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

August 1, 2003

Air Date: August 1, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Fast Food O’Natural / Bruce Gellerman

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

Bruce Gellerman reports on a number of entrepreneurs who are out to quench America’s thirst and palate for healthy food served up fast. “Healthy Fast Food” can be organic or just good for you, and it may just change the entire fast food business. (09:00)

EV Obit / Alex Cohen

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

Car companies are looking past battery electric vehicles to the next generation of hybrids and fuel cells. Reporter Alex Cohen spent time with a group of electric car mourners in Los Angeles. (03:20)

Almanac/Atomic Power

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about Oak Ridge National Laboratory which celebrates its 60th anniversary. (01:30)

Research at What Cost

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

Working out the ethics of studies on human subjects is always a challenge. Host Steve Curwood talks to researcher Bruce Lanphear, medical ethicist Jeffrey Kahn, and advocate Kristin Joyner about the choices made in the new lead study Living on Earth reported on in the special, “The Secret Life of Lead.” (10:45)

Stinging Barbarians

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

Commentator Tom Murphy wages an epic battle with a particularly pesky backyard pest. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Deep Sea Chemical Reactions / Cynthia Graber

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that a new type of deep sea vent might have been the origin of life on earth. (01:15)

The Politics of Petroleum / Sandy Tolan

View the page for this story (stream / mp3)

"WORLDS OF DIFFERENCE” PERU GAS: A giant gas drilling project in the Peruvian Amazon was supposed to set a standard for environmental and cultural responsibility. But it lies in an indigenous area and since work began, it's raised questions. Part of a new series "Worlds of Difference" from independent producer Sandy Tolan and Homelands Productions. (15:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Bruce Lanphear, Jefferey Kahn, Kristin Joyner, Sy MontgomeryREPORTERS: Bruce Gellerman, Alex Cohen, Jason Felch, Chris Raphael, Sandy TolanCOMMENTARY: Tom MurphyNOTES: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Coming soon to a strip mall near you – fast food that’s good for you – and your waistline. As Americans become more concerned about health and less happy about getting fat, some organic entrepreneurs are setting out to change an industry.

HIRSCHFELD: As companies like O’Naturals grows, we will force the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings the Wand’s to come to us. And frankly, they’re here. You’ll see them walking through and taking pictures, and frankly we welcome them.

CURWOOD: Also, a public mourning as General Motors pulls the plug on its electric car, the EV1.

MAYER: We are all here today because something has been taken from us. In our hearts we feel some pain. What we knew, what we loved, we know will be no more.

CURWOOD: Those stories and why life may have started on the bottom of the sea this week on Living on Earth, right after this.


Back to top


Fast Food O’Natural

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Let’s face it, we’re fat. Two out of every three Americans are either overweight or obese. And many say the culprit is fast food. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader calls the double cheeseburger a weapon of mass destruction. A growing number of consumers have seemingly gotten the message from the U.S. Surgeon General that the supersizing of America is a public health hazard. Still, the hamburger reigns supreme at Burger King, McDonald’s and the like. But a new breed of so-called “healthy fast food” restaurants is shaking up the nation’s food chain. Bruce Gellerman has our story.

GELLERMAN: Go to a typical fast food restaurant and you might find a poster of a colonel or a plastic clown greeting you. But visit O’Naturals and it’s possible you’ll be met at the door by president and chief executive officer Mac McCabe.

MCCABE: Hello.


GELLERMAN: Do you always greet people at the door?

MCCABE: Yeah. You know, you’re only as good as your next customer, and you can have a great idea for a restaurant, but if the customer doesn’t have a great time there, they won’t come back.

GELLERMAN: O’Natural’s idea is to create a chain of all natural, organic “fast casual” restaurants. Right now it’s the first and only all-organic chain in the nation. Admittedly, O’Naturals is nothing more than a single sesame on a huge bun. There are only 4 O’Naturals. They’re all in New England. McDonald’s, by comparison, has 13,000 in the United States alone and serves millions of customers a day. But Mac McCabe sees those customers as naturals...for O’Natural.

MCCABE: You know, early on people would say, oh it’s a vegetarian restaurant. It’s like, no it’s a natural and organic restaurant.

GELLERMAN: But when somebody drives in – they don’t know this place – and you say vegan, you’re going to scare them to death.

MCCABE: Yes, but it’s sitting right next to a steak sandwich.

GELLERMAN: That’s a steak sandwich made from free range beef. It’s made with organic whole wheat flat bread baked right before your eyes. O’Natural’s doesn’t serve french fries – it serves organic heirloom roasted potatoes. There is bleu cheese, there’s brie. That’s not your typical fast food fare. Nor are Asian style noodles, or wild salmon, or bison burgers. The bison are harvested on Nature Conservancy land by Native Americans.

This may all sound like a throw back to the 60’s, but O’Naturals is anything but a hippie fast food fantasy. This is a consumer-tested business – from vegan soup to organic nuts.

HIRSCHBERG: I think part of what set out to do here is redefine what fast food is all about.

GELLERMAN: Gary Hirschberg came up with the concept for O’Naturals. He’s a legend in organic food circles. Hirschberg started out 20 years ago with 5 cows and an idea. Today, his Stonyfield Farm company is the largest organic yogurt company in the world. Hirschberg wants to apply the same principles to create a chain of healthy fast food restaurants.

HIRSCHBERG: I’m not going to tell you what’s healthy for you, but I am going to tell you that by being organic, there is the absence of bad stuff. I’m going to guarantee you that every drop of dairy in this place is made from cows who are not injected with synthetic hormones. I can tell you that every bite of bread is going to be pure organic.

And you know, a lot of people say organic isn’t proven, but the reality is it’s chemicals that aren’t proven

GELLERMAN : The O’Naturals concept doesn’t stop with food. It includes the restaurants. This one in Acton, Massachusetts has brown leather couches and wood chairs and table. Hirschberg says the restaurants are environmental statements.

HIRSCHBERG: It’s very important that the experience be green. The panels here is post harvest wheat chaff. We even have plastics here, on the tables that are made from recycled yogurt containers. We have all recycled materials. All the wood in the place. The doors and windows are taken from an old Naval air station – swords into plowshares I guess.

GELLERMAN: It’s an ambitious plan but it’s not unprecedented. Healthy fast food restaurants have been tried before. In the 1980s there was D’lites. The lite burger chain quickly grew to a hundred units. Then the company went belly up. McDonald’s came out with it’s McLean Deluxe a few years ago – that was a low-cal burger. It, too, was a belly flop. So were Taco Bell’s recent Border-lite offerings.

Robin Lee Allen is an editor at “Nation’s Restaurant News,” a trade publication that follows the fast food industry.

LEE ALLEN: The biggest problem is that consumers say they want one thing and then they choose not to buy it when it’s available. And it’s the perception, whether it’s right or wrong, that if things that are more “healthful,” they do not taste as good as things that come out of the deep fryer or come out laden with chocolate sauce.

GELLERMAN: But Robin Lee Allen says tastes and demographics are changing. Aging boomers want more than a burger these days. They’re increasingly health conscious, and their kids are more sophisticated about food. It’s a changing landscape, with more fast food restaurants that cater to health conscious consumers


GELLERMAN: Here at Fresh City in Newton, Massachusetts they’re whipping up a Berry Best smoothie. That’s a blend of strawberries and blueberries. I go for one with a so-called Stress Reducer. That adds ginseng, bee pollen and calcium to the mix.

Bruce Reinstein and his brother built their first Fresh City a few years ago. Now there are 11. Like O’Naturals, Fresh City serves up wraps, sandwiches, salads and stir-fries. It even has miso. Bruce Reinstein says the food at Fresh City is fresh, but it’s not organic.

REINSTEIN: You know, it’s nice to have healthy foods, but more importantly it’s nice to give people the options to what they want. Because people want to eat healthy but a lot of people want to feel they’re eating healthy, and it’s really up to them to decide what sauce, do they want sesame noodles on their wrap, or do they want simple jasmine rice. It’s really their choice.

GELLERMAN: But it can be difficult to choose the healthy from the potentially harmful. Fresh City does have many low cal, low fat offerings, but its Teriyaki wrap, while fresh, has as much fat as a Big Mac and nearly twice the calories.

LEE ALLEN: Because something is fresher doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more healthful.

GELLERMAN: Again, “Nation’s Restaurant News” editor Robin Lee Allen.

LEE ALLEN: I think what happens is that people get confused between – you’re talking about two different things –..one side is what’s more healthful, what’s low fat, what’s lower in calories, lower in sodium, lower in cholesterol – and what’s fresh. I mean you can have something that is fresh that is not necessarily low in calories.

GELLERMAN: Likewise you can have something that is organic that’s not necessarily low in calories. Still, public preferences are changing. Customers are telling the fast food industry that fast is no longer enough. They want their food fresh, healthy, and even organic. You can see it in the proliferation of new “good for you chains:” Healthy Bites Grill and Health Express. And you can see it in the reaction of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast food giants.

McDonald’s recently started serving a new line of salads and low-fat yogurt. And it’s entered a licensing agreement with Fresh City. McDonald’s now runs 6 Fresh City outlets. What’s more, McDonald’s is phasing out the use of antibiotics in its meat and trans-fatty acids in its fried foods.

Slowly, but surely, the fast food chains are changing their menus, and the nation’s food chain as well. Before, it didn’t matter so much what kinds of ketchup, cheese, and buns McDonald’s bought from its suppliers. Now it does, according to O’Natural’s Gary Hirschberg.

HIRSCHBERG: When I look at who has now launched organic in the last few year, it’s brands like Frito Lay, Heinz, Kraft. I assure you these folks are not coming to organic because they’ve suddenly had a religious experience. This is because consumers are asking for this stuff. We’re all reading labels.

GELLERMAN: Organics is now a $13 billion a year industry. It’s almost tripled in size in the past 3 years. And Hirschberg says the future is just as bright.

HIRSCHBERG: I think there’s no question we’re going to spawn a whole new generation of restaurants. But as companies like O’Naturals grow, we will force the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings the Wendys to come to us. And frankly, they’re here. You’ll see them walking through and taking pictures, and frankly we welcome them.

GELLERMAN: But they may have to stand in line. The average O’Natural’s restaurant makes more money than the average McDonald’s. If the trend continues, Hirschberg and his O’Natural chain could, one day, eat McDonald’s lunch.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: In the interest of full disclosure, one of the subjects of the healthy fast food story is the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an underwriter of Living on Earth. Our story was independently edited by Ken Bader.

Related link:
The Politics of Petroleum/UC/Berkeley project

Back to top


EV Obit

CURWOOD: As one alternative trend begins, another seems to be nearing its end. In the 1990s, several automakers including Ford, Toyota and GM started making battery electric vehicles, partly to respond to tough emissions laws in California. Plug-in cars were hailed as the wave of the future. But now, carmakers are pushing hybrids, fuel cells and new gas engines and they're looking past battery electric. As drivers watch the leases on their EV1s expire, GM, maker of this electric car, says they have to turn their vehicles in. Alex Cohen reports they’re mourning the loss of their clean, quiet automobiles.


COHEN: It was another hazy summer day in Los Angeles as a bagpipe player and a man riding a Segway scooter led a quiet procession of twenty-four electric vehicles through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. As the cars came to a near silent stop, a black shroud and a bouquet of flowers were gently placed on top of a silver EV1.

This being Hollywood, the mock funeral included a real rabbi to help mourners deal with their grief. Rabbi Brian Mayer said EV1 drivers aren't just bidding farewell to a machine, but to a way of life.

MAYER: We are all here today because something has been taken from us. In our hearts we feel some pain. What we knew, what we loved, we know will be no more. It is a human thing.

COHEN: Filmmaker Chris Paine organized this funeral to protest GM's decision to pull the plug on the EV1. For five years, Paine has loved driving his cute little car safely and swiftly all over Los Angeles. But in just two weeks when his lease ends, Paine will have to turn in his beloved automobile.

PAINE: It's really sad because we have the technology and we have the inventors and the vision not to have this situation and, unfortunately, we're not putting those to work.

BARTHMUSS: The EV1 was a great vehicle for its time.

COHEN: Dave Barthmuss manages energy and environmental issues for General Motors. He says GM spent more than a billion dollars on the EV1. But even so, there wasn't enough interest in a car that seldom drove more than 100 miles per charge. Barthmuss says of the 1000 EV1s made available to drivers in California and Arizona, only 800 were leased.

BARTHMAUSS: General Motors and, frankly, the rest of the automotive industry feels a better way to address environmental and energy concerns is to offer vehicles that consumers will want to buy or lease in extremely large numbers.

COHEN: And those vehicles, Barthmuss says, are hybrids and fuel cell cars.

The economic future may well not lie in electric cars, but losing such a clean method of transportation is still a setback for the environment says Todd Campbell, policy director at the Coalition for Clean Air. That’s especially true in California, where air quality has recently been on the decline again.

CAMPBELL: It's basically shutting the door on an option that could get us to reduce those harmful particulates and smog forming chemicals that are invisible to the human eye, but are very present in our air and creating very unhealthy conditions for all of us in California. That's really sad.

COHEN: Some of the returned EV1s will be dismantled, others donated to museums and schools across the country. f

For Living on Earth, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the ethics of using humans as subjects in scientific research. You're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jason Falkner “I’m Only Sleeping” Bedtime with the Beatles Sony Wonder 2001]

Back to top


Almanac/Atomic Power

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Yo la Tengo “Danelectro 3” Danelectro Matador Records 2000]

CURWOOD: Fifty-eight years ago this week, the Enola Gay dropped a single bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. There were more than 100,000 casualties in this devastating demonstration of nuclear fission. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee supplied the bomb with Uranium-235, and this year Oak Ridge celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Today, atomic power’s emission-free energy still has the potential to cause great harm. But much has changed for Oak Ridge, originally built as a monocrop Uranium farm.

A year after the atom bomb, scientists troubled by military control of nuclear power lobbied for civilian control and won. While many reactors got tied up in debates and budget problems, Oak Ridge focused its energy on harnessing nuclear energy for good: It delivered isotopes to doctors for medical tests and treatments, pioneered bone marrow transplants, studying effects of and treatment for radiation sickness.

And in the late 60’s, scientists at Oak Ridge began studying the effect of fossil fuel and power plant emission, correctly postulating acid rain and global warming as negative impacts on the environment.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top


Research at What Cost

CURWOOD: Earlier this year we aired a documentary called “The Secret Life of Lead” which focused on cutting-edge research about how lead affects developing children, especially its links to delinquent and criminal behavior. We received many letters thanking us for reporting on this topic. But a few listeners were concerned about the ethics of a new study involving about 400 children that, in part, tests whether home lead abatement is effective. Half the kids’ homes will be de-leaded. The other half will be fixed up to prevent household injuries. Some listeners were incensed that only half the homes were going to receive a lead clean-up.

Joining me to discuss the tough decisions to be made when conducting scientific research that involves human subjects is Bruce Lanphear, lead researcher in the new study and head of the Environmental Health Center at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. Jeffrey Kahn is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He also headed a national oversight group that Dr. Lanphear convened on this study. And Kristin Joyner, founder of United Parents against Lead of North Carolina. She, too, took part in the national oversight committee.

Bruce, let’s start with you. It wasn’t only some listeners who had ethical concerns. You first proposed this study to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and some folks there were also concerned that only half the group got lead assistance. How did you respond?

LANPHEAR: Well, in this case what we’ve done is we’ve set it up so that children in both arms of the study – that is, those who get the lead hazard reduction and those in the comparison group – potentially benefit from the study. The comparison group for the lead hazard group get an injury intervention, which we hope will also reduce injuries for that group of kids who don’t get the lead work.

CURWOOD: Now, you had to go through a review process at your own hospital. It’s called the Institutional Review Board, I think – every research organization has one when human subjects are considered for study. How did your own hospital evaluate this project?

LANPHEAR: With the exception that they raised one question, they approved the IRB that we originally submitted. The one concern they had when they spoke back to us was that we were going to be collecting dust from the comparison group homes, the control group homes, and not presenting it back to the family, but rather putting it in storage and not testing it for lead until after the study was complete. And so they asked us to change that. That information is very important to try to better understand why the intervention did or did not work.

CURWOOD: So, what in fact have you decided to do?

LANPHEAR: We proceeded with another aspect of our study, and that was to put together a national oversight committee. And we asked them to evaluate this study, and one part that we asked them to evaluate was that question of whether we should or should not collect environmental measures of lead from the homes of the comparison group.

CURWOOD: And how did that work out? How did this national group that you put together to help you think about this more, how did they respond?

LANPHEAR: Well, first let me tell you a little about the committee that we put together. This is very unusual. The reason we did it was that we recognized that, at least on the surface, this study was very challenging from an ethical perspective. And so we wanted a group of national experts, people who were recognized in bioethics and lead epidemiology, and advocates for children who were lead poisoned, to review this. They determined that the study was necessary to do, that it was an ethical study. They also, in their review of whether we should collect environmental lead samples from the comparison group homes, said that indeed we should. But we should make clear to the families that we were going to collect the data, but we were not going to analyze them until the end of the study, that they would not receive the results of those tests until the end of the study, and that in fact the research staff, including myself, would be blinded to the results. When we took those recommendations back to Children’s IRB, they approved the recommendations of that committee. And we are proceeding with collection of environmental samples of lead from the comparison group homes, but storing them, and certainly the families, in the informed consent process, are fully aware of that.

CURWOOD: Jeffery Kahn, you direct the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, and you were asked to head this independent national oversight committee that Dr. Lanphear set up. How did you solve these questions? What was the rubric of ethics that you used?

KAHN: Well, there’s a long-standing and well built up set of policy requirements for how research can be done in ethically acceptable ways in the United States. And when children are involved, there are even stricter standards, which require that there be no greater than minimal risk for the kids who are involved in the research unless there is some offsetting potential for direct medical benefit to them as individual subjects. So we use that as the starting point, and then the individuals who are part of this oversight committee, as Bruce already mentioned, came from a wide variety of disciplinary expertise. And so we asked a lot of questions. I think that’s probably the crux of the matter. We spent a number of hours listening to Bruce and then asking him to explain various aspects of this study, and I think everybody had a fair hearing about what they thought the issues were. And at the end I think we were satisfied that this was research that needed to be done, was appropriate in that way it was designed, and protected subjects sufficiently while also providing answers to important questions.

CURWOOD: Now, how did you solve or meet your requirement that the risk be relatively minimal, unless, of course, there was a great benefit for the individual? Where did you put in the benefit for the individual in this study?

KAHN: Well, the children who were subjects in the arm of the study who would have abatement in their house were obviously receiving some potential for direct medical benefit in that their lead levels were being reduced. In that arm of the study where that was not the case, where there was not abatement, there were cut-off points, where if there was exposure that was – by blood test – greater than a certain level, then there would be an intervention. The other pieces that we talked through with Bruce was this idea of information about what people could do to help reduce the risk to their children in their home whether or not they were receiving the actual abatement procedures.

CURWOOD: Let me turn to you, Kristin Joyner. You head a group called United Parents Against Lead, of North Carolina. I’m thinking now of the study of the study that was conducted in association with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in which, in some cases, children ended up getting placed in housing where there was known to be lead, and it would be then very likely that they would be exposed to lead. This lead to – well, the thing wound up in court, I guess, to put it briefly, on ethics concerns. Now, you knew Bruce before he asked you to take part in this oversight committee. What were some of your most serious concerns about this new study?

JOYNER: One of the major concerns I had, Steve, was that it did not replicate the Baltimore study. That at no time were children going to be moved from what could potentially be a lead-safe environment into a potentially leaded environment, or a known leaded environment.

CURWOOD: So it was important to you that the study placed no one in any greater harm than they were before the study.

JOYNER: That was one of my major concerns, yes.

CURWOOD: And your other major concerns?

JOYNER: The other major concern was that at all times there was total understanding on the part of families of every bit of, you know, research that was going to be going on as far as what was going to be done with the families. That there was no enticement in the way of monetary amelioration, or additional medical assistance that they normally would not get. Anything given to them that would cause them to feel that they really were compelled to be part of this. I didn’t want anyone feeling compelled.

CURWOOD: How do you feel your concerns were addressed?

JOYNER: I was very pleased with it. You know, we had some wording concerns originally. Some of our main concerns were the reading level, so to speak, of how the consent forms were written out, that it was extremely understandable by anyone, and that all the things considered were going to be done. I really felt very confident going into it. You know, we were looking at Dr. Lanphear’s track record and the people that were working on the project with him, Dr. Dietrich and others. And we felt that they had a good history of performing ethical and, you know, really important research in the area of lead.

CURWOOD: Bruce Lanphear, as the lead scientist here, you believe that low levels of lead affect children profoundly. And you also understand that these effects are irreversible. So you understand that even in your own study, that any kid left behind could be left behind forever. How do you feel about that?

LANPHEAR: I feel bad about that. I think we, as a society, are dealing with one of the crimes of the last century, because we allowed industries to continue to use this toxin despite evidence that it was a poison. A number of countries in Europe banned the use of lead in house paint, for example, in the 1920s. And so when I look at that and I realize this epidemic was preventable, I feel terrible about it. I feel terrible that we don’t do anything for kids until after they’ve developed undue lead exposure. And so that’s really what this study’s about, is to try and demonstrate that we can do it differently, that we can protect children from lead hazards before they become poisoned.

CURWOOD: And for these particular kids in the study who might be left behind, what about them?

LANPHEAR: Well, I guess to some extent there’s two responses to that, Steve. The first is – just as happened when the CDC study that we tried to do five years ago was not approved, or was not, actually, funded – if we don’t proceed with this study, then these 400 children will neither receive changes in their home to reduce lead exposure or reduce injuries. It would be nice if I could wave a magic wand and homes would be safe for children. But that’s not going to happen overnight. And so, even though I’d like to do that, I recognize that public health is an incremental process. And you can’t help everybody all at the same time. And that’s what we have to deal with.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you so much. Bruce Lanphear, Director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Jeffery Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota; and Kristin Joyner, founder of United Parents Against Lead of North Carolina. Thank you all.

LANPHEAR: Thank You.

KAHN: Thank You.

JOYNER: Thank You.

CURWOOD: For more on lead and lead research, go to our website, livingonearth.org. You’ll find an in-depth look at cutting-edge science on the connection between childhood lead exposure and criminal behavior later in life. This new research may hold the answer to why some young adults get into trouble. That’s “The Secret Life of Lead” on our website, livingonearth.org.

[MUSIC: Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five “The Message” Street Jams: Hip-Hop From the Top Part 1 Rhino 1992]

CURWOOD: Also this month on our web site listen to author Sy Montgomery read from her new book, “Search for the Golden Moon Bear”

MONTGOMERY: The golden bear lifts her head and opens her nostrils to our scent. She lives in a flood of odors. The area of her nasal mucosa is one hundred times ours. To her, the world is radiant with scent: she can smell the vapors rising from the soil, the ions escaping from the earth. Her nostrils quiver, pink and wet inside. She breathes in our identities; she reads the stories redolent in our sweat, our breath, our hair. She can smell the eggs in our stomachs. But of her story, we know next to nothing.

CURWOOD: It’s the “Search for the Golden Moon Bear” all this month at livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR president's council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsberg, in support of excellence in public radio.

Back to top


Stinging Barbarians

CURWOOD: Commentator Tom Murphy gets along with most of the stinging insects on his Pennsylvania farm. He’s kind to bumble bees, honey bees, even wasps. But there’s one member of the hymenoptera family he cannot abide.

MURPHY: Not yellow jackets. In late summer, as the social structure of the hive breaks down, yellow jackets become like a barbarian army on leave – attacking men, women, and children in their efforts to gorge themselves on sweet liquid or fermenting fruit. Everyone in my family has been wounded, our youngest child many times.

One summer day I noticed excessive yellow jacket activity in the backyard, and my study of their movements led me to the mouth of their cave in a bank about twenty feet from our door. There I watched, as one yellow jacket after another landed in the fine dirt at the base of the mouth and swaggered into the opening. An enemy fort in my backyard. It demanded action.

So in the cool of the evening, when all the members of the hive should have returned, I went to the mouth of their barrow bearing a teakettle full of boiling water. Like the hero Beowulf shouting a challenge into the cave of the dragon ravaging his kingdom, like Roland refusing to call for help when confronting the Saracen hoards, like Odysseus defying the monstrous Cyclops, I was ready to do battle. I don't remember whether I shouted, "I'll fix you, you bastards!" or not, but as I poured the boiling water into the entrance, I know my heart was full of the animus of years of unprovoked attacks.

Then I placed a rock over the opening and stepped back. From the embankment came the buzz of the many-headed monster; I think the ground may have rumbled. But I realized, the hive was higher than the opening. I’d killed nothing, only provoked. So I retired from the field for the night, planning the next attack.

A long handled spade is a more emotionally gratifying battle tool than a tea kettle, and in the middle of the next day, with the hive population at its least, I placed the tip of the spade in the sod just above the place where the rumbling had been loudest the night before. Positioning my foot on the shovel, I lunged my weight into the earth, ripping through the sod and into the dirt below, and then I pushed the handle away from me to open the hole like a flap of skin. I jumped aside and as the shovel came out of the hole, so did a line of yellow jackets. They became a four foot globe of intersecting orbits over the nest. At nightfall, I was back with the kettle. The stream of boiling water hissed and smoked as it disappeared into the crack in the ground, and when it ended, I stomped the flap closed.

Next morning I removed the stone and waited, but nothing flew out. I grabbed the spade, opened the flap, and jumped back. Still nothing. Only silence. Then a single yellow jacket landed and stopped in front of the entrance hole. She began to scurry about as if lost. As I watched her, I thought again about the Beowulf epic, only this time not about Beowulf himself, but about a character called "The Last Survivor." A desolate and lonely figure, he laments, "My own people have been ruined in war; one by one they went down to death."

Then I killed that last yellow jacket with the rock. I had not anticipated such terrible victory.

CURWOOD: Tom Murphy lives in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania and teaches at Mansfield University.

Back to top


Emerging Science Note/Deep Sea Chemical Reactions

CURWOOD: Coming up: the promise and perils of digging for natural gas in the Peruvian Amazon. First, this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Two years ago, scientists discovered the tallest hydrothermal vent system in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. They named it Lost City, for the Lost City of Atlantis. And now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers explain why Lost City and similar vent systems could have incubated the earliest life on earth.

Previously discovered deep sea hot water vents are heated by volcanic activity beneath the planet’s surface. But Lost City’s heat is generated by a chemical reaction. Seawater seeping deep into the cracked surface of the earth’s mantle transforms a mineral called olivine into a new mineral called serpentine. This reaction produces heat. And the hot waters that flow back to the ocean are rich in minerals and organic compounds.

Scientists say that if these vents can occur without volcanic activity, then there are many more places on the seafloor where microbial life could have started. Also, these chemical reactions are stable, and researchers say they could theoretically be sustained for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years – the constant flow of hot water and minerals and organic compounds could have provided the perfect environment for life to catch hold.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Cynthia Graber

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

[MUSIC: Aphex Twin “Tha” Selected Ambient Works 85-92 Apollo 1993]

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Back to top


The Politics of Petroleum

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

Long ago, in the hot, moist folds of the Amazon, people walked and walked to keep the sun from setting. According to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the Machiguenga Indians believed that if they stopped walking, the sun would fall from the sky. Then missionaries came, with other beliefs.

Soon after, settlers arrived to Machiguenga territory. Today, businessmen, tell the Machiguenga about a new kind of sun - a source of energy below ground - to be transformed into power and money. For energy companies, the vast natural gas deposits on Indian land at Camisea represent energy independence for Peru and major exports to the U.S., where demand for gas is rising. For the ten thousand Machiguenga, it means change, the unknown. Now, this story, part of "Worlds of Difference," a series on global cultural change. It is reported by Jason Felch, Chris Raphael and Sandy Tolan, who narrates the story.

Energy companies hope that by 2004, the San Martin 1 rig will begin pumping gas
into a pipeline that travels 400 miles to Lima’s coast.
(Photo: Chris Raphael)


TOLAN: We move slowly, down river, in the thin light of crescent moon. Three of us North Americans, with three Machiguenga guides, in a long wooden boat powered by 55 horses in the back. We edge along the eddies of a small amazon tributary, looking to the shore for our place to land. Flashlights blink out at us like fireflies.


TOLAN: This is the edge of the new El Dorado, called Camisea. Beneath us lie trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. It’s said this will light up Peru, that this nation will use its Amazon to become an energy powerhouse, and that what’s left over will be turned into liquid and sent by ship to help power gas-hungry California.


MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) They say that there, under the ground, there is light that illuminates, but I’ve never seen it.

TOLAN: Morning now, in a Machiguenga village directly above the vast deposit of gas. An old woman sits cross-legged on a wooden porch.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) I don’t know what this gas is. Is it over there, or is it up above? Where might it be? I don’t know.

While young Machiguenga are hopeful that the Camisea project will bring wealth to their communities, elders such as Teresa Provencia maria remain skeptical. (Photo: Jason Felch)   

TOLAN: Teresa Provencia Maria covers her face with her hand, smiling shyly and looking up at us from her work. She twirls a spool of cotton from her field, pulling out the single white strand to knit a traditional shirt called a cuchma.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) I think in the future, when I no longer exist, there will be hard changes. Now I hear noises in the mountains. What might it be? I don’t know.

TOLAN: The noises, and the changes, come from the men who dig under the ground. Mrs. Maria knows about these men, because her grandson works for them – a boat ride away, at Camisea, where the gas will emerge from the belly of the earth.

MARIA: (Speaking Machiguenga) My grandson already has another way of being. He’s educated, he generates income. But me, I can’t read. I don’t know what money is.

TOLAN: The reporters ask the old woman: so, do you think this is a good thing, this gas project? What do I know? she asks. I have one foot in the grave. I see that the animals have run away, from all the noises. But my grandson has work. Go ask him.


TOLAN: Fifty yards away, outside his one-room shack, Mrs. Maria’s grandson lies back in his hammock. It’s a day off for Wilfredo Marvaredi Vargas, who does maintenance for the consortium of gas companies.

MARVAREDI: (Speaking Machiguenga) I’m happy with the job I have. I don’t want to be lazing around the community. When I’m at home, I’m losing time. I like to work. I have something to earn. I can buy the things I need.

TOLAN: Things, like the stereo in his room, hooked up to a car battery. Things, like money, which helps him court a Machiguenga woman in a village down river.

MARVAREDI: (Speaking Machiguenga) We could be equal to the settlers. They have comforts, they have light. Now that the companies are here, we need to take advantage to improve our houses, to assimilate ourselves into society.


TOLAN: Between Wilfredo Marvaredi and his grandmother: hope for progress, and fear of irreversible change. Mr. Marvaredi tells us he agrees with his grandmother that the animals are fleeing the noise from the machines. All along the river now, there are fewer animals and fish to eat. And many people here remember the 1980s, when gas workers first came to the area and nearly half of the tiny Nahua tribe was reportedly wiped out by epidemic disease. Wilfredo wonders about the price of gas.


TOLAN: But if you follow the gas, by pipeline out of the Amazon, across the frigid Andes, and down to the hazy capital of Lima, you will find officials who promise Wilfredo Marviredi and his grandmother need not worry.

DEL SOLAR: We have done everything by the book, following World Bank standards in the way we treat the environment.

TOLAN: Carlos Del Solar of Texas-based Hunt Oil, the lead company among seven that will ship liquefied Amazon Gas up the Pacific, toward California.

DEL SOLAR: You cut a tree, you have to plant another tree. And what you see is a very professional handling of the environmental and also the relations with the communities, preserving their heritage, their customs.

TOLAN: Royal Dutch Shell once held the Camisea contract. Hammered by disastrous PR after oil-rich Nigeria executed the activist Ken Sarowiwa, Shell promised to make Camisea its model rainforest project. The company promised to leave scarcely a footprint on the floor of the Amazon, but Shell pulled out a few years ago amid questions about the market for gas. People close to the project also say Peru's Fujimori administration was trying to extract bribes. Now demand is up again, both for export to the U.S. and in Peru. Officials in a new government say they’ll convert Lima buses, taxis and factories to run on cleaner natural gas. And the companies that took Shell’s place say they, too, will treat the rainforest with respect, and help the people modernize.

DEL SOLAR: But also giving them the opportunity to form part of the civilized communities, in order to integrate themselves to the community. Join the modern world. By working, being trained, being educated.


TOLAN: Back in the Amazon, in the Machiguenga Villages along the Urubamba River, many people see their choices in much the same way as Wilfredo Marvaredi and his grandmother: to aspire, and get on board, or to remain wary, and simply watch.


TOLAN: We’ve come to Shima’a, a village of muddy paths snaking through thatch huts, coconut palms, bananas and a living pharmacy of plants. To the south, a yellow halo behind a hill: the gas workers camp.

VICENTE: (Speaking Spanish) Work began. And it is no longer like it was.

TOLAN: Village elder Pedro Vicente sits in a folding chair. He remembers Shell and its promises of a model project, but he says these new companies are not following through. Company officials point out they’ve installed new drinking water taps in part of the village. And they paid $170,000 to the community as compensation for putting the pipeline through here. This hasn’t pacified Pedro Vicente.

VICENTE: (Speaking Spanish) We can’t live calmly now. The land, the trees are destroyed. There is change now, a transformation.

TOLAN: The next morning, we can see the transformation, laid bare on a hillside where the pipeline crosses. Alongside a vertical path, a hundred feet wide, lie hundreds of mud-coated trees, strewn wildly like so many toothpicks. Villagers say after the trees were cut, a landslide thundered down and buried an empty house, polluting a major source of the village drinking water. Machiguenga activist Walter Kategari stands in the pounding sun, surveying the damage from above.

KATEGARI: Now the companies with their community relations people always say with the best technology they will remediate the impacts, but it doesn’t work. We have seen the erosion here. We always say, they never do what they promise.


TOLAN: Within minutes, a helicopter approaches us as we walk down from the pipeline route and onto the village soccer field. Suddenly we realize the chopper is
landing. Kids abandon their game and scatter. Everyone’s hair is flying in the rotor wash.


TOLAN: Two pipeline workers emerge to scold us: we needed written permission, plus hard hats and long sleeves, to be walking that pipeline route.


TOLAN: Walter tells them, your people treat us like we Machiguenga are just in your way.


TOLAN: No, no, the pipeline workers say. We’re here because we are concerned about safety. They repeat: you didn’t have permission to walk along the pipeline. The reporters ask the representatives: but, did you have permission to land unannounced in this village? No, they admit.


TOLAN: The workers board the chopper again, and leave. Walter starts to laugh.


TOLAN: Walter says they don’t really care about security. They’re worried that reporters saw the erosion and landslide. And, he says, the Machiguenga accept cultural change; they just want a say in how it’s done.

KATEGARI: (Speaking Spanish) Modernization, development, access to a better life. That doesn’t mean a town has to be destroyed. A culture always alongside modernization. They have to go together.

TOLAN: The workers and their machines are here now, but soon, they’ll be gone. Meanwhile, the Machiguenga will have had a taste of modern life. For some, the long term worry is dependence. A company anthropologist told us the villagers see the gas operation as the big papa. The attitude, he says, is while the company is here, let’s get what we can. The companies say payments to a village like Shima’a was understood as an exchange for a right of way to pass through here, a sharing of natural wealth. Now it seems, villagers increasingly see the money as simply compensation for damages.


TOLAN: We move down river from Shima’a, across the great rapid known as the Pongo de Manique, where it’s said the souls of the Machiguenga go when they die; where they say it rains every time a gringo passes through here. And it did. Back in the lower Urubamba, moving again toward the source of the natural wealth, we learn that the worry over damages is growing.

MALE: (Speaking Spanish): This was the 15th of May 2002. The spill went all the way to Urubamba. And there was another one on the 17th. And the 20th of May. And the 20th of July.

TOLAN: A young man stands in a boat tied to the shore below his village of Chocoriari. He works for the pipeline company – one of five witnesses who told us of a total of six diesel spills from storage tanks used to run heavy equipment. All the spills reportedly ran into the Urubamba. He recounts the first spill:

MALE: (Speaking Spanish) It was during the night. There where special sponges to suck it all up, special ones. We all suffered as well. Petroleum burns. The skin peeled off our hands.

TOLAN: In each case, he tells us, giant black rubber bladders burst. Each contained 4000 gallons of diesel. Now, the man tells us, there are no fish worth eating and less protein for the village. Now another man steps forward, claiming the company told him to stay quiet after he witnessed a spill.

MALE 2: (Speaking Spanish) They told me: You as a peon, as a worker for this company, don’t tell the community what has happened. But, my children, for my family and the future of our community, we are all hurt by this. They say if I talk about this, they will fire me. But I don’t care.

TOLAN: Company workers on the river would not answer the reporters‚ questions. Via email from Lima, an official acknowledged some spills, but said they were contained.


TOLAN: Our last stop is the headquarters for the Camisea drilling operation, a large square of gravel and trailers housing petroleum workers from around Peru and the world. There, in a gully near the bank of the Urubamba is young Wilfredo Marvaredi, in his orange jumpsuit, hacking away at brush with his machete. His grandmother may not understand how light can come from under the ground. Mr. Marvaredi says he doesn’t either, but he does know that money comes from there. And he’s working for that, as fast as he can.

Wilfredo believes that Camisea could bring light to villages such as Segakiato, but he also suspects the project has harmed the environment. (Photo: Chris Raphael)

MARVAREDI: With this money, I’ve bought this battery and light. With the money I hope to make my house better, for when I get married. With the compensation, they should make a neighborhood with houses, and once that’s done they should bring electricity. It’s necessary these days.

TOLAN: Soon, the wells with be drilled, most personnel will Leave, and Wilfredo Marvaredi may not have any more work. If that happens, he says, he’ll get married, grow yucca and banana, and be by his grandmother’s side.

MARVAREDI: I’m very close to my grandma, I cannot go somewhere else. But I couldn’t live like she lived before. It’s different. I’m educated. I need to know how to live in a house, not like she did before, in the headwaters of the rivers.


TOLAN: For Living on Earth, with Jason Felch and Chris Raphael, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbon “Secret Love” Mambo Sinuedo 2003]

CURWOOD: Our story on natural gas development in the Peruvian Amazon was made possible, in part, with funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Rockefeller Foundation. Production assistance from Ellen Yuan. "Worlds of Difference" is a project of Homelands Productions. For more information, visit our website at livingonearth.org.

Related link:
Worlds of Difference: Local Culture in a Global Age

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week - that's Living on Earth. Next week – technology advances are making it less expensive to make saltwater drinkable. And with southern California promising to use less water from the Colorado River, ocean desalination could help quench the thirst.

MALE: As we look out to the future in developing new water supplies, sea water desalination is right on the cusp of being cost competitive with those new water supplies.

CURWOOD: Fresh water from the deep blue sea, next time on Living on Earth. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

We leave you this week in the rusted womb of a bomber.


That’s the title of this composition by Scott Smallwood consisting of recordings he made inside the Enola Gay hanger at Wendover Air Field in Utah.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood, thanks for listening.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stonyfield Farm—organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation. And Tom’s of Maine, maker of natural care products and creator of the Rivers Awareness Program to protect the nation’s waterways. Learn more at participating stores or tomsofmaine.com.

MALE ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth