February 20, 2004
Immigration Issues at Center of Sierra Club Flap/ Ingrid Lobet
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PART 1: In the first of three segments looking at the issues of population growth, immigration, and the environment, we hear how immigration reformers are trying to get the nation's oldest environmental group, the Sierra Club, to endorse limits on immigration. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.
PART 2: Host Steve Curwood talks with Pilar Marrero, political editor for La Opinion, the largest Spanish newspaper in the U.S., about overpopulation through the lens of the Hispanic community.
PART 3: Professor Paul Ehrlich joins the discussion from Palo Alto, California. He has written numerous books on overpopulation, including “The Population Bomb,” and talks about the intersection between issues of population and immigration, and the environment.
PART 4: We continue our discussion on population, immigration and the environment with Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University, and author of books such as “The Population Bomb” and “Human Natures.” (29:15)
Emerging Science Note/It’s for the Birds/ Cynthia Graber
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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that some large predatory birds may start eating more small birds when fishing bycatch is reduced. (01:20)
Woburn Toxics Redux/ Allan Coukell
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Woburn, Massachusetts was made famous with the book and movie “A Civil Action.” W.R. Grace, the chemical company found guilty of contaminating the town’s drinking water, was the story’s number one bad guy. But, as it turns out, a computer model suggests the company may not be the main culprit. Allan Coukell reports. (06:30)
Take the High Road/ Jeff Young
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Congress is steamrolling opposition to its big-spending transportation bill that pours hundreds of billions of dollars into new highways. But a growing group of critics says that's the wrong route to solving our transportation problems. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (08:30)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Pilar Marrero, Paul EhrlichREPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Allan Coukell, Jeff YoungNOTE: Cynthia Graber
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The population of the United States is expected to grow by more than 100 million people in the next generation, and most of the new Americans will be immigrants or the children of recent immigrants. As the debate over immigration heats up, so do the challenges.
EHRLICH: There is no organization that I know in the United States at the moment that has looked broadly and carefully at the immigration issue at all of its dimensions, at its environmental dimensions, at its consumption dimensions, at its ethical dimensions, at how it interacts with family size and so on, and drawn sensible conclusions.
CURWOOD: One place where the immigration debate has become especially contentious is in the ranks of the Sierra Club, with charges and counter-charges of racism and hostile takeover being bandied about. It’s the politics of immigration and more - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. For the second time in six years, the Sierra Club faces a takeover effort by some board members who think one of the country’s most pressing environmental problems is that there are too many immigrants. Board members who disagree with that notion fear that the nation’s oldest conservation group will face a membership exodus – and disrepute – if the club is perceived as anti-immigrant. We begin our coverage of this issue with a report from Los Angeles, from Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet.
LOBET: In a few days, 750 thousand Sierra Club members will be sent ballots for the group’s upcoming board election. Board member Paul Watson hopes the Sierra Club will soon be steered by people who agree it needs to concentrate on overpopulation, not just internationally, but domestically, too. And he says that means changing immigration policy.
WATSON: We have restrictions on immigration in the United States right now. All that we’re asking for is to lower those restrictions to achieve stabilization. We must stabilize the population. Because if we don’t, what we’re doing is passing the buck to future generations. Where do we make this decision? When the population is 500 million? 700 million? Or a billion? Someone has got to have the courage to address this issue.
LOBET: Watson helped found the group Greenpeace but its reputation for direct action wasn’t direct enough for him. So he founded the Sea Shepherd Society, a kind of eco-vigilante group that has rammed, disabled or sunk 10 whaling and fishing vessels in efforts to halt illegal whaling and fishing. Watson says at the heart of his belief in reduced immigration is the idea of less consumption and more animal habitat.
WATSON: I have a vegan diet, which is a low impact diet. I think everyone should have a vegan diet. If we removed meat from our diets, that would go a long way towards lowering consumption in United States.
LOBET: But statements like these alarm other Sierra Club leaders.
DOWNING: The club has a reputation of not being some fringe group of wackos.
LOBET: Larry Downing is a former Sierra Club president, one of many club leaders and former leaders who see themselves as stewards of a 112 year old institution founded by the Scottish immigrant John Muir. Downing fears that carefully-built coalitions will be dismantled if an immigration reform/animal rights agenda prevails at the Sierra Club.
DOWNING: It will split the club because we have a substantial number of hunters and fishermen. We agree on habitat issues and we have worked in common cause. Those people will immediately be alienated.
LOBET: And the Sierra Club, like other traditionally white environment groups, has also been weaving alliances with urban environmental justice groups. Downing says the Club's diverse Southern California chapter is appalled at the possible shift in policy.
DOWNING: If we adopted an anti-immigration posture we would immediately alienate this substantial segment of our membership. We would no longer be taken seriously as a broad environmental organization, we would be deemed a fringe organization on issues that really have not been the Sierra Club’s main agenda.
LOBET: The Sierra club, Downing stresses, has worked on population issues, such as birth control, internationally for years. But he and his allies at the Club don't really think this is a dispute over how to address population growth. Instead, they see a sinister effort to seize control of the Club’s 95 million dollar annual budget.
And what’s most disturbing, they say, is that some of the immigration reformers are getting internet support from nativist pro-white groups. But the reformers, on their website, repudiate that support. They say they reject any group that would reduce immigration on racial grounds.
Votes in this highly-contested election will be counted April 21st. If the immigration reformers win three of the five open board seats, they'll have a majority. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet
CURWOOD: Joining me now to discuss the Sierra Club debate on overpopulation and immigration is Pilar Marrero. She’s the political editor for La Opinion, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the United States and it’s based in Los Angeles. Hi, Pilar.
MARRERO: Hi Steve, how are you doing?
CURWOOD: Good, thanks. Now Pilar, tell me, when the Sierra Club has a debate about whether to limit immigration to deal with population and consumption issues, generally how does that play in the Latino community?
MARRERO: I think, unfortunately, the Latino community has been used to – been scapegoated in the issue of immigration on different levels. Not only on the environmental side but on the economic side. And even though it’s a legitimate debate, the only concern that people will have is that, one, that it doesn’t turn into a racist, anti-immigrant debate, and two, that other issues of environmental concern to minority communities don’t get addressed.
I’ve been talking to some of my environmental Latino friends who are in organizations locally, and their concern is the Sierra Club sometimes looks a little removed from some of the issues of environmental justice that people in the Latino community care for. And they’re a victim of environmental injustice just by the mere fact of being poor, and the environmental policy being skewed against them. So it is a very touchy subject and, at the same time, they’re not sure it’s going to really address the problem.
CURWOOD: You know, it occurs to me that the Sierra Club may well feel that it should be tip-toeing around the issues of race. But, of course, Latino and black groups are quite comfortable with this kind of discussion. I’m wondering, in your own newspaper, or perhaps among your readers, what kind of discussion do you hear about the issue of population and consumption there?
MARRERO: Not much. I mean, people that we serve in our newspaper are very concerned about making a living, and sending money back to their families, or bringing up their families and giving them a good education. They go where the jobs are. They go where the economy attracts them and where they can find a place to progress. This is what they’re concerned about.
I guess there’s a sense that obviously, the environment, it’s important. And there’s many issues, as I said, of environmental justice in communities, of toxic waste and other things that are of importance. But I think there’s a view of a certain level of environmentalist as people who are very comfortable economically, who are white, and who are at a level that they can just sit down and worry about endangered species--and not enough about the toxics coming out from the local school.
Which is not to say, you know, endangered species is not something we should be concerned about, but these people are concerned about bread and butter issues of everyday life. And this is what their main concern is.
CURWOOD: Endangered people rather than endangered species.
MARRERO: Yeah, exactly.
CURWOOD: Now, I’m wondering how based in reality that the conversations in organizations like the Sierra Club and in the political arena are about questions of overpopulation and limiting immigration. I mean, how well do you think America is prepared to deal with the economic ramifications of reducing immigration, for example?
MARRERO: Well, I think – and I always say this – I think the discussion of immigration in the United States – and not just in the United States, it’s happening in Europe and it happens in other places – it’s kind of hypocritical. Because on the one hand, there is a real need, economic need of the labor of the immigrant. And there’s also an attitude from the corporations that the cheaper the labor is, the better for them. So they create an additional need for this kind of labor. And people benefit. You know, the consumer benefits from low prices, and from the agricultural products to services.
The immigration issue has become a political hot button and it’s used by politicians to excite people’s prejudices and get them to their side. But they don’t really discuss the real solution to the problem. So that is my beef with the whole immigration discussion. It’s used by politicians, it’s used by people with certain interests, but there’s no real desire to really have a sincere and open and honest discussion about what it means.
CURWOOD: Pilar Marrero is political editor for the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinion. Thanks so much for talking with me today.
MARRERO: You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: Joining me now from the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is Professor Paul Ehrlich, author of the groundbreaking book “The Population Bomb.” He’s also co-authored, with his wife Anne Ehrlich, “The Population Explosion” and “Human Natures.”
Paul, how helpful is it for the people of the United States to discuss the questions of population and immigration? Is it a valuable debate or is it destructive to an organization like the Sierra Club, since it’s an issue with no easy solutions?
EHRLICH: Well, I think it would be excellent if the United States as a whole had a reasoned debate over immigration. But that would mean that you would have to have people who are actually knowledgeable about the issue introducing it to people in general. Whereas within one single organization, I think it tends to be destructive to the organization because, among other things, it’s a know-nothing debate.
There is no organization that I know in the United States at the moment that has looked broadly and carefully at the immigration issue – at all of its dimensions, at its environmental dimensions, at its consumption dimensions, at its ethical dimensions, at how it interacts with family size and so on – and drawn sensible conclusions. And that includes the United States Congress.
So, until we can organize that kind of debate, I think having a know-nothing debate, basically by people who are trying to disrupt an important organization, I think that’s a very bad idea.
CURWOOD: Now, how do you talk about stabilizing the population here in the U.S. without appearing to have some racial attitudes here? Or at least being, you know, bedfellows with racist groups that in fact are quite pointed in their interest of keeping immigrants of color out of the U.S.?
EHRLICH: Well, one of the problems we have with any social movement trying to reform the direction our nation is going is simply that we have a lot of racists still. And the racial issue tends to pop up virtually everywhere now. My skin is a dull gray, and I have had one child and had a vasectomy, so I am not interested in outbreeding people of other colors. In fact, I rather like other colors and I think the diversity that we have is terrific.
On the other hand, there are other issues like how much diversity can we stand before the country comes apart? And I mean cultural, not necessarily skin color diversity -- I don’t think that makes the slightest difference. But, unfortunately, you’re going to find racists. I found many racists in bed with me on the issue of are there too many people on the planet. My answer is yes; they say, well then, shouldn’t we get rid of all the ones with darker than light gray skin? I say no.
And I have explicitly, with my colleagues, attacked the nonsense about race. Among other things, as you know, skin color is one of the most changeable of human characteristics in evolution. We were all Africans 50,000 years ago, we all had dark skins. We’ve now moved all over the planet and, actually, the skin colors of most people listening to this program have probably changed more than one time in those last 50,000 years. That is, they’re very susceptible to how much solar radiation we get, it has to do with our vitamin D synthesis, it has to do with protection of folate.
And right now, we can see human groups that have the wrong skin colors for where they’re living. The light-skinned people in Queensland, Australia are one example, the Pakistanis in Scotland are another example, in different directions. The Pakistanis’ skin colors are too dark for Scotland, the Queenslanders’ skin colors are too light for Queensland. And that’s going to change, that’s going to affect how the colors evolve in those places.
CURWOOD: I’m talking with Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and author of the ground-breaking book “The Population Bomb.” Professor Ehrlich is co-author with his wife Anne Ehrlich of numerous other books including “The Population Explosion,” “Human Natures,” and the soon-to-be-released “One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future.”
We’ll be back in a minute – stay tuned. I’m Steve Curwood and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And my guest is Paul Ehrlich. He’s the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and the author of many books charting the intersection of overpopulation and its effects on our planet’s living systems. And, Paul Ehrlich, how has the political and social climate towards the question of population changed since you’ve been writing about these issues?
EHRLICH: Well, I think the social situation has changed the fact that now virtually everybody in the world who is alertable now understands there is a population problem. That doesn’t mean they know what to do about it. It doesn’t mean they know how serious it is. It doesn’t mean that in the United States, at least, it still isn’t a politically charged issue.
But I think, actually, at the moment, much more serious in terms of people’s understanding is the consumption problem than the population problem. In other words, we know there are many, too many people in the world, the scientific community has spoken out unambiguously on this, and repeatedly. There are too many people in the world, there are too many people in the United States, in the United States people consume too much.
And we know how to solve the population problem and, in fact, it’s on its way, gradually, and probably much too slowly, to being solved in many parts of the world. The U.S. is really an exception in that respect. We haven’t shown – we have had no leadership, of course, by any political party in Washington on this. We have a Congress that’s insane enough to debate immigration policy without debating population policy. It’s like arguing over how many people a minute you want to design an aircraft to load without asking how many people it’s going to fly with.
So, the situation has changed. But on consumption, we don’t even know how to judge overconsumption accurately, and what to do about it. We know what to do, if we have the political will, about the population issue.
CURWOOD: Let’s imagine for a moment that the phone rings. It’s the President of the United States…
CURWOOD: Professor Ehrlich, you know everything about population. What should we do in the United States to address this problem? You say there are too many people in the United States…
EHRLICH: I would say, Mr. President, the first thing to do is to go on the national television and radio and say, “people, we have a serious problem. There are too many of us. If we want to have a maximum number of Americans live over all time, we’ve got to get our population size down to a number that’s sustainable over a long time. “
CURWOOD: What’s that number?
EHRLICH: Oh, you know, it depends in part upon our consumption patterns but let’s put it this way: no one has ever come up with even a semi-sane reason for having more than 140 million people in the United States. And we now have 300.
“So, ladies and gentlemen, I say to you, every patriotic American who already doesn’t have more children should stop at one. That ought to be our motto. I certainly am not going to have more than one child. Nobody who wants to be considered a patriot should have more than one child.
And we now have to start a national discussion of how many children the average woman should have relative to the number of immigrants we want to let into the country so we can have a balance that will lead us to a slowly declining population size -- till we get down to a size where our children and grandchildren can enjoy the kind of amenities that we enjoyed when we were younger, but are now quickly disappearing. “
CURWOOD: And what do we say, Mr. President, or Mr. President’s advisor, about immigration, then?
EHRLICH: What we say about immigration is that it’s a social issue, whether we want to have fewer children and more immigrants, or fewer immigrants and more children. My own personal view as president -- but it’s only my view, and society should decide as a whole -- is that we want to have enough immigrants to keep our culture diverse, rich, and getting input from other cultures.
But we also don’t want to have unlimited immigration. What we want to do is develop a foreign policy that reduces the need of other people to come here. We should not, for example, be accepting people, training them as doctors and keeping them at home, when we could accept people temporarily, train them as doctors, and send them back to where they’re really needed in their countries.
We’re going to change our agricultural policy so that farmers in poor countries, instead of having to send their children to the United States to get money, would be able to thrive on their own. But, right now, our trade policies, which are free trade for the rich and high tariffs for the poor, are just hurting the poor people of the world and forcing them to try and come and make a living in our country.
We are one of the stingiest countries in the world in terms of foreign aid. And that, in fact, in western Europe, where our good buddies live, are our allies in the trade wars – while some three billion people on this planet have to exist on two dollars a day or less. European cows – that is cows, moo cows – are subsidized to the tune of two and a half dollars a day. That tells you why poor farmers in the rest of the world aren’t fond of us and are forced often to send their children or even come themselves to try and make a living in the United States.
CURWOOD: Some people would say, hey, the U.S. has nothing to worry about here, about population. Our population density is much less than that of, say, the Netherlands.
EHRLICH: That is no reason not to worry. The point is, we – actually, that statement is often called “the Netherlands fallacy”. The idea that since you can have a huge number of people per square mile in the Netherlands you can have a huge number of people per square mile everywhere is simply nonsensical. Because the people in the Netherlands don’t live on the Netherlands. They import much of what they need. Just like you couldn’t have the population density of New York over the entire United States and continue to feed ourselves.
The issue is not population density in small places, it’s not even population density itself. It’s numbers of people relative to the resources they need or demand. And looking at places that are very dense doesn’t tell you anything about what the entire planet can support, any more than looking at the moon and saying, boy, it’s empty, we ought to just go live there tells you how many people can live on the moon. It’s nice to have air, for instance.
CURWOOD: Now, Paul Ehrlich, tell me, how does a city like New York or Los Angeles become more environmentally sustainable? I mean, what big cities in this country or, for that matter, in the world, are managing this well?
EHRLICH: Well, first of all, few cities are managing well, and one of the reasons is the plague of the automobile. I would point out to you that the fact that Los Angeles is a mess is not just a coincidence or happenstance. It traces, in no small part, to the decisions made in the late 1930s by the oil industry, the automobile industry, and the tire industry to get rid of mass transit in Los Angeles and design the city around the automobile.
And in 50 or 60 years they’ve been enormously successful. You can now choke on the smog as you drive to work and be shot at by people on the freeways. So what we obviously have to do is take the next 60 years and turn it around. Cars are very valuable things, for certain things. They’re certainly great for taking the family for a vacation out in the countryside, sometimes for carrying heavy loads if you have to go somewhere and you don’t have immediate access to transit, although cars can be shared. And, of course, they’re terrific for teenagers to make love in. But outside of that, for commuting, they’re absolute nonsense.
CURWOOD: Okay. Now let’s look back in history a little bit, Professor. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. saw a huge influx of immigrants, mostly from Europe. How well did we deal with immigration then, and its impacts, and what’s different now?
EHRLICH: Well, first of all, our previous immigration came in a rather different form. People thought there wasn’t – to a degree there were, of course, in the old days – wide open spaces to be occupied. Things were overpopulated and crowded in Europe. And we got waves of immigrants in the middle of the 19th century from Ireland because of the horrendous potato famine there, and the miserable behavior of the British Empire towards the Irish at that time. And we got people from Eastern Europe a lot around the turn of the last century.
And they came in mobs and they generally integrated pretty well into the society eventually, although we still have the signs of it. But they did add diversity. They, for example, introduced decent food into the United States, eventually, and people came from diverse cultures. We get all kinds of benefits from immigration, and we have gotten them, and we still continue to get some.
What we have to have is a social discussion of what benefits we want, and compare them with the benefits of having larger families. And as a society – a scientist can’t tell you whether you ought to have more births or more immigrants, although they can tell you what the consequences are. For example, whether we have births or immigrants, with the current situation the more people we have in the United States, the more we’re likely to wreck the life support systems of everybody. We, for instance, are the big contributors to the potentially horrendous problem of rapid climate change.
And whether we add to that by somebody in Bel Aire having a kid that’s eventually going to grow up and own three Humvees, or you bring in an immigrant from Thailand or Mexico who comes in as a poor farmer or fisherman and then becomes extremely successful and buys three Humvees doesn’t make much difference from the point of view of the world.
So, we have complex issues of when people come in what their reproduction habits are going to be, what their consumption habits are going to be. And it doesn’t matter much whether they come in as immigrants or as offspring of people already here. The impacts on the environment tend to be much the same.
CURWOOD: Now, you teach at Stanford University. I’m just wondering what you tell your students when they come into class about population and consumption – that very first lecture that you give them.
EHRLICH: Well, what I tell them – of course, many of them are already informed. Actually, what we teach mostly is how you try and deal with these issues. But the very first thing you tell them is that the most extraordinary thing that has happened on this planet in the last 65 million years is the rise to dominance of a single species, homo sapiens. A tale of enormous success, in some sense.
If you’ve looked at a picture of the Earth at night from the moon or from a satellite, you see the whole planet glows with our activities. That’s something that you would not have seen just a few hundred years ago, in matter of fact, not even a hundred years ago at the level you see it today. We control the planet. We are changing the atmosphere. We are mobilizing minerals at faster rates than normal wind and water erosion. We are killing off the only living companions we have in the entire universe, organisms that are deeply involved in running our life support systems. And we’re wrecking those systems.
We are the dominant animal on the Earth, and we have in just the last 70 years, 70 to 80 years, we have more than tripled the number of people on the planet. When Anne and I were born, around 1932, there were only two billion people on the planet, now there’s well over six billion. That’s an extraordinary expansion. But, at the same time, we’ve also expanded our per capita consumption so that the human impact on the planet in my lifetime has multiplied roughly 20 fold.
And that’s what scares the wits out of the scientific community. And I usually read them for the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, that was signed by 1,500 of the world’s top scientists, including more than half of the Nobel laureates in science. Or I read them from the statement of the 58 Academies of Science, all the world’s major Academies of Science, all saying the same thing. If we don’t do something about population and consumption, we’re screwed.
And I read them that stuff and then we start a discussion about what we ought to do about it and how you measure these things, and what are the ethics of these various issues, and we usually get very deeply into that.
CURWOOD: Now some people would say, look, yeah, we’ve gone from two billion to six billion people, but we still have plenty of food. If anyone’s going hungry, it just happens to be a distribution problem.
EHRLICH: Well, in a sense, that’s true. That is, if we were all willing to become much more vegetarian and so on, we could give the six billion people we have now, each one, a living diet. We don’t do that. Roughly a billion people go to bed in one degree or another hungry, 600 million at least very, very hungry. And about 10 million or so a year die of hunger or hunger-related disease. Not a very good record.
But, of course, there are two points to that: a) are we willing to distribute equally? And no human society has ever managed to do that. I mean, unequal distribution has been incredibly persistent in all human cultures I know about. It was better when we were hunter gatherers, but far from perfect. So, that’s number one.
Number two, an ecologist always has to ask for how long? In other words, the things that we are doing to produce that food are basically using up our capital. We are like the profligate child that has inherited a vast fortune from daddy, and every year writes a bigger check on the bank account but never asks what’s happening to the balance.
And, right now, in our efforts to feed the huge population that we have, we’re getting rid of our most essential capital. That is our fossil ground waters – you know, everywhere around the world the aquifers are being pumped out at much faster rates than they’re being recharged. We’re ruining the recharge areas, we’re ruining many of the aquifers. So we’re losing our fresh water, that’s one thing.
Secondly, the soils, which are absolutely essential to agriculture and growing food for people, are being eroded virtually everywhere at rates more rapid – with some rare exceptions – at rates much more rapid than they’re being restored. And, of course, the biodiversity, the protozoans and bacteria and plants and animals that are the working parts of our life support system, that supply us with absolutely indispensable ecosystem services, are being driven to extinction.
So, we’re losing our basic capital. We’re not able to live on our income, we’re living on our capital, and idiotic politicians think we can do it forever. Whenever you hear a politician say something like “now is the time to concentrate on the economy” rather than, God help us, the ecology – which is a terrible phrase – you just know you’ve got a moron. Because the economy is a wholly-owned subset of the environmental systems of the planet. If those systems don’t function properly, we won’t have any economy at all.
CURWOOD: Now, some would say that that kind of analysis, that the environmental analysis, actually comes from people who tend to favor nature over people. And that, hey, wait a second, in terms of trying to limit population growth we might limit some genius being born some place that could help us solve our problems.
EHRLICH: Well, yes, again, there are idiots everywhere. If you want to have geniuses, then what you ought to do is give the breaks to the people on the planet who don’t get a break now to show their genius. Just think, what is a starving kid in Africa, what is his or her chance of showing genius?
In most societies -- in fact, including ours too much -- what are the chances of a woman really getting the opportunity to show her genius? What are the chances of a person with very dark skin in the United States of getting to show their genius? All much lower than that of all of us with the silly gray skin who get lots of opportunities.
So, the idea that you somehow have to have more people born to produce more geniuses is just fundamentally idiotic. But the other side of the coin is, if you let the environmental systems run down, it doesn’t matter what kind of genius you have. There’s not going to be anything significant you’re going to be able to do about it.
We have had promise after promise –- when we wrote “The Population Bomb”, when there were three and a half billion people in the country, everyone said “oh, don’t worry, wonderful scientific breakthroughs are going to make it possible to give everyone, four or five billion people will all have excellent diets, excellent education, and Humvees.“
And here we are at 6.3, and we still are not able to take care of a billion of them. And another two billion, the same number of people as there were alive total when I was born, are not living lives that anyone listening to this program would trade for.
CURWOOD: Just ahead: finding the flow and the culprits that assault underground drinking water supplies. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.
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GRABER: Bycatch – unwanted fish caught accidentally and thrown back in the ocean – has been reduced in recent years. That’s because the fish catch is down in general, and because new technology has helped limit bycatch. Now, scientists say that the reduction in bycatch may have an unexpected effect. Predatory seabirds may turn to eating more small birds instead of waiting for a free lunch off the back of a fishing boat.
For example, predatory birds called great skuas had been on the decline a hundred years ago. Humans shot them for food and to keep them away from small livestock. But when factory fishing boats started throwing back huge amounts of unwanted fish, the birds followed the vessels, and their numbers rapidly increased.
The great skuas’ diet usually consists of fish and smaller birds. After they eat, skuas regurgitate small pellets of the indigestible parts of their meal. For the past 30 years, scientists have been collecting these pellets and analyzing skua meals, checking for feathers, or specific types of fish bones. They’ve compared this information against official information about levels of bycatch in any particular year.
In years when bycatch has been lower, fish intake has decreased, and the eating of small bird has gone up. This change in skua diet over the long-term could decrease the numbers of small birds such as the black-legged kittiwake, a type of gull that’s already on the decline. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.
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[MUSIC: The Dust Brothers “Corporate World” FIGHT CLUB SNDTRK (Restless Records - 1999)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: two views on how to get from here to there as Congress takes up the latest transportation bill. But first: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” baseball’s Yogi Berra once declared, and now his sublime wisdom can be applied to solving one of the nations most infamous pollution incidents.
The Woburn toxic waste case was the basis for the book and movie “A Civil Action.” The trial pitted eight families from Woburn against companies accused of dumping pollutants, that allegedly caused a cluster of leukemias and other cancers. This all took place back in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties.
A jury found the chemical giant W.R. Grace guilty of contaminating the drinking water. But, as Allan Coukell from member station WBUR reports, a new computer model suggests that W.R. Grace was not the main culprit.
[MUSICAL SCORE FROM "A CIVIL ACTION"]
COUKELL: It was a case that attracted national attention, the basis for a best-selling book, and a movie starring John Travolta.
TRAVOLTA [MOVIE CLIP]: Lawsuits are war, it’s as simple as that…
COUKELL: In the early 1980s, the families of eight Woburn leukemia patients filed a lawsuit, alleging that local companies had dumped toxic waste, which then spread through the soil, contaminating the drinking water in two city wells known as Wells G and H.
Three companies were involved in the legal proceedings. One, an industrial dry cleaning operation owned by the Unifirst Corporation, agreed to a settlement before the case came to trial. A jury decided that a second company, the J.J. Riley Tannery in Woburn, owned by Beatrice Foods, was not guilty.
But the third company involved was found guilty of contaminating the wells, and the chemical giant W.R. Grace eventually paid 8 million dollars to settle the suit. Now, a new study suggests that the jury may have reached the wrong verdict.
METHENY: Well, modeling is using equations – what we know about the way groundwater flows mathematically.
COUKELL: Maura Metheny is a geologist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She constructed a computer model of how water and contaminants spread through the ground at Woburn.
METHENY: By estimating when the contaminants were put on the ground, we can simulate how long it would take from each of those sources to reach the pumping area in the wetland.
COUKELL: Metheny calculated how fast the chemicals in question, known as TCE and PCE, would move, and in what direction. Working with Professor Scott Bair, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at Ohio State University, she created a kind of three-dimensional month-by-month map that shows the plumes of chemicals from various sources seeping through the ground.
The model takes into account rainfall, groundwater levels and other factors. And allowing for uncertainties, such as exactly when the dumping began, it predicts a range of possible scenarios to explain how the chemicals got into the drinking water.
And according to Professor Bair, most of the scenarios indicate that chemicals W.R. Grace and Unifirst played only a minor role in contaminating wells G and H before they were closed.
BAIR: In most of the plausible scenarios from our model, we see that the contamination from the Grace and Unifirst properties either doesn’t get to the wells before they were shut down in 1979. Or it gets there fairly late, around 1974-75, and it gets there in much lower amounts or concentrations than what was coming from the other contaminated properties and going to Well G.
COUKELL: Bair and Metheny recently presented their work at a meeting of the Geological Society of America. The results haven’t yet been published in full, so other researchers can’t yet evaluate them. But an Environmental Protection Agency scientist familiar with the work calls it “the most comprehensive modeling effort to date.”
Most of the scenarios produced by the new model indicate that the bulk of the contamination came from the Riley Tannery, owned by Beatrice Foods, and from another company, New England Plastics. Some also came from a company then called Hemingway Trucking.
All of those properties, as with the W.R. Grace and Unifirst properties, are known to be heavily contaminated, and are now part of the EPA cleanup.
SCHLICTMANN (in classroom): Yeah, they did something really unusual. You see they invited the companies to a place like this… (fades under)
COUKELL: Jan Schlictmann often speaks about the lessons of the Woburn case. He is the lawyer, played by John Travolta in the movie, who brought the original suit on behalf of the Woburn families.
SCHLICTMANN: There’s no question that if we had had the kind of sophisticated model that was used here, it absolutely would have been helpful in proving the case. No question about it.
COUKELL: Does it have legal implications today, do you think?
SCHLICTMANN: Not for our case. Our case is in history now. But the kind of model that was done here, the level of sophistication and how the analysis was done, will absolutely have application to many other cases out there – and, unfortunately, there are too many of these cases. There isn’t a community that doesn’t have one, or is under the threat of having one.
[JINGLE OF CAR KEYS SHUTTING OFF IGNITION, DOOR CLOSING, FOOTSTEPS ON VEGETATION]
COUKELL: Wells G and H have long been closed; the trees are bare; garbage litters the site. Not long ago, Donna Robbins paid her first visit in years. She was one of the original plaintiffs in the Woburn case.
ROBBINS: One of the wells, Well G is right over there, and that’s where there used to be a brick house…
COUKELL: Today, she says it doesn’t matter to her which companies contaminated the wells. Five companies dumped waste on their properties and that, she says, is what matters.
ROBBINS: This is about people, it’s about kids. And I don’t want people to have to focus on W.R. Grace or Beatrice in this study. It is a different degree of chemicals they all dumped. Some got there much quicker, much more concentrated. But they all contaminated. And it still hurts to think that these companies did what they did, and that our sons are no longer here.
COUKELL: The Beatrice Foods Corporation, as it was constituted in the 1980s, no longer exists. New England Plastics, the Unifirst Corporation and a representative for the former Hemingway Trucking property did not return calls for this story. A spokesman for W.R. Grace acknowledged the new study, but said the company has moved on beyond that time. The EPA says its Superfund cleanup at Wells G and H will continue for decades to come, until the water is safe to drink. For Living on Earth, I’m Allan Coukell.
CURWOOD: Woe unto he who stands between a politician and pavement. That’s been the motto in Congress as senators steamrolled over opposition to a 318 billion-dollar transportation bill. Supporters of the measure promise these hundreds of billions for highways will bring us safer roads and shorter commutes. But growing numbers of transportation reformers doubt the pledge, and do not like the road the transportation bill would take us down. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.
YOUNG: Dan Burden is on a journey, one he hopes will end with more of us out of our cars and on our feet. Burden’s been in transportation planning for decades, directing the state of Florida’s efforts to encourage bicycling and walking.
He’s also head of a group called “Walkable Communities,” a job that has him on a sort of nationwide pep talk for pedestrians, preaching the benefits of fewer cars and more bikes, shorter commutes and longer walks. Burden’s inspiration came from another American traveler – John Steinbeck and his last book, "Travels with Charlie."
BURDEN: Toward the end of the book he made a startling revelation that I discovered when I was only 20 years old reading that book. Steinbeck says America is out of sync with its values. We say we’re for children, beauty, safety, all these things. And then we build exactly the opposite. And what my journey of these eight years to already 1,500 communities is proving is, Steinbeck was right. If anything, we’re even more out of synch with our values today than when Steinbeck wrote that book.
YOUNG: As evidence, Burden points to the sprawling, car-oriented development surrounding most American cities – landscapes he finds alienating, unhealthy, aesthetically displeasing and, in this case, downright dangerous.
[REVVING ENGINE, WHIR OF PASSING CARS]
YOUNG: Burden takes me to an intersection just inside Washington D.C.’s beltway, where New Hampshire and University Avenues meet in a mass of pavement. The area was clearly built for cars, but many of its residents are immigrant workers who don’t drive. Instead, they make a daily crossing that has turned deadly. In three years, nearly 50 pedestrians were hit by cars here. Four have died.
[TRAFFIC SOUNDS UP AND OVER]
BURDEN: We’re looking down at six lanes of traffic coming in from every quadrant, and then swelling up to as many as 10 or 11 lanes at the intersections.
YOUNG: Now, when you look at something like this I’m guessing you’re not seeing things going the way they should?
BURDEN: No, here we’re seeing a lot of pedestrian activity -- a tremendous amount in fact. And what we’re seeing is the pedestrians, some are them are trying to make it to islands and across, but a great number of them are going away from the intersection, crossing mid-block where they have to go across six lanes. So what we’re saying is that a lot of motorists, because they’re trying to get into that light, they’re not watching for the pedestrians and they’re taking out their lives.
YOUNG: How does this happen? How did we end up with a road like this?
BURDEN: Well, we end up with these -- what I call “super streets” or “streets on steroids” --because we simply have not carefully thought out where we need streets. And we have no other choices on transportation so we put more and more people into vehicles and try to get through intersections, and then widen them even more. It turns out to be a dead end street.
YOUNG: Burden argues for fewer highways and more money for mass transit. He puts towns on what he calls “street diets” – converting traffic lanes into bike paths and sidewalks. He says cars in towns should move more slowly, but more smoothly, not racing to each stoplight. Towns with these elements have a higher quality of life, Burden says, the true measure of success in transportation.
BURDEN: The more money we spend on building more highways, the more we’re going to worsen the conditions. The case for congestion by spending more money on it has always proved the wrong way to go (laughs).
YOUNG: But it’s exactly the direction he sees Congress heading with its six-year plan for transportation. The Senate’s majority leader, Bill Frist, pushed a 318 billion dollar bill. President Bush balked at the price and threatened a veto. Frist and 75 other senators ignored him.
FRIST: You know, we can’t ask our fellow citizens to join the great American workforce, and then simply sit here or sit as that daily commute grows from minutes to 30 minutes to 60 minutes, indeed to hours. It’s a jobs issue, it’s a quality of life issue, it’s a safety issue.
YOUNG: The bill would increase funding for all forms of surface travel – light rail, buses and maybe Amtrak, too. But most of the money – at least 80 percent – would go into highways. John Horsely says that’s where it belongs.
HORSLEY: We think that the American preference for the automobile is logical. We’ve got to expand capacity.
YOUNG: Horsely’s executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state transportation departments. Horsley applauds the Senate’s spending, but also wants Congress to streamline the highway planning process. He wants fewer delays from environmental analysis and faster construction starts. Environmental groups object to this streamlining, saying it will reduce protections for clean air and open spaces. Horsely says those groups just don’t like roads.
HORSLEY: What many of these national environmental groups want to do is tie up the system with such complexity that the citizens can’t get their way and see the transport improvements actually realized. The unfortunate thing that has happened over time is that it now takes six years to complete the environmental review required for a major transportation project. That’s far too long and we want to see that fixed.
YOUNG: But one former member of Horsely’s group disagrees with the streamlining approach. Ann Canby was Delaware’s transportation secretary for eight years. Now she leads the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a reform group based in Washington. Canby says the rules Horsley wants changed aren’t the real roadblocks.
CANBY: I don’t believe the environmental review process is where the greatest amount of delays occur. And from my experience as a transportation secretary, you get things done faster when you have community consensus and you build broad support for getting things done, rather than special interest support for getting things done.
YOUNG: Canby wants to merge transportation plans with those for an area’s land use – planning for smart growth that's best achieved at the city or county level. But she fears streamlining highway plans will concentrate decision-making power higher up at the state Departments of Transportation.
CANBY: The state DOT’s are for the most part a one product company: they’re very good at building roads. They understand less well how to build a good pedestrian environment, or a bike environment, or how to support transit investments.
YOUNG: And that’s what weighs on Dan Burden’s mind as he continues his pedestrian pilgrimage. He finds more communities ready for new ideas to improve lifestyles and landscapes. But he wonders if those ideas will get a chance in the coming highway construction.
BURDEN: More and more Americans are tired of the ‘burbs, getting tired of that rat race. So all the funding for 50, 60 years that went into building the suburbs and starting to create the dilemma that we’re now facing, is starting to turn back on itself.
And our philosophy for our transportation is going to have to reverse itself. It’s got to be more flexible, it’s got to be more understanding, and it’s got to be more grassroots. So I personally think this transport bill is one of the key decisions Congress is going to make for a long time.
YOUNG: The transportation debate moves to the House later this month as Representatives consider a version of the bill that could top 370 billion dollars. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
[MUSIC: (no artist info) “Stink” GET SHORTY SNDTRK (PolyGram Records - 1995)]
CURWOOD: And for this week - that's Living on Earth. Next week – we dive into the world of extreme birding. Every year, birders brave all kinds of terrain, from mosquito-infested swamps to Arctic ice, for a chance at the most coveted of birding titles.
OBMASCIK: The Big Year is kind of the Super Bowl of birding. How many birds can you see north of the Mexican border in a year? And the idea is just to chase a rumor of a rare species. And there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will chase them.
CURWOOD: The tale of fowl obsession, next time on Living on Earth. And 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.
And just a reminder that Living on Earth is giving one listener and a guest the chance to win a spot on our upcoming African safari. To be entered in the sweepstakes automatically, please visit Living on Earth Web site at livingonearth.org and become a member. Or, mail a three by five card with your contact information to 20 Holland Street, Suite 408, Somerville, MA, 02144.
The sweepstakes is open to all legal residents of the U.S. and Canada aged 18 and up – except those employed by Living on Earth, NPR, or the stations that broadcast this program. All entries must be received by March 1, 2004. One entry per person, please. The winner will be selected in a random drawing. The estimated value of this prize is $7,000, which includes airfare from New York City. Visit livingonearth.org for details on this exciting trip.
CURWOOD: We leave you this week, with a little ringing in your ears.
[CASCADING HIGH-TEMPO PATTER OF COW BELLS BENEATH STEADY GONG OF CHURCH BELL]
CURWOOD: In a Swiss Alpine village, Steven Feld recorded a herd of belled cows heading back to the barn as the Angelus chimes from a nearby church.
[EARTH EAR: Steven Feld “Meaudre” THE TIME OF BELLS (VoxLox – 2004)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, 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.
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