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

December 4, 1992

Air Date: December 4, 1992


Organic Cotton / Claire Greene

Claire Green reports on the emerging market for organic cotton. The nation's favorite "natural" fiber is usually grown and produced through a highly chemical-intensive process. Now consumer pressure, environmental regulations and health concerns among growers and processors is stimulating a movement to chem-free cotton. (09:21)

Do Environmental Regulations Promote Economic Growth?

Steve talks with MIT political scientist Stephen Meyer about his new study of the impact of environmental regulations on economic growth in the U.S. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Meyer found that the states with the toughest environmental safeguards grew significantly faster during the 1980's than those with weaker rules. (04:42)

CFC-Free AC / Chris Spurgeon

Chris Spurgeon of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports on the development of a new, CFC-free air conditioning system. It’s one of several new technologies emerging under the pressure of consumer action and international efforts to phase out the use of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons. (04:02)

Listener Comments

Letters and comment from listeners. (02:37)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: David Welna, Evelyn Tully-Costa, Mike Shatz, George Hardeen, Claire Greene, Chris Spurgeon
GUESTS: Stephen Meyer

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Many consumers prefer the soft natural fibers of cotton. Now there is a movement to grow cotton organically, and a number of designers now sell organic clothes. It's not only natural, but it's profitable.

FOX: In the past if you brought up organic cotton, people laughed, they thought this was the craziest thing they'd ever heard of. It's being taken seriously now.

CURWOOD: Also, political scientist at MIT says his study of environmental rules in 50 states shows a strong link between tough environmental laws and good economic performance.

MEYER: On average, the environmental strong states outgrow on all the indicators the environmentally weak states by a factor of one and a half to two times.

CURWOOD: And, getting rid of CFC's from air conditioners. The greening of business, this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this round up of environmental news.

A Brazilian Indian leader has been shot to death while trying to stop a shipment of illegal timber through his Amazon reserve. NPR's David Welna reports.

WELNA: A truck driver fired two lethal bullets into Indian chief Domingo Gaviao, who was attempting to keep the driver with his load of logs from using a road that cuts through the Gaviao Indian reservation in eastern Amazon rainforest. The logs being transported were illegally extracted from a neighboring reservation, belonging to another Indian tribe which has cut deals with loggers to receive compensation for valuable hardwoods extracted from their lands. The Gaviao tribe opposes such illegal logging, which is tolerated by the Brazilian government. The death of the Indian leader made very little news here, just as the murder of rubber tapper Chico Mendes four years ago became known only after it caused an international outcry. For Living on Earth, I'm David Welna in Rio de Janeiro.

NUNLEY: The first concrete follow-up to last summer's Earth Summit has emerged from negotiations at the United Nations. But as Evelyn Tully- Costa reports, there are already questions about the effectiveness of the UN's new Sustainable Development Commission.

TULLY-COSTA: The main focus of the Commission is monitoring Agenda 21, the blueprint for environmental protection and the sustainable development of resources, set out during the Rio conference. This latest agency, like the Human Rights Commission, has no real power to enforce Agenda 21. Instead, it will rely on publicity and international pressure to bring countries violating the accord into line. Cliff Curtis, UN observer for Greenpeace, says the UN should have been more aggressive in defining the Commission's watchdog role over financial institutions, such as the World Bank, as well as over member countries. Curtis says critical issues such as funding and who will lead the Commission are still up in the air. For Living on Earth, I'm Evelyn Tully-Costa in New York.

NUNLEY: A study of air quality in the world's 20 largest cities shows urban air pollution declining in developed countries, while in Third-World cities, the air is becoming dirtier and more dangerous. The UN's Environment Programme and the World Health Organization took what they say is the first comprehensive look at air pollution in cities of 10 million or more. The agencies looked at "traditional" pollutants, like ozone and carbon monoxide, and at newer substances, such as heavy metals from incineration. Mexico City took first place with the most polluted air, while London, Tokyo and New York had the cleanest air among the world's major cities.

The breakup of the Greek-owned tanker Aegean Sea off the Spanish coast is the second major accident in the area. In 1976, a tanker ran aground and exploded while entering La Coruna harbor, dumping 30 million gallons of oil and impacting 130 miles of coast line. Richard Golob, who tracks oil tanker accidents, says the spill raises questions about La Coruna port procedures, because both accidents occurred near the mouth of the harbor. Golob suggests the safety and maintenance practices of the vessel's owner should also be probed. Another of their ships was involved in the world's third largest tanker spill, in the Caribbean.

This is Living on Earth.

Japan says it's not ready to use the controversial shipment of plutonium on its way from France, and that the nuclear fuel will have to be stored. Japanese environmentalists say it's a reversal of the nation's long-standing policy against stockpiling plutonium. From Tokyo, Mike Shatz reports.

SHATZ: The government said start-up delays at the country's new fast-breeder reactor will force it to store the 1.7 tons of plutonium for about three years after it arrives. Anti-nuclear groups warn that the decision represents a dangerous departure from the country's post-war policy against storing surplus plutonium. Environmentalists say it also proves the government's decision to import this shipment of plutonium was premature. But Japanese government officials dismiss such concerns. They say the plutonium will not be stockpiled, but that the time will be spent testing and preparing the fuel for its eventual use. For Living on Earth, this is Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: The Navajo and Hopi nations and the Federal Government have settled a century-old land dispute between the tribes. But a proposed transfer of half a million acres of public and private land to the Hopi has upset some environmentalists and local non-Indian residents in northern Arizona. George Hardeen has the story.

HARDEEN: Much of the land to be swapped lies between the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, Arizona, but also includes two-thirds of the city's water supply in lakes southeast of town. What's angered non-Indian Flagstaff residents is that none of the land transfer discussions were open to the public, and little information has been released. Many fear the prospect of having to give up private property within the national forest, despite Interior Department assurances that that won't happen. Both the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club also question the government giving away land that had been set aside for public use. But the groups say they are waiting for more details before deciding their position. Before the deal becomes final, it must be approved by Congress. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.

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

Back to top


Organic Cotton

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

In the old days, when cotton helped build some great Southern fortunes, it was grown organically. The fertilizer included mule droppings and the crop was picked by hand by slaves and sharecroppers. Nowadays, cotton is grown in a veritable chemical stew, with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and then, finally, herbicides to strip it of its leaves so machines can harvest it.

Now, as Claire Greene reports from San Francisco, organic cotton farming is coming back -- not only because it's good for the environment, but also because it's good for business.

(Sound of cotton fields)

GREENE: In California's southern San Joaquin Valley, the prevalence of cotton is overwhelming. All along Interstate 5, from Coalinga to south of Bakersfield, all you see are cotton fields -- one and a quarter million acres worth. Insuring that this highly vulnerable crop makes it through its nine-month growth cycle is the crop duster.

(Sound of crop duster overhead)

Cotton is the most chemically treated crop in California. A total of 14 million pounds of pesticides and defoliants are sprayed on it each year. Five million pounds of defoliant is applied in the weeks just prior to harvest, to prepare the plant for picking. The bulk of the crop's chemical treatments are aimed at its enemies: weeds and pests.

(Buzzing of insects)

GREENE: But over at Cal-Organic Farms, farmer Ed Davis has leveled the playing field. Here the pest war is being fought out among the insects.

DAVIS: That's an typical assassin bug right there. He's got a, well, you see that little straw sticking out of his mouth? That little straw he just sticks into other insects and he just literally sucks the juice right out of them. He is a incredibly voracious, beneficial organism that feeds on all soft-bodied insects.

GREENE: Fifteen years ago, Ed Davis was the top pesticide salesman in California. Today he is one of a small group of fully certified organic cotton farmers in the country. His 450-acre cotton field is beautiful. Davis says what keeps it that way are the bugs. Bugs that -- according to Davis -- feed on each other, not on the crop.

DAVIS: That guy right there, that's a nuroptura -- a lacewing. Their babies eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 aphids a day, those are the guys I release. Carnia chrysopa is his name. I release as much as a million lacewing a week during the production time frame to feed on guys just like him -- a sharpshooter leaf hopper which, well, there he went.

GREENE: Davis has had good luck this year. Figuring on a yield of two bales per acre, and a price of $1.25 a pound, his cotton is worth well over a half million dollars. That's about twice what the same amount of conventionally grown cotton would bring in. But gazing from the purview of the nation's $50 billion dollar retail cotton industry, organic cotton doesn't even make a blip. Of the 16 million bales of cotton harvested in this country last year, less than 3 thousand were certified organic. But that ratio is starting to change.

FOX: OK, is everybody ready? OK, what we're going to do is, the first thing we're going to do is to go and look at the regular varieties that all the farmers here are growing so you can see them, and then we're going to go look at . . . (Fade under)

GREENE: Sally Fox is one of organic cotton's pioneers. On this warm autumn afternoon, she's leading a large group of growers, manufacturers, and clothing designers around her 50-acre outdoor breeding nursery. Fox is the inventor of naturally colored organic cotton. The people on her tour are her clients, including a number of garment industry heavies: Esprit, Levi, Ecosport and Patagonia.

FOX: And then we're going to start looking at the whole breeding program, starting with the cross-pollination and bringing it year after year after year . . . (fade under)

GREENE: Fox has sponsored this tour and gathering annually for the past few years. Not long ago, she says, this would have been an unheard-of event. But organic cotton is gaining credibility, within agriculture and within the clothing industry.

FOX: In the past, if you brought up organic cotton people laughed, they thought this was the craziest thing they'd ever heard of. It's being taken seriously now.

GREENE: So seriously, in fact, that normally highly competitive garment maker types are coming together to talk about how to make organic cotton profitable. And how to get more of it into the marketplace.

BARON: Right now it's a feeding frenzy, there's no doubt about it.

GREENE: Alan Baron is with Ecosport -- a large manufacturer of organic cotton clothing. He says that since 1989, companies like Ecosport have increased their purchases of organic cotton, and what's called transitional cotton, tenfold.

BARON: We went from about 100 thousand pounds, hopefully we'll be doing about 2000 bales, which is about a million pounds, in less than three years.

GREENE: And, Baron says, consumers are turning up in the most unlikely places to buy organic cotton clothing.

BARON: If you went into New York City and you asked people, what's organic cotton, most people would not know, wouldn't have a clue. But it's popping up in Brooklyn. One of my best customers is in Brooklyn. I mean, you wouldn't think organic cotton in Brooklyn -- what a joke! But it sells great there.

(Sound of O-WEAR ad)

GREENE: O-WEAR is one of a handful of young companies making organic cotton clothing for men and women. Their items sell for between $30 and $80. This year O-WEAR made the leap from small boutiques to mainstream department stores.

(Sound of O-WEAR ad)

GREENE: A recent visit to the O-WEAR display at Macy's in San Francisco found that the clothing manufacturer's quirky radio ads -- aimed at the educated, thirtysomething crowd -- are on target.

CUSTOMER 1: I just prefer buying organic things whenever I can. Certainly in clothes, there isn't that much of an option, so I buy a lot of things, just regular clothes. But when I heard that they had this organic product and it feels very nice and doesn't seem to be much higher in price, it just seems like a good idea to support that.
CUSTOMER 2: I try to stay away from, or go to products that are more healing and feel less toxic.
GREENE: And even if it were higher priced than, say, conventional cotton -- would that faze you?
CUSTOMER 2: Doesn't make any difference. There's no price on my health nor the planet's health.

GREENE: Solid retail sales figures for organic cotton clothing are hard to come by, largely because the market is so young. This year O-WEAR sales are projected to fall just under $10 million dollars. That's double last year's figure. Observers say this kind of exponential growth will continue as the market establishes itself.

The forces pushing the organic cotton market aren't just coming from consumers. They're also coming from farmers and manufacturers. Julia Apodaca is a researcher with the Natural Fibers Research and Information Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Apodaca says farmers, too, are looking for alternatives to chemically-intensive farming. She says they're turned off by the high cost of pesticides and the fact that many of the chemicals they use make them sick.

APODACA: They're concerned about their own health, you know. Farmers get a lot of cancer. And they're also concerned about trying to keep up with environmental regulations. Things like disposal of pesticide containers or whatever. And if they don't use them, they don't have to worry about that.

GREENE: And while growers are busy exploring farming alternatives, manufacturers are looking for new ways to do business as well. George Akers is the found of O-WEAR. Earlier this year, Akers sold his tiny company to VF Corporation -- one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the country. Akers says what VF had in mind when they bought O-WEAR was having the company show them how to produce garments using less harmful processes -- processes that currently include acid washes, toxic dyes, and the use of resin and formaldehyde. Akers says what's driving these changes for VF Corporation is their feeling that ultimately many of their current manufacturing practices will be outlawed or too expensive to maintain.

AKERS: Everything they learn here then will go from O-WEAR to all the other companies they have: Meritee and Francois Jerbot, Wrangler, Lee, Jansen, Vanity Fair Intimate Apparel, Barbizon Intimate Apparel, Health-Tex Children's Clothes. Everything they learn from this one company then will go to all of the other divisions, and they'll implement these things in there. They'll find better ways of dyeing goods, and it's just the beginning of an evolution.

GREENE: Indeed, industry observers say the potential for organic cotton to impact major portions of the nation's farming and textile industries is real. Although organic cotton will never fully replace conventional, observers say its integration into the broader movement to decrease chemicals in the clothing industry will benefit purists and ordinary consumers alike. For Living on Earth, this is Claire Greene in San Francisco.

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Do Environmental Regulations Promote Economic Growth?

CURWOOD: With the resurgence of organic cotton, the marketplace is providing the incentive for a greener product that should help business and consumers alike, but what about mandatory rules? The current conventional wisdom says they can be a drag on the economy.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, political science professor Stephen Meyer studied the effect of environmental rules on economic growth in all 50 states. He came up with some surprising results.

MEYER: When you group the states in sort of three categories, environmentally strong, moderate and weak -- when you compare the strong with the weak, what you find is that on average the environmentally strong states outgrow, on all the indicators, the environmentally weak states by a factor of one and a half to two times. What's important to understand is the Council on Competitiveness, the Reagan-Bush Administrations, all were predicting a strong negative relationship and that could not be found anywhere on the data.

CURWOOD: Is this a cause-and-effect? Does this mean that if you have strong environmental policies, your economy and your state is going to flourish?

MEYER: It's too soon to talk about the question of cause and effect. But there's two directions of speculation. One is that states that tend to spend on environmental quality and tend to regulate their environment are also states that tend to invest in education and transportation and communications, and all of the other things that make a modern industrial economy work. So there may be a correlation there. The second direction of speculation is a bit more intriguing, and there really is some evidence for this. And it's the argument that environmental regulation is actually a stimulus for innovation, that it has a Darwinistic effect -- it weeds out weak, dying, inefficient, noncompetitive companies and allows those that are much stronger and robust and innovative to flourish in a new environment.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the New England region. We're right here in Massachusetts. Now in this region the environmentally weak state is New Hampshire. New Hampshire has had a tougher time in this recession than Massachusetts. Would you say these are linked, that the environment being weak in New Hampshire means that it has a tougher recession?

MEYER: Well, I think there's an even more interesting comparison, and that's the comparison between Vermont and New Hampshire. And up until the '70's or so, those two states were extremely similar in their, in all their economic and social characteristics -- they were called "Sister States," by many people. And what happened in the '80's is quite interesting. Where Vermont started to impose very strict environmental controls, not just on pollution, but land use, wetlands protection, wildlife protection -- New Hampshire maintained its sort of free, live-free-or-die philosophy. And as a result, in the '80's both states grew very well, both Vermont and New Hampshire grew very well. But when the recession came, all five of New Hampshire's major banks failed, and none of Vermont's did. And the question is, what happened? Well, it turns out that Vermont's tough environmental regulations prevented them from overspeculating in real estate development, where in New Hampshire there was literally no control on the construction of condos and shopping malls and business parks, and many developers overextended themselves and then went bankrupt. That didn't happen, and so the irony is: here is a case where environmental regulation, which originally business people argued stymied economic growth, turns out to have made a very big difference in how the financial stability and the construction and industry stability in Vermont compares to New Hampshire.

CURWOOD: What do you think that public policy people should do with this information you're created?

MEYER: Well, in my view the debate over whether environmentalism costs jobs has been going on for too long, and diverts attention from the serious issues. So we need to move away from that, and start to move forward. And it seems to me what we need to do now is think about those regulations, those controls that do hurt isolated industries, isolated communities, and ask how we can do things better to help those already in economic trouble. The issue should really not be how do we suspend environmental regulations to help them limp along just a little longer before they collapse, but rather, how do we integrate into our environmental policy an economic policy that revitalizes areas that are caught in this sort of old-industry problem. The timber industry in the Pacific Northwest is gonna shut down, and that time is coming, and we should be thinking about how those economies, those local economies and those industries can be helped now, and not pretend it's related to some owl living in a tree someplace.

CURWOOD: Stephen Meyer is a professor of political science at MIT. He's the author of a new study of the impact of environmental regulations on economic growth.

(Music up and under)

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CURWOOD: Signers of the international treaty to save the ozone layer recently agreed to speed up by four years the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons, including freon. Freon is responsible for much of the destruction of the ozone layer. It and other CFC's are currently used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The pressure from the treaty has led a number of companies beginning development of freon-free air conditioners. Reporter Chris Spurgeon, of member station WHYY, visited one of these companies in Philadelphia.

SPURGEON: ICC Technologies is so excited by their new air conditioner, they've even set up a working model, right in their conference room.

(Sound of machine starting up)

GROSS: This is the air that would go into the building, and this is the air exiting the building, this is the waste air, and it's coming out, discharging the air at 60 degrees, and it'll keep going down, and it'll probably cycle on down to about 54 degrees, which is just what you'd get off an air conditioning system.

SPURGEON: That's ICC chairman Irwin Gross and ICC's chief scientist, James Kollner. Their model air conditioner about the size of a coffee table, and the sides are made out of plexiglass; that's partly so you can see how the machine works, and partly to convince skeptics that there isn't a conventional air conditioner hidden somewhere inside. The heart of this system is what's called a desiccant, a chemical that absorbs moisture out of the air. It turns out it takes much less energy to cool dry air than it does air filled with moisture, so a simple heat exchanger can do all the actual cooling. There's no compressor, no rows of pipes filled with coolant, none of that stuff. Desiccant cooling has been around for decades, but Irwin Gross says turning that knowledge into a marketable product took four years of research.

GROSS: We had to find both a way of creating air conditioning, and too, the ability to do it cost-effectively. There's no information or body of knowledge in this application, so we had to develop all the engineering, all the designs, and all the application technology ourselves, and then teach people how to do it.

SPURGEON: A lot of the research into alternative air conditioning is being driven by the pending phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons. Those gases, commonly called CFC's, provide the cooling in traditional air conditioners. But when those systems leak, or are thrown out, the CFC's escape into the upper atmosphere, where they damage the earth's protective ozone layer. Joseph Martorano, a senior engineer with the Philadelphia Electric Company, says a desiccant system avoids all of that.

MARTORANO: It doesn't get released, it's permanently sealed inside these packets, and what happens is that it just absorbs moisture, and all you wind up releasing to the atmosphere is hot, moist air that you're sending out to get cool, fresh, dry air, and that's the environmental benefit of it. There's no CFC's, there's no worry for ozone depletion, and in the long haul, they last a lot longer than CFC air conditioners will, because the desiccants last longer, they're just regenerating themselves constantly by being reheated.

SPURGEON: Desiccant systems are also more energy-efficient, which is particularly important for one of ICC's biggest customers --- the supermarket industry. A supermarket can spend ten thousand dollars a month, just on air conditioning, and even a small increase in efficiency can make a big difference in profits. Gross says a new desiccant cooling system would cost a supermarket about what a conventional air conditioner costs, and it saves enough energy to pay for itself in a couple of years. They can also be used in other buildings that are about the same size, such as small office buildings. If all this sounds too good to be true, you're right. Desiccant cooling systems aren't perfect. Many of them still need to incorporate a small conventional CFC-using air conditioner that acts as an auxiliary unit for particularly hot days. They don't work well in large buildings, like skyscrapers, and it'll be several years before you can get one for your house. But Martorano says, by the end of the century, when CFC's are banned, units like these should be ready.

MARTORANO: At the very short term, you'll get people like ICC and the other companies out there who right now are looking at these ideas, hopefully getting themselves established enough in the marketplace that they're there, and able to take up the load. So hopefully there won't be a wild scramble at the end. Everybody's just starting to ramp up.

SPURGEON: Right now, ICC may still be a bit ahead of their time. They've sold about 45 of their units so far, and at this point the company's still in the red. But company officials say they have even more energy-efficient units on the drawing board, and they expect to begin making a profit by the end of this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Spurgeon in Philadelphia.

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(Music up and under)

Listener Comments

CURWOOD: And now, comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our chat with Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson about his new book, The Diversity of Life, prompted several reactions, especially to Wilson's view that all lifeforms should be preserved because they may prove useful to human beings. Phil Round, of Wilson, Wyoming, gave us a call.

ROUND: I heard with interest the interview with Edward O. Wilson. But I think it is a little overly scientific and anthropocentric. It would be nice to broaden up the viewpoints to include the notion, I would sum it up to say that the Native American or indigenous peoples' notions of the spirit that moves in all things and tie those into some of the reasons for environmental preservation. Thanks, `bye.

(Phone click, beep)

MORRIS: Hi, this is Lindsay Morris from Cincinnati, Ohio. I just listened to the article on saving paper in California's legal system, and I thought it was praiseworthy, but remarkably short-sighted. There was no suggestion that the courts be allowed to accept documents electronically. That of course would save tons of paper over double-sided or recycled paper.

CURWOOD: And after we aired an interview with music composer and environmentalist Paul Winter, Deanna Moss, who teaches at the Summit School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sent us a note: "While working late in my classroom and listening, as usual, to my local NPR station," Moss wrote, " I slipped into a mode of increasing attentiveness as Paul Winter's familiar music was overlaid by his less familiar speaking voice. In moments, the impact of his words arrested my puttering motion and I sank into a chair, nodding in agreement with the simple yet profound truths he was expressing.

As our school has tried to focus this year on environmentally sound practices, the monster Winter called 'unnecessary consumption' repeatedly rears its head as one of the most virulent diseases of our time."

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have any comments, questions or concerns, give us a call on our listener line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

(Music out; segue to theme under)

Our director is Debra Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Colleen Singer and engineers Laurie Azaria, Jennifer Loeb and Peter Lydotes. The editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of 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 under funding credits)


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