far extreme of anti-environmental positions. And yet, regardless of what the final agreement is, the United States will not sign it, and it will not be a party to the agreement.

CURWOOD: What kind of influence do you think the United States delegation is having on this process?

MARGULIS: Well, unfortunately, I think they're having a fairly profound influence. I mean, just the size of their delegation, there's a human aspect to these negotiations, which often start before 8 o'clock in the morning and often go until midnight. A delegation that has 16 or 18 people obviously has a human element of advantage over many of the delegations from the developing world that have maybe 1 or 2 delegates here who are trying to follow several different subgroups and plenary sessions and so on.

CURWOOD: I know you don't have a crystal ball there with you, but how do you expect this protocol is going to come out?

MARGULIS: It's very difficult to say at this point how it's going to come out. I think that the US influence is pushing for a weaker protocol. The developing world is still pushing for stricter regulations. The 2 sides are not seeing much movement. In fact, at a workgroup meeting the other day, the African nations did offer a slight compromise, and the US position was, we don't see our position as extreme and we're not willing to compromise. It's clear that the US is here to block any movement toward regulations of this technology, and I think that's a very dangerous blow to environmental safety for the global community.

CURWOOD: Charles Margulis is with the non-governmental organization Greenpeace and at the bio-safety negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia. Thank you, sir.

MARGULIS: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: Mexico City is one of the world's most populous places, and may soon be one of the driest. The water crisis of Mexico's capitol is next here on Living on Earth.

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

(A man sings in Spanish to an orchestra)

A Thirsty City

CURWOOD: Mexico's capitol is celebrated in song as a city built on water. As legend has it, 7 centuries ago the Aztecs came on a series of lakes at the end of the central plateau. On an island they saw an eagle perched atop a cactus with a snake in its claws, and that's where the Aztecs founded their empire. Today, Mexico City has more than 20 million people, and when it makes the news it's often because of problems with air pollution. But it's water that's the source of so much conflict, disease, and increasing social friction. It's water that could eventually bring down this mega-city. As Bob Carty reports, every stage of the water system, supply, treatment, distribution, and waste disposal, is in crisis. And Mexicans are searching for ideas to avoid a futuristic nightmare.

CARTY: In downtown Mexico City, the 4 giant pillars of the Monument of the Revolution rise 100 feet above the street, supporting a massive dome that celebrates the history of the nation. In front, there's a fountain bubbling peacefully, in a way suggesting that all is well with water in Mexico City. But that is a lie.

(A fountain)

CARTY: Just walk over to the corner of the monument where a thick iron pipe sticks out of the ground. When this monument was built in 1934, the pipe brought in the water supply. It came up to ground level. Today the pipe sticks 27 feet up into the sky. But it's not the pipe that has moved. It was anchored deep into the bedrock. Instead, as groundwater was taken out of the clay soils beneath Mexico City, the earth has subsided. The city, like the Monument of the Revolution, has sunk 27 feet over 6 decades. The neighborhood kids have even made a game of it. On the iron pipe there are colored stripes where children mark their height, to see if they can grow as fast as the monument sinks and the pipe rises. The pipe is winning. It's a problem the first inhabitants, the Aztecs, could not have imagined.

ARIDJIS: When the Aztecs came to the Valley of Mexico, it was a valley of water, full of water. Full of rivers, full of canals, pine trees, was completely forested. It was one of the most beautiful views in the world at the time.

CARTY: Homero Aridjis is a poet and a novelist and the president of the Group of 100, an environmental organization of local artists. Aridjis explains that when the Spanish took over this valley they did not share the Aztecs' fondness for water. They wanted Mexico City to resemble the cities of their arid homeland. So they constructed canals and drained the lakes away.

ARIDJIS: The problem, it is very bad. Even I wrote a book, a novel, where the big problem is the lack of water. Mexico City without water any more.

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MAN: (Recites) The city of lakes and rivers and liquid streets now had no water and was dying of thirst. The volcanoes had been lost from sight, and deforested avenues smouldered in a brown horizon. The year 2027 was coming to an end and the city was sinking.

ARIDJIS: I thought the crisis was coming in the year 2027, but now the crisis can be as soon as the year 2003, that Mexico City could be without water, if nothing drastic is done.

CARTY: And the drastic things that need to be done can be found at every stage of the city's water system, starting here.

(Fans and humming)

GUERRA: This was built at the beginning of the century and expanded since then. It's a water chloration and purification plant, and the quality of water that is still being pumped is still good.

CARTY: Manuel Guerra is a chemist and the director of the Independent Institute for Environmental Research. Standing outside of one of Mexico City's water treatment plants, he explains that the mega-city gets 72% of its water from wells, pumping water up 200 meters from the underground aquifer.

GUERRA: Mexico City, because it was covered with 5 big lakes, built during millions of years a huge aquifer that is now being depleted at the rate of 1 meter a year. We are extracting 3 times more water than what is going in, sinking in again because of the rainwater.

CARTY: The problem isn't lack of rainwater. Mexico City gets 2 or 3 feet a year. But it's concentrated in a short rainy season. With much of the city now covered in asphalt and denuded of trees, the rainwater has little chance to sink into the ground to replenish the aquifer. When it rains, the city uses huge underground tunnels to pump stormwater out of the valley. It prevents flooding, but each year the aquifer gets lower. Manuel Guerra notes that so far, the aquifer water is clean and drinkable when it leaves the treatment plant. But then things go very wrong.

GUERRA: The main problem is that due to the subsidence of the ground, to the sinking of the city, the pipes break. Pipes with sewage water and pipes with drinking water, so there's, say, mixing of both. And then you can have enormous health problems with that: diarrhea, big problems with cholera. Mexico City is a city on the planet with the highest consumption of bottled water, of course.

(Running water)

WILK: (Laughs) You're never sure about what's being delivered with the water in the pipe. At home we use at least 60 liters a week of bottled water for cooking and drinking.

CARTY: David Wilk is an environmental planner, and one of the authors of a major study on the water crisis, sponsored by the National Research Council of the United States and various Mexican research institutes. The study concluded that Mexico's exploitation of its aquifer is "nearing a crisis." But David Wilk says there are better strategies than the current practice of tapping into rivers 80 miles away, literally drinking them dry and pumping their waters 4000 feet up to the city.

WILK: The costs are outrageous because remember that Mexico City's at a very high altitude, and we need to spend more and more for every cubic meter of water that is being pumped up to the city. We have a major problem of leaks in the water mains in the city. Leaks are caused by subsidence, and from 35% to 40% of the water is being lost due to undetected leaks.

CARTY: That means that Mexico City wastes as much water as some of the world's largest cities use. But water leaks and shortages are not felt equally across Mexico City.

(A dog barks)

CARTY: In Ixtapalapa, a huge working-class slum, water is the source of growing social protest. Two million people in Mexico City have no running water. And those who do, like these 2 housewives, are not happy when they turn on the tap.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

CARTY: The women say the water sometimes comes out in the morning, but by noon there's none. And when it comes out it's dirty. You can't even do your washing with it.

(A sprinkler system runs)

CARTY: It's quite another story across town, behind the walls and guards of an upper-class suburb. Here, sprinklers drench the grass with drinking water. In fact, a mere 9% of Mexico City's population, the rich and industry, use 75% of the water. And it makes the poet Homero Aridjis angry.

ARIDJIS: They wash the cars with drinking water every day. And sometimes they wash the sidewalks also, because they think that the water has no value. That this is a culture problem.

(A child speaks in Spanish about water; a man sings to music)

CARTY: The government is trying to correct that cultural problem with television ads on the virtue of using less water. But experts say what's really needed is a politically unpopular measure: raising the price of water. A bottle of cola here is cheaper than 250 gallons of tap water. Most water usage is unmetered, and consumers pay only 10% of the annual billion dollars spent on water services. You waste what you don't pay for, argues Manuel Guerra.

GUERRA: I would privatize the water distribution system to make companies responsible for bringing good-quality water into their homes. Install modern metering systems to double or triple the amount of money collected. People have to accept that paying for water is as important as paying for clothing or for feeding or for education.

CARTY: Wouldn't that hurt the poor, who in Mexico are very poor?

GUERRA: On the contrary. The people who pay the highest price for water in Mexico City are the poorest ones, because they have to buy water from water tanks, from water cars, that charge 10 times as much as City Hall for water. So, the poor are the most hurt with the present system.

CARTY: It is the final stage of Mexico City's water system that is the most threatening and repulsive. Homero Aridjis wrote about it in his novel The Legend of the Suns.

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MAN: (Recites) A nauseating odor floated over the city. Cats, dogs, pigs, and rats appeared dead in the streets. The only things that ran with stinking punctuality were the rivers of sewage, the black waters and liquid garbage. Vile reminders of what was once the Venice of the Americas.

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CARTY: On the east side of the city, 6 huge pipes belch out black sewage into an open canal. The liquid waste bubbles as it putrefies. The air is filled with floating bacteria. The stench is unbearable. Only 10% of Mexico City's sewage is treated. Most of it is pumped out of the valley, some going to irrigate crops even though it is laced with heavy metals and toxins. The rest winding up in the Atlantic Ocean. There are projects underway to cover the open sewage canals for health reasons. But the sewage treatment dilemma will not be solved for decades. And scientists are worried about what could happen in the meantime. The sewage does not yet contaminate the aquifer, the source of 72% of the city's drinking water, because it's protected by a layer of hard clays. But environmentalist Manuel Guerra worries that the sewage canals are a catastrophe waiting to happen.

GUERRA: The worst-case scenario for Mexico City would be a prolonged drought, let's say 3 or 4 years in a row, together with an important earthquake that could fracture the roof of the aquifer. That would allow waters like this, highly contaminated, to cascade into the aquifer 200 meters deep. That would put in jeopardy 20 million people. That would mean the end of Mexico City.

CARTY: That's why experts believe that the waste disposal challenge is as important for the city as its water supply. On the supply side, Manuel Guerra believes he has a possible solution. A solution which would simultaneously reduce the sinking of the city and therefore also reduce the waste of water through leaks and the risk of contaminating the aquifer. To explain his idea, Manuel Guerra takes me out to the middle of a multi-lane highway, where an old cement building houses a pump and a set of pipes disappearing into the ground.

GUERRA: Here we are standing in front of a well that previously extracted water from the aquifer. But some of the wells are unused now because they don't reach the water any more. They could very easily be used to gather water from extensive areas like streets, parking lots, roof tops of huge buildings like supermarkets and so on, that can gather water. It can be then filtered and re-infiltrated into the aquifer.

CARTY: Sort of reverse wells.

GUERRA: It's like a reverse well. Rain filtration wells instead of pumping out the water, allowing water back into the aquifer.

(Outdoor musicians)

CARTY: In the central plaza, the crowded meeting place of Mexico City, native drummers and dancers perform for the tourists. As with so many problems here, the water crisis is fundamentally one of too many people living in the same place. In the long run, what's needed are measures to reduce migration from the countryside, and to decentralize industry and government away from Mexico City. But in the labyrinth that is Mexican politics, such measures get scant attention. The notion of raising water prices is a non-starter, at least until after the next presidential elections. The idea of replenishing the aquifer with reverse wells is being ignored in government offices, despite the enthusiasm of environmentalists. And the city continues to sink, in some places by as much as 16 inches a year. Writer Homero Aridjis views it all with a sad sense of irony. He points out that the old Aztec pyramids, once buried beneath the central plaza and now uncovered, are slowly rising, in comparison to the nearby cathedral and government buildings.

ARIDJIS: The national palace is sinking. Every day we have to inject thousands of liters of water to keep the national palace floating. But it looks like a sinking ship. Now the place where the Aztecs choose as full of water is going to die for the lack of water.

CARTY: In Mexico City, I'm Bob Carty for Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: 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, that's 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.

You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: recycling Baltimore's harbor bottom by rebuilding a harbor island. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Johnny's Selected Seeds, supporting organic gardening since 1973. For a free catalogue, 207-437-4301, or www.johnnyseeds.com.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This week we mark the 30th anniversary of Ian McHarg's classic book Design With Nature. Design With Nature explains how to build while keeping in mind natural formations, including floodplains and wildlife habitats, and by minimizing the impact of development. At the University of Pennsylvania Ian McHarg came up with the concept we now know as the environmental impact statement. His ideas also sparked development of the Geographic Information Systems, which provide a computerized, mapped inventory of land conditions. He also hosted what may have been the first environmental television show. The House We Live In ran in 1960 and '61. The Scottish-born McHarg is known for his eloquence and a sharp tongue. Addressing a roomful of Federal highway engineers in 1966, he charged, "You have been engaged in an onslaught against the American environment. You have dismembered, dissected, and destroyed significant areas of American cities. Your depredations must end." At age 78, Ian McHarg is still going strong. Last year he published a book of his selected writings, called To Heal The Earth. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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A Wildlife Sanctuary from Silt

CURWOOD: Later this month, shipping giants Maersk and Sealand will select an Atlantic port city to serve as an East Coast trading hub. One strong contender is the port of Baltimore. If selected, this midsized harbor on Chesapeake Bay could triple its container business. To compete, Baltimore has already begun a long-range project to keep its channels dredged deep enough so giant container ships can pass through. But instead of simply dumping the dredged mud and silt at sea, Amy Bernstein reports that the cleanest soil will be used to rebuild an island into a wildlife refuge.

BERNSTEIN: About 30 miles south of Washington, DC, a cluster of low, marshy knolls and tidal mudflats rise slightly out of Chesapeake Bay. These wetlands are all that remain of a once-thriving island. A century ago, Maryland's Poplar Island boasted 1,000 acres and supported its own resort village. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman once vacationed here, but wind, water, and erosion have taken their toll. Now, before it vanishes entirely, the US Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding Poplar Island using clean silt and mud dredged from the Chesapeake's shipping channels up north. Scott Johnson is project manager with the Corps.

(Traffic, construction sounds)

JOHNSON: Just to think that there used to be an island here, and it's, you know, all you can see is those little bitty remnants and we're going to reconstruct this whole thing. Yeah, it's quite awesome.

BERNSTEIN: Here in the middle of the bay, where Poplar Island used to be, workers drive dump trucks and excavators back and forth across giant barges. Their job is to reconstruct the island's original perimeter by building a 6-mile ring of dikes.

JOHNSON: It's hard to say right now where the easternmost edge of the dike is from where we're sitting, but we'll probably be in a wetlands area.

BERNSTEIN: Once the dike is complete the Corps will pump dredged silt into the island. About 2 million cubic yards a day for the next 20 years. The reborn island should attract eagles, osprey, herons, and other shore birds, and nurture shellfish beds. This ambitious project is one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken, and it marks a new way of thinking about what to do with the dredge that must be cleared to keep shipping lanes open.

(Construction sounds up and under)

For many years dredge was called spoil, and people assumed it was unusable. The worst of it is found in inner harbors and contains a wide range of industrial pollutants, including PCBs that must be secured in giant barrels. But nearly 95% of all dredged material comes from deeper waters and is clean enough to be recycled. Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission says using dredge for restoration projects makes perfect sense.

SWANSON: Well now, we've become much more enlightened and realize that those clean materials off the bottom of the bay can be used to replenish islands and beaches and places that are very vital to wildlife and to people. And so, the dredged materials coming out of the shipping channels of the Chesapeake Bay are now being put to beneficial use.

BERNSTEIN: But it's far more expensive to recycle dredged material than to simply dump it in the ocean or bury it in a container. And funding for these so-called beneficial use projects is limited, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' Joe Wilson.

WILSON: The funds are in such small amounts that by the time you plan, engineer, design, and go to construction, the funds are gone, really, for almost every single project.

BERNSTEIN: Poplar Island is the exception that proves the rule. In the mid-1990s, a coalition of Maryland lawmakers, port officials, and environmental groups began lobbying Washington to do more for the port of Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay. As a result, Congress allocated $400 million to Poplar Island's restoration. That's $50,000 an acre, too expensive, says Joe Wilson. But Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes told reporters at a kickoff press conference for Poplar Island that it's money well spent.

SARBANES: It's probably the first time, really, that the port-related business interests and the members of the environmental community have joined together, underscoring that if you use enough imagination and ingenuity and are willing to spend a little extra money, you can bring economic and environmental goals into tandem.

BERNSTEIN: Still, some question whether Poplar Island will live up to expectations. Bud Nixon is president of Rukert Terminals, a warehousing and distribution firm that's operated at the port of Baltimore for nearly a century. He isn't convinced that Poplar Island can absorb all the dredged material that needs to be cleared from Chesapeake Bay channels.

NIXON: It's not deep water, so the volume is limited. And it's going to be wetlands and midlands and highlands, so you just won't be able to stack the dredge material up to the moon. It's going to be a controlled area, and it's going to be there for other purposes. It has a life like everything else, and it's not going to be large enough to sustain all our dredging.

BERNSTEIN: Near Bud Nixon's desk, there's a plaque that reads Dredge or Die. That's a motto any port city must adopt if it is to compete for the business of today's huge container ships. In the overall scheme, to keep Chesapeake shipping lanes clear, the Poplar Island restoration project appears to be a popular, though expensive, means of disposing of dredge. And officials say they're already looking for additional dredge dumping sites that are affordable and environmentally safe. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Bernstein in Baltimore.

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Dire Warnings for the Fate of Rain Forests

CURWOOD: Last year was the world's hottest on record, thanks to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Scientists predict that temperatures will keep climbing and change climates around the world. Until recently, researchers had been putting educated guesses about the effects that the oceans have on the world's weather into the computer models that make these predictions. But now the British Government's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research has found a way to take much of the guesswork out of the ocean's effect. The result: a set of troubling forecasts for future weather patterns throughout the world. Among other things, says the Center's director, Geoffrey Jenkins, is the finding that some of the most important rainforests in the world are in for much less rainfall.

JENKINS: The detailed scenarios, the prediction of rainfall, is not as easy as it is for temperature. So we do have to treat this with a little more caution than some of the other observations. But what we do find in the model is that as you run it out through the next century, then you find quite a sharp decrease in rainfall in several parts of the world, particularly over northern Brazil, for example, some parts of southern Africa, even some parts of Europe and America. And in some of the more extreme cases of changing temperature, coupled with this decrease in rainfall, we find that the vegetation that exists there at the moment would no longer be sustainable. So, what the model says is that parts of the Amazon rainforest will disappear over the course of the next 50 years or so.

CURWOOD: That's a pretty startling prediction. You're saying that the Amazon rainforest will simply disappear in the next 50 years?

JENKINS: Parts of it will no longer be sustainable and will die off, that's right.

CURWOOD: Was this a surprising result?

JENKINS: It was indeed. And as I said before, I wouldn't want to claim over- much in terms of confidence in this. But it is a scenario that comes from what we believe is a good model. And therefore, it's certainly a possibility.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you about a chart that you have. It shows that plants absorb a lot of carbon dioxide on the planet, and then abruptly, in about 50 years, they stop absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a whole, and start putting it out. Can you explain why you make this prediction?

JENKINS: What we do is to look in the model at the vegetation, that same sort of effect that I was talking about previously of die-back in trees in the Amazon rainforest and so on. We then look at how much carbon is stored in that matter, not just in the Amazon but everywhere across the globe. And from that we can deduce how that varies from decade to decade, in the past and then in the future. And what we see is that at present, trees absorb carbon dioxide, so a good deal of the carbon dioxide that is emitted by human activities, transport and power stations and so on, will be absorbed into trees, will make them grow faster. And that will sequester, that will hold some of the carbon dioxide that otherwise would have gone into the atmosphere and raised carbon dioxide levels. Now, that's fine at the moment. What we do see from the model is that when this die-back occurs, some time in the middle of the next century, die-back of some of the forested areas of the world, then no longer will that be able to happen. So, the uptake of carbon dioxide will not occur, because the trees won't be there. And furthermore, when the trees die and decay, they will actually return carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. So far from being a sink of carbon dioxide, they will become a source of carbon dioxide. And that has the potential to then put more carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere and exacerbate the problem in the first place. So it acts as a sort of positive feedback, if you like.

CURWOOD: And does your model then consider the effects of this positive feedback loop that gets set up?

JENKINS: No, it doesn't. What we don't have in the model at the moment, although we expect to have it in a year or so's time, is the interactivity that would allow that to happen, so we don't then put the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere in the model. All we can do is to calculate how much there would be to go back in. What it turns out to be is something like 2 or 3 gigatons a year, that's 2 or 3 billion tons of carbon every year we would expect to return back to the atmosphere from dying vegetation. And that compares with the sort of emissions from human activities that we have at the moment, of something like 6 or 7 gigatons, 6 or 7 billion tons.

CURWOOD: Under the present international agreements, there are some substantial cuts that are called for in greenhouse gas emissions. But this plant die-back and feedback effect would wipe out what all the diplomats are talking about reducing human emissions by, wouldn't it?

JENKINS: That's right. If the sort of cutbacks are roughly the figure I was talking about, then unfortunately, whatever we do in terms of cutting back by that much will be compensated for, if that's the right word, by this die-back process in the sort of scenario we see.

CURWOOD: Thank you, sir.

JENKINS: You're very welcome. I enjoyed talking to you.

CURWOOD: Jeffrey Jenkins heads the British government's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research.

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(Music up and under)

Ecoconsumerism Gone Awry

CURWOOD: A number of companies and products have sprung up to help consumers make environmentally sensitive choices about the things they buy. But commentator Caroline Cleaves says that green consumerism can also result in the marketing of some products of dubious value.

CLEAVES: Since when did buying something you don't need become good for the planet? I know we need to think about the impact of what we buy. I use recycled paper towels, and I've signed up with a green energy provider. My problem is with companies hawking the notion that their goods can transform shopping from a venal and materialistic act into philanthropy. It's really just the oldest trick in the book: creating desires for products that you didn't even know you needed, until the catalogue shows up in your mailbox.

Like the one that arrived in mine recently. Its products are meant to "inspire and promote an environmentally healthy and sustainable future." Apparently, this future will include as many stupid and useless doo-dads as the present does. Here's one that baffles me: the solar-powered cappuccino frother, 40 bucks. How many people even have electric milk frothers in the first place, that a solar-powered one is such an innovation? Another stumper: the plastic bag drier, $15. Now, my husband and I reuse plastic bags. Our drying secret? We hang them on the wooden spoons in our dish drain. Maybe we should market that.

Then there's the sonic alternative to dental floss, another $40. Did I miss the news about an accumulation of dental floss threatening the delicate balance of life on earth? Is it bloating landfills, or choking sea otters? Well, whatever the dental floss problem is, the solution can't be to use more plastic and electricity.

Now I'm not saying that living a sustainable life means weaving your own hemp shoes or eating compost. We all need things. And we all want things we don't actually need. And that's okay, but let's be honest and thoughtful about why we buy what we buy. There are plenty of objects in my home that are inefficient, wasteful, even indulgent. But my dental floss and coffee maker aren't among them.

Now, show me a way to insulate my drafty house with the piles of mail-order catalogues I get every week. That I'd buy.

CURWOOD: Caroline Cleaves is a cultural anthropologist who lives in Berkeley, California.

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(Music up and under: "I've Got Plenty Of Nothing.")

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the ancient practice of animal trapping faces modern times. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Trapping: Worthwhile Tradition or Needless Torture?

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Not too long ago, wearing fur was a sign of power and wealth. Coats of sable, mink, and fox symbolized the height of fashion, but today fur is less trendy and more controversial, especially as animal rights groups protest the trapping of fur- bearing creatures as cruelty. In states including California and Arizona, pro- and anti-trapping advocates have been doing battle at the ballot box. In Connecticut, animal rights activists have taken another tack: using their own financial resources to thwart programs that allow limited trapping. But trappers are fighting back and are pushing the state to stop the activists in their tracks. Neal Rauch reports.

(Shotgun blasts)

RAUCH: Gun shots ring out from a firing range at the Thin Fur and Feather Club, site of a fur-trapper's auction. The semi-annual event is held in Chaplin, Connecticut, in the eastern part of the state.

(Gun shots continue; fade to people mulling around. Man: "I don't think so, he's frozen.")

RAUCH: In the auction room are about 50 people, overwhelmingly male, with baseball caps, fatigues, and flannel shirts. Hunting trophies line the walls. On 4 long tables are piles of pelts from 11 species, including muskrat, beaver, and fox. Some of the skins are pulled inside-out.

CHOWANIEC: This is what we call case skinning.

RAUCH: Trapper David Chowaniec.

CHOWANIEC: They're actually sunned, scraped, and then are placed on the forms with the flesh side out and are dried that way. As you can see, it is like cardboard.

RAUCH: Another trapper, Robert Kukuck, shows off his wares.

KUKUCK: You want to see something nice, that's a red fox, right? You can feel that, it's nice. I'll take 10 bucks for it. Hopefully.

MAN 1: One coyote, $6.

MAN 2: Rejected.

MAN 3: Pull the coyote.

MAN 1: Pull 'em. Six beaver.

RAUCH: Many of the offers made at the auction are rejected by the trappers, who will take their pelts home and hope for a better deal at the next meeting. These men say they're lucky if they break even. They don't do this to make a living, it's more for the adventure and tradition.

(Footfalls)

MANNETTI: These are the traps of choice. They're both steel, they're both spring- loaded. One's designed to hold an animal, the other's designed to crush an animal.

RAUCH: Bill Mannetti holds a Connecticut State trapping license.

(A trap shuts)

MANNETTI: This theoretically would break a neck, crush the vertebrae, but we have 40-50 pound beavers in Connecticut. An animal could take a very long time to die in here.

RAUCH: For 13 years Bill Mannetti has had the exclusive right to trap in this wooded area of Quinapiac River State Park in North Haven. Connecticut seeks bids from people with trapping licenses for about 120 parcels of public land throughout the state. The highest bidders are the only ones allowed to trap on a given parcel.

MANNETTI: When you catch your animal alive on a trap line you have to either bludgeon it, you can shoot it through the ear canal if you have a gun permit. But if it's a fox, you don't want to damage the pelt at all. So I was taught to try to stun the animal by striking on the bridge of the nose, and then stand on its rib cage and grab the hind legs and pull like hell, crushing the rib cage, suffocating the animal, crushing the heart.

RAUCH: Although Bill Mannetti has had to take a trapping course in order to get his license, he doesn't catch any animals and never has. He's a co- founder and president of the Animal Rights Front, based in New Haven. Its members have won bids on about 47,000 acres, over a third of the public land Connecticut designates for trapping.

MANNETTI: All we're doing with this effort of ours is sabotaging an existing program, simply to get the exclusive rights to as many parcels as we can and turn them into no-trapping zones.

RAUCH: It's a small animal rights group. Only a dozen or so members have spent about $6,000 last year for 35 parcels of land, much of the money coming from their own pockets. Bill Mannetti says the majority of Connecticut residents also consider trapping cruel and barbaric. He likes to point out that there are only some 360 trappers in the entire state.

MANNETTI: Since it's such a small percentage of the people who do this for recreation, they're not earning a living doing it. Once residents of Connecticut learn that trapping takes place, the use of these steel traps to catch fur- bearers in Connecticut, they're appalled and outraged.

RAUCH: Mannetti says he's not impressed with the newer soft-catch devices, kinder, gentler, steel traps that have rubber padding. Traps often don't kill, and most of the suffering, he says, begins after animals are caught. They may wait up to 24 hours before the trapper is legally required to return.

MANNETTI: The animals don't sit placidly in these traps. They struggle very, very violently to break free. Studies have shown that 85%, 87% of all the fox caught on a steel-jaw leg-hold trap end up showing at knee cropsies to have swallowed their own teeth because they break them off by biting the steel. They swallow their own fur, flesh, and knuckles, because they literally chew those off, they're biting so hard at the trap.

CROOK: We use the best methods we can.

RAUCH: Bob Crook is a lobbyist representing hunters, fishermen, trappers, boaters, and gun users in Connecticut.

CROOK: At the capitol, when I lobby these things, I snap the same traps on my fingers that I use for animals. I don't have any broken fingers or any deformed fingers, as you can see.

RAUCH: Bob Crook, whose group is called the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, says most of the trapped animals die quickly.

(To Crook) Why do you do this?

CROOK: I like the outdoors. I like the animals.

RAUCH: So why do you need to kill them?

CROOK: Well, because that's the nature of things. You have to take some of the excess animals.

RAUCH: Do you own any pets?

CROOK: Sure.

RAUCH: Do you ever make that connection with these animals that you trap?

CROOK: Oh, sure. I think there's a feeling of compassion. I feel remorse when I shoot a deer. At the same time, I feel an exhilaration that I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish. There are mixed emotions amongst all of us outdoorsmen, I'll tell you that. Even when I catch a fish.

RAUCH: But you still do it.

CROOK: I do it.

RAUCH: The assistant commissioner for Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection, David Leff, says wildlife should be managed.

LEFF: This is a resource just like timber. We believe it ought to be harvested.

RAUCH: As to whether or not trapping is cruel, David Leff says you have to look at the whole picture.

LEFF: Nature is not, you know, the warm fuzzy thing that we very often associated it with. There is danger from predation by other animals. There is danger also from disease and starvation. Those kinds of ends are not particularly pleasant.

MANNETTI: I think that's scientific idiocy.

RAUCH: Animal rights activist Bill Mannetti.

MANNETTI: I'm not going to be a cheerleader for starvation. But after the initial hunger pangs subside, there is a delirium that occurs. You're almost in that nether world, almost a twilight zone, where you're no longer feeling pain. You're on your way out. That's not the ghastly, grotesque, painful kind of agonizing death that the hunting community would have us believe.

RAUCH: Mr. Mannetti also takes issue with the view of animals as a natural resource that ought to be used by humans.

MANNETTI: You don't mine these animals as if they were inorganic ore, you know. These are feeling, sension creatures, and they deserve our respect.

RAUCH: But the trappers warn that if they don't take out excess animals, the populations of fur-bearing creatures will explode. In 1996, Massachusetts voters decided to restrict traps that kill and lobbyist Bob Crook says the effects are already being felt.

CROOK: All the wells are getting polluted. People's cellars are getting flooded. The rivers are rising because the beavers are building dams. The beavers are multiplying. Where do you think they're going to go? They're coming right into Connecticut.

RAUCH: Massachusetts state officials agree with this assessment. They say the beaver population has doubled to 52,000, and complaints have gone up some 50% to almost 700. But animal rights activists and some scientists question the state's counting methods. They point out that only 11,000 beavers used to be trapped before the restrictions came into effect, and allowing that number of beaver to survive wouldn't be enough to account for a doubling of the population in only 2 years. Activist Bill Mannetti also says that Massachusetts trappers threatened to conduct an orchestrated campaign of escalating complaints if voters passed the trapping restrictions. And, he says, any figures supplied by state environmental conservation departments, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, should be considered suspect, because often hunting and trapping fees supply most of the funding for these agencies.

MANNETTI: To have an entire department or wildlife division devoted to the interests of these consumers we felt was anti-democratic. The vast majority of people don't hunt in Connecticut. The vast majority oppose hunting. The vast majority opposes trapping.

RAUCH: So the debate continues, with trappers arguing that they're performing an important function by controlling populations, and animal rights activists saying trapping doesn't in fact keep populations in check because the species quickly rebound. They say there are better ways to remedy problems the animals may cause. For instance, flooding resulting from beaver dams could be solved by running pipes through the dams to keep water levels from rising. This is the preferred method in Maine, which has over 100,000 beavers. Lobbyist Bob Crook doesn't feel the activists have the right to impose their beliefs on him. His group is pushing for a change in Connecticut law that would allow only actual trappers to bid for the parcels of land.

CROOK: We're going to make it performance-based, which is true of any other contract that the state writes. If you haven't tagged an animal, if you haven't been to a fur auction, if you can't document trapping an animal within the last 5 years, then you can't bid on the property.

RAUCH: There has also been talk of dispensing with the bidding process altogether, so that anyone with a trapping license could trap anywhere. But the Department of Environmental Protection's David Leff has thrown cold water on both these ideas. He says, though, the entire trapping system is under review.

LEFF: Exactly how we're going to reorient the program, and what modifications we make, I don't know yet.

RAUCH: In the meantime, animal rights activists can continue to enjoy their no-trapping zones in Connecticut's woods, at least for now. The state is expected to make its decision on changes to the trapping law by the end of the summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, the battle over the California redwoods continues. Now, it's not just environmental activists who are protesting. Long-time local residents say logging practices are creating landslides that threaten their homes.

MAN: Every time it rains for us, it's like a horror flick. It's like not knowing when the mountain's going to come down again. It's like being in a war zone; when's the next mortar coming through your window?

CURWOOD: The headwaters forest controversy, next week on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindike, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alexandra Davidson and Aly Constine. 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. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Surdna Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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