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

November 11, 2005

Air Date: November 11, 2005



Oil Prices, Oil Profits

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Consumers are looking for some relief from soaring home heating oil and gasoline prices, as they watch oil companies garner stratospheric profits. Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat from North Dakota, is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a tax on big oil’s profits. He speaks with host Steve Curwood about how the plan would work. (06:00)

Turning Toward the Sun / Ashley Ahearn

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The cost of natural gas has more than doubled from last year, prompting many home owners to look for other heating options. Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn takes a look at how it might benefit homeowners to turn towards the sun. (06:00)

House Drops ANWR

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Several dozen Republican House members may have put an end to the latest thrust and parry over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Host Steve Curwood talks to New Hampshire Congressman Charles Bass, who led the effort to take ANWR drilling out of the latest budget bill. (04:00)

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast / Jeff Young

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It's been nearly two months since President Bush pledged to "do what it takes" to rebuild storm-ravaged Louisiana. But some residents say there's still not enough money to restore their eroded coast and they fear environmental safeguards are being sacrificed. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports. (05:50)

A Man, A Woman, & A Hayfork

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Everyone knows the painting, with the two farmers and a pitchfork, but do they know the story behind it? Host Steve Curwood talks with Steven Biel whose book, “American Gothic,” is about the cultural history of this work of art. (07:00)

Emerging Science Note/A Laughing Matter

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A new study from Stanford University shows that women get more pleasure out of jokes than men. (01:30)

Foliage Prognosis: Fair

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Fall foliage has faded in recent years. Host Steve Curwood turns to scientist Barry Rock at the University of New Hampshire to learn why. (03:30)

Maine River Cleanup Spawns Controversy / Susan Sharon

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Once on the list of the country’s ten most polluted rivers, Maine’s Androscoggin River was one of the inspirations for the Clean Water Act. But some old mill towns in Maine are at odds over the cleanup of the Androscoggin. Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Susan Sharon has our story. (09:00)

Euro Bears / Sy Montgomery

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There has been a surge of bear reintroduction programs across Europe. Right now, there are 100 wild bears living within 60 miles of Rome. And unlike many Americans, many Europeans want more of them. Sy Montgomery comments on the trend. (03:40)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Ringing in the rain.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Senator Byron Dorgan, Elizabeth Basha, Steven Biel
REPORTERS: Ashley Ahearn, Jeff Young, Susan Sharon, Sy Montgomery
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Back in September, President Bush pledged to help Louisiana rebuild from hurricane Katrina.

BUSH: We will do what it takes.

CURWOOD: Today, Louisiana residents say they are still waiting for the federal government to put serious resources into restoring the vital coastal wetlands.

DAVIS: You can’t really plan for secure communities if the entire map is dissolving from beneath your feet.

CURWOOD: And in the wake of post-Katrina record oil company profits comes a call to tax the windfall and give the money back to consumers.

DORGAN: These are profits that we’ve never seen before in the history of corporate America, or the world for that matter, and all that gain for these major integrated oil companies is expressed on the other side as pain for consumers filling their cars and trying to heat their homes.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

Back to top


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


Oil Prices, Oil Profits

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

While motorists were reaching for the bottom of their pockets to fill up this fall, profits for the oil companies headed straight to the top. And some oil companies saw profits nearly double in the recent quarter, from already multi-billion dollar levels. With winter coming and homes to heat, the big profits are expected to keep on coming, too.

So some are calling for a tax on these windfall oil profits. Among them: North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, who’s in our Washington bureau. Thanks for joining me, Senator.

DORGAN: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: So can you just briefly explain your bill?

DORGAN: My proposal would be that for profits on oil prices above $40 a barrel – which was the average price last year, and at which price the oil companies had the highest profits in their history – at profits above that level, if the money is not being used to invest back into additional exploration, then I think it should be captured with an excise tax and sent back to the consumers in the form of a rebate.

CURWOOD: You think the oil companies have made way too much money on this?

DORGAN: Well, I sure do. I mean, last year the oil companies had gross income of a trillion dollars, and net earnings of a hundred billion dollars. These are profits that we’ve never seen before in the history of corporate America, or the world for that matter, and all that gain for these major integrated oil companies is expressed on the other side as pain for consumers filling their cars and trying to heat their homes. And I think it’s unfair.

CURWOOD: Now, there’s some ways that oil companies could get exemptions from the tax under your proposal, and I want to talk to you about these.


CURWOOD: What would they get if they invested their profits in alternative energy?

DORGAN: Well, if they’re investing their profits to expand the supply of energy, regardless of the type of energy, they would not be taxed under my proposal. But, as you know, a substantial portion of the profits these days are going into buying back their stock, in some cases, hoarding cash in other cases. As Business Week said last year, “Drilling for Oil on Wall Street.” Well, you know, there is no oil on Wall Street, but that means using cash to go find mergers and acquisitions.

That’s not the same, as you know, for this country’s purposes, as sinking money into the ground to try to find new oil and natural gas. Sixty percent of our oil now comes from overseas, outside of our country. That is very dangerous. And we’re hopelessly addicted to foreign oil. So we need to begin developing renewable sources in order to relieve some of that addiction.

CURWOOD: Let’s say I’m an oil company and I want to increase refining capacity under your measure. Can I –

DORGAN: Same thing.

CURWOOD: I’d be exempt from the tax if I did that?

DORGAN: That’s right. This would be the single biggest incentive that would ever exist to say to those companies, that money you’re earning? You really ought to use it to expand America’s energy supply.

CURWOOD: In the most recent energy bill oil companies were given at least, what, five billion dollars, I would think, in tax breaks and subsidies for exploration, right?

DORGAN: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think anybody needs tax breaks at the moment to explore for oil. But I’ve created the exemption in this proposal. Frankly, this proposal is hard to get passed with a president and vice president that come from the oil industry, and their party controlling the House and the Senate. I recognize that it’s hard to get this kind of proposal passed in this circumstance.

CURWOOD: Now, there’s a lot of popular support, though, for the notion of a windfall profits tax. I think I saw a poll the other day that said, what, some 80 – 90 percent of Americans think that the oil companies have made way too much money in this latest bubble and it ought to be taxed.

DORGAN: Well there’s popular support for a lot of things that aren’t supported here in the Congress by the majority party. We’ll see. I mean, I hope they either see the light or feel the heat, and I don’t care which it is. But I hope that enough of them would understand that their constituents are being hurt and that we need to do something.

CURWOOD: There’s an attorney general’s office that, at this point, would prefer not to be named, but one of the views that they have is that oil companies may well be manipulating the public by raising prices to the point where we start to change our behavior – to use less energy or buy smaller cars, for example – and then quickly lower them again so we continue with our old consumption patterns. Is there anything to this observation?

DORGAN: Well, I don’t know. Manipulation, of course, is illegal. I mean, we have laws against that. We do have a federal trade commission that is supposed to be looking into these issues of manipulation and price control, etc. The federal trade commission, on these issues, regrettably, has been dead from the neck up for some long while, and doesn’t engender a great deal of confidence in me or many others in terms of taking a hard look at what’s happening with pricing.

CURWOOD: Now, your windfall profits tax could generate, what, $25 billion?

DORGAN: Well we don’t know the answer to that, and we’re trying to get some additional information about if we apply this, as I’ve suggested, what would the consequences be? And to some extent it would depend on how much additional is invested in expanding the supply of energy. But it would likely produce a fair amount of money, as you know. You’ve watched I’m sure, as I have, in the last couple of weeks, with the big oil companies announcing their most recent quarterly profits, they’re quite extraordinary.

CURWOOD: Now, what other competing bills to yours are there pending?

DORGAN: There are a number. There are some who’ve introduced windfall profits taxes to pay for low-income energy assistance. You know, we’re short on that as well. That normally has been appropriated by the Congress, but we’ve had three votes in the Senate and the Senate has so far refused to come up with the funding necessary as we head into this winter. So that’s troublesome. And, you know, those who heat their homes with natural gas can now expect somewhere around forty, fifty, sixty percent increase in the cost to heat their homes this winter. So, you know, some are saying let’s take the money to use it for that, and there are other proposals as well.

CURWOOD: And how do you feel about them? If the Congress were to pass such a proposal – hey, help people heat their homes – would that be good for you?

DORGAN: Well, my first choice would be for Congress to appropriate the funding as we’ve always done. It’s a program for which low-income people are in need, and we really ought to do what’s necessary there. But if the only way to fund it would be with a windfall profits tax, I would see the merits in that.

CURWOOD: Byron Dorgan is a Democrat senator from North Dakota. Thank you, sir.

DORGAN: Thanks, Steve.

Back to top


Turning Toward the Sun

Joan Muller's solar heated cottage. (Photo courtesy of Joan Muller.)

CURWOOD: As the price tag of heating fuel for the oncoming winter months rises, many people are looking at other options. One proposal from Republican Congressman Richard Pombo would let people gather firewood from fallen trees in the National Forests. But there's one source of heat that's been largely left out of the mix. Living on Earth producer Ashley Ahearn takes a look at a new-old way to stay warm during winter: solar heat.

AHEARN: The prospect of paying $1,500 to $2,000 for heat over the coming months is making the phones ring at Clean Energy Design in Osterville, Massachusetts. Tom Wineman, president, says people want to know more about solar heating.

WINEMAN: Used to be once or twice a week, out of the blue, calls. Now it’s twice a day. The curve is starting to go up and up.

AHEARN: Solar heating systems use the sun to directly heat water. Once heated, the water can be used for both bathing and home heating, depending on how it's circulated. Solar panels can be adapted to existing radiators, forced air and radiant heat. The technology hasn't changed much in the past 20 years, and it rarely needs repair. But it's never received as much attention as solar electricity.

WINEMAN: Solar hot water is very under-emphasized, and it’s a very good performer. It just works really well, even in New England. Most people don’t understand that.

AHEARN: But they might be catching on now. Joan Muller called Tom Wineman when she was ready to renovate her home and install solar heating.


AHEARN: It's a little house, only about a thousand square feet. Lots of windows, hardwood floors, an old Siamese cat, and wildflowers in the front yard. The house fits Muller like a glove, and it keeps her just as warm.

Joan Muller's solar heated cottage. (Photo courtesy of Joan Muller.)

MULLER: So the top row of panels with the, you can kind of see the little tubes going through them in the back. Those are the solar thermal panels, so those are for heating the hot water.

AHEARN: The solar panels on Muller's roof heat water, which is then stored in a hot tub-sized tank in her basement and circulated around her home through a radiant floor heating system.


MULLER: Sorry, this is the dingy basement. Watch out, don’t hit your head.

AHEARN: Like most solar heating users, Muller also has a natural gas system in her basement, which she uses to fuel her stove, and as a backup. But now she only uses that backup a few months out of the year. Her solar heating system, while not making her completely independent, is taking a huge chunk out of her natural gas bill.

MULLER: When I’m not heating the house it’s like six or seven dollars, and that’s just for the cooking. In the coldest months I was paying like 60 dollars a month for gas, which I thought, well that’s a lot, because I have solar. But my neighbors were laughing at me cuz their bills were much higher.

AHEARN: Now Muller chuckles a little bit at her neighbors, who might be paying $600 per month during the coldest months of the year.

The biggest problem with solar heat is installation cost. Putting a system in an average three-bedroom home can cost between $15,000 and $20,000. How expensive that is relative to other systems of heating is a constantly shifting picture.

Natural gas prices have more than doubled from last year. That means where it might have taken 12 years for a solar heating system to pay for itself not long ago, payoff time now is closer to five to seven years. Or, if homeowners take out a mortgage to cover that up-front cost, the system can start paying itself off right away.

Rhone Resch is president of the Solar Energy Industry Association.

RESCH: Building the cost of a solar system into a 30 year mortgage will result in a positive cash flow from day one. That is, the amount of money that you are saving on your energy bill will be greater than the increase cost of your mortgage by adding the solar system too.

AHEARN: But the cost is still daunting for many. There's been government support for solar electricity, but state and federal tax breaks for solar heating don't exceed $4,000 combined. The net effect is, if you don't have the cash and can't afford a mortgage or loan, installing solar heat isn't an easy option.

Paul Flemming is with Energy Security Analysis Inc.

FLEMMING: Those who are having a hard time affording their energy for the winter are not going to be able to afford the $15,000 type of number to install a system. The other people at the higher end of the income bracket will be able to afford this price tag, but they're probably somewhat indifferent to the increase in the energy cost. It doesn't hurt them enough to give them incentive to go and do this.

AHEARN: Flemming says that until people start really feeling the pain of heating costs, appearances will continue to be a negative for the solar heating. Many homeowners are reluctant to use the space and change the looks of their homes to make room for a solar set up.

FLEMMING: The guy who can afford it has a nice home. He doesn't want to put a huge solar heating panel on the top of his beautiful colonial home in a nice neighborhood.

AHEARN: But those attitudes may be changing. Numbers are on the rise. Tom Wineman, who installed Joan Muller's system, can't get panels fast enough to meet demand. He says that for people who have the space and the interest, solar heating is an energy solution that's reliable, cost effective and… liberating.

WINEMAN: When people understand these choices they can make, they can be really empowered to realize that they don’t have to get their energy from thousands of miles away. They can choose to at least get a certain portion of it, a good portion of it, right here. And they can be more independent, and not be victimized by the system of energy as it is now. And just, make these choices. There are ones they can make today.

AHEARN: If demand increases, production will ramp up and installation prices will start to go down. Already, with heating costs what they are, the comparative cost of solar heating is looking better than ever before. And that's turning more eyes towards the sun. For Living on Earth, I'm Ashley Ahearn.

Related links:
- State Incentives for Renewable Energy
- Northeast Sustainable Energy Association
- Solar Energy Industry Assocation

Back to top

[MUSIC: SOLAR ENERGY PIECE: Luca Colombo “Here Comes The Sun” from ‘…Playing The Beatles’ (Azzurra Music – 2005]

CURWOOD: For more information on solar home heating, go to our website: W-W-W dot L-O-E dot O-R-G. Once again: W-W-W dot L-O-E dot org.

Coming up: piecemeal and paltry. Louisiana critics fault the Administration’s plans to restore the Gulf Coast wetlands. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Remember” from ‘The Intercontinentals’ (Nonesuch – 2003)]

House Drops ANWR

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Twenty-five moderate Republicans in the House outmaneuvered their party leaders to derail a measure to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The move to permit drilling was included in the House budget bill, and because it did not get a single Democratic vote, the 25 Republican holdouts were enough to kill the amendment, at least for now. A proposal to allow for wider offshore energy exploration was also abandoned. New Hampshire Republican Congressman Charles Bass led the effort. He says it was a matter of politics and principle.

BASS: We have simply said that this is a fall-on-your-sword issue. We will simply vote no and will do so happily. And when I presented the leadership with a letter with 25 signatures on it the other day at the leadership meeting, they took it to heart, as they should have, and we had a subsequent meeting. They asked us if we really meant what we said and when we did, they huddled and figured out that if they want the thing to move forward, it has to come out.

CURWOOD: So now the budget leaves the House without the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge attached to it as a rider or however you want to describe it. And there’ll be a conference committee with the Senate, because the Senate measure does contain this. What happens if somehow the Senate prevails in the conference committee and it comes back to the House with ANWR still attached?

BASS: We had a meeting with leadership in which they asked us, if ANWR were removed from the House version, would we be willing to vote for the bill? And enough of us said yes so that it was done. But we also said at the same time that if it comes back to us and if the House conferees are not willing to support the House position, which is no ANWR, we will vote against it again and the same exact vote will occur. And I think they took, believe it or not, some comfort in that position because they know that we’re going to keep our backs up and not change our vote on the issues.

CURWOOD: Over the years the battleground for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the Senate, and particularly the Senate filibuster. This year, by attaching it to the budget resolution, the proponents of drilling in ANWR were able to bypass the risk of a filibuster. And I think it’s fair to say that they thought that they kind of had it made.

BASS: I reject the idea that if you can’t get a legitimate up and down vote on a policy issue that you try to do it through what I would consider to be a non-germane or irrelevant at best procedure. The budget is designed, because of the absolute necessity of having a budget, it’s not subject to filibuster. But when you begin to add these extraneous issues under the guise of providing revenues to make the budget balanced, I just think you’ve crossed to a point where I think you can oppose it just on the process issue alone.

CURWOOD: I wonder if an immovable object is going to meet an irresistible force. On the Senate side, you have Ted Stevens, a very senior—I think this year he’s, what, chairing appropriations. And from Alaska. I can’t imagine that there’s a more important issue for him right now than drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There’s going to be tremendous pressure here.

BASS: There is. And if Senator Stevens decides that he wants to bring the entire reconciliation package down, that may happen. But there’s a lot more at stake. There are a lot of Republicans in the Senate that believe that we need to reduce the rate of growth of entitlements, that there are certain tax provisions that need to be extended. There are so many other issues in reconciliation that need to be addressed. I think there would be an equal amount of pressure from the rank and file members of the Senate that are not from Alaska to get a life and recognize that until there are 60 votes in the Senate, to get ANWR through on its own steam, it can’t be attached to a budget. And frankly, I haven’t seen the White House weighing in significantly on this issue. I think they have other things that they’re worrying about these days.

CURWOOD: So looking ahead, as far as you’re concerned and as far as the votes that you’ve got, you think that no drilling in ANWR, at least with this proposed legislation.

BASS: If we stick together, and if I have any say in it, there will be no ANWR in a budget package. I think that’s a pretty sure thing. And I agree that it hasn’t been that way until recently and I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who’ve been willing to stand up in the face of considerable criticism from their peers.

CURWOOD: Charlie Bass is a Republican congressman from New Hampshire. Thank you sir.

BASS: Thank you.

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Rebuilding the Gulf Coast

CURWOOD: Two weeks after hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush stood at a dramatically lit podium in Jackson Square in New Orleans and made a pledge to the battered Gulf Coast.

BUSH: We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.

CURWOOD: It’s been almost two months since that speech, and some Louisiana residents are wondering whether the government will live up to that promise. They say funding to restore their disappearing coastline is lacking and they worry that environmental safeguards are being sacrificed in the rebuilding effort. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: In late September, members of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana gathered in Baton Rouge for their first meeting since Katrina struck.

WILSON: First order of business is to review and approve the minutes.

YOUNG: The group works to stop the erosion and wetlands loss that plague Southern Louisiana. And they just had a personal lesson in the true cost of a degraded cost. There was little natural buffer left to absorb Katrina’s powerful storm surge. But talk at the meeting took a hopeful turn when coalition director Mark Davis said Washington was hinting at an ambitious recovery effort.

DAVIS: …you know, revitalizing the area instead of merely rebuilding it, I think is the thrust…

YOUNG: At least lawmakers now understood the connection between protecting communities and restoring the coast.

DAVIS: If we don’t find a way to make the most of then really, God help us. I don’t know what else you would ever need as an impetus to act.

YOUNG: Davis thought Washington might reconsider the comprehensive, 14 billion dollar restoration project that was rejected in past years as too costly. By early November, the administration’s spending plan was emerging. The president’s first proposal included only a quarter of a billion dollars for work on the shoreline and wetlands. And Davis’s optimism has started to fade.

DAVIS: While we understand that the administration apparently plans more, we haven’t seen it. And every day that passes is a day that another decision is being made by someone not to come back, not to believe, not to invest here. So we still have a great distance to travel before this has been anything other than a missed opportunity.

YOUNG: The president directs more than a billion dollars to levee repairs – what the administration calls a down payment on levee improvements expected to cost many times that. With Congress looking to trim the budget, Davis fears Louisiana could face a Hobson’s choice between rebuilding its levees and restoring its coastline.

DAVIS: If that is the decision, we have to decide what version of failure we want to live with. Because you can’t really plan for secure communities if the map is dissolving from beneath your feet.

YOUNG: A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences finds the current, piecemeal approach to restoration lacking, and urges a broader program with clearly defined goals. Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu has been asking for more money for such a comprehensive coastal effort. She blames the White House for blocking it.

LANDRIEU: Clearly this administration lacks a vision and understanding about the importance of investing in the coast for those coastal communities, and now for hurricane protection and coastal restoration efforts. Which is just crucial and so obvious now, post-Katrina.

YOUNG: The Administration defends its proposal as just the first phase of spending. And Landrieu is in for some criticism as well. She and other Louisiana lawmakers drafted a recovery bill seeking some $200 billion, some of it for pet projects that had little to do with the hurricane, including an alligator farm and a sugar cane research laboratory. Critics say that cost the state credibility. And another part of Landrieu’s bill has some of her constituents upset.

ALEXIS: When we hear, y’know, ‘waive environmental laws,’ well naturally that’s gonna throw up some red flags and say, wait a minute, hey wait a minute. Slow down.

YOUNG: New Orleans resident and community activist Sharon Alexis was among a group of a half dozen hurricane victims who paid a surprise visit to Landrieu. Alexis says the Senator’s bill could bypass environmental laws for projects related to hurricane recovery.

ALEXIS: If this bill were to stay as it is written presently, it would do nothing more than add insult to injury. We want a safe city to return to.

YOUNG: After the meeting, Landrieu backed away from the proposed waivers. But other bills moving forward could also limit environmental law in the disaster zone.


MAN: Today’s hearing will come to order.

YOUNG: This senate committee considered a bill to give government-paid contractors working in disaster areas some immunity from environmental lawsuits. It’s co-sponsored by Louisiana’s Republican Senator David Vitter.

VITTER: There could well be a flurry of class action lawsuits to profit from the very quick decisions that needed to be made in a true emergency situation.

YOUNG: The bill ran into stiff opposition from California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

BOXER: I think today we’re looking at what I call the Haliburton Protection Act. The people of New Orleans have suffered enough. To me the most important things is, it sends a terrible signal to the contractors. Don’t worry about it because, you know, you’re off the hook.

YOUNG: It’s not yet clear if the proposals to waive environmental rules will go forward. Additional funding for coastal restoration is also in limbo – it’s attached to a budget bill facing some close votes. Meanwhile, coastal experts say Louisiana’s shoreline and wetlands continue to wash away at the rate of about a football field each minute. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- Army Corps of Engineers – Coastal Restoration Project
- Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana
- Coast 2050
- America’s Wetland
- Gulf Coast Citizens Against Enviro Waivers Blog

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[MUSIC: Iain Campbell Smith “Mr. Circle” from ‘Bagarap Empires’ (ICS - 2005)]

A Man, A Woman, & A Hayfork

CURWOOD: It’s a simple painting. A plain, rather stoic looking couple in front of a small white house with a gothic window and a red barn in the background. He’s holding a hay fork, and stares straight ahead. She stands beside him, looking up and off a bit into the distance.

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” has become an icon of Americana, played out in parodies from Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. As one critic said of the original painting, it could be anywhere in America, but only in America.

And now the history of this painting is explained in a new book penned by Steven Biel. He’s the director of the History and Literature program at Harvard and he joins me. Hi, Steven.

BIEL: Hello.

CURWOOD: Ever since this picture was painted, people have wondered about the couple in the painting. What their lives must be like, what the relationship is. So, tell me, what’s the real story here? How did Grant Wood, the painter of “American Gothic,” how did he find his subjects?

BIEL: He was traveling in south central Iowa in the summer of 1930, down in a town called Eldon. He was out driving with a local painter named John Sharp and he happened upon this house, which caught his fancy, and he said, "Stop the car. I want to paint that house." And he got out his paints and his pad, and he painted the house on the spot. Then he went back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he lived, and he decided that he would use his sister, Nan Wood, as the model for the woman, and his dentist, Bryon McKeebie, as the model for the man in the painting. He thought that they fit the house.

CURWOOD: I understand it was almost a stroke of luck that the “American Gothic” painting came to national attention at all. What’s the story there?

BIEL: The story is that Wood took a shot at entering it into this competition at the Art Institute. Critics really liked it, and plastered it in newspapers, and it became incredibly famous incredibly quickly. But a few years later, a trustee of the Art Institute told the story that, in fact, the jury for the prize competition had initially passed over “American Gothic,” and that this trustee had seen it in a pile of discarded canvases and brought it to the jury chairman’s attention and said, "you neglected this. This is something you should consider." And so it almost got sent back to Iowa without anybody having seen it.

CURWOOD: What exactly was the perception of the Farm Belt at the time that “American Gothic” became quickly so famous?

BIEL: Well, the ‘20s was a time when a lot of people self-consciously identified themselves as modern, which they associated with the city, with an emerging consumer culture. And so there was a kind of popular position toward the Farm Belt of ridicule.

One of the reasons it became so famous so quickly is because it produced an outcry among Iowa farm wives, who saw it as an insult to them. They thought of themselves as being more up-to-date, more modern. They didn’t stand around with hay forks outside their houses.

But the idea that the original image would have ticked anyone off is really pretty stunning to me. And yet it did. It was seen as being bitingly satirical. So that’s why it initially caught on.

CURWOOD: So how has the farm family changed over the years? From the 1930s, when this was painted, up till the present?

BIEL: The 1920 census famously said that most Americans were now living in urban areas. This was painted at a time when there were about seven million farms in the US; now there are about two million. It kind of spoke to a moment when there was a pretty serious farm crisis. It was painted right at the beginning of the Great Depression. Over the course of the Depression it fairly quickly changed into a celebratory image of wholesome American values, of stability, of a particular relationship to the earth. So instead of being these repressive Puritan types, these became kind of idealized Jeffersonian Americans.

CURWOOD: To what extent was this painting perhaps a romanticization of American farmers in the 1930s? At this time when most people had left farms?

BIEL: Critics at the time accused him of evading the harsh realities of the Depression and its effects on agriculture. That’s the most interesting thing, to me, about the early history of this image – is that it transformed extremely rapidly from anything but a romantic image of rural life into a highly idealized portrait. It’s the same image; it’s what people brought to it.

Initially, I think they were bringing a kind of debunking ethos of the ‘20s, a view of rural life and small town life as being the way of the past. But not in a good way, not in a nostalgic way. The kind of cultural impulses produced by economic hard times shifted that, so that there was a real recovery in the ‘30s of the American Folk, of small town life, of rural life, as being the repositories of stable values.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think we still believe that?

BIEL: In a way, nostalgia for self-sufficient, small-scale farms may never disappear. It’s deeply embedded in our national mythology. There’s a sense that this is where the nation comes from, this is where our virtues derive from. That the simple life rooted in the land will always have a kind of appeal to us, no matter how far away from that in reality we get.

CURWOOD: Steven Biel is director of the History and Literature program at Harvard University, and author of “American Gothic: The Life of America’s Most Famous Painting.” Steve, thanks for taking this time with me today.

BIEL: Thanks for having me.

Related link:
“American Gothic” by Steven Biel

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[MUSIC: The Carter Family “Homestead on the Farm” from `The Carter Family: Volume2, 1935-1941’ (JSP Records/The Orchard – 2003)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: two reasons for a depressing fall in New England: no World Series and no fall foliage. The latter explained in just a moment. First this note on emerging science from Emily Torgrimson.


Emerging Science Note/A Laughing Matter

TORGRIMSON: So, a guy walks into a bar and…well, you know the rest. Gets yah every time, right? Well, that depends on whether you’re a woman or a man. Women seem to get more out of a joke than men do, according to a recent study by Stanford University School of Medicine.

[LAUGHTER: Unknown “The Okey Laughing Record” from ‘The Best of the Roaring Twenties’ (Disky Communications – 1993)]

Scientists showed black and white cartoons to men and women, who rated the cartoons on a one to 10 “funniness scale.” Researchers monitored both sexes’ brain function and when the participants were processing the joke. They found men and women have the same humor response system; when they think something is funny, both activate the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and language processing, and activate these parts to similar degrees.

But women experienced greater activity in parts of the brain already associated with humor appreciation, the prefrontal cortex and mesolimbic reward center. When women hit the punch line of the cartoon, their reward center lit up. The funnier the cartoon, the more the reward center was activated in women. Stimulation of this mesolimbic reward center means something is pleasant and unexpected; other triggers include a windfall profit on an investment or a cocaine high.

Scientists think the punch line was more of a surprise because women had lower expectations. They did not expect the cartoons to be as rewarding as the men did. Scientists say the study could further research of depression and cataplexy, a condition where strong emotions, like humor, advance sudden motor control loss. If future studies find that women’s reward centers have greater sensitivity to emotional stimuli, we may eventually better understand why depression affects twice as many women than men.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Emily Torgrimson.


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

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[MUSIC: Tony Levin “Lone Bear” from ‘Plus From Us’ (RealWorld - 1993)]

Foliage Prognosis: Fair

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. I live in northern New England, where usually by this time of year there’s been a spectacular show of changing colors of leaves. But not this year. In fact, things look, well, someplace between sort of light brown and dark brown in much of the area.

So to find out what’s going on I thought we would connect with Barry Rock. He’s a professor at the University of New Hampshire in the Complex Systems Research Center there. He’s also a botanist and a biologist, who’s been living in New Hampshire for years, and he too says the foliage just isn’t what it used to be. Hello there, professor.

ROCK: Hello Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Good, but I’m really disappointed by this foliage. And can you help me explain this? What is going on? Why are the trees just sort of turning brown this year?

ROCK: What’s going on here is that we’re simply having warmer falls than we’re used to, and those warm falls have really prevented the spectacular color displays that we come to expect.

CURWOOD: So what exactly makes for good color change in leaves? It should be colder, I guess. What else?

ROCK: One factor, change in day length, always happens. It’s like clockwork. And the leaves go from green to some other color. But where the weather comes in is when it’s cold, especially if we’ve had a frost or two. That really sharpens the color, because it essentially destroys the chlorophyll quickly and then those other yellow and orange pigments come screaming through. And that hasn’t happened this fall.

CURWOOD: So what are the weather factors that have all come together here, then, to make this lack of a show?

ROCK: Well, we’re in a current global warming period, and when you look at the globally warmest years it looks like 2005 is probably going to be No. 2. Those are all falls in which we’ve not had spectacular color.

I don’t want to frighten our listeners, but at the University of New Hampshire we’ve been working with some climate models that project one hundred years into the future. And one of them projects a warming over the next one hundred years of six degrees Fahrenheit. The second one projects a warming of 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Our listeners are probably thinking six degrees, 10 degrees, what’s the big deal? Tomorrow’s going to be six to 10 degrees different than today. But these are annual average temperatures, and, to put this into perspective, if we look at the 30-year average temperature of Boston, 1961 through 1990, and you add six degrees to that, you get the current 30-year average temperature for Richmond, VA. And if you add 10 degrees to that, that’s the 30-year average temperature for Atlanta, GA.

I think the bottom line is if the climate models are at all close – and we’re coming to have more and more faith in these models as the days go by – then New England will change in very fundamental ways. We won’t have our ski seasons, we won’t have our maple syrup – we won’t have our maples. If things continue the way they are going now – so-called business as usual scenario, and we keep burning fossil fuels – we’re going to be saying goodbye to our beautiful fall foliage displays.

CURWOOD: So next year or the year after or the year after, there probably will be at least some time when all the colors come back. There’ll be a great year. What are the things to look for, say that summer—the spring or summer—that would point to maybe a great year for color?

ROCK: Well, what you’re looking for is a good growing season, some frosts that come maybe middle of September. And that’s when you want to make your reservations to show up on Columbus Day weekend. The fall color displays will be spectacular. You just have to hope it doesn’t rain because it’s a wet blanket so to speak, if you will.

CURWOOD: Barry Rock is a professor at the University of New Hampshire in the Complex Systems Research Center. Thank you so much, professor.

ROCK: Thank you Steve, it’s been a pleasure.

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[MUSIC: Miles Davis “Autumn Leaves” from ‘Ballads & Blues’ (Blue Note – 1996)]

Maine River Cleanup Spawns Controversy

A plume of contamination emptying into the Androscoggin, just below the International Paper mill in the town of Jay. (Photo: courtesy of Maine DEP)

CURWOOD: The Androscoggin River winds through the New Hampshire countryside and flows through the state of Maine; past paper mills and farms. It used to be one of the ten most polluted rivers in the nation, and helped inspire the 1972 Clean Water Act.

More than thirty years later, the Androscoggin has yet to clean up its act enough to meet even the minimum standard of the law. And once again it has become a powerful symbol for some Maine mill towns locked in a struggle over their identity and their future. From Maine Public Broadcasting, Susan Sharon reports.


SHARON: The Great Falls of the Androscoggin River separate the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. Once these swift-moving waters were channeled through canals to power textile mills that sprung up in brick and mortar along the banks. Shoe factories flourished here, too, making the area an industrial hub that attracted waves of immigrants in the mid-1800s, many of them French-Canadian. By the mid 1980s most of the textile industry and the shoe factories were gone – relocated offshore or closed – leaving massive brick monuments to the bygone era and a contaminated river.

O’BRIEN: What we're here to talk about is maintaining the quality, the quality of the river.

SHARON: At a public hearing last spring, State Representative Lillian O'Brien of Lewiston was one of dozens of people who testified in favor of improving water quality standards on the Androscoggin. Lewiston, she says, is in the midst of an economic revival, with more than 400 million dollars invested in development around the river.

O’BRIEN: We cannot continue our economic engine with a dirty river.


A plume of contamination emptying into the Androscoggin, just below the International Paper mill in the town of Jay. (Photo: courtesy of Maine DEP)

SHARON: The stench and pollution of the Androscoggin are legendary in Maine. People say 30 years ago the odor from the water could peel the paint off houses and you could bounce quarters off the foam. That didn't stop Maine Senator Edmund Muskie from seeing potential in the brown-stained waters. It's been said that if Muskie was the father of the Clean Water Act, then the Androscoggin River was surely the mother.

Muskie grew up in the papermaking town of Rumford, just a few hundred yards from the Androscoggin's shores. His Clean Water Act spelled out ambitious programs for water quality improvements by factories, farmers and municipalities. It placed rigorous demands on polluters to meet certain deadlines. And it embraced the philosophy that all discharges into the nation's waterways are unlawful unless specifically authorized by a permit, the Act's principal enforcement tool. The late Senator Muskie knew it would take a commitment.

MUSKIE: You've got to spend money. You've got to impose standards, and you've got to enforce them. There's no easy way to do it.

WARD: When Ed Muskie, you know, announced the Clean Water Act I was 12 years old.

SHARON: Neil Ward, of the Androscoggin River Alliance, grew up near here, too. But Ward says he's still waiting for Muskie's vision to be realized.

WARD: You know, they promised that by the time I was 20 years old I'd be able to swim in this river. Well, I’m 45, and I wouldn't let my son stick a foot in this water.


SHARON: Ward maneuvers his boat on the Androscoggin between the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. He's forced to stop at an impoundment in a section called Gulf Island Pond. Here, the river is flat and wide, the riverbank fringed with shaggy Spruce and Pine. Nesting eagles fly overhead. But this is ground zero in the debate over river quality, the place where the river is so unhealthy that oxygen is pumped in to try to keep the fish alive.

WARD: The chemicals that the paper industry has dumped in her over the last decades, it's stuck right here. It can't go any further than this impoundment.

SHARON: Ward blames the river's biggest polluter, International Paper, and other paper companies upstream. State laws passed more than a decade ago required reductions in color, odor, foam and dioxin. And there's no disputing that water quality has improved. But in recent years an intense legislative battle has been waged to get paper companies to reduce billions of gallons of phosphorus and other discharges into the Androscoggin to bring it into compliance with the Clean Water Act.


SHARON: Further upstream and inland is the town of Jay, a town so small that you could pass through its center and not even know it – except for the fact that it's home to International Paper's Androscoggin Mill. With a thousand employees, IP is the largest employer for many towns around, and its well-paying jobs are highly coveted and well defended.

Dr. Greg D'Augustine of Lewiston learned this first-hand when he testified before the Maine Legislature's Natural Resources Committee. Among the committee members was State Representative Tom Saviello, who is also the compliance manager for the IP Mill. When Dr. D'Augustine tried to make the case that a cleaner river could bring in more sport fishermen and guides to the region, Representative Saviello challenged the economics of the argument.

D'AUGUSTINE: My understanding is if we introduce clean enough water for our native species to survive we will see profit from increased tourism, primarily.

SAVIELLO: Okay, the difference between tourism and a mill job – what's the pay?

D'AUGUSTINE: I think we can do both.

SAVIELLO: I didn't ask that. I asked what's the pay difference?

SHARON: Saviello isn't the paper industry's only defender. Jay Selectman William Harlowe has worked in the Androscoggin Mill since 1966. His wife and son are also employed by IP. Harlowe says he understands why towns and residents downstream want the river to meet standards of the Clean Water Act, but he believes there has to be a balance between protecting jobs and improving water quality. Harlowe supports a recent permit schedule approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The permit gives IP ten more years to meet the goal.

HARLOWE: It is getting cleaner. Is it perfect? No. Does it need more work? Yes. But I think the timeline they established, that they came up with is something the companies will work to achieve that goal. We see companies folding here every month in this state, and I'd like to give IP the opportunity to get their overtime.

SHARON: Environmentalists say the ten-year timetable violates the Clean Water Act. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state's largest environmental group, has filed suit against the company over what it says is failure to operate with valid permits. Mill spokesman Bill Cohen says IP has consistently adhered to federal, state and local regulations, and has recently set aside four million dollars for required cleanup.

COHEN: This mill is committed to working toward getting the Androscoggin River to meet standards and, perhaps, hopefully even better than the standards that are published. Can't do it instantly. It isn't going to happen tomorrow.

SHARON: Recently, International Paper announced it was putting its mills up for sale. State and local officials, as well as the mill's employees, are hopeful another paper mill will take over. But Neil Ward, who worked in a Lewiston shoe factory before it closed, is convinced the state has bungled an opportunity to improve river quality for the sake of preserving paper industry jobs that may be lost anyway.

WARD: Eventually those mills are going to be gone. I just don't see them in the long-term future of Maine.


SHARON: As workers put the finishing touches on a new restaurant in Lewiston, Travis Soule says he doesn't see paper mills in Maine's future either. Soule is a developer who has acquired several vacant mill buildings in Lewiston with plans to rehab them into 36 luxury riverside condos and boutique shops. Soule says he was inspired by the Androscoggin's Great Falls. He pictures canoes and kayaks on this stretch of river, people fly fishing and swimming.

SOULE: The Androscoggin River was the economic backbone I think of Maine for a long time, for good, bad, or indifferent. The river as a working river? I think it's days are numbered, frankly. I think that there are more diverse uses for the river. And it should be cleaner.

SHARON: Once scorned for attracting thousands of immigrants to the mills along the Androscoggin, the cities of Lewiston and Auburn are now seeing the potential of their natural resource. These cities – and the town of Jay – are inextricably linked by the Andrscoggosin. But their economic interests, and their timetables for cleaning up the river that helped spawn the Clean Water Act, remain markedly different.

For Living On Earth, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.

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[MUSIC: Evan Lurie “Sun in Rome” from ‘Selling Water By The Side Of The River’ (Polygram – 1990)]

Euro Bears

CURWOOD: Think Italy, and you might conjure up visions of frothy cups of cappuccino imbibed at picturesque outdoor cafes. Or plates of steaming pasta drizzled with exquisite olive oil. Or a language so seductive that when someone says, “Mi si sono roti les occiollis” it sounds like they are saying “I think you are the most handsome man in the world” instead of “I have broken my eyeglasses.” But that’s not what took commentator Sy Montgomery to Italy recently. It was bears.

MONTGOMERY: Most folks think the last bears in Italy were eating Christians in the Roman Coliseum two millennia ago. But Italy today has more bears than you might think. More than one hundred wild bears, in fact, live within 60 miles of the Italian capitol.

Actually, there are two populations of bears in Italy. And I'm not talking about the small, virtually harmless black bear of North America. No, this is the 500-pound, mountain-shouldered Brown Bear, the same species as our Grizzly. And people are, by and large, pretty happy about it.

If Western Europe has any complaints about bears, it’s that there aren’t enough. They want MORE. When one of the last wild bears in the Pyrenees was hunted down in November 2004, 1,000 French citizens took to the streets in protest. No wonder there's been a surge of bear reintroduction programs in France, Austria, and Italy.

One of the most recent took place in the northern Italian province of Trento. The European Union and the Italian National Wildlife Institute brought in 10 brown bears from Slovenia. Before, the population was down to three elderly males. Since then, one bear died in an avalanche; some died of old age; and one of the new bears left for Austria. But thanks to the birth of cubs, there are now thought to be 22 bears in the region. During a hike in the reintroduction area I saw fresh bear scat within 15 minutes. The bear had been eating ants.

Now, Europeans didn’t always feel this cozy about bears. Our fears of bears are deeply rooted in Old World prejudice and fears. Europeans nearly eradicated their bears, poisoned their waterways, and razed their great forests long before they ventured to America to continue that tradition. When President George W. Bush took office, one of his first acts was to squash a plan to bring grizzlies back to the remote Bitterroot Ranges of Idaho. Bears were too bloodthirsty to live in a place where there might be, well, a very small number of people and their livestock.

Europe's experience proves that fear was off base. At the 16th International Conference on Bear Research and Management in Italy, I watched video taken from hidden cameras that shows what usually happens when a person and a brown bear cross paths, or nearly do.

When a bear, with a sense of smell 100 times as keen as a human’s, detects a person approaching, it steps off the path, hides in the bushes, and once the person has passed, it goes on its way. It took Europeans a long time to learn the lesson that bears are not the monsters of fairy tales. But it doesn’t have to take 400 centuries of human occupation for Americans to realize we, too, can live with bears in our midst. Maybe if we just took a moment to relax, we could see that our far vaster, less crowded land has plenty of room – for people and predators, too.

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[MUSIC: Wind Chimes In The Rain” recorded on February 18th, 1986 by Eric Van der Wyk from ‘Sounds of Our Planet, Volume 2’ (King Tet Productions – 2004), www.kingtet.com and www.soundsofourplanet.com]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week just ringing in the rain, just ringing in the rain.


CURWOOD: Eric Van der Wyk recorded the subtle twinkling of wind chimes during a rainstorm in Modesto, California and picked up a passing train and a howling coyote along the way.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Brianna Asbury, Kevin Friedl and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley.
Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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