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

February 11, 2000

Air Date: February 11, 2000


Super Salmon / Diane Toomey

Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on the development of the first genetically altered farm-raised salmon. Creators of this "super fish" say it is safe, but critics say that's an open question. (07:30)

Salmon Politics

Host Steve Curwood and Pat Parenteau of Vermont Law School discuss the politics behind efforts to put creatures on the Endangered Species List. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is at the center of a current dispute in which he is accused of bowing to pressure from groups hoping to keep wild salmon in Maine off the list. (04:45)

Cormorant Fishing / Bruce Thorson

The age-old Chinese art of cormorant fishing may be coming to an end because of pollution, population stress and tourism. Bruce Thorson reports from the Li river in southern China. (05:30)

All About Love

Host Steve Curwood talks with Bell Hooks about her new book "All About Love" in which the feminist author calls for a new love ethic. (03:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the origin and folklore surrounding St. Valentine's day. (01:30)

The Budget and the Environment

Host Steve Curwood and Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard discuss the environmental aspects of President Clinton's new budget proposals. More funds for open space acquisition appear to be gaining momentum on Capitol Hill. (05:30)

Solar Solutions / Ingrid Lobet

In Central America, more and more people are turning to solar power to bring electricity to their rural villages. Ingrid Lobet reports from Honduras. (09:50)

Natural Capitalism

Paul Hawken joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the new book he co-authored along with Amory and Hunter Lovins. "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution" offers guidelines on a sustainable economy which does not waste people or resources. (09:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Bruce Thorson, Ingrid Lobet
GUESTS: Pat Parenteau, bell hooks, Mark Hertsgaard, Paul Hawken

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Coming soon to a market near you, super fish. Researchers are about to seek approval for the first genetically-modified fish. It's a salmon that grows fatter faster because one of its genes has been manipulated. And its creators say it won't harm the environment, and it's safe to eat.

ENTIS: I'd like to say it's the natural transgenic.

CURWOOD: But critics say there's nothing natural about any fish that's had its genetic code altered.

KING: These glib statements that we're only introducing one gene, that we know what the gene is, we know what the protein is, really misrepresent, you know, what we understand about organisms and all that we don't understand.

CURWOOD: Also, the politics of the Endangered Species Act. The dying art of cormorant fishing in China. And bell hooks tells us all about love. That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Super Salmon

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The debate over genetically-modified food is about to enter a new and possibly more contentious phase. So far the dispute is centered on splicing the genes of crops, such as corn or soybeans. But scientists are now experimenting with fish, hoping to speed up the time it takes salmon to fatten up in fish farms. U.S. and Canadian researchers are about to seek government approval for their creation, which could become the first genetically-altered animal to wind up in your local supermarket. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

(Water flows)

TOOMEY: There's a Quanset hut in Canada that's about to become the newest battleground in the fight over genetically-modified food. To look at it, you wouldn't think that groundbreaking research goes on here. This facility, which sits next to a potato field on Prince Edward Island, is filled with simple motors, fans, and water pumps, and there are three dozen concrete tanks covered with black netting.


TOOMEY: Fish physiologist Arnie Sutterland says some of the salmon here are normal.

SUTTERLAND: Now, these are Atlantic salmon. They're about four years old, and they just spawned last month.

TOOMEY: But one tank over, there are salmon who have undergone genetic engineering.

SUTTERLAND: These fish are about the same size as the tank you just looked at, but they're a year younger, because of their rapid growth rates.

TOOMEY: These are super salmon. They look normal. They don't get any bigger than normal salmon. They just grow faster. A genetically-modified salmon is ready for cooking a full year earlier than normal fish. This transformation is brought about by manipulating the amount of growth hormone a salmon produces. To do that, scientists have been cutting and pasting fish genes together. Elliot Entis heads the company that mastered the technique.

ENTIS: We've taken a portion of a gene from another edible species of fish, either a winter flounder or a fish called an ocean pout, and the portion of the gene which we've taken from those fish is the portion called the promoter sequence. That is, it's the instruction sequence which tells the rest of the gene where to produce a protein, and how often to produce it. We've taken that promoter, that instruction set, instead, and stitched it to the salmon's growth hormone gene.

TOOMEY: By injecting this engineered gene into salmon eggs, researchers have increased the level of growth hormone the fish generate. They put on weight faster and actually use less food to do it.

ENTIS: Our fish appear to need about 20 to 25 percent less feed input to convert to a pound of weight. In other words, our food conversion ratio is somewhere on the order of 20 to 25 percent better or more efficient than that of salmon currently being raised.

TOOMEY: The fast growing fish are called the Aqua Advantage Salmon, and Mr. Entis portrays them as good news for an industry that's notoriously inefficient. Farm-raised salmon normally must eat three pounds of food to put on a single pound of weight. Mr. Entis says he'll improve that ratio. Of course, genetic engineering is highly controversial, but Elliot Entis says this feed is different. He's not mixing genes from totally unrelated species. This is a fish-to-fish transfer, and the alteration involves just one gene that affects just one hormone. He denies he's fiddling too much with Mother Nature.

ENTIS: I'd like to say it's the natural transgenic.

TOOMEY: Critics, though, flatly reject the notion that any genetic engineering is natural.

KING: These glib statements that we're only introducing one gene, that we know what the gene is, we know what the protein is, really misrepresent, you know, what we understand about organisms and all that we don't understand.

TOOMEY: Jonathan King is a molecular biologist at MIT. He's not opposed outright to genetically-modified salmon, but he is concerned that the risks are being downplayed. Dr. King says genetically-modified animals might affect the people who eat them in ways we can't predict.

KING: When you're introducing a new gene, the product of that gene is interacting with hundreds or thousands of other components in the cell. The effects may be, you know, very, very small and hard to detect. The effects may be enormous.

TOOMEY: It will be up to the FDA to pass judgment on the safety of transgenic salmon. The agency will not only look for any impacts on human health, but for the first time will consider the risk a genetically-engineered animal might pose to the natural environment. One risk involves super salmon escaping into open waters. The fear is they could reproduce and pollute the gene pool of wild stocks of salmon. Fish physiologist Arnie Sutterland has been testing a special procedure on Prince Edward Island to make sure that doesn't happen. It involves pressure-shocking the fish before they're even born. The fertilized eggs are placed in a metal container that looks something like a thermos.

SUTTERLAND: And we just fill it full of eggs, raise the pressure up to 10,000 PSI, thereabouts, and hold it there for five minutes, and take the eggs out. And that's it.

TOOMEY: The eggs will go on to hatch, but Dr. Sutterland says those fish will not be able to reproduce. It's not certain if the process can be 100 percent effective. And there's a second risk if the fish escape. Even if they can't reproduce in the wild, will these super-hungry salmon outcompete their wild cousins for food? Dr. Sutterland says that shouldn't be a problem.

SUTTERLAND: They have to feed much more often. And as a result, they're foraging most of the time. Even if they could find enough food in the wild to satisfy this appetite, the risks they're going to have to take will expose them to all kinds of excess levels of predation.

WEBER: Well, maybe they would like to place a good bet on that, because if it doesn't happen, who is really going to be paying the price?

TOOMEY: Mike Weber is a marine policy consultant and former assistant to the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

WEBER: As we've seen in any number of cases, salmon that are introduced from hatcheries from farms oftentimes, because of their different behavior, end up displacing wild salmon despite all the assurances that are always made beforehand that it can't happen here.

(Flowing water)

MAN: Go to six point four, that's the length. The weight is four seven five point five.

TOOMEY: The debate over genetically-modified salmon is just beginning. As it unfolds, scientists here are continuing their research, measuring just how quickly these fish can grow. Even if they gain FDA approval, it's uncertain what the marketplace holds for fast-growing salmon. The conflict over genetic engineering has touched a nerve, and members of the International Salmon Growers Association have already decided not to use genetically-modified fish. Regardless, the developers of Aqua Advantage Salmon say they'll press ahead, and plan to file their FDA application later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

WOMAN: Go PJ, go PPT, go 1-2-3-5-5-7-5-2-4-A...

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Salmon Politics

CURWOOD: Five years ago biologists recommended that the dwindling population of wild Atlantic salmon off the coast of Maine be classified as endangered. But the government failed to act. Now a lawsuit raises the possibility that U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave in to political pressure from interests worried that putting the fish on the Endangered Species List would hurt Maine's economy. Pat Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, has been following this case, which he says began with a letter that Secretary Babbitt received from William Cohen, who was at the time a Republican senator from Maine.

PARENTEAU: I'll quote it to you. He said, "The disposition of this petition," referring to the petition to list the Atlantic salmon, "will greatly affect my views regarding changes to the Endangered Species Act that might be warranted." To most people that sounds like a political threat. (Laughs) That if he doesn't get his way, he's going to make things difficult for the Endangered Species Act.

CURWOOD: Do you think that Secretary Bruce Babbitt acted illegally in responding to Senator Cohen's letter?

PARENTEAU: The circumstantial evidence is pretty strong. The administrative record, that is, all of the studies on the salmon about its biological condition, all of that seems to point pretty strongly to listing the salmon. And the only thing you have standing against that is Secretary Cohen's letter and his threat to make life difficult. It certainly raises a presumption that the Secretary's decision to withdraw the listing, which is what he did immediately after receiving this letter, was illegal.

CURWOOD: Secretary Babbitt said when he did drop the federal listing, that the state of Maine had a conservation plan, and that the fish wasn't going to be abandoned to extinction but rather the local authorities were going to take care of this problem.

PARENTEAU: The state of Maine has no power to deal with what happens to the salmon in the ocean, and it doesn't even have power to deal with it up and down the East Coast, where the salmon migrate. So, for the Secretary to say I'm going to defer to the state really removes much of the protection that the Endangered Species Act was designed to provide through the mechanism of federal supervision.

CURWOOD: Let's say that Secretary Babbitt was trying to forge a compromise with the people in the state of Maine. Isn't this a common sort of approach that's being taken by the Clinton administration in these cases?

PARENTEAU: It is a common approach. And there's a lot to be said for the states, including Maine, taking some responsibility and doing their part to help in the recovery of the species. But that's much different than deferring and, in fact, advocating the responsibility of the federal government to do what it can for these species. See, the problem is that unless the species, in this case the salmon, is listed, the federal government has no power whatsoever.

CURWOOD: Professor Parenteau, tell me: Is the Endangered Species Act still viable?

PARENTEAU: Frankly, in its current condition, which I would term enfeebled, it is not really doing anything close to what is needed. And most people point to the fact that the Endangered Species Act is all stick and no carrot. If the Endangered Species Act is ever to really achieve any meaningful improvement, it's going to have to provide more meaningful incentives. Which means money. So, a lot of people are pointing to the need for considerably more assured funding. But so far, politically, there simply hasn't been the will in Congress to do that.

CURWOOD: Now, the Atlantic salmon has again been proposed for the Endangered Species List by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And of course, now, several salmon conservation groups have brought lawsuits calling for an emergency listing right away. Professor Parenteau, is this the direction we're headed in? I mean, that species will need vocal advocates lobbying on their behalf in order to be listed for protection? The government really just won't quite get around to doing it?

PARENTEAU: Yes. Unfortunately I have to say that we're seeing more and more cases where citizens, conservation organizations, local groups, even groups of people who fish recreationally or commercially, are, you know, basically having to force the government to do what the law says the government must do. And if they didn't have the ability to force those issues, then protection for these species simply wouldn't happen.

CURWOOD: Pat Parenteau is a law professor at Vermont Law School and former head of the school's environmental law center. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

PARENTEAU: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Secretary Babbitt's office told Living on Earth that only scientific factors are considered in the decision whether to list a species as endangered. A spokesperson says the Maine state conservation plan looked like the best option at the time, but now since the Atlantic salmon situation has not improved, Secretary Babbitt supports listing the fish.

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(Music up and under)

Cormorant Fishing

CURWOOD: For generations Chinese fishermen have used the cormorant, a dark bird about the size of a penguin, to help them fish. Now pressures from pollution, population, and tourism are changing this relationship forever. Bruce Thorson reports from the river Li in China's southern Guangxi region.

(Splashes. A fisherman calls)

THORSON: Like his grandfather's grandfather before him, Won Jin Tsigh calls the big brown birds. He speaks to his cormorants.

(Won calls)

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]

TRANSLATOR: I treat these birds like they are my own brothers. Sometimes they get moody and bite, but I still feed them. I buy them good things to eat like duck meat and honey.

THORSON: In most of the world fishermen hate cormorants. They see these expert divers as competition for fish stocks. But in China, they've long been trained to work for the fisherman.

(Won speaks)

THORSON: Won Jin Tsigh grabs one of his birds. He tightens a small rope around its neck.

(The cormorant protests)

THORSON: The bird then dives into the clear water, and Won Jin Tsigh calls to his cormorant.

(Won calls)

THORSON: Cheering it into action as it shoots under the water looking for fish.

(Won calls, cheers)

THORSON: The bird dives, surfaces, dives again. Finally, it breaks the surface with a small, silvery fish wriggling in its beak. Won Jin Tsigh pulls the bird out of the water and holds it over a basket.


THORSON: With the rope tied around its neck, the bird can't swallow the fish. With a gag, it spits the fish into the fisherman's basket.

(Splashes, sounds from Won and the cormorant)

THORSON: On a good day his cormorants will spit out about 15 kilos of fish. They're permitted to eat just a few.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]

TRANSLATOR: When they are very young, they are like a young person with a lot of energy. The old ones have done the same job day after day, and they need the young ones to inspire them to catch fish, and I cheer them on, like in sport.

(Splashes; Won calls)

THORSON: The river Li bends like a giant emerald snake through the Guangxi region. Here fall the shadows of limestone mountains jutting out above rice paddies. Women scrub the family laundry on the stones beside the river. Farmers dip buckets to carry off water to the fields. And water buffalo trudge to the riverbanks to take a drink. The cormorant fishermen balance nature and commerce on shaky bamboo boats. But it's changing fast.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]

TRANSLATOR: We can't fish too much any more. Now people throw rubbish into the water. The towns dump their sewage into the river. It's poison now. There are so few fish now that I'm fishing mainly to show the tourists how it was done in the past.

(Splashing; Won calls)

THORSON: The green misty mountains of Guangxi draw increasing hordes of tourists. And cormorant fishermen are now a top attraction for local tourism.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]

TRANSLATOR: Life is better because of the tourists. We have more money even with the tourists. The birds bring my family much good, because many people come and pay to see the cormorants.

THORSON: Tourists bring money to the region, but they also put greater pressure on the river. There's more sewage. Tourist boats wind their way up and down the river all day. And after six generations, Won knows he's the last of his family to fish with the cormorants.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]

TRANSLATOR: With a one child policy, we can only have one trout. I have a daughter, and it's only the men who fish. So I will be the last cormorant fisherman in my family. Many of my friends have gone to work on the tourist boats, but I will stay with my birds.

THORSON: When the birds themselves get too old to fish, Won buys them a kilogram of dog meat and some rice wine. These expensive delicacies are their reward for years of service. Then, for once, he lets them eat all they want. The combination of too much meat and wine kills the bird.

(Splashes, Won calls)

CURWOOD: Our feature on the fisherman the cormorant was produced by Bruce Thorson.

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(Music up and under)

All About Love

CURWOOD: In today's hyper-paced world, we don't often take the time to appreciate the importance of love. Author bell hooks has. In her new book All About Love, Ms. hooks writes that a new vision of love is needed if we are to create a sense of community among ourselves and with our environment.

HOOKS: I like the idea of love as a combination of care, knowledge, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust. And the notion that we are loving when we nurture our own and another's growth.

CURWOOD: Now, many people associate love as something between individuals. Do you feel that there is love on a greater scale, in more sweeping terms?

HOOKS: The love that we feel for ourselves, and for the planet, has to be the foundation of all our sweeping notions of love or they fail. People have to have that core respect for life in order to feel that respect for the earth. For not using resources in a careless or uncaring way.

CURWOOD: Now, how did you get on this quest to write about love? I mean, people think of bell hooks, they think of, well, frankly, kind of a pretty tough feminist author. And love, that's something mushy for you!

HOOKS: Well, I am a tough feminist author, and there's nothing harder in the world today than the question of love. And Martin Luther King was one of the first people who said that the underlying principle of nonviolence is a love ethic. And that love ethic has to extend to both the planet and to how we treat one another, and to how we treat people who are strangers.

CURWOOD: Now what exactly do you mean by love ethic?

HOOKS: Well, I think that many people in our society no longer feel they have a sense of ethics, period, not to mention a love ethic. And a love ethic is rooted in the sense of our connection to one another, and that we want to act in such a way that we honor the presence of each other as human beings on the planet.

CURWOOD: In your book, you write, "Intense spiritual and emotional lack in our lives is the perfect breeding ground for material greed and over-consumption." Why do you believe this is true, and what happened to the spiritual and emotional fullness in our lives? Where did it go?

HOOKS: Well, partially, it did get pushed away by an investment in rapid growth. So that partially, what we see is this connection between the desire to expand, the desire for economic growth, and the loss of a concern for certain qualities in human life. You know, when we think about the legacy of American slavery, I mean, slavery was fundamentally about labor, about unpaid labor, and how you can build an empire on unpaid labor and working people and the indentured servants who were white. That is our legacy as a nation. That sense of overworking the earth in order to have this sort of excessive bounty. And we're still caught in that.

CURWOOD: bell hooks's new book is All About Love: New Visions. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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(Music up and under: "All You Need is Love")

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, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard gives us an update on politics on Capitol Hill, where there's a bipartisan effort afoot to protect more open space. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


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

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

(Music up and under: "As Time Goes By")

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: February fourteenth is the holiday of love, though it honors a man who died on that day. St. Valentine was beheaded on February fourteenth in the year 269 A.D. Emperor Claudius of Rome ordered the execution because the saint was caught performing marriages during wartime, which was outlawed, and so the day's association with lovers. The celebration of love on February fourteenth continued in Medieval Europe in conjunction with the mating habits of birds. Several writers note the seasonal milestone. An excerpt from this translation of Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls reads, "For this was on St. Valentine's great day, when every bird comes forth for pairing's sake, of every kind that man imagine may, and think how huge a clamor did they make." It was custom for young women to foretell what type of man they would marry by what type of bird they first saw on the fourteenth. For instance, if she spotted a yellow bird such as a goldfinch, she would marry a rich man. If she saw a sparrow, she'd wed a farmer. A dove meant a good man. A crossbill an argumentative man. And if she spied a woodpecker, well, then, she never would have a husband. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

The Budget and the Environment

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And with me now is Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Hi, Mark. How are you doing?


CURWOOD: Now, let's talk politics. In particular, let's talk about President Clinton's budget for fiscal 2001. Now, when the president went up in front of Congress and gave his State of the Union, he said that the greatest environmental challenge of the new century is going to be global warming. How do we see this reflected in the budget?

HERTSGAARD: Well, Mr. Clinton is proposing $2.4 billion in spending, which is a 40 percent increase over what Congress approved last year on this, and in particular he wants to put this toward increasing energy efficiency. That is substantively very clever, because that is where you can get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of lowering greenhouse gas emissions the quickest, with energy efficiency. And the individual initiatives there are quite impressive. They want to give big tax credits to consumers who buy these super-efficient new cars. They're talking about up to $4,000 in tax credits to buy, say, the Toyota Preis, which is a hybrid electric that Toyota is planning to price at $17,000. So that's almost a 25 percent reduction in the price of those cars. Now, they're also talking about tax credits for homeowners. They're talking about getting this overseas as well, to increase American exports of energy efficiency. And that's their direction: $2.4 billion.

CURWOOD: Now, the other thing that got a lot of attention in the State of the Union was the president's talk about a lands legacy. What's happened to this in his budget proposal?

HERTSGAARD: Lands legacy, President Clinton very proudly said it would be the most enduring investment in land preservation ever proposed. They want to spend about $1.4 billion to preserve open space, to help protect the coasts around the country. That would be, the large part of the spending would go to coastal protection. They want to fight urban sprawl. They want to save farm lands. And this is an important initiative, no question about that. And they expect to have quite a bit of support for it.

CURWOOD: Mark, this brings to mind the initiative that the House passed last November. They called it the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would dedicate almost $3 billion for a variety of conservation and land protection initiatives across the country. That's more than twice as much money as what the president's talking about. How are these related?

HERTSGAARD: You can't help but see them as related. They're quite similar. The Miller-Young bill that you're mentioning from the House has a fascinating history to it, because the two main sponsors, George Miller from California, an extremely by congressional standards liberal democrat, cooperating with the chairman, Mr. Young of Alaska, who is extremely conservative. And they disagree on everything, but they somehow brought together this coalition, very bipartisan, very local, and their total bill would be $2.85 billion, and it would be permanent. That is a major difference from what the White House wants to do. What would make the House bill permanent is that they want to fund an authorization that would permanently devote all of the oil and gas royalties that the federal government gets from drilling off the coast, would permanently go into this land and conservation fund. What Mr. Clinton wants to do would be an appropriations process year by year.

CURWOOD: But what's in it for the president, though, to propose something that's half the size of what Don Young and George Miller have come up with?

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Clinton always takes the middle road, you know, and I think that he figures that this is what we can get done. And it is true that it is harder to pass an authorization. The Miller-Young bill has some very strong support in the House, but they are the first to admit that the Senate is, as they say, quote, "a black hole." It's unclear what's going to happen in the Senate, so the White House figures okay, well let's push on something that maybe is a little bit more politically feasible.

CURWOOD: At the end of the day, how do you think these two issues, this lands business and the climate change, are going to fare in this year's Congress?

HERTSGAARD: I think these land, whether it's the land legacy or the Miller-Young bill, is going to have stronger, more positive reception for the reasons we mentioned. There's very strong bipartisan support for open space and all of that. The climate change is going to be an interesting political fight, because traditionally, of course, Republicans have been very opposed to the idea that climate change even exists, much less spending money to fight it. However, interesting wrinkle: The White House is expecting strong lobbying support on this from the business community, especially overseas where Clinton wants to spend a little bit of this money. They're talking about a $4 trillion market over the next 20 years in energy efficiency technologies. And you've got firms like United Technologies, Enron, Johnson Controls. These are big companies, and indeed the White House has just briefed them on this, this week. And when I asked the White House official, "Do you expect them to be lobbying to help the White House pass this?" his exact quote was, "I expect them to lobby to help themselves." So there's going to be a lot of strong business push and it'll be interesting to see how Republicans respond to that as the year goes by.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: When we return, the wealth of nature and how we use that capital. Paul Hawken is ahead here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Solar Solutions

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Americans are notoriously pressed for time. But think what life would be like if you had to accomplish all your day's work before the sun went down. All the food cooked, kids bathed, clothes washed. These are challenges that two billion people face each day. One-third of the world's population has no access to electric light. But in the Central American nation of Honduras, many people aren't waiting to get connected to the power grid. That's because Honduras is becoming a hothouse for solar solutions. Ingrid Lobet has our story.

(Motors, hums)

LOBET: If you've ever taken electricity for granted, imagine this. A dimly-lit garage stacked with car batteries. A layer of sulfuric acid coats the floor.


LOBET: This is a battery recharging station, Baterías Electra . It's where rural Hondurans come as often as once every week to juice up the batteries that power their household televisions and radios. General Manager Francisco García says the trip here isn't easy.

GARCIA: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: They come from two or three hours away, and they have to walk part of the way carrying a 50- to 80-pound battery. And I've seen women doing it. I see one woman here regularly who travels for half an hour outside of town. She brings it in on her lap a bus, and then she has to carry it on her shoulder another 20 minutes to get home.

(Humming stops; fade to barking dogs, footfalls)

LOBET: People make that trip from villages like this one. Santa Cruz Minas in northwestern Honduras. It's an area where the wealthy grow coffee and the rest, like everywhere in Central America, grow corn and beans.

(Shushing sounds)

On this afternoon a carpet of corn is drying on a plastic tarp here, creating a makeshift sandbox for two young boys. Nearby is a middle-class concrete block home belonging to Santos Manegas. She says her village has always been dark.

MANEGAS: Todo una vida!![speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Ever since God made rain, they've been promising they were going to bring light out here. But they never have. Now they're saying they'll have it here by March. But I'll believe it when I see it.

LOBET: Whether or not wires ever extend to Las Minas matters a lot less to Ms. Manegas and her family now. They can watch television, news, or listen to music on the radio, without thinking about lugging their battery to the city. Just beside their house is a metal pole supporting a solar panel. It looks a bit like a hand raising a torch. Ms. Manegas says she's happy with the new system.

MANEGAS: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We've never had the slightest problem. We've never been without lights, even when we had four days without sun. On New Year's Eve when we stayed up late, I said I doubt that battery is going to last. But it did. That's when I thought this thing really is worth it.

LOBET: Solar panels, known as photovoltaics, have been popping up all over Honduras. They are roughly the size of a small refrigerator door, slanted upward toward the sun. There is a grid of blue silicon beneath a pane of glass. When sunlight hits the panel streams of electrons pulse toward a storage battery, which is connected to wires and switches inside the home. Patricia Balde Ramos and her mother, Herlinda Rivera , remember when they first saw solar panels at work.

BALDERAMOS: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I saw the other little store across the street, and you couldn't miss it. It was all lit up, and it looked so nice. And I called my mother and said, "They're going around putting in solar panels here." I said, "Mama, how would you feel about paying this bill?" And she said, "Okay." And once we had it, we were really happy with it, because at night the house looks so much better all lit up.

RIVERA: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Having lights, it's like having life. Sometimes you would say to yourself, Puchica, Jeez , I'm so sick of sitting here in the dark and especially when you're older like me and your eyesight isn't what it was. With these lights, I can see more clearly.

LOBET: Photovoltaic energy is ideal for small-scale projects in out of the way places like Santa Crus Minas, partly because the panels need little maintenance and can last up to 30 years. The equipment may seem like an impossible investment for a Honduran family, but surprisingly, the economics of solar seem to work here. John Rogers is vice president of Soluz Incorporated, a U.S.-based firm that's one of the biggest solar concerns in Central America. He says the cost of energy in developing countries can be so high that solar makes sense.

ROGERS: We've got customers who, unlike listeners to this program, who are probably paying ten cents a kilowatt hour for their electricity, our customers are paying maybe $30 to $60 a kilowatt hour for energy to power their radios using dry cell batteries. And they're using kerosene for lighting, and they're using those car batteries for television viewing. If you look at rural areas, rural customers in developing countries, most of them have very small energy needs. And basically, what we're saying is, we can provide them with a service that is a lot cleaner, a lot more efficient, a lot easier to use, a lot safer, and yet is at a cost that is close to what they would have been paying for those other services.

LOBET: Soluz has installed nearly 5,000 photovoltaic systems in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The company began by selling solar panels outright, but is now expanding by allowing people to rent the equipment and pay a bill of about ten to 20 U.S. dollars per month. That may sound like a lot of money, but again, Mr. Rogers says it's comparable to what many Hondurans are already paying for energy. And he forecasts the cost will drop as more and more households join what's becoming something of a solar electric utility.

ROGERS: We want to be able to go far beyond where we're able to do. Based on what people have been spending, we're estimating that we can reach about 50 percent of the customers in a lot of the markets where we're operating.

LOBET: Soluz is by no means the only solar operation in Honduras. International development groups are funding photovoltaic energy here. Donated solar panels are allowing schools to conduct classes at night, and several health clinics can now safeguard medicines that require constant refrigeration. The hot Honduran sun is even being harnessed to clean up drinking water.

WOMAN: (speaking into microphone) Attention! Attention! Attention! [speaks in Spanish]

LOBET: In Villanueva , a poor hillside neighborhood on the outskirts of Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, community leaders announce the advent of water disinfected thanks to solar energy.

(Woman continues speaking)

LOBET: Isabel Rico and Maria Ruiz say that before the solar powered purifier equipment arrived, dirty drinking water was a costly and sometimes deadly fact of life.

RICO: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: If you go to the clinic any day of the week, the majority of the people here have diarrhea and vomiting. The water is contaminated and it makes the kids sick. There's dirty water. Sometimes even mosquitoes breeding. Then you get dengue fever.

RUIZ: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Right now we buy our water from private tanker trucks. The city water department only comes to deliver once a week or once every two weeks. So we have to buy almost all our water from the tankers. Then we have to boil it or chlorinate it, because you have no idea where it comes from.

(Water spills on metal)

LOBET: These women will use the solar purifier to improve community health and provide themselves with a small source of income. They'll sell water to their neighbors for cooking and drinking for one lempira per gallon, the equivalent of one fourteenth of a penny in U.S. money. There are ten purifiers now up and running in Honduras, and they aren't the only examples of how solar energy is helping people to start home-based micro businesses. One of the most common uses for electricity is for blenders at neighborhood juice stands. Diana Soliz , an engineer and general manager of Soluz Honduras, is encouraged.

SOLIZ: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I've been working on photovoltaics here for five years. I'm a witness to the growth of the industry. When I studied renewable energy in 1990 and 1991, I returned to my country and could not find a place to work. Nobody in the country was working with renewable energy. It really began in 1992, '93, '94, when we had a real energy crisis. And now, in January 2000, I believe it has tremendous potential.

(A rooster crows)

LOBET: No one here sees solar energy completely alleviating the need for coal-burning power plants or hydroelectric dams, but for energy experts concerned about the world's growing demand of power, solar projects offer a great hope. People in the Honduran foothills can improve their quality of life without taking a heavy toll on the environment. Patricia Balde Ramos and her mother, Herlinda Rivera .

BALDERAMOS: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We didn't use to have family get-togethers, you know, hanging around talking. Now we do it all the time. We turn on the light outside and talk for two hours.

RIVERA: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: You don't want to be talking in the dark. We might as well go to bed. Whereas now, with the light, we sit with all the children and the grandchildren, even the daughters in law. We sit around and shoot the breeze. The kids are happy, tearing around, playing at night. We're doing really well.

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Santa Cruz Minas, Honduras.

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Natural Capitalism

CURWOOD: The word "resource" has its roots in the Latin word resurgure , which means "to return." A new book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, describes an economic system based on this notion of returning. Its authors argue that with life itself in serious decline, we must begin to create a sustainable economy in which nothing is wasted and resources fulfill their true meaning. To learn how this theory translates into good business, I spoke with Paul Hawken, who coauthored Natural Capitalism with Amory and Hunter Lovins. Mr. Hawken says the prevailing economic system just isn't working any more.

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that in such a system, you use more and more of what we have less of, natural capital, resources in nature, to use less and less of what we have more of, which is human beings. So on the planet today, we have a billion people who cannot work or have work that's so trivial that they can't support themselves and their family. And at the same time, every living system on Earth is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating.

CURWOOD: This book, to put it mildly, is radical in its approach on a whole bunch of things, including even the notion of ownership and appropriate private property. There's a quote -- here it is. "In an economy of service and flow," you write, "an entire company may end up owning little or nothing but accomplishing more, while being located nowhere to sell everywhere." Can you explain to me what you mean here?

HAWKEN: What we're referring to here is an economy where you and I as so-called consumers, rather than owning a TV or a refrigerator, or a car, what we would do is we would pay for the use of it, the services that we want; from a car, its mobility and safety obviously. And that the company that we lease these services from would provide them on an ongoing basis. And were they to not work, then we wouldn't pay for it. But the company is responsible for the physical property, that is to say, the material that's in it, in perpetuity. That is, when we're done with it and it no longer works, we want to trade it in, we want a new one or whatever, it goes back to the original maker, and they have to design and manufacture this in such a way that all the pieces, all the components, all the chemicals, compounds, and metals and plastics are to be reused and reincorporated into industrial cycles. There's no landfill in this world. There's no away here. We know that. But in this system, we actually act it out.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a little bit about this notion of designing things for recycling. You say a key part of this is biomimicry?

HAWKEN: It is, and I want to sort of -- it's not just recycling, because it's really reuse. And what you see in living systems is not ownership per se, but a constant flow of nutrients, of elements, of compounds, of energy if you will, from organism to organism, in a cycle that over time actually creates life. That creates more productivity. That is what we call evolution itself. So biomimicry is about saying wait a minute, you know, we have spiders, you know, that create webs, silk, you know. They're stronger than Kevlar, and they don't use boiling vats of sulfuric acid. But they just do it with digested crickets and flies. In other words, when we start to look at nature, we can see in nature the capacity and ability to manufacture enormously sophisticated, durable, and useful materials without the side effects and without the noxious and hazardous chemicals that are produced in our present manufacturing processes.

CURWOOD: You have a wonderful quote in this book. Dr.Janine Benyus, just sort of tucked away. And it says, "We don't need to invent a sustainable world. It's been done already." That's a very strong point you make and it's not something we always understand, even if it seems pretty obvious. And I'm wondering if you could share with us an example you cite in the book, a rather amazing example. I'm thinking of the sea otter story after the Exxon Valdez spill. Can you tell us that story?

HAWKEN: Yes. A hair cutter had seen on television, of course, the rather sad and doleful pictures of sea otters covered and soaked in oil, and made an obvious connection. That is to say, their fur was soaking up oil at a tremendous rate. And of course, sea otters have a million hairs per square inch, extraordinary fur. And so he tried an experiment. He went home to his little wading pool and he put in some motor oil, and he took hair that was on the floor of his salon, and he'd gathered it and he threw it in the wading pool. And it did the same thing, it soaked up the oil. And it soaked it up immediately. And so he came up with a very brilliant and now being implemented proposal of gathering human hair from barbers and salons and beauticians around the country and then storing it in sacks for the use of oil spills, whether they be in Alaska or Santa Barbara or, you know, off the Atlantic coast. And it's a wonderful example of observing keenly what we see in nature, and then applying those techniques and, if you will, technologies to problem-solving.

CURWOOD: Paul, this book in a lot of ways is about our extraordinary wastefulness, as a country, as a planet, really on all levels from the way we get from one place to another, that we heat our homes, the way that pumps work in factories and businesses use paper. But probably the most important waste you talk about in this, is the way we waste people. The social toll. There's a passage I'd like you to read from your book that speaks to this issue. It's on page 55.

HAWKEN: (Reading) In a world where a billion workers cannot find a decent job, or any employment at all, it bears stating the obvious. We cannot by any means, monetarily, governmentally, or charitably, create a sense of value and dignity in people's lives when we are simultaneously creating a society that clearly has no need for them. If people do not feel valuable, they will act out society's dismissal of them in ways that are manifest and sometimes shocking. Robert Strickland, a pioneer in working with inner-city children, once said, "You can't teach algebra to someone who doesn't want to be here." By this he meant that his kids didn't want to be here at all, alive, anywhere on Earth. They try to speak, and when we don't hear them, they raise the level of risk in their behavior, turning to unprotected sex, drugs, or violence, until we notice. By then a crime has usually been committed, and we respond by building more jails and calling it economic growth. The true bottom line is this: a society that wastes its resources wastes its people and vice-versa, and both kinds of waste are expensive.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering here, the typical business model says that businesses trying to be more efficient often end up firing people in order to do that. So, how does saving natural resources equal meaningful work for people in that kind of environment?

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that we are downsizing. We are laying off people. Every business in the world has this incentive to use less and less people. The point of this is, how do we do it? We use more and more natural capital to do so. So it gets to this fundamental issue. We have very deeply embedded in this industrial system the incentive essentially to make people redundant, which is to say, to waste them. To send them a message, these kids that I was reading about, that in fact we have created an economy where they're not necessary and they're not needed. And so, what we're talking about is an emergent change where the incentives are going to increase the productivity of resources. And to do so, you need more and more people. If you look at the difference in capital investment versus employment, from, say, extracting oil from Alaska and combusting it, or using windpower in the Midwest, the fact is that the capital requirements are about 75 percent less, but there's three to four times more employment. We need more and more people to do that, and that's the promise of natural capitalism.

CURWOOD: I get this sense reading this book that you feel that natural capitalism is inevitable. That the world will simply have to do this. Am I right?

HAWKEN: Yes. We think it is inevitable. Having said that, it doesn't mean that its uptake won't be preceded by tremendous loss. Losses in life, losses in biological diversity, loss of climatic stability. These things are happening, and they're happening quickly. But we do think it's inevitable, because humankind in the past has always responded to the limiting factor of human development. Sooner or later, we wake up, we figure it out. It's just a matter of time before we collectively realize that the limiting factor to our well-being is life. And when we do so, we will invest in increasing life itself on Earth. The restoring of natural capital.

CURWOOD: Paul Hawken is author, along with Hunter and Amory Lovins, of the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

HAWKEN: Steve, thank you very much.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. 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 Maggie Villiger, Hannah Day-Woodruff, Steven Belter, and Emily Sedie . Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science 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 Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Surdna Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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