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

April 1, 2005

Air Date: April 1, 2005



Tough on Mercury / Dan Gorenstein

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New EPA guidelines to cut mercury emissions from power plants have critics, and now some states, claiming that the cuts are inadequate. The New Hampshire state Senate voted this week to hold power plants there to much more stringent requirements, and nine state attorneys general filed suit against the federal government over the EPA rules. New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports. (04:00)

Alien Planets

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n 1995, astronomers discovered there are planets that revolve around stars other than our sun. These "extra" or "exo-solar" planets have not actually been seen or photographed but scientists are able to measure their gravity, and, just recently, two of the planets' light, as proof they exist. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson heads New York's Hayden Planetarium and he joins Living on Earth host Steve Curwood to talk about what lies beyond our solar system. (07:45)

Oil & National Security / Jeff Young

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The White House recently received a letter asking for increased spending on alternative fuels in order to cut down on foreign oil dependence. The letter wasn't from environmentalists, but from former national security officials who see energy policy as a security issue. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports. (04:15)

Oil & National Security Roundtable

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Two signatories of the letter to President Bush talk about the Middle East threat to U.S. energy, and about the here and now of alternative energy like plug-in hybrids and bio-diesel. Host Steve Curwood speaks with former CIA director James Woolsey and former national security advisor Robert McFarlane. (13:30)

Emerging Science Note/Parroting Elephants

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports that elephants have a knack for imitation, whether it's the sounds of other elephants or trucks. (01:20)

Simple Living

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Eric Brende was midway through his PhD at MIT when he decided to live on an Amish farm. Host Steve Curwood talks with Brende about the challenges of going off the grid and living off the land, and about his new book, "Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology." (09:00)

Ask Umbra

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Grist columnist Umbra Fisk gives ecologically-sound advice about how to clean your house using non-toxic products you already own, and what to do with dog droppings. (05:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Robert McFarlane, James Woolsey, Eric Brende, Umbra Fisk
REPORTERS: Dan Gorenstein, Jeff Young
NOTE: Jennifer Chu

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Every since the 1970s oil crunch, presidents from Jimmy Carter to George Bush have tried to cut America's dependence on foreign oil and for a very good reason.

BUSH: To put it bluntly, sometimes we rely upon energy sources from countries that don't particularly like us.

CURWOOD: And in the post-9/11 world, national security veterans are calling on the White House to cut oil consumption quickly and drastically, using conservation and alternative fuels and they have a good reason too.

MCFARLANE: Al Qaeda has made public its intention to begin attacking oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. And, if we were to lose as much as, some say five or six million barrels a day for an extended period, this would literally cause a meltdown of the global economy.

CURWOOD: Oil and national security—this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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

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Tough on Mercury

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

There's a growing trend among the states when it comes to environmental protection—if you don't think the federal government is doing enough, do it yourself. Citing a lack of federal action on climate change, California, for example, has passed a law to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. And, several states are suing the federal government to force it to regulate carbon dioxide, the major climate-changing gas.

Now, comes news that seven Northeast states, along with California and New Mexico, are suing the government, claiming its new rules on mercury emissions from power plants fail to meet standards under the Clean Air Act. They say more stringent rules are needed to protect pregnant mothers and children from mercury exposure. In New Hampshire, lawmakers aren't waiting for the suit to be heard; they're taking action now. From New Hampshire Public Radio, Dan Gorenstein reports.

GORENSTEIN: New EPA guidelines are expected to cut mercury emissions from power plants in half by 2015. But a number of states don't believe the federal plan goes far enough. Among them is New Hampshire, which has above average levels of mercury in some lakes and ponds. The state Senate has just passed a plan to sharply limit mercury emissions. The proposal calls for the state's two coal-fired power plants, both owned by Public Service of New Hampshire, to reduce emissions from 129 pounds a year to 50 pounds a year by 2009 and to further reduce the rate by 2013 to 24 pounds a year.

Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan says before the vote, she was concerned the Senate may prefer a cap and trade system for the power plants, similar to the EPA's plan.

HASSAN: The EPA has taken the position that you can trade mercury credits the way you can carbon dioxide credits. The problem is mercury does create local hot spots down- wind from mercury-emitting plants and, therefore, trading doesn't help those people in the hot spots. And that's why we took a different position than the EPA.

GORENSTEIN: Hassan and other supporters feared a similar system in New Hampshire would only prolong the pollution, putting environmental and public health at risk. However, some worry the state's Senate bill is simply too ambitious. Senate opponents and Public Service of New Hampshire officials both say it will be very expensive and near impossible to meet the standards outlined in the legislation. PSNH spokesperson Martin Murray worries one of the power plants may have to be closed.

MURRAY: This bill could conceivably force the shutdown of Merrimack Station because of the impossibility of hitting this timetable that the senate appears to want us to achieve. And, that would have a significant cost on our customers.

GORENSTEIN: How much mercury reduction will cost is one of the big question marks in the bill. Citing Department of Environmental Service estimates, Senator Hassan says PSNH ratepayers would have difficulty noticing the increase.

HASSAN: My understanding is that PSNH will have the right to pass this cost onto ratepayers. The estimates from the department are about 81 cents a month per average ratepayer. So, that's less than a cup of coffee today to clean up our water and make it safe to eat our fish again.

GORENSTEIN: PSNH's Martin Murray isn't so sure.

MURRAY: If there was a solution to this problem that was as economical as some of the supporters of this bill believe, we'd be first in the line with our wallets open. But the fact is, there is no cheap fix to such a complex challenge. There is no box that's on a shelf, waiting to be purchased and slapped on Merrimack Station or Schiller Station.

GORENSTEIN: Murray says the available technology for mercury reduction is still in the laboratory phase. He says he's just disappointed the Senate didn't consider the interests of PSNH customers. But, Republican Senator Ted Gatsas, for one, seemed confident PSNH customers would be satisfied.

GASTAS: I think if the ratepayers were asked, "would you rather see a rate increase that guarantees profit, or a rate increase that is going to save lives?" ratepayers would probably tell you they would rather see a rate increase to save lives.

GORENSTEIN: The bill now moves to the House. New Hampshire, though, is also pursuing a national remedy to mercury reduction by joining the lawsuit against the EPA. As one assistant attorney general said, the problem is greater than any one state because when mercury comes from upwind states, it's there to stay. For Living on Earth, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

[MUSIC: Bob Dylan "Cold Irons Bound" Time Out Of Mind (Columbia) 1997]

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Alien Planets

CURWOOD: Now, most of us know that our solar system is made up of Earth, Mars, Jupiter and the other planets that orbit the sun. But, how much do you know about planets beyond our solar system? In 1955, the first of these planets was discovered and now 150 of so-called exosolar planets have been found orbiting other suns and the number continues to rise.

Now, until a few weeks ago, scientists weren't able to see directly or photograph exosolar planets. But, thanks to the Spitzer infrared telescope that was launched into space two years ago, two teams of astronomers have now been able to detect light from two of these alien worlds.

Joining me to talk about exosolar planets is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's an astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and a regular contributor to our program. Hey, welcome back to Living on Earth.

TYSON: Great to be back. Thanks.

CURWOOD: So, this is pretty big news, huh, that scientists actually have seen light from two exosolar planets, planets that exist beyond our solar system? How did this come about?

TYSON: Yeah, what's great news about it is not that we've discovered an exosolar planet. We've got more than 150 in the can right now. What's new about this is the way in which they were measured. Up until now, the best means we had about knowing about planets around other stars was detecting the effect of their gravity on the host star. In this particular case, the measurement is made of the light.

Now, it's a little tricky; we're not actually measuring the light directly. What we're doing is combining the light of the host star with the light of the planet. They're combined in the measurement and you get a certain number. Write that down. Turns out, in these particular systems the planet orbits behind the star, comes out the other side and then moves in front of it. We have planet eclipses in these particular systems. So, what you do is take a picture when the planet is to the side of a star. Take another picture when the planet is behind the star. Because in one you have light, planet plus star, the other you have the light of just the star. Subtract those two measurements and what you're left with is the light of the planet.

If you have the light of the planet, you can do things like measure, you can get a spectrum of the light of the planet. You get a spectrum, it's great because you can start probing the chemistry of the atmosphere of that planet. Start asking questions: does, are there biomarkers embedded in that planet's atmosphere? Is there evidence that on that planet's surface there is life producing oxygen and methane just as it takes place here on Earth? So, it opens up a whole new vista in the search for exosolar planets.

CURWOOD: Now, how is it that you can use gravity to tell that there's a planet going around the star?

TYSON: This was the first method by which exosolar planets were known. Normally when we think of planets orbiting a star, we think of the star being fixed in the center of the system and then immovable; and with planets orbiting around; that's not really how it works. The way it works is the star and the planet orbit their common center of gravity and, obviously, the bigger orbit is the planet and the tinier orbit is the sun. But, that little orbit that the sun takes around the center of gravity is measurable from here on Earth. And once you see the reaction of the host star to the gravity of what's orbiting around it, you can infer all kinds of information about that other object. How long it takes to orbit, what its mass is and from its distance to the star. You can even get an estimate of what temperature it might have. So, this tally, while it doesn't involve photographs of the surfaces of planets, we're basically, if you're going to think of it this way, photographing their gravity and thereby deducing their existence.

CURWOOD: You're telling me the stars wiggle?

TYSON: They wiggle and jiggle, yes. And the bigger, the more massive the planet in orbit around the host star, the more that host star jiggles. And so, it's easy to detect the really massive planets. It's very hard to detect the puny little planets, like Earth-size planets around these other stars and that remains a frontier in this business.

CURWOOD: How close would one of those big planets have to be to a star for us to see it wiggle?

TYSON: The first of these exosolar planets that were discovered was a Jupiter-sized planet. Jupiter is extremely massive in our own solar system. If you add up the mass of all the other planets combined, it still wouldn't equal the mass of Jupiter. We're finding Jupiter-sized planets in orbit around these other stars, except orbiting really close. Like, as close as Mercury or Venus is in orbit around our star. That's how close these Jupiter-sized planets are orbiting their stars. And, that originally defied all explanations for the formation of a solar system.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I mean, how could a big planet be that close to a sun, to a star?

TYSON: We had no idea at the time. We, you know, we have this bias and the bias normally gets us pretty far. The bias is that we're not special. It's a scientific bias. The human non-scientific bias is that we are special and that gets us into trouble all the time. But, a very successful bias is that we're not special and if we're not special, other solar systems ought to look like us. So, everybody came up with theories on how to make solar systems. And, the results of each of these theories had a Jupiter-sized object kind of where our Jupiter is and lower mass rocky planets kind of closer in, there's a little variation, but nothing fundamentally different as we're now finding. So, all the theorists have to go back to the drawing board. And, we have some tentative ideas of how you could move big planets in and out, but there's still argument on that frontier about how this all happens.

CURWOOD: Wait a second, you're saying that the orbits of planets change?

TYSON: Oh yeah, that's the fun part. Because we still pretty much agree you can't form a Jupiter planet that close to the host star. There'd be too much competition for material and the star would win and you'd end up as a puny little rocky thing the way Earth is. So, you'd have to form it much farther out and then have the planet migrate toward its host star.

By the way, not only did technology enable us to discover these planets, computing power enabled us to calculate the birth and evolution of our solar system, and all evidence suggests that our solar system might have started with many more than the number of planets we now tally.

CURWOOD: Now, we've barely begun to explore the planets in our own local solar system. Why look for new planets to explore?

TYSON: That's a great question. Well, the ones in our own solar system, yes, we spent centuries looking at them first with the naked eye and then with telescopes and now we're visiting them. So this is, sort of, the natural order of things. We're a long way from visiting planets in orbit around other stars. They're much too far away given any propulsion technologies that we now enjoy. For example, the fastest spacecraft we've ever launched, unmanned spacecraft, at their speed it would take 70,000 years to get to the nearest planet. And, usually planetary geologists, they want their experiment to finish before they die. So, the experiment that takes 75,000 years before you get your results are not popular in the scientific community. So, it's far out of our reach and so right now, the best we can do is just try to measure them with our telescopes.

CURWOOD: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium. His latest book is called, "Origins, 14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution" and there's a chapter in that book about planets that aren't part of our solar system. Thanks for taking this time with me today, Neil.

TYSON: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

[MUSIC: Bob Dylan "Dirt Road Blues" Time Out Of Mind (Columbia) 1997]

Related link:
The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia

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Oil & National Security

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

A letter recently arrived at the White House urging President Bush to cut the country's consumption of oil. The writers say the U.S. must increase its investments in conservation, alternative fuels and fuel-efficient cars. Sounds like another plea from an environmental group—until you get to the list of signatories.

They are some three dozen leaders in the field of national security, including a former director of the CIA, a former national security advisor and top brass from the defense departments of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains why heavy hitters in the defense world are joining the green chorus for conservation.

YOUNG: Ronald Reagan's face beams down from a large poster at the entrance to Frank Gaffney's Washington office. Back when Gaffney was an undersecretary of defense, Reagan was his boss and he still champions the late president's ideals at the conservative think tank, Center for Security Policy. Now, Gaffney finds himself in agreement with people Reagan had little use for: environmentalists.

GAFFNEY: Well, I've had my disagreements with people in the environmental movement for a long time. I think, like many, I had not fully appreciated how urgent was the need to adopt these sorts of existing technologies in light of national security realities of the day.

YOUNG: The "existing technologies" Gaffney mentions are alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient cars. He and 30 others in the national security field asked President Bush to invest a billion dollars in those efforts to wean the country from imported oil. They see a very real chance of a terror attack disrupting oil supplies, perhaps by as much as a third of U.S. daily use.

GAFFNEY: If we were to take six million barrels off of the oil market at one fell swoop, you would have very serious economic repercussions. And the nature of our economy, as well as our ability to use oil to project power around the world—which we have to do—would be impaired. I think there's no getting around it.

YOUNG: Foreign oil has been a concern for defense hawks at least since the OPEC embargo and gas lines of the 70s. President Bush made the connection at an event on the White House lawn three years ago.

BUSH: And, this dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security. To put it bluntly, sometimes we rely upon energy sources from countries that don't particularly like us.

YOUNG: What's new, Gaffney says, is the sense of urgency.

GAFFNEY: I believe there is a national security emergency, certainly in prospect if not already here. It's now something we have to do something about right away in order to translate that rhetoric into reality.

YOUNG: Environmental groups say it's about time. David Hamilton directs the Sierra Club's energy program. He says he's happy to have national security types make the same argument he's made for years.

HAMILTON: I think that a lot of people were hesitant to criticize administration policy before the election, you know, especially Republicans who did not want to appear disloyal or trying to undermine the president. I think you have more of a willingness and a comfort with calling the administration's policies on energy into question.

YOUNG: The national security experts do not explicitly criticize the president. Their letter says supply alone cannot eliminate the need for imports and that equal attention must be paid to reducing oil demand. That would seem at odds with the administration's focus on increasing domestic supply. But the Department of Energy's new deputy secretary, Clay Sell, doesn't see it that way.

SELL: I think the administration has somewhat unfairly been painted as one that wanted to only address this issue through production and nothing could be further from the truth. What they have recommended is a significant endorsement of the president's policies. In fact, I don't think there's anything in here that we necessarily depart on.

YOUNG: Sell says the answer lies in the president's comprehensive energy bill, a controversial item Congress has turned down for four years but will take up again this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

Related link:
Set America Free

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Oil & National Security Roundtable

CURWOOD: Joining me now are two signatories of the letter to President Bush. They're from both sides of the political aisle who have come together on this issue of oil security. James Woolsey is former director of the CIA under the Clinton administration and vice president now of Booz, Allen and Hamilton; and Robert MacFarlane was national security advisor to President Reagan and is now CEO of energy and communications solutions. Gentlemen, hello.

WOOLSEY: Hello Steve, good to be with you.

MACFARLANE: Good morning.

CURWOOD: Now, Jim Woolsey, as former director of the CIA, how real is this possibility that terrorists could send the entire world's economy into a tale spin by disrupting oil supplies?

WOOLSEY: I think it's definitely real. Two thirds of the world's proven reserves of oil are in the Middle East, at least the greater Middle East, most of it in the Persian Gulf. That's going to be a highly difficult area to predict the future of for a long time. We can all hope that helping it move toward democracy and the rule of law and is going to work and Iraq will be peaceful and Saudi Arabia will transition gradually and sensibly to a far more modern and less ideological and fanatic Wahabi-oriented state, but none of that is sure.

And, I think that Bin Laden's frequent public statements about attacking the oil infrastructure, the fact that they've done it in Iraq, tried to do it on the high seas, tried to do it in Saudi Arabia and the fact that important parts of the infrastructure, particularly in the Gulf, are quite vulnerable to terrorist attack, is an important part of the puzzle.

Another important part of the puzzle is that in 1979 there was a serious coup attempt in Saudi Arabia. The Islamists took over the Great Mosque in Mecca and they tried to do a lot more. We've got a very serious security problem now because of the situation in the Gulf and that part of the world.

CURWOOD: Just to be clear, how vulnerable is vulnerable when you say that there are parts in the Persian Gulf that could be easily disrupted by a terrorist? How easy?

WOOLSEY: Well, let me use only an illustration from Bob Baer, a former CIA officer that's written a book called, "Sleeping with the Devil," in which the opening scenario is a terrorist crashing a 747 into the sulfur cleaning towers up near Ras Tanura in northeastern Saudi Arabia. Since you have to get sulfur out of the Saudi oil that would take several million barrels, probably around five or six million barrels a day, off line for a year or more. And Bud here is an old artilleryman. He and I were talking the other day; I think he'll tell you you probably don't need a big 747 to do that. A pretty skilled guy with some orders could probably do it.

CURWOOD: So, Bud MacFarlane, now the national security aspect of this?

MACFARLANE: Well, as Jim said, I was an artilleryman for 20 years and I can tell you with high confidence that I would have no problem at all in shutting down Ras Tanura on any given afternoon. Four-point-two inch mortar can go 4,000 yards very accurately and the ability of an Al-Qaeda terrorist to come within that distance is easy. There are other threats through shipping, through pipelines that are terribly vulnerable, easy targets and virtually impossible to defend. So, in short, back in the ‘70s we didn't have a declared enemy with that kind of capability, but today we do.

CURWOOD: And, what would it do to our economy, Bud MacFarlane, if six million barrels, five or six million barrels of oil a day were suddenly not available?

MACFARLANE: Oh, it's not only our economy. The economies of China, Japan, Western Europe and the United States would be facing, not just one hundred dollar per barrel oil, but probably double that at least. You take six million barrels off, you have a spike but also a prolonged shortage and the impact of that on not only the gasoline pump, but downstream industries, federal chemicals and so forth and that would lead in turn to massive unemployment. And, in short, it doesn't take long before you've got a global depression or worse. This is not theoretical or to be alarmist, this is just reacting to what is plausible, possible, I think, almost certain to happen in the next year's time.

CURWOOD: Now, gentlemen, what makes you think that this effort, your effort now is going to succeed where those others have not for what, 30 some-odd years?

WOOLSEY: Three new technologies: hybrids, which are here on the road, plug-in hybrids which are here probably within a year or so and two kinds of bio-fuels—cellulosic ethanol, genetically modified bio-catalysts make it possible to breakdown grass or corn husks or whatever in order to make ethanol now instead of having to make it just from starch, like corn. And, bio-diesel technologies to turn waste into diesel. Those technologies are all relatively new. They're beginning to come into production. They're finishing up R and D. We don't need a Manhattan Project to invent all sorts of new stuff.

CURWOOD: Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy Clay Sell says that the administration appreciates, what they consider to be, a broad endorsement of White House policy in the form of your letter, and they just need Congress to pass an energy bill and things would be good. What's your response?

MACFARLANE: First of all, I think the administration does acknowledge that the threat of disruption of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf is very real. Al-Qaeda has made public its intention to begin attacking oil facilities in the Persian Gulf and if we were to lose as much as some say as much as five or six million barrels a day for an extended period, this would literally cause a meltdown of the global economy. And so, against that day coming we had to begin now doing things that can reduce our reliance on foreign oil. I think what brings us together on this letter is that there are things that you can do today that don't involve pie-in-the-sky technologies that can begin to get us off reliance on Saudi Arabian oil primarily.

CURWOOD: Bud MacFarlane likes what the White House is saying, what about you, Jim Woolsey?

WOOLSEY: Well, some of what the White House is saying I think is fine, but there are a couple of things that are centerpieces in the administration's energy policy as I see them that are certainly not centerpieces of ours. Their view of changing the vehicles is focused on hydrogen fuel cells. They just announced some 80 plus million dollars going to various automobile companies to work on hydrogen fuel cells. Well, that is a 15, 20-year or more in the future technology. This is an awful lot of inventing to do. Whereas what you have already available is hybrids, particularly coming along right now within the next year or two, plug-in hybrids. And what that means is in addition to the hybrid gasoline, electric feature that a lot of people are familiar with where you're charging your battery as you slow down and so you get very, very good gasoline mileage, when you can also plug the hybrid in at night and top up the battery and use battery power exclusively for short trips, you are able to operate your car a substantial amount of time, on at least eight and a half cents a kilowatt hour electricity, which is the average for residences in a lot of parts of the country at night, two to four cents per kilowatt hour. Two cent to four cent electricity per two kilowatt hour is the equivalent to 12 to 25 cent a gallon gasoline.

So, you have an opportunity for American consumers to substitute very cheap electricity for extremely now expensive gasoline, well over two dollars a gallon in most parts of the country, and that technology is here. It's not something you have to do a lot of inventing for. Our energy commission suggested that the U.S. government with tax credits, give tax credits so Detroit can catch up with the Japanese and start making hybrid gasoline electrics, including plug-in hybrids, itself. But that doesn't seem to have any resonance with the administration. They seem to be entirely focused on this 20-year in the future fuel cell business.

MACFARLANE: Just to underscore, Steve, the state-of-the-art reality of this, when I entered the Marine Corps, 40 years ago, we had flexible fuel vehicles then, and we have them now. And, we ought to be able to stress that in our legislation.

CURWOOD: So, let me ask you, Bud MacFarlane. We've got the technology today, but what about Detroit? Both auto-makers and unions have resisted changes, especially increases in fuel efficiency requirements. How and why will they go along with your proposal?

MACFARLANE: Well, I think it's a matter of self-interest. That is, unless they move in this direction, they're going to begin losing market share. I mean, right now, I expect Toyota has the dominant position in hybrid vehicles. That can only increase unless Detroit gets off the dime and begins to adopt what is, as Jim said, currently available, state of the art technology. So, it's a matter of survival. Detroit could actually steal a march on Japan, if they were also to adopt carbon composite metals, lighter metals that are stronger that we've been using for 25 years and aircraft, can give you an SUV that could be getting four or five hundred miles a gallon and safer.

WOOLSEY: Just to augment something, Steve, that Bud said. Our approach toward encouraging hybrid construction in the U.S. tax credits was endorsed by the automobile workers. I'm an old Scoop Jackson Democrat, so I'm going to say that I think the workers are ahead of management on understanding the importance of cutting back on oil consumption.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this, beyond the Middle East, what other potential conflicts over oil do you see? In particular, what about China's energy? Jim Woolsey?

WOOLSEY: China and India are both growing rapidly, among one of the reasons why oil demand is going to go up so sharply, I think, and potentially cost in price over the course of the next several years. But China is still a Communist dictatorship and it has a long-term strategic view of how to approach this. It's got long-term contracts; it's working on with Venezuela, with Russia to try to end, I think, Saudi Arabia, to try to get long-term commitments for as much oil as it believes it's going to need. So, we have potential difficulty in terms of price and also even sometimes a potential conflict with China.

CURWOOD: And Bud MacFarlane?

MACFARLANE: Well, I think short of aggression, there's a potential problem of severe competition between Japan, China, and other Asian nations for fuel and they're all heavily reliant upon the Persian Gulf. And, when you think about the ramp up last year of almost 40 percent and China's demand and how that can worsen that competition for scarce resources. And, then look at choke points and the potential for Al-Qaeda intervening, Straits of Timor, Straits of Malaka, you have the makings of a real crisis purely on economic grounds. The competition for oils between these East Asian economic giants.

CURWOOD: Now, we've known for quite a while that it's not so good to be dependent on such a volatile region of the world for our oil, so what's new here, gentlemen? I mean, what's changed to bring the two of you and your 20-some other colleagues to this point of signing on to a letter to the president?

WOOLSEY: Well, I would sign up to being a tree-hugger for a long time, as well as to, in some people's eyes, I guess, a sort of foreign policy hawk. I think all hawks ought to be tree-huggers. Where else you going to nest? And, I think it's important for people to realize that in this early 21st century world of the vulnerabilities to terrorism and the chaos in the Middle East we are in a different strategic situation than we were back in the 1970s. And, we're in a different strategic situation than if we were only concerned about global warming and emissions. Those are both important concerns, but the real urgency, I think, that drives, I think increasingly is driving a lot of people to pay attention to this issue, is the prospect of terrorist attacks in the Middle East on the oil infrastructure or in this country, for that matter, and or the possibility of governmental changes that could substantially reduce our access to oil.

CURWOOD: Robert MacFarlane is former national security advisor to President Reagan and now CEO of Energy and Communications Solutions. James Woolsey is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now vice president of Booz, Allen and Hamilton. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking this time with me today.

WOOLSEY: Thank you, Steve.

MACFARLANE: Enjoyed it, Steve.

[MUSIC: Jeff Beck "Freeway Jam" Best of Beck (Epic) 1995]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Tips on how to be a smart and environmentally-friendly consumer. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Jeff Beck "Where Were You" Best of Beck (Epic) 1995]

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Emerging Science Note/Parroting Elephants

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and coming up: Field research in quest of the simple life—an MIT scientist goes Amish. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: Humans and songbirds can do it. Dolphins and bats can, too. Now, researchers have found imitation is also a form of communication for elephants.

Collaborating scientists in Kenya and Massachusetts recorded the vocalizations of two African elephants from two very different backgrounds. What they heard was nothing like that of the trumpeting call of the average African elephant.

Calimero, a 23-year-old male, was raised in a zoo with two Asian elephants for 18 years. Scientists found most of his vocalizations resembled the chirping noises typical of his Asian zoo-mates, rather than the deeper calls of his African ancestors. They say this mimicking might be his way of fitting in with a social group.

Also, a ten-year-old female Mlaika lived on the Savannah plains of Kenya with orphaned elephants, two miles from a busy highway. The majority of Mlaika's calls sounded less like an elephant and more like the revving of a truck engine. Researchers believe Mlaika learned to imitate her "highway friends" at night, when the sounds of passing trucks dominated the landscape.

It's the first time this mimicking trait has been found among these huge mammals, suggesting upbringing could shape their vocal repertoire. These skills may also help elephants recognize each other and bond as part of a group. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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Simple Living

CURWOOD: Eric Brende was about midway through getting a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he headed for the simple life. Mr. Brende and his wife, Mary, gave up a culture of innovation and technology, for a close-knit community of Amish folks in a location he's sworn to keep secret. The couple took up in an old farmhouse and tried living off the land. It was meant to be a one-year experiment to help him write a thesis about appropriate technology, but Eric Brende never returned to finish his degree. Instead, he chose to live the simple life—for better or worse.

Eric and Mary Brende
(Photo: Courtesy of Mary Brende)

His new book is called, "Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology: Two People, One Year, Zero Watts." Eric Brende, welcome to Living on Earth.

BRENDE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Eric, by choice, you left the center of technological innovation, MIT, for a way of life that consciously shut out technology. Why such a 180 degree?

BRENDE: Well, I'd have to say that by the time I got to MIT, I was already fairly dead-set against the way technology was heading in our society. Even though, there was a point in my life when I was extremely enthusiastic about technology and everything like that.

CURWOOD: What turned you off?

BRENDE: I think it was just a series of incidents and events and a general trend. I don't know if it began the time that my father got one of the first word processors ever made when I was maybe about 13 years old. And, of course, the idea of this was to save the time and trouble of writing and make it go a lot faster and easier and all that. But, my dad spent so much time with that device, I almost never saw him again. And, I think, maybe that began the trend in my own mind to question technology and ask "is it really saving us time or is it actually gobbling up our time and maybe even gobbling us up along with it?"

CURWOOD: So, where do you go and without giving away too much because you're not allowed to say exactly where this Amish community is. Tell us about the area surrounding it.

BRENDE: Well, it's typical of where a lot of Amish communities like to settle. And, by the way, I don't think we can classify them strictly as Amish. I call them Mennonites in the book. They're in kind of a gray area between the old-order Amish and the old-order Mennonites. But, at any rate, these types of groups tend to settle in areas where large mechanized farmers don't do well, such as rolling hills, areas with a lot of alternating with woods and hills and fields. So, you don't find many Amish farmers in the center of Illinois, which is very flat. You don't find them in the center of Kansas, which is very flat because big machines can do that. So, they're better in the areas with the roll.

CURWOOD: Now, this isn't exactly the type of community that advertises itself though. How did you find out about it?

BRENDE: Well, I met one of them on a bus on my way from Topeka, Kansas where I grew up to MIT between semesters. And, at the next bus stop, I struck up a conversation with him. One thing led to another. I got his address and later on in the semester I wrote him a letter and he was able to set up something for me and it turned out to be large enough accommodations for my wife, as well.

The typical Amish group in the United States will allow all kinds of motorized equipment up to the point of motor vehicles. So, they will allow pumps, they'll allow chainsaws, they'll allow all kinds of stationary farming equipment, but they just won't allow the automobile or they won't allow the tractor. But this group did everything either by hand or horsepower. So, from the point of view of the typical Amish group in the United States, this group was as far back in the past as maybe most Amish people seem to us in modern society. So, this combination of openness to outsiders, but yet very primitive technological conditions made an ideal setting for my quote, unquote experiment.

CURWOOD: Now, what would you say was the hardest thing to give up?

BRENDE: The hardest thing to give up. We didn't have, of course, we didn't have electricity and so we didn't have a refrigerator and we didn't have any of those things that are motorized or electrified. But the main impact that it had on Mary and we had fallen, I would say, we had fallen into a fairly traditional pattern of household division of labor where Mary pretty much ended up doing most of the cooking and I pretty much did most of the heavy work, although there was a lot of overlap. But, she pretty much was doing the cooking and the problem with not having a refrigerator is you can't keep leftovers. So, it meant that she had to come up with a new meal every single one of the three periods of the day where you eat. And the food that we ate from the previous meal would get thrown to the pig or thrown on the compost heap. And she wasn't used to having to cook that often, so it was a labor creator.

That was one of the areas where we concluded, we went there trying to determine how much technology do we really need. We concluded that a small refrigerator or some equivalent way of keeping food cold was a definite benefit.

CURWOOD: How tight was this community? How close were people?

BRENDE: Well, I'd say, you know, on a scale of one to ten among such old-order communities, I'd say it was a ten, very tight, very close-knit. And I think, again, that it's a direct result of their strictness on technology. It meant that they had to rely on one another to help each other out. They didn't have, they couldn't just push a button and have all these chores automatically done for them. And that was the beauty of the community. You know, people wonder well, what do they do to have fun, is it just all work all day? Well, the work is part recreation. They look forward to getting together because it's a way to visit.

And, certainly, the example that stands out in my experience and is described in the book is the time that I first try out threshing which happens to coincide with a terrible heat wave. But I was unprepared for this physically and I actually practically passed out. And, I had to spend three days in bed with what appeared to be the symptoms of heatstroke. But when I acclimated, I found that this same principle held, with threshing as hard as it was, gradually became automatic. The actual physical act of hurling this huge sheath of wheat over your head and onto a wagon, you became unconscious of it and you get involved in conversations with the people. At times, it was even boisterous; the storytelling was quite something.

CURWOOD: And, my grandmother would say, many hands make light work.

BRENDE: Yes, and it works the other way, too. I don't know if you've ever gone to a party and you walked in and you felt this chill. And you had a hard time breaking in and starting a conversation with anybody. And then, you strain and you think of small talk, chitchat, and then you have to grab a cocktail so you can loosen up a little. Well, the curious thing about this work is that the work performs the same function as a cocktail does at a cocktail party. It gives you something to do with your hands, it loosens you up a little, it gets your endorphins flowing so you're a little more relaxed. So, the work actually takes off some of the onus of socializing.

CURWOOD: So, life after the Amish, what was your greatest adjustment?

BRENDE: Everything. It was a little hard. It was a little bumpy leaving at first. We were very torn and modern society was kind of a shock. We finally have settled back into a rhythm, now that we live in St. Louis, but it takes a while to develop. It takes a while to get a sense of how you can live with that kind of a quasi-Amish existence in a city, but it's possible. In fact, it's more than possible because we're doing it, I think, very well now in St. Louis. But, at first, it was a little bit wrenching

CURWOOD: Eric Brende is author of "Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology." Thanks for taking this time with me, today.

BRENDE: Well, thank you for having me.

[MUSIC: G Love & Special Sauce "Stepping Stones" Yeah It's That Easy (Okeh) 1997]

Related link:
"Better Off – Flipping the Switch on Technology"

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Ask Umbra

CURWOOD: What if you want to do things in a simple life but you don't want to go Amish? And, you're looking for advice. Well, you could ask Umbra Fisk. "Umbra Fisk" is the nom de plume of a woman who offers advice on all things environmental in a column she writes regularly for the online magazine Grist. And, it's called, what else, "Ask Umbra." And, Umbra joins me now to reveal what's on the inquiring minds of green "wannabes" and "seasoned sophisticates of sustainability." Hi there, Umbra.

FISK: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, we've gotten a few letters that people have written to you that we'd like to have you respond to now. You ready?

FISK: I'm ready.

CURWOOD: "Dear Umbra, do you have any tips on dealing with the nasty, black mold that appears in bathrooms without dousing it in highly toxic chemicals?" I don't know what this reader is talking about. I've never seen that in my bathroom.

FISK: (laughs) I think moving is really the most effective way to deal with this mold. But, you know, other than moving, I do whatever I can to help my readers out so I looked it up and hydrogen peroxide is what was recommended. I went to our Grist Magazine test bathroom, which is filled with mold and I, okay, I'm a little less exact than some people might be, so I just took the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and threw it on the tub and left it. And then came back and it didn't work. So, (laughs) it didn't work. So, then I tried Borax, which is a great powder you can use in your laundry; it's an abrasive that's fairly, you know, non-toxic. And, that didn't work either.


FISK: And then I decided..and, Steve, maybe in your very clean bathroom this has not been a situation for you, but I decided the best thing to do was just to rip out the caulk. And, then maybe paint the bathroom black.

CURWOOD: Okay (laughs). Umbra, lots of people want ecologically-sound cleaning products. There's a question from a reader about this. Let me read it to you. She writes, "Dear Umbra, I'd like to start making my own environmentally-friendly cleaning products from my home. Are there any books or web sites you'd recommend for cleaning recipes?"

FISK: This is actually great news because you expect "okay, I'm going to give up on my regular cleaning products. I'm going to go find something and, no doubt, it's going to be really complicated. I'm going to have to read about it in a book." But it's not the case. It's not that hard to clean the house. All the cleaning recipes are very, very simple. They only involve four ingredients. You ready?


FISK: Baking soda, soap, white vinegar and water. That's it.

CURWOOD: That's it?

FISK: So, baking soda is what you use to replace anything that's supposed to scrub. So, if you're using Ajax, but you don't want the chlorine, the bleach, then you would move onto baking soda and it's, you know, you can mix it with water if you want, just sprinkle it on the tub or the stove.

And then, vinegar is the deodorizer and it's a sanitizer, anti-bacteria, anti-fungal, so that would be the toilet or you know, the kitchen sink. It's good for freshening up drains, things like that.

And then, soap is, you know, it gets rid of dirt so that's very handy. Mostly, cleaning recipes recommend a castile soap, which is like a liquid soap. So, all the recipes involved is mixing up all that stuff in various ways. If you do want the recipes, what you can do is you can punch "natural cleaning recipes" into any search engine and they'll come up with some, you know, measurements—put a teaspoon in a cup of water…

CURWOOD: We have a letter now from Megan in Baltimore and she writes, "Dear Umbra, for years I faithfully brought my canvas bags to the grocery store leaving plastic bags for the environmentally uninformed. A few months ago, though, I adopted a dog and now I find myself with a dilemma. I need to pick up all of his solid leave-behinds and I have no compost or any other area for it to go. I live in the city. I need to use plastic bags to take care of it. I hope you have another suggestion of something I can use to pick up after my pup and please don't say anything that would be disgusting."

FISK: Well, I don't think I can. I'm on the radio.

CURWOOD: That's right.

FISK: You know, I think this is a great opportunity for environmental education and bag reuse, Steve, because a lot of people have plastic bag collections, but no dog. So, she could go around to all of her friends and her co-workers and say, "You know, I don't have any plastic bags because I know they are wasteful and so I've just been bringing my canvas bag to the grocery store and now I have a dog. Perhaps you will bring me your plastic bags." And, I think, she could really go for a long time just using up people's bag supply.

CURWOOD: She needs to be polite, though, because if she moralizes, you know, "I'm better than you, I use these things," they're going to throw the bags at her rather than give them to her.

FISK: (laughs) It's true. Either way she will get bags, but maybe she wouldn't get any friends. There is a, sort of, ecological alternative to a regular old plastic bag which is there are biodegradable plastic bags on the market for picking up dog leavings. So, it's a little bit of a dilemma. There are the biodegradable bags. But, you know, I think having a dog means you are going to use plastic bags to pick up its poop.

CURWOOD: Or, you can train the dog to sit on the toilet.

FISK: (laughs).

CURWOOD: Umbra Fisk writes an advice column for Grist Magazine. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

FISK: It was a pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: G Love & Special Sauce "You Shall See" Yeah It's That Easy (Okeh) 1997]

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CURWOOD: Next week, on Living on Earth—wind power. It's the fastest growing sector of the renewable energy market, thanks—in part—to new developments in the science of harvesting the wind.

MAN: The machines are much more productive. You need fewer of them, they are more reliable and they are less intrusive on the landscape and, obviously, less of a threat to birds.

CURWOOD: New wind technologies, next time, on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week in a dark and mysterious place teeming with life. Lang Elliot and Ted Mack recorded this symphony of frogs that inhabit Apalachicola National Forest on the Florida panhandle.

[EARTHEAR: Lang Elliot and Ted Mack "Symphony of Frogs" Voices of the Swamp (NatureSound Studio) 1996]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu and Steve Gregory—with help from Christopher Bolick and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us and hear us anytime at Living on Earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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