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

September 12, 2008

Air Date: September 12, 2008



Haiti’s Unnatural Disaster

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The slew of tropical storms that tore through the Caribbean have exacted a much higher toll on Haiti than neighboring nations. So how natural is the disaster in Haiti? Dr. Paul Farmer, vice president of Partners in Health, says deforestation and poverty are responsible for much of the suffering. Farmer talks with Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman about his recent visit to the ravaged city of Gonaives and what it's going to take to reforest Haiti. (06:00)

Sex, Drugs, and Oil Drilling / Jeff Young

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Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports on the energy fight that's consumed Congress. In a dramatic reversal, Democratic leaders are giving ground to Republicans pushing a pro-drilling agenda. It could mean the end of the nearly 30-year moratorium on offshore drilling. (05:50)

Amtrak on Track / Kathleen O’Neil

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Passengers are flocking to Amtrak, thanks in part to high gasoline prices. And as Kathleen O’Neil reports, soaring energy costs are also convincing Congressional leaders to consider giving the nation’s passenger rail system new support and funding. (06:10)

Cash for Clunkers

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Old cars pollute far more than new ones, so why not pay owners to get those old clunkers off the road? That’s exactly what economics Professor Alan Blinder of Princeton University is proposing. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that his “Cash for Clunkers” plan would use government money to buy used cars from Americans, and that money, in turn, would help stimulate the economy. (06:00)

Food is Fuel

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The food we eat is more than just energy for our bodies. Its production is responsible for almost 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Professor David Pimentel of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University about his new study which calculates the fossil fuel calories of the food we consume. (06:00)

The Butterfly Effect / Kim Gittleson

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As mysterious diseases threaten bats and bees, scientists have now started studying alternate pollinators like butterflies to get an indication of the environmental health of areas around the United States. Producer Kim Gittleson went to Concord, Massachusetts to participate in one of the oldest butterfly counts and get the inside scoop on how these essential pollinators are coping in the face of increased habitat destruction. (09:00)

The Mad Birder

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A trio of birders hit the road on a gonzo journey in search of strange and exotic birds and have some bizarre experiences along the way. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks Luke Dempsey about the adventures he chronicles in his new book, “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and their Quest to See It All.” (07:20)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Alan Blinder, Paul Farmer, David Pimentel,
REPORTERS: Kim Gittleson, Kathleen O’Neil, Jeff Young


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


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Four torrential storms in less than a month devastate Haiti. But the real damage was man-made.

FARMER: It's not possible to delink drownings with this recent hurricane from deforestation and it's not possible to delink reforestation from addressing food insecurity.

GELLERMAN: Coming up: Haiti on the brink. A doctor tries to heal a nation on the verge of environmental collapse. Also: sex, drugs and off-shore drilling – the debate heats up. And – chasing butterflies, for science – and sanity.

EICKELBERG: To hold a butterfly in your hand and see how fragile, and what a beautiful part of nature that is – it’s just an amazing thing for me, it’s kind of a life-giving thing.

GELLERMAN: Cabbage Whites and Monarchs – we go out to count butterflies. We’ll have these stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

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

Haiti’s Unnatural Disaster

(Courtesy of Partners in Health)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, This is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

First Hurricane Fay hit Haiti. Then Gustav, and tropical storm Hanna, then Hurricane Ike. In less than a month, four torrential storms tore through the island nation. And Haiti, already the poorest country in the hemisphere, was destroyed beyond poverty - the storms reducing it to an unimaginable level of human suffering and misery. Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist and physician has worked in Haiti for more than 25 years. He’s cofounder of Partners in Health. The Boston based organization runs medical clinics there. Dr. Farmer says it wasn’t the storms that caused the catastrophe in Haiti: the disaster was man made.

FARMER: I think that if it were a natural disaster and a force of nature only then anywhere such a disaster occurs it will have similar outcomes, so why is the death and destruction focused in one country? And the answer is deforestation.

In the mountains outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, residents slowly kill one of the only remaining mature trees by taking what they call "fat wood," little cuttings of sap-laden wood used to start their charcoal cooking fires. (Courtesy of Trees for Haiti)

GELLERMAN: Once lush with tropical trees and vegetation, today an estimated 99 percent of Haiti has been stripped of its forests. Without roots to hold the soil, mud from rain-soaked mountains slid down, onto the populated flood plains. Hardest hit was the coastal city of Gonaives. Paul Farmer had just returned from Haiti when we met him in his office.

FARMER: You know, I gotta tell you Gonaives and all these coastal places – it smells terrible there. The smell of death all over that city. And it’s so uncomfortable, you know people’s - you know clothes, whatever they have, they’ve been wearing for days. They’re wet, you know, and if they want to be dry they have to stand in the blazing sun, and then it starts raining again. So, it was very jarring and I’ve never seen anything quite like what I saw in Haiti this past weekend. But, that’s not quite true. I saw something similar four years ago, but in the same city.

GELLERMAN: It was Hurricane Jeanne.

FARMER: It wasn’t even Hurricane Jeanne, it was Tropical Storm Jeanne. And it never made landfall on Haiti. It brushed close enough by Haiti so that rains drenched these deforested mountains and, of course, then came floods, flash floods, mud slides, etc.

GELLERMAN: Why is the country so deforested?

FARMER: After the Europeans arrived in 1492, it took a long time, but first the Spanish and then the French started clearing vast tracts of land in this quite mountainous country for what’s essentially tropical produce: sugar, coffee, cotton. And Haiti became the first independent country in the hemisphere, but it still was dependent on these same agricultural products – and has been ever since.

GELLERMAN: There have been many attempts to reforest. Millions of trees have been planted there in fact. But they still have this problem – they’re cutting down more trees than they can plant. Why are they cutting down so many trees?

Harvested and dried saplings piled outside a bakery fueled by wood in the mountains near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Wood and charcoal account for 70 percent of the energy in Haiti. (Courtesy of Trees for Haiti)

FARMER: Haitians are cutting down trees because they don’t have alternative fuels with which to cook food. That’s basically the majority of it. They’re making charcoal. And they wouldn’t make charcoal if they had access to gas or even kerosene. They have been driven into a corner, the people I serve, you know, the rural poor. They’ve been driven into a corner where their only option for cooking has been to make this charcoal, and they’re going to continue doing that as long as they have no jobs, no food, and no fuel.

GELLERMAN: But, you have the deforestation going on, so the water from these terrible storms rushes down these mountaintops and floods the areas, but carrying with it the topsoils, so now you can’t plant crops.

FARMER: Right.

GELLERMAN: So you can’t plant food.

FARMER: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve got this compounded, complex problem. Where do you – how do you break this vicious cycle?

Dr. Paul Farmer treating a patient in Haiti. (Courtesy of Partners in Health)

FARMER: I think this is exactly what we’re asking, how do we rupture this cycle of poverty, disease, hunger and disaster. And I would say that, you know, we do this by not Balkanizing our approach to the problem and saying “Oh, I’m sorry – I just do reforestation or I just do healthcare or I just do primary education or I just do clean water.” And then we have to go back and say, you know, it’s not possible to delink drownings with this recent hurricane from deforestation. And it’s not possible to delink reforestation from addressing food insecurity. And food security is not going to happen unless we also address unfair trade practices. And the main determinant of what happens to, say, the price of rice in Haiti, is the U.S. Farm Bill.

GELLERMAN: What do we do right now? I mean now they’re running out of trees, they’re running out of fuel, they’re under water, a good part of the country. The third or fourth largest city in the country is largely cut off from the rest of the world.

On the main street of Gonaïve. (Courtesy of Partners in Health)

FARMER: What we do right now is respond to the suffering of these people. They need food, they need water, they need clothes, and they need shelter. The mistake will be for us to believe that it’s not going to happen again, and that we don’t need to address these other longer-term problems.

When we went into Gonaives on Saturday, supposedly it was cut off from the rest of the world, right? You fly into Haiti and you see the city’s under water. There is a mass exodus of the city on foot, we saw no first aid stations outside of the city. And when we asked them, “Well, where are you going?” they’d name other towns or Port-au-Prince and they’d say, “Do you have any water?” So, in the short term, we have to attend to people’s thirst. But in the long term, that area has to be reforested, but again, you can’t reforest without an alternative fuel plan, without job creation, and without addressing this whole, really, bundle of problems.

A Partners In Health worker wades through floodwaters to find missing HIV patients. (Courtesy of Partners in Health)

And this is not like putting a man on the moon or sending some spaceship to Mars. This is well within the realm of human possibility.

GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Farmer, I want to thank you very much.

FARMER: Well thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health. Soon after our conversation Dr. Farmer returned to Haiti.

Related link:
Partners In Health

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[MUSIC: Buyu Ambrose “Konbit Zaka” from Blues In Red (Justin Time Records 2004)]

Sex, Drugs, and Oil Drilling

(Courtesy of NASA)

GELLERMAN: Sex, drugs and mineral rights -- As the US congress debates an historic
expansion in off-shore drilling, federal investigators say a dozen senior government officials responsible for collecting corporate royalties from drilling and mining on public property were involved in widespread corruption, including kickbacks from companies -- and yes, sex and drugs.

Jeff Young, Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, has been tracking both the oil drilling debate and the oil money scandal - and Jeff, the Inspector General’s report makes the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service sound like a frat party gone wild.

YOUNG: Y’know, Bruce, I think a lot of people suspected that government
was in bed with oil companies - but that was a metaphor, right? Well, according to this inspector general report, some government employees had sexual relationships with oil company employees, others took gifts and cut sweetheart deals.

Now, this is the office in the Interior Department that oversees leases and collects royalties when companies drill on public land or waters. They take in about ten billion a year. But this report is just the latest in controversy for them. The agency’s failed to collect billions - that’s with a b - in royalties, and we’ll hear a lot more about it when the inspector general testifies before a congressional panel Thursday.

GELLERMAN: Which, ironically is just about the same time that Congress could vote on this new proposal to expand offshore drilling. Tell us about that.

(Courtesy of NASA)

YOUNG: That’s right. Energy - especially the price of gas – it’s THE issue in Congress right now. And it’s looking like the moratorium that has kept new oil rigs off most of the US coastline for nearly 30 years could be near an end.


YOUNG: House Republicans started the new session of Congress with a gathering on the Capitol steps to celebrate their success in pushing a pro-drilling message.

BOEHNER: We want a vote on the all-of-the-above American energy plan.


YOUNG: That’s Republican House Leader John Boehner. His proposal includes some support for renewable energy, like extended tax credits for solar and wind and tax breaks for energy efficient cars. But the bulk of the Republican plan favors fossil fuels: government support for oil from western shale, and turning coal to liquid fuels. And the Republicans’ centerpiece is a dramatic expansion of oil and gas drilling.

BOEHNER: Yes, we oughta have more American-made oil and gas. Thank you.


YOUNG: It didn’t take long to get a response from environmentalists.


YOUNG: Activists nearby nearly drowned out the Republican speakers.


YOUNG: It was the first skirmish in what’s become an all-out election season battle over what energy path the nation should take. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from a contentious two hour meeting with her fellow Democrats.

PELOSI: I come from that caucus very energized by what our members had to say. Pun intended.

YOUNG: Some Democrats urged her to keep the 27-year-old moratorium on off shore drilling intact. Others feared the outrage over gas prices will hurt their re-election chances. Pelosi’s solution was a major reversal of her opposition to offshore drilling. She now proposes allowing rigs 50 miles from a state’s coast if that state approves. That would essentially end the moratorium. But Pelosi pairs that with measures that could shift the country toward cleaner energy. Her energy package would end some seven billion dollars’ worth of oil industry tax breaks and force companies to pay outstanding royalties. That money would go instead to extending tax credits for renewable energy. And it calls for fifteen percent of the nation’s electricity to come from sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

PELOSI: Want to drill in the Outer Continental Shelf? We want our royalties. No more subsidies for you. We want those subsidies and those royalties for renewable energy resources for a better future – energy future – for our country. And it will come down to this, it will come down to this when it comes to energy: Whose side are you on? The side of the American consumer and taxpayer or big oil?

YOUNG: Environmentalists were disappointed, but some like Sierra Club director Carl Pope tried a positive spin.

POPE: Well, I think we all got caught a little flat-footed and were a little slow. But I think what Pelosi’s done is to call the bluff, and say “Okay, you want all of the above, you can vote on all of the above.”

YOUNG: Republican House Leader Boehner says Pelosi’s offer is not enough. He’d like to open all coastlines and offer states a larger share of revenue as an enticement to allow drilling.

BOEHNER: What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to pull a hoax on the American people. Something that looks like an energy plan, but does nothing about more oil and gas or American-made energy.

YOUNG: Ordinarily this is the point where the parties would seek compromise, but there’s nothing ordinary about this election season session of Congress. And compromise seems unlikely. Republicans are loath to give up on a winning issue. Democrats don’t want to bargain now because they expect to pick up more seats in the election. But there is a deadline of sorts looming. The moratorium on offshore drilling will expire at the end of the month unless it is renewed on a spending agreement, the same spending agreement that’s needed to keep government functioning.

Anna Aurelio of the conservation group Environment America says Republicans could block a renewal of the moratorium if they’re willing to shut down government services.

AURELIO: And in the end I think it’s going to come down to a game of chicken. Is President Bush and other allies of big oil going to threaten to shut down the government over big oil’s drilling agenda? That’s the big question.

YOUNG: Republican leaders aren’t taking openly about that yet, but they clearly feel their offshore drilling argument is gaining ground.

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

Related links:
- House Republicans energy proposal
- Democratic proposal
- Interior Dept Inspector General report on the Mineral Management Service

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[MUSIC: Various Artists/Dave Baker “Le Miror Noir” from Trippin – The Groove Merchant Collection (Ubiquity Records 1999)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, Congress considers a ticket to ride on Amtrak. Stay aboard Living on Earth!

[MUSIC: Anat Cohen: “Lullaby For The Naïve Ones” from notes From The Village (Anzic Records 2008)]

Amtrak on Track

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The price of gasoline and skyrocketing costs of airplane tickets have more and more people riding the rails. The increase in ridership and expenses for running the trains, has both houses of Congress, for the first time in years, on board to up the amount of federal funding for America’s passenger railroad. Kathleen O’Neil has our report.


O’NEIL: At Union Station in downtown Washington, a line of passengers wait to board a mid-morning train. Some are heading on day trips, others have small carry-on suitcases for longer visits. Bonnie from Kalamazoo, Michigan is one of them.

BONNIE: Well, it’s only the second time I’ve traveled on Amtrak. I’m doing it because of the convenience and really the price too.


O’NEIL: Some 28 million people will climb on board Amtrak trains across the country this year. That’s 11 percent more than in 2007. Karina Romero is an Amtrak spokesperson. She says the company set a record for most passengers ever carried in one month this past July, with 2.7 million riders.

ROMERO: To see double-digit increases month over month is unheard of in Amtrak history. We attribute about half of the increase to the price of gas alone, and the other half to travelers just looking for an alternative.

CONDUCTOR: Tickets please.


O’NEIL: Amtrak is federally owned. But for many years, the railway has been the target of budget conservatives who prefer to see it privatized and become self-sufficient. Without adequate subsidies from Congress, Amtrak has struggled. It loses more than seven hundred million dollars annually and is more than three billion dollars in debt.

CONDUCTOR: Attention ladies and gentlemen. Momentarily we will be arriving at our next station stop. … our next station stop. Please take a moment to look around and gather your belongings. … New Carrolton. New Carrolton in 15 minutes…


O’NEIL: Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 to take money-losing passenger rail lines off the hands of private companies. It continues to lose money on long-distance routes which run through rural areas such as Montana and Oklahoma. Highly populated corridor routes come closest to breaking even. These include lines in California and the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Rail supporters say that highways and air travel have always had federal support. Amtrak’s Karina Romero says transportation is worth investing in whether the routes make money or not.

ROMERO: There's no passenger rail system anywhere in the world that generates a profit. It's seen more as a public service, like highways or you know the FAA when it comes to airports. So no, we're never going to actually generate a profit, but we certainly have healthy revenues, particularly this year on certain routes.
O’NEIL: The same conditions that have led people to abandon their gas-guzzlers and ride trains in record numbers are also making members of Congress more inclined to fund Amtrak. At a hearing in May, Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House transportation committee, urged his colleagues to increase their support for passenger rail.
OBERSTAR: Instead of keeping Amtrak on life-support, as it has been from year to year, we have a proposal here that will give vigorous life to Amtrak…

O’NEIL: The House did pass a bill to allow spending more than 14 billion dollars on Amtrak over the next four years. The Senate passed its own version, which would give the company about 11 billion dollars over six years. A bipartisan committee has been charged with putting together a compromise version. But a crowded Congressional calendar and a veto threat from President Bush will make passage of a bill an uphill battle.

Even long-time critics, like Florida Republican Congressman John Mica support the bills. Mica says rising fuel prices are one reason. Another is that the House’s bill includes studying some privatization. It asks outside companies for proposals to create a high-speed rail service that would go between New York City and Washington D.C. in two hours or less.

MICA: I think there’s a tremendous interest in developing high-speed rail systems that work in the United States. They’re so common-place now in Europe, many parts of Asia and the rest of the world, the United States is almost becoming a third-world country when it comes to NOT having high-speed, efficient transit alternatives.

O’NEIL: But building the separate rail line the high-speed service could cost 30 to 50 billion dollars. Amtrak president Alex Kummant says the money might be better spent on improvements that would offer more immediate and widespread increases in speed and efficiency.

KUMMANT: Is that really where we would put that amount of capital, given the rail passenger needs in the country? And the answer may still be yes, but it might also be that we should really expand an electrified corridor south to Atlanta, that we should spend money on a half-a-dozen or a dozen 110-mph corridors like Chicago to Detroit… 50 billion dollars goes a long way.

O’NEIL: The National Association of Railroad Passengers director Ross Capon says he’s glad Congress has come around to supporting Amtrak. But after so many years of bare-bones funding, he still won’t be convinced of the change until Congress shows him the money.

CAPON: So far, the early indications for fiscal year ’09 is that the increase in funding is going to be very modest indeed. But hopefully, we’ll get a Congress and a White House next year that is able to do a lot more.

O’NEIL: Amtrak has been a topic of conversation in the race to the White House. Senator Joe Biden is one of Amtrak's biggest fans, and Senator Barack Obama also supports giving it long-term funding. Senator John McCain is on the opposite side of the tracks. He proposes cutting Amtrak’s budget and privatizing the service, which he calls inefficient. Meanwhile, rail supporters hope energy concerns and Amtrak’s rising popularity will sustain the momentum in Congress and help the struggling service stay on track.


O’NEIL: For Living on Earth, I’m Kathleen O’Neil in Washington.

Related links:
- Amtrak's website
- National Association of Railroad Passengers

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[MUSIC: Moe Tiucker “Train” from Dogs Under Stress (Ichiban Records 1994)]

Cash for Clunkers

If it could run, it would probably pollute a lot. (Photo: Martin van Duijn)

GELLERMAN: While trains are gaining steam, the car is still king in America. There are more than a quarter of a billion registered passenger vehicles in the United States. About a third are 13 years old or more - but they spew out 75 percent of the air pollution that comes from cars.

So if you own one of these stinkers, and want to get rid of it - Come on down! Alan Blinder has a deal for you. It’s called “Cash for Clunkers.” Blinder wants to put you in the driver’s seat of a clean machine, with the federal government picking up the tab to take that old polluting jalopy off your hands. Alan Blinder isn’t a used car dealer. He’s a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Hi, Professor.


GELLERMAN: Cash for Clunkers, nice ring. How does it work?

BLINDER: Well actually the states that have tried it haven’t actually called it Cash for Clunkers, that’s its nickname. But it works the following way. If you have a car that meets the parameters – and that’s basically being old enough – you can bring it in somewhere, it’s not always to the state government, this varies from states to state – and get cash for it. The recipient, which would be the state government, say, then basically scraps the car. The idea is to get these clunkers that spew a lot of pollutants off the road.

GELLERMAN: Well let’s go through some of the statistics. I have a car let’s say, I don’t know, twelve, thirteen years old. What’s my car’s contribution to air pollution?

BLINDER: The estimates are for the clunkers as a whole. They range between ten, twenty, and up to as high as thirty times the amount of pollution per mile driven as a new car. Now, in reality, people that turn in clunkers, you know eighteen-year-old cars are something, may not be trading up to a new car. They’re more likely to be trading up to an average car, but that still reduces the amount of pollution coming out of the fleet as a whole by a very substantial amount.

GELLERMAN: So how much money is the federal government kicking in to this program?

If it could run, it would probably pollute a lot. (Photo: Martin van Duijn)

BLINDER: Well, that’s a very elastic concept. In some of the state pilot programs the cost per car has been down around $500-$1000. I think that’s much too low, and I suggested that we go to as high as $5,000 for a car with an average maybe of $3000 or $3500. It’s an adjustable parameter depending on how large the government would want the program to be.

GELLERMAN: And that would be a federal program, because there are states as you mentioned – there’s Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, California, Texas that do have these programs.

BLINDER: I would love it to be a national program. But the truth is that that this is one case where a number of states have been as they say “laboratories of democracy.” And it may well be that if this program’s going to get anywhere, it’s going to be on a state by state, rather than a national, basis. Though I would certainly prefer national.

GELLERMAN: So what are the benefits? Okay so, the state or the federal government buys my car, give me a voucher I guess is what you’re suggesting. And now I take that voucher and I can go out and buy anything I want?

BLINDER: Anything you want. Yeah, I would have them actually pay you cash. Some states do give a voucher that can be applied to the purchase of a car. I’d just give cash, let people spend it as they wish. So what are the benefits? The first is the obvious one that we’ve been talking about: reducing pollution, which is really what drives the idea. Secondly, I promoted it as a stimulus program, because if you think about who gets the money, it’s going to go predominantly to low income people who are driving fifteen, eighteen, twenty year old cars. What we’re pretty sure is that these people will go around, spend the money on something. It might be a better car or it might be something else. But they’ll spend it, and that’s the key thing for a stimulus program.

GELLERMAN: Well if people got cash for their clunkers, what’s to prevent them from running out and buying another clunker and doing it over and over again.

BLINDER: Nothing at all and, in fact, the more they do it the better it is. If you think about the dynamic of this. Suppose the cash for clunkers was going to pull all the eighteen-year-old and over off the road. People that took advantage of it would then have to buy a somewhat newer car. So they would buy, I don’t know, a twelve-year-old car. Well, it’s better for the environment to have twelve-year-old cars running around than eighteen-year-old cars, and so on as you climb the ladder. So turn over in that sense is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing actually.

GELLERMAN: Put a price tag on it. How much would it cost?

BLINDER: I’ve estimated a national program that took off the road two million cars a year, which I think is doable, though, slightly ambitious, would cost about eight billion.

GELLERMAN: You know you’re talking about the government picking up the tab for these clunkers, and I mean, we’re already in the hole many hundreds of billions of dollars. Can we afford this?

BLINDER: Well, yes and no. The point is that we’re at a juncture in the economy where lots of people are talking about the need for further stimulus. Now like it or not, stimulus means enlarging the deficit with more spending or with tax cuts. So for the long-run health of our financial system and the government budget we need to be thinking about reducing the deficit. But you don’t do that when the economy is weak, and in fact, just as we did this year – earlier this year – with the so-called tax rebates and other things, you often go for a temporary stimulus.

GELLERMAN: Professor, what’s your ride?

BLINDER: We have a 2000 - let’s see, a 2002 Lexus. And my son has a clunker, a 1994 Toyota, that I presume would be eligible for such a program, should a program be adopted. I think it’s time for him to scrap it actually, but that’s his decision.

GELLERMAN: So what would your son do with his 3500 bucks under your proposal?

BLINDER: I imagine he would apply that to a more expensive car. And, not just that I imagine – sorry. This program has been piloted in a number of states, and they watch what people do. And the overwhelming majority do what I just described, move up to a somewhat newer car, take the money, add some more, and buy a newer car than what they sold.

GELLERMAN: Well thank you very much, Professor. I really appreciate it.

BLINDER: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Alan Blinder is a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

Related link:
Dr. Alan Blinder

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Food is Fuel

Too many of these aren’t good for your waistline, or the planet. (Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell)

GELLERMANL: Well, trains, planes and automobiles, whether they’re clunkers or not, account for about 13 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases. Food from farm animals, on the other hand, is responsible for 18 percent of global warming emissions.

So now, the head of the United Nations climate change panel is urging people to go one day a week without eating meat. After all, the stuff you put in your gas tank is just like the stuff you put in your mouth: it’s just energy in a different form.

Now, researchers at Cornell University have calculated the fossil fuel calories in the foods we consume. Dr. David Pimentel is a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences there, and lead author of the study. Professor, thanks for joining me.

PIMENTEL: I’m pleased to be here.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Pimentel, with the old adage you are what you eat, it seems that Americans are a lot of gasoline. How much gas does the average American diet include?

PIMENTEL: Okay. The total energy per person used in the food system in the U.S. is 500 gallons of oil equivalents. And it is second only, as far as our use of oil in the food system, to the amount of fuel that we use per person in our automobiles.

GELLERMAN: So basically, the average American is eating about 500 gallons of oil a year.

PIMENTEL: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: So if I was following the food and drug administration’s recommended diet, how many calories I should take in a year, how much fuel, how many gallons would that be?

PIMENTEL: Well, if you focus just on the food that we consume directly, then instead of 3,800 calories per person per day, we should be eating about 2,500 calories per day.

GELLERMAN: The average American now consumes 3,800 calories?

PIMENTEL: That’s right and, of course, this is creating lots of problems for the American population.

Too many of these aren’t good for your waistline, or the planet. (Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, not only are we too heavy, but we’re eating our way into a kind of fossil fuel bankruptcy.

PIMENTEL: This is right. We, that is the people in the U.S., by altering the foods that they consume, the way we produce it, the packaging, the processing, we could, in fact, reduce the total energy consumption in the food system by – we estimate – by 50%. So if we can’t do it in our automobiles, maybe we can do it in our food system.

GELLERMAN: What’s your diet for a small planet, then?

PIMENTEL: We eat probably three times, on average, what we should be consuming as meat, milk and eggs according to the National Academy of Sciences.

GELLERMAN: Do I have to become a vegan, you know a granola eating, you know, lettuce chopping….


PIMENTEL: No. We don’t have to give up eating. I think we just have to be – well, we should eat a little bit less. But, in particular, be more selective about what we’re eating and certainly eating local foods in contrast to having strawberries shipped from California or grapes from Chile and so forth. And another thing also to show you: the waste in our system. We have data on the average number of times that people shop per week to get their groceries home, the size automobile, the quantity of groceries they bring home, the distance they travel and so forth. It takes almost as much fossil energy to get that can of corn home from the grocery store as there is energy in the corn that’s in the can itself.

GELLERMAN: I was drinking a diet soda as I was preparing for our interview. Is that a no-no or a good thing to do?

PIMENTEL: Yeah, soda’s a very good example of – in a way – waste energy. The average American is consuming 600 cans of soda, per person, per year. That’s about 2 per day, in any case. But look at the energy, if you take a can of diet soda for example, that has one calorie of energy – food energy – it takes 600 calories of fossil energy to produce the carbonated drink, and then it takes another 1,600 calories to put that drink into an aluminum can. So that we can drink one calorie of food energy in a diet soda, means that we invest 2,200 calories of fossil energy. I mean, that shows that we’ve got a lot of slack in our food system.

GELLERMAN: So as I understand you correctly, we could make small changes in what we eat, and we might not have to drill off the shore of the United States.

PIMENTEL: That is correct, yes. There are things that each individual – you and I – can do. In this case, not blaming somebody else, but what we do can have a major impact on the use of energy in our food system.

GELLERMAN: David Pimentel’s a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Thank you so very much, Professor.

PIMENTEL: Good. My pleasure. Thank you.

Related links:
- Dr. David Pimentel
- Partners in Health

Back to top

[MUSIC: Tom Verlaine “Old Car” from Warm & Cool (Thrill Jockey 2005)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, what you can learn from counting butterflies. You’re listening to 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. ..and from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[MUSIC: Organissimo : “Bleecker” from Groovadelphia (Big O records 2008)]

The Butterfly Effect

For the first time, volunteers on the Concord Count spotted a Common Buckeye, a brushfooted butterfly usually found on the West Coast. (Photo: Bob Moul)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. For the past 34 years, members of the North American Butterfly Association have been heading for forests and fields, binoculars and nets in hand, to count the fluttering insects during their flights of fancy.

The day-long hunts in the summer and fall provide valuable data about the numbers and varieties of butterflies in an area. Typically there are more than 450 counts held a year in North America. Recently one set off from Concord Massachusetts, and that’s where Living on Earth’s Kim Gittleson went out for the count.


WALTON: First of all, I’d like to welcome you all to the 20th annual Concord butterfly count!

LOE's Kim Gittleson interviews the team about their findings at Davis Farm. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GITTLESON: Dick Walton stands in front of a crowd of 20 butterfly enthusiasts, packed like sardines in his living room. In the center of the room a champagne bottle covered in glittery butterfly stickers sits on a table, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Concord Butterfly Count.

WALTON: As usual, we’ll also have a special door prize for the best non-lep critter…

GITTLESON: Walton is somewhat of a rock star to this audience. He’s not only written a handful of guides to Massachusetts butterflies, he’s also the founder of the Concord count. Today, as he’s done for the past two decades, Walton orchestrates the event.

WALTON: Okay we’re gonna have four teams and, Marge you’re in charge of the Acton team, Eric, Sudbury, Wayland.

GITTLESON: The teams look over maps and plot out paths. They alert each other to special areas.


GITTLESON: and to special butterflies.

WALTON: Oh, I wanted to tell you, there are Edward’s Hair Streaks on the entrance road before the one you usually go in.

GITTLESON: But it’s not just about looking for the prettiest butterfly of the bunch. Butterfly counts are meant to provide a survey of both numbers and species variation. Walton points to a spreadsheet on a large computer monitor.

WALTON: Insect populations in general, and butterflies specifically, have good years and bad years. And so throughout this data you’ll see very large numbers or very small numbers that indicate that for that year populations were either large or small.

GITTLESON: The numbers from today’s count will be totaled, and entered into the spreadsheet. This data is then sent off to the North American Butterfly Association. NABA compiles the data from counts held across the nation and publishes the results in the spring.


GITTLESON: Dick and three volunteers make their first stop at Verrill Farm, in Concord. The nature preserve and working farm is covered with ankle-high plants like vetch and daisies. This usually makes it a great place to spot lots of different butterfly species.


WALTON: Typically in an open area like this, agricultural edge, we might well see swallowtails, monarchs, several skipper species, almost any butterfly really -- the painted lady, the American painted lady -- there are very few butterflies that we wouldn’t see here except for specific wetlands species.

For the first time, volunteers on the Concord Count spotted a Common Buckeye, a brushfooted butterfly usually found on the West Coast. (Photo: Bob Moul)


EICKELBERG: There are a couple of cabbage whites, one lit!

GITTLESON: Patsy Eickelberg shouts out the names of butterflies as she sees them. She trudges through the scrubby greenery gripping her butterfly net. Eickelberg says the net is perfectly engineered to make catching butterflies as easy, and as safe, as possible.

EICKELBERG: Basically they’re very easy, you can just come up underneath them, butterflies have a tendency, if you catch them on the bush, they have a tendency to drop, so if you come up under them you’re more likely to get them. That way you’re not swatting at them and possibly damaging, hurting them in some way.


SHETTERLEY: Only one cabbage white, one orange sulfur, and two clouded sulfurs]

GITTLESON: After about 45 minutes of combing the fields, Jay Shetterley and Dick Walton discuss their findings.

WALTON: All in all, a poor showing. Normally we see more butterflies just flying around here.

SHETTERLEY: Ten years ago I would say we had eight or nine species here, pretty good numbers.

WALTON: Yup, I think that’s right. We may be talking about just today, it is still a little cloudy out, but it seems thin even for the conditions. What’s your feeling, Jake?

A hungry butterfly feeds on milkweed at Davis Farm. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

SHETTERLEY: My feeling is if you apply pesticides to a farm for enough years, you’ll kill all the butterflies.

GITTLESON: While Verrill Farm does use pesticides, it does so under Integrated Pest Management. IPM is a pest control strategy that uses an ecological approach to try and reduce the use of pesticides. The 200 acres that make up Verrill Farm use minimal amounts of chemicals, but there’s no telling what’s happening in nearby Concord farms.


WALTON: As we were driving here, there was a tractor in front of us with a large plastic container on it and both Patsy and I noticed the odor. It didn’t pull into these fields but we don’t know where it was going and I certainly have seen tractors spraying herbicides and pesticides, and all of those things affect particularly insect life in any area.

GITTLESON: After tallying up the few butterflies they spotted, the team heads about five miles down the road to Davis Farm - a more rustic area filled with wildflowers that they know has not been sprayed with pesticides.


WALTON: What d’ya got, John? Oh a silver spotted skipper on the queen Anne’s lace?

GITTLESON: Almost as soon as the volunteers step out of their cars, they spot a variety of butterflies.


WALTON: and we’ve had a tiger swallowtail, a great spangle fritillary, did you see another skipper Jake?

GITTLESON: It’s soon easy to see what made the difference: milkweed. Milkweed is a plant that is poisonous to most animals, but useful to the family of butterflies that include monarchs. Their caterpillars feed on the cardioglycoside - a milky white substance - that runs through the veins in the plant’s leaves. This protection is then worn like a shield - and it makes butterflies like the monarch toxic to predators. Here in the field near Davis farm, the fuzzy pink blossoms of the plant are dotted with creatures of all sorts. Again, Dick Walton:

WALTON: Obviously Monarchs feed on the milkweed itself, but many butterflies use the blossoms to nectar. In Canada people are encouraged to pull up and destroy milkweed. The government has incentive programs and that’s the kind of thing that really does hurt butterflies.

GITTLESON: And milkweed destruction is not just happening in Canada – up on the hill above the Davis farm, a large office building looms, the cleared out lot around it perhaps a premonition of the fate that could befall the rest of this butterfly haven. The destruction of butterfly habitat and the resulting decline in population could have far reaching effects.

WALTON: Butterflies are critical to pollinating wildflower species and keeping our native habitats intact.

GITTLESON: As other pollinators like bats and bees are increasingly threatened by mysterious diseases, many scientists are studying alternate pollinators like butterflies and moths. Counts like this one hold the key to understanding whether population fluctuations indicate a crisis or simply a cycle of nature. Dick Walton says the jury’s still out for butterflies:

Patsy Eickelberg placed a dragonfly on LOE's Kim Gittleson. It stayed there until forcibly removed, which is a sign of good luck and future marriage proposals according to the volunteers. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

WALTON: I sense that insect populations are very plastic and given the right conditions they are able to, after a bad year, come back and repopulate an area. The real critical problem is habitat destruction.

GITTLESON: The final tally for this day turns out to be about average: 38 species and 590 individual butterflies were spotted. But counting butterflies is about more than just numbers. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was also a well-known butterfly collector, once said that other than writing, butterflies were among the most intense pleasures known to man - and Patsy Eickelberg agrees.

EICKELBERG: To hold a butterfly in your hand, and see how fragile, and what a beautiful part of nature that is, it’s just an amazing thing for me, it’s kind of a life giving thing.

GITTLESON: For Living on Earth, I’m Kim Gittleson in Concord, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC: Bishop Allen, “Butterfly Nets:” “armed with a small butterfly net only/I will face the world alone and never be lonely.” ]

GELLERMAN: For more information on butterfly conservation, go to our website loe.org.

Related links:
- Want to count butterflies? Check out the website of the North American Butterfly Association.
- To learn more about Integrated Pest Management, click here

Back to top


The Mad Birder

GELLERMAN: There are two kinds of people: there are normal people, and then there are birders, people like Luke Dempsey. Luke Dempsey’s new book is called “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All.” Luke Dempsey joins me from a studio in New York City. Luke, welcome to Living on Earth.

DEMPSEY: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: You make a distinction between birding and bird watching.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, we try and do that, because we’re trying to give ourselves a pat on the back, I think. We call it birding because it sounds vaguely adventurous or a little bit exciting or maybe there’s an adventure or you know, something like that. Whereas bird watching just sounds so much like sitting in your back garden watching a bird at the feeder. So, we Americans, and I call myself that even though I’m not yet an American, we’re very into the verb.

GELLERMAN: Now, you’re not a born birder then. In the book, you suggest that maybe you are. You see a heron when you’re very young and you don’t tell anybody about it, but you’re captivated.

DEMPSEY: I did actually, when I was in my teens, I was taking a walk and I saw a grey heron, which is the equivalent of our great blue heron here, and I was taken with it immediately. It was the most beautiful thing. And sure enough I wasn’t going to tell anybody that. And then, when I moved to the United States, I had no interest in birds and I didn’t know anything about birds, and two friends of mine, Don and Donna Graffiti came up to my house in northeast Pennsylvania. And they knew I liked to hike and walk, and they were very sneaky. They handed me a pair of binoculars on the morning of our walk and just said, “you know if we see something maybe it’ll be fun, you don’t have to be a birder.” And, of course, at the time I would have rather gargled with hat pins than been a birder. But they showed me some birds in my garden, and it was as though scales were taken off my eyes. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I was lost to it immediately.

GELLERMAN: Now Don and Donna and you take a series of road trips in search of birds, lots of birds.

DEMPSEY: Well that’s – I never thought I’d sign up for that either. If I want to see a lot of different species, I need to go to a lot of different places. So we took a trip to – the first trip we took, was to Arizona, and I don’t think I quite understood going into this how insane Don and Donna are. I mean, I got into fights with guys in Florida, you know, we got involved with a smuggler in Texas.

Author Luke Dempsey

GELLERMAN: The minutemen in Arizona?

DEMPSEY: Oh then in Arizona, yeah, I got into an awful argument with a birding guide and I’m just waiting for a knock on the door and the burliest woman in the world comes and beats me with a stick. But a lot of the book is about birds, but a lot of it is about the sort of adventures we find ourselves in, the fights we find ourselves in. The entire state of Florida would probably never have me back. And so, that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to entertain people, and thereby have people realize that birds are very beautiful and it’s not an expensive gig. You can go out and look at them with binoculars or without, but it’s a good thing to be doing.

GELLERMAN: But you don’t have to go far afield even in the United States or from New York to see fabulous birds.

DEMPSEY: New York City’s one of the greatest spots on the planet for birds. You know, Central Park for example, is a haven of green amongst all this concrete. And furthermore, it’s on the Eastern flyway. So the birds that are migrating from Central and South America will go up and over New York City. So New York City itself is incredible for birds. It’s also a place that heavily birded, so there are hundreds of birders.

GELLERMAN: You make a distinction between getting a bird versus seeing it. What’s the distinction?

DEMPSEY: Well – the distinction is – is not just linguistic. Too many birders, it seems to me, will get a bird. Which means they’ve seen it, they walk away. There’s a mall feel to it, as if they went to, you know, a local store and bought a view of the bird. For us, it’s something else. We find birds just so incredibly beautiful that even if there’s another live bird down the road, when we have one in our sights, we want to spend as much time as possible with it. Even to the point where dear Don Graffiti will start lapping. He literally goes [makes slurping sounds] because as he says he’s drinking the bird in. And we’ve had to explain that to a number of police officers around the country. But, I take his point, which is that if you see something beautiful, spend some time with it, that’s why we do it. And I’d rather spend two hours looking at an elegant trogon, than I would ever add just another bird to my list.

GELLERMAN: So you’re not a lister – or you are a lister?

DEMPSEY: Well, we try to say we’re not, but we are listers. We – I think all birders have that thing. It’s a very human thing to just keep a list of the things you’ve seen. Some birders are uber-listers, and that’s all they do. They would rather see something than really love on it. But we, you know, the reason we go to Colorado, the reason we got to Texas, the reason we went to Michigan -- I mean the reason we went to Michigan was to get the Kirtland’s Warbler, which is probably the rarest bird in America because it’s numbers are so tiny. And, we went with the express desire to see that one bird for our list.

GELLERMAN: What’s a life bird? I know there’s a term that birders use, but I’m not sure I understand it.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, I was talking to somebody recently who thought that once you get a life bird, you then immediately die.


DEMPSEY: And it seemed to me a little – you know, that seemed a little excessive. A life bird is – I have never seen, let’s say, a red-necked stint, which right now is happily plying its trade in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is in Queens in New York City. And Don and Donna went to see it, got themselves a life bird. So once I’ve seen it and correctly identified it, it’s then a life bird.

GELLERMAN: Say Luke, if you could see one bird before you pass to that great nest in the sky what would it be?

DEMPSEY: It would probably be an ivory-billed woodpecker. And everybody keeps asking me about whether or not that bird exists, because they think I’m an expert on birds now. It may not exist. It may exist. But the mere fact that it could be alive in a swamp in Arkansas is a really big deal. And it may mean that we’ve started to do some things right with the environment, for example. It may mean that the work of citizens scientists – I mean this all came from citizen scientists, who went out there for the good of their own souls, not for anything else, to try to find a bird. I would love to go down there and just have one fly and perch on my head. And when it’s on my head it can do anything it likes. It can peck all day long. But I think it’s become a symbol for a lot of birders of a little bit of hope in terms of the environment and ecology.

GELLERMAN: Luke, before I let you go, I want to do your bird pishing.

DEMPSEY: Oh, good Lord. Well, I’m not a very good pisher. One has to be careful how one says that. Pishing is to bring a bird out of the undergrowth to look at you. The first bird I see in the book is the common yellowthroat, and that is a bird that is very susceptible to pishing. So on that day, we probably looked at the hedge row, and went…


DEMPSEY: …and the birds for reasons unknown to all of us, thinks that’s really attractive, and will jump up and look at you and think, “My God, you’re completely crazy. You must be a birder.”

GELLERMAN: Luke Dempsey’s new book is called “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All”. I really appreciate it. Thank you so very much, Luke.

DEMPSEY: That was a real treat. Thank you so much for your time.

Related link:
To learn more about Luke Dempsey’s “Supremely Bad Idea,” click here

Back to top

[MUSIC: Banco Da gaia “Kara Kum (Bombay Dub’s Spagetti Eastern Remix)” from Eden (Six Degrees 2006)]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth: As the days grow shorter – we long for the lingering taste of summer.

My 35 yrs as a grower have taught me that heirloom tomatoes ripened on the vine in full sun are the most delicious tomatoes of all.

GELLERMAN: From Big Rainbow and Brandywine to Mortgage Lifter and Purple Cherokee – we celebrate hand me down tomatoes…. next time on Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week among the cattails in North Dakota.


GELLERMAN: At the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Marsh Wrens, Virginia Rails and Soras greet the day. Lang Elliott of NatureSound Studio recorded this lively bird symphony in a prairie marsh. Listen closely and you’ll also hear the unusual gulping sound of the American Bittern.

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 Sarah Calkins and Marilyn Govoni. Our interns are Sandra Larson and Jessie Martin. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is our executive producer.

You can find us at LOE dot org. 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, and the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues; The Rockefeller Foundation and its Campaign for American Workers. More at rock found dot org. and Pax World Mutual Funds: socially and environmentally sustainable investing. Pax World: for tomorrow. On the web at paxworld.com.

ANNOUNCER2: PRI, Public Radio International.


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