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

October 2, 1992

Air Date: October 2, 1992


An Environmental Presidency - "What if...?"

Steve talks with New York Times columnist Tom Wicker about the powers that a Presidential bully pulpit could bring to an environmental agenda. Wicker's article on the subject appears in the current issue of Audubon Magazine. (05:00)

The Amazon: Gold Out, Mercury In / Bob Carty

Bob Carty reports from the Brazilian Amazon on the poisoning of the region's rivers with mercury. Prospectors use mercury to extract gold from the rivers' sediments. Thousands of tons of the toxic heavy metal have been released into the environment and it’s beginning to work its way into the food chain. (11:00)

How Much is Enough

Steve talks with Alan Durning, author of the new book How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. Durning says overconsumption by the world's 1-billion-person elite is straining the planet's resources, but hasn't made us any happier. (04:34)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Laura Knoy, Chris Spurgeon, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Tom Wicker, Alan Durning

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. First humanity threatened the Amazon Basin with massive tree cutting. Now the widespread use of mercury by Amazonian gold prospectors is creating a toxic tragedy. Fish, birds and people are among the poisoned.

ALORES (?) : For him there is no solution. The solution for him is when he dies. But they have to stop the indiscriminate use of mercury. They have to stop it. Otherwise it will affect other people, it will hurt the young people.

CURWOOD: Also, a chat with political columnist Tom Wicker. He's predicting that the environment is headed for the top of our political agenda, even though most politicians don't seem to know it yet.

WICKER: It's become a major issue in peoples' personal lives, and sooner or later, and in my judgment sooner rather than later, it's going to become a major political issue.

CURWOOD: That and more, this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

In a move that may signal a power struggle within the White House, the Bush Administration has scuttled a plan to allow the disposal of hazardous wastes in local dumps. From Washington, Laura Knoy reports.

KNOY: White House chief of staff James Baker is reportedly behind the Administration's reversal on hazardous waste dumping. Baker is said to be worried about the Bush/Quayle ticket's reputation as unfriendly to the environment. The dumping policy would have let companies treat hazardous waste like household garbage, and dispose of it in landfills. Businesses now have to detoxify dangerous chemical wastes and store them in special sites. The decision to keep those rules went against Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, which tries to relax regulations it considers burdensome to business. There's speculation that Mr. Baker may be weakening the Council's clout in the Administration, and the reelection campaign. Officials at several government agencies that deal with natural resources said Baker is asking for review of other policies written by the Council. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.

NUNLEY: A Texas company has been charged with falsifying safety studies of chemicals used on food crops. The 20-count felony indictment accuses Craven Laboratories of tampering with pesticide concentrations and adjusting dials to produce a desired result. EPA officials say they've reviewed 43 pesticides tested by Craven, and found no threat to public health despite the false data. Still, manufacturers of some of those chemicals will have to repeat their safety studies.

Thirty years after Rachel Carson alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide poisoning in her book Silent Spring, a report marking the anniversary says pesticide problems are generally more serious today than three decades ago. The report by the group Greenpeace says pesticide use has grown twenty-seven times in the US since Carson's day . . . that pesticides have contaminated everything from plankton in the oceans to the ozone layer. . . and that poisoning costs up to $200 billion dollars a year.

But Dr. John McCarthy of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association disputes the Greenpeace report. He says pesticide companies have changed their ways since since 1962.

MCCARTHY: We've got products today that are more environmentally compatible than they ever were, they're more targeted than they ever were, they're use in ounces and grams per acre where we used products back in the 60's in pounds per acre.

NUNLEY: McCarthy says that Silent Spring served as a wake-up call for the pesticide industry. Carson's biographer says that, at the time, the industry spent half a million dollars to counteract the book's effect on public opinion.

Two 17th-century lead coffins recently unearthed in Maryland may provide scientists with clues to the extent of human impact on the atmosphere. Although the chances are small, researchers from NASA's Langley Research Center say they hope to find pre-Industrial Revolution air in the coffins. One member of the research team says such a finding could provide the "Rosetta Stone" of the atmosphere.

This is Living on Earth.

The owners of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and a citizen watchdog group have reached what both sides are calling a landmark settlement after a 13-year legal battle. Chris Spurgeon of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

SPURGEON: Under the agreement, members of the anti-nuclear group Three Mile Island Alert will be given portable radiation monitors, air samplers, and a device to read the temperature inside the damaged reactor. Spokesperson Eric Epsteen says it's a good end to a battle that began back in 1979, when the Unit Two reactor at TMI suffered a partial meltdown.

EPSTEEN: The big thing for us is being able to verify what's coming out of the island. It's an empowering measure for the community, and it gives us some level of security that we haven't had since the accident.

SPURGEON: In return, Epsteen's group has agreed not to challenge the utility's plan to place the damaged reactor into long-term storage. The utility will also fund research and development of robots that can be used to eventually clean up the reactor, although there's still no agreement who will pay for that cleanup. Still, both sides say this agreement could prove a model for the resolution of other anti-nuclear disputes. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Spurgeon in Philadelphia.

NUNLEY: Seasonal ozone depletion over the South Pole appears to be worse than ever this year. Government scientists blame that, in part, on last year's eruption of Mount Pinatubo. But they point out that sulfur emissions from the volcano damaged the ozone layer only after reacting with human-produced chlorine compounds, such as CFC's, in the atmosphere. The scientists say the Pinatubo effect should subside within two years.

Meanwhile, two major car companies say they're making strides toward meeting the 1995 deadline for eliminating chlorofluorocarbons from their factories and products. Ford says it will stop using ozone-depleting CFC's in its manufacture of seat cushions by the end of the year. Nissan says the air conditioners of all Nissan and Infinity cars sold in the US by the end of next year will use a CFC substitute. Automobile air conditioners are among the largest emitters of CFC's.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top


An Environmental Presidency - "What if...?"

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

So far in the 1992 presidential campaign, we've heard little about the environment, even though four years ago, George Bush promised to be "the environmental president," and Al Gore, one of the Senate's leading environmentalists, is on the Democratic ticket.

Still, polls show that environmental concerns are high in voters' minds, and many observers are asking, "What if the next president did put the environment at center stage?" Among them is veteran New York Times political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker. Wicker has recently written about this for Audubon magazine, and he joins us now from his home in Vermont. Mr. Wicker, what if the winner of this race put the environment at the top of his agenda?

WICKER: Well, first and foremost, in today's situation, I think a President should take a very strong and active position on global warming. I mean, I realize that there's some scientific forces who say that threat is overrated, that it will never materialize, and so forth. But I don't see why we should take chances. I make the point in my article that for year, we spent billions upon billions of dollars against the really rather far-fetched possibility that the Soviets would invade Western Europe. And we did that long after that became not just a far-fetched but a really ridiculous possibility. So it seems to me to say, well, we don't know for sure that there is global warming going on, therefore we don't need to do anything, I think that's very short-sighted. We need to be guarding against that possibility. I think probably above all, a President should simply be preaching environmental concerns to try to make those people who are not yet aware, those businesses and corporations aware that this is as serious a problem facing us in the next quarter century and beyond that as was the Cold War in the last quarter-century.

CURWOOD: Well, I'm wondering -- your article takes the perspective that, gee, we ought to have an environmental President, somebody looking at this; but it doesn't seem very likely that we're going to get one. Why do you suppose that is?

WICKER: Well, I think because the environment has been very far down the list of political concerns, and I don't think that even as yet it's a major political matter. And by that I mean, I'm talking now in terms of elective politics and government. It's become, the polltakers tell me and I don't see any reason to doubt it, it's become a major issue in peoples' personal lives. And as they have become interested in it,it's become more of a political issue, and sooner or later, in my judgment sooner rather than later, it's going to become a major political issue -- may even turn out to be this year, who knows? I suspect a lot of people will vote against President Bush because he has utterly failed in his promise to be the "environmental president."

CURWOOD: Well, I was going to ask you about --

WICKER: They may not articulate the fact that that's why they're voting against him, it may not be the only reason, but it is a reason among the complex of reasons that people have for voting as they do.

CURWOOD: Well, I was going to ask you: your article for Audubon magazine doesn't really evaluate the two candidates as to what they might do once they got in the White House.

WICKER: Well, I think we have a pretty good perspective on what President Bush would do, because we've been watching him for four years, and we know that he's not been very active environmentally despite his pledges. He's dragged his feet on global warming, for example; he has, he likes to take credit for the Clean Air Act , but in most ways that was a congressional initiative, it seems to me. So Governor Clinton, for that reason, might be your choice if you were going into the polling booth just to choose a president on environmental grounds. Another reason would be the presence of Senator Gore on his ticket. Senator Gore is, as I think you've said, the leading environmentalist in the Senate, certainly one of the leading ones, and I think he would be a strong and articulate voice in that Administration for environmental questions.

CURWOOD: Why are you writing this piece now? Is there something about this moment in the history of our nation, the world, or in politics that makes things right for this?

WICKER: I think the fact that the Cold War is ended, or to a great extent is ended at least, is not really sunk into our consciousness as yet, and I think we don't quite know as yet or realize as yet the things that are now open to us that did not seem to be open to us before. The fact that billions upon billions of dollars do not have to be spent on defense any more; that a sense of worldwide cooperation is much more likely now -- I think that this is a rather special moment. I don't say that the moment is passing and we've got to seize it right now, but certainly it's an important moment and one that I think the American people would do well to grasp.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Tom Wicker, columnist -- political columnist and maybe a little bit of an environmental columnist now, for the New York Times.

WICKER: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

The Amazon: Gold Out, Mercury In

CURWOOD: The Amazon River and its tributaries carry a fifth of the world's fresh water. They also carry gold, and gold prospectors have rushed to the Amazon in recent years. They've pulled millions of dollars out of the river's sediments, but in its place, they've left thousands of tons of mercury, the deadly poisonous metal used in processing gold. Now some ecologists believe mercury poisoning could pose as great a threat to the area as deforestation.

We sent Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty to the Amazon city of Santarem, in Brazil's richest gold producing area. He filed this report.

(Sound of man trying to talk, fade under)

CARTY: Manuel Perreira looks like my father. That may be too personal a way to describe this 68-year-old man sitting in front of me, but Manuel looks like he suffered a stroke, like my father did. He's a limp figure, with trembling hands, a vacuous stare, and a tongue that rests limply on his lower lip.

But Manual Perreira was not struck down by a stroke. He's a victim of mercury poisoning. His wife, Alois, sits by his side with a tissue at hand to wipe away Manuel's drooling.

ALOIS (translated): He used to be strong -- a good worker. But when the symptoms of the sickness began to appear, he couldn't work any more. He had a grocery store here in Santarem. We had to close it, because he couldn't work any more.

CARTY: Manuel never knew what hit him. He used to spend a lot of time in a particular room in his second floor apartment. In a shop below, gold was processed. For six years, mercury fumes rose right into Manuel's apartment. Mercury damages the kidneys and the central nervous system, causes erratic behavior, and can also produce cancer and genetic mutations. Drug treatments can remove mercury from the blood, but often the damage is already done. That's what happened to Manuel.
Manuel's doctor is Fernando Branches. Six years ago, he identified the first case of mercury poisoning in the Amazon region. Three years ago he had twenty patients; last year, eighty-four. Now he's helping more than 130 victims of mercury poisoning. One was a young woman from a gold mine in town, whose stillborn child was found to have a large crevice in the head, exposing the brain. There have been few deaths so far, but Dr. Branches says that because mercury poisoning is a slow process, there may be tens of thousands of victims not yet identified.

BRANCHES: Most of the patients have headache, dizziness, palpitations, loss of memory, sexual problems, insomnia, nightmares -- many, many, many symptoms I have seen.
CARTY: Is there a cure for Manuel?
BRANCHES: There's no cure. Because his brain is very affected, he does not have a future.

(Sound of machinery)

CARTY: The mercury problem began in the gold rush of the late 70's, when up to a million prospectors, or garimpeiros, came to the Amazon. Many landed here in Santarem, and then headed up the Tapajos River to seek their fortunes. They gouged out riverbanks with pressure hoses, sucked up river bottoms with dredges -- they made Brazil the seventh largest gold producer in the world. In the process, their deforestation scarred the rainforest, their mining turned once-clear rivers into giant mudflows. But the most deadly legacy was unseen, until 1984, when a film crew from a Jacques Cousteau expedition visited gold panners on the Tapajos River.

(Sound and narration from Cousteau film:

"In a final effort to separate the gold grains and flakes from the sand, the garimpeiro scatters a few drops of mercury in the pan, and carefully stirs. Bonding easily with many minerals, mercury long has been used in the processing of gold, quickly and effectively trapping the fine yellow particles hidden in the pan." )

CARTY: The miners used two grams of mercury for every gram of gold. Most of them touched the mercury with their bare hands, unaware than it enters the bloodstream directly through the skin. Almost a third of all the mercury they used is lost in the rivers. The Cousteau expedition found traces of mercury in fish. That discovery sparked the interest of scientists in the city of Manaus, five hundred miles up the Amazon River from Santarem.

(Sound of scraping)

In a cluttered laboratory at the Brazilian government's National Institute for Amazonian Research, there's a rusty freezer where Bruce Forsberg sometimes keeps his lunch, and usually keeps a lot of dead fish.

FORSBERG: This is a tucunare or peacock bass, and this is -- what is that? -- a tambaqui. (Drawer opens ) Here's another one, we have piranhas, pretty good sized piranhas . . .
CARTY: Have you eaten piranha ?
FORSBERG: Oh yeah, very tasty.

CARTY: Bruce Forsberg is a rare breed -- a scientist with a sense of irony. Forsberg is an American marine biologist. For the past four years, he's been measuring the mercury content in fish, soil and human hair. Hair samples from residents of gold-mining towns register mercury levels up to 35 times above standards set by the World Health Organization. Forsberg says one of the ways mercury enters humans is through the consumption of fish. Fish that eat fish accumulate mercury, and migrations spread the toxin over a large area.

FORSBERG: What's important is not the concentration in the fish, but how much mercury you eat every day. Most of the people in the Amazon depend on fish for their protein; it's the principal protein source for most people in the Amazon. So if the fish do start to become contaminated and they're eating a lot of fish, it could be a problem -- a lot of people could be involved. We found some fish way downstream from the gold-mining areas, probably a thousand kilometers downstream, which have fairly high levels of contamination.

CARTY: What ecologists and doctors are worried about here is a tropical Minamata. Minamata is the Japanese city where people were poisoned by mercury -contaminated fish. Sixty years ago, a chemical company began dumping mercury into the Minamata Bay. Since then, a thousand people have died, and there are still several thousand victims with terrible deformities. Here in the Amazon, prospectors have already dumped two thousand tons of mercury -- three times the amount at Minamata, albeit over a much larger area. Bruce Forsberg says it's too early to call the Amazon poisoned, but he says scientists really have no idea of the ecological consequences of mercury on the world's largest genetic pool.

(Sound of prospectors)

A young man pours a handful of nuggets onto a weigh scale as if he was putting his life savings on a collection plate. This is a trading post in Santarem, where garimpeiros come to sell their gold to a middleman. After it is weighed, the mercury and gold amalgam is burned with an acetylene torch.

(Sound of torch)

The white smoke produced by this burning is what poisoned Manuel Perreira. Scientists say mercury fumes are the fastest means of poisoning. That's why the government is trying to get trading posts to install ventilators to capture and recycle the mercury. This shop has one, but the shop across the street doesn't, and they're almost nonexistent in the gold fields. But the risks don't matter to young prospectors like Pricio Argolo. Pricio is too busy trying to figure out how to carry the $1,800,000 cruzeiros stacked a foot high in front of him.

(Voice speaking Portuguese, fade under )

Pricio says it's been a good year, the best one yet. Life is better here than in the impoverished Northeast, where he was born. And as for mercury -- well, if you don't use mercury, you don't get as much gold.

(" . . . a va no poco.")

Pricio collects his money, about $800 dollars, and stuffs big wads of bills into his new blue-jean pockets, under his belt, into his shirt, finally into a plastic bag and then, checking at the door to see who is on the street, he disappears outside. The Brazilian government has a mixed view of these garimpeiros. In 1989, it told them to stop using mercury in gold mining. But the miners do earn this indebted country hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange. Jose Lutzenberger, the former minister of the environment, also points out that most of the garimpeiros are just poor people trying to survive.

LUTZENBERGER: I would rather see the gold prospectors leave the forest, you see, but you cannot simply go and tell them get out -- these people are actually noble people, and the guys who go into the forest for gold prospecting, they don't go there because they like it. It's the hardest job in the world, you know, and then they survive one or two years of diseases and fights and assassination -- they usually come out poorer than before. Simply telling these people to come out -- well, we have to give them alternatives.

(Sound of traffic, fade under)

CARTY: But Brazil's government, racked by political and economic crises, has no alternatives for the miners already here, nor for the poor who arrive daily, seeking an escape from misery. There are ways to concentrate gold without mercury, but they are expensive for small prospectors. Jose Lutzenberger told me frankly the government has no control over mercury use. For example, in 1989, the year the government banned mercury, 210 tons of it illegally ended up in the gold fields. That mercury could be removed by dredging, as was done in Minamata. But that also costs a lot of money. Otherwise, even if mercury dumping is stopped now, it will take decades, perhaps a century, for the rivers to flush it out. In Santarem, I asked Alois , the wife of mercury victim Manuel Perreira, if she thought there was a solution. At first, she said she didn't know. Then she looked at her husband Manuel.

ALOIS (translated): For him there's no solution. The solution for him is when he dies. But they have to stop the indiscriminate use of mercury -- they have to stop it. Otherwise it will affect other people, it will hurt the young people.

(Sound of children playing in water, fade under)

CARTY: At the docks in Santarem, children jump and splash in the muddy flow of the Tapajos River. Beside them, workers are loading tanks of acetylene gas onto several river boats. Pricio, the gold miner, walks on board with a wheelbarrow and several new shovels -- more supplies for the gold fields. Somewhere on board, there is undoubtedly a supply of illegal mercury. In the Brazilian Amazon, the lure of gold, the crush of poverty, and the incompetence of government are forces still stronger than the fear of disaster. That may only change as the number of victims grows, or as easily accessible gold runs out. But even then, the plague of mercury will be here long after the gold is gone. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in the Brazilian Amazon city of Santarem.

Back to top

(Children's voices fade out; music up and under)

How Much is Enough

CURWOOD: Most of us in the US think of ourselves as middle-class, living modestly, struggling to make ends meet. But to author Alan Durning, all but the poorest Americans are among the world's richest people -- in the top one-fifth of the world's population that uses most of the planet's resources. Durning is the author of the new book How Much is Enough, an examination of the environmental and spiritual costs of our consumer culture. He says while studying the world's biggest environmental problems, he found the culprit in the mirror.

DURNING: When I started this research, I did not set out to vilify people who live essentially my own lifestyle. But as I looked at the different environmental problems, I discovered that we cause a disproportionate share, the lion's share, of the harm. The consumer class of the world includes the people who travel in private automobiles and on jet airplanes, who have a plethora of electric appliances in their homes, who have a diet centered around meat and other resource-intensive animal foods, and who use things dominated by rapid obsolescence, disposability, quickly shifting fashions and excessive packaging.

CURWOOD: Why is the consumption of this one-in-5 of our consumer class so destructive of the environment? Why do you see this as such a big problem?

DURNING: We in the consumer class of the world are responsible for almost all emissions of chloroflurocarbons that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, about two-thirds of the emissions of greenhouse gases and acid-rain causing pollutants along with a huge share of all of the other pollutants that are now a threat to the global environment.

CURWOOD: One might say that consumerism is almost a religion in this society, and that for people to change their attitudes on this that we'll need to change our values -- is that fair to say?

DURNING: I think eventually the necessity of protecting the ecological systems that make human life on earth possible is going to run into the values question. Psychologists, religious thinkers and indeed the doctrines of the world religions themselves teach that materialism, made the central facet of one's life, has always been a bankrupt value system; that it can provide quick thrills, but it cannot provide lasting satisfaction and fulfillment in life. Perhaps the single most telling piece of evidence I've found in the two years I was working on this project was from repeated opinion polls that had been taken in the United States since 1957 that show, despite a doubling of personal consumption per person, measured in real, inflation adjusted terms, the share of Americans who report they are very happy with their lot in life has stayed just about the same. We're consuming twice as much, and it's not making us any happier.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning, how do you recommend that we get started with making these changes? If we accept your thesis, that the rich fifth of the world is consuming way too much in terms of natural resources, how can we get started to limit our consumption of those resources now -- today?

DURNING: There are little things that individuals can do, whether it is opposing construction of a giant new shopping mall on the edge of their city, or leading nature trips for the local Boy Scouts, or getting a library card and getting books from the library rather than buying books each time we want to read something. But so much of it is built into the system that we need to change the whole infrastructure. We need for example over a 20 or 30 year period to rebuild our transportation system so that when you take that trip, you have the option of going there by train in a quick and convenient way. I suppose the most important point of How Much is Enough? is for people to begin to engage this issue, and not in a sort of guilt-stricken way, but as an opportunity to move forward in our pursuit of what the "good life" really is.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning is the author of How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. It's out in Norton Books, and he's a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

DURNING: Thanks for having me, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. Or write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Tapes and transcripts are available for ten dollars.

Our producer and editor is Peter Thomson. The director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small and engineer Laurie Azaria. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and out)


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.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

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