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

September 10, 1993

Air Date: September 10, 1993


Clinton's CO2 Plan / John Greenberg

John Greenberg reports from Washington on the White House's struggle to craft a plan to reduce greenhouse gases. The plan was due in August, but the administration has been unable to cut through the still-raging debate among lobbyists, and within its own ranks, over jobs versus the environment. (06:32)

The Geography of Nowhere

Host Steve Curwood talks with author and journalist James Howard Kunstler about his book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Kunstler claims that America's cities, towns and landscape have been sacrificed to cars, property rights and overly individualistic values. Kunstler says the degradation of our everyday environment has led to deep social and economic problems, but is rarely part of policy discussions. (06:02)

Amsterdam Axes the Auto / Steven Beard

Steven Beard reports on a plan to gradually cut in half the number of cars in downtown Amsterdam. Cyclists and canal boat operators number among those who support the change, but many citizens have greeted the plan with less enthusiasm. Amsterdam merchants predict that eliminating the convenience of cars will spell death to the city's economy. (08:29)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Ed Hula, Keith Shortall, Stephen Beard, Jon Greenberg
GUEST: James Howard Kunstler

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The automobile - it seems to give us individual freedom, but some say it's led to ruined landscapes and communities.

KUNSTLER: We've taken all the functions of civic life - shopping, cultural institutions, sports, you name it, and smeared them all over the countryside, so we've made each the worst of each world - the countryside is no longer the country and the town is no longer the town.

CURWOOD: To fight this, cities such as Amsterdam are sharply cutting back on cars.

PISTOR: Whenever a road is being resurfaced in the city, now the policy is already to take away space from the car traffic and give it to pedestrians and cyclists but also to areas where people can sit, and watch, and spend their leisure time.

CURWOOD: Cars, communities and congestion, on Living on Earth - right after the news.

Environmental News

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

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has asked US trade officials to delay sanctions against China and Taiwan, despite evidence of continued trade in endangered tiger and rhinoceros parts. Babbitt has certified that the two countries are liable for sanctions under US law, but he says both are trying to stop the illegal wildlife trade, and should be given a chance to make further progress. Tiger and rhino populations have been decimated in recent years, in part to satisfy the Asian market for folk medicines. Babbitt's action came a day after Indian police seized half a ton of tiger bones and animal skins, reportedly en route to China.

An Arkansas jury has ordered the DuPont Company to pay millions of dollars to 23 growers who said their ornamental plants were damaged by a DuPont chemical. The fungicide Benlate is the subject of hundreds of lawsuits. Ed Hula has the story.

HULA: At one time, DuPont's Benlate was a popular chemical used by growers to control disease. But after widespread complaints about crop damage, DuPont stopped selling the chemical in 1991. Initially, the company paid hundreds of millions of dollars in claims to growers, but last year, saying it had evidence Benlate did not damage plants, the company stopped the payments. Since then, more than 400 lawsuits have been filed against DuPont. The Arkansas case is the first to be decided by a jury. The jury ordered DuPont to pay the growers $10.6 million dollars - a million more than they hadsought. DuPont says it will appeal. Another in the string of trials is underway in Florida. There, growers charge Benlate caused more than a billion dollars in damage. For Living on Earth, I'm Ed Hula.

NUNLEY: Brazilian and Venezuelan officials continue to sort out the details of a recent massacre of Yanomami Indians in a remote section of the Amazon jungle. The Brazilian government has cut its estimate of the number killed from 73 to 16, and Venezuela is now saying the crime occurred inside its borders. Even so, Brazilian police have arrested one gold miner suspected in the killings.

Fifty years after it sank in a storm, divers are starting to salvage a cargo of mercury from a shipwreck off the coast of southern Maine. Documents indicate the boat may have been carrying eight tons of the toxic metal, although the exact amount isn't known. Keith Shortall of Maine Public Broadcasting has the story.

(Sound of vacuum pump)

SHORTALL: Using an underwater vacuum system, divers have retrieved more than 600 pounds of the toxic metal from the ship, the "Empire Knight," and continue to search for more. Biologists say that in its present form, any mercury still left in the wreck poses no immediate risk to marine life or to humans. But they say bacteria or chemicals present in seawater can convert the metal into a form that's more easily passed up through the food chain. Several Federal agencies are still analyzing sediment and tissue samples to assess whether mercury has contaminated the area. The Coast Guard is trying to determine the owner of the vessel, in hopes of recovering cleanup costs, which to date have reached three million dollars. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Shortall, in Portland, Maine.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

Visitors to national parks could be paying more, if parts of the Clinton Administration's plans for restructuring the Federal Government are adopted. The money-saving plan calls for lifting limits on admissions fees, and imposing new fees at facilities that don't charge now. Some park advocates fear that might limit public access to national parks, but others say the increase is fair, if the government also keeps some other pledges - to hike fees for park concessionaires, and put the revenue from both measures into park improvements.

Citizens would be able to sue water supply polluters, instead of waiting for government action, under the Clinton Administration's plan to revamp the Safe Drinking-Water Act. The plan would also loosen regulations on some communities to ease compliance with the law, and allow communities which take extra steps to protect their water supplies to then reduce monitoring and treatment. The administration also wants to establish a loan fund and allow states to charge higher fees to help pay for water supply improvements. The Safe Drinking-Water Act is up for renewal by Congress.

Britons with a lifelong commitment to ecology may soon be able to continue contributing to the environment from beyond the grave. An entrepreneur in the north of England is planning to provide green burials. Stephen Beard reports from London.

BEARD: An art gallery manager from Yorkshire is behind the scheme. Jeremy Ripton is planning to open a "forest of the dead." The deceased will be buried under a tree, so that nutrients from the unembalmed corpse will enrich the soil. Customers may book their tree in advance and when they're at rest, a selection of wild flowers will be sown above them. Optional extras include a small tombstone shaped like a mushroom. The project has already attracted an investment of $150,000, and the backing of the head of medical microbiology at Leeds University. He has already criticized cremation as environmentally unfriendly and describes cemeteries as a waste of land. For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in London.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Clinton's CO2 Plan

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

When President Clinton came into office, he brought bold intentions to fight the threat of global warming from carbon gas emissions. First he proposed a broad tax on energy that would have encouraged the conservation of carbon-rich fossil fuels, and then he promised to have ready by August a detailed plan to cut greenhouse gases. Both moves marked a sharp break with the Bush Administration, which had balked at international pressure to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels. Well, the President's energy plan died in the Senate, and August has come and gone without a specific greenhouse plan in sight. As Jon Greenberg reports from Washington, there are a number of sticking points - not the least of which is cars.

GREENBERG: The Administration's goal is to stop Americans from putting about a hundred million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. That's roughly the difference between what the country released in 1990 and what, if nothing is done, it's projected to release in the year 2000. For environmentalists, Mr. Clinton's plan is the litmus test of his commitment to prevent global warming. People familiar with the wrangling inside the Administration over what the plan should include say the White House has separated proposals into three categories: the easy ones, the tough ones, and the non-starters. In the easy column are such things as encouraging the use of more efficient lighting and setting efficiency standards for many kinds of equipment. These ideas are likely to end up in the plan. The fate of items listed as tough is decidedly murkier. A prime example is increasing the fuel efficiency of cars. Dan Becker, with the Sierra Club, says his group will judge the President on the basis of how his plan deals with that.

BECKER: The President basically has a challenge. There are, he can piece together a series of relatively modest steps, each of which gets you one or two percent of the way toward the goal, or he can do a few of those and add to that the biggest single step to curbing global warming, which is making our cars go further on a gallon of gas. And that's really the big challenge for the Administration in that effort. Are they going to bite the bullet and take on the auto industry?

GREENBERG: The auto industry is lobbying hard against mandatory increases. Mike Stanton with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association warns that a hike in the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard would hurt sales and cost jobs.

STANTON: The scientific community is divided on the effects of global warming, and therefore we don't think that it's prudent to take any draconian steps or any steps that would disrupt our economic recovery or cause hardship, unless those are warranted and quite honestly the science is not there yet to warrant those actions. So we ought to be taking steps that will eliminate or mitigate CO2 formation, but those steps that make sense from an economic viewpoint.

GREENBERG: The debate over cars is directly linked to another contentious topic - should the plan include measures to reduce emissions below 1990 levels? Environmentalists say after the turn of the century emissions should continue to go down. And they say the only way to do that is by tackling transportation. Scott Hajost, with the Environmental Defense Fund, is concerned that the Administration will try to duck the issue.

HAJOST: I think I've seen a number that approximately 30 percent of US carbon dioxide emissions come from the transport sector. There's a variety of ways that you can get at that CAFE. As one important tool, we would hope that then there are opportunities for the Administration to do something more serious in the transportation sector, which really is critical, not only for the United States, but other industrialized countries, of really reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the period post-2000.

GREENBERG: The environmental community says the President's plan must establish the momentum for deeper reductions, or it will fail to meet the country's obligations under the Global Warming Treaty signed in Brazil at the Earth Summit. But representatives of most industry groups, not just the automobile companies, don't see the need for further reductions. That includes utility companies. Robert Beck of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade organization, says his members don't even accept the need for the President's minimal goal of capping emissions in the year 2000.

BECK: We haven't agreed to that specific goal. What we've agreed to is that we would reduce emissions in the most cost-effective manner that we can. We're not sure that that will get us to the exact goal of the 1990 levels in the year 2000, but we do have programs that we've implemented to specifically reduce greenhouse gases or to sequester carbon, that means to work with forestry management and agricultural management to try to take some of the carbon dioxide out of the air rather than specifically focus on emissions.

GREENBERG: Beck's idea of sequestering carbon by such means as planting trees has many supporters in industry. They also think the plan should include incentives to build energy-efficient power plants and factories overseas. They argue that if those facilities produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases than what would have otherwise been built, that's a benefit. Environmentalists think both proposals add up to a giant loophole. The Sierra Club's Dan Becker says polluters would use it to avoid their obligations under whatever plan emerges from the White House.

BECKER: Some of them would prefer that rather than reducing pollution here at home, we should plant trees in, say, Guatemala and then get credit for the amount of carbon dioxide that is turned into wood and leaves in those trees. That really is an appalling concept. The global warming problem is a pollution problem. The way to solve that problem is by reducing the pollution, not by paper transactions with other countries that are unenforceable and probably won't work to reduce the problem anyway.

GREENBERG: Lobbyists on many sides of the issue say debates within the White House have been intense. They have described people such as Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Deputy Budget Director Alice Rivlin as pro-business. On the other side, industry lobbyists say they are afraid that Vice-President Gore is pressing for more aggressive measures. The debate over the plan to control greenhouse gases breaks down along the old lines of environment versus the economy. President Clinton promised during the campaign that his policies would end that conflict. The delay in drafting this plan underscores how difficult it has been for him to keep that promise. For Living on Earth, this is Jon Greenberg in Washington.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

The Geography of Nowhere

CURWOOD: As the debate over greenhouse gases illustrates, the car stands at the center of much of American politics. It's also been one of the most powerful forces in the reshaping of the American landscape. The ability to cover long distances in a short period of time has led to mindless sprawl. Those changes are the subject of the latest book by author and journalist James Howard Kunstler. It's called The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, and it's a chronicle of soul-less shopping centers and decaying cities, all organized around the automobile. James Kunstler joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, New York. Thanks for joining us.

KUNSTLER: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: In essence, you're saying that American has been ruined.

KUNSTLER: Well, our everyday surroundings have been. There are two things wrong with them. We've created thousands of places in America that are not worth caring about. That's largely a design problem. The second thing is, we've thrown our civic life into the garbage can. In my view it's bankrupting us economically, spiritually, and socially. The hidden costs of our living arrangement in America, the costs are tremendous, and we are suffering terribly.

CURWOOD: For instance?

KUNSTLER: Well, where I live, we built a new junior high school, and we built it four miles out of town on a busy county highway. The kids are forbidden to ride their bikes there, or walk there. They might as well be flushed to school through a pipe and then flushed home at 3:00. They have nothing to do with the town, they're not connected to the civic life of the town anymore, and this impoverishes their lives. It especially impoverishes their developing sense of personal sovereignty; they don't see adults going about in their everyday walks of life, acting normally and decently. Many of them don't see adults doing this until they're 18 and out of school. And then we wonder why they don't know how to behave. So that's a direct consequence, a social consequence. Another is, every little hamlet, every town in America has to operate a mass transit system that operates only two times a day for people under 18. It's called the school bus fleet. The costs of these things are unbelievable and we can't bear the costs any more.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the cost to the natural environment?

KUNSTLER: Well, we've succeeded in destroying the countryside at the same time that we've emptied our towns and cities of their civic life. We've taken all the functions of civic life - shopping, cultural institutions, sports, you name it - and smeared them all over the countryside, so we destroy good rural land at the same time that we really eviscerate our cities. And so we've made each the worst of each world - the countryside's no longer the country, and the town is no longer the town.

CURWOOD: Now, how did this happen?

KUNSTLER: Well, it was partly a result of what I call a position of extreme individualism in our culture. In America, land was always viewed solely as a commodity for profit. It was real estate, something to be bought and sold and exploited. It was not viewed as a sacred trust or as a resource to be preserved for generations to follow, nor was it viewed as part of a larger social organism, like a town. And this view also tended to denigrate the importance of the public realm, the streets, other public places that held together all the little private parcels of real estate. Hence in America today, streets are devoted almost exclusively to the happiness of cars, and towns have become automobile storage depots that only incidentally contain other things, like houses, shops, and schools.

CURWOOD: A lot of people live in these horrible places. Don't you think they care about their environment?

KUNSTLER: I think people care deeply about the everyday environment, the places where they live and work. But I think they're having a very hard time articulating their distress about this. It's been three generations now since we've been living in this car-based environment, and our cultural memory has really been impaired. We no longer really know how to build good places. I think the proof that we're unable to think about this issue is the fact that we are not talking about how we physically live in this country in our ongoing economic debate.

CURWOOD: So what's to be done about this?

KUNSTLER: Well, for starters we're going to have to rethink our zoning laws and our building regulations, and some of our cherished beliefs, especially about cars, so that we can build coherent towns and neighborhoods that are worth caring about. Americans know in their bones what it takes to make a good town a good place to live. You know, they go to Main Street USA in DIsneyland and they like the way it feels there, or they go to places like Charleston or Annapolis, Maryland, or little towns in Vermont . . .

CURWOOD: What are they like there?

KUNSTLER: Well, they love the intimacy of these places, they like the relationships between the buildings and streets and the buildings and each other, and they know that these places make them feel good. But their instincts about how to build are at odds with their building practices and their laws. It's against the zoning laws to build places like the ones I've just described.

CURWOOD: You've said that part of the problem is that we regard the land as something to be exploited, as private property to be passed around. Should people be able to own land or should we have a society that's more like the Native American culture, in which people hold the land in trust?

KUNSTLER: I think it's a little unrealistic to suppose that we're not going to have property ownership. But I do think that we, in some cases, may have to tell some people what they can and cannot do with their land. And we are going to have to think of land less as a civil liberty and more as a social resource.

CURWOOD: Thank you. James Howard Kunstler is author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Jim, thanks for joining us on Living on Earth.

KUNSTLER: Thanks for having me, Steve.

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(Music up and under)

Amsterdam Axes the Auto

CURWOOD: If some feel society is already enslaved by automobiles, they can look to even more dominance by cars in the future. If present trends continue over the next fifteen years, many industrialized countries will double the number of cars in their city centers. But some cities are trying to buck that trend with a number of measures from parking restrictions to outright bans of cars from some areas. One of the most radical projects is underway in the Netherlands' capital, Amsterdam, where the city council is aiming to cut downtown traffic in half over the next ten years. We sent reporter Stephen Beard to check it out.

(Sound of bell and traffic)

BEARD: The Muntoren, or Mintower, has graced the Amsterdam landscape for four hundred years. But today, the silvery peal of the tower bell competes with an ever-encroaching din.

(Sound of traffic)

PISTOR: Amsterdam is an historical city. It treasures its inner city, which is mainly 16th and 17th-century.

BEARD: Rob Pistor, a city official.

PISTOR: It has great value in terms of our cultural heritage, in terms of historical identity. But the increase of car traffic over the past 20, 30 years has suffocated the city.

(Sound of boat horns, canal traffic)

BEARD: This is the kind of traffic Amsterdam was built for - barges that ply the cobweb of canals. The waterways dictate the layout of the city. Unlike most European capitals, there are no broad avenues and expansive squares - only narrow streets that hug the canals, a labyrinth of humpbacked bridges. Picturesque it may be, but it's especially prey to the evils of the motor car - congestion, fumes and noise.

PISTOR: In a narrow city, small city with narrow streets like this, the noise produced by car traffic is enormous and the conflict between traffic and having a nice place to live in is, the conflict is enormous at the moment.

BEARD: Last year, for the first time in its history, Amsterdam held a referendum. The citizens were asked to adopt a radical plan - to cut car traffic in the city center by half over the next decade. Most of the voters said yes.

MAN 1: I think it's a very good idea. People can hardly walk when they're shopping or just for fun going there. You have to jump sideways to avoid the cars.
MAN 2: I think it's very good idea, there are getting more and more cars in town. It's dangerous, it's dirty, it's ugly. I like space, even in a city you must have space, and cars don't make space, they take space.
WOMAN 1: For me it's not so good because I have my shop here. I need people to come in front of my shop to get the materials so they can't park their cars here, it's bad for business! (Laughs)

BEARD: The plan did not receive a ringing endorsement. 53% said yes, but 46% said no. And only a quarter of the residents bothered to vote. Faced with this mixture of apathy and opposition, the City Council decided to proceed with caution, and squeeze the motor car slowly out of the center, as Rob Pistor explains.

PISTOR: Whenever a road is being or a street is being resurfaced in the city, now the policy is already to take away space from the car traffic and give it to pedestrians and cyclists but also to areas that people can sit and watch and spend their leisure time. So already there is a program going on of reducing car space slowly, step by step, because if you do it like a big bang then you get an enormous backlash, you get enormous opposition from one group or another and the city cannot afford that.

(Sound of ambulance siren)

BEARD: Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and taxis will, under the plan, have unlimited access to the city center. Small business vans will be permitted to load and unload for short periods. But eventually, only the handicapped and the elderly residents will be able to park inside the three square miles within the inner ring of canals. The council says it will expand public transport. There will be more tram lines for the street cars, and a new metro. There will be more parking lots on the outskirts of the city. The council believes that in the new unpolluted environment, the economy will boom. But many shopkeepers in central Amsterdam, like Andre Wilment, are forecasting disaster.

WILMENT: It will damage the economic center. Absolutely. Because there are, in Holland we have many, many shopping centers out of the city with good parking places. So if it will be more difficult to enter the center of Amsterdam, they are looking forward to the other centers.
BEARD: People won't come into Amsterdam?
WLIMENT: No. Maybe only for the museum and maybe for an evening out, and then you get a dead city.

BEARD: The Chamber of Commerce, representing most of the shops, restaurants, and small offices in the center, is equally apocalyptic. Chairman Walter van der Kolk is predicting huge job losses.

VAN DER KOLK: If I tell you that there are now 80,000 jobs in the city center and that amount will diminish to 60,000 and so 20,000 jobs will go away as a result of the reducing the car traffic.

(Sound of bicycle traffic)

BEARD: The cyclists, on the other hand, are jubilant. And there are more than a quarter of a million of them regularly using their bikes in Amsterdam. Jos Lousman, who runs a cycle hire shop, took me on a tandem ride around the city.

LOUSMAN: I am very much in favor of reducing cars in town. I like it of course, more quiet and more clean in town. And the wider and the bigger the bicycle paths and lanes are, the better I can ride my bicycle.
BEARD: And is it a good town for bicycling?
LOUSMAN: I think it's the perfect town to ride a bicycle. You know how many bicycles we have in Holland? It's more than there are people, so, bicycles are an important way of transport, people going to their work, people going everywhere. We're going to the right.

(Sound of tour guide, in Dutch, then: "We're now entering the old city center of Amsterdam and we're coming on to the Prince's Canal which is one of the three main canals . . ." fade under)

BEARD: Canal boat operators also welcome the attack on car traffic. Peter Sul runs the Museum Boat, an all-day, hop-on-and-off service. It's aimed primarily at tourists, but he says the locals are increasingly resorting to the waterways to get around town.

SUL: The Museum Boat is really the future of Amsterdam. It's not for only sightseeing function, but the public transport value will increase because more and more it's getting difficult to enter into the city by car. We think that even Amsterdam people will get aware of the fact that the canals are there for the transport, and will use the boats that can bring them to wherever they work, to the office or the shops or wherever they'd like to go to.

(Street organ music, fade under)

BEARD: Most other European capitals are also squeezing out the car, forever increasing their pedestrian precincts. But no plan is more radical than Amsterdam's. The city presents an important test case. If excluding the car doesn't work here, where hundreds of thousands already use bicycles and the canals are yet another alternative, it won't work anywhere. City planners around the world will be watching and listening to see whether the Dutch capital's celebrated street music will eventually drown out the cacophony of car horns. For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in Amsterdam.

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(Fade out organ music, fade up theme music)

CURWOOD: Your comments are music to our ears; you can phone them in to our listener comment line, at 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. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our director is Deborah Stavro. We had help from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Reyna Lounsbury and Jessica Belameera. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help from Gary Waleik and Bob Connolly. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include the National Science Foundation, for coverage of science in the environment; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy; the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Additional contributors include the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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