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

January 9, 2004

Air Date: January 9, 2004



Environment 2004

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The environment is not at the top of the list of most voter concerns this election year. But Jeff Young reports some Democrats are betting that Bush’s environmental record will motivate enough people on Election Day to make a difference. Host Steve Curwood talks it over with former Clinton Administration official Carol Browner and Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway. Steve also turns to two members of the Green Party about whether or not the Greens should run a presidential candidate in 2004. (26:00)


Good Vibrations

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Kuan Wang, chief of the lab at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculorskeletal Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland about the special acoustic properties of the mating song of the male toadfish. They may offer clues to human nervous and muscular system diseases. (04:30)

The Top Banana / Bob Carty

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The banana is the perfect fruit. It’s sweet, it’s good for you, it isn’t messy, and you can tell when it’s ripe. But the banana’s history is far less sound; it’s been the cause of rebellions, and military coups, and, of course, a lot of bad jokes. And now, it seems, the banana as we know it could disappear. Bob Carty tells us all we want to know about this fruit (including the fact that it’s actually an herb). (15:30)

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HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Carol Browner, Kellyanne Conway, Blair Bobier, Dan Coleman, Kuan Wang REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Bob Carty


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. If your house is like mine, then almost everyone loves to eat some bananas. But back in the Victorian days when the banana business was just getting started, some people didn’t think the banana was fit for the dinner table.

JENKINS: Well, the shape of the banana is a little difficult for some people.

CURWOOD: But few could resist the industry’s relentless marketing effort and now…

PLOETZ: International commerce in bananas is worth about five billion a year…

CURWOOD: There’s just one thing: bananas grown in Central America could be wiped out by a fungus from Asia, and if it strikes, it could be the end of the banana as we know it.

MARTINEZ: It will be a disaster.

SONG: Yes, we have no bananas, bananas in Swenton, PA…

CURWOOD: The once and future banana, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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

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Environment 2004

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

We begin this week’s show with a quote: “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general, and President Bush in particular, are most vulnerable.”

That bit of insight comes not from an environmental group or a Democratic hopeful, but from one of Washington’s top Republican strategists. His comment in a leaked memo stirred debate on the politics of environmental policy. And some campaign ads already on the air show the environment will be a campaign issue.

TELEVISION AD: President Bush – he’s raised millions from corporate polluters. Meanwhile, he’s weakened clean air standards, letting the power industry pollute the air we breathe, made taxpayers pay more to clean up toxic waste (fades under)…

Carol Browner

Kellyanne Conway

CURWOOD: But how much of environmental concerns really translate into votes come election day? We’ll hear some informed but very different opinions on that from our studio guests today: Carol Browner, the EPA administrator for President Clinton, and Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist and pollster. And also joining the discussion is our Washington correspondent Jeff Young. Hi, Jeff.

YOUNG: Hi Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Good. Jeff. It seems from these television ads we heard that at least some groups are going after President Bush on this issue. Who’s leading the attack here?

YOUNG: Well, most of the major environmental groups in Washington, it seems, have cranked up some rhetoric about the Bush record. Especially those whose tax status allows them to do electoral politics, groups like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. But most interesting, I think, is a new group created specifically to target the environment in order to advance the Democratic candidate in the fall. And that’s a group called Environment 2004.

CURWOOD: Now, I remember hearing about the formation of this group. Who’s involved. Who are they?

YOUNG: Well, it’s some familiar names, some former Clinton administration officials, who are upset with the direction that environmental policy has taken since Clinton left office. Their headquarters is just about a two block walk from the White House. That’s where I caught up with the group’s director, Aimee Christensen. A few weeks ago, she was still unpacking office supplies and computers.


CHRISTENSEN: This is our main work space. We’ll be undoing the boxes – we’re getting tool boxes in to put pictures up on the wall so we can really have a real office that’s functional, ready to go.

YOUNG: Christensen is setting up shop amid dingy carpet and peeling paint in a less than fashionable Washington office building. The setting might be humble, but the group’s goal is lofty: they want to change the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by targeting voters with an environmental message.

CHRISTENSEN: And this can be the issue that tips it over the edge for them if they really understand how radical this administration has been, and there is this vast difference between the Republican leadership and this administration and the

Democratic leadership. That could be the argument that makes a difference for them in the election.

YOUNG: Environment 2004’s leadership reads like a roll call from the Clinton cabinet. Group chair Frank Loy was Clinton’s under Secretary of State for Global Affairs; board member Bruce Babbit was Secretary of the Interior; and the group’s leading speaker so far is Carol Browner, who led the Environmental Protection Agency through both Clinton terms.

BROWNER: We had eight years to really think about how best to go about securing clean air, clean water, toxic waste cleanup – how to do this job of public health and environmental protection. We are very concerned – alarmed, if you will -- that the kind of progress we were able to secure is being undone.

YOUNG: The environment seldom ranks high as a concern among voters when compared with defense, the economy, health care or education. But Democratic pollster

Celinda Lake says the environment is an area where the electorate is already uneasy about Bush.

LAKE: And people think that Bush is too tied to big business. When you’re looking for ways to illustrate that – that he’s really not on your side, that he’s too tied to big business and the wealthy – then the environment ends up being one of the more powerful areas where you can illustrate that.

YOUNG: But will that argument reach the small number of swing voters up for grabs?

Jerry Taylor, of the libertarian CATO Institute, says no.

TAYLOR: It’s very hard for me to imagine the voter who might otherwise be inclined to vote for George Bush, but who won’t do it simply because of a reform of new source review standards of the Clean Air Act [laughs]. I think what’s going on here is that there are people who have money who want to defeat Bush, and they’re looking for avenues of attack, and the environmental front is a good avenue of attack for them -- or at least that’s how they see it.

YOUNG: Taylor says that’s really no different from what politically active environmental groups do every four years. But League of Conservation Voters president Deb Callahan says 2004 will be different because Bush is different. The League gave Bush an “F” on its annual scorecard – a first – and Callahan says the sense of unity and anger among conservation groups is unprecedented.

CALLAHAN: Environmentalists are absolutely apoplectic about what the Bush administration is doing to our body of environmental laws and regulations. And I think it’s gonna be a sea change for environmental movement this election, and I frankly think the White House has awakened a sleeping giant and it isn’t very jolly.

YOUNG: The anti-Bush groups are betting a close election could come down to a few key voters in contested states – states where folks care about the outdoors, where scenic beauty and outdoor recreation support the economy – a state like Florida. Environment 2004’s first campaign focuses on Florida. They’ve detailed Bush policy impacts on the Everglades and coastlines for the Florida press, and had a strategy meeting with Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Graham. And they’re counting on Carol Browner’s appeal in her native state.

BROWNER: Many Floridians care deeply about the quality of life, the quality of their environment – that’s, in part, why they choose to live in Florida. I think it’s important to remember though, that no election is about every voter. What Environment 2004 will be focusing on is those who have not made up their mind and are inclined to think the environment is an issue they should consider in making up their minds.

YOUNG: Four years ago, 97 thousand environmentally-minded Floridians did not vote Democratic. They voted for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader, something Browner’s group would like to avoid this year. So Environment 2004 has a lot to do: energize the party’s core supporters, fend off attacks from the Green left, capture swing voters in battleground states. Oh, and one more thing – collect and spend money that the Democratic Party can’t.

CURWOOD: Hey, thanks for that report, Jeff. And on your last point there, how much will the recent changes to campaign finance laws affect efforts like this, do you think?

YOUNG: Well, the McCain-Feingold law, of course, changed the whole landscape of political fundraising, specifically – or most importantly, rather – with the limits on the soft money contributions that parties can accept. Now, groups like Environment 2004 are in a position where they can take advantage of that, at least theoretically. They fall under a section of tax code that allows them to accept those soft money donations, and then they can also use what you might call the hard money, the direct donations, to air ads right up through the last days of the campaign.

CURWOOD: Well, Jeff, stay with us as we discuss this a bit further with our guests today. We have with us now Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator for President Clinton, and also Kellyanne Conway, who is a Republican pollster and strategist. Both of you, welcome to the program.

CONWAY: Thank you very much.

BROWNER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: So, Ms. Conway, what do you think? How much are Republicans vulnerable in environmental issues?

CONWAY: For any public official or candidate, ignoring the environment is hazardous to your political health. There’s no question that Americans care very deeply about the environment. That’s a fundamentally different issue than whether the environment has the type of political currency to make a difference in any one race, particularly a national election that seems so charged, if not polarized, by issues other than the environment.

Nobody can dispute that in all of the national polling, the environment is conspicuous by its absence. It is traditionally at one percent, two percent; sometimes it breaks two and a half percent in terms of the responses achieved through the open-ended question “what is the most important issue facing the country today?” Or, more to this point, “what is the issue that is going to be most important to you when deciding for whom to vote for president in 2004?” The environment conventionally ranks less than the margin of error of the entire poll.

This should not be confused with the matter that people don’t care about the environment. But frankly, polling questions that ask people if they, quote, “care about the state of drinking water,” or if they “want clean air,” are not biased questions -- they’re worse than biased questions. They’re useless questions. Because who can disagree with such notions as clean, fresh drinking water, clean air, pollution prevention?

What voters really -- who are environmentally minded -- are going to focus their attention on, in my view, is specifics and solutions. And the environment is one of those areas, over the last 25 to 30 years, where most Americans do believe progress has been made. They do believe their drinking water is fresher, they do believe their air is cleaner, they do believe emissions standards at the state and local levels have produced much better quality of life and quality of air and water. But at the same time, they are not so susceptible to the “shock the conscience” arguments.

In my view, the environmental groups are missing a tremendous opportunity to warm the heart rather than shock the conscience, with some of the environmental gains that have been made over the last several years. And by giving the current president an “F” on the environment really shows their hand in terms of trying to grapple with the new campaign finance reform measures and unseat him as president of the United States.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s look at the two sets of voters that I think certainly the Environment 2004 is aiming at. On the one hand, you have swing voters, people who are going to make a decision, maybe at the last minute, and are tipping – they don’t know what they want to do and anything could tip them over. On the other hand, you have a core constituency that may not have the environment number one, but it’s certainly very important, and these folks tend to be more civic-ly involved. Where do you think the Republicans are more vulnerable here, with that swing voter or with the core group?

CONWAY: Likely the vulnerability lies, for any Republican candidate, with the so-called swing voter. Because if you have already made up your mind in terms of the emotional extremes on the environment, chances are you are not going to support George W. Bush, or most candidates who have an “R” after their name to begin with.

Most of politics is played in the middle, and we are certainly a 49 percent nation, as has been observed by others in the political class, meaning, we are very divided as a country. It’s not meant to be polarized or partisan, necessarily, but we do have differing viewpoints. But where the environment has made a difference in elections, most recently, is at the state and local levels -- not at the federal or national level. Because the environment for many people is a closer to home issue. They believe that the closer you get to their back yard, literally if not figuratively, the more of a role that the closer levels of government have. So you will see people talking about the environment in terms of traffic congestion, perhaps gas prices, once and a while emissions standards. But that’s why Republicans at the executive level, say running for governor, are very sure to have a very clear and defined plan. And those who do not do that risk that at their own peril.

And there’s another reason for that. The vulnerability for any candidate that ignores the environment is that it shows that you have an insensitivity towards something that’s really a common denominator, that so many people do care about, and believe we all share – we share in its goodness and we also share in its responsible stewardship.

So, ignoring the environment also ignores some of the cultural indices that show many kids today learning an environmental agenda in the public school classroom, going home on the weekends and saying, gee, I want to do the Adopt-a-Highway program, or I want to bring the motor oil to be recycled or the diet Coke cans to be recycled. Whereas when other people were kids they said, gee, I want to do the dance-a-thon or the walk-a-thon. So, these cultural indices have demanded the political response, and any Republican who ignores it, or any candidate who ignores it, does so at their peril.

CURWOOD: We’re talking about the environment and the upcoming elections with Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and strategist. We’re also going to hear from Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, and our Washington correspondent Jeff Young is also on the line with us. I’m Steve Curwood and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Moby “Inside” PLAY (V2./Bmg -- 1999)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And we’re talking about the environment and the upcoming elections with Kellyanne Conway, who’s a Republican pollster, and Jeff Young, our Washington correspondent, is also in the studio.

Carol Browner, who was the EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, is also with us. And I’d like to ask you, Administrator Browner, who are the voters who you think might be swayed by this? We’re talking about swing voters here. What demographic are you talking about? You have this group Environment 2004. Who are you looking for here?

BROWNER: I think one of the voters we’ll be looking at is the soccer mom. The mother of young children – perhaps one of her children is suffering from asthma. She notices on a hot summer day, when the pollution levels are higher, that her child’s asthma attack is made worse. I don’t think it’s every voter, but I think for that type of voter the failure of the Bush administration to clean the air, to continue the progress that we started, to enforce the laws of this nation, is a real issue.

YOUNG: I wonder – this is Jeff Young speaking – who do you think, among the Democratic candidates here, who do you think is best positioned to be able to do that?

BROWNER: Each and every single one of the Democratic nominees has distinguished – or Democratic contenders, if you will – has distinguished themselves on the environment. Whether as governor, whether as a senator, they have all been there willing to put the money in place, to put the laws in place, and to see those laws enforced. And the biggest letdown, or failure of the Bush administration, has been their unwillingness to enforce the laws.

CURWOOD: I’m curious, Kellyanne Conway, what you think of this? Which of the present Democratic candidates for president would cause the most problems for Mr. Bush around the environment, do you think?

CONWAY: It’s a difficult question to answer for a very simple reason. Unlike when Al Gore was running for president against George W. Bush, none of these candidates has staked one of their chief issues on the environment.

I would suggest that if you queried hard-core Democratic caucus-goers, or Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire respectively, and just asked them a factual question – please complete the following sentence: Howard Dean’s chief environmental concern is blank? Or John Kerry’s stance on the environment is blank, blank. You would get a lot of shrugged shoulders and blank stares, I believe. If anything, they have all tried to show the shades of differences they may have with the president on the war, or on the economy, or once and a while with Medicare.

This seems, in my view, to be the chief challenge that anybody who wants to defeat this president on the environment will have is that you can attack him all you want, you can keep on -- as Administrator Browner has said three times just in this interview -- say the failure of the Bush administration, you can award him some “F” in some silly grading scale. But until you have someone who’s a fresh alternative who’s said here’s specifically how I would solve these problems in a more meaningful way, it’s going to be very difficult to pick up on any perceived vulnerabilities the president may have. And I don’t believe anybody with a straight face says that Al Sharpton has a plan on the environment that is better, or more preferred, for this country, that’s going to make us healthier and safer than what the Bush administration has done on the environment.

CURWOOD: I want to turn our attention to a poll that was done by the Quinlan organization, which I found fascinating. Jeff found this poll, and one of the things that it talks about is – they polled likely voters on Bush and the environment, and then tested three potential anti-Bush arguments.

Correct me if I’m wrong on this, Jeff, but they looked (a) at corporate, that is, emphasizing the president’s perceived favoritism towards polluting industries; (b) security, emphasizing the need for conservation to get us off of foreign oil and all the problems that seems to cause us; and then (c) values, which point to the need for support of natural places and National Parks.

And each message was pitted against a generic pro-Bush ad. At the end of the day, it turned out that when the president was attacked on his values, that voters actually preferred the president. Indeed, the only place that this approach gained any ground was going after the president on the question of corporate bias, that is…

YOUNG: Yeah, that’s where they found some swing in their favor. And it seems to me that the lesson there is you need to attack, and maybe that contributes to a negative atmosphere. Does attacking the president on his corporate ties in order to make a point about environmental policy lend to a negative atmosphere that could turn off voters? What do you think, Ms. Browner?

BROWNER: Well, first of all, I think there are the facts, and Environment 2004 is very interested in making sure voters have the facts -- that they understand what has happened to enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws, what is happening to our public lands, the kind of arrangements that are being made for special interests.

These are facts. This is not spin. These are all things that can be demonstrated in the policies and the day to day activities of the current administration, of the Bush administration. And I think when voters get that kind of information -- when they get it over a period of time, and they get it in a format that they are comfortable with -- it can in fact change their impression about what is happening.

CURWOOD: Ms. Conway, this poll seems to suggest that President Bush is vulnerable if he’s attacked on the environmental grounds that corporate favoritism has resulted in more pollution. Now, that’s not a local issue. I know you said earlier on that most environmental issues are local. But this is clearly a national issue. What do you think of this poll, this analysis, and how vulnerable do you feel the president might be on this question of corporate pollution and the environment?

CONWAY: The entire matter of big business in the last couple of years obviously has incurred the distaste, if not the wrath, of many voting Americans, and with good reason. But much of what has occurred in corporate America and with big business, if you ask the American people what bothers them most about it, they basically talk about the accounting frauds, the scandals, the individual actors.

If one is to make a nexus between what they perceive to be the president’s colleagues or friends in corporate America and his policies, then they’re going to have to make that nexus much more specifically than merely saying, “the failures of the Bush administration,” or “the man is vulnerable,” or “any Democrat is better.” Because what voters are looking for on the environment is specifics and solutions. And I’m yet to hear them today, and we’re often yet to hear them in many of the different type of very biased rhetoric that comes out of certain groups.

Again, I believe some of the environmental groups have missed a tremendous opportunity in trying to either attack the administration, or work with him on matters that people like soccer moms do associate with the environment -- namely homeland security. So, the president does get high marks for his handling of terrorism. Terrorism now necessarily includes, to soccer or security mom, keeping our water and our air supplies free from anthrax or free from some type of nuclear attack. The president gets high marks on that. You find very few Democrats who are vying to take his place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue even bothering to attack him on those issues.

And if your are trying to reach that kind of swing voter, you can do it by shocking her conscience, but you also must necessarily, in my view, must warm her heart with very specific examples of what you will do, or have done, in your past life as governor, or senator, or congressman, or activist, to actually measurably, and specifically, solve an environmental problem, or make a difference in such a way that people believe you are a better alternative.

CURWOOD: Okay, there’s the challenge, Carol Browner. What do you say?

BROWNER: Well, I think the record, the failure to do right by the American people of the Bush administration, will carry the day with an important group of voters, the swing voters. I think, again, when they get the information about the failures of this administration to enforce the law, to clean up the toxic waste, to protect our air and water, to protect those things which make us a great country, there is a group of voters who will be persuaded and who will vote with the Democratic nominee.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you all for taking this time with me today. Carol Browner, former administrator of the EPA for President Clinton, thank you.

BROWNER: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and strategist, thank you also.

CONWAY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Our own Jeff Young, who’s at our Washington bureau – thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. You’ve been listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Gus Gus “Ladyshave” THIS IS NORMAL (Warner Brothers – 1999)]

CURWOOD: We’ve been talking about the environment and politics, and if there’s a political party that can claim the environment as part of its program, a progressive one that is, it has to be the Green Party. And joining me now are two gentlemen involved with the Green Party. Blair Bobier is founder of the Oregon Greens, and Dan Coleman is founder of the North Carolina Greens. Hello, gentlemen.


BOBIER: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now what about the millions – I think it was almost three million voters – who voted for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate last time. Now that he’s withdrawn from the Green Party candidacy for this election, is this good news or bad news for the Green Party? Let me start with you, Blair.

BOBIER: Well I think it’s great that Ralph Nader ran as our presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. The party grew exponentially. I also think it’s a great thing that Ralph is standing aside this time. We are a grass-roots organization, and we’re much deeper and wider than any one candidate, so it’s time for the Green Party to grow up and field a candidate of our own.

CURWOOD: But given the American electoral system right now, which is winner take all, any minority party tends to take votes away from folks who are closest to it politically.

COLEMAN: That’s one of the problems the Green Party certainly faces, is that that’s the perception. Although you could argue just as well that it’s the major party taking votes away from the minor party. Because many millions of people who agree more with the Green Party than, say, with the Democrats, will vote for the Democratic candidate because of the perception that that’s a winnable vote.

I disagree with Blair about whether the Greens should have a presidential candidate this year. This year people on the left are so concerned about defeating George Bush, that, although Greens would have trouble rallying around most likely Democratic candidates, it’s important for us to get out of the way of people who are our allies and supporters focusing on that mission of defeating George Bush this year.

CURWOOD: What about the issue, though, that in an American electoral system, where it is winner take all, that by nature, political parties are going to compete for the same base, and in such a process, they’re more likely to elect people who are much further away from them ideologically?

BOBIER: Well, I think one of the reasons to run is to talk about the shortcomings and failures of an ancient and inefficient electoral system. We need to have reforms, like instant run-off voting, so that people can vote for who they want without the fear that they’ll elect someone they don’t want.

There’s also the greatest chunk of voters, or voter potential in this country, are non-voters. So I don’t think it’s necessarily true that there’s a finite pie of voters. We have to reach people who are non-voters, people who aren’t registered, people who are independents. So there’s the entire electorate up for grabs. I don’t see it as something that’s static.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for taking this time with me today. Blair Bobier, founder of the Oregon Greens, thank you so much.

BOBIER: Thank you Steve.

CURWOOD: And Dan Coleman, founder of the North Carolina Greens, thanks to you as well.

COLEMAN: Thanks, Steve.

Related links:
- Environment 2004
- The Polling Company
- League of Conservation Voters Presidential Candidates on the Environment
- Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s memo on the environment
- Blair Bobier’s article “Kids, Don’t Try This at Home!”
- Dan Coleman’s article “Greens Must Back Away From ’04 Presidential Campaign”

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CURWOOD: There’s more to come on Living on Earth, including the story about how the ugly toadfish can become a prince, and help save human lives.


CURWOOD: But first, I want to invite you to join me this May on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas. We’ll start off on a driving and walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park.

Now we could spend all day watching the baby elephants at play, and how they sometimes get in the way of the adolescents trying their trunks at sparring, or, we could track leopards, carefully. The last one I saw in Kruger gave me a look that said, for now, I’m not worth the hassle of trying to eat.

Then we’ll head down to the wild coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean, where we’ll get on some horses and ponies to explore the Amadiba tribal area. Don’t worry if you don’t ride – it’s easy enough for beginners. We’ll have the chance to canter on endless miles of beaches along the ruggedly beautiful territory that lies between the Mzamba and Mtentu rivers. This is the home of the Amampondo, who have kept their traditions and culture intact. We’ll be their guest in a series of simple camps while we hike, ride and canoe the region.

There are two ways to join our caravan. Go to livingonearth.org and win a trip for two, or reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details go to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund. 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 Ginsburg, in support of excellence in public radio.

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Good Vibrations

CURWOOD: If looks alone are what wins a mate, the male toadfish would never get a date. But it’s their sound that brings females around. The toadfish is also known as the midshipman, and here to tell us about how he makes his love call is Kuan Wang. He’s the chief of the lab at the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscularskeletal Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. Doctor Wang, welcome.

WANG: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Before we get to the findings of your study, would you please give us a picture of the toadfish? I’ve read that it has a face that only a mother could love.

(Photo courtesy of NOAA)

WANG: Well, okay, I’ll be kind and say that the fish is plain. Well, not really ugly and certainly not a flashy beauty like some reef fish. The fish spends most of its time burrowing in the sandy and dim ocean floor in the deep waters. So a sleek body and brilliant colors don’t really count for much.

CURWOOD: I understand that the toadfish has a pretty impressive mating ritual. Can you describe that?

WANG: A male fish usually puts on very elaborate dances or changes color to win over females. Now, the midshipman male cannot dance and have no scales to change color. So it prefers not to be judged by its looks -- it actually resorts to singing to lure females.

CURWOOD: Well, lets take a listen to that sound right now.


CURWOOD: You know, if I heard that I wouldn’t think it was a fish. In fact, as I understand it, when people were trying to figure out this strange noise on the California coast they thought that maybe aliens were landing or some power plant had gone out of whack. I guess these toadfish have made quite a reputation for themselves.

WANG: Yeah, because the sound, the humming sound, sounds so much like man-made machine noise many residents suspected secret underwater military operations. So I think in 1977, through some very ingenious detective work, by an acoustic engineer and his friends, the secret agent man turned out to be this lonely toadfish in heat [laughs]. So now the community actually welcomes the summer residents by sponsoring annual humming toadfish festivals.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the mechanism? What have you discovered about the mechanism of making this sound by the fish?

WANG: It turns out the male has an air bladder which looks like an elastic balloon, but with two pieces of muscle attached to the surface. Now, these muscles are called drumming muscles because the vibration of these muscles changes the volume of the air bladder and therefore creates the soundwave. And it vibrates about a thousand times a minute. And this is easily rivaling the speed of, say, hummingbird wing beat frequencies or the speed the rattlesnake actually rattles its tail. The most amazing part of this is that the male can actually sing for a very long time. They can sing up to an hour or more without stopping.


WANG: That’s the amazing part.

CURWOOD: So, I’m just wondering where this research might wind up. I’m wondering how likely is it that from this understanding of the toadfish muscles that we could make, say, heart muscles stronger, or make humans super strong.

WANG: Actually, yeah. The special feature here is really a combination of the speed as well as endurance. So we think if we can understand the mechanism with which these structures assemble, we’ll actually be able to do reverse engineer these properties into human tissue, to coach some of the muscles in humans to work either faster, or work longer, or both.

CURWOOD: Kuan Wang is chief of the Laboratory of Muscle Biology at the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscularskeletal and Skin Diseases. Dr. Wang, thank you for taking this time with me today.

WANG: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Coming up: Yes, we have no bananas – but we do have a story about how this fruit became the world’s most successful crop and efforts underway to keep it from going extinct. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Nickel Creek “Reasons Why” NICKEL CREEK (Sugarhill – 2000)]

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The Top Banana

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The banana is the world’s most commercially successful fruit. In just over a century, this native of the tropics has become a huge agricultural, transportation and marketing miracle. But the banana, as North Americans know it, is in trouble. Some are even whispering the “E” word – extinction – and fear that the bananas we eat could disappear in five to ten years time. How could it have come to this? We asked producer Bob Carty to pull back the peel of the banana’s story, past and present, to help us understand the magnitude of the threat, and the search for solutions. Here’s his story: Will the Banana - Split?


CARTY: In the Central American country of Honduras, the markets are full of bananas. And two things strike you right away. One is that the bananas on sale here are not the uniform and unblemished bananas we get in our supermarkets. Here, old men and young girls are selling bananas in all kinds of shapes and sizes.


CARTY: So this is a plantain.

CARTY TO A YOUNG CHILD: What do you call these tiny little these bananas? They’re about a finger long.


CARTY: How many can you eat?

CHILD: Five.]

CARTY: And that’s the other thing you notice here. People eat a lot of bananas. Some shoppers are carrying off half a stalk – 60 or 70 ripe bananas. North Americans eat about 28 pounds of bananas a year. People here and in Africa eat as much as 500 pounds Randy Ploetz is a professor of plant pathology at the University of Miami. He explains that 90 percent of all bananas are never exported, they’re eaten locally. They are the world’s fourth most important crop.

PLOETZ: Three to four hundred million people in the world depend upon it as primary source of carbohydrates. And international commerce in bananas is worth about five billion a year.

CARTY: Which means a lot of people, a lot of nations, depend upon the banana tree.

PLOETZ: It’s actually an herb – it’s not a tree.

CARTY: You’re kidding – an herb?

PLOETZ: Yes. In fact, there are bananas up to 15-20 feet – they are the world’s largest herbs. It’s really an ancient crop – 8 – 9,000 years old.

CARTY: Now what’s also interesting is that the banana, which we usually associate with South America, is actually Asian. Muslim traders brought the banana from Asia to Africa. And then slave traders brought them to the Caribbean and Central America to feed their slaves. But according to Virginia Scott Jenkins, the author of “Bananas – An American History,” the fruit only became big business in the 1880s, with the development of refrigerated steam ships.

JENKINS: Then it was possible to transport bananas from the Caribbean to North American ports. So, U.S. fruit companies went into Central America, they purchased millions of acres of land and cut down the rainforest and planted thousands of acres of bananas.


CARTY: And so the sounds of the rainforest were replaced by …


CARTY… the sound of banana stems being trundled from field to packing plant on overhead networks of cables. That’s how some of the most diverse ecologies on earth disappeared. Growing bananas on an industrial scale was one thing. Next, firms like the United Fruit Company had to get northern consumers to buy them. Remember, that in the1880s most people didn’t even know what a banana looked like. And then there was that little cultural problem – the suggestive shape of the banana.

JENKINS: Well, the shape of the banana is a little difficult for some people, particularly in the Victorian era. Bananas were not considered very genteel. One of the interesting things I found was early instructions for how to eat a banana – etiquette books on what to do when you find a banana in front of you at a dinner party.

CARTY: Indeed – what to do? Well, readers of the 1888 edition of “The Correct Thing In Good Society” learned that the last thing you did was pick up the banana, pull back the skin and bite off a piece – especially if you were a woman. No, the proper way to face the fruit, if you had to at all, was with a silver fruit knife and fork. The banana companies were able to overcome these cultural impediments, and they did it with aggressive marketing, extolling the virtues of the fruit, and pricing it right.

JENKINS: They sold them as the cheapest fruit on the market – and that was a deliberate decision by the fruit companies to undersell local fruit. And the marketing of bananas is absolutely amazing. The United Fruit Company marketed bananas with many health claims – for people trying to gain weight, people trying to lose weight, people who had tuberculosis, female complaints, asthma, all kinds of things.


CARTY: The marketing campaigns worked. By the early 1900s bananas were everywhere. Even showing up in popular culture, especially in songs. Some of them, uh, rather sexual.


CARTY: And some of them just kind of silly.


CARTY: Back in Central America, the banana business brought jobs and economic growth, but also a number of political problems. There was the predictable corruption that takes root when a foreign company buys up a big chunk of your nation. Then there were the company towns, the union-busting, the refusal by banana companies to pay taxes. All of which aroused a certain amount of local anger and protest, which in turn was met with American gunboat diplomacy.


CARTY: In the early decades of the twentieth century, U.S. Marines occupied Honduras five times, Panama four times, Nicaragua twice, to say nothing of other kinds of interventions in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Guatemala. Decade after decade banana production kept rising. But another problem was developing. Diseases kept killing banana plants. Randy Ploetz says the problem was the kind of banana they were growing.

PLOETZ: Big Mike - Gros Michel. A really excellent banana, produced large bunches and very large fingers. You could chop the entire bunch down and throw it into a railroad car and take it off to a ship, so it didn’t require any special handling. It’s a really good banana.


CARTY: Oh, of course, how could I forget that. In that song he’s talking about the Michel Gros. That was the banana that made the Jamaican trade so successful.

PLOETZ: Big Mike has all these really great attributes that I mentioned earlier, but its Achilles heel is that it’s very susceptible to race one Panama disease – it’s a disease caused by a soil-borne fungus. It kills the plant outright.

CARTY: And not only that, Panama disease couldn’t be controlled with fungicides. The only way the banana companies could keep ahead of Panama disease was by moving their plantations, cutting down more virgin rainforest to use soil that wasn’t diseased. But by the 1950s, they were running out of new rainforest to cut down. The “Big Mike” export banana was being wiped out.


CARTY: But then we got lucky. And for this part of the story, meet another banana aficionado.

MARTINEZ: To me, if the world didn’t have bananas it would be a very boring place. [LAUGHTER]

CARTY: This is Adolfo Martinez, the director-general of the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research. Adolfo explains that just as the Big Mike was withering away on the stem, they discovered the Cavendish banana, a banana that tasted almost as good as the Big Mike -- but was also resistant to Panama disease. It was, however, a delicate fruit. It had to be shipped in protective boxes and plastic and, as Adolfo Martinez points out, it was very susceptible to another kind of banana disease called black sigatoka. And there’s only one way to fight that.

MARTINEZ: You have to use pesticides, fungicides with Cavendish – up to 50 times a year – that’s about weekly.

CARTY: What does that cost?

MARTINEZ: The cost varies between $500 to $800 a year per hectare.

CARTY: That means that a quarter of the price we pay for a bunch of bananas goes to drenching them in pesticides. Food inspectors say they don’t usually detect any pesticide residues in the fruit. The real impact of pesticides is on the health of banana workers and on the environment.

Back now to banana history, where along came, you guessed it, another problem. Yet a new disease appeared, just a couple of years ago. It’s a mutant of the old disease, called tropical race four Panama disease. It’s now present in Indonesia, Taiwan, and Pakistan, perhaps elsewhere. And with global trade and travel, experts say it will inevitably get to this hemisphere.

MARTINEZ: It will be a disaster. And it will wipe out, completely, the Cavendish production we have today.


CARTY: What can be done about this looming disaster? Banana companies could try to develop a fungicide that works on this disease. Experts say that would be costly and would mean the use of a lot of fungicide, which wouldn’t make consumers or banana workers or the environment very happy. Other experts are promoting a high-tech solution – genetically engineering the banana for resistance to diseases. Professor Randy Ploetz says there are institutes and companies actually working on this – trying to decode the banana’s DNA.

PLOETZ: Genetic engineering offers the glimmer of hope that you would be able to produce a banana like Cavendish that has only one thing changed – disease.


PLOETZ: But then what happens when you get that banana. I know people in Europe are really strongly opposed to that product. So you would lose a major market if you had that type of banana.

CARTY: Then there’s the possibility of creating a new banana by traditional breeding methods. Mating one kind of banana with another kind to get disease resistance, plus good taste. The problem here has to do with sex, or more precisely, the lack of it.

MARTINEZ: Bananas can produce fruit without pollination. In bananas the plant produces male and female flowers at different times. That’s one of the reasons you don’t find hardly any seeds in banana plants. The other reason is that bananas are sterile per se.

CARTY: They’re sterile?

MARTINEZ: Yes, sterile.

CARTY: They’ve got it all mixed up.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, they do. Bananas don’t have a lot of sex.

CARTY: Yes, for all its phallic appearance, the commercial banana is sexually decrepit. They’ve been selected over thousands of years precisely because they don’t have seeds. Commercial bananas are propagated by taking shoots from the mother plant. And that lack of sex means that plantation bananas are genetically identical, and uniformly susceptible to disease. So, how do you get some genetic diversity into commercial bananas? At the Honduran Agricultural Research Institute, Adolfo Martinez likes to show off rows and rows of banana plants that are all different.

MARTINEZ: This is our future, we think. Some are big, some are tall – they all have different properties, they have different resistance to disease, different flavors.

CARTY: Adolfo has 368 varieties of bananas here, out of about 1,000 species that are known around the world. For four decades Adolfo’s institute has been trying to get different varieties to mate with each other. And Adolfo gives them a helping hand. Literally.

His workers put ladders up into banana plants and scrape the pollen off the male flowers of some varieties. Then, walk over to a field with a different variety of banana, and, by hand, pollinate the female flowers. A few months later they harvest the fruit. They peel and squish the bananas and then go through that mush to look for seeds. And they find a few – not many – maybe just three seeds in every 100 bananas. But those are the seeds of brand new banana varieties. Like the one that Adolfo shows off with the pride of a new daddy.

MARTINEZ: This is the best. It has a huge bunch. It is a plant that is practically immune to sigatoka, immune to disease, very resistant. They have slightly different flavor than the Cavendish, and that is why the company has not accepted it yet. Even if Panama disease comes here we have some alternatives right now.

CARTY: Aldofo believes his breeding program will save the banana, and also help the small farmers of the world who would never be able to afford a patented, genetically modified banana anyway. Adolfo’s new breed is already being used in more than 50 countries. Cuba is growing them because they don’t need pesticides.


CARTY: But are North American consumers ready for a new banana? The banana companies have spent so much money promoting just one kind of banana that they’re loathe to tackle the huge job of changing public attitudes about what a banana looks and tastes like. So instead of six kinds of apples, five kinds of pears – we’re usually offered only one kind of banana. Would shoppers eat a banana that might look a little different, taste a bit different, perhaps even taste a little better?

FEMALE 1: By all means, I’d try a variety of bananas.

MALE: I would, I’ve seen other different kinds.

FEMALE 2: Sure, if it was sweet and I could use it for the same reasons -- smoothies.

CARTY: So, it turns out that one of the most likely solutions to the banana crisis is giving consumers more banana choice. And that could be – dare I say it? -- appealing. For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty.


CARTY: Oh, by the way – Chiquita Banana’s line about bananas being from the equator, so don’t put them in the refrigerator – it’s a fabulous rhyme. But it’s not true. Bananas are refrigerated, of course, on the way to market. But the fruit companies wanted people to throw out overripe bananas and buy new ones. The fact is, if you put them in the refrigerator the skin does turn black. But the fruit inside stays at the stage of ripeness you prefer.


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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, more and more people are getting tested to find out how many chemicals have accumulated in their bodies and at what levels. In California, a bill could launch the first statewide monitoring program by testing breast milk.

BROWNSEY: We believe when breast milk talks, people will listen.

CURWOOD: But some scientists want the public to know that simple exposure to chemicals doesn’t mean certain illness.

KRIEGER: Exposure isn’t a disease, exposure is contact and absorption of a chemical.

CURWOOD: The emergence of biomonitoring - next time on Living on Earth. Before we go – one more stop in the land where the banana grows. Andrew Roth recorded this rainforest symphony along the canals of Tortuguero in Costa Rica.

[Andrew Roth “Rainforest” NATURAL SOUNDS OF COSTA RICA (A Zona Tropical Production – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, Diane Toomey and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Aaron Bishop mixes the program. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form 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.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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