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

May 20, 2005

Air Date: May 20, 2005



Beyond Kyoto

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The Kyoto Protocol on climate change only went into effect in February, but environmental experts from 190 nations are already looking ahead to what happens after the treaty's first commitment period expires in 2012. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jennifer Morgan, director of the International Climate Change Program for the World Wildlife Fund, about a recent conference on the post-Kyoto world in Bonn, Germany. (05:30)

Polluted Defense Sites / Jeff Young

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Many of the military bases slated for closure are highly contaminated. Cleaning them up could be the biggest barrier to putting the bases to new civilian use. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young looks at what lessons can be learned from past rounds of base closures. (06:30)

Save the Eel / Nancy Cohen

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Tim and Doug Watts have been fascinated with eels since they were kids growing up in Easton, Massachusetts. Now, as adults, the brothers are on a mission: to get the government to protect the American Eel as an endangered species. Nancy Cohen of member station WNPR spent the day with the Watts to find out why they’re concerned about this slimy creature. (07:30)

A New Old Age

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Growing old doesn't have to be about nursing homes and wheelchairs, as Dr. Bill Thomas writes in his new book, "What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World." Dr. Thomas talks with host Steve Curwood about how our elders could be powerful leaders, if only society would let them lead. (08:30)

Emerging Science Note/What the Nose Knows / Katie Zemtseff

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Living on Earth's Katie Zemtseff reports on the power of suggestion and our sense of smell. (01:20)

The Buddha is One…and Zeros / Karen Michel

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As part of the country’s goal to achieve “gross national happiness,” the king of Bhutan has allowed television and internet access in the Buddhist kingdom. Not all residents have electricity or are computer literate, but six years after the media ban was lifted Bhutan is seeing the effects of opening their world to outside influences. Karen Michel reports. (15:30)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Jennifer Morgan, Bill Thomas
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Nancy Cohen, Karen Michel
NOTE: Katie Zemtseff

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Beyond Kyoto

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

The Kyoto Protocol to produce greenhouse gas emissions took effect just three months ago, but already climate experts from a hundred ninety countries are looking ahead to what comes after the treaty’s first commitment period ends in 2012. They met recently in Bonn, Germany and, among other issues, looked at ways to include developing nations such as China and India, as well as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States in any future reduction regime.

The gathering comes amid recent scientific reports documenting that the earth has already begun to absorb more heat than it radiates and that global warming could spin out of control if steps are not taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Jennifer Morgan, who directs the International Climate Change Program for the World Wildlife Fund, attended the conference and joins us now from Bonn. Hello, Jennifer.

MORGAN: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, Jennifer, this is the first time that Kyoto participants have assembled since, well, I guess you call it a particularly contentious meeting last December in Buenos Aires. What was the tone like at this gathering and what if any concrete action came out of it?

MORGAN: Well, the tone was very constructive and very forward-looking by the vast majority of the delegates here in Bonn. And the concrete action that came out, I guess, is that there is momentum for beginning negotiations um, at the next formal meeting of the protocol and that’s very new. I think that especially from developing countries there was quite an urgency expressed here.

CURWOOD: What are some of the scenarios being discussed that would encourage the commitment of developing countries to some kind of limits on their greenhouse gas emissions in the next phase of the Kyoto agreement?

MORGAN: Well, I think there’s two key elements here. I think one is that developing countries are already doing quite a lot. China, for example, is doing much more than the United States on renewable energy and I think they could be encouraged to do more through the carbon markets that have opened up with the entry into force the Kyoto Protocol. We now have a new currency and if developing countries could get finance it through the market to for example, build much more renewable energy than building new coal plants. They’re interested in that. Brazil said that, Argentina, and Mexico and China said that, so I think that’s one side of it.

The other side, which was very striking, is that these countries presented as I’ve never heard them before the impacts that are happening already in their countries and the fact that climate change is threatening their own development and, therefore, they know that something more needs to happen.

CURWOOD: What are these developing countries calling for over the near term?

MORGAN: Well, over the near term they’re calling for things, um, a mixture of things. The first is, of course, that in order for them to take additional steps and reduce their, their emissions, they need the financial and technical support to do so. These are not countries with high GDPs by any stretch of the imagination. They may be growing, but they’re still developing countries.

The other concrete thing or medium, short-term step was that South Africa and a number of other countries called for a Montreal mandate and what that, basically, means is that in Montréal at the next international climate meeting, countries would formally start negotiating for what comes after 2012 which is the end of the current Kyoto Protocol and would launch formal negotiations. Now, we still have a ways to go to get there, but the fact that they’re opening up that door and opening that door means their commitment will be on the table was a very different conversation then we had in December.

CURWOOD: What would it take to get the U.S. to sign on to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions?

MORGAN: Well, I think that there’s a lot happening in the U.S. right now to help with that outside of the White House and I think so you need to have domestic support for it and you do have that in many parts of the country, in the Northeast of the United States, California, the cities that just signed up from New York to Seattle to the Kyoto target. I think that’s one piece of the puzzle and the companies that are acting on it, but you really need a White House to wake up and understand that climate change is a serious problem that is, the majority of which is caused by humans and everyone from Prime Minister Blair to you know, the head of GE is now saying this. I’m not quite sure what the president needs to hear.

CURWOOD: What’s the next step then for the Kyoto process?

MORGAN: The next step is, there’ll be a series of technical meetings the next couple of weeks, but in the hallways I think people will be talking about what could this launch of negotiations or Montréal mandate look like and then they’ll come back together again in November in Montréal to discuss that and, hopefully, to come together to say, ‘we can’t wait any longer. We need to begin talking and formally negotiating deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts. The time is short and the window for avoiding those impacts is closing quickly.’

CURWOOD: . Jennifer Morgan directs the International Climate Change Program for the World Wildlife Fund in Bonn, Germany. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

MORGAN: Thank you.

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[MUSIC: “The Revolution” Sanctity: itnotmtdthw (Liquid Light) 2004]

Polluted Defense Sites

CURWOOD: When the Defense Department released its latest list of military
bases slated to be closed, state and local officials around the nation started scrambling.
Many are fighting to save their backyard bases and the jobs they provide. But if the military installations do go away localities will be looking to put the former defense department land to new civilian use as housing, parks, or industrial centers.
A number of the bases are on prime real estate; but many are also highly polluted with toxic dumps, tainted water and even unexploded bombs. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports that contamination is often the biggest challenge for those who would breathe new life into old military bases.

YOUNG: After more than 70 years of military activity on Cape Cod in Massachusetts,
Otis Air National Guard Base could be heading for retirement. It’s on the
latest list of installations the Defense Department wants to close and it’s
probably the one with the worst contamination. Cape Cod resident Peter Schlesinger says the base has a long, proud history that has also left a long list of pollutants.

SCHLESINGER: Fuels, aviation fuels, diesel spills, different types of cleaning solvents, rocket fuel additives, explosives.

YOUNG: Much of that was dumped right on top of the region’s main water source, and
has seeped into the aquifer. Which is why Schlesinger has joined federal and
state regulators and the military in a multi million-dollar effort to track
down and clean up contamination.

SCHLESINGER: Without clean water we don’t have jobs, we won’t have tourists,
we won’t be able to sell our homes, and we won’t have a safe place to bring up children.

YOUNG: The nonprofit Center for Public Environmental Oversight reviewed defense
records on 35 of the bases slated for closure and found widespread contamination. Center director Lenny Siegal found seven of the installations on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list of the worst toxic dumps. The Defense Department projects total cleanup costs at about 2-point-9 billion dollars. A lot of that cleanup is already underway. But Siegal says the cost is likely to go up after bases close down.

SIEGAL: Until you’re really out looking for problems because you’re going to do something with the property you may miss some of them so it’s quite possible that the final bill for cleanup at these sites will be somewhere around twice as much as what it is now.

YOUNG: From the last round of base closures in the 90s, about a quarter of the
land—some 138 thousand acres—has still not been transferred to local control. A report last month from the Government Accountability Office says that’s mostly due to the need for more environmental cleanup. The military is responsible for that job but the military’s definition of "clean" does not always match what regulators want. Tim Ford, with the nonprofit Association of Defense Communities, says that can leave the local government in a sort of bureaucratic crossfire.

FORD: You have the military services saying that they’ll only pay to have the land cleaned up to this standard then the states say ‘well, you have to clean it up to this other standard.’ And the people in the middle are the local redevelopment authority who can’t make anything happen because no one can agree on what the standard is going to be for cleanup.

YOUNG: Ford, Siegel and others say there are lessons to be learned from the earlier
base closures. Lesson one: communities need more information. At Colorado’s former Lowry Air Force base near Denver new homes and businesses are already in place. But resident Ann Callison says it has not gone smoothly. She’s been involved with the Air Force cleanup for more than a decade and says she asked for a full characterization of the site at one of their first meetings.

CALLISON: And it took nine years to get the first draft of that. In those nine years some development began and the results have not been pretty.

YOUNG: Homebuilders found soil laced with asbestos. Callison says that brought a
new round of cleanups, lawsuits and anxiety among homeowners—all of which
might have been avoided with earlier disclosure.

CALLISON: I would just suggest to all these leaders in these communities that
they get these operational site histories done pronto. This is the first step towards redevelopment.

YOUNG: Lesson two: follow the money. In Monterey County, California, the Army’s old Fort Ord took up thousands of scenic seaside acres--very valuable, but mostly still too dangerous to sell, largely due to unexploded ordnance. The military has already spent 300 million cleaning up Fort Ord and Redevelopment Authority Director Michael Houlemard says it could take twice that to finish the job. But Houlemard says government spending to clean closed bases has been going down.

HOULEMARD: It’s been reduced every year for the last six or seven. At the rate they’re funding it this year it will take 25 years to finish the cleanup.

YOUNG: The Defense Department says its funding is adequate. Alex Beehler is DOD’s assistant deputy undersecretary for environment safety and health. Beehler defends the military’s cleanup record and says they’re looking for ways to improve.

BEEHLER: We’re using the best, latest technology to make sure we can clean up successfully and completely in most effective and efficient manner. And we’re on the hook. We have to get the job done. If we don’t get the job done, we’re subject to all the strictures of law.

YOUNG: DOD has tried to persuade Congress to change some of the laws on toxic waste at bases. Environmental groups call those special exemptions that could make matters worse. Beehler says they’re simple clarifications. Congress has, so far, denied the military’s requests.

Back in Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, Peter Schlesinger keeps an eye on contamination at the Otis base, considers the hard lessons from other base closures and remains an optimist. He’s sure his community will benefit if Otis shuts down because he knows his neighbors will continue to demand a full cleanup.

SCHLESINGER: It’s the citizenry that get involved to read reports to think about
the material presented and be willing to stand up and this kind of citizen activism is
really required to effectively direct any base cleanup.

YOUNG: Consider it a call to arms for the civilians who want to make the most of
their old military bases. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- - The Center for Public Environmental Oversight
- - Site for the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Committee
- - Association of Defense Communities
- - The Military Toxics Project

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CURWOOD: Coming up: It looks awful but it tastes great. And that combination may have the American Eel headed for the endangered species list. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Save the Eel

Young eels attempting to climb through the dam spillgate at Weweantic River, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up, how old people will save the world. But first: when it comes to protecting animals there are some that are an easy sell to the public--the ones with melodic songs, furry skin, bright colors or majestic size. But that leaves out most fish. The brothers Doug and Tim Watts want to protect a fish with a slimy reputation: the American Eel. They want it placed on the endangered species list. From member station WNPR in Hartford, Nancy Cohen explains why.

COHEN: Forty-year-old Doug Watts says when he and his big brother Tim were growing up in Easton, Massachusetts the woods and streams were their playground.


D. WATTS: We could come home covered with mud. We could come home with snakes with turtles, with frogs, with bugs, you name it.

Young eels attempting to climb through the dam spillgate at Weweantic River, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

COHEN: And eels. They used eels as bait to catch striped bass on Cape Cod. And Tim recalls the time he and Doug saw an eel unlike any other they’d seen before. They were fishing in a pond with their father and they noticed some fishing tackle floating by.

T.WATTS: We said ‘hey dad look at that bobber lets go grab it.’ So we pulled up our lines and went paddling over there and He hauled it up and there was this great big eel that, you know, was probably three feet long

D. WATTS: It was black too! It was almost coal black.

T. WATTS: It was probably as big around as your arm.

COHEN: They cut the line and let the eel go, but the impression it made stayed with them. Today, Doug’s a writer with the Atlantic Salmon Journal in Maine and fights to protect migrating fish. Tim, a former Marine, is a janitor by night and keeps an eye on the eels by day. One place he checks on them is not far from his home: the Weweantic River in Wareham, Massachusetts.


Glass eels & elvers stuck beneath the Horseshoe Pond Dam, Weweantic River Wareham, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

T. WATTS: Couple days ago this place was loaded with ‘em up here all these little pockets in the rocks would be full of these little clumps of eels and I see very few up here now. I have a funny feeling somebody’s up here poaching them.

COHEN: Tim says fishing for the American Eel is one reason its numbers are declining. Eels are considered a culinary delicacy. And demand from Asia and Europe has pushed up the price. Young eels are going for 275 dollars a pound this spring in Maine. And they face other threats including contaminants in rivers and loss of wetland habitat.

Six months ago, the Watts brothers filed a petition with the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the American eel be listed as endangered. Experts are also concerned. A year ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued a statement saying the government should consider the American Eel a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

A defining moment for the Watts brothers came nine years ago when they found a mass of migrating eels stuck below this old mill dam on the Weweantic River. The brothers spent several nights netting them and moving them over the dam.

T. WATTS: If they have to sit below this dam three weeks two weeks a month you get a huge amounts of mortality through predators that you wouldn’t otherwise get if they had free passage upstream.

COHEN: Every spring, Tim sees the same thing: one-year-old American Eels that can’t get past this dam. They’re only a little bigger than a toothpick and spend a lot of time hiding from predators like fish, crabs and birds.


T. WATTS: And you turn over a rock [grunts] and from under the rock they all go squiggling away.

(Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

COHEN: Tim gently picks one up. At this age, the eels are like tiny glass snakes with big black eyes


T. WATTS: That looks like his spine running right through there. They’re so transparent you can look through the top of their head and see their little brain and everything in there

COHEN: They may appear fragile, but these young eels are determined. Some will slither through cracks and crevices in dams, up rivers to ponds where they live for decades. The American eel has a huge range. From Brazil to Greenland. In North America they live in the northeast, the south the Midwest, and the Maritime Provinces. They only spawn once and then die. All are born and migrate from the same place: the clear waters of the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, including the one Tim is holding.

T. WATTS: That little guy came about, I don’t know, a couple thousand miles through the ocean to get here his mother could’ve came out of a river, oh who knows where? Could of came out to the Rio Grande River. Could of came out of Missouri River up in South Dakota. Could’ve came from this river, there’s no telling where it came from it’s kind of amazing.

COHEN: Tim and his brother Doug are fascinated with this animal, but sickened by the obstacles humans have thrown in its way. Doug Watts recalls one fall five years ago when he saw what he thought were vacuum cleaner hoses tangled below a hydroelectric dam.


D. WATTS: The bottom was littered with them and some of these were as long as my leg and they’re all chopped up

COHEN: They were sexually mature female eels heading downstream to the ocean to spawn. But the turbines of a hydropower dam stopped them. Doug says dam operators should give eels a way to get by. He’s gone so far as to leave dead eels on the doorstep of the powerhouse of one dam and has brought buckets of dead eels to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

D. WATTS: You can’t be causing these fish kills. You just can’t be grinding up these female eels while they’re going to spawn for once in life. They’re 40 years ----you know, some of these eels are older than me. They came up these rivers in the 1950s and you know without mothers there’s not going to be any babies. And the amount, the number being killed is frightening.


COHEN: On the Wankinko River in Wareham Doug and Tim walk along a fish ladder designed to help some migrating fish get over a dam. But it’s not much help for young eels. The two brothers stand with their heads bowed, eyes probing the water.

T. WATTS: There’s a whole bunch of ‘em tucked in that little corner by the uh…right at the entrance to the fish way. There’s a big…almost like a great big ball of ‘em.

D. WATTS: Oh yeah, I see ‘em. They’re trying to hide in the corner there.

COHEN: The eels are wriggling like dancers doing a fast shimmy trying to make it upstream. Tim decides to give them a hand. He takes off his shoes and drops into the water.

T. WATTS: Too bad this is radio you can’t see my nice legs! [LAUGHS]

COHEN: He scoops up a net-full of these living noodles, and with Doug beside him, carries them over the dam—which is against state law—and drops them into the water.


T. WATTS: Here’s to illegality, Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience.


D. WATTS: We only have a hundred million left to go.

COHEN: The brothers want the government to take over the protection of this fish and cradle it inside the laws of the Endangered Species Act. They’re still waiting to find out if their petition will be approved. Regardless of the outcome. Tim and Doug Watts will continue to do what they can to save the American Eel. For Living on Earth, I’m Nancy Cohen in Wareham, Massachusetts.

Related links:
- - Petition to List the American Eel as an Endangered Species
- - Tim Watt’s website

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[MUSIC: Mark O’Connor “Kit’s Waltz” Markology (Rounder) 1979]

A New Old Age

CURWOOD: Okay, take a moment now and listen to these synonyms for the word "old." On the one hand you have “mature,” “ripened,” “seasoned” and “tested.” On the other hand you have “obsolete,” “outmoded,” “out-of-date,” and “passé.” And all too often, says Dr. Bill Thomas, it’s the negative side of aging that gets the most spin in today’s society where the population of senior citizens is expected to top 70 million in the next 15 years.

Dr. Thomas is a geriatrician in upstate New York who sees America's seniors as a potentially powerful group of leaders - if only society would let them lead.
He's written a new book called "What are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World," and he joins me now. Dr. Thomas, hello!

THOMAS: Hello.

CURWOOD: So, I got to ask you this: we know about various “isms” in the world. There’s racism, there’s sexism, and now there is adultism?

THOMAS: Yeah. You know, when I talk about this idea of the cult of adulthood, what I’m really saying is that the adult point of view has become so powerful in our society and so pervasive. There’s really two main groups that are left out. They would be older people and children and younger people.

CURWOOD: So, what do children lose in this process?

THOMAS: If you look at children today, you can find many, many examples of how childhood is being restructured and positioned really as a leaping off point that can lead you to what’s really worth while and that’s life as an adult.

CURWOOD: What do you mean?

THOMAS: I think you can really point to two ways that adulthood has changed the fabric of childhood. One is the vast increase in organized sports activities that are offered really as a preferable way of children spending time and energy compared to the much more open and organic and playful summer vacation that a lot of listeners recall for themselves. For example, in the place of the sandlot kind of baseball game, instead of that we have a little league which keeps statistics on the batting averages of the children. Those two things might seem the same, but they’re actually radically different. And the second thing I want to say about play is that, the amount of time that children play has been declining and strangely enough or not, children have been adopting more and more adult type activities in preference to open-ended play.

CURWOOD: So, what is lost for older people in the system?

THOMAS: Wow. I mean, wow. It’s devastating. We are witness right now in our society, we are witness to a systematic program of destruction that is aimed at the, literally aimed at the eradication of what for 10,000 generations would have been known as elderhood. We live in a society now that is organized around the precept that adulthood lasts forever. That once you become a productive, independent adult there is no other acceptable way to live. And I’m a geriatrician, so I take care of older people, and I can tell you that there are millions of people out there who are clinging on to the myth of independence because they’re afraid that if they lose their grip on independence they’ll be removed from the community and placed in a nursing home. Our society looks at old age and sees one thing: and that is decline. And is, therefore, blind to some of the most miraculous things that old age has to offer

CURWOOD: Now, you admit that there was going to be some question as to the title of your book and the subtitle ended up being, “How Elders Will Save the World,” and I have to say this is a pretty weighty responsibility for people you say who have been devalued by modern society.

THOMAS: Right.

CURWOOD: So, Dr. Bill Thomas, how will elders save the world?

THOMAS: Here’s a couple of ways why I think elders will save the world. First, elders historically around the world and through history have been peacemakers. And I don’t mean old generals. I mean old people. Old grandmothers and grandfathers have historically been seen as peacemakers and have functioned as peacemakers and let me just say, why elders are good peacemakers is the very fact that they can no longer win bar fights. They can’t enforce their will through violence on other people and they can serve as peacemakers for that very reason.

Now, let me just say that surveys show that the emotional life of older people in general is more positive, less negative, more resilient generally than the emotional life of younger people. And there is a long, long history of elders as stewards. Elders speaking on behalf of the world of which in the not distant future they’ll not longer be a part. The reason that’s often been true is that elders generally don’t lust after the latest sports car from Ferrari; they’re generally much more interested in the well-being of their family and the future well-being of their grandchildren and so on and so they have a different take on the environment very often than younger people do. The second thing I think is really important: we used aging as an adaptive evolutionary trait to develop a new period in the life cycle that’s not shared with any other animal and that period is elderhood. And the first and primary function of elderhood is grandparenting and it’s been a staggering success. I mean if you put grandparenting up against the wheel and fire, grandparenting is a way bigger invention than either of those two things.

CURWOOD: So, give me some details of this grandparenting adaptation in our evolution that you say is so important.

THOMAS: Well, you know, in particular, I want you to think about what grandparenting let’s us do. It affords human beings the opportunities to support the young, not with the energy and resources of one generation, but with the energy and resources of two generations. And so old age and grandparenting has actually been critical to shaping who we are as a species.

CURWOOD: Bill, I got to ask you one thing about grandparenting--are we really talking about grandmothers here?

THOMAS: Wow, you put your finger right on it. I was trying to be polite to the grandpas out there. The truth is the research indicates that grandmothering is pretty darn important and there are studies around the world that show, for example, there’s a study from India that shows a household where the mother’s mother is living in the household, that wife will have a higher level of fertility and her children will have a higher level of survival than a household where the wife’s mother’s not there. All around the world there’s lots of evidence that grandmothers increase reproductive success and decrease child mortality. And part of the reason I wrote this book was to help people see the potential for a new future where old age is truly respected and an honored part of our social fabric.

CURWOOD: Dr. Bill Thomas is a geriatrician in upstate New York and is author of the book "What are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World.” Dr. Thomas, thanks for taking this time with me today.

THOMAS: Always good to be with you.

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[MUSIC: Natialie MacMaster “The Honeysuckle Set” No Boundaries (Rounder) 1997]

Emerging Science Note/What the Nose Knows

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the perils and promises of bringing a remote mountain kingdom in global commerce and communications. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Zemsteff.

ZEMTSEFF: The power of suggestion can influence everything from how we eat to how we shop. And now, scientists say it can also affect how we smell.

Researchers at Oxford University monitored the brain variations of 12 subjects who were exposed to various smells. As different odors were presented, words would appear inside special glasses worn by the subjects. After each odor the subject would rate the smell as pleasant or unpleasant. Smells ranged from the unmistakable odors of flowers and burned plastic to more ambiguous scents resembling cheddar cheese. In these cases, scientists paired the cheesy smells with the phrases ‘cheddar cheese,’ or ‘body odor.’ Not surprisingly, subjects rated the pleasantness of what they smelled much higher when it was called cheese, rather than body odor.

Turns out, the cheddar cheese label produced a sensation in the part of the brain where pleasant odors are processed. Scentless air labeled cheddar cheese also activated this area. But the cheesy smell label “body odor” produced no activity at all – giving credence to the theory that what our brain sees outweighs what it smells – even if the information is inaccurate.

So next time you’re unsure how fresh your milk is, do yourself a favor and “follow your nose” – not the claims of freshness on the label. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Katie Zemtseff.

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CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living On Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Verizon providing 411 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: “Call Me Crazy” Sanctity: itnotmtdthw (Liquid Light) 2004]

The Buddha is One…and Zeros

A Bhutanese boy plays video games at the local internet café. (Photo: Karen Michel)

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

This week, public radio stations across the nation are putting a spotlight on the effects of globalization. Living on Earth’s contribution to “Think Global” takes us to one of the smallest nations in Asia.

Bhutan, sits in the rugged Himalayan Mountain Range between China and India. And its physical isolation has allowed it to endure as a Buddhist kingdom: governed as much by Buddhist philosophy, as by law. Indeed, as this nation of less than a million people began to emerge on the world stage, the King of Bhutan proclaimed a goal of "gross national happiness," rather than aiming at merely increasing the financial measure of gross national product. According to the king, one of the ways to encourage happiness is to allow television and the Internet into his remote nation, and the changes underway are being closely watched.

As part of “Worlds of Difference” documentary series on global cultural change, Karen Michel produced our report called “The Buddha is One and Zeros.”

Pema Tsering and his cousin, Deki Wangmo. (Photo: Karen Michel)

PEMA: I was born here in this house. This is four story….(fades under)

MICHEL: Pema Tsering was my guide to Bhutan. A businessman in his mid-forties, he’d been recommended by friends. Pema wasn’t really a guide, but he seemed to know everyone, and at least something about everything. I was told often that he was considered the Bhutanese Patrick Swayze: he’s a good dancer and, in profile, you could see the resemblance in the sculptured cheekbones and the set of the jaw. But this Patrick Swayze wears a dark robe-like garment, the go, traditionally worn by Bhutanese men. Now, Pema lives in the city, though he clearly remembers the home of his childhood, in the village of Nimju.

PEMA: …dry our meats and everything and then hardly any vehicles, only a couple of trucks and few jeeps. So, for us, like when we used to see vehicle coming from far away we used get so scared as if a monster’s coming to us and we used to jump off the road, look for a bush, hide behind a bush. And that was how it was. Now, after all these years when I’m back it has developed like hell.

MICHEL: The roads don’t yet reach all of the country, nor does electricity, though it’s come to Nimju.

PEMA: Everybody has light. In fact, you can see in the kitchen, also now with gas, gas stove. Then electrical equipments like the water boiler, rice cooker, and everything you see. Those, just, didn’t even know what these things were for.

MICHEL: And then, as we were talking, the lights went out.

MICHEL (TO PEMA): And what just happened?

PEMA: Electricity failure. But you can see some lights on the other side, so must be this phase must have gone.

MICHEL: No big deal to Pema, as we went back to using the kerosene lamps of his youth. The electricity, delivered mainly by hydropower, is somewhat erratic, both in the city and here, in the village. Pema’s teenaged cousin, Deki Wangmo, lives in this house when she’s on break from school in the city of Thimpu. We stand at the entrance to the Chosum, the prayer room that’s in every Bhutanese home. There are paintings of the Buddha in various forms, draped with white prayer shawls, brass bowls of water, some oranges, sticks of incense. A calico cat drinks water from the offerings. Deki says that’s good luck. She wears the traditional women’s dress, the kira. The garment is in earth toned stripes, and reaches to her ankles. Deki wears a white blouse underneath and a fuschia colored jacket over it.

A monk at the Paro market. (Photo: Karen Michel)

DEKI: Everything is changing especially those staying in the town they always wear pants and all, and those who are wearing gos and kiras , they are also encouraged to wear pants.

MICHEL: Teenagers everywhere like to be trendy, even in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. Deki thinks the desire to dress like the west is a potential threat to life as her elder cousin Pema knew it.

DEKI: I’m not really sure but 50 percent, I think, of Bhutan is definitely going to lose culture. If we lose our culture, then I don’t think they will give much importance to our culture no. Then after that, all will be like foreigners only, all the Bhutanese peoples. Then after that, I think somebody might come and rule our country.

MICHEL: She means China or India, just as India took over Sikkim and China absorbed Tibet. She hopes the king will be strong in resisting their overtures.

DEKI: OK, I’ll sing one song. It’s in praise of our king. In those olden days….



MICHEL: In the outdoor market in Paro, vendors sell produce, haunches of dried yak meat, large posters of the king, home made chili powder, and rubber flip flops. Everyone wears either a kira or a go, except for the many monks in their maroon robes. A monk sits at the entrance to the market, chanting. Everyone who passes gives him at least some change. Generosity is expected. It’s part of the Buddhist way.


KHANDU: My office is not only an office, it’s a small temple. I’m surrounded with all the deities. I draw spiritual inspiration from them.

MICHEL: Rinchen Khandu lives in the city of Thimpu, a couple of hours moderately terrifying drive from Paro. Rinchen Khandu’s business card reads, "rich and can do." It’s likely the latter part is more accurate. Rinchen composes music for the fledgling Bhutanese film industry, works on a Dzonka-English dictionary, and is father to a five-year-old allegedly reincarnated lama, a Tikku.

Rinchen Khandu (Photo: Karen Michel)

KHANDU: Buddhism in our language is called Namba. Namba means self-introspection. You have to look inside yourself and to look inside yourself you have to have the third eye of course. The two eyes are always looking outward, we have to employ the third eye within ourself and see what is best and then glean the best and use it try to adjust to our own situation. That’s what we are trying to do. And that’s also the policy of the royal government of Bhutan.

KING’S ANNOUNCEMENT: (in Dzongka) (Fades under)

MICHEL: On July 2nd, 1999 in a speech as part of his silver jubilee celebration, the king made a surprise announcement. It came near the end of his remarks, and received the only applause of the event.

(KING’S ANNOUNCEMENT): …television, internet…." (then fades under)

MICHEL: The king said that from that moment on, television and the internet would be allowed in the country of 700,000 or so people, most of them rural, most of them farmers, many of them without the electricity necessary to use these innovations. Some Bhutanese already had illegal satellite dishes to receive TV from India, hidden under the eaves of the roof of their homes. As I learned from one of Pema Tsering’s friends at Benny’s bar in Thimpu, the king’s announcement was welcome, but not seen as a big, big deal by most Bhutanese.

MAN: We had video movies before TV. So when TV came in it wasn’t like ‘wow’ or you know, ‘great’ or ‘we’ve never seen a TV.’

DORJI: …This is the History channel…

MICHEL: Rinzy Dorji was ecstatic about the king’s announcement. Now. he’s one of the country’s cable operators, providing more than 40 channels to his subscribers.

DORJI: Bhutanese people as such are very influenced by our religion. We try to be not in an extreme. We believe in kind of a…in a middle part. So I think Bhutanese people, by nature and by our culture, we know how to be responsible. We know what to watch and I think television as such has brought happiness to most of our people and that is what I am doing. Bringing happiness. [LAUGHS]

Rinchen Khandu’s five year old son is thought to be a reincarnated lama. When he’s not busy with his religious duties, he likes to watch cartoons on television. (Photo: Karen Michel)


MICHEL: There was some unhappiness; professional wrestling was the culprit.

DORJI: [LAUGHS] And I had several complaints from the parents saying that the older brother is trying to imitate the actions that they saw on the wrestling to his younger brother and then he was having problems [LAUGHS]. And he told me to stop airing such kind of programs. But then, as a provider, I have to see the interest of all my clients.


MICHEL: Clients who hardly ever see each other in person anymore.

DORJI: Before I used to know almost all of the people in Thimphu. Now, because of television and your own work, hardly we meet each other. On holidays we used to all, you know, go around meet and in the town we used to see each other, but it is now less frequent. Socializing is less frequent.


MICHEL: Pema Tsering’s wife, Tsering and her older sister Yangtse get together at his house, just about every afternoon. There are two TV’S in the home: one for the adults, the other for the kids.

TSERING: My younger one likes to watch cartoons, and then my second one likes to watch MTV, V channel and all music channels.

MICHEL: And what do you like to watch?

TSERING: I watch Bold & Beauty, I’m addicted to that serial [LAUGHS].

MICHEL: So is Tsering’s big sister, who sits in bed, watching TV.

YANGTSE: Basically, everyone is doing that. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, they are. Because we are just sitting around doing nothing. No exercise. sitting watching TV, eating. Front of the TV. As a family, like, we hardly talk to each other. No talking because we have no time, we are busy watching our TV.

TSERING: That’s really true that’s what my sister just said.

YANSTE: People don’t have time for their children. Half the time they don’t know where the kids are because they are glued to the TV.


Televisions are now sold in Bhutan. (Photo: Karen Michel)

PEK-DORJI: The tendency for a lot of people is to think that ‘oh this must be really bad’.

MICHEL: Siok Sian Pek-Dorji was recently commissioned to assess the impact of media in Bhutan. The Ministry of Information and Communications wanted to know, ‘how can Bhutan’s media contribute to gross national happiness?’

PEK-DORJI: I found out most Bhutanese are very, very open to new influences. And they’re very confident that they’ll be able to pick the good from the bad. And that seems to be a very common, um, a shared feeling among many Bhutanese. And they’re confident that, oh our children will, you know, learn so much. They see the positive rather than the negative

MICHEL: English improves by watching TV, say the parents, who must weigh language skills with the product lust promoted by commercials. I met a 20 year old who was so taken by the first ad she ever saw on TV for face cream that now she wants to open Bhutan’s first advertising agency. Her younger brother, on the other hand was just taken with TV itself becoming, in his inertia, as obese as any fast-food chomping American adolescent. Pek’s study confirmed that parents were right that their children spent too much time in front of the tube and also right that there are beneficial aspects to exposure to the global village. The study also stresses the need to include images of the local villages, as well.

PEK-DORJI: I think the main issue in terms of the media today in Bhutan is content. How do we create enough content to balance the inflow of media, whether its images or just information?

ANNOUNCER: And with that we come to the end of the morning broadcast after BBS. Thank you for being with us. I’m ??? and I’ll be back in the afternoon at two p.m. with our afternoon English service. So join me then….

MINGBO: Hi, my name is Mingbo, I am managing director of Bhutan Broadcasting Services here in Thimpu.

[BBS ANNOUNCER fades under]

MINGBO: We have four hours of live broadcast and four hours of rebroadcast every morning that is television. And of course radio in four different languages, two regional languages, one national language, and one in English.

MICHEL: 15 hours a day, nearly a fourth of it the sound track taken from BBS TV. Though much of BBS TV isn’t visually sophisticated or stimulating--a man, or men, in somber go, sitting behind a table, being serious. The real drama is in the large number of public service announcements: many of them for aids, including one counseling that HIV isn’t transmitted from toilet seats. With a national literacy rate at just over 50 percent, BBS managing director Mingbo sees a need for the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service to provide both education and entertainment.

MINGBO: Entertainment programs, the songs and dances on the TV programs. I know we have so many channels. Some of the channels they can’t make heads or tails of it.

[BBS DOCUMENTARY: The solution is to provide boarding….]

MICHEL: The radio and TV staffs of BBS are the same; a convergence of necessity. And there aren’t enough resources, human or financial, to increase the amount…or the sophistication…of local programming. BBS’s star producer studied at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism. Most Bhutanese men wear their hair short; Tsewang Dendup’s locks curl down his neck.

TSEWANG: The TV is definitely emerging as a medium. But, not surprisingly, because the art of visual storytelling has always been there. If you go to our temples, it’s replete with paintings, right? If you go to Bhutanese houses you see all this traditional paintings that depicts the life of the Buddha. So, I mean, how is television different?


MICHEL: Bhutan has mobile phone service and an internet provider, too. And so, there are internet cafés--without café or, generally, internet connection. However many computers there are it seemed video gaming was more profitable in a country with at most ten percent computer literacy. Two percent may be closer to the truth. A low-cost desktop computer costs as much as a year’s average salary in Bhutan. Pema has a computer at home; his cousin, Deki was eager to learn how to use one.

A Bhutanese boy plays video games at the local internet café. (Photo: Karen Michel)

DEKI: Um, the computer, I don’t know much but, for the television, I think if you watch this informative channels, I don’t think its, its going to lose our culture, because it gives us ideas, and it also makes us aware of all of the things which are happening in the outside world. But the internet I don’t know much about it.

MICHEL: Well, she’s learned. Recently, I got an email from Deki, in the form of a Mother’s Day card from an online service. So far as I know, there’s no greeting card industry…nor Mother’s Day in Bhutan. Now she’s learned that on the internet the store is always open. In a country where credit cards are even newer than television, can a local Bhutanese shopping channel be far behind? Who knows?--Maybe that’s another way to achieve gross national happiness. For Living on Earth, I’m Karen Michel in Bhutan.


CURWOOD: Our story, “The Buddha is One and Zeroes” was produced as part of “Worlds of Difference,” a project of Homelands Productions and made possible in part with funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more information, visit our website at living on earth dot org.


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CURWOOD: Coming up on Living on Earth – people - and lots of them - and for the first time in history more of them live in cities than in rural areas. So this year, the United Nations “World Environment Day” will focus on new challenges facing urban areas.
The U.N. event has been held every year since 1974, but this is the first time it will take place in the United States. In two weeks, Living on Earth goes to San Francisco - the site of World Environment Day—and looks at where the Golden Gate City is eco-friendly and where it has room for improvement. How Green is My City, coming next month on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: We leave you this week just north of San Francisco, along the banks of the Russian River.


CURWOOD: Ed Herrman collected these calls of birds and other creatures that echo each morning through the valley.

[Ed Herrman “Russian River Birds” North American Free Improvisers (Garuda) 1998]

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. Katie Zemsteff is our intern. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: 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 William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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