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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 17, 1999

Air Date: December 17, 1999

SEGMENTS

Candidate Profile: Steve Forbes / Pippin Ross

In the first of Living On Earth’s series of profiles on the major presidential candidates, Pippin Ross examines the environmental philosophy of Steve Forbes. The free-market Republican thinks individual citizens and corporations, not government agencies, should be in charge of protecting the environment. (08:25)

Year in Review

Mark Hertsgaard, Living On Earth’s political observer, looks back at the major environmental events of the year with host Steve Curwood. (06:05)

Frozen Zoos

At the Audubon Institute for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans a domestic house cat gave birth to an African wildcat whose embryo had been frozen and then implanted in the house cat's womb. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Director of Research, Dr. Betsy Dresser about this procedure as a safety net for endangered species. (04:05)

Winter Dark / Susan Carol Houser

Commentator Susan Carol Houser, and a small house guest, burrow in for the coming winter. (02:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about -- Jack Frost and other wintry mythological beings. (01:40)

Vaccines and Autism / Rachel Gotbaum

Vaccines are considered one of the major triumphs of modern medicine. But, as the number of inoculations children must receive increases - - so do a number of safety concerns. Some researchers worry the shots are linked to a rise in autism. From member station WBUR, Rachel Gotbaum reports. (05:55)

Coal Suit Derby / Suzanne Elston

Connecticut recently filed the latest in a spate of lawsuits concerning coal plants and air pollution. But commentator Suzanne Elston says that the players in this court-bound drama would do better to focus their energies on reducing pollution in their own backyard. (02:40)

Listener Letters

Listeners responded to our reports on playing music to whales, our profile of Roger Masters and our story on bears in Massachusetts. (02:05)

The Challenge of Sustainability

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Pippin Ross, Rachel Gotbaum
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Betsy Dresser, Alan AtKisson
COMMENTATORS: Susan Carol Hauser, Suzanne Elston

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.Steve Forbes wants to be president of the United States, and he has a strong position on government regulation of the environment: Get rid of most of it, and clean up the rest.

FORBES: We can certainly do better by getting away from some of the crazy junk science that has permeated the EPA and other regulators.

CURWOOD: Also, researchers are pushing the limits of invitro fertilization and surrogate mothering, by bringing a rare African cat from the womb of an ordinary tabby.

DRESSER: If you have embryos frozen from a species, and you know how to thaw it and you can identify a surrogate, you can essentially keep a species from going extinct. And in my mind, that's a very powerful tool.

CURWOOD: Those stories, the year in review with Mark Hertsgaard, and burrowing in for winter, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the hour's news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Candidate Profile: Steve Forbes

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Steve Forbes is running for president again, and his large personal fortune is making him a force to be reckoned with during the early Republican primary season. Mr. Forbes, a writer and publisher of the magazine that bears his family name, believes that a deregulated government stimulates economic growth. And he applies this Reagan-style laissez-faire approach to protecting the environment as well. Without costly federal mandates, Steve Forbes says, the private sector will be more inclined to protect valuable natural resources. Pippin Ross has the first of our series of profiles of the major presidential candidates.

(Singing in the background; milling voices)

ROSS: The lobby of Forbes Magazine, New York City's Fifth Avenue. For 30 years Steve Forbes has been a writer here, an editor, and he's now CEO and editor-in-chief. He's on a leave of absence from this venerable 82-year-old business magazine. The only sign of Steve Forbes is the lobby's collection of priceless Faberge eggs he inherited from his father. They're a symbol of the enormous family wealth allowing a man who's never held political office to make his second run for president.

MAN: Please help me to welcome a man whose commitment to limited government is unwavering. Candidate for GOP nomination for president of the United States, Mr. Steve Forbes.

(Applause)

ROSS: Thirty-seven blocks uptown, inside a chandeliered room at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, Steve Forbes is the keynote speaker at a lunch seminar being put on by the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy research group espousing individual liberty, limited government and free markets. Forbes is a regular on the group's roster of speakers.

FORBES: I have prepared remarks, and so I'll do to this fine speech what Washington does with your money, and that is throw it away.

(Audience laughter, followed by applause)

ROSS: Tossing his prepared remarks to the floor, the usually reserved Mr. Forbes is uncharacteristically relaxed, knowing that today he is speaking to an audience who shares his mistrust in big government and his belief that individual citizens can be entrusted to run the country.

FORBES: We don't need a nanny to do it. We don't need a bureaucrat to do it. We need more basic freedoms to do it. Those words of Lincoln: ‘A new birth of freedom.’

ROSS: Mr. Forbes has borrowed that phrase from Lincoln, a new birth of freedom, as the title of his new book. Here at the luncheon there is a copy at every place setting, along with a copy of the Constitution. In his chapter called "Environmental Stewardship," Mr. Forbes relies heavily on the Cato Institute's libertarian environmental policies. He calls them "a new vision." Steve Moore is one of the Cato Institute's policy directors.

MOORE: I think Steve understands that the best custodian of a clean and healthy environment is the private sector, and that over government regulation can oftentimes be the enemy of a good and healthy environment.

ROSS: At the heart of Mr. Forbes' vision of environmental stewardship is the belief that left to its own devices, the private sector will protect and replenish the resources it uses. He's harshly critical of federal agencies like the EPA. During a recent press conference, Mr. Forbes attacked the agency, saying it concocts doomsday scenarios to justify its existence.

FORBES: And we can certainly do better by getting away from some of the crazy junk science that has permeated the EPA and other regulators.

ROSS: He says the EPA's air quality standards are a case in point. The science behind them is currently being disputed in a controversial court case. But it's unclear precisely how Mr. Forbes plans to motivate the private sector to stop polluting without federal regulations. Environmentalists are frustrated by this lack of specifics.

MAN: Here's Steve Forbes with today's commentary. The phrase "renewable energy..."

ROSS: Sometimes environmentalists are baffled when Mr. Forbes speaks. In one of his daily internet commentaries, Mr. Forbes suggests oil, like food, is a renewable resource.

FORBES: Cornell University researcher Thomas Gold believes that oil is sort of a dark syrup produced far beneath the Earth's surface under intense heat and pressure. If this is true, we may not need to worry about the Earth running out of oil...

ROSS: Mr. Forbes went on to take a shot at environmentalists.

(Background music)

FORBES: For centuries, technophobes have predicted the disappearance of the Earth's food and energy supplies. Today, America produces so much food that it exports it. Meanwhile, rumors of petroleum's demise also may turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Something to think about. I'm Steve Forbes.

SCOTT: If you repeat something that's strange often enough and make it sound convincing, you might fool some of the people. But I don't really think too many people in this country think of oil as a renewable resource.

ROSS: Geologist John Scott is an editor and fundraiser for the environmental group Clean Water Action. Mr. Scott says he agrees with the idea of incentives for property owners who don't pollute. So during a Republican town meeting in New Hampshire he pressed Mr. Forbes for details on how it would work, and what it would cost.

SCOTT: What I'd like to know is, where in your economic plan are the pollution fees or other marketplace incentives that will get polluters to clean up their act?

FORBES: Thank you very much for your question. As a father of five daughters and my wife Sabina is here tonight, obviously I have a keen interest...

ROSS: Mr. Forbes never answered the question. And the exchange alarmed Mr. Scott. He's worried about what would happen in federal oversight is dismantled.

SCOTT: I mean, I don't think anyone would be deceived into thinking that if Exxon was regulated less, they would pollute less. It's only logical that if you ask polluters to pay for the damage that they cause, they'll eventually figure out a way to cause less damage.

ROSS: Many of Mr. Forbes' proposals are seen as half-baked or irrelevant, fueling a perception he's a dilettante dabbling in politics. For example, Mr. Forbes writes in his book about President Theodore Roosevelt's successful plea to big business to stop clear-cutting at the turn of the century. Mr. Forbes believes this "bully pulpit environmentalism" could still work today. However, Theodore Roosevelt IV, the president's great-great-grandson and the current chair of the League of Conservation Voters, says we can no longer rely solely on individuals doing the right thing, when it comes to global pollution.

ROOSEVELT: Take an issue like clean water, and it's very clear that can't be decided on a local level. You can't have Town A that is up on the upper end of the reaches of the water saying oh, we're going to have dirty water because we don't care; pollute. But the towns down below saying oh, we want clean water, and they do their very best to clean up what they've got. It's got to be done on a national basis.

ROSS: Criticism that his ideas are flawed or outdated hasn't stopped Forbes from rallying dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like those in abundance at the Waldorf Astoria luncheon. After his speech, one woman said Mr. Forbes is the only candidate who understands that moral people don't need costly mandates.

WOMAN: The environment has to take care of itself, and smart people will. You don't need government to tell you how to take care of your area. We clean our own house.

ROSS: Mr. Forbes continues to crisscross the country delivering speeches based on his book. His message does appear to resonate with some voters. Four years ago Mr. Forbes surprised political observers by winning primaries in Arizona and Delaware. This time around, he finished second in Iowa's straw poll in August. Still, most consider the candidate a long shot. And the $50 million he's prepared to spend to stay in the race may wind up being a hefty price tag for what amounts to a book tour. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in New York.

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Year in Review

CURWOOD: Joining me to discuss the presidential races and other environmental highlights of 1999 is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mark, so you've just heard an assessment of Steve Forbes' environmental agenda. How do you think the issue is playing with the rest of the field?

HERTSGAARD: It's been surprisingly prominent. Of course, the big event was Friends of the Earth deciding to endorse Bill Bradley rather than Al Gore for president, and that certainly served as a wake-up call, not only to Mr. Gore but I think to politicians in general. This year, we'd already seen George Bush, Jr., for example, declare that he believes that global warming is real after all. And John McCain, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, has said that the environment could be the sleeper issue in this campaign. So clearly, the politicians are taking notice of this.

CURWOOD: Well, politicians watch polls, and the polls tell us, right, that the environment is getting close to the top of the list for voters' concerns, even among Republicans. Is Washington responding to this information?

HERTSGAARD: Well, interestingly enough, Steve, in the face of all this, it's pretty much been business as usual inside of Washington. That is to say, the Clinton administration has made a couple of important environmental initiatives, but on Capitol Hill most Congressional Republicans, and not a few Democrats, I should say, have been dragging their feet trying to secure corporate favors with last-minute anti-environmental riders we've talked about a lot on this show. And President Clinton, as usual, has spoken against those riders and then in the end ended up signing most of them.

CURWOOD: You don't have to say, it's kind of puzzling to have a business-as-usual attitude in the face of some of the scientific information we're getting. I'm thinking of the report from the United Nations, a kind of state of the planet report called Geo 2000. You saw that, didn't you, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: Sure. In fact, I was in Europe when that came out in September, Steve. Front page news in the major newspapers in Germany. Checked when I got back here; U.S. press had completely ignored it, which is astonishing. There are absolutely extraordinary and important findings there, such as GEO 2000 said 25 percent -- 25 percent -- of the world's mammal species, 11 percent of its bird species, are now at risk of total extinction. GEO 2000 also drew attention to what I think is going to be one of the major environmental issues of the twenty-first century: water. They warn that we're facing a full-scale emergency, and they estimate that by the year 2025, two out of every three humans will be living in water-stressed conditions.

CURWOOD: There's also been some other amazing scientific reports this year. You want to talk about the Amazon?

HERTSGAARD: I'd love to. I think that is another one of the really key studies. Scientists have discovered that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed twice as fast as previously believed. Largely because droughts down there are causing parts of the rainforest to combust spontaneously. And the accelerated pace of destruction is also worrying, because, you know, just remember the current rate of global deforestation is set to leave us without any rainforests at all by the year 2050. So that's very worrisome. And Steve, I'd mention one other study, which is the conclusion by U.S. government scientists that it is humans, rather than natural changes, that are the most significant factor behind global warming.

CURWOOD: Well, now, why is that so significant? I mean, scientists have been saying for years that humans do help cause climate change, right?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that's true. But they've never specified how much of it we're responsible for. In 1995, of course, the famous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said climate change has begun. And there was the very famous line: "a discernable human influence on it." But we didn't know how much. This year, scientists have looked at that, and they have concluded that humans have been the most significant factor behind the warming of recent decades. If that finding stands up to scrutiny, it is incredibly important because, look, if we humans were responsible for only, let's say, two percent of global warming, it wouldn't make much difference what we do. So why stop cutting down rainforests? Why stop using fossil fuels? Now, though, we know that it is our own actions that will largely determine how much climate disruption we and our descendants face. That is incredibly important.

CURWOOD: Mark, what other events from this past year really stand out?

HERTSGAARD: Well, of course, WTO, Steve. And we've talked a lot about that already on this show, so I'll just mention two facts that make, I think, WTO something that will last in history. First, never again after the Seattle meetings, never again will these incredibly important decisions about world trade, globalization, and all of their environmental effects -- never again will they be made behind closed doors without public participation, without press scrutiny. Second, the reason that Seattle succeeded in that regard is largely because environmentalists have now formed a working, authentic partnership with labor unions and other members of civil society: human rights groups, overseas activists. This kind of political coalition could be incredibly important in the years to come. And I see it, actually, in global terms, there is a shift, I think, going on in environmentalism to becoming harder-edged, more in-your-face, more directly challenging of corporate and government authority. I think in particular to one of the other big events of this year, genetically-modified foods. The civil disobedience, the consumer boycotts, especially in Europe, educated people, got the general public to sit up and take notice. They didn't like what they heard. They didn't like that there is no testing of these, that there is no labeling. And as a result, the biotech industry is now on the run. Farmers are refusing to plant these crops. Baby-food makers are refusing to use them. The biggest bank in Europe has told its big institutional investors: get out of biotech. And then of course, finally Monsanto, as if to surrender, said okay, we won't commercialize the terminator gene. That would never have happened if there hadn't been this kind of militant opposition, and I think it's a harbinger for what we may be seeing if this kind of activism grows.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: Trying to beat extinction with test tubes. Saving rare wildcats today, and perhaps endangered tigers tomorrow, with invitro fertilization. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Frozen Zoos

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Scientists at the Audubon Institute Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans are making news. They have successfully brought the embryo of a rare species of African wildcat to full term in the womb of a common domestic shorthaired cat. Eggs and sperm were taken from the African cats, mixed together in the lab, and eight resulting embryos were frozen. Later, some were implanted in the tabby, which gave birth about three weeks ago. Long used for livestock breeding, this technique could have dramatic implications for the future of endangered animals. That's according to the center's director of research, Betsy Dresser.

DRESSER: You know, in the future, we don't know what technologies are going to be out there for use of viable DNA, or living DNA. And so, what we're trying to do with endangered species is bank as much genetic diversity as we can through frozen embryos or frozen sperm, and so that we can recall it if we ever really need it.

CURWOOD: Explain to me more about this concept of a frozen zoo.

DRESSER: You know, if you have embryos frozen from a species, and you know how to thaw it and you can identify a surrogate, you can essentially keep a species from going extinct. And in my mind, that's a very powerful tool. So, you know, I would hope that we could do this with many, many species, and it provides a safety net for them.

CURWOOD: How many species do you have now?

DRESSER: We've got about 500 animals in our frozen zoo right now.

CURWOOD: Embryos of 500 different endangered animals?

DRESSER: Either embryos or sperm, right.

CURWOOD: And could you grow out all of those? Do you have the surrogate moms for them? Or you don't know yet?

DRESSER: We don't know yet, for everything. And actually, that's why we're doing this. And trying to identify these common surrogates.

CURWOOD: The housecat and the African wildcat aren't that very different. What about doing this with species that aren't quite so similar?

DRESSER: Well, you know, I don't think we'll ever put a giraffe in an elephant, for example, because I think there has to be a lot of close relatedness. But there are 23 species of small exotic cat, and most of them are endangered. So, if we could use the domestic housecat as a surrogate for even half that many exotic cats, I think we would have made a contribution, really, to save small exotic cats.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the ethical concerns about this type of work? I mean, nature doesn't have one species get incubated by another.

DRESSER: No, but I don't think nature counted on mankind doing to wildlife or endangered species what we've done. If mankind sits back and thinks about, you know, the damage really that's been done, and the extinction of so many species because of our species, I think the ethical question comes there.

CURWOOD: Now, what if people hearing us, or hearing about your work, say, "Hey, I don't have to worry so much about species going extinct or being endangered. Because they'll be frozen. We'll bring them back some time in the future when we have the technology to grow them out again."

DRESSER: I think everyone needs to realize that this technology is very, very much in its infancy. You know, there's only been maybe 10 or 12 animals, endangered animals, produced from any kind of frozen embryos or frozen sperm. And so, you know, we don't know enough yet to be able to say that all these species are protected. I think this is just one tool in a toolkit of a lot of different possible ways in the future of saving endangered species.

CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about this housecat. What's her name?

DRESSER: Her name is Cayenne, like the pepper.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. (Laughs) And her baby's name?

DRESSER: Her baby's name is Jazz, for New Orleans, of course.

CURWOOD: You know, this story reminds me of the ugly duckling, the mother duck who found herself with a swan. I mean, this mother must think that her baby's got, well, some cosmetic problems?

DRESSER: (Laughs) Well, he doesn't look too much different from her. But, you know, he hissed at us when he was two days old. He's pretty feisty, so she probably thinks she's just got a lot of trouble on her hands.

CURWOOD: Betsy Dresser is director of research at the Audubon Institute Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans. Dr. Dresser, thanks for speaking with us today.

DRESSER: You're very welcome. Thanks for your interest.

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Winter Dark

CURWOOD: The days will soon be getting longer, but the cold and dark of winter will stay with us for weeks to come. Commentator Susan Carol Hauser and a small houseguest are burrowing in for the long haul.

HAUSER: In northern Minnesota, it is clearly winter. Like some birds and animals and people, the sun has gone south, and no longer has the power of a clock. During the day we hardly seem to notice the light. It is something that is happening to the south and does not have much to do with us.

The lake and even the ground are frozen, suspended in time for the duration. I slow down as well, and find myself sitting after dinner with needlework in my hands, tugging bright threads from side to side through the fine woven fabric.
I am not the only one industrious in the long dark. At the bird feeder, a deer mouse, no bigger than my thumb, also works into the night. On the other side of the window she rummages in the pile of seeds, finding the best ones to carry into the house. I know all of her favorite pantries. The toe of my boot. The thread drawer in my sewing box. And the bulb top of the turkey baster in the kitchen drawer. For every line of stitching I complete, she completes a round trip between grocery and home.

She is weaving a tapestry that will sustain her in the many dark and cold weeks yet to come. I know how she feels. As long as the sun hovers near the southern horizon, the mercury in the thermometer stays shriveled in its little glass burrow, and I am more dedicated to my evening task. After supper I leave dishes on the table and do not put away food. I want only to bend over my colored yarns and enter the fairy world of French knots and split stitches.

I sit in the light from just one lamp. My fingers skitter back and forth across the fabric, pulling my needle up and down through minute passages. Like the deer mouse, I am counting out the dark, weaving a tapestry that will sustain me in the many cold weeks yet to come.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Susan Carol Hauser is author of Sugartime: The Hidden Pleasures of Making Maple Syrup. She comes to us from KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota. 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 W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Vaccines are major weapons in the war against disease, but some parents fear they come with some unhealthy side effects. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(Music up and under: "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire")

CURWOOD: December twenty-second marks the official start of winter, with the arrival of the solstice. And while some seasonal figures, such as Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer steal the show this time of year, another mythological character is worth recognizing. His name: Jack Frost. The personification of icy weather, Jack Frost is said to be responsible for painting designs on leaves and window glass. People say they can see scenes that resemble miniature mountain ranges and thick forests in the intricate patterns of the frosty artwork.

Today, we think of Jack Frost as an elfin being, but he may have originated as a very large figure in Norse folklore. The frost giant was believed to create glaciers and ice caps and to cause avalanches. Other cultures have their own mythological wintry beings. In Russia it's the Snow Maiden and Father Frost, who forges frost by binding water and earth together with heavy chains. In Germany, it's said that snow is caused by an old woman shaking out her white feather bed. But as far as we can ascertain, Jack Frost is the only wintry creature known to take a nip at your nose. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Vaccines and Autism

CURWOOD: Vaccines are considered one of the major triumphs of modern medicine. Many diseases, including smallpox, polio, and measles, that once killed millions, are no longer a public health threat in the U.S., thanks largely to massive vaccination programs. But as the number of vaccines children receive these days increases, so do a number of safety concerns, especially for newborns. From member station WBUR, Rachel Gotbaum reports.

DOCTOR AND NURSE: One, two, three.

WOMAN: Big boo-boo honey. I'm sorry.

(An infant cries)

GOTBAUM: At Boston Medical Center, a mother is comforting her four-month-old daughter as a doctor and nurse give the infant a shot in each thigh.

(More crying)

GOTBAUM: Today most American children will receive as many as 21 vaccinations by the time they enter kindergarten. That's more than twice the number of injections kids received a decade ago. The shots are designed to prevent some ten diseases, including forms of meningitis, diphtheria, rubella, and, most recently, chicken pox. But last summer federal and state public health officials suspended the use of one new vaccine designed to protect against infant diarrhea, because it caused intestinal problems in about two dozen cases. Officials also recommended that the hepatitis-B vaccine no longer be given to newborns, but used later in infancy, after the Food and Drug Administration received reports of 73 deaths. The changes in policy come at a time when some parents are beginning to question the safety of vaccines.

CONVERSE: All of a sudden we were hearing this word autism.

GOTBAUM: Judy Converse traveled from Cape Cod last summer to testify before Congress on vaccine safety. She says her newborn son Ben was a healthy baby until he got a hepatitis-B vaccination.

CONVERSE: They tested all these reflexes, like they normally do. They were all there, they were all fine. He got a ten, which is a perfect score.

GOTBAUM: But when she left the hospital, Judy Converse says she noticed some changes in her son. He would scream inconsolably and fall unconscious. She brought Ben back to the hospital, but says doctors found nothing wrong with him.

CONVERSE: We were told he's just fussy, he's just colicky, how do you know, you are a first-time mom, this is normal. And it wasn't normal. It's not normal for a newborn to be having seizures, passing out, covered with rash, vomiting forcefully, diarrhea eight times a day.

GOTBAUM: When her son was four weeks old, she took him back to the hospital for his first check-up and more shots.

CONVERSE: And I said well, what's this? Well, this is the second hep-B. What do you mean, the second one? Well, the first one is when they're born. And it just dawned on me in that moment, this has to be part of the problem.

GOTBAUM: Today Ben is three years old, and doctors recently told Converse that her son has autism, a severely-handicapping brain disorder. He doesn't like being touched and often throws uncontrollable fits. A growing number of doctors, though still in the minority, say vaccines could be to blame. Doctor Bernard Rimland is director of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. The institute has the largest registry of autism cases in the world.

RIMLAND: We're hearing, over and over again, very frequently, about kids who were perfectly normal. Then all of a sudden, they, you know, get the vaccine, and the kid starts to lose whatever speech they had. The kid loses eye contact. The kid begins to descend into autism.

GOTBAUM: Dr. Rimland says as the number of vaccines has increased, autism rates have doubled and in some cases tripled over the last decade.

RIMLAND: It's the assault of all these vaccines on the kids who have immature immune systems, that is causing the explosion in the incidence of autism.

GOTBAUM: Scientists don't fully understand what causes autism, and Rimland doesn't claim to know how vaccines can lead to the disorder. One theory blames the viruses in vaccines. Vaccines contain little bits of the diseases they're designed to fight against. Rimland suspects these viruses, although weakened, combined with chemical additives in the shots, somehow throw a young immune system into turmoil, ultimately damaging the brain.

PAYTEAR: Vaccines are not licensed in this country until safety and efficacy are proven.

GOTBAUM: Dr. George PayTear is professor of pediatrics at the Brown University School of Medicine, and the chairman of the Federal Vaccine Advisory Committee. PayTear says it's absurd to correlate the rise in vaccines with the rise in autism.

PAYTEAR: We have so many more developments in our society which could be incriminated. We have a greater number of environmental pollutants. We live in a much more stressful society. Those factors need to be evaluated. But I think simply to incriminate vaccines is indeed too simplistic.

GOTBAUM: Plus, he says, tens of millions of children worldwide have gotten shots with no problems. But some parents say they shouldn't be required to immunize their children if they're not convinced about a vaccine's safety. Debbie Bermudes runs Massachusetts Citizens for Vaccination Choice.

BERMUDES: We as parents have the responsibility to ask questions and make as best an informed decision as we can without feeling the coercion or threat that we won't get our children into school, or that we won't get our children into daycare.

GOTBAUM: But public health officials say every child must be inoculated to protect the entire community. Dr. Sean Palfry is director of the Immunization Initiative for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

PALFRY: This is like not allowing drinking and driving. This is something which we might feel is an impingement on our own personal liberty, but we're really trying to protect not only the individual but everybody around them.

GOTBAUM: About a dozen new vaccines for children are being developed, and at least one inoculation series designed to protect them against pneumonia is expected to be added to the required list next year. Meanwhile, a Congressional hearing is scheduled in April to investigate the causes of autism, including a possible link to vaccines. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachel Gotbaum in Boston.

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Coal Suit Derby

CURWOOD: Recently the state of Connecticut filed the latest in a string of lawsuits aimed at reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants outside its borders. As commentator Suzanne Elston points out, instead of spending their time suing each other, the jurisdictions involved would do better to follow the example set by New York State.

ELSTON: It's getting to the point where it's hard to figure out who's suing whom. First it was a bunch of coal producers fighting stricter EPA standards. Then the Ontario government joined the EPA in its suit against coal producers. More recently, the New York attorney general's office filed its own lawsuit against a bunch of midwestern power plants. The Justice Department was hot on their heels with a suit of its own. Which just about brings us to this latest volley fired by Connecticut.

The problem is, most of the players are so busy suing everyone else for their pollution problems, they're ignoring the ones in their own back yard. Take Ontario. The province jumped on the EPA's bandwagon but failed to recognize its own problems at home. While it's true that 50 percent of Ontario's pollution does come from the U.S., the other 50 percent is home grown. But no Canadian politician ever lost votes blaming their problems on the Americans. So instead of cleaning up their own act, they're putting the blame on somebody else.

Fortunately, there is one bright spark in this hypocritical mess. New York may be trying to get its neighbors to clean up their act, but the state is also enforcing much tougher regulations for its own plants. Last month, Republican Governor George Pataki ordered power plants in New York to substantially reduce smokestack emissions far beyond the national standard. Starting next year, the Clean Air Act will require power plants to reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions by 35 percent. But this will only apply from May to September, when smog is at its worst. The New York regulation calls for the same reductions year-round.

The move will raise electricity rates by one to two percent, but Pataki thinks it is worth it. Not only will the increases be offset by the environmental benefits, but the higher rates will allow new cleaner-burning gas-fired plants to compete with their dirtier cousins. The critics are saying that Pataki's move is motivated by politics, trying to one-up his Democratic attorney general. So what? He's a politician. Politicians should get re-elected for doing the right thing for a change.

So instead of whining and suing all their neighbors, maybe the other players in this court-bound drama should put themselves in a New York state of mind. Take the money that they'd spend on lawyers and invest it in improving air quality. And then we'd all breathe a lot easier.

CURWOOD: Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Courtis, Ontario. She comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now it's time for your comments.

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CURWOOD: Our profile of Jim Nollman, a guitarist who uses music to communicate with whales, sparked this memory for retired Naval officer G.E. Beyer, a listener to KPBX in Spokane, Washington. He writes, "Almost 40 years ago we used to play for the porpoise in the Atlantic and Caribbean. I served on a destroyer, and we had an underwater telephone to talk to submarines while conducting exercises. In the evenings, one of my shipmates who played a pretty fair trumpet would run scales and riffs into the microphone, and the porpoise would respond note for note. Doesn't take much to entertain sailors at sea."

Phyllis Libby called in from Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she hears us on KOSU. Ms. Libby, a clinical researcher in child brain development, took note of our report on the work of Roger Masters, a sociologist who is examining the connection between heavy metal toxicity and violence. Ms. Libby says this type of research could have far-reaching consequences.

LIBBY: It would blow the lid off of everything if people realized how much toxicity in this culture has contributed to whole generations of children being wiped out. Not just lead, but all the other stuff in the ground and the water.

CURWOOD: And Deborah Ofsowitz, who hears us on WMFE in Orlando, Florida, was disturbed by the language in our story on the growing bear population in Massachusetts. She writes, "I find it ironic that the bears and other animals were referred to as encroaching animals. Aren't we the encroaching ones? I have a feeling the bears and other such animals were here for a long time before we moved in."
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 letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Tapes and transcripts are $15. Or listen to our program for free any time on our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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Coming up: the perils and promises of gazing into the ecological future. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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The Challenge of Sustainability

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Greek mythology, Cassandra, the daughter of the kind of Troy, is given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, but cursed because nobody believes her predictions. Author Alan AtKisson calls this Cassandra's Dilemma, and writes in his new book, Believing Cassandra, that nature has a Cassandra's Dilemma of its own. While some people predict a dire ecological future, most don't heed the warnings because, he says, they're missing the big picture.

ATKISSON: You know, when people think about trying to solve our environmental dilemmas, they tend to think that we have to slow our economy down, to cut back. It's all about driving less or becoming a vegetarian, which are all wonderful things, and they do contribute. But what is more needed is a complete overhaul in our agricultural systems. A complete overhaul in our transportation systems. And there are, in fact, signs that these are on the way. It's more important to my mind to spend our energy changing these systems, than it is to worry about the very small changes that a lifestyle means. And if we do that, we're going to see an enormous upturn in economic activity. It's going to be a renaissance economically, the likes of which the world has never seen, and will eclipse, I believe, the computer revolution in terms of what it could mean for people and the economy.

CURWOOD: So, by getting the planet straight, people are going to get rich.

ATKISSON: I think if we don't imagine it that way it won't happen. And I think that in fact when you think through the logic of it, it's the only way it can happen. We can't dismantle our economy. We can't dismantle our technology. We've already loosed demons into the world. We've loosed plutonium and endocrine disrupters and all kinds of materials, that if we don't learn how to clean them up, take care of them better, they will, you know, cause havoc for generations to come. We have to imagine a world where in order to clean it up, we in fact get rich. Because otherwise it's not going to happen from moral imperatives alone, I think.

CURWOOD: Here we are, two people living in one of the richest countries in the Earth. How do you make this argument to somebody who comes from a very poor country on Earth? There are places that are grossly under-developed. They have very little wealth. They're going to hear in your words the notion that, well, you can't do what the affluent part of the world has done. Otherwise, we'll be overwhelmed ecologically. Or will they?

ATKISSON: Oh no. I think that in fact the whole notion of leapfrogging even expands in its understanding when we think about Third World development. It's possible to imagine, if we use the wealth of the First World to stimulate a renaissance in technology, the likes of which it's very difficult to imagine now. But for example, bringing the cost of producing solar cells down to way cheaper than coal or nuclear, then it's possible to imagine spreading the benefits of energy to places which right now are just desperate for basic power, even clean water. You know, I have friends, for example, who have developed a clean water technology which just uses a little bit of energy and an ultraviolet bulb, and can clean, you know, the water for an entire village on just, you know, pennies. And that's the kind of technological breakthrough which, if we redirect our resources, can uplift Third World living standards all around the world.

CURWOOD: I'd like you to read for us, for a moment. If you could turn to page 130 there?

ATKISSON: Sure. (Turns pages, reads) "To escape Cassandra's Dilemma and prevent global collapse, we need an idea that is both visionary and profitable. A solution that can appeal to both the ardent altruist and the hardened venture capitalist. We need a source of hope that is also a business opportunity, a hot investment that is also intensely idealistic. We need something that will challenge our higher natures and attract our baser instincts, coaxing us into the game of transformation without polarizing society or fomenting revolution. We need something that has not been seen since humans first began plowing up dirt, building skyscrapers, and messing around with atmospheric chemistry. We need something that has the power to command a lifetime of allegiance, even though it does not truly exist yet in practice and may never fully exist except in theory. We need something we can barely begin to describe in tangible, concrete terms. But fortunately, we have a word for it."

CURWOOD: And the envelope, please -- the word is?

ATKISSON: The word is an ungainly six-syllable word, called "sustainability". Sustainability is like democracy. It's an overarching vision of a social ideal. In very specific terms it has to do with not using non-renewable resources, using renewable resources at rates that can be replenished, and not dumping stuff into the Earth's ecosystems at rates faster than they can absorb.

CURWOOD: Okay, what's the difference between this and environmentalism?

ATKISSON: Sustainability is the answer to the question that environmentalism raises. To be an environmentalist, you say "No." You say we can't do this any more, it's trashing the planet. The sustainability perspective is the yes. It's what we can do instead. It's the vision. It's the innovation. It's the new way of doing things that meets these criteria that we've only recently begun to understand, for what it takes to have six billion people on planet Earth.

CURWOOD: So you prefer to see yourself as an advocate of sustainability, rather than an environmentalist.

ATKISSON: Well, I do, but that doesn't mean that I don't support environmentalism. In fact, if we're going to have the motivation to change, we need not just a strong environmental movement but a stronger environmental movement, to help push us from, you know -- push society from behind. Sustainability is about what's tugging it from the front, essentially trying to attract it toward a new way of doing things that is not destructive. That is in fact both profitable and protective.

CURWOOD: Is this all theoretical we're talking about here? Or do you have some concrete examples you can offer?

ATKISSON: There's a large carpet company in Atlanta, Georgia, called Interface. One point two billion dollar company, which, because of the leadership of its CEO, is reorganizing itself to become a sustainable enterprise. And they have made enormous strides toward reducing their energy consumption, reducing their toxic emissions. In some places they don't even sell carpet any more. They lease it. They rent you the service of carpeting, so that they can just take back the carpet tiles and recycle them into carpet once again. And they're in the process of essentially showing other companies how to do that. And I had the pleasure of being at the Nike Corporation just last week and watched that company begin to re-imagine itself as a sustainable enterprise.

CURWOOD: The Nike Corporation. They oversee sweatshops that we've heard complain about, a sustainable company?

ATKISSON: There's no perfection in this world yet. Nike's made significant strides toward addressing the issues that have been raised around child labor, but I'm not going to defend them on that score. They deserve all the flak that they've gotten and are going to get. But at the same time, having been called to the carpet on those issues has motivated them to rethink what their vision is as a corporation, and that's included thinking about how to become a sustainable enterprise. How to retool their industry over the long run so that it's not causing any damage to the Earth. They're really trying to imagine a company that doesn't poison the Earth, and that in fact is a social good in addition to being an economic winner.

CURWOOD: This would be amazing for Nike, because they make a lot of their money because their shoes go out of style so quickly. I mean, the kids on the block here in the U.S., I mean, this year's design, the design even from six months ago, is not as cool as the one that comes out right now. They have a lot of planned obsolescence in their product. Do you think they can change that much?

ATKISSON: Well, I think the jury's out. I'm certainly not going to sort of hold up Nike as a sterling example of sustainability. But I will say that in fact that planned obsolescence could work, industry-wide, in our favor. Because if we begin to introduce new materials that are designed to be biodegradable, to essentially break down in compost heaps to be used as fertilizer, or to be used again as shoes or clothes or whatever else, we need to be testing those materials at ever-increasing rates. The innovation has to be pumping through our system ever faster, you know, and I can think of no better industry than the clothing industry, which is fad-driven, to allow us to make those experiments on a grand scale and find out what works and what doesn't work. You know, we're not going to get rid of these companies. I have a lot of friends who would love to just see companies like Nike go away. I'm more interested in seeing what will it take to use those massive engines of capital to transform the systems that are currently trashing the Earth?

CURWOOD: Okay. We stand, like Garret Hardin, in the eye of the hurricane, and we know that from now on we'll never have more than ten years to turn things around and we'll always be ten years too late. Why? Why? Why try? What's the incentive? And am I being too pessimistic here?

ATKISSON: No, I think there's a place for pessimism. I mean, my book's subtitle is An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist World . And that of course brands me as an optimist forever. But I also believe there's a place for grief, and there's a place for knowing that we've lost a lot of stuff that we can't easily replace. And there's also a place for dealing with the emotions that come from bearing up with the fact that we're still going to lose things that we can't replace, that there is so much momentum in the system that there will be species that go. There will be ecosystems that go. At the same time, pessimism is not a strategy for change. And having a vision for transformative change through innovation, through dedication, essentially, to a long-term vision where our children and their children are living not just in a different world but a rebuilt world, a restored world, is, you know, the only way that I can get up in the morning.

CURWOOD: Or you could look at it this way. If you're a pessimist, maybe you're right and so, therefore, it's all going to come to naught. And if you're an optimist, and maybe you're right, things will be wonderful. But if it turns out that things will come to naught, you will have tried. It's sort of like the agnostic praying, you know? If there is a God, well, then, they're in great shape if they wind up at the pearly gates.

ATKISSON: Well, you know, Henry Ford, who caused a lot of the problems we're dealing with right now, by designing the mass-production automobile, said that whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right. So I tend to believe that we can, and I tend to promote that notion by doing my bit to spread information around about what kinds of new ideas have come forward and been implemented at the national level, at the city level, at the corporate level.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at this book here, and it has this rather handsome guy on the front cover with a computer and a guitar. Looks like maybe a Martin guitar.

ATKISSON: It's a Martin.

CURWOOD: And on the back cover, same guy has got -- he's smiling, he's holding a guitar. That's you.

ATKISSON: Yeah. I've developed a strange career where I on the one hand will go talk to corporations and city governments about transformation strategies and sustainable development policy, and on the other hand I'll pull my guitar out and sing them a silly song about the Gross Domestic Product set to a Latvian drinking melody.

CURWOOD: Do you have a guitar with you here?

ATKISSON: I don't have the guitar with me, no, but we have CDs.

CURWOOD: Let's hear the song set to the Latvian drinking melody.

ATKISSON: (Laughs) You know, this is a song about the Gross Domestic Product, which is how we measure progress in this country. And so I'm trying to demonstrate that no matter what we do, the GDP goes up. So the first verse -- I'll do the second verse, you know. (Sings) The Exxon captain went below and told the mate to take her slow. But no one saw the reef ahead and now a million birds are dead. But GDP is a-rising. GDP is rising. Bye, bye, bye, dollars in the sky, la, la, la, la, la, la -- hey! (Curwood laughs) And it just goes on for like 20 verses like that. And you know, so I'll get everybody singing along the Latvian part, as I say.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) You write in your book that many feel that laughing at this kind of situation, like, you know, a million birds dying in Alaska, is inappropriate. But you seem to really encourage laughter.

ATKISSON: Well you know, I asked my 16-year-old niece what part of the book she liked the best. And she said she liked the sentence that said, "Absurdity is an enormously liberating idea." And the fact that we are stuck in a rather absurd situation is cause for tears, but it's also cause for laughter. You know, I wrote a breakthrough song for myself, which is on the album that comes with this book, Believing Cassandra. And it was called "The Dead Planet Blues." And so singing this really dark humor song, "The Dead Planet Blues", was essentially a kind of a liberation for me. And it became, you know, something of a little cult song. I sang it all over the place, at conference and whatever. And I encourage people, essentially, to do that. People have told me that this is, you know, playing with fire essentially, because it stirs up emotions. But you know, if we can't deal with the absurdity of our situation, then we can't deal with the seriousness of it, either.

CURWOOD: Okay. And how does "The Dead Planet Blues" go?

ATKISSON: (Sings) Pull up a star and hear my tale of woe. I built a planet just a few billion years ago. It was a lovely little blue-green ball. One of my life forms became self-aware. They started messing with my recipe for air. And now that planet's got no life at all, yeah, it's a dead planet -- and I'm just getting back from the funeral. Dead planet -- don't you hate it when they leave the casket open? I got them old dead planet blues.

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

ATKISSON: It's a great pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Alan AtKisson's book is called Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist World. It is published by Chelsea Green.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week we mark the changing of the season by revisiting the myths and legends of how the world was divided between the light and the dark.

WOMAN: Whenever you tell these stories, children always say, "Is this a story? Or is this what really happened?" And you're faced with the idea of, what's the difference between science and folklore? I'm not sure.

CURWOOD: A celebration of the winter solstice next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Hannah Day-Woodruff and Kaneed Leger and say farewell and thanks for jobs well-done to interns Brent Runyon and Russell Wiedemann. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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

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