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

April 29, 2011

Air Date: April 29, 2011



China Adopts Cap-and-Trade to Curb Emissions

View the page for this story

China emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation. But the country is trying to control its CO2 by using a cap and trade scheme in parts of the country. If the experiment works, China will consider extending the program all over the country, possibly linking up with international carbon markets. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia about his recent visit to China, and Harvard Environmental Economic Professor Robert Stavins about what this means for America’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. (10:30)

LOE Lookback - It’s All Happening at the Zoo

View the page for this story

We kick up some dust and bring back zoologist Donna Fernandes to Living on Earth. In our show’s early days, she was a regular guest when she worked at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo and entertained us with her talks on animal behavior. Now head of the Buffalo Zoo, Fernandes speaks with LOE’s Steve Curwood about promiscuous female flies, lesbian seagulls, transvestite fish, and creative animal sexual strategies. (10:10)

Science Note: Early Birds / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

View the page for this story

Scientists have found that artificial night lights cause most male songbirds to sing early in the morning and that helps them attract more females. Jessica Ilyse Smith reports why early morning bird trysts may not always be ideal. (01:30)

Sustainable City Gardening / Bobby Bascomb

View the page for this story

It’s springtime, and gardeners everywhere are getting ready to get down and dirty in their gardens. Patti Moreno has her own urban oasis in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. The self-described Garden Girl plants all kinds of herbs, fruits and vegetables in 450 square feet of raised beds in her backyard. Moreno not only grows enough food to feed her family; she also runs a farm stand each summer from her front stoop. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb visited Garden Girl Patti Moreno to see what she’s planning on planting. (05:00)

The Indonesia Mega Rice Disaster / Ingrid Lobet

View the page for this story

Indonesia is a huge carbon polluter. That’s largely because of massive destruction of the carbon-rich peatlands underlying its tropical forests. Now some are trying to stop carbon emissions from that damaged land, and give local people a leg up at the same time. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports. (18:00)

Earth Ear: Maple Sugaring

View the page for this story

Maple sugar season is over. Mark Seth Lender recorded the last batch of boiling sap at Moore’s Sugar Shack in Westbrook, CT. Sweet! (00:50)

**New** Big Floods, Big Explosion Along Mississippi River / Paul Greenberg

View the page for this story

The record floods and the levee breach designed to protect a town have “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg thinking we might want to reconsider our engineering of the mighty Mississippi. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman

GUESTS: Johnny Isakson, Robert Stavins, Donna Fernandes, Patti Moreno

REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Bobby Bascomb, Ingrid Lobet, Mark Seth Lender


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up - two years ago, the U.S. Senate said 'no' to cap-and-trade. Now, China says 'yes'.

STAVINS: Part of it is that China may realize this current century is the Chinese century, and it's very important to them to be responsible citizens of the world, to take on that role - and I think they see as one part of that being a good actor in terms of the environment.

GELLERMAN: But we talk to a republican Senator just back from China who sees things a lot differently. Also in Borneo, there’s an international effort underway to restore land ruined by a failed rice-growing scheme.

MAWDSLEY: I think this will probably be the world’s largest effort to rehabilitate a degraded peatland and lowland area that’s ever been attempted - so it is big.

GELLERMAN: Turning a fiasco in the field into a model for restoration - these stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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

Back to top


China Adopts Cap-and-Trade to Curb Emissions

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Confucius always seemed to have an appropriate comment for any situation - here's one we can all take to heart: "He who will not economize will have to agonize.”

Well it's doubtful that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had Confucius in mind when he recently visited China, but maybe he should have. The Nevada Democrat and nine of his Senate colleagues were in China for a weeklong official trip. There they met with government officials and toured clean energy companies. Reid returned to the US impressed with what he saw.

REID: China isn't investing heavily in clean energy because it's good for the environment - it's doing it because it's good for their economy. They're actually doing a lot more in many respects than we are and that's an understatement.

GELLERMAN: Actually, China outspends the United States two to one on clean energy research and development. But Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican from Georgia, - who also made the journey with Reid to China - has a different take.

ISAKSON: Well looking back on the trip, it was my first time on the mainland of China so it was an education on many, many levels. But the most remarkable thing of the trip was the difference in the air quality in China versus the United States. It was like night and day, and theirs is awfully polluted and awfully dirty so they have a huge challenge.

GELLERMAN: To meet that environmental challenge and make their economy more efficient, China has just announced a cap-and-trade program. The cap puts a limit on how much energy a Chinese company can use but also provides firms with an economic incentive to use clean energy alternatives.

If a company produces more goods using less energy, they can trade the savings on the open market. China plans to phase in its cap-and-trade program. Two years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a cap-and-trade bill known as Waxman-Markey, but the measure died in the Senate. Leading the opposition was Senator Johnny Isakson.

Senator Johnny Isakson Republican from Georgia just returned from China. (Photo: Johnny Isakson)

ISAKSON: I think the cap-and-trade regimen is not the way to go. I think quite frankly, cap-and-trade just penalizes people for past decisions that they made. Give you a good example - Florida has a lot more nuclear production than Georgia does, so Florida would be selling us credits to offset our coal production. It would financially raise the cost of utilities in Georgia, lower them in Florida - all because of past decisions. I think if you’re going to make a decision on a reduction of anything or an increase in anything, that you do it prospectively, not by penalizing people retrospectively.

GELLERMAN: So you think cap-and-trade actually would put the United States at a competitive disadvantage?

ISAKSON: I think it would unfairly raise prices on people that have made decisions in the past that were perfectly consistent with U.S. policy. I think what you ought to do is establish future goals, not penalize people for the past.

GELLERMAN: So now you have China, which is now the world’s largest polluter of greenhouse gases and perhaps soon to be the number one economy in the world by about 2016 it’s predicted, and they’re committing themselves to a cap-and-trade program.

ISAKSON: Well they’re committing themselves in six provinces to an experimental program.

GELLERMAN: And they’re saying that if that works out by 2015, it will be nationwide.

ISAKSON: Well that’s fine. That’s what experiments are all about - to find out if they’ll work. And that’s the way they decide to do it - that’s certainly within their right.

GELLERMAN: But using, you know, your criticism of cap-and-trade, wouldn’t that put them at a competitive disadvantage with countries that don’t have it - like the United States?

ISAKSON: The Chinese have a huge problem with their atmosphere and pollution, far greater than the one that we have because we’ve been addressing ours for the last 25 or 30 years. And the decisions that they make in that controlled environment of their economy is going to be up to the people of China - I just don’t think it’s in the best interest for the United States.

GELLERMAN: So do you think what they’re doing in terms of cap-and-trade is for environmental reasons or economic reasons?

ISAKSON: Well I would hope it’s for environmental reasons because the environment is terrible, but I’m sure in part it has some economic reasons to it. But the one facility that we visited that was a solar facility - 95 percent of their sales were not in China, they were to the United States because we have a mature policy on renewable energy and a tax policy that incentivizes renewable energy. China is going to have to develop some targets of its own to do that.

GELLERMAN: Well one would ask the question then - why are we buying it from them? Why don’t we just make it here?

ISAKSON: Well we can make it here and we should make it here. Although, you know, I’m not the small-world type of a guy - I mean, some people are but I believe that Tom Friedman’s book “The Earth is Flat” is really true and that we are now a connected economy around the world and production in the United States selling to China is equally as good as production in China selling to the United States, as long as we’re competitive.

GELLERMAN: Well Senator Johnny Isakson, thank you so very much.

ISAKSON: Thank you very much and have a great day!

GELLERMAN: Senator Johnny Isakson is a Republican from Georgia. Harvard professor Robert Stavins also met with Chinese officials - they came to his office at Harvard University where Stavins is Director of the Environmental Economics Program. Professor Stavins says besides the economic and environmental benefits, China may have another motivation for instituting a cap-and-trade program.

STAVINS: Part of it is that China may realize this current century is the Chinese century, and it's very important to them to be responsible citizens of the world, to take on that role - and I think they see as one part of that being a good actor in terms of the environment.

GELLERMAN: So Professor, China is going to start a cap-and-trade program, but two years ago, the House approved one and then last year the Senate defeated it - so we don’t have a cap-and-trade program.

Harvard Professor Robert Stavins. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)

STAVINS: Well there’s a remarkable irony. The home of cap-and-trade is certainly the United States. We’ve used it to get the lead out of gasoline, we used it to cut acid rain by 50 percent; but we’ve decided, at least the Congress has decided, not to go ahead. And, ironically, the European Union is going forward with its emissions trading scheme and now a set of other countries - China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand - are moving forward with cap-and-trade to address climate change.

And what it does is achieves the overall target - the cap - in the lowest cost possible ways because it provides incentives through the market for those who can cut back at relatively low cost to take on an added share of the burdens.

GELLERMAN: That’s basically the trade: if they lower their emissions, they can trade that amount and sell them on the open market.

STAVINS: That’s precisely correct.

GELLERMAN: Now the Chinese method for doing cap-and-trade is not exactly the way we would have done it here - they measure their energy in intensity.

STAVINS: That’s right. The Chinese pledge, in terms of their goal, focuses on what we usually refer to as emissions intensity, or even energy intensity. That is, think of it as emissions per unit of gross domestic product, per unit of economic activity - not emissions per say. So we have to be careful when we think about this because remember, China is a country that’s been growing at an average annual rate over recent decades of eight percent. And so when you see their emissions intensity decrease - nevertheless, given their rate of economic growth, we anticipate that emissions in gross terms would still be increasing.

GELLERMAN: A few years ago - their last five-year plan - they failed to meet their goals and they took very dramatic action. They’re very serious about this.

STAVINS: Well they are very serious. What China has done, remember, is in some cases actually just shut down plant and equipment to virtually close companies. And they can do that under their political system - that’s not an approach that either we can take, or, clearly in the West or in the United States, that we ought to take.

GELLERMAN: California is scheduled to institute a very ambitious cap-and-trade program next January.

STAVINS: That’s right. It’s a significant program. The cap-and-trade system itself for carbon dioxide would cut emissions by 2020 back to their 1990 level, so it’s very ambitious. It’s more ambitious than, for example, the Waxman-Markey legislation that passed the House of Representatives.

GELLERMAN: If California can pull this off, they could then become international traders in their emission credits - because there are provinces in Canada that would want to trade with them.

STAVINS: Well that’s right. The Western Climate Initiative, which was earliest on thought of as the major Western states, has evolved into now being, really, California, plus a number of Canadian provinces. And Ontario plus California together account for more than 50 percent of the emissions from the Canadian provinces that border the U.S. plus all of the Western states.

So it’s a very significant program indeed. They’re going to be engaged in trading among themselves. And with that - and with the failure of Washington, obviously, to take action with an economy-wide cap-and-trade system - we may see the movement of the North American Climate Initiative, if you will, from Washington to Sacramento.

GELLERMAN: So can California and Canada link up with the market in China?

STAVINS: Oh, absolutely. California has already been engaged in talks with the European Union - that’s been going on for two to three years that I’ve been going out to Sacramento and been involved in this. So there’s interest there, and there will certainly be interest when and if the Chinese systems are really up and running.

All that has to happen for any of these markets to link up with one another is for the government in a particular market to say to the firms that comply with its cap-and- trade system that in addition to using the allowances you got from our government, you can use the allowances that are generated by some other government. That then links markets together.

GELLERMAN: So you could have U.S. companies getting emissions credits, selling them in China, and lowering the emissions here through a cap-and-trade system that’s actually in China.

STAVINS: Well that’s correct. And actually, if I had to guess right now, Bruce, of what the future international policy architecture is going to be - what’s going to be, in other words, the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which, as you know, sunsets at the end of 2012 - I would say that the de facto future is probably going to be linkage of national, sub-national, and then regional. The case of Europe - cap-and-trade systems with one another.

GELERMAN: Well, Professor Stavins, thanks so much.

STAVINS: My pleasure!

GELLERMAN: Robert Stavins is Director of Harvard's Environmental Economics Program.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “Piano Improvisation #3” from Piano In The Foreground (Legacy Records 2004).]

GELLERMAN: Here at Living on Earth, we're always interested in what you have to say about our program - comments, corrections, kudos, and criticisms are welcome. To send them our way, you can email us: the address is comments@loe.org. That’s ‘comments at L-O-E dot O-R-G.’ Or give us an ear-full: our listener line number is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9-9-8-8. And don't forget - there's always Facebook. Our page is PRI's Living on Earth.


GELERMAN: Just ahead - the secret sex lives of the natural world laid bare.

FERNANDES: There's lots of species that start as one gender and switch to the other at some point in their life. Like shrimp switch from males to females. Coral reef fish - some go from males to females, other go from females to males. I studied terrestrial slugs, and they start out males and then become females later in the season.

GELLERMAN: Everything - and I mean everything - is happening at the zoo. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUT AWAY MUSIC: Happy Birthday - Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington: Duke Ellington: “Blues For Jerry” from Piano in the Foreground (Legacy Records 2004).]

LOE Lookback - It’s All Happening at the Zoo

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This month, we’ve been digging through the Living on Earth archives and updating some of the stories from our early days. Steve Curwood founded our program 20 years ago, and he joins me now. Steve, what do you got for us this week?
CURWOOD: Well, you know, Bruce, we sorted through loads of recording tape and it brought back memories of not only the serious stories, but when we also had some fun. You may remember back then we had some regular guests, and one of our favorites worked at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Her name: Donna Fernandes.


FERNANDES: These are alligators. It’s a rather romantic call, loud and robust. But until I had done this program, I really was not aware of the fact that there are mating calls in alligators.

CURWOOD: Donna Fernandes is a zoologist, and now she’s head of the Buffalo Zoo. And one of her favorite things, back when she was a regular on our program, was to introduce people to animal behavior through educational programs. And so we thought we’d bring her back again, and she joins us from the studios of WNED in Buffalo. Hi there, Donna!

FERNANDES: Hi, it’s wonderful to be back on your program again!

CURWOOD: And nice to hear the sound of that alligator - the love call of a male alligator. Sounds like a Harley Davidson!


Chinchillas can make good pets but be prepared – they need a lot of attention and a big cage for a daily dust bath to rid their coats of insects. (Photo: Eric Lee)

FERNANDES: Yeah, it really does. And apparently, if you hear it in your neighborhood, it’s quite something. I’ve often played that at talks that I give and most people don’t recognize it, unless you’re from Florida and then people will always raise their hands and say, ‘I know what that is!’ because it’s very loud and very distinct.

CURWOOD: And we had you on the show to talk about all kinds of things in the animal world. I remember, for the Father’s Day show, you talked about deadbeat animal dads. And in the cold of winter, you illustrated how animals survive the frigid weather. And you also gave advice on animals you see in the zoo that some people keep at home as pets. Let’s take a listen now to what you said about chinchillas:

FERNANDES: These are chinchillas. If you want to give a lot of attention to a chinchilla, they’ll do okay as a pet. They’re very shy so you can’t just sort of jump in there and expect them to respond to you. You have to really get them used to you and handle them very gently. And they have certain requirements: they have to have a dust bath every day so you have to provide a cage large enough to incorporate several features into their home.

Donna Fernandes works with creatures great and small. (Photo: Eric Lee)

CURWOOD: A dust bath?

FERNANDES: Yeah, they sort of clean themselves, kicking up this gray dust. It’s what they do sort of with soil in nature and they really need to do that.

CURWOOD: So that was back then. How do you feel about that advice now?

FERNANDES: It still pertains. When we do programs with our chinchillas, we often demonstrate the dust bath, and we put the chinchilla in and you’ll see it basically kicking up the dust and using that to rid insects that might be on the coat.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s listen to some other advice you had for people who keep iguanas.

FERNANDES: Interesting problems you have to solve if you get an iguana. Their diet changes. When they’re young, they eat insects. And then as they get older, they switch to fruits and vegetables. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that and their iguanas die during that growth period when they switch over from their diet.

They need very specific lighting requirements: full-spectrum lighting in order to synthesize several vitamins that they need. And also, with an iguana, you should very much think about their ultimate size. I wish pet stores would include a fully grown adult specimen in their exhibitory because I think if people saw a five foot iguana, they would think twice about getting an eight inch baby iguana.

CURWOOD: Now, Donna, do you mean five foot with the tail?

FERNANDES: Yeah, that’s about a good, decent size, yeah - five foot long including the tail, yeah.

CURWOOD: And how long does it take for an iguana to get to be that size?

FERNANDES: Several years. So a lot of times, we’ll get calls when an animal is about four or five years - is about when the owner would want to place it somewhere else. But you do find some pet owners that are pretty dedicated and they’ll sometimes devote an entire room of their house to their iguana, you know, place. And they’ll have a really nice propping of trees for them to climb, and a water source, and they really make a little tropical habitat in their own home for a full-size iguana.

CURWOOD: Yeah, a bedroom and, of course, your own bathroom - I mean, that fills up the bathtub!

FERNANDES: It could.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). So one of the biggest responses we’ve ever had on our show at Living on Earth was your…well, your Sex at the Zoo talk. And let’s take a listen now to an excerpt from the archives where you describe how a male hanging fly woos a female one:

FERNANDES: There’s sometimes courtship feeding, where males have to prove their worthiness by offering her some sort of dead insect if she’s a hanging fly. And so females will copulate only if they get an insect prize, and the duration of copulation is related to the size of the prey - so that if you give her a really big insect, she’ll let you copulate with you for 25 minutes; if you give her a small little midge, you’ll only get on her for five minutes.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). Now, Donna Fernandes, that was back then - you were giving the Sex at the Zoo talk. And I understand you’re still doing the Sex at the Zoo programs, and I do remember you once saying that anything you see in human sexual behavior, you can see in the animal kingdom - and often in spades!

FERNANDES: Right, I actually have three different topics I do on animal courtship and mating. The first one is the one you originally saw back in Boston. But since then, I’ve developed one that’s all about, sort of, promiscuity and infidelity. And it really focuses on why females would want to have multiple sex partners - because people often understand that males could get more females pregnant if they had lots of opportunities, where a female mating with multiple males can’t generally increase the number of her pregnancies. But there are some advantages for sleeping around. So I talk about that, and then -

CURWOOD: Whoa, okay, well wait a second - so what are these advantages for the females to sleep around?

FERNANDES: Well sometimes they want to confuse males as to paternity, because they can get protection from multiple males if they all think that they’re the father of the child. They can get resources, food, from multiple males if they all think that, potentially, they may be the father.

Sometimes, just like that hanging fly we talked about, if you mate multiple times, each time you mate you’re going to get a little nuptial gift or a piece of food for the privilege of mating with you. So I have, sort of, my top ten reasons to sleep around for females.

CURWOOD: And what species are you talking about?

FERNANDES: Oh, it’s a variety of things. We’ll see it in a lot of primates, lions, a lot of insects - birds will often sneak copulations with their next door neighbor when their own male is off getting more nesting material. If there’s a particularly handsome next door neighbor that might be a little bit more attractive than their own male, they’ll want to have those genes for their son - but maybe that male already has a mate, so they want to sort of get their mate to take care of their own offspring but sneak fatherhood with the next door neighbor so they will have more handsome sons.

CURWOOD: And what about homosexuality?

FERNANDES: That’s my third topic that I cover - it’s homosexuality, transvestism, and sex change. Those really are very un-related topics in the animal world, but they sort of run together in sort of being alternative reproductive strategies. And I was asked about that for my very first talk - was there homosexual behavior in animals - and I was surprised when I started researching it, but it’s very, very common in both males and females as a strategy.

A really good example is in gulls in California. If there’s a shortage of males, two females will pair up - and it’s called lesbian gulls - and they’ll both build a nest together. They’ll seek copulations with neighboring males to get sperm, but they’ll both lay eggs in the nest, they’ll take turns incubating the eggs, and they’ll both feed the eggs. So it’s the only opportunity to have reproductive success if there aren’t enough males to go around.

So there’s lots of situations like that. Male-male homosexual behavior is sometimes practicing courtship, where a young male will solicit courtship from another male to learn the courtship song appropriately or to learn appropriate behaviors from an older, more experienced male.

CURWOOD: And what species is that?

FERNANDES: You’ll find that in different beetles and roaches and things - and fruit flies as well - where they’ll do that. So there’s quite a number of species that exhibit same-sex sexual behavior. And then transvestism is really an alternative word for female mimicry, where you’ll have males that will sneak into the territory of other males by posing as females.

Donna Fernandes is CEO and President of the Buffalo Zoo. (Photo: Eric Lee)

So they’ll adopt the body coloration or behavior of a male, like the swim behavior. And so they’ll sneak in, pretending: ‘I’m a female, I’m a female, don’t kick me out of your territory.’ And so the males will let them in, and then when a real female comes in, these sneak females, which are really males in disguise, will try to copulate with those females. So it’s sort of a sneak strategy.

CURWOOD: And what species is that?

FERNANDES: You’ll see that in certain fish where you’ll have that strategy. In bluegill sunfish, that will often happen where you’ll have that sneak strategy. And then - sex change was my PhD. So there's lots of species that start as one gender and switch to the other at some point in their life. Like shrimp switch from males to females. Coral reef fish - some go from males to females, other go from females to males. I studied terrestrial slugs, and they start out males and then become females later in the season.

CURWOOD: So I suppose this is a political question, Donna Fernandes, but there are all these folks who are worried about family values. What you’re telling me in the animal world - anything goes!

FERNANDES: Right. You’ll basically see every kind of strategy out there. If it’s going to help you perpetuate your genes, it works for you. And so you’ll see a lot of strategies throughout the animal kingdom for reproduction because there’s so much competition that if you can come up with some unique way to gain more mates or more reproduction than your fellows in the gene pool, that particular gene is going to perpetuate.

CURWOOD: Donna Fernandes heads the Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York. Thanks so much for coming back again to Living on Earth!

FERNANDES: You’re quite welcome!

GELLERMAN: Donna Fernandes talking with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.

Related links:
- LOE Archive Father Knows Best? A Look at Animal Dads.
- LOE Archive Exotic Pets, Purchase with Care.
- LOE Archive how animals winter.
- LOE Archive Sex at the Zoo.

Back to top

[MUSIC: U2 “Zoo Station” from Auctung Baby (Island Records 1981).]

Science Note: Early Birds

GELLERMAN: Coming up - a city slicker with a green thumb. But first this note on emerging science from Jessica Ilyse Smith.


SMITH: Scientists have shed light on the love life of the early bird. Not only does it get the worm, but if it’s a male songbird that lives under a streetlight, it can attract more females.

To examine the link between artificial light and the breeding behavior of songbirds, researchers in Germany listened to five species sing. When streetlights were on at night, four out of five male birds began to sing a lot earlier, and they found mates a lot more easily. For example, male Blue Tits, or chickadees, who lurked under the lights, were twice as likely to attract females.

Early singing male Blue Tit birds attract more mates. (Photo: Tim Parker)

Scientists believe the male’s early morning serenade acts as a signal to females, indicating that they are strong and virile mates. But while artificial light may increase the male birds’ chance for romance, it can also deceive the females into thinking the early birds are genetically good partners when actually, they’re not. This could lead to less vigorous chicks and problems for the species.

Scientists also suggest another downside to these well-lit early morning trysts. The birds may be tired from their nocturnal workouts and vulnerable to predation. So from a bird’s eye view, nighttime might be the right time for mating - but it’s better in the dark. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jessica Ilyse Smith.


Related link:
Read the scientific article in Current Biology.

Back to top


Sustainable City Gardening

GELLERMAN: Hopes spring eternal this time of year for gardeners sowing seeds and seasonal dreams - but it's not just rural folk who have the fun.


GELLERMAN: Far from the maddening calm of the country, in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, you’ll find an inner city oasis. On 450 square feet of raised beds behind her home, Patti Moreno plants a hopeful horn of plenty. Moreno calls herself "Garden Girl" and produces how-to videos about growing food in small urban spaces. She’s as city as you can get.


MORENO: I was born in Queens, raised in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, Lower Eastside, and a little bit of Brooklyn too. Growing up in a city, I had no idea what a garden was.

(Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

GELLERMAN: But Moreno learned after she transplanted to Boston. Now she grows so much food on the one-thousandth of an acre she cultivates that she sells the surplus produce from her front stoop.


GELLERMAN: Living On Earth’s Bobby Bascomb caught up with Patti Moreno as the Garden Girl was arranging rocks around her goldfish pond.

MORENO: Spring is awesome. It’s perfect climate, I think, to be outside. You know, you haven’t really messed anything up yet, in terms of your growing season yet - it’s just a very hopeful time.

BASCOMB: Patti Moreno is petite with thick curly back hair and contagious enthusiasm. She points to little green spikes, poking through last year’s dead leaves.


MORENO: This is literally wild onion. I don’t know how it got here - I never planted onion here. You know, I can eat it raw. I love eating raw foods. Let me show…let me pull some up.


MORENO: I won’t eat all of it. I’ll let most of it go back to seed so that I can keep getting it every single year, and there’s only so much edible onion that you can eat…(Laughs).

BASCOMB: Across the garden, Patti pokes hopefully under dry leaves. She’s looking for the asparagus she planted last spring, but there’s no sign of the little green shoots.

Patti grows three different varieties of cotton under grow lamps on her sun porch. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)


MORENO: Uh oh, wonder what happened. I don’t know if maybe the crowns are not deep enough or something. We’ll see…all hope is not lost yet. I’m going to monitor my plantings from last year before I call any of them sort of duds or anything.

BASCOMB: Along the side of her house is her container garden. In large clay pots, she grows everything from pears and peaches to olives and kumquats.

MORENO: Out here in the container garden, you can basically plant anything that you would plant in the ground in a container - you just have to treat certain things differently, so like fruit trees for example. Pay special attention to fertilizing your plants when you’re going to do those bigger plantings that should be really in the ground.

BASCOMB: She buys fruit tree saplings, but most of her garden gets its start right here inside her home.

MORENO: We are going to the sun porch, where I have all of my seedlings started that I’m going to bring outside.


Patti’s “seed starting factory” on her sun porch. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Wow, this is impressive Patti!

MORENO: So this is my little seed-starting factory.

BASCOMB: Tall wooden shelves line the walls and windows of her sun porch. Beneath long, rectangular grow lamps are countless round disks with little seedlings popping out of them.

MORENO: My new go-to growing medium, if you will, is cocoa fibers, which is made out of the shell of a coconut. They put them in these little pellet-sized, sort of, round disks. Add water, and then whatever seeds you want to start - you want to put two or three seeds right in the middle of these little pellets. Really, you just want to keep it in a sunny spot that’s warm. And Mother Nature is Mother Nature, and when it’s the right time and temperature for it to start germinating, it will. And then pop it in the ground!

BASCOMB: On Patti’s sun porch are familiar backyard vegetables - tomato, zucchini, and lettuce. But she’s more adventurous than most gardeners.

MORENO: I have just every herb imaginable - echinacea, lemon balm, feverfew, hyssop blue, mint, chives, parsley, sage, thyme, tons of eggplant, and pepper, and golden midget watermelon…Loofah! I’m growing loofah for the first time this year. You know the loofah sponge? It’s a gourd.

Patti Moreno starts watermelon seedling in her house and will eventually transplant them into her raised beds. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

And these were seeds that I got from Seed Savers Exchange, which is like a seed-saving company that’s into heritage or heirloom seeds. It’s nice to be able to put your time and effort, I think, into something that you can’t just go and buy at the corner store. These sort of smaller, more unique varieties - you can’t get!

BASCOMB: Even though she’s already growing so much, she still plans to hit the garden center. There’s always some new plant to experiment with.

MORENO: This year I’m just like: if I want to grow it, I’m going to do it. I’m taking advantage, I don’t care - I’ll build another raised bed or move a bed or, I don’t know, do something. And then, maybe someday, I’ll get a greenhouse (Laughs). Someday I’ll get a greenhouse and I’ll be able to just grow all year and the seasons won’t matter anymore (Laughs). I can have whatever I want, whenever I want.

BASCOMB: Patti Moreno sent me home with some seedlings. I’ll be out in my yard this weekend to plant them.


BASCOMB: For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Watch Patti’s Video on How to Start Seeds With Toilet Paper Rolls

Related link:
Patti Moreno’s Website

Back to top

[MUSIC: Yomo Toro – Roswell Rudd: Mayor G from El Espiritu Jibaro (Sunnyside Records 2007).]

GELERMAN: Coming up - turning a field of carbon destruction into a climate change demonstration project. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Duke Ellington: “Perdido” from Studio Sessions 1957 & 1962 Vol. 7 (Saja/Atlantic Records 1989).]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

The Indonesia Mega Rice Disaster

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Only the United States and China generate more of the climate-disturbing gas. But unlike these industrial giants, in Indonesia, millions live without electricity. Most of the carbon the nation emits comes from natural sources and an ill-conceived government scheme. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet traveled to Borneo - or Kalimantan, as Indonesians call it - and has this report on survivors of the failed scheme and hopes for a solution.


LOBET: “Peat swamp forest” - it’s an uncommon landscape.


LOBET: For millennia, 100 inches of rain a year soaked the soil here - so much rain that it ran into rivers then submerged the forest floor itself. Underwater, choked off from air, fallen plant material compacted into peat.

SUWIDO (via Indonesian Translator): Peat is a type of soil. It’s made up of plants and it forms over millions of years submerged in water.

LOBET: That’s Pak Suwido Limin, one of a handful of experts in tropical peat.


LOBET: With his boot, Pak Suwido digs at the peat soil. Up close, it’s packed with whole twigs and roots, not decomposed at all.

SUWIDO (Translator): You can see - these are roots, this is wood - you can see what it is made of. You can see the decomposition is not complete - this is still wood.

LOBET: All this intact plant material means this soil holds a wealth of carbon. Left a few more million years, it might become coal. Peat soils are the largest terrestrial carbon source on the planet.

SUWIDO (Translator): The amount of carbon in tropical peatlands is very high, about 50 percent. So yes, this is a carbon treasure trove, especially in Borneo here - some of the peat is 50 feet thick.

LOBET: Indonesia is especially blessed with these carbon riches. The country has more tropical peatland than anywhere else on Earth. But even though it’s been raining here, there’s something strange. In places, the land is smoking, smoldering.

SUWIDO (Translator): When it’s drained out and dried, since it’s full of wood and fiber, it burns just like paper. If we want to prevent this from burning, we have to keep it wet.


LOBET: But this land hasn’t been kept wet. In the 1990s, Indonesia’s President Suharto cast his gaze on Borneo’s thick peat forests. What he saw was unproductive land. He wanted to create millions more rice paddies, enough rice for all Indonesians. The cultural center of his country, Java, had no more land. Borneo seemed empty.


LOBET: So the forest in Central Borneo was cut. And officials traveled to crowded, rural Java, armed with attractive offers. Rice farmers like Sania and Sumarno remember what those government visitors said.

SANIA (Translator): There was someone coming to our village and then asked for people who want to do the transmigration program. They said that we will get some houses, lands - and we would be supported for some months.

SUMARNO (Translator): They said if you are willing to be a transmigrant, then you can have a big piece of land in Central Kalimantan. In Java, our land was tiny.

LOBET: The Indonesian government has moved people ever since the Dutch were in charge. But this migration plan, named the Mega Rice Project, was much bigger. It involved two and a half million acres of land. Yet almost as soon as the trees were cleared and the settlers arrived in this bleak landscape, it was clear the government had spectacularly miscalculated. Land, and people, would pay the price.

SUMARNO (Translator): The water was so acid that when you use it to shower, it hurt your eyes. It made them sting - you had to add limestone to it.

LOBET: To make the swampland workable, the government excavated huge ditches, 50 feet across, to drain water. But when the cutaway soil was exposed to air, minerals such as pyrite oxidized, creating sulfuric acid - too harsh for growing rice, or for much else, Sania says.

SANIA (Translator): The water is so acid. It’s not good for washing, for drinking, and for daily needs. The government supported us with three wells to run the village but it’s far away.

LOBET: Besides the lack of fresh water, the new migrants were soon caught in an epic storm. The Asian financial crisis slammed Indonesia, drying up the government’s ability to provide electricity or fertilizer to the migrants.

At the same time, a powerful El Niño event in 1997 made for record drought that helped send the farmers’ fires out of control. Fire is the cheapest way to clear brush here. Sixteen million acres burned. Shafu Law is another transmigrant.

LAW (Translator): I had hopes for my family, but then came the dry season and the fires. I lost five acres of rubber trees. I planted the rubber trees because the water was too acidic to grow paddy rice. The problem is, this area is natural peatland and the project was improperly planned.

LOBET: Those 1997 fires spread far beyond Borneo. A quarter of a million people across Southeast Asia sought help at hospitals for respiratory problems. Planes were grounded. The fires released megaton clouds of soot and carbon dioxide equal to six or seven percent of global emissions for that year.


LOBET: Now, in these migrant villages, out-of-control fire is routine. In a place that was once a dripping forest, these kids have known smoke every year of their lives.


LOBET: The consequences of the Mega Rice Project reach deep within lands claimed by Borneo’s original Dayak people. For three thousand years, Dayak villages had lined the blackwater rivers here. People trapped fish in forest ponds, tapped rubber from latex trees.

OBE (Translator): Before the Dutch colonists, before the Japanese in World War II, we lived here. We got our furniture, our houses, our fish, our mushrooms, everything from the forest.

LOBET: Diwi Obe Tabat and his nephew Eddy Sunoto are Dayak farmers and community leaders in the village of Kalawa, not far from the rice project. The Kalawans have managed to preserve a 25,000-acre ancestral forest nearby, in the face of repeated pressures.

SUNOTO (Translator): When outsiders came with logging, we rejected logging. We found an illegal sawmill, and we destroyed it. We rejected a palm plantation. We believe the forest is worth more than a one-time harvest.

LOBET: How they’ve been able to keep a forest standing amid so much bare land, they say, is with help.

SUNOTO (Translator): We are the only ones who have untouched forest left - and untouched animals. The forests are actually our ancestors. They are protected by a force, by djinns - the spirit of the headwaters of the Kahayan River.

One time, four people came here to do a logging job. They saw a vision of a man with a beard down to here. He told these four people to go away, and they fled.


LOBET: But though they’ve managed to protect their forest, the Kalawans have not been able to protect their rice fields and precious rubber trees. With the water-absorbing rhythm of the swamp forest broken, fire and flood reach here too. One casualty, says Diwi Obe Tabat, is their self-reliance.

OBE (Translator): Until 1996, we in Kalawa here have actually never been to a market to buy rice. We only started buying rice in 1997 after the big fire. The land wouldn’t retain water anymore, so when it rained, the water came down and flooded us and all our paddies would die. That was caused by the Mega Rice Project.


LOBET: There were people who warned the Indonesian government, back in the 1990s, not to go forward with the Mega Rice Project. One was the peat soil scientist we met earlier, Pak Suwido Limin.


LOBET: On the side porch of his tall handbuilt house, a Hill Mynah bird calls to him “Bapa Rio” - that’s “father of Rio” in Dayak.

BIRD: Bapa Rio!

SUWIDO (Translator): I told them that if they lowered the water in the peat forest by digging canals, it would ruin the ecosystem. The wetlands would become dry lands, and the dry lands would become wetlands. Everything would become one washed-out monotone.


LOBET: Now researchers like Pak Suwido have to figure out how to address the problems wrought by the Mega Rice fiasco. His home is a haven for international researchers concerned about carbon emissions from the peat. With help from European donors, Pak Suwido trains and pays local Dayak firefighting crews. In addition to the giant canals excavated for the rice project, there are also hundreds of smaller ones hacked into the peat with chainsaws by illegal loggers to float their logs out. Suwido pays local people to build dams across these small trenches too.


LOBET: Traveling in this landscape is really challenging, so researchers revived a tiny old timber company rail line.


LOBET: In the wet season, the little rails sit above the water. This is how firefighters and scientists get in to their forest research station.


LOBET: The first thing you see when you climb off the train is a photo display: orangutan, bearded pig, long-tailed macaque, Sumatran pit viper, clouded leopard - just a few of the animals spotted in the forest here. A narrow board, no more than five inches wide, leads into the forest. So one foot in front of the other, Mohammed Idrus and Agung Restu Susanto, two of Pak Suwido’s associates, lead visitors half a mile in to see how they’re actually trying to reflood the forest.

SUSANTO (Translator): Mr. Suwido has his own method of creating dams. First he uses wood posts and then he fills up the space in between them with white rice sacks filled with peat soil.

IDRUS (Translator): We’re actually expecting that when the water comes through, the old dried leaves will all pile up here and decompose, and this small canal will be permanently shut.

LOBET: Idrus and Agung, and the rest of Pak Suwido’s team associated with the University of Palangkaraya, have now built nearly 400 small dams on ten canals. There are hundreds of miles of canal to block here. So this is only a start. But Idrus says, it is a start.

IDRUS (Translator): I’m very happy to take care of the forest and consider it my home. And I don’t want anyone ruining it. Maybe if we grew the forest back it would be like back in the day when there were many fish.

LOBET: “Maybe if we grew back the forest…” When you see the exposed ground, smoldering even after a rain, that sounds like a pipe dream. Yet such a dream is taking hold in the regional centers of power here.


LOBET: In the night market in the regional capital of Palangka Raya, vendors hawk roasted peanuts, Dayak pride T-shirts, even a ride on a foot-powered carousel. And plans are taking shape here for how a massive restoration might be undertaken. Nick Mawdsley has a background in biology and forestry. He and 40 experts in fields from hydrology to microlending drafted a master plan in 2008. Based on that, Mawdsley estimates that 700 million dollars would be enough to block up many of the canals, reflood land, and fight fire.

MAWDSLEY: And if we can stop there being that level of fire, it means that people’s rubber plantations won’t get burnt. We will probably see the forest regenerating, and so maybe in five to ten years, we’ll begin to see something that looks more like a forest in these sort of really deep peat areas.

LOBET: Just a few months after that master plan was finished, the Indonesian government pledged to cut more than a quarter of its carbon emissions from land. Then last year, Norway committed one billion dollars to help Indonesia reduce carbon emissions. No one is sure how much carbon is being released from the destroyed peat forest, but everyone agrees the amount is so large that it’s globally important.

MAWDSLEY: So if we want to try and reduce emissions, and we want to do this quite quickly, then actually these peatlands here are actually a pretty good place to start. I think this will probably be the world’s largest effort to rehabilitate a degraded peatland and lowland area that’s ever been attempted. So it is big. A lot can be achieved - within five to ten years, we can get major changes with the right investments coming in here.

LOBET: And now it looks like the right investments are coming in. In January, this province was chosen as the first target for Norway’s restoration money. Just about everyone here stresses this must be a locally driven effort that addresses the day-to-day needs of local people. Scientist Pak Suwido warns foreign donors and NGOs ought not do what they’ve done before: ignore the expertise of Indonesians who’ve watched the whole Mega Rice scheme boom, bust, and burn.

SUWIDO (Translator): The idea of development should be to empower the locals. People come in with all their big money, but if they don’t involve the local people, that is not development.

LOBET: Perhaps done right, Indonesia could turn the scene of a massive misjudgment into a setting for the development it was seeking all along, with the planet as beneficiary. In the meantime, Central Kalimantan is here, stripped and burned, gushing carbon into the sky. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.


Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet narrates a video about peat soil in Borneo.

Related links:
- The only comprehensive plan ever made for addressing Indonesia’s Mega Rice disaster
- Few tour companies can get you into the Mega Rice area, but this one can.
- Article featuring the work of Pak Suwido Limin
- Scientists working to protect Central Kalimantan peatland as orangutan habitat

Back to top

GELLERMAN: Our Indonesian story was produced with help from Kalimantan Tours, Aini Abdul, Mia Malik, and Helen Morrough-Bernard.

[MUSIC (Karaoke’d): Rhianna “Umbrella” from Good Girl Gone Bad.]

Earth Ear: Maple Sugaring


GELLERMAN: The longest maple sap run in Connecticut in recent years has just come to an end for Jacob Moore. He's ‘sugar-master’ at Moore’s Sugar Shack in Westbrook.


GELLERMAN: Producer Mark Seth Lender captured the sounds of the very last batch of boiling sap sugaring down into the thick, dark, sweet stuff. And he found out that it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to produce just one gallon of syrup. You can see some of Mark’s pictures at LOE.org.


Jacob Moore of Moore’s Sugar Shack in Westford, CT load the firebox for sugaring down maple syrup. (Mark Seth Lender ©)

Related links:
- September 24, 2010 Back Story: Listen to a short interview with Mark Seth Lender about the swallow funnel along the Connecticut River.
- November 20, 2009 Back Story: Listen to a short interview with Mark Seth Lender about Wild Turkeys.
- Salt Marsh Diary

Back to top


**New** Big Floods, Big Explosion Along Mississippi River

GELLERMAN: A relentless rainfall – a deluge that dumped five months worth of rain in just 14 days - and a massive spring snowmelt have had a devastating effect along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The waters are at record levels forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to make a difficult choice: whether to allow towns along the riverbanks to be overwhelmed with water or blow up a levee - flooding 130 thousand acres of farmland. In the end, the farmland and farmers lost out….leaving commentator Paul Greenberg wondering if we should rethink how we manage the mighty Mississippi.

GREENBERG: Back when he was a Mississippi river boat pilot, Mark Twain claims to have seen a catfish "six feet long and weighing 250 pounds"—double the size of the current world sportfishing record. Last week as I motored down the Mississippi just ahead of the massive storm surge that prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to blow a hole in the River's levees, I couldn't help but think of Twain's big catfish and the particular predicament we've gotten ourselves into with the most engineered river on the planet.

The contemporary Mississippi is very different from the river Twain chronicled. Artificially straightened by planners in the 19th century and then pinched narrow and high by levee building in the 20th, today's river rides above the floodplain it once inundated. All that inundation used to cause annual havoc for farmers who worked the adjacent land. But it also provided nutrients. The pre-colonial Mississippi floodplain was 300 miles wide, draining valuable minerals and organic matter from the Rockies and Appalachians alike, fertilizing fields across the Midwest and the deep South. And it wasn't just fields that were fertilized. During the spring floods the river spread out wide and got warm. In the tepid, murky shallows catfish spawned and grew, blessed by an incredible abundance of food. Some of them got very big. Maybe even 250 pounds.

Today Old Man River's floodplain is less than a mile wide and the catfish are similarly skinny. Instead of feeding catfish and fertilizing fields all those nutrients are shunted downriver into the Gulf of Mexico. Out at sea they trigger massive algae blooms and, ironically, a fish-killing dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey.
The logical thing to do would be to give back to the river some of what we've taken. Instead of desperately hauling out 250 tons of levee-blowing explosives whenever the river reaches dangerously high levels, we ought to think about breaching levees in a planned way to get some of that good runoff into the fields where its needed. If we were really ambitious we might even think about reengineering the river, pushing back the levees several miles, opening up the floodplain, lowering the river throughout its range.

Of course, in an era of global warming where flooding grows more intense by the year, Old Man River may prove to be the ultimate engineer. If he keeps on a-rising he will eventually burst the levees unaided, violently rolling over everything in his path, reclaiming his former domain. The Mississippi Valley will become a place where nutrients and fertility are once again spread widely throughout the floodplain. It also might just become a place where you could find a 250 pound catfish.

GELLERMAN: Paul Greenberg is the author of the New York Times bestseller Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. It’s out in paperback this month.

Related links:
- Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg
- Follow Paul Greenberg @4fishgreenberg

Back to top


GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Sammy Sousa, and Nora Doyle-Burr. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director.

Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. 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 invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at pax world dot com. Pax world, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth