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

October 9, 1992

Air Date: October 9, 1992


Rating the Candidates

Steve talks about the environment and the two major party presidential candidates with syndicated columnist Steven Chapman of the Chicago Tribune. Chapman says President Bush has made some bad calls on the environment, but that he's far preferable to Governor Clinton. (04:52)

The Nuclear Plowshare / John McWhorter

John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio reports on a 1950's plan by the Federal government to use nuclear bombs to blast a harbor in the Alaskan coastline. Radioactive waste from the aborted project was recently discovered near the proposed site. (06:33)

Edward O. Wilson and the Diversity of Life

Steve talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson about his new book The Diversity of Life. The book documents the human impact on other life forms, which he calls the "sixth great extinction," and lays out an ambitious plan to study, catalogue and preserve every species on Earth. (09:18)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: David Baron, Tom Meersman, John McWhorter
GUESTS: Stephen Chapman, Edward O. Wilson

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Tod15{rapid extinction of lifeforms on Earth, in a conversation with Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.

WILSON: Through most of human history, the wilderness was a formidable force. But now that's all changed. Through our modern technology and our huge populations we've broken nature. And we're ravelling her up at a fast rate.

CURWOOD: Also, a look back at plans advanced by Edward Teller to blast the northwest coast of Alaska with six huge hydrogen bombs. Planners called it "geographic engineering."

O'NEIL: It would have been the equivalent of 40 percent of all the firepower expended in World War Two and it would have blasted this keyhole-shaped harbor up near Point Hope.

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

Environmental News

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

The first official report on the state of Russia's environment says the country is in "deplorable" condition, and the government can't do much about it because of the failing economy. The thousand-page report, ordered by President Boris Yeltsin, says that one-sixth of Russia is seriously polluted . . . only a fifth of its drinking water meets even the country's own lax health standards . . . and 85 percent of urban residents breathe dirty air. But some observers say that even this bleak report may understate the situation. Murray Feshbach of Georgetown University is the author of Ecocide in the USSR.

FESHBACH: What's being released now is an official-type report which is very, very important to look at, but even that will minimize the depth of their problem.

Feshbach says all of the former Soviet republics will need massive infusions of Western cash to tackle their environmental problems.

A reported plan to ship ten million tons of toxic waste to war-torn Somalia has apparently been abandoned. Mostopha Tolba, head of the United Nations Environment Program, says he has the word of the Swiss and Italian governments that the deal is off. The agreement was reportedly struck between a shadowy Swiss-and-Italian consortium and a Somali minister. UNEP had been trying to halt it since details began to emerge last month. Waste-trade monitors at Greenpeace International have also been investigating the deal. They say they're not convinced that it's been cancelled.

Researchers at Harvard University say they've found the first direct link between second-hand smoke and an increased risk of lung cancer. From member station WBUR in Boston, David Baron has the story.

BARON: Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health studied lung tissue from thirty non-smoking women who'd died from causes unrelated to respiratory ailments or cancer. The researchers examined the tissue samples for abnormalities that can often become malignant. The scientists write in the Journal of the American Medical Association that those women who were married to smokers had far more advanced lesions than women married to non-smokers. The tobacco industry calls the new study "flawed" and contends there's no conclusive evidence that environmental tobacco smoke is a significant health hazard. For Living on Earth, this is David Baron reporting.

NUNLEY: Natural pesticides pose more of a cancer risk than synthetic farm chemicals, according to a study published in the journal Science. The authors say the actual danger from natural toxins is low, but they want to correct the notion that man-made chemicals are more dangerous than those found in nature.

After two years of debate, a national energy policy has reached President Bush's desk. The law offers tax incentives for the development of natural gas and solar and wind power, and promotes conservation through new efficiency standards for electrical equipment. It also streamlines the process for building nuclear power plants, and smooths the way for a national dump for high-level radioactive waste. Small petroleum producers call the bill the first step on their road to recovery. Some environmentalists say it maintains the country's dependence on fossil fuels. President Bush is expected to sign the bill.

This is Living on Earth.

The climate-change treaty signed by world leaders at the Earth Summit has been ratified by the US Senate. Under the treaty, industrialized nations will attempt to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels within eight years. But, reflecting the insistence of the Bush Administration, it doesn't require that the goal be met. Developing countries, meanwhile, must work to control the increase in their emissions. The treaty is meant to dampen the production of heat-trapping gases, and so avert possibly catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.

Officials of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota have proposed a plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions by twenty percent during the next decade. The plan is part of a UN pilot program to combat global warming. Tom Meersman of Minnesota Public Radio has the story.

MEERSMAN: Twin Cities officials want to reduce carbon dioxide by making their buildings more energy efficient, and their downtowns more friendly to buses and bikers. They are asking local utilities to triple their energy conservation programs, and to commit more money to wind power and other technologies. They also want state lawmakers to allow a higher percentage of gasoline and motor vehicle taxes to be used for mass transit. A steering committee of business, environmental and citizen leaders have come up with the plan, which still needs approval by elected officials. The effort is part of a United Nations demonstration project, in which 13 cities in 7 countries are trying to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Meersman in Minneapolis.

NUNLEY: Importers of exotic birds will no longer be welcomed at US borders. Congress has passed a measure prohibiting the import of endangered wild birds and limiting the import of threatened ones. The US is the largest importer of exotic, wild birds. About 400 thousand are brought here each year from Africa, Asia and South America. Half of the birds qualify for protection under international law. President Bush is expected to sign the measure, which includes penalties of up to twenty-thousand dollars per violation.

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

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Rating the Candidates

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

The presidential campaign is entering its final weeks, and voters are hearing few environmental messages from President Bush or Governor Clinton, and virtually nothing at all from Ross Perot. But talked about or not, important decisions affecting the environment will be made by the next president. Stephen Chapman is a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune. He says that while George Bush has made some bad calls on the environment, Bush is still the man he'd trust most to make those decisions.

CHAPMAN: On several issues, he's done some substantial things which, if you're an environmentalist, you ought to appreciate. I'm not sure I appreciate them because I'm not sure they're well-founded in science, I think they may go too far -- I think the benefits may not be as great as the costs. But I think he does have some genuine green credentials, for better or for worse.

CURWOOD: You said the President goes too far on some environmental issues?

CHAPMAN: Well, yeah. One is the Clean Air Act, which probably would not have been passed without him, and I think it's fair to say that it will pretty much eliminate air pollution in this country. Now, it's been estimated by some reputable economists that the costs of it are going to outweigh the benefits. But if you're an environmentalist, the Clean Air Act is an achievement. I think the Rio accord on greenhouse gas emissions commits the world to stabilize emissions, without any specific timetable, it's true, but you can be sure that that'll come in later years. I have serious doubts, and a lot of climatologists have serious doubts, about whether the evidence is there to justify that effort.

CURWOOD: And in other areas as well, you think the President has been a strong environmentalist?

CHAPMAN: He's been responsible for hastening the phase-out of CFC's, which are a danger to the stratospheric ozone, or at least they're alleged to be; he's been instrumental in ending driftnet fishing, in ending most oil exploration on the outer Continental Shelf, and pretty much ending ocean dumping of sludge.

CURWOOD: And you think these are good things to do?

CHAPMAN: I think they are arguably good things to do. They are undoubtedly pro-environmental things to do.

CURWOOD: Now, what about his opponent, Governor Clinton? How do you feel about his record?

CHAPMAN: I have to say, I don't know a lot about his record in Arkansas. I'm told by economists who favor Clinton, actually, that he doesn't have a very good record on water pollution -- the chicken feces in the rivers, and so on. I don't doubt that his policies, however, would be considerably more sympathetic to what environmentalists want than Bush's are. I'm not going to argue that Bush is a stronger environmentalist than Clinton; I would be prepared to argue that it's not a good thing to be more environmentalist than Bush is. Clinton has not talked much about the environment, and his own position papers are pretty skimpy on details, but there's a fair amount, from my point of view, to criticize in what there is. First and foremost is the choice of Al Gore as his running mate. Gore has written a book on the environment which is full of wild, exaggerated claims, of very apocalyptic visions of the future -- it's environmentalist propaganda of the highest order, I would say. And the the fact that that man is going to have the ear of the President, presumably, particularly on environmental matters -- that disturbs me a lot.

CURWOOD: How much attention do you think Americans are paying to the environment in this election?

CHAPMAN: Well, not a lot, because the presidential candidates don't really want to debate too much on that issue except in particular areas like Oregon, where there's some particular impact from existing law. But Bill Clinton doesn't seem to want to talk about it, and I think George Bush is happy not to have to.

CURWOOD: And why do you suppose Clinton doesn't want to talk about it?

CHAPMAN: Well, one reason is his running mate. When Bush goes to Detroit, he says Gore wants to abolish the internal combustion engine, and Gore says, well, that's silly. Well, it's not silly because it's in his book. But if I were Clinton, I don't think I would be focusing attention on the environment, because there's an awful lot to answer for in Gore's book that he'd probably prefer not to.

CURWOOD: And the President -- why would he just as soon not raise the issue?

CHAPMAN: Well, he has got a very bad press on the environment, and everybody assumes that he has been an awful villain, that he's no different from Ronald Reagan, and I'm sure he's convinced that it's a loser for him.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much. Stephen Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

CHAPMAN: Thank you.

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The Nuclear Plowshare

CURWOOD: On the far northwest coast of Alaska, a radioactive waste dump was recently discovered in Native hunting grounds. What set Geiger counters clicking was leftovers from a nearly-forgotten experiment -- an experiment linked to a plan to explode thermonuclear bombs. It turns out that, back in the 1950's, the Federal Government planned to use H-bombs for massive civilian excavations, and the first such project called for a deep harbor to be blasted out of the coast near Point Hope, Alaska. As John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio reports, the project was never done, but its mastermind, atomic scientist Edward Teller, still has faith in the idea.

McWHORTER: The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 showed the world the awesome and deadly power of nuclear explosions. But in the years after winning that war, some scientists in the US and the Soviet Union turned their attention toward harnessing the power of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. In the US, that effort became known as Project Ploughshare . . . and its chief proponent was Edward Teller. Teller was involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, and would go on to become the main backer of President Reagan's Star Wars missile defense system. In 1959, Teller travelled to Alaska to promote the virtues of the peaceful use of atomic explosions.

TELLER: The nuclear explosions can be used to blast harbors in otherwise inaccessible coasts, to engage in the great art of what I want to call geographical engineering -- to reshape the land to your pleasure and indeed to break up the rocks and make them yield up their riches.

McWHORTER: Teller's first test for Ploughshare was Project Chariot, a plan to create a harbor in the remote coast of Northwest Alaska. Dan O'Neil is a researcher at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks who is writing a book about Chariot.

O'NEIL: The plan was to detonate six thermonuclear bombs, H-bombs, totalling 2.4 megatons. It would have been equivalent to 40 percent of all the firepower expended in World War II and it would have blasted this keyhole-shaped harbor up near Point Hope, and the sea would rush in and there would be this instant harbor.

McWHORTER: O'Neil says Chariot was promoted as an economic development project for the brand-new state of Alaska, and he says the project quickly caught the attention of the state's opinion leaders. The state's Chambers of Commerce endorsed it, as did the University of Alaska administration and the state's two largest newspapers.

Alaska has long been targeted for big projects. In a videotaped interview with O'Neil, British environmental historian Peter Coates says promoters of megaprojects have gained consent by combining the frontier image with economic development.

COATES: They sold the image of Alaska as a pioneer land inhabited by pioneer people back to Alaskans. We see this with Edward Teller advocating Project Chariot. He comes up to Alaska and talks about big people living in big states. What is more, big people in big states tend to be fearless. They're receptive to change. They aren't as cautious as people in more settled regions.

McWHORTER: But not everyone signed on to the deal. O'Neil says a group from Point Hope, a village 30 miles from the proposed blast site, joined forces with some conservationists and biologists in Fairbanks who also opposed Chariot.

For the Native people around Point Hope, stopping Chariot was a matter of survival. They'd worried the experiment might pollute their hunting grounds. The Atomic Energy Commission assured residents of Point Hope that they were far enough away from the site to be safe. But O'Neil says a small group of scientists continued to pressure the AEC to study the potential impact on wildlife.

O'NEIL: Ultimately the AEC agreed, and the first truly coordinated, multidisciplinary bioenvironmental study ever done took place then up at Ogotoruk Creek, south of Point Hope, and from that study came information that ultimately started to suggest the project wasn't too smart.

McWHORTER: Soon after, Project Chariot began receiving national media attention, and O'Neil says the AEC backed down when it began losing the public relations battle. Congress eventually stopped funding Ploughshare and Chariot was relegated to history --- at least until this past August. That's when it became known that the government had brought radioactive material to the Chariot site and left it there after scientists finished their studies. US Geological Survey documents obtained by O'Neil show that workers brought 43 pounds of radioactive elements to the area and, after conducting tests to see how rain would move the elements through the tundra, left behind 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil. This has Point Hope village corporation secretary Jack Schaefer worried that his people may have been unwittingly subjected to its poisons.

SCHAEFER: I know a lot of our people are really upset about finding out that there was actually a test done at the Chariot site where they had deposited their radioactive isotopes and that they had actually buried it there. I'm sure that they have a lot of concern, and they have the desire that this should be cleaned up and totally removed . . . immediately.

McWHORTER: Schaefer and others have long suspected that radiation from Russian atmospheric testing, as well as the Chariot site, was responsible for high rates of cancer in the area. A September study by the Army Corps of Engineers found there is no immediate danger, but the Corps plans further testing and cleanup. The new-found dump is just a tiny part of the Chariot legacy, and it pales in comparison to the experience of the former Soviet Union. The Soviet government actually used nuclear explosives for everything from mining to oil exploration. Those programs are now known to have polluted vast stretches of Siberia, and may have cost tens of thousands of lives.

In spite of the tremendous price, in a recent phone interview, Edward Teller says he still supports the Ploughshare idea.

TELLER: Chariot was cancelled because of exaggerated fear of radioactivity. That was a mistake. The Soviets have been too careless. We have been too fearful. We must find a reasonable and safe middle ground.

McWHORTER: Teller says before long, scientists will find a way to make such projects safe. But it may be a long time before the world community will support such an idea.

For Living on Earth, I'm John McWhorter in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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Edward O. Wilson and the Diversity of Life

CURWOOD: It takes millions of years for species to evolve, but in less than a few decades, perhaps a quarter of all the life forms on Earth will be gone, and with them, much of humanity's ability to sustain itself. One of the most important and passionate scientific voices on this subject is Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson has already won two Pulitzer prizes for earlier works, and his new book, called The Diversity of Life, is already a bestseller. We spoke with Professor Wilson in his office laboratory at Harvard.

WILSON: A new cataclysmic force has arrived. There've been five great extinction spasms during the past half-billion years. Now, humanity arrives on the scene as the causative agent of this sixth great extinction spasm of all time, and we are eliminating species at a rate comparable to that which ended the age of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that species come, species go; yes, the impact of humans is perhaps as great as what happened at the end of dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous Era --- but that things do change. What's your worry?

WILSON: In other words, nature gives and nature takes away. Well, the answer to that has to be that in those last extinction spasms, the first five, it took about ten million years for nature, that is, evolution, to completely restore the level of biodiversity that was lost. So if we were to tell our descendants that they must wait ten million years for nature to restore what we are mindlessly eliminating in a few decades, I think that they would be very peeved.

CURWOOD: Well, tell me -- by nature are people hostile to nature?

WILSON: In one sense, human beings are fearful of nature and exploitative of nature under some circumstances. It's always been a human tendency to drive back nature, because through most of human history the wilderness was a formidable force to overcome, and cultivate. But now that's all changed. Through our modern technology, and our huge populations, we've broken nature, and we're ravelling it up at a fast rate. And we're coming to understand the great value of preserving what is left of biological diversity in nature. We can provide many, many examples of products that have been forthcoming just in recent times, and the likelihood of vast, new important products -- drugs, new kinds of crops, fibers, petroleum substitutes, restorers of exhausted soil, and on and on.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you -- is it necessary for an organism to be useful for us to want to preserve it?

WILSON: No one who seriously thinks about this problem at any length believes that that's enough. We have to have a deeper and more ethical argument for considering the value of biodiversity.

CURWOOD: And what is that argument?

WILSON: I like to think, and I think there's some evidence for it, that not only do we continue to depend upon nature in that sense, but also that every species is a great treasure for humanity to enjoy and use for centuries, for thousands of years to come, and that in saving them, we should not only regard them as having this enormous, virtually limitless potential for our childrens' future, but also as part of our deep history -- literally the cradle in which the human spirit was born.

CURWOOD: Is it necessary for humanity's survival that we save the rest of life?

WILSON: We have intimations that if we reduce biodiversity from one ecosystem to the next and then globally, that at some point we may see catastrophic collapses. There are such things as keystone species --- that is, species that, when you pull them out, they are like pulling out the keystone -- the entire arch can collapse. So we know these exist, and I think we're taking a pretty desperate gamble if we keep reducing biodiversity here and there and everywhere.

CURWOOD: Where are the hot spots that we should be worried about right here in the United States?

WILSON: They include the Mediterranean-type heathland of Southern California, which is being rapidly overrun by development. A major hot spot of the world is Hawaii: the few remaining native forests of Hawaii, which are being still cut back and overrun by exotic species which are pushing to the brink of extinction increasing numbers of plants and mollusks and other animals. And Puerto Rico is another area where the plants especially are under siege. In the water, we find the freshwater systems, we find a lot of hot spots. In fact I would say that most of our river systems, especially river systems in the United States, are hot spots, where pollution and the introduction of exotic species are endangering large numbers of fish species and snail and other mollusk species.

CURWOOD: When you read your book, it's hard to escape a feeling of sadness that so much is being lost so quickly, so suddenly. Does it affect you the same way?

WILSON: My emotions are very mixed on this. I guess I could describe them as a mixture of anxiety, sadness, militancy and bright hope.

CURWOOD: That's quite a range. (Both laugh) You're anxious because ---

WILSON: Anxious because we have not to this point seemed to have developed the will to bring the hemorrhaging of biodiversity to a halt almost anywhere in the world. Sadness for what we've already lost; even now we've destroyed twenty, thirty percent of all the bird species that were alive before humanity came along, a comparable or even greater number of large mammals, and who knows how many of the smaller creatures on Earth. And as we proceed with the damage to habitats around the world, it's inevitable a lot of species are going to soon become extinct as a result of that, almost no matter what we do about it. Militancy, because I feel that even scientists who would love to spend the rest of their lives pondering a group of organisms or visiting the last remnants of the rainforest, that somehow we have to step forward and speak up. Hope, because I guess I'm an optimist, and I've seen how human opinion, public opinion can turn around very swiftly, when it becomes clear that a change in behavior, a change in attitude, is in the self-interest of the people. And so I think that if we were to continue allowing the rich habitats of the world to disappear at the rate they are now, including the tropical rainforest, the richest of them all, we could expect to lose at least twenty percent of all the species on Earth in the next thirty years; if we take action and treasure biodiversity and begin to use it to our benefit in the way we should, we may reduce that loss --- just to take a figure, I admit it's fully speculative whereas the first one is based on estimates --- we might reduce that loss from here on out to ten percent of the remaining biodiversity.

CURWOOD: You recommend that we catalog every living thing on Earth. How would knowing all these species from the hot spots down to every last little species --- how would that help us preserve what's left?

WILSON: I think that the mission of the combined scientist and educator in this particular domain is summarized by a statement ascribed to the Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson is the author of The Diversity of Life , published by the Harvard University Press.

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And for this week, that's Living on Earth.

We'd like to hear what you think about our show. Give us a call on our listener line, at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Massachusetts. . . 02238. Tapes and transcripts are ten dollars.

Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and Deborah Stavro directs the program. We had help this week from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Bob Walker and Gary Wallach. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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