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

May 9, 2008

Air Date: May 9, 2008



Mangrove Destruction Put Myanmar at Risk

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Scientists search for clues to the underlying causes of the devastating destruction in Myanmar. Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, tells host Bruce Gellerman the loss of mangroves, cleared for wood and to make way for shrimp farms and tourist development, led to major flooding and the loss of lives. (06:00)

Culture of Disaster Relief

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There are lessons to be learned from the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, says sociologist Joe Trainor of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Trainor tells host Bruce Gellerman it's important to consider societal and cultural norms to figure out how best to provide aid to those suffering from the effects of a catastrophe. (06:00)

Nobel Women Urge U.S. to Act on Climate Change / Jeff Young

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Two women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize urged U.S. lawmakers to act on global warming. Wangari Maathai and Jody Williams say the women of the world could suffer the most from climate change and should be a part of the solution. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports. (05:50)

World's Native Peoples Take on Climate Change / Bobby Bascomb

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Despite their geographic differences, indigenous people often have similar problems when it comes to the environment. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports. (04:40)

The Joshua Tree At Risk / Ashley Ahearn

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Nitrogen oxides - greenhouse gases from Los Angeles’ industrial ports and diesel truck exhaust - are making their way into the soils of Southeastern California. Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn went to Joshua Tree National Park to find out how air pollution is changing the desert ecosystem from the ground up. (05:45)

Comfort Food for Chimps/Emerging Science Note / Alexandra Gutierrez

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Chimps like carb-heavy comfort foods like yams and potatoes, and scientists have discovered they use tools to get to them. Alexandra Gutierrez reports. (01:50)

From Trash to Cash – and Museums

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Connecticut has facilities to turn trash into energy, but still has an overabundance of garbage, exporting 400 thousand tons of garbage every year. Host Bruce Gellerman pays a visit to the Trashosaurus at the Children’s Garbage Museum in Stratford, Connecticut. The museum’s goal is to educate kids about the five R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and re-think. (07:30)

Railroad Revival / Bruce Gellerman

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Trains have played a major role in America's history, and many say they'll be even more important in the future. Host Bruce Gellerman heads out to Boston's South Station to talk with Harvard professor John Stilgoe about the first annual National Train Day. (09:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Jeff McNeely, Wangari Maathai, John Stilgoe, Joe Trainer, Jody Williams
REPORTERS: Ashley Ahearn, CONTACT _Con-3DD1629C4 \c \s \l Bobby Bascomb, Jeff Young


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International – this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Scientists say mangrove trees could have slowed the storm surge that destroyed so much of Myanmar. But the forests were cut down.

MCNEELY: It’s like a whole bunch of little fingers sticking out, reaching out into the soil, and that’s what helps them to capture the sediments.

GELLERMAN: Also, a Nobel peace prize winner gives lawmakers on Capitol Hill a piece of her mind on fighting climate change.

MAATHAI: As long as the United States of America doesn’t take its leadership position, the rest of the world hides behind her, and wants to say 'well, she is the greatest polluter, she’s not doing anything. Why should I do something?'

GELLERMAN: And, we commemorate National Train Day.

STILGOE: I’m simply going to look out the window of my commuter train and wonder why more people don’t have a pleasure like this.

GELLERMAN: These stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. All aboard!

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Mangrove Destruction Put Myanmar at Risk

Mergui Archipelago mangroves, Myanmar. (Photo: Andrea Bonetti, Mangrove Action Project)

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


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. The grim news from Myanmar gets even worse. A hundred thousand lives lost; a million without homes or basic necessities.

Most of the deaths and damage were the result of a 12-foot wall of water that flattened everything in the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta. But scientists say much of the destruction could have been prevented – if only the mangrove forests that protect the coast had not been cut down. Jeff McNeely is Chief Scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. I want to thank you for joining us.

MCNEELY: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: What role does the deforestation of mangroves play in the Burma disaster?

MCNEELY: I think it plays a very substantial role. Burma is an incredibly poor country, and they’ve been forced by desperation to clear the mangroves all the way to the edge of the Irrawaddy Delta. And the result of that has been to remove the buffer that had protected them from storms that periodically come shooting up the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea right into Burma.

GELLERMAN: Well, why clear the mangroves?

MCNEELY: Well, mangroves are worth money if you cut them down, you could make firewood out of them, construction materials, you can use the land for growing shrimp. But it’s not really very economic and it’s not something that is a long-term benefit. You get a very quick return from cutting down the forest, but you pay a long-term cost, as they’re learning right now today.

Mergui Archipelago mangroves, Myanmar. (Photo: Andrea Bonetti, Mangrove Action Project)

But the mangroves typically are not owned by individuals; they’re public land. And so people who are desperate, and certainly the general population in Burma is very desperate, and they’ve been forced to do something that they certainly traditionally would have not have done because they know the consequences.

GELLERMAN: Well, so, why did they do it?

MCNEELY: Out of sheer desperation in a country whose economy is tanking while many of their neighboring countries are prospering well.

GELLERMAN: How do mangroves protect a low-lying coastal area?

MCNEELY: Well, so you can imagine a river like the Irrawaddy with a huge watershed that drains most of Burma, and it brings down a lot of sediment. That sediment is deposited as the river slows down when it reaches the sea. The mangroves are what fix the soil as – before it can run out into the middle of the ocean. So along the whole coastal zone of Burma, from one part of the coast to the other, is mangroves because they’re able to grow in salt water.

And because they grow in salt water, they’re able to protect the coastal zone against further erosion when there are storms. So they fix the soil, they protect against further erosion, and they serve as a nursery for the fisheries that provides much of the protein that goes to feed the people of Burma.

GELLERMAN: So when a cyclone moves up into an area and hits the coastal area, these mangroves basically anchor the soil and help dissipate the energy from the waves?

MCNEELY: Exactly.

GELLERMAN: What do mangroves look like? Are those, those kind of trees, those evergreen trees that have the trunks growing high up into the water?

MCNEELY: Well, they have multiple trunks, you know, it’s like a whole bunch of little fingers sticking out, reaching out into the soil. And that’s what helps them to capture the sediments and to hold the sediments.

GELLERMAN: What about places like Bangladesh, which is not far from Burma, in the Bay of Bengal. 1991 they lost 140,000 people in a devastating cyclone there. How have they done with their mangroves?

MCNEELY: What they have done is establish a World Heritage Site called the Sunderbans, which is at the mouth of the Brahmaputra and Ganges Rivers, and it really is a bi-national site with India. So the most substantial mainland mangrove in all of Asia is there. And it’s also one of the areas that is the best habitat for tigers.

Sundarbans National Park in Bangladesh. (Photos: Donald Katz)

So it’s a place where the tigers are being conserved because the government of Bangladesh has recognized the multiple values of the mangroves: for fisheries, for storm protection, and for various minor forest products that can be harvested in a sustainable way. Improved management is basically the answer.

GELLERMAN: You studied Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. What did you learn there?

MCNEELY: The areas where there were solid mangroves, where the mangrove forests were healthy, suffered much less damage than places where the mangroves had been destroyed.

GELLERMAN: So what, if anything, can be done now about Burma and its mangrove forests. What should be done?

MCNEELY: Well I think our first concern has to be for the people. And so we’ve gotta find a way to get in there and help the people who are being damaged by this environmental destruction. And then as soon as we’re able to stabilize the human tragedy, then we should start replanting the mangroves, implementing the legislation that’s on the books but isn’t being implemented, and putting it into practice to make sure that the mangroves are able to re-grow as quickly as possible. We can certainly help them to do that through the experience we’ve learned in working to recover the mangroves following the tsunami.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. McNeely, thank you very much.

MCNEELY: It was my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Jeff McNeely is the Chief Scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Related links:
- IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature
- IUCN Information on Mangroves
- Mangrove Action Project
- Sundarbans National Park in Bangladesh

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Culture of Disaster Relief

GELLERMAN: Well in recent years, first responders have grown increasingly sophisticated in preparing for and dealing with disasters thanks in part to social scientists who specialize in the field – people like Joe Trainor. He’s with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Trainor says culture and politics play important roles in determining the scale of a catastrophe.

TRAINOR: The same physical events – the same size tornado, the same size hurricane – happening in two different locations, can create drastically different kinds of disasters. It has to do a lot with the way that that location is organized: with the political system, with inequalities that are inherent in most societies, and with the way we organize to deal with these kinds of events.

GELLERMAN: Well governments play key, critical roles in the recovery and relief of, after a disaster.

TRAINOR: Sure, sure.

GELLERMAN: So this specific junta, this dictatorship – what would you want to be studying as a sociologist to make it more effective in terms of providing that relief and recovery?

TRAINOR: One of the things you have to remember, especially in countries that have less economic stability and are developing, is that the resources to develop specific agency for disasters just don’t exist. When you’re having a hard time meeting the basic needs of the people, it’s difficult to shift the attention to something like a disaster that you can’t predict, and you can’t say it’s gonna happen on a regular basis. So in that context, one of the most important things that I’d like to see, or I’d be interested in seeing is the way that the government in the country here is working with non-governmental organizations. The degree to which they’re using their resources to support local community-based resilience, or the capacities that already exist within these communities, so you enable the victims to be an agent in their own response. And this is not just important here, it’s important in every disaster.

GELLERMAN: What about culturally determined responses? That is, things that they might do that are much different from what we might do in that situation.

TRAINOR: This is something that plays in part in a lot of these kinds of events. I know, I went to India and Sri Lanka after the tsunami, and I know in India we were there and we saw these great tents – 1000, 2000-dollar tents, they’re really nice, they’re supposed to be providing aid. And we get to the local area, and no one’s using them. They lived in large family groups, so the tents weren’t big enough. They liked to cook inside their homes, so with a nylon floor they couldn’t cook. So there’s a whole bunch of issues with internationally coming in, but in terms of the local response there’s also gonna be an issue here with the way the government chooses to do things, and the political ramifications they have.

So, for instance, international aid coming in. Now they’ve started to accept international aid, but that process has slowed because it has political implications for the ruling government. If they’re seen as weak, or they’re seen as not being able to provide, that can mobilize the existing tensions, and give a reason for the existing tensions to blossom into something more, so. You can see that that dynamic, that power dynamic that already exists in this country, really can play a big part in how this event develops.

GELLERMAN: In the case of the cyclone in Burma, the Indian meteorological department says that it gave a warning 48 hours in advance that the cyclone was gonna barrel into Burma, and yet now there’s some information that the warning system hadn’t been put in place.

TRAINOR: From a sociological perspective, the warning process, where you go from knowing an event’s going to occur to taking some kind of protective action, has a lot of steps in between. You first receive a warning, you have to understand the warning, you’ve got to believe that’s it’s important, you’ve got to confirm that there’s actually a danger, you’ve got to personalize it, which means the danger actually can apply to you as an individual. You’ve got to determine what to do and then you’ve got to be able to actually do that thing. The warning didn’t get to the people who needed it, and the people weren’t able to take the proper protective action, so what really needs to be looked at is that entire process. It’s not just how people get warnings, whether they get them or not, but the way they process that information to take some kind of action.

GELLERMAN: As a sociologist, when you go to a place that’s been struck by disaster, do you feel a little weird, strange, that you’re not providing direct aid but trying to get a deeper understanding through this academic understanding?

TRAINOR: Absolutely. From the moment you step into a major disaster site, you recognize the real human suffering. And just like anyone else your immediate response is I wish I could do something right here and right now. So the strategy I think that we try to take here is to recognize that the work we’re doing is trying to do a larger scope help. It’s to help these kinds of events in the future, to make sure that the experiences people are having in the here and now are less severe, or, or maybe even at some point don’t occur again, so. As a sociologist that’s kind of take-away that we try to do. We try to help people, and along the way we do, we do feel like we do some good.

Again, in India, there was a community, a fishing community that, people hadn’t actually been to the sea since the tsunami. And we came and we were doing interviews about their experiences and what they thought, and how this event had impacted them. And we walked down to the ocean and they followed us there, so it was the first time – this was a month and a half later – that they’d ever been to the beach since that event originally occurred. And so, you know, that, it’s a minor level of assistance to a small group of people. But again, the hope is that the work we do has broader impacts over time.

GELLERMAN: Joe Trainor is researcher at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Mr. Trainor, thank you very much.

TRAINOR: It’s great to be here.

Related link:
Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware

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[MUSIC: Robert Plant/Allison Krauss: “Stick With Me Baby “ from ‘Raising Sand’ (Rounder – 2007)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – Nobel winners try to change the climate on Capitol Hill. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Nobel Women Urge U.S. to Act on Climate Change

Jody Williams plants a tree during a Greenbelt Movement ceremony at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to reforest Africa. Jody Williams got her Nobel in 1997 for trying to rid the world of land mines. Now as Congress considers a climate change bill, the two Nobel laureates visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill to demand action on global warming. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spent the day with the Peace Prize winners and has our report.

YOUNG: Wangari Maathai’s seen her corner of the world suffer through drought, famine and political upheaval, and she fears East Africa could see much more with global warming. With each disaster the U.S. sends aid. Maathai’s grateful for that, but also a bit puzzled.

MAATHAI: Wouldn’t it be even better to participate in supporting measures that would prevent those disasters, and not always come when one is in misery, to say, ‘I see you are dying you are on a deathbed. What can I do to help you?’ It would have been much better to help that person stay alive. And that’s what we are trying to tell the United States of America. Can you help the world before it is in the – in emergency room? (laughs)

2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. (Courtesy of the Nobel Women’s Initiative)

YOUNG: Maathai and fellow laureate Jody Williams helped form the Nobel Women’s Initiative to encourage that sort of thinking on things like climate change. They want Washington to have the developing world in mind as they debate what to do about global warming. Williams sees it as a national security issue. Her work to ban land mines made her more sensitive to the root causes of conflict.

WILLIAMS: I think if we’re going to be honest we have to stop thinking that security is just about bigger weapons, you know, a more weaponized state, weaponizing out in space. We have to start thinking about what is really affecting our security on the planet. It’s global warming, it’s, you know, pandemics, it’s now the global food crisis. All of that contributes to global insecurity which can fuel war.

MAATHAI: One of the reasons why we want to appeal to the United States of America is that as long as the United States of America doesn’t take its leadership position, the rest of the world hides behind her. And wants to say, ‘Well, she is the greatest polluter. She’s not doing anything. Why should I do something?’ And so we think that it’s very, very important for leadership to come from here for it to appear like the greatest polluter is also doing her part.

YOUNG: Note the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her.’ There’s an emphasis on the feminine here. Matthai and Williams argue that the world’s women must play a greater role in taking on climate change, both because women have much to offer and they might have the most to lose.

MAATHAI: When there is drought, when there is crop failure, it is the women and children who are the most adversely affected. Indeed.

WILLIAMS: But I’d like to add just when I led the UN mission on Darfur, I was in one of the refugee camps; I think there were 13,000 Darfuri refugees in the camp. It was women and daughters who had to trek out to get the water to bring back to the camp for their families. Why did the women have to go? Because if the men went they’d be killed. The women go the only thing they have to face is rape. So I mean we have to really start thinking about all of the implications of desertification, water, etc., etc.

YOUNG: Williams also wants lawmakers to think twice about tying climate change to nuclear power. Some global warming proposals would subsidize low carbon nuclear energy. Williams says that ignores the problems of nuclear waste.

WILLIAMS: Before we build those damn reactors and then we have to deal with all the pollution, the radioactive waste etc., we need good governance, which means being honest about what really goes into producing nuclear energy and stop calling it clean.

1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams.

YOUNG: Williams and Maathai urge more support for renewable energy and aid to developing nations to adapt to a changing climate and prevent deforestation. Maathai says programs to protect forests have stalled due to complications of carbon offset trading schemes and distrust among governments.

MAATHAI: It seems like we are waiting to be sure that we are doing it right. But as we wait, the damage continues. And I think that we need to encourage the business sector to take some bold steps – some risks – so that we can begin to see what works and what doesn’t work.

YOUNG: It’s a big challenge. But these women have met big challenges by starting small. Williams says her campaign to ban landmines worked through a series of modest, achievable plans that built momentum. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya started even simpler: one tree at a time.

MAATHAI: All I have to do is look for a tree, dig a hole, plant the tree and water it. And if I can make it survive, I feel like I’ve started a campaign that the whole world can also participate in. Some people think that you have to start huge! No. You have to start with the doable. And you have to remember it doesn’t happen overnight. So you have to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it!

YOUNG: The Nobel women say they’ll keep at it until that attitude takes root here in the capitol as well.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- The Nobel Women’s Initiative
- Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet profiles Wangari Maathai

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World's Native Peoples Take on Climate Change

Hilaria Supa is a Peruvian congresswoman and an activist for human rights and protection of the environment. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

GELLERMAN: Indigenous peoples, who often live at the bottom of the economic ladder, are also those most at risk from climate change. Now they’re making their voices heard at the United Nations. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb went to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and has our report.

BASCOMB: There are seven coal-fired power plants within 100 miles of the Three Tribes reservation in New Town, North Dakota. Kandi Mossett grew up on the reservation. She blames the energy industry for the strange sores and tumors subsistence hunters notice when they cut open fish and game.

MOSSETT: The Elders say what happens to the animals will happen to us.

BASCOMB: What’s happening to Mossett’s tribe is cancer. Studies show that cancer rates among Native Americans are 13 percent higher than in whites.

MOSSETT: I myself had cancer at the age of 20. My grandfather has already survived prostate cancer. And it’s not necessarily even the older folks. It’s the children. We’re seeing leukemias. We’re seeing all these babies that are dying. Six months old and they have cancers.

Kandi Mossett is an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. She is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations whose reservation is located near New Town, North Dakota.

BASCOMB: Mossett is an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. She says that from Canada to Bolivia, native people tell the same tale.

MOSSETT: We all have these same stories of displacement, of unfair treatment by the corporations and industries – that it feels like the corporations and the governments consider them expendable.


BASCOMB: Hilaria Supa is a member of Peru’s congress. Her skirt and shawl are embroidered with the brightly colored patterns of her Quechua people. Gold and copper were discovered on native lands in Peru, and Supa worries about how they are mined.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: They use a mining technique called open pit mining. The chemicals used mainly uranium, sometimes mercury. They run off from the mountains where they’re mining down hill and get into the community rivers to the lakes to the underground water.


BASCOMB: Supa says studies have found that indigenous children who live near these mines have seven to ten times the acceptable level of lead in their blood.

MALEZER: Well, the impact is definitely greater upon the indigenous peoples.

BASCOMB: Lez Malezer is an Aboriginal Australian from the Gubby Gubby Batchula language group near Fraiser Island. His big concern is climate change. The long drought in Australia has forced native people off their land and into cities. His people won’t be able to care for the land as their ancestors did.

MALEZER: We believe that we have to be interacting with the environment in order for the environment to be healthy and strong and similarly in order for us to be healthy and strong.

BASCOMB: Malazer says aboriginal people like him are in a unique position to help defend the environment from the effects of climate change.

MALEZER: A big part of it is in fact for governments to recognize the knowledge, the expertise, the skills that indigenous peoples have in terms of being able to read the climate and understand the situation of the flora and fauna and how they’re best managed.

Grace Salam a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya. She works with NGOs to dig wells, install solar panels and introduce new farming techniques to her community.

BASCOMB: Drought is also a big concern in Africa. Grace Salam is a tall Maasai woman from the Rift Valley Province of Western Kenya.

SALAM: I think it is maybe because of the climate change. We used to know the time of our drought and the time that there’s not drought. But now we can’t predict. We don’t know what comes next. So, the drought can be the whole year and all the cows died. And we’ll be having a very hard time of famine.

BASCOMB: The Maasai depend heavily on their cows. Milk makes up the bulk of their diet.

SALAM: So when the cows die that’s almost the end of the Maasai community life.

BASCOMB: Salam says it’s not just cows that are dying, but medicinal plants as well. She’s worked with NGOs and women’s groups in her community to adapt to climate change.

SALAM: We are trying to drill wells for people to use when there is a drought. We are trying to teach people ways that they will adapt in the situation. Like introducing solar panels. When there’s drought there’s so much of sun. We have already put up the solar panels in 150 households. We’re also teaching them how to plant some crops rather than just keeping animals.

BASCOMB: When they put up solar panels and plant crops, the Maasai are also rooting themselves to one piece of land. They’ve been nomadic pastoralists for millennia so the change to their culture is profound.

But like many indigenous people the Maasai understand that they need to sacrifice some of their culture to survive in the changing world.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Related links:
- United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
- Indigenous Environmental Network
- The Maasai Cultural Exchange Project
- Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action
- Hilaria Supa’s Home page for the Peruvian Congress

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[MUSIC: Maasai Chanting recorded at UN Indigenous Peoples Conference]

The Joshua Tree At Risk

The Joshua Tree, quirky and beloved park mascot, is struggling to survive.

GELLERMAN: The Joshua Tree looks like something out of Dr Seuss. It’s got spiny pom-poms on the tips of its curved branches. One early explorer called it ‘the most repulsive plant in the vegetable kingdom.’ But it’s got its own national park in Southern California. Some researchers predict that climate change will force Joshua Trees North out of the park.

Route I-10 is a major trucking route from the L.A. industrial ports to the rest of the country. Nitrogen oxides from diesel truck fumes act like nitrate fertilizer when they get into the soil.

However, the tree faces a more immediate threat: air pollution, specifically nitrogen oxides from vehicles that act like a fertilizer. Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn hit the road to Joshua Tree National Park to learn more.


AHEARN: This is Route 10 East, coming out of L.A. headed towards Joshua Tree National Park. Alright, here we go, let’s get this guy. C’mon, c’mon.


AHEARN: Yessssss. Pretty much here following the trail of Nitrogen, among other greenhouse gases, that travel from the L.A. industrial ports out to Joshua Tree and end up deposited in the soil. And that’s what Dr. Edie Allen of UC Riverside studies.



ALLEN: Let’s see, there’s some species of Lotus here.

AHEARN: About an hour later, I’m in the desert – Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Park – with Dr. Edie Allen. This is one of the sites where she’s studying what happens when nitrogen from air pollution gets into the soil. But right now, she’s talking plants – maybe one of her favorite things to do.

Dr. Edith Allen of University California Riverside stands with reporter Ashley Ahearn near one of her research plots in Joshua Tree National Park. Her team monitors nitrogen levels in the soil to understand their impacts on plant life.

ALLEN: We’ve got a desert dandelion, we have a facelia, we’ve got camesonias...

AHEARN: Oh lizard, cool.

ALLEN: Yeah they’re all over.

AHEARN: What kind of lizard? Do you have any idea?

ALLEN: No, I have to admit, I’m just a hardcore botanist. (laughs)

AHEARN: Actually, Dr. Allen started out as a restoration ecologist, someone who researches how to repair polluted ecosystems. But it was in her research plots at UC Riverside, about an hour west of Joshua Tree National Park, that she realized she’d have to look to the sky to explain what she was seeing on the ground.

ALLEN: I found out that the nitrogen in the soil was so high that the only thing I could grow was weeds. I couldn’t grow the native plants, and so all of a sudden I had to become an air pollution ecologist too.

Desert Dandelions in Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Park.

AHEARN: The nitrogen levels in Dr. Allen’s research plots were 15 to 30 times higher than the levels in an undisturbed ecosystem, and that Nitrogen was coming from air pollution moving east from the L.A. Basin.

In most places, nitrogen gets into the soil when rain comes down from clouds contaminated with nitrogen oxides. But it doesn’t rain that much here. So instead, Nitrogen oxide particles and ions settle on plant leaves during the dry season…

ALLEN: … and then the next winter rainy season those particles, or ions, are washed into the soil, where the plants can take them up when they start to grow, so it’s almost like adding a dry form of fertilizer.

AHEARN: Desert plants aren’t used to getting this extra nitrogen. But plants from elsewhere, grasses in particular, do really well with a little help in this dry climate.

ALLEN: The grass that I’m talking about is this one. This is called Mediterranean split grass, and it’s invaded our desert areas. It’s in the Mojave Desert. It’s in the Sonoran Desert. It’s become quite widespread.

Schismus Barbados growth near I-10 in a high Nitrogen area. (Photo: Dr. Edith Allen)

AHEARN: And it’s changing the way the desert looks.


AHEARN: Speedy Gonzales cartoons helped form the way a lot of people picture the desert – sandy expanses punctuated with low shrubs, maybe a cactus here and there – perfect cover for darting roadrunners or mischievous mice.

Turns out, there’s a scientific name for these isolated oases of cover in the desert. Dr. Allen says underneath each shrub…

ALLEN: … is what we call an island of fertility. As I bend down here to pick up these grasses you can see that most of the plant material underneath the shrub is actually this Mediterranean split grass.

One of Dr. Allen's research plots in Pinto Basin. The dark red area marks new invasive growth where Dr. Allen applied the same amount of Nitrate fertilizer that a farmer in Ohio might apply to his wheat field. (Photo: Dr. Edith Allen)

AHEARN: Dr. Allen has found that because of higher levels of nitrogen in the soil, split grass is getting all the nutrients it needs to not only take over these islands of fertility, but to spread into the sandy parts in between, where once there were only scattered wildflowers.

So, for example, normally when lightning strikes a creosote bush in the desert, the fire burns out in that one bush’s island of fertility. But Mediterranean split grass fills in the gaps with fire fuel, allowing the fire to rip unimpeded from island to island.

The average size of a fire in Joshua Tree National Park today is 25 times what it was in the late ’70’s. Joe Zarki has worked for the Park Service here for the past 13 years. He remembers the Juniper Flats fire of 1999 – the biggest in park history.

ZARKI: That was a Memorial Day weekend fire, which really complicated the fire fighting efforts because the park was very busy, so we had to do an emergency evacuation of the entire western side of the park. So these fires that are caused, or at least the relationship with these fires and exotic grasses, are starting to have big time impacts on people as well as on the park and the ecosystem itself.

Long-time park ranger, Joe Zarki, remembers the Juniper Flats fire of 1999. 14,000 acres burned, the most in park history.

Long-time park ranger, Joe Zarki, remembers the Juniper Flats fire of 1999. Fourteen thousand acres burned, the most in park history.

AHEARN: Zarki says the changing soil composition and plant life here are making it a lot harder for the charismatic park mascot to survive.

ZARKI: Thousands of Josh trees were burned in these fires and I think, you know, one of the concerns is Josh trees are a long lived plant so what we may be seeing is a pattern where they get burned up again before they ever reach a full mature size.

AHEARN: There’s also evidence that after fires, small mammals are eating the next generation of Joshua Tree seedlings.

But there’s some good news. Dr. Allen’s research suggests that if there were less nitrogen pollution in the air, nitrogen levels in the soil could go back to normal, allowing native wildflowers and plants to replace the Mediterranean split grass.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Related links:
- Joshua Tree National Park
- To learn more about Dr. Edith Allen's Research, click here
- Dr. Allen’s paper “Impacts of Atmospheric Nitrogen Deposition on Vegetation and Soils at Joshua Tree National Park"
- To read "Atmospheric Nitrogen Deposition: Implications for Park Managers"

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[MUSIC: U2 “In Gods Country” from ‘The Joshua Tree’ (Universal – Island Records 1987)]

Comfort Food for Chimps/Emerging Science Note

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – we talk trash. But first, this note on emerging science from Alexandra Guttierrez.


GUTIERREZ: Humans find foods like baked potatoes and yams particularly comforting. New scientific discoveries suggest that our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, share our taste for these vegetables.

A team of anthropologists say they've found evidence from Western Tanzania that chimps use tools to dig for roots and tubers. A University of Southern California researcher studying chimp behavior found dirt-covered sticks and knuckle prints in the mud at numerous sites.

This was a surprise, as humans were thought to be the only species that used tools to dig up root vegetables. Not only that, it suggests the chimps search out tasty tubers during the rainy season when food is plentiful. Most researchers previously thought the chimps relied on roots only during the hungry dry season.

The team believes this finding may also shed light on the diet of our ancient hominid ancestors who roamed the savannah three and a half million years ago. Anthropologists say the teeth and jaws of these ancestral humans changed to enable them to chew tougher food. Scientists claim these developments reflect dietary changes, and many think it shows the critical importance of hunting and meat eating for early humans. But this team argues that the new discoveries suggest early humans enjoyed a mixed and varied diet, including roots rich in carbohydrates.

One intriguing fact: the modern chimps are eating roots that African hunter-gatherers today only use as medicines, suggesting that our nearest relatives understand how to eat to keep themselves healthy. Perhaps there's a lesson there for us modern humans.

That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Alexandra Gutierrez.

GELLERMAN: Coming up – the fuel crisis. The light at the end of the tunnel could be a train. Just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the Environmental Health Desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. This is Living on Earth on PRI: Public Radio International.

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From Trash to Cash – and Museums

Children play with Trashosauraus at the Children’s Garbage Museum. Credit: (Courtesy of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: The driver shifts gears and his front end loader plows into a mountain of plastic bottles, jugs and jars.


GELLERMAN: …and then he backs up to charge ahead again…


GELLERMAN: Pop…pop…pop. The giant wheels crush and crunch the plastic. It’s poetic, a strangely satisfying scene, perhaps even Shakespearean.

NONENMACHER: Refuse by any other name.

GELLERMAN: Paul Nonenmacher is director of public affairs at the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, and this recycling center in Stratford, Connecticut, is one of two facilities where the state turns trash into cash.

NONENMACHER: You know, there’s lots of euphemisms for it. You can be delicate and call it waste. But it’s garbage. And this is what we do. Garbage is our bread and butter, and we’d like to make a little less of it and be able to turn a little bit more of it into things that people can use every day.

GELLERMAN: That’s of course what happens at most recycling facilities, but Connecticut’s Resources Recovery Authority has also turned its recycling centers into museums: the Trash Museum in Hartford, and this one, the Children’s Garbage Museum in Stratford.

Nonenmacher says it all started about 15 years ago, when recycling began to catch on.

The Children's Garbage Museum in Connecticut. (Courtesy of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.)

NONENMACHER: And all of the sudden people start asking for tours. Well we didn’t have anybody to give tours ’cause we were just here doing the recyclables. So educators were hired to guide tours and then more exhibits were built, and we got Trashosaurus and the museum just kind of filled in around him, and it’s just taken off.


GELLERMAN: That’s right, Trashosaurus. The 24-foot long, 16-foot high T-rex. That’s T for Trash. The statue was built from stuff Connecticut residents dumped into the waste stream. For the past 13 years the statue has loomed large in the Garbage Museum, welcoming more than 50,000 visitors a year.

The day I visited, they were preparing Trashosaurus for a special day. Over the years he’s become something of a state symbol.

NONENMACHER: Our population in Connecticut is about 3.8 million people. Trashosaurus weighs one ton, so if you want to look at it in one particular way, each of us in Connecticut throws away one Trashosaurus every single year.

GELLERMAN: So this humongous statue made up of (laughing), let’s see, we got pieces of dolls and license plates and tennis rackets, and cell phone stuff and...

NONENMACHER: If anybody’s thrown it away, it’s represented here in Trashosaurus.

GELLERMAN: So Trashasorus is celebrating an anniversary.

NONENMACHER: He’s gonna be 13 years old. We’re having a party for him. In fact, he’s already wearing his birthday hat. He’s acting like a teenager before he becomes one, doing what ever he wants, and we’re gonna have birthday cake and candles and ice cream, and we’re gonna have a party for him. Trashosaurus is someone that just about everyone in Connecticut has met and always gets a kick out of seeing again.

MILCZANOWSKI: He’s awesome. (laughs)


GELLERMAN: Michelle Milczanowski from Barkhamstead, Connecticut, brought her two children – John, five years old, and Patrick, two – to the Garbage Museum. The kids play ‘I Spy’ with T-rex. They get a list of items to find on Trashosauraus.

(Courtesy of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.)

JOHN: I’m looking, looking for a flashlight.

GELLERMAN: A flashlight. Boy. What do you think of Trashosaurus?

JOHN: Really...looks like a real dinosaur but it’s made out of trash.

GELLERMAN: So what do you think? Do you think this has a positive effect with kids, or is it just fun and games?

MILCZANOWSKI: No, definitely positive. My older son, the one you were just speaking with, is in kindergarten, and they have a recycle bin in his class, and he knows to recycle, and at home we do. We go to the dump in our town and we have the recycle bins, and they know that every Saturday we take our garbage, our recyclables, our cardboard, our plastic, our glass. So they’re already learning at a much younger age than we did. And this is very child-friendly

GELLERMAN: For Connecticut’s Resources Recovery Authority, trash is definitely not fun and games. The state has four trash-to-energy facilities that burn garbage to make electricity, says Paul Nonenmacher.

NONENMACHER: Garbage gives us, unfortunately, a never ending fuel supply. It’s hard to imagine our country running out of garbage.

GELLERMAN: One ton of garbage can produce the same amount of electricity as a barrel of oil, but unfortunately, the state has too much of a good thing.

NONENMACHER: Here in Connecticut we have to export about 400,000 tons of garbage every year because we don’t have room for it in our trash to energy plants. Our trash to energy plants are going full blast, 24/seven, 365, and we still need to send about 400,000 tons of garbage to landfills in Ohio, or New York or Pennsylvania or Massachusetts because we can’t take care of our own.

GELLERMAN: Wow. How expensive is that then?

NONENMACHER: Well, just to give you some idea, it costs us about 69 dollars to get rid of a ton of garbage. That’s what the towns pay us to bring it, and it’s up to us to get rid of it. Now if we have room in the plant, great. If we don’t have room, then we’ve got to put it on a truck and send it elsewhere, and that can cost us up to 90 dollars a ton.

GELLERMAN: So it literally pays Connecticut to recycle. There’s gold in them there are heaps of cell phones and electronic devices, and silver, and copper, and all the rest of the stuff the haulers collect and people recycle. For their efforts, Connecticut towns receive ten dollars a ton back from the state authority. But right now, Connecticut only recycles about 25 percent of the material people throw out, or about Trashasaurus’s hindquarter. The state wants to more than double that amount, to 58 percent, and has developed a plan to use a so-called single-stream system to make it easier to recycle. Soon residents won’t have to separate stuff – it’ll be done automatically at the recycling centers.

NONENMACHER: Even if we hit that goal, given increases in population, expansion of the economy, we’re still gonna have that capacity crunch in terms of disposal. So getting us to that 58 percent goal is just gonna keep us at status quo. So we need to do a lot better.

Children play with Trashosaurus. (Courtesy of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.)jpg

GELLERMAN: Which is where the garbage and trash museums’ real mission comes in – teaching students the 5 R’s of solid waste: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and re-think. It’s a job for a special breed of educator.


SCIUTO: Garbologists, trashologist, call us whatever you want (laughing). We educate people in garbage. We talk trash and nobody gets into trouble.

GELLERMAN: And these days educator Audrey Sciuto talks trash to packed crowds.

GELLERMAN: You think like, you think you’re making a difference?

SCIUTO: Yeah, absolutely. We did an out-visit at Housatonic Community College – they had a health fair. And a woman came up, and here’s a little four year old, says he had gone to here, to the museum on a field trip with his class and saw his grandmother throwing a water bottle in the garbage, and told her, ‘grandma, that doesn’t go in the garbage, it goes in the recycling bin.’ So, we are making an impact. Little kids are going back. We’ll tell ‘em, you know, nag the adults, make sure they do it. You know, make sure they do it, you have to be sure they do it. And they do. So it’s good. It’s pretty cool.

GELLERMAN: Trashosaurus at 13 has really been hauling them in. If a teacher wants to book a class trip to the Children’s Garbage Museum in Stratford, Connecticut, the first opening is in mid-May. May, 2009, that is.

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Railroad Revival

A passenger train arrives at South Station, Boston.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie” from ‘Night Train: Classic Railroad Songs Vol. 3’ (Rounder – 1998)]

GELLERMAN: Well, May 10th isn’t just Trashosaurus’ birthday. It’s the first annual National Train Day. It’s Amtrak’s idea, to commemorate the day in 1869 when a golden spike was driven into the final tie, connecting rails East and West, creating the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie” from Night Train: Classic Railroad Songs Vol. 3 (Rounder – 1998)]

GELLERMAN: The golden era of trains, when streamlined Pioneer Zephyr and Pullman cars were just about the only way to get from city to city, is long gone. Yet the glamour and mystique of railroads past remains deeply rooted in the American psyche. But Harvard Professor John Stilgoe boldly predicts trains will soon play a fundamental part in the nation’s future.


GELLERMAN: In his new book, “Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape,” Professor Stilgoe says trains will supplant highway and air travel in the next few decades. I met Stilgoe to talk trains at Boston’s historic railway station.

South Station’s “Great Room” terminal was first built in Boston in 1899. (Bruce Gellerman)

STILGOE: We’re sitting at a table in South Station, which opens on a newly reactivated railroad line to Greenbush in Scituate, Massachusetts. The railroad line was abandoned in the ’50’s, it was a nature trail for 50 years, and the train came back a year ago. From this concourse in about 57 minutes, you can arrive, even in rush hour, at a brand new railroad station that is a two minute walk from a world class marina surrounded by condos.

GELLERMAN: What indicators, if any, are there that more and more people are taking the train?

STILGOE: Well for one thing, the ridership statistics even on subway lines are up, especially in the last six months, because the price of gasoline has risen. For another thing, it is pretty clear that people are taking trains in places that didn’t have commuter rail service a little while ago, because the service has been installed in the last five years. And beyond that, it might be wishful thinking, but an awful lot of real estate investment is going into where the railroad used to run and where it’ll run again.

GELLERMAN: So people are investing more and more money. Big money?

Harvard professor John Stilgoe says as fuel prices continue to increase, more and more people will be boarding trains. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

STILGOE: Big money. I think more Americans should understand how much money is being invested along railroads, even if the investment doesn’t take physical form right now. People have bought the land because the train is coming back.

GELLERMAN: Uh huh, so real estate – location, location, location.

STILGOE: It’s location, and I really, as far as I can learn, it is where the dot com boom money went.


You get people like Warren Buffet investing heavily in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. Warren Buffet knows more about investing than I do, but I do know that in 2002, the share price of CSX was about 15 dollars, and today, we’re sitting here in South Station and it’s 65 dollars.

GELLERMAN: I’ve seen the ads on TV that say, you know, shipping stuff by rail is the cheapest way to go.


STILGOE: And it’s going to become much more efficient. You can’t use your cruise control on most highways now because there’s too much traffic. On a railroad locomotive, you can set the cruise control, and then the engineer has to merely monitor the system. It’s extremely efficient. But it’s nowhere near as efficient as the electric service that’s going to spread across the United States.

GELLERMAN: So you’re suggesting that it’s going to be not diesel trains but electric trains.

STILGOE: I’m totally convinced that the electrification of the nation’s freight railroads is in he immediate future. People are starting to talk about electrifying the commuter rail lines. The projection for the train service out of this station demonstrates that an electric commuter train would operate about 125 percent faster than a diesel-powered train.

I’m very serious about where this country is going. My book “Train Time” deals with the problems of trucks moving from Mexico to Canada, not stopping in the United States except to fuel, clogging up interstate highways in the Midwest and high plains that never used to see this traffic, and essentially making people wonder, ordinary tax payers wonder, why this cargo isn’t on the Kansas City Southern, when you can run a freight train at 90 miles an hour, as happens frequently west of the Mississippi, it feels kind of sad to be sitting in a vehicle on a publicly-built highway where the speed limit’s 65 or 70. And once people see freight trains moving at 70 or 75 miles an hour, they start wondering why there can’t be a passenger train.

Amtrak created National Train Day this year. It marks the creation of the country's first transcontinental railroad in 1869. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: The name Amtrak has become synonymous with ‘no-go.’

STILGOE: Most of Amtrak trains share the tracks with freight trains, and it’s pretty tricky to keep the freight trains out of the way of the passenger trains. The suggestion I have for the American public is, double track the freight lines again the way they were into the 1950’s.

GELLERMAN: Double track – what’s that mean?

STILGOE: It means having two tracks, one track in each direction. West of St. Louis a lot of the nation’s freight railroads are now adding a third track, because there’s so many freight trains moving that they have to get the faster trains around the slower ones. Once we get the freight railroads back to the condition they were about 1950, I think Amtrak will have a golden opportunity to prove itself.


GELLERMAN: So in a sense we’ve come full circle. The technologies that got us here, that brought us here, are the stuff that’s gonna take us into the future centuries?

STILGOE: My students figured out there was overnight mail service, first class mail, between New York and Chicago, for the price of a first class stamp. Nowadays you’d have to pay a lot of money to get something overnighted. But the real key is that meant there was very frequent fast mail service between places like New York City and Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Cleveland. We’ve forgotten all of this.

GELLERMAN: Are you familiar with the British classic movie ‘Night Mail’?

STILGOE: I am familiar with it, and I think that there ought to be more mail trains. And I’ve run computer simulations of how things could move around this country if we had the 10,000 mail trains operating we had operating in 1929.


You could order a refrigerator, for example in the evening, and it would be delivered to your house at noontime the next day. You could do that in 1929. You can’t do it today.

GELLERMAN: So professor, how are you gonna celebrate or commemorate National Train Day?

STILGOE: I’m simply going to look out the window of my commuter train and wonder why more people don’t have a pleasure like this. National Train Day ought to be celebrated by all of us trying to use our common sense. The country can’t continue to do this. Anyone who drives across the George Washington Bridge in New York should know that the Regional Plan Authority estimates in three years, every vehicle crossing that bridge will be a truck. Well there’s no new bridge being built next to it. So the cargo has to move onto the tracks. It’s common sense, it’s coming, and people are investing in it.

GELLERMAN: So the answer is, get aboard the train.

STILGOE: The answer is, buy a house or a condo near a commuter train that will get you to work and give you some pleasure at the same time.

Related link:

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[MUSIC: James Brown “ Night Train” 1962]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth. . .


GELLERMAN: These are sea lions barking on a Galapagos Island. Charles Darwin devised his theory of evolution here on the windswept archipelago.

Now, wind power is evolving, and has generated a new breed of hybrid turbines. Harnessing the winds of the Galapagos, next time on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with the sound of babbling babies.


This is a 35 day old baby zebra finch. Researches at MIT discovered that, much like human babies, birds babble in a trial-and-error attempt to imitate adults. As they grow older and learn, the baby birds’ babble becomes more boring and predictable, or what researches call the stereotyped, never-changing song of adult zebra finches.

[MUSIC: Marian McPartland “Lullaby Of Birdland” from Marian McPartland: Giants Of Jazz (Savoy Jazz – 2004)]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Mitra Taj and Jeff Young, with help from Jennifer Baessler, Sarah Calkins and Alexandra Guttierrez.

Our interns are Annie Jia and Margaret Rossano. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stonyfield Farm: organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at stonyfield.com. Support also comes from you our listeners, the Ford Foundation, the Town Creek Foundation, the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues and Pax World Mutual Funds: socially and environmentally responsible investing. Pax World: for tomorrow. On the web at paxworld.com.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI: Public Radio International.


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