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

September 17, 2004

Air Date: September 17, 2004



Animals Gone Wild

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Recent studies suggest that more might be learned in the wild than in the lab about how chemicals can scramble hormone signals in animals. Researchers typically look at development and physiological changes in lab animals to set safety standards for human exposure to these chemicals. But a growing number of researchers say these methods ignore the subtle consequences these chemicals have on animal behavior. Host Steve Curwood talks with Prof. Ethan Clotfelter, who teaches biology at Amherst College, about the implications of the studies, one of which he co-authored. (05:20)

Aging Nukes

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Around the nation aging nuclear power plants are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow them to produce more power then they were licensed for. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is one of them, and as nearby residents wait for the commission’s decision, there’s a controversy over whether the plant can handle the increased load. Reporter Eesha Williams, of the Valley Advocate newspaper in Western Massachusetts, spoke to Steve Curwood about the issue. (06:40)

The Plight of the Kalahari Bushmen

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The Bushmen of the Kalahari are being squeezed off their ancestral lands to make room for industries like diamond mining and cattle ranching. So, they’ve filed a lawsuit against the government to get their land back. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Rupert Isaacson author of The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert who’s helping to lead the effort. Joining them are two Bushmen, Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone. (16:40)

Emerging Science Note/Self-Sustaining Robot / Eileen Bolinsky

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Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports on the EcoBots, a new design of robots that create their own energy by eating flies. (01:20)

California Air / Ingrid Lobet

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California is moving to counter climate change, by requiring new controls on cars in five years. Detroit is up in arms and says it’s a federal, not a state issue. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet takes a look at where greenhouse gases fit into California’s 50 year fight against air pollution. (15:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Ethan Clotfelter, Jumanda Gakelebone, Rupert Isaacson, Roy SesanaREPORTER: Ingrid LobetNOTE: Eileen Bolinsky


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. With the federal government opposed to mandatory limits on global warming gasses, California is taking matters into its own hands, much to the chagrin of automakers.

GARCIA: California is looking at implementing regulations to control greenhouse gasses from automobiles. Technically what that means is controlling the fuel economy. The concern that we have is whether California or any other state were to do that on a state by state basis.

CURWOOD: As the state pushes its anti-climate change measure, some predict a fight in court. But others say California has already accomplished its mission.

EDGERTON: What they’ve done is they’ve got a blueprint for how we could, as a nation, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Well, that’s pretty terrific.

CURWOOD: Keeping it cool in California, this week on Living on Earth. Also, new evidence that synthetic chemicals are changing the way animals behave in the wild. Stick around.


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

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Animals Gone Wild

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

For years, research has linked pollution from industrial and agricultural chemicals to physical abnormalities in animals. The chemicals are thought to scramble the ability to send and process hormones and other neuro-chemical signals that control growth and physiology. For example, alligators living in a Florida lake contaminated with pesticides have been found to have grossly malformed sex organs.

Now, there’s evidence linking these so-called endocrine disrupting chemicals to increased abnormalities in animal behavior. These phenomena are harder to observe than physical deformities, but they could be warning signs of population crashes for many species. Ethan Clotfelter of Amherst College co-authored an article in the journal Animal Behavior that details what scientists have so far been able to piece together about how chemical pollutants can change the way animals act.

Professor Clotfelter, just what are you seeing?

CLOTFELTER: Oh, there’s a whole list of kinds of behavioral changes that we’re seeing. Everything from really gross anatomical impairments – animals that can’t really stand up straight or can’t move in a coordinated way to much more complex social interactions. Courtship behaviors is a common one, but even things like being able to adequately construct a nest, in the case of birds, or really complicated cognitive functions. So in primates and rats, being able to solve a maze or solve some sort of a cognitive task really seems to be impaired by these chemicals. So really it’s a whole range of kinds of behaviors. Pretty much everything you can think of that animals do in some way has been affected.

CURWOOD: How might long-term exposure to these substances affect entire populations of animals, do you think?

CLOTFELTER: Well, the case of DDT in the 1970s is sort of the classic one that we all keep in the back of our minds as we’re thinking about these things. Where birds such as osprey, bald eagles and such began to experience massive population declines because of exposure to DDT. We certainly are mindful that long-term – even subtle changes in behavior – might have similar large-scale effects again, ultimately resulting in population declines or perhaps even extinctions in small areas.

CURWOOD: Now, as you studied these groups of animals who’ve been exposed to chemicals that disrupt hormone functions, what do you think the implications are for us as humans – human health from all of this?

CLOTFELTER: Well, I think it’s a pretty significant question, and I think it’s one that deserves a lot more attention. There are several very intriguing and very scary studies that have linked exposure to possible chemicals to changes in the way that children play. There was a really frightening study of schoolchildren in parts of Mexico where one population was heavily exposed to pesticides and the other wasn’t. And they found pretty marked differences in everything from just how coordinated these children were, to their ability to draw specific items, to how well they could pay attention. So certainly a lot of behavioral problems in children could conceivably be linked to exposure to these chemicals.

CURWOOD: Typically when you look at chemicals being dangerous, being toxic, the more of something is usually considered the more toxic. But in this area of research it seems that you and your colleagues are looking at situations where a low dose of some chemical might in fact be worse than a higher dose. How true is that? And how do you explain that?

CLOTFELTER: Well, I think how true it is is really a very hard question to answer, because there’s certainly some people who have done a significant amount of work showing that this phenomena of these non-linear types of responses are quite common. And some estimates may be as high as 40 percent of the chemicals tested actually have shown higher effects at small doses than at intermediate doses. So there certainly are some suggestions that it’s a fairly widespread phenomenon.

But a lot of people have resisted that idea. Certainly because the field of toxicology is largely based on this assumption that, you know, that the dose makes the poison. And so as you add more, then you have more of an effect. If a substantial number of chemicals in a substantial number of animals, including humans, have this sort of non-linear effect, then I think we have a much, much greater problem because all of our regulatory decisions from agencies like the EPA are based on this assumption that lower is better.

And so there have been a few studies by my colleagues that have shown that, at what are considered environmentally-acceptable doses of chemicals, that you see real behavioral and physiological effects in animals. So certainly that opens up a whole slew of questions about whether or not we’ve been missing all this, and that at these low doses there’s actually worse things that could happen.

CURWOOD: Ethan Clotfelter teaches biology at Amherst College. Thank you so much for taking this time with us today.

CLOTFELTER: Okay great, thanks for having me.

[MUSIC: Jon Anderson “Concerto Uno” EARTH MOTHER EARTH (Ellipsis Arts –1997)]

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Aging Nukes

CURWOOD: The owners of 90 nuclear power plants across the United States are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to increase the amount of power their plants can generate. The move would also boost their profits.

Vermont Yankee (Photo: Eesha Williams)

One of the plant operators seeking this change is the Entergy Corporation, which owns Vermont Yankee, one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants. Entergy wants a 20 percent power increase, or uprate, as it’s called, for Vermont Yankee, but the bid has attracted protests because of the plant’s age and safety problems.

Joining me now is Eesha Williams who covers the nuclear power industry – and Vermont Yankee - for the Valley Advocate newspaper in western Massachusetts. Using Vermont Yankee as a starting point, he’s here to talk about the controversy over this latest trend in the nuclear power business. Hello, Eesha. Thanks for joining me.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, it’s good to be here.

CURWOOD: Why is Entergy seeking to increase the power there?

WILLIAMS: They will generate 20 percent more power. They can sell that, make 20 percent more profits without major investments in the plant. They’re in business to make money and they see this as a good way to do it.

CURWOOD: So how well has the plant performed? I mean, how reliable is it? And what kind of problems has it had?

WILLIAMS: Vermont Yankee, by and large, has been a very reliable source of energy. It’s only in recent years, as the plant has aged, that it’s had a few problems. This year, cracks were discovered in a critical component at the plant. Actually, 20 cracks. There was a fire in a non-radioactive part of the plant that required the plant to be shut down for almost three weeks.

CURWOOD: What about the question of compromising safety by increasing the power output? The companies – what do they tell you is the margin of safety that’ll happen even if this plant were to go up by 20 percent in power generation. They must be presenting convincing evidence to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they can do that safely. What is that evidence?

WILLIAMS: Well, Steve, that’s an excellent question, and to be perfectly honest, it does increase risk. There is an increase. You run this power plant 20 percent harder, hotter, faster than its ever been run before at a time when it’s developing cracks, it’s over 30 years old. It’s been running 24 hours a day almost seven days a week for 32 years. This does increase risk.

What is Entergy’s say? They say this plant was over-designed when it was designed back in 1967, the engineers incorporated extra protections – just like when they build a bridge, they design it for the worst possible hurricane times ten. Vermont Yankee was built to withstand more than the worst possible accident that could happen. But ultimately, the safety margins are reduced.

The federal government has estimated that 7,000 people would die within a year of a serious accident at Vermont Yankee. And, in fact, just early September this year, Vermont, for the first time of any state in the country – any one of the so-called uprates, or power increases – the state of Vermont has intervened, has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the right to have a hearing to express its concerns about just this issue, about safety.

CURWOOD: Now what’s the public response been to Entergy’s request to increase the power at Vermont Yankee?

WILLIAMS: Well there’s only been one hearing so far in the area around Vermont Yankee. The town is called Vernon, a town of about 2,000, where Vermont Yankee is based. And the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent of a group of high-ranking officials from its headquarters in Washington to come out to Vernon. And they held the hearing at the elementary school, which is right across the street from the nuclear power plant, and I think they were surprised. I think it’s fair to say they were surprised by the turnout. Over 500 people turned out. I was at the hearing. It lasted far beyond when it was supposed to end – it started at seven o’clock at night and went I think about till midnight. And I think it’s fair to say that 99 percent of the speakers were adamantly opposed to the uprate, to the power increase at Vermont Yankee.

CURWOOD: And why did they say they were opposed?

WILLIAMS: People are concerned about the waste. There was never a deal between Vermont Yankee’s owners and the people in the towns around it that there’d be a permanent nuclear waste dump in their town for 10,000 years. They were given assurances that this waste would be shipped to Nevada to the desert to be buried under Yucca Mountain. And now that is very much in doubt. In fact, John Kerry has said that if he’s elected he will not let Yucca Mountain open.

CURWOOD: So where will Vermont Yankee’s waste go, if not to Yucca Mountain?

WILLIAMS: Vermont Yankee’s waste – 500 tons – is now sitting in what they call a spent fuel pool. It’s like a giant swimming pool, it’s 40 feet deep and it’s seven stories high, in this tall building on the side of the Connecticut River. That pool has been what they call “re-racked.” Basically they’ve re-arranged it so they can fit more waste in it than it was intended to hold. The way that pool works is that – and the reason nuclear power plants are always by a large body of water, a river, an ocean – is that they need huge amounts of water. Tens of thousands of gallons every hour to cool down this waste. If that water ever stops flowing around that waste a nuclear fire would take place, and that would cause terrible consequences.

CURWOOD: So, what does the Nuclear Regulatory Commission look at when it considers whether or not a power plant, a nuclear power plant, can increase its power?

WILLIAMS: Well, that’s a good question, and that’s much in the news these days. Maine Yankee, which was another nuclear power plant similar to Vermont Yankee – that was closed in 1997 following an investigation, an independent safety assessment which was demanded by the public, by the communities around the plant and by then-governor Angus King of Maine. And due to this real rigorous public pressure the NRC appointed independent observers and conducted a very rigorous inspection. Thousands of hours of engineers were crawling over this plant. They found so many safety problems at Maine Yankee that the owners found it cheaper to just close the plant than to fix all the problems. Now with Vermont Yankee, critics say the NRC is being much less rigorous.

CURWOOD: So what do you think the odds are that the NRC is going to approve a power increase for Vermont Yankee?

WILLIAMS: Well that’s the big question in Vermont. The NRC has said it will issue a decision by January. There’s never been this kind of public opposition. A state has never asked to intervene with the NRC regarding an uprate application, or power increase application. The Congressional delegation for a state has never intervened in this way and requested a Congressional investigation. So, at this point it’s anybody’s guess. But if you were a bookie in Las Vegas, you’d look at the NRC’s history. And it’s 90-plus “yes’s,” zero “no.” So, that would make it seem that the odds are pretty good that Entergy will get at least some uprate. Maybe not 20 percent, but at least some amount of power increase for Vermont Yankee.

CURWOOD: Eesha Williams covers the nuclear power industry for the Valley Advocate newspaper in Massachusetts. In 2003 he won Vermont’s top award for investigative journalism from the Vermont Press Association. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

WILLIAMS: Thanks Steve.

CURWOOD: Coming up: a plea to keep life as humans have known it for thousands of years in Southern Africa. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jon Anderson “Harptree Tree” EARTH MOTHER EARTH (Ellipsis Arts – 1997)]

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The Plight of the Kalahari Bushmen

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The Bushmen of the Kalahari have traditionally been an isolated culture. Their way of life dates back tens of thousands of years, and they may be the oldest aboriginal tribe of humans. Hunting and healing form the backbone of their society. Until recently, they largely kept to themselves, and rarely had to appeal to the outside world for help.

Now all that’s changed. Thousands of Bushmen, or San, are being squeezed off their ancestral lands, to make room for industries like diamond mining and cattle ranching. In Botswana, this is playing out on a Bushman homeland called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The bushmen there have filed a lawsuit against the government to get their land back and they’re looking for support here in the U.S. and at the United Nations.

Rupert Isaacson is helping organize this effort. He’s author of: “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Rupert, welcome back to Living on Earth.

ISAACSON: Thank you for having me back.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been traveling across the country with members of the Bushmen of Botswana, two of whom are with you in the studio, Roy Sesana, and his translator, Jumanda Gakelebone. Welcome, both of you.


CURWOOD: Rupert, let’s start with you. Part of the reason that your group is here in the United States has to do with a particular parcel of land in Botswana, which is called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. What kind of relationship have the Bushmen – have the San – historically had with this land?

ISAACSON: Well, it’s their ancestral land. You could say – it’s true to say – that really all of southern Africa is originally the San, or Bushmen, ancestral land. But over the course of the last few hundred years they’ve been gradually extinguished, displaced, from almost all of the Subcontinent. And now the traditional culture hangs on in a few spots – in Botswana, Namibia and some of the neighboring countries.

(Photo: © Survival)

But the bulk of the traditional life, until a couple of years ago, was still to be found in this area, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. The reason is because it’s one of the only reserves, I think on the continent, that was actually intentionally set aside as much to preserve the culture of the people who were living there when the reserve was proclaimed as for the animals. Which was quite revolutionary at the time, because most game reserves and national parks within Africa were actually created by kicking people off.

So this was a fairly enlightened move that the British government made just before they left Botswana. They took this very remote area the size of Switzerland – the second largest conserved area I think on the continent of Africa – called it the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and in its mandate, in its constitution, said this is for the Bushmen to continue their hunting and gathering culture in perpetuity, and will protect the ecology to allow this to happen.

CURWOOD: How long do the Bushmen go back on this land?

ISAACSON: The Bushmen culture itself is thought to be the oldest on the planet. Earlier this year an artifact was found – a necklace that is apparently Khoisan Bushmen – on the coast of South Africa. It was dated at 70,000 years old. Which is pretty old (LAUGHS). So how long have they occupied the Central Kalahari Game Reserve? Let’s just say longer than anybody else.

CURWOOD: So, the San, or the Bushmen, have been on this land tens of thousands of years, perhaps more. What has happened recently now?

ISAACSON: In 2002, they were forcibly relocated against their will. This is a process that had actually begun back in the late ‘80s. And then in the ‘90s, the government moved in and took people out of one village, put them outside the reserve in a relocation settlement, where the conditions were pretty dire, and there was a sufficient human rights outcry back then to make the Botswana government back off. However, in 2002, I guess, world attention had gone elsewhere. And they went back in and moved the rest out – all but about a hundred people who have refused to move, who are still in there surviving as best they can.

CURWOOD: Why does the government want to move these people? Why is the government moving the people?

ISAACSON: The governments say that a) this is not a forcible relocation, that they’ve persuaded the Bushmen to move for their own good. They say that they can’t offer them the developments that they need to become modern Botswana citizens inside a game reserve. And that’s more or less about it. However, over the last 30 years or so since independence, really enormous numbers of Bushmen have been relocated and displaced within Botswana. For the creation of new national parks and reserves, diamond mines, and particularly cattle ranching that the European Union poured a lot of money into – the Botswana cattle industry after independence.

And a lot of Bushmen sort of woke up with fences around them, literally finding themselves living as serfs in other people’s cattle ranches. All this of course happened during the apartheid era when Botswana was, if you like, one of the “good people” in Africa, and was sheltering exiles from apartheid and so on. So there wasn’t any attention, really, to these sort of quiet human rights abuses that were going on. And there was no culture of finding a voice among the Bushmen. So these people more or less sort of evaporated. They became scavengers around the outskirts of the towns, a lot of them died, etcetera.

Bushman Elder (Photo: © Survival)

And then there is something else, which is hard to underestimate the importance of. You can get Roy to speak more about this. But there really is a true cultural racism at work with this process, that traditionally the relationship of the Botswana government and really the Botswana tribe who they, to a large degree, they represent, towards Bushman, has always been a master/serf relationship. So I think it didn’t really occur to a lot of people in government there that there would be any kind of outcry.

CURWOOD: Let me turn to you, Roy, and ask you: What about the cultural divide with the Botswana who run the country now? Rupert suggests there is ethnic, there is racial, tensions here. What’s your analysis?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): The true answer is that we as Bushmens, wherever we are and we stay with the Botswana people, they oppress us. There’s racial discrimination. And it’s part of using us as servants.

CURWOOD: Now, the government has said that diamond mining, ranching, these things have nothing to do with the issue. And, in fact, that it’s not even forcibly removing your people from your ancestral homelands. What’s your response to these statements, Roy?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): My response to this question is that it’s not the truth. I can say that we’ve been forcibly removed. I am myself right now sitting here talking with you. My home has been dismantled during my absence. They even stopped the services like water. There used to be mobile health, which also stopped. To say that those things … and we have been asked, if you don’t move, you are not going to be given all those services. By so doing there are some who refused to move right now, saying like this, they are not given those services. That shows that there was force. If there was not force, why are those who refuse to move not been given those services?

CURWOOD: So no water, no medical help?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): That’s correct. Even I myself was [sic] sometime when I went outside the camp myself, tried to bring water inside to help those who have remained behind. The government officials especially, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. In their case they stopped me and asked me not to bring inside the water. My elder brother is very sick, who refused to move in [sic]. I’m stopped not to visit and see how he is. Who is saying they did not force us to move? It is not the truth.

CURWOOD: Roy, you organized a lawsuit against the government to get your land back. What made you decide to do this?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): I look at the Bushmens and they don’t have rights everywhere in the land, especially in the country, being moved every day. And whereever they are moved I see their culture keep on changing. So this worried me. And then I see if the Bushmen is all going to be moved in [sic] then we’ll, in the end, not have any Bushmen in Botswana.

CURWOOD: Now, the government says by moving your tribe, your families, off of this land, that they’re bringing you to a better life. That away from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve there’ll be modern conveniences and such. What’s your understanding of how you and your friends and family live now after being displaced from the game reserve?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): That is not the truth – we are not moved to be developed. In our land we stayed with our culture; we did not have a lot of diseases, which we get from our neighbors and whatever. To me, to be moved to outside of the reserve is to take us to the fire. According to our culture, our land is something which makes us to be rich, and is our life. If you are hungry staying on your land, you know where to go and find what to eat. Where we have been moved – right now to three new settlements – seems like we have been put in custody.

CURWOOD: So it’s prison?

GAKELEBONE: Yeah, that’s prison, yeah.

CURWOOD: What kinds of things can you do now outside of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to preserve the San culture? What chances do you have to hunt, for example?

SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): There is nothing we can do to preserve our culture. What I’ve seen is that we’ve been taken outside for prison – that is the thing which we see. And now our kids are taken to school, and they don’t bring good results. They don’t do much in education. We take our kids to school, then they get HIV and pregnancy. But other tribes outside that have been taken – there have been a lot sexual abuse by other tribes with Bushmen. And we have got other children, kids from the different tribes, and all these Bushmen are going to be killed by this disease of AIDS. So I’m afraid that’s all, that we won’t have Bushmen, that’s all. So these new kids which are born are not Bushmen, they’re something else.

(Photo: © Survival)

CURWOOD: Rupert, I want to ask you about this trip that you have booked here in the United States. I gather you’ve met with some folks in Hollywood to spread your message. And you’re planning to go to the United Nations, I also understand. But what do you think it will really take to restore the lands of the Central Kalahari to these Bushmen?

ISAACSON: It’s a very good question. Certainly, these are people who have never had a voice nationally, let alone internationally. One valuable lesson I learned was that even when it seems that it’s all over, often it actually isn’t. And the group that I am actually closest to live in South Africa. They’re called the Khomani Bushmen. And they were down to about 30 individuals living by the side of the road, having been kicked out of a national park in South Africa in the ‘70s. They went from this, after Mandela came into power, to finding themselves a human rights lawyer and eventually, in ‘99, winning themselves the largest land claim in southern African history. And you could say that they’ve really created a legal precedent whereby the guys in Botswana now have a chance. So even against seemingly overwhelming odds, this sort of beautiful culture – this non-combative, non-belligerent, deeply functional culture – seems to be able to survive even in the most dire situations.

One thing which I’d also like to draw listeners’ attention to is that this trip is not my idea. It’s also not Roy’s idea, it’s not Jumanda’s idea. This trip was conceived by another Bushman, a guy called Dawid Kruiper, who lives on a sand dune in South Africa. And it was him who brought his people home in ‘99. He was the one who said to me, “Okay, Rupe, you’ve published this book now, you need to use it as a vehicle to get us to America so we can be heard. And it needs to be some of us from South Africa, but also you need to contact the guys in Botswana because they are in the position that we were 25 years ago and they need help. Go get them a voice, have them remind the West that we exist, and why we need to exist.”

CURWOOD: Well I want to thank you all for taking this time with me today. Rupert Isaacson is author of “Healing Land: the Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Jumanda Gakelebone is a translator for the Bushmen. And Roy Sesana is founder of the group First People of the Kalahari. Thank you all for speaking with me today.

ISAACSON: Thank you for having us.


[MUSIC: Eleni Karaindrou THE WEAPING MEADOW (ECM – 2004)]

Related link:
Survival International on plight of the Bushmen

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Emerging Science Note/Self-Sustaining Robot

CURWOOD: Just ahead: California’s bid to put a lid on the gases that are warming the planet. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Eileen Bolinsky.


BOLINSKY: It may sound more like science fiction than science, but a team of British scientists are developing what they hope will become the ultimate, autonomous, killer robot.

As reported in the current issue of New Scientist magazine, robotic scientists in Bristol, England are refining the design of EcoBot II: a robot that produces its own power by catching and “digesting” flies.

The EcoBots will be used as “release and forget” devices, meaning they can be sent into areas that are either too dangerous or inaccessible to humans. The robots would carry out tasks such as monitoring temperature or toxic gas concentrations, for example. Results would then be radioed back to a base station.

EcoBot is not the first carnivorous robot to be developed, but if scientists succeed in making it self-sustaining, it may well prove the most practical. The robot is designed to generate its own power by breaking down the sugar contained in the skeletons of flies, a process which releases electrons that drive an electric current.

Right now, the flies must be manually fed into the fuel cells, but scientists are improving the design of the EcoBot so it will be able to lure the insects on its own. The likeliest way they will accomplish this, however, is by using sewage or excrement for bait—a solution that is guaranteed to cause quite a stink. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Eileen Bolinsky.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; Ford, presenting the Escape Hybrid, whose full hybrid technology allows it to run on gas or electric power. Full hybrid technology details at fordvehicles.com; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle “Picture Start” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]

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California Air

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

As California goes, so goes the nation - at least on the environment. Now, California is addressing global warming by moving to become the first state to force automakers to build cars that give off fewer climate-changing gasses. The state’s air agency is expected to vote on the final regulation in a few days.

Today, Living on Earth looks forward, and also looks back. Forward, to where this latest conflict between California and the auto industry might lead. And back, at how climate change fits in to the five-decade long fight in California for clean air. Ingrid Lobet begins our report with a visit to one low-key, yet key player.

LOBET: This most ambitious California effort, to address global warming at a state level, didn't begin with a celebrity press conference. Instead, three and a half years ago, the director of a small environmental group--the Bluewater Network--visited the office of State Assemblymember Fran Pavley, who'd just gotten her phone connected.


PAVLEY: I was a brand new freshman legislator, just gotten in, took my oath of office, putting together my bill package for the first time.

LOBET: The Bluewater Network's Russell Long asked Pavley if she would initiate the first legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks. These vehicles give off about one third of California's total greenhouse gasses. It sounded simple, but it would be uncharted territory.

PAVLEY: And so I introduced this bill. Unbeknownst to me they'd probably been shopping the bill to all the other more senior legislators who said "No way," --So it was a relatively easy decision for you? -- Yes, because I figured you know... no thought that the bill would actually pass.

LOBET: If Pavley didn't hesitate, she says it's partly because she lives in southern California, a region that depends on mountain snow-pack for its daily water. And she and her family often visit a coastline she views as vulnerable as the world warms.


PAVLEY: We're sitting on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific ocean in Malibu, and some of the biggest impacts to California, as far as climate change are not only the early melt of the Sierra snow-pack. We're also concerned about sea level rising, predictions of five to ten inches perhaps in the next century and we have 1100 miles of coastline.


LOBET: The proposed regulations require automakers to begin reducing their emissions of greenhouse gasses in 2009: a total of 34% for cars and 25% for SUVs by 2016.

But when automakers and car dealers looked at the bill, they saw something else: less desirable cars. That's because the main global warming gas emitted by cars and SUVs is carbon dioxide, which can't be filtered out. It's reduced by burning less fuel. In order to burn less fuel, carmakers say, you install smaller engines. Smaller engines run lighter, smaller cars. Charlie Territo spoke for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

TERRITO: If we do have to meet this law, I can almost guarantee that Californians will be driving smaller, lighter and less powerful vehicles. There will be limits to the types of vehicles that will be offered in California because of that.

LOBET: Look what cars Americans are actually choosing, argues the Alliance. Fully half the vehicles now sold each year in America are SUVs, despite the hype about the Toyota hybrid Prius and its long waiting list.

TERRITO: Consumers look for cargo capacity, they look for reliability, they look for safety, they look for towing capacity. But on a list of what consumers look for most when they purchase new cars, fuel economy is very, very far down on the list.

LOBET: California regulators said manufacturers can comply using existing or "off-the-shelf" technology, and they estimate it will initially add about $300 to the purchase price of a car or truck. They also said that cost would be more than made up in fuel savings over time.

But soon car dealerships had organized together with automakers and autoworkers against the proposed regulation, in a multi-million dollar effort. The heavy hitters and the pressures didn't seem to phase first term legislator Fran Pavley, a fact she attributes to her former line of work: teaching middle school.

PAVLEY: You deal with 13 year olds, you know, you can probably go with any kind of challengers and you never show weakness.

LOBET: And in time, Pavley's bill collected its own array of heavy hitters: 23 cosponsors, backing from the ski industry, water agencies, religious leaders, nurses and Silicon Valley businesses. It squeaked past the legislature in 2002 and in a ceremony that some said would be the most important of their careers, then-Governor Gray Davis signed it into law.

DAVIS: In a few moments I will be pleased to sign the first bill in America designed to combat global warming.


LOBET: And so the bill has come to rest at the California Air Resources Board, an agency with a staff of more than 900. There, scientists, analysts and engineers have rendered it from legislative intent into grams of greenhouse gasses allowed per mile. Now they've passed the plan up to their bosses, the 11-member board, to vote on on September 23rd. So much of our country's air pollution language was conceived at the Air Resources Board. The question “why” leads back to 1940s and ‘50s Los Angeles.


LOBET: It was a time of industrial growth and economic boom. But even then the combination of industry, automobiles, topography and prevailing wind were conspiring to choke Angelenos. The citrus industry was also suffering. An orchard chemist, Dr. Ari Hagen Smid discovered that the same gas --ozone --might be burning the leaves on citrus trees, and burning people's eyes and lungs. Local officials like the one in this undated film learned that the pollutant came from exhaust gasses and particles baked in sunlight.


MALE: [FILM] As mayor of Los Angeles, I am deeply concerned about the present smog conditions. I've ordered the police department to cooperate with the county air pollution control board in every manner.


LOBET: Los Angeles and San Francisco clamped down on factories and refineries. But there was little apparent benefit.

MALE: A record was set today for the longest duration of hazardous air in the history of Los Angeles and the smog conditions will be just as bad tomorrow. Everyone, no matter how physically fit is being warned to stay inside and take it easy whenever possible.


LOBET: It was becoming clear that something needed to be done about cars. So in 1960 the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Agency was born. Jerry Martin, chief spokesperson for the Air Resources Board, explains its first move was to require bolted-on emission control equipment.

MARTIN: Unfortunately, most of those vehicles didn't work very well with that stuff added on to 'em. The pollution control equipment, we now know, has to be part of the engine like everything else. But it was the first time a government agency had said cars are a major source of air pollution and we are in a position to do something about it.

LOBET: Remember, back then there was no Environmental Protection Agency. But buoyed by a growing body of research, California began to monitor air and in 1969 set the first air quality standards, limits based on human health.

MARTIN: It told Californians what we think you need to be breathing.

LOBET: Environmental attorney and former air board member Lynn Edgerton remembers another early step.

EDGERTON: I think one of the biggest successes that we all take for granted now was the unleaded gasoline. They came to understand that the lead in the gasoline was causing havoc, was very, very poisonous. So it was phased out in California and then in America and elsewhere.

LOBET: Again, Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: When we took lead out of gasoline we were able to add technology to cars. Catalytic converters do not work with leaded gasoline. The lead just poisons the catalyst and it's worthless. Once you took the lead out, now you can add a catalyst to a car--suddenly cars were two, three, four times cleaner than they were simply because of one technological—well, actually two technological--advances.

LOBET: Congress passed the landmark Clean Air Act, the bedrock air quality law for the nation in 1970. But since California had been regulating air for 20 years, and since its problems were so severe, its right to continue on a stricter path was written into the Act. From then on, any state could choose between federal standards and California's stricter standards. That way industry would never have to build more than two products for the US market. A core group of Northeastern states, who were themselves tackling acid rain and automobile traffic, usually went for the stricter standards.

John White directs a renewable energy group and was a longtime lobbyist for the Sierra Club. He says people came to look to the air board for expertise in atmospheric pollution and human health.

WHITE: The Air Resources Board has a long history of supporting independent scientific research by universities that is peer reviewed. Because more than any other state agency, it has integrated science and public policy. It's why they are so well respected around the world.

LOBET: The board's actions have forced technological advances, not only in cars, but in boat engines, lawnmowers and paints. Sometimes the cost to business has been high. In 1993 the board forced California oil refiners to take sulfur out of diesel based on its growing understanding of the dangers of diesel exhaust. Engines failed and diesel prices spiked. Trucks circled the Air Resources Board in Sacramento in protest. The chief of the board was forced out. But the rule held and the federal government later followed suit. The board continued to make changes.

MARTIN: Probably the most famous rule ever adopted by the Air Resources Board was our low emission vehicle rules. They required for the first time significant reductions in pollutants from motor vehicles. Starting with a 50% cut almost immediately in '94 and then moving to today's standards where cars are easily 90-95% cleaner than they were even in the mid ‘80s.

LOBET: California's air cleared substantially during the 1980s and ‘90s. In fact, if the population had stopped growing, some people say the air would actually be clean now. Instead, population increase has outstripped technological progress. Huge regions of the state still suffer from severe pollution.

Improving mileage is one way to reduce pollution, but no state, not even California, has been allowed to regulate mileage. States are prohibited from doing so. Yet some within and outside industry suspect that that is what the state is doing here with its new Greenhouse Gas rule. Eloy Garcia of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

GARCIA: California is looking at implementing regulations to control greenhouse gasses from automobiles. Technically, what that means is controlling the fuel economy. That is the only way that our engineers tell us that you can control greenhouse gasses, by controlling the fuel economy, and that is under the purview of the federal government. The concern that we have is whether California or any state were to do that on a state by state basis.

LOBET: And quite a few people agree that this time California has left itself vulnerable to legal challenge. Lynn Edgerton, environmental attorney and former board member says she was surprised when she read the document.

EDGERTON: What is striking to me is that there is no discussion of whether the proposed regulations violate the constitution of the United States. I would say that it is about 99.9 percent, I mean it’s a virtual certainty that there will be a challenge to those regulations on the grounds that federal law preempts California from imposing the regulations.

LOBET: And Edgerton gives automakers a 75 percent chance of winning that challenge. But John White thinks the new rule might just hold up.

WHITE: We actually believe that the board has a fighting chance of winning that argument. A lot of it depends on how the judges are influenced and how they are chosen.

LOBET: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to defend the law. So a lawsuit could pit carmakers against his administration. If it must go to court, California may argue that this is not a mileage rule, because carmakers can reduce any greenhouse gas, not just carbon dioxide. Roland Hwang is vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

HWANG: One of my favorite technologies is simply tighter seals and better hoses on the air conditioning system. Most people don't realize that the current refrigerant is what’s called a hydrofluorocarbon. Well that’s a very powerful greenhouse gas, it’s 1300 times more powerful on a pound for pound basis than carbon dioxide. The more you can do simply to cut down the leakage rate, the better off you're going to be in terms of global warming emissions.

LOBET: But opponents say sealing up refrigerant just doesn't get very far toward the required reductions. They insist this is a mileage regulation and argue it will make no appreciable difference in global warming. Recently a public relations group has been poking fun at the regulations with radio ads featuring a character they call Squeezy the Climate Clown.


LOBET: Some people believe that even if the rule is challenged and struck down, drafting this 250 page document was a useful exercise. The plan could find its way to Congress, and perhaps be absorbed into legislation to address climate change being proposed by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. Again, Lynn Edgerton.

EDGERTON: What they've done is they’ve got a blueprint for how we could, as a nation, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Well that's pretty terrific.

LOBET: Most observers doubt the automotive manufacturers will present a united front if there is a lawsuit. How many car companies are on the list of plaintiffs makes little legal difference. But it may provide a peek into the car companies' marketing calculations, a snapshot of how politically acceptable it is nowadays to oppose an effort to address global warming.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet

[MUSIC: “A Chronicle of Easy Failures-Part 2” THE DEAD TEXAN (Kranky – 2004)]

Related links:
- California Air Resources Board
- The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

Back to top


CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is taking his campaign to cut global warming gasses back to Congress with renewed vigor and a new slogan: “Just wait till next year.”

McCAIN: I don’t believe that the administration is going to do anything about climate change until after the election. And I’m hopeful then that we could perhaps get some action. I mean the facts are facts. Climate change is real and it’s threatening and it’s inevitable that we act.

CURWOOD: John McCain on climate change - next time, on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.


CURWOOD: We take you now to California –


CURWOOD: -- On a sound walk through an inner coastal range rich in avian life. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the cries of predatory birds and the songs of their woodland cousins.

[EARTH EAR: “Inner Coast Ranges-Aerial Landscape” QUIET PLACES-A SOUND WALK ACROSS NATURAL CALIFORNIA (The Oakland Museum of California – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young - with help from Carl Lindemann, James Curwood and Kelley Cronin.

Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find us at living on earth dot org. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. 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 and more. Women of inspiration speak at the Stonyfield Strong Women programs taking place in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Details at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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