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

November 3, 2000

Air Date: November 3, 2000


Animal Antibiotics / Diane Toomey

The FDA recently moved to ban two antibiotics from their use in the treatment of poultry diseases. There’s growing concern that agricultural use of these drugs has contributed to increased antibiotic resistance in people. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on what regulations we can expect from the FDA in the future. (02:30)

Decomissioned Nuke / Jeff Hoffman

As nuclear power plants across the country age and their licenses begin to expire, how to dispose of their radioactive wastes is still a controversial and unresolved issue. Jeff Hoffman looks at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant in California, which is one year into the eight year process of decommissioning Unit I. (09:15)

Business Update / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports that beekeepers in France are up in arms over a pesticide they say is causing a sharp decline in honey production. (00:59)

Rail Bikes / Tom Banse

The sport of riding specially-outfitted bikes on railroad tracks is illegal in most places, and can be dangerous. But, a businessman from the Pacific Northwest is hoping to popularize the sport. Tom Banse reports from Portland, Oregon. (05:45)

Hand Me Downs / Julia King

Commentator Julia King tells her own story of the changing seasons and of the hand-me-downs that come with the cold. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about electric bug zappers. Ninety years ago, the first patent was given for an “insect electrocutor.” Descendents of this gadget are used today in suburban backyards -- with dubious results. ()

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs have long been in trouble, but the challenges they face are changing. Host Steve Curwood talks with reporter John Ryan, who was in Bali, Indonesia for the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium. (05:00)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study showing that exposure to lead on the job may lead to progressive brain damage that mimics the aging process. (00:59)

Explorer Mike Fay / Alex Chadwick

n a National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR’s Alex Chadwick profiles Mike Fay. The wildlife biologist is on a trek into parts of Africa that have been uninhabited and unexplored for years. (09:00)

In the Arms of Africa

Colin Turnbull is one of anthropology's most prominent and interesting figures. Through his work, Turnbull gave readers an inside look at parts of Africa they could only imagine. Host Steve Curwood speaks with author Richard Grinker about his new book which brings us inside the public and private life of the renowned anthropologist. (08:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Jeff Hoffman, Tom Banse, Alex Chadwick
UPDATES: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: John Ryan, Richard Grinker


(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The federal government moves to limit the use of antibiotics in animal feed. Also, shutting down an industry. With memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, many are relieved to hear that some older nuclear power plants are coming out of service. But others say these reactors will be missed.

LISITZA: Here is a good, reliable, non-polluting source of energy. Granted, you've got the waste that you eventually have to store for thousands of years. But still, there's nothing going into the atmosphere, there's no smokestack, your eyes aren't burning from being here. And so, it's a very good source of electricity.

CURWOOD: Also, the latest ecotourism fad: rail-biking. Let's go for a ride.

BANSE: It's a very peaceful morning here. Hardly any effort required. (Clanking sounds) There I derailed on a bump, I guess.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Oops. That and more this week on Living and Earth, but first news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Animal Antibiotics

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Antibiotics are routinely given to U.S. livestock to prevent illness, as well as to promote growth. But there's growing concern that this practice has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are now infecting people who eat or handle meat. The FDA recently proposed a ban on two antibiotics fed to chickens and turkeys. It's the first time the agency has moved to ban any drug in order to combat antibiotic resistance. But as Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports, the proposal is just the first step in a review of all agricultural antibiotic use.

TOOMEY: The two antibiotics in question belong to a class of drugs known as fluoroquinelones [phonetic spelling]. They're effective against illness in poultry, but the Food and Drug Administration says this use has led to resistant strains of the bacteria camphlobacter [phonetic spelling] in those animals. In turn, the agency says those resistant strains have infected people who have eaten tainted meat. Camphlobacter [phonetic spelling] infection is one of the most common food-borne illnesses. But the overwhelming majority of antibiotics employed in livestock production are used not to treat sick animals, but to promote their growth.

Last year a number of organizations petitioned the FDA to ban from farming any drug that's used to speed up animal growth, but is also important in human medicine. The European Union instituted such a ban two years ago, but the FDA says it won't be taking a shotgun approach to antibiotic regulation. Rather, the agency will evaluate the risk to human health on a case-by-case basis.

The next drug the agency will look at is virginiamycin [phonetic spelling], used to promote the growth of poultry, pigs, and cattle. Virginiamycin [phonetic spelling] is chemically similar to a relatively new human drug called cynercid [phonetic spelling]. Cynercid [phonetic spelling] is used as the drug of last resort to treat life-threatening infections that are resistant to all other antibiotics. Some fear cynercid's [phonetic spelling] value has already been compromised because of the widespread use of virginiamycin [phonetic spelling] in livestock. The FDA says it plans to set up guidelines for future regulation at a meeting in January. At that point the agency will try to decide on a threshold of resistance, either in animals or humans, that would trigger the need to limit a specific drug's use in livestock.

But the FDA cautions banning some antibiotics as growth promoters may have unintended consequences. When used to help fatten livestock, antibiotics are given to animals in low but constant dosages. Take this away and there could be a rise in animal disease. And in order to treat those illnesses, farmers may turn more often to even more important human drugs. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Decomissioned Nuke

CURWOOD: Nuclear power plants were designed to run for about 50 years. Right now there are 100 or so reactors in the U.S., and some of the oldest are getting ready to be taken out of operation and dismantled. It's a rather mechanical exercise, except for one thing. The spent fuel used to run nuclear power plants remains radioactive for thousands of years. The radioactivity has to go somewhere, and as Jeff Hoffman found on a recent visit to a California plant, no solution is ideal or inexpensive.

(Surf, a child shouts)

HOFFMAN: San Onofre sits at the northern tip of San Diego County, a few miles from the city of San Clemente. Sun-baked mountains tumble abruptly onto a narrow coastal plain, giving way to a long sandy beach. Despite the natural beauty, a first-time visitor can't help gazing at the two giant concrete domes of the San Onofre nuclear generating station, which loom on a bluff a few hundred yards away. But the plant's barbed wire fences and warning signs don't seem to trouble Byron Olson, a local surfer.

OLSON: It's been there since I was a kid. Doesn't bother me at all. A lot of my friends' dads were working on that project when they were building it. And reactor number one's been there ever since I was born. So, it doesn't pose any health hazard that I know.

HOFFMAN: Generations of surfers have been flocking here since the 1950s. A generation from now, the three-reactor plant will likely be gone.


HOFFMAN: Units two and three, massive reactors which generate electricity for two-and-a-half million homes, are licensed to operate to the year 2022. But Southern California Edison, which owns the plant known as Songs, could shut them sooner if the company finds the facility can't compete with oil and natural gas-fired plants in California's deregulated energy market. In 1992, Edison turned off unit one, a much smaller reactor built in the mid-1960s, after deciding it didn't make sense to pay for upgrades mandated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

GOLDEN: As we walk around, you'll start to see the plant just starting to come apart. But we're a long way from completing the job.

HOFFMAN: Spokesman Ray Golden say the plant is one year into an eight-year decommissioning process that will cost $460 million. The money was raised from utility customers who for years have paid pennies from each monthly bill into a special fund. Edison could have mothballed unit one for up to 60 years under NRC rules. Instead, it opted to dismantle the reactor. Ray Golden explains the decision.

GOLDEN: If you dismantle a plant in the year 2000 versus dismantling a plant in the year 2020, it's most likely going to be cheaper now than then.

HOFFMAN: But there's also an important human factor.

GOLDEN: Some of our workers today have been around since this startup and construction of unit number one, so they're into their 60s. And we want to take advantage of some of these workers. If we waited till 2020, they would all be retired and their knowledge base would be gone.

HOFFMAN: Mike Lisitza, assistant plant manager for operations, has worked at Songs for 25 years.

LISITZA: It's something really quite, to watch a plant that, you know, provided a good service and a good source of electricity to California. Of course, now shut down and now being decommissioned. There's a little bit of sentiment into that, of course.

HOFFMAN: When the Air Force veteran arrived to work at the plant it had a staff of about 80 and six security personnel. It was an informal workplace. The engineers used to roast hotdogs on the beach. Today the facility employs several thousand people and is protected by machine gun-toting guards. Lisitza wears a button with a picture of his granddaughter that reads, "My reason to be safe." He laments the fact that Americans have soured on nuclear power.

LISITZA: Here is a good, reliable, non-polluting source of energy. Okay, now granted, you've got the waste that you eventually have to store for thousands of years. But still, there's nothing going into the atmosphere, there's no smokestack, your eyes aren't burning from being here. And so, it's a very good source of electricity. It would be really nice if we built more nuke plants, but I don't think the U.S. population is quite ready for that. But perhaps some time in the future.

HOFFMAN: David Lochbaum, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., says that's unlikely.

LOCHBAUM: In the past, nuclear power plant owners could get guaranteed rates of returns, really, no matter how much it cost to build their plants. Under restructuring and deregulation of electricity, if they can't produce electricity at competitive rates they're going to be forced to close. So that's why nuclear power plants aren't likely to be built any time soon. The entire fleet of reactors will have to be decommissioned. It's only a matter of when.

HOFFMAN: As long as plants properly dispose of radioactive material, decommissioning poses little risk to surrounding communities, he says. But Lochbaum adds that workers do face health hazards.

(Clicking; a door closes)

PIERCE: Some places are dirtier than others, and I ended up getting a dirty spot.

HOFFMAN: Robert Pierce has been working here for nine months, removing insulation from inside the containment sphere. Like all workers who go into the can, the most contaminated part of the dormant reactor, he wears protective clothing and carries a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation. Pierce has just come out to have his boot decontaminated. He says the pay is good and the risks are overblown. Still, he admits his wife worries.

PIERCE: Radiation, you know, like the asbestos. The asbestos, it takes a long time before it hits you. It's like a time bomb.

(Much clicking; a loud beep)

HOFFMAN: You're not worried about that, though.

PIERCE: No. You take as many precautions as you can, and it pretty much eliminates the bulk of it.

(Various ambient voices)

HOFFMAN: As unit one comes apart, every ounce of concrete and every inch of pipe must be checked for radiation. Material that's hot must go to one of a handful of dumps for low-level radioactive waste. In four years, workers will slice through a three-foot-thick concrete shield, cut a hole in the steel sphere, and remove the reactor vessel. It will be shipped via the Panama Canal to a site in Barnwell, South Carolina, the only facility in the country licensed to handle highly-contaminated parts. But nobody yet knows what to do with the most dangerous byproduct of nuclear power, spent uranium fuel, which will remain extremely radioactive and a threat to human health and the environment for centuries.

(A bell rings)

HOFFMAN: Nuclear plants store rods containing spent fuel pellets in deep concrete holding pools. But some of these pools have leaked, including the one at San Onofre unit one. From 1981 to 1986, water leaked out of a stainless steel liner, possibly contaminating soil near the pool building. Songs spokesman Ray Golden says the leaks have been addressed. Eventually, he says, the rods will be put in steel casks and encased in concrete.

GOLDEN: We could store here for another 100, 200 years. The problem with that, in our opinion, would be, it would mean the care-taking responsibilities for future generations. So we think the appropriate thing to do is to geologically isolate it in some rock formation that's remained stable for thousands of years, engineer safeguards around it, and move it from San Onofre to that central location.

HOFFMAN: Golden refers to the Department of Energy's plan to entomb spent fuel from all the U.S. nuclear plants in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But after spending years and billions of dollars, scientists aren't certain they can prevent radiation from seeping into the ground and water. Meanwhile, some activists say on-site storage isn't acceptable, either. Ray Shadis lives on the Maine coast, just downwind of the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant. He sits on an advisory panel monitoring the plant's decommissioning.

SHADIS: We really don't have a huge information base on which to assert that this is going to be safe for 20 years or 30 years or 50 years or 100 years. A hundred nuclear power stations are going to eventually have to be decommissioned. And basically, that means there will be 100 high-level nuclear waste dumps scattered around the country.

HOFFMAN: Stuart Richards, an NRC official who oversees decommissioning, says that overstates the problem.

RICHARDS: Generally, you could say there's really no threat there, as long as the facility stores the fuel in accordance with the regulations and good engineering principles that we've set forth.

HOFFMAN: Still, Maine activist Ray Shadis argues the communities around nuclear plants should take an active interest in decommissioning. That will help make sure the NRC enforces its regulations, and ensure that plant owners don't cut corners to save costs.


HOFFMAN: In Southern California, some residents are paying closer attention. In August, when NRC officials came to San Clemente for a routine public meeting, a few dozen citizens came out to pepper them with questions. They complained they weren't getting enough information about the nuclear power plant that sits just down the road from their homes.

(Voices shout at the beach)

HOFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in Santa Onofre, California.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: Bike riding on the rails. Stay tuned for the latest in ecotourism on Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental business update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

(Music up and under)

Business Update

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: French beekeepers are up in arms over mad bee disease, and they blame a pesticide called gaucho . The chemical is used to coat seeds, and beekeepers say it's making its way through the plant into the bees' nervous system and destroying their sense of direction. Disoriented bees can't find their way back to their hives and die. French honey-makers say production has fallen drastically since gaucho and similar pesticides were introduced in the early 90s. They want to see them banned, and French lawmakers have suspended the use of gaucho in some regions. Gaucho's producer, agro-chemical maker Bayer, is putting up five percent of the cost of research to find out just what's causing the bees to die. But company officials say bees are getting lost in parts of France where gaucho is not used. They defend the product as safe. That's this week's business update. I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Rail Bikes

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Railroad tracks often run through some of the most beautiful backcountry in this nation. And thanks to the need to haul heavy freight, the tracks rarely rise more than two degrees. This makes old rail beds ideal for bike trails. But in Portland, Oregon, one man says why wait for the tracks to be removed? He's designed a rail bike, a pedal-power contraption that fits right on the tracks. And he's hoping it will harken the next wave of ecotourism. Tom Banse reports.

BANSE: Tour operator Michael Rohde casually clambers on a mountain bike. The bike has a bright yellow outrigger and special guide wheels that clamp into the rails.

ROHDE: Hold onto the right-hand brake, which is the one that goes to the rear tire. Put your left foot on the pedal. Swing your leg over, just like getting on a horse, and that's all there is to it.

BANSE: And he's right. No need to steer or balance. He says even blind people have done this. I press on the pedals and soon I and four companions are being lulled by the clickety clack of the passing rail.


BANSE: The strange bikes and their riders draw stares from the curious or surprised. Boat launch attendant Laura Molina strolled over to investigate.

MOLINA: As long as they stay out of the trolley's way. (Laughs) I wouldn't mind riding something like that. That's just awesome.

BANSE: And you said, what did they look like?

MOLINA: Old bed frames.

BANSE: Old bed frames with wheels.

MOLINA: Yeah. Yeah.

BANSE: The municipal trolley line follows the leafy Lamock [phonetic spelling] River shoreline past fancy waterfront mansions and flocks of squawking geese. The trolley tracks are heading gently downhill, now, through a pretty forest. Very peaceful morning here. Hardly any effort required... (Clanking sounds) Nearly derailed on a bump, I guess. Fortunately, a bike going off the tracks is not like a train. After the bike shudders to a stop, I just set it back on the tracks and resume. We soon arrive at the mouth of a curving, pitch-black tunnel.

(Whooing calls)

BANSE: With that behind us, next comes a trestle over a wide gully. I'm looking probably 100 feet down between my feet. I'm going to keep pedaling here at a nice clip. Not that I'm afraid of heights, but it is a little eerie.


BANSE: Guide Michael Rohde is making mental notes along the way to judge if this line would be suitable for regular tours. Roady figures a ten-mile round trip would work well for families. But before any adventure seekers get a turn, he needs to straighten out a lot of details.

ROHDE: We'd have to have an operating agreement. We'd have to work out a schedule around the trolley service, which has been here for a long time. We would have to take a look at trying to come up with some sort of side rails for the trestle that's here. Not that I think the bikes will be flying off of there, but I think it just would be better psychologically for people going across here to do that.

(Trolley bells ring)

BANSE: Rohde stresses that people should attempt rail biking only on an organized tour, to avoid unpleasant surprises.

(A trolley goes by)

BANSE: Rohde got hooked on rail biking after reading about it in a book that described pedal-powered machines. Something about its earth-friendly simplicity appealed to this former Peace Corps worker. Rohde's had sporadic success offering rail bike tours along the Columbia River, at Astoria, and in the foothills by Mount Rainier National Park. Now he's focused on this suburban trolley line. Lake Oswego Oregon City Councilman Carl Rohde, no relation, enjoyed the early morning test ride.

C. ROHDE: The trolley does a great function for the city and its tourism, and this certainly could be a nice complement to that effort. I think a lot of people would take advantage and have a lot of fun on it. It's a great line. It's a nice perspective that you don't get out of your car.

BANSE: The councilman's not the only one who sees potential in the strange rail bikes. The U.S. Agency for International Development is supporting trial runs on the opposite side of the world.

(World music up and under)

BANSE: Michael Rohde has made one trip to Madagascar already, and is planning a second.

ROHDE: The piece down the south that we're mostly looking at runs from the high plateau down to the Indian Ocean. It has 50 tunnels on it and 50 bridges. It's a spectacular piece of railroad engineering. Nobody in their right mind would try and build a railroad there these days.

(Music up and under; fade to large objects being moved)

BANSE: In the shop behind his house, Rohde tinkers with rail bike designs and wonders how to pack his contraptions for the long flight to southern Africa. He talks about creating jobs in isolated villages, as well as moving tourists in a way that's sensitive to the environment.

ROHDE: No matter how much people love the rainforest, when you get that many people there the paths get wider and wider. And this would be a way to not have to restrict the number of people that go through, but give them a way to see it that really isn't going to be damaging.

BANSE: Rohde says the project in Madagascar, and another in Costa Rica, aren't going to make him rich. He figures he'll keep his regular job as a research analyst for a while yet. Earlier, tours Rohde offered cost $30 to $35 per person. If all goes well, he'll resume day trips down American rails again next April.


BANSE: For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Portland, Oregon.

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(Clanking up and under)

Hand Me Downs

CURWOOD: Reduce, reuse, and recycle, the environmental mantra goes. And commentator Julia King, she's getting into the swing of it. At least the reuse part. All one needs is a bit of a deaf ear to the other mantra in America, these days: Conspicuous consumption. Especially when it comes to kids and clothes.

KING: When the days grow shorter, leaves drop from the trees and the air grows crisp. It's that time again. That time is when parents experience the joy of coming together with a child and sorting through clothes for the next season. That time often means the presentation of the environmentally sound, economically wise, age-old hand-me-down.

Hand-me-downs are wonderful clothes with history and personality, and also they are free. Parents, due to their genetic and fiscal makeup, love hand-me-downs. Children, due to an apparent desire to make their parents loony, hate hand-me-downs.

For better or worse, the ritual goes something like this. My up to this minute perfectly healthy daughter puts on a pair of hot pink pants from her cousin, and suddenly she is unable to stand. Her legs wobble. Her feet turn in. Her head begins to swirl in circles. "They don't fit! They don't fit!" she screams like a hyena. I pretend not to notice. I pull out shirts that will match the pants. "Those are great," I say. "Try this shirt." The shirt immediately turns her spine to rubber. Waves ripple through her body as she grabs for the tag in the back. "It's scratchy, it's scratchy!" she says, like Jan in The Brady Bunch itching powder episode. She hops up and down while I fawn over a pair of plaid overalls with a big rip in the crotch. "I can sew that up in no time," I smile, pretending I can sew.

As one torturous outfit replaces the next, time begins to slow. Both parent and child are sure we've been at this for days, months, maybe longer. And then it happens. "You ought to be grateful to have clothes at all," I say. "Do you know there are children with nothing to wear? Even in winter, no coats, no shoes, nothing. How would you like that?" I ask. She would not like that, she concedes. I continue like the parents of untold generations past, like the grownups on the Charlie Brown specials: Wa wa wa wa, landfills overflowing. Wa wa wa wa, exploited garment workers. Wa wa wa, gratitude.

My daughter, rumpled and battle-weary, looks at the heap of clothes on her bedroom floor. Then she looks into my eyes. "Okay," she says. So, she'll learn to live with plaid overalls. Which means I guess I'll have to learn to sew. And it's over. I've done my job, she's done her job. There's nothing more to do. Until spring comes.

(Music up and under: Vivaldi's "Primavera" from The Four Seasons)

CURWOOD: Commentator Julia King lives in Goshen, Indiana. She comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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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 reporting on science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: It's not just local any more. Scientists are saying the most fragile parts of the ocean, the coral reefs, are in trouble all around the world. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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

The Living on Earth Almanac

(Buzzing) CURWOOD: Take two electrically-charged wires, add one insect to complete the circuit, and...

(Bzzzzt! Fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Ninety years ago, a patent was issued for the first electric insect destroyer. We know it better today as the bug zapper. Early versions of the device were used on farms to rid the barnyards and back porches of flying pests. Now the familiar zap is heard at barbecues and pool parties. One entomologist estimates that in one year, four million bug zappers zapping for 40 summer nights electrocute 71 billion insects. Most of the critters executed are actually benign or beneficial bugs. There's some evidence, in fact, that zappers don't cut down on nasty stinging or biting insects, and may even attract bugs to the area. So, putting up bat boxes and bird houses may be more efficient and certainly a kinder, gentler way to discourage insect pests. After all, each time a bug is annihilated, it showers body parts and microorganisms out into the evening air. Ponder that the next time you hear a zap. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Coral Reefs

CURWOOD: Scientists from around the world have just wrapped up the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium held in Bali, Indonesia, this year. In the past, this gathering has focused on local problems involving reef protection. Problems like over-fishing, tourism, and farm runoff. Seattle-based journalist John Ryan attended the conference. He joins me on the phone from Bali, where delegates to this year's coral reef symposium have broadened their agenda.

RYAN: This year's meeting is for the first time, really looking a lot at global forces. Things like climate change. And that's because in 1997 and '98 we saw the biggest El Nino on record and a huge wave of coral bleaching and coral die-off affecting corals all around the world.

CURWOOD: What is coral bleaching?

RYAN: Coral bleaching is what happens when corals and algae they live together with get stressed out. Corals tend to spit out the algae and the algae is what gives color to the coral reefs. And once they're spit out, the corals turn white. And algae are what provide food for corals. And when they're spit out, well, the corals are starving. If the stress that causes them to spit out the algae doesn't stop, well, then they'll die. And we saw a lot of reefs bleaching and some of them dying in '98, more than we have ever seen in the past.

CURWOOD: What do the scientists there attribute all this coral bleaching to?

RYAN: There's some dispute about it. But the majority of scientists here are pretty convinced that coral bleaching is one of the first signs of global climate change. Corals can only live in a certain temperature range, just like you or me. And in '97 and '98 we saw some of the warmest water temperatures on record. And a lot of the corals responded by bleaching.

CURWOOD: I have to ask: Why hold this major conference on coral reefs in Bali? Of course, there is the advantage of being in this beautiful place on a beautiful beach. But why?

RYAN: It is a beautiful place, and the conference is at this very swank beachfront resort. So there's some irony there, and actually it's kind of surreal, I guess, to have these conversations about community-based conservation of coral reefs in very poor nations when we're at a conference for -- I don't think anybody from an Indonesian community could actually afford to be here. But why Bali? Well, Bali is in the heart of Indonesia, and Indonesia is really the heart of the world's ocean life. It's the country with more species than any other in earth, in terms of underwater things. And it's just kind of ground zero for underwater diversity and for its destruction.

CURWOOD: Scientists hold meetings and conferences all the time. But will this conference have any impact, any benefits for coral reefs after the talking is over?

RYAN: Well, it's definitely had some impacts already, maybe not anticipated. But here is an example. Bali in Indonesia is the heart of the sea turtle trade. Lots of sea turtles that are hunted from coral reefs all around the country are brought here for consumption. Amazingly enough, just up the road from here you can buy sea turtle shish kebabs from street vendors. But Bali's government, just before the meeting started, they arrested one of the kingpins of the sea turtle trade in Bali. It was actually the first arrest ever. And apparently it's because they wanted to clean up their image a bit before all these biologists from around the world came in and descended on their little island. So that's one good effect. But on the flip side, there is a really fascinating case of how, in Komodo National Park, which is famous for the dragons, of course, but they also have some of the best scuba diving, some of the best coral reefs anywhere, there's been just a huge outbreak of fish bombing in the past week. There's been about 20 blasts reported, each of which, when a fisherman throws a bomb onto a reef, they take out a chunk of reef about the size of a car with their blast. And this blasting has been because the local fish bombers, they know the authorities are out of town here at this meeting. So they're having a field day right now.

CURWOOD: And they bomb the coral reef to do what?

RYAN: They throw their little homemade bombs to explode on the reef. And the fish that are within the explosion zone, they get stunned or killed and they float to the surface. It's a very quick and easy way to catch a lot of fish fast. But unfortunately, it totally destroys the reef around it.

CURWOOD: And those are hardly the only bombs that are being used in Indonesia these days. There have of course been a number of incidents that have been in the news. Do scientists really expect a nation that's having so much political turmoil to be able to focus on the question of protecting coral reefs and fish?

RYAN: Well, the political problems definitely take first priority here. But it's not like coral reefs are some kind of beautiful luxury item for foreign tourists. They're really something that Indonesians depend on. Fish is the most common source of protein here, and coral reefs also protect lots of coastline. So, human welfare here does depend on keeping coral reefs in good shape. And lots of local communities are very aware of this. They're working very hard to protect these reefs. And attention from the outside world of these scientists and others that have been here can really, I think, only help the efforts of a lot of these local people to try to protect these really important ecosystems.

CURWOOD: John Ryan, thanks for taking this time with us today.

RYAN: My pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: John Ryan is a reporter based in Seattle and author of Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet.

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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: Inside the life of a man who redefined the social science of anthropology. Colin Turnbull is next on Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: The harmful effects of lead on children are well known. Now comes word that occupational exposure to lead may cause progressive brain damage. Scientists followed a group of former lead manufacturing workers for four years. They measured the workers' lead levels in their bone and then tested them for such things as manual dexterity and verbal and visual memory. The researchers found that compared to a similar but non-exposed group of workers, the test subjects suffered greater declines in memory and learning ability. In fact, the more exposure to lead, the greater the decline, even after as many as 16 years since the last exposure. The researchers say the average decline in ability from lead exposure amounted to five years worth of premature aging of the brain. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us as letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15 each.

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Explorer Mike Fay

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In central Africa a wildlife biologist is on one of the great treks of our time. He's walking more than 1,000 miles across what may be the world's last great wilderness. Along the way he's been recording his adventures for the National Geographic Radio Expeditions. NPR's Alex Chadwick reports.

(Ambient sounds: insects, birds)

CHADWICK: His name is Mike Fay. He created the project he calls mega-transect, as in big walk.

FAY: We've been out here for two months now.

CHADWICK: That's him. From his audio journal recorded after the walk began, more than a year ago.

FAY: It included 60 days of tromping out in the forest. That's a long time, certainly the longest time I've ever been out in the woods.

CHADWICK: He's been out longer now, in central Africa. A huge region, largely uninhabited except by tropical forest and rivers and wildlife.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: The audio journal is one of the last chores in a long, tiring day. Mike Fay is often worn out.

FAY: This way of life, this forest, the wild place, the trees, the whole world out here. It's a kind of record of what it was like.

CHADWICK: He's lived in central Africa for more than 20 years, in the Peace Corps and then studying gorillas. Now as an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His mega-transect project, go see what's there on foot for 1,250 miles through what many of us think of as the worst terrain on Earth. After all, crowded as the world is, no one chooses to live here. It's hot, swampy, thick with disease and bugs. This is the jungle.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: A photographer for National Geographic, Nick Nichols, is along for part of the walk. At his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago, I asked about his friend Mike Fay.

NICHOLS: Just so your listeners know, this is not some physical specimen. You look at this guy, and he looks just like the rest of us and maybe even not as much as the rest of us. He's got this incredible force of will to just push, push, push.

CHADWICK: Nick Nichols takes pictures. The magazine helps pay for the expedition. The first of three articles on the mega-transect is in the Geographic that's out now. Mike Fay takes notes and collects data that his photographer friend says conservationists and African governments will be using for decades.

NICHOLS: The rule is, everything that's on the path goes into the notebook, as far as elephant dung, gorilla dung, things that animals have been eating. He's writing down all the tree species and stuff like that. And he does record, when he runs into monkey groups or certain kinds of birds, he'll make sound recordings.

(Bird calls)

CHADWICK: Another entry in Mike Fay's audio journal.

FAY: Today is the seventeenth of October, 1999. We walked quite a bit today.

CHADWICK: There are no roads, no foot paths, only animal trail. In the forest, everything and everyone follows where the elephants go.

FAY: Shortly after Ogomo [phonetic spelling] camp, the elephant trails became dominant. We saw one rubber tree that was broken already. After that we haven't seen any sign of human beings at all, just lots of elephants.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: By now, Mike Fay has learned to imitate elephant calls, a useful skill for unexpected encounters like this one he recorded as it happened and later described for his journal.

(Flowing water)

FAY: There we've seen the elephant. He's about ten meters in the woods here.


FAY: Anyway, the elephant's sitting there. It's asleep and when we first see it. A little bit confused and not quite sure what's going on. It's like in the old elephant rumble.

(Thunder; Fay rumbles)

FAY: That soothes him right down into just standing. He keeps trying to get scent, you know, just trying to see if there really is an elephant or what the hell's going on. Gave us one little bluff kind of slip of the trunk. Nothing else, and then finally he got our scent, perked his trunk up, and kind of realized, okay, humans. And I turned to calm him down as he was bolting but it was too late. But he stuck with us for about five minutes, at about 20 feet. That's pretty good.

(Thunder; rain)

CHADWICK: No one could journey alone in this wilderness for long. Dr. Fay began with a dozen or more pygmies from a village in the Republic of Congo. Trackers and bearers, some of them friends for more than a decade.

(Various voices)

CHADWICK: They are used to hardship, but no one they know, probably no one ever, has tried a trek like this one.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: Up at five, break camp, pack, walk, stop for notes and data, move on. Find water, tend wounds. The miles and the days go on.

FAY: The chiggers are what they call sand fleas. They look just like your old dog flea. They get into your skin, especially around the toenails, and burrow down and stick the abdomen in the flesh. And that's where they get the nutrients to grow their egg sac.

NICHOLS: Mike particularly has a bad problem with foot worms, which I do, too.

CHADWICK: Photographer Nick Nichols.

NICHOLS: What it does is, it eats a little trail through the flesh. And they'll sometimes live in you 11, 12, days. It's really itchy, but the big problem you get is infections. And you're just going down.

CHADWICK: But these guys don't stay down. By December, Mike Fay and the pygmies are deep in the Congo forest where no one in living memory has been. The animals they meet are unafraid.

(Ambient forest sounds)

FAY: The rubber trees here haven't been tapped. The monkeys seem to be naive and very friendly. No indications of humans having been up here. There are no machete cuts or any kind of indications that human activity has been recent.

CHADWICK: The mega-transect is about a qualified field scientist recording what's actually here. What parts are most important to protect.

FAY: There is a vine forest along the Libway [phonetic spelling] River.

CHADWICK: Central Africa is poor. There's little to sell but mining claims and logging concessions. And now, there is the technology to use them.

FAY: They come down there with the bulldozers and their skidders and their teams of guys who are there to cut, and they're hunting like crazy, too. And they'll destroy this place. That's for sure. The elephants will now be the prey instead of the happy-go-lucky guys that they seem to be at this point in time here. Very calm, these elephants. You know, they don't look terrorized at all.

(Animals calls)

CHADWICK: Dr. Mike Fay on his mega-transect across the Congo Basin.

FAY: I just don't want to go outside. I want to stay inside the forest.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

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CURWOOD: Our story on ecologist Mike Fay was produced by Van Williamson. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.

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In the Arms of Africa

CURWOOD: Colin Turnbull studied anthropology at Oxford, where he was taught to see aboriginal societies as windows into our evolutionary past. But when Colin Turnbull traveled to Africa to study pygmies, he found their present-day life as spiritual beings to be as important and informative to us as their past. As a best-selling writer, Turnbull brought millions of people inside the lives of the people of Africa. Now, author Richard Grinker brings us inside the life of Colin Turnbull in a new book, In the Arms of Africa.

GRINKER: Colin Turnbull was destined to become a traditional anthropologist, but he did nothing of the sort. He became one of the most unusual anthropologists of this century. He was deeply influenced by Eastern spirituality, in particular Buddhism and Hinduism. And so, the kind of work he did for Oxford was terribly unsatisfying to them. When he went to Africa, he didn't see a kinship system or a political system to be described. He saw a society that lived in total harmony with their environment. A society whose religion was based on the rainforest and its bounty. He did not see a society that offered much in the way of science, but it certainly offered something in the way of truth. But it was a different sort of truth, a human core, an essence of humanity.

CURWOOD: What does conventional anthropology think about emotional and spiritual questions?

GRINKER: It's a very good question. They are conflicted about it. And often anthropologists are quite dismissive of work such as Turnbull's. Colin Turnbull is probably, next to Margaret Mead, the best-selling anthropologist of all time. And yet, anthropologists have questioned the value of his work as science. Now, on the other hand, everybody knows that our work is subjective, that our work is deeply felt, and that we often write for our own audiences. And Colin Turnbull's audience was not anthropologists. Colin Turnbull was writing for the masses. He wanted to sell millions of copies of books, not to make money so much as to show the world that anthropology was a pilgrimage. It was a spiritual path. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is a concept called cultural relativism. What cultural relativism means is that we don't judge other cultures according to our own standards and values. We try to see things through the eyes of those to whom that culture actually belongs. And a lot of anthropologists, including me, have not practiced cultural relativism with respect to Colin Turnbull. We've not looked at what his perspective was, what his motivations were, his reasons for being an anthropologist.

CURWOOD: And those reasons were?

GRINKER: And those reasons were in order to establish anthropology as a spiritual pathway, rather than as a pathway to science. Now, it's not that he didn't believe in truth. He believed in truth, just not one truth. And sure, you could believe that you were better suited to spout one version of the truth as opposed to another, and you could try to convince other people that your version of the truth was better. But you shouldn't be dogmatic about it, because who knows whether the next day your truth is overthrown?

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose so many of us bought or at least were asked to read The Mountain People and The Forest People, his two very bestselling books? I guess The Mountain People is the bestseller of the group.

GRINKER: Well, people loved reading The Mountain People and The Forest People because they were not written for an academic audience. But they also loved them because the books were fundamentally about what happens to a human being when they're separated from their society. In the first instance with the pygmies, as depicted in The Forest People, Colin Turnbull found the best of humanity in himself and in others. In the second example, about the Eke [phonetic spelling] of Uganda, called The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull found the worst of humanity. He thought that the Eke [phonetic spelling] were evil and he saw himself becoming an evil person. In fact, I was just talking to a friend, I'm sure many listeners are, about the television show Survivor. And I was saying, you know, Turnbull would have loved Survivor. Anthropologists hate the kind of primitivism that was depicted on that show with phony idols being produced and the invention of a tribe and so on. Turnbull would have loved it. He would have loved any opportunity to separate yourself from your own society so that you could get to the core of who you were, and to the core of humanity. He would have loved that aspect of it. Because a lot of the show was about people doing some self-exploration and trying to figure out, is the world defined as some sort of a Hobbsean war against all, or some good social contract?

CURWOOD: Richard Grinker, what was it that first drew you to writing about Colin Turnbull?

GRINKER: I was studying the pygmies, myself, in the mid-80s. And I lived with the pygmies and the farmers who live in the Uturi [phonetic spelling] rainforest. And I hated Turnbull's works, frankly. I pretty much set out to disprove Turnbull, to show that he was wrong. To show that his depiction of the world there was romantic and idealized and exaggerated and unscientific.

CURWOOD: You hated his work.

GRINKER: Oh, I absolutely did. I thought he was a hack. And in fact, Turnbull wrote me two letters while I was in the field. I answered neither of them. I was not only of the opinion that he was a bad scientists, I was also pretty self-centered and kind of egotistical at that point, and I just didn't even answer these letters when he told me that I should do this or that in my field site. And so, I came back to the United States and I wrote a book, which was highly critical of him. And when I wrote my second book, which was about Africa and is a textbook, a friend of mine said, "You know, you should dedicate it to Colin Turnbull, because he was really the one responsible for influencing so many people to respect African cultures, and to bring knowledge about Africa to the west. And I thought about it a lot, and my friend really influenced me, and in 1996 I dedicated a book to him.

CURWOOD: What was the turning point?

GRINKER: The turning point was really that one conversation I had with my friend, in which I started to develop that cultural relativism that I had just spoken of, where now I was able to see Turnbull through his own eyes, to empathize with him, to see what he was trying to do. And he wasn't trying to do what all of the other anthropologists were doing. He was trying to find something else, trying to learn, trying to teach. In a way, a very committed and dedicated, almost religious way, that we rarely see these days.

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but you're a teacher. You teach anthropology at George Washington University, in the spot that was once held by Colin Turnbull himself. What's the big lesson that you ask students, you ask us to take away from your study of the life of Colin Turnbull?

GRINKER: I ask my students to look at Colin Turnbull, to discover the diversity of pathways we can take to knowledge. That we don't have to think only in terms of the scientific method. That social science, let alone anthropology, is not just an adherence to a particular method. It can be an art, a creative art, a way of exploring different aspects of our humanity. So I hope that when students look at Turnbull, they think, wow, here's a guy who did things his own way. And when students look at his life, his personal life as opposed to his professional life, I hope they see the same sort of thing. He wasn't an activist, he wasn't out there raising money being a community organizer. Colin Turnbull was an activist only to the extent that he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. And he wasn't going to let anybody tell him what to do. I think he's a courageous figure in that regard.

CURWOOD: Richard Grinker is associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is author of the new book In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull. Thank you, sir.

GRINKER: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, we return to the Arctic where rising temperatures and loss of arctic ice portend a change in global ocean currents, with serious weather implications for billions of people in the south.

MAN: People who study climate have always thought that, that climate is kind of a slow thing. But these climate changes can happen very quickly. In fact, they can happen within a decade. It means that some of the impacts that we're talking about may happen suddenly to us, or to our children, and these are not things that we will have a chance to adapt to very quickly if that's the case.

CURWOOD: The unfrozen north, next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and a fond farewell to Bree Horwitz, who's off to the bright horizon of the digital revolution. We had help this week from Carly Ferguson and Jessica Camp. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is 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 W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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