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

August 5, 1994

Air Date: August 5, 1994


Need for Nature

Host Steve Curwood explores the “biophilia hypothesis” — a new scientific theory which says people depend on the variety of life . . . other animal and plant species . . . for their well-being. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, a chief proponent of the theory, says that, if he’s right, preserving biological diversity could be the key to future human survival. (14:15)

Munching Central Park / Joe Richman

We follow Steve Brill through New York’s Central Park, where he helps school children identify the bounty of edible plants growing there. Tour and tour-guide stop to taste several varieties from this unlikely urban supermarket. (06:53)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jennifer Schmidt, Mike Shatz, Joe Richman
GUESTS: Edward O. Wilson, Steven Kellert

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Poets, philosophers, and artists have long extolled the beauty of nature. Now biologist Edward O. Wilson wonders if our loves and fears of the natural world are pre-programmed responses passed down through our genes.

WILSON: People readily develop phobias, deep, aversive responses to snakes, to spiders, and to dogs, but not to the dangers that actually surround us in modern, urban civilization. Not the knives, not the guns.

CURWOOD: And looking for edible plants in an unlikely spot: Central Park.

BRILL: It's called wood sorrel. It tastes like lemon. [Kids: "ooh, ooh!"] Everyone's going to get some. And then you're going to see if you can find some of your own.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this summary of environmental news. About 47,000 people are expected to die this year from heart disease linked to breathing other people's cigarette smoke. Research presented in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology also predicts that as many as 150,000 people will have non-fatal heart attacks associated with second-hand smoke. The author of the report, A. Judson Wells, is a volunteer consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, and the American Lung Association. For this study, Dr. Wells used the same statistical method that the EPA used in a 1992 report, which found that 3,000 people die each year from lung cancer linked to secondhand smoke. The tobacco industry questions the accuracy of that earlier study.

Kaiser Aluminum is fighting a worker's compensation award to an employee who says his cancer was caused by on the job exposure to electromagnetic fields. It's the first time such a claim has been allowed in the US. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt has more.

SCHMIDT: James Brewer is suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, cancer he says was caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields during 16 years of work at a Kaiser Aluminum smelter in Tacoma, Washington. Although ruling in his favor, the State Department of Labor says it didn't consider the cause of Brewer's illness. Rather, it approved the claim because Kaiser Aluminum failed to submit any counter-evidence. Still, since Brewer won in the first round, Labor Department spokesman Steve Valandra says in the appeal hearing, Kaiser will bear the burden of proving electromagnetic fields did not cause the cancer.

VALANDRA: Kaiser will have to come up with enough evidence to say that the medical evidence, either in the majority or overwhelmingly, shows that EMF is not a cause of cancer, particularly in this case. Whether they have it right now, I don't know.

SCHMIDT: In the past, this burden of proof has been on the workers, and it's been nearly impossible for them to show their cancer was caused by electromagnetic fields. Louis Slesson, the editor of a national newsletter on the issue, says now Kaiser Aluminum could have an equally tough time disproving the link.

SLESSON: We're in a very uncertain area of science when it comes to electromagnetic fields. What we do know, which I think will make it very hard for Kaiser, is that there are over 100 different epidemiological studies of occupation exposures to electromagnetic fields, that show increased incidence of cancer among those workers.

SCHMIDT: Still, Kaiser insists it has the medical and scientific evidence to win the case. And the State Department of Labor has denied the claims of 6 other Kaiser Aluminum workers who said their cancer was caused by electromagnetic fields. State labor officials are downplaying the significance of their original ruling in the Brewer case, and say reversals on appeal are not uncommon. They are expected to hear that appeal this September. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

Officials say Japan won't meet its Earth Summit pledge to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 without new taxes to curb fossil fuel use. From Tokyo, Mike Shatz reports.

SHATZ: The environment agency says Japan's annual CO2 emissions in the year 2000 will top 1990 levels by 3% in the best-case scenario. But the report says it's more likely that greenhouse gas emissions will be 14% above the target if current trends continue. Reaching the goal will be hard to achieve, environmental officials say, because Japan has already done so much to curb its CO2 emissions. The nation's prolonged recession also continues to choke investment in alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. The officials are hoping that their report will revive calls for a green tax on fossil fuels. Japanese environmental officials say the tougher global economic climate is also likely to make it harder for other developed countries to meet their greenhouse gas targets. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: The number of Texas sea turtles drowned in shrimping nets has dropped sharply since the National Marine Fisheries Service temporarily stepped up inspections of shrimp boats. Agents were called in from all over the Southeast after more than 50 turtles died within days of the start of shrimping season. Agents boarded almost 200 boats, checking for turtle-safe nets, and confiscated $170,000 worth of shrimp from a handful of violators.

Well, it's not just in our pockets and belly buttons any more. Lint is eating away at our nation's caves. TheWall Street Journal reports that hundreds of pounds of lint are left behind by visitors to commercial caves in the US. The stuff is more than aesthetically displeasing; it can act as an agent for harmful acids, which gradually dissolve the delicate stone formations. In Carlsbad Caverns, officials organize week-long lint-picking expeditions. Tweezers in hand they are fighting the problem one lint ball at a time.

That's this summary of environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Need for Nature

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

(Running water, bird song)

CURWOOD: The pleasure of flowers. The fear of the dark. These are such universal human responses that it's hard to think that science would need to explain them. But there is growing scientific interest in the idea that responses to nature have been passed down through human evolution. That they are embedded in our genes. Edward O. Wilson.

WILSON: Sure, everybody likes nature. They will travel hundreds of miles just to stand on a seashore and see a sunset. They will crowd into national parks after traveling other hundreds of miles and so on. They have this powerful attraction. If not that, then they must go fishing; they must go hunting, or its equivalent, bird-watching and the like. This is an extremely important part of human life. And I believe then the specificity of this tells us a great deal about who we are as a species, and what we really need from the world around us.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard biologist and a 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Fifteen years ago he coined the term biophilia to describe his theory that we as humans, in fact, all life forms, have a natural need to respond to other life forms. We all share the same basic system of genetic codes, whether we're lowly bacteria, majestic oak trees, or brilliant mathematicians. And we evolve together in ecosystems. So, Professor Wilson says, it's only natural that we should have a built-in relationship to other parts of the living world. Attractions and fears which are far stronger than those evoked by our own creations.

(Orchestral music)

CURWOOD: You scan your local front page as you hustle to get ready for work. A fiery car crash has killed a married couple and left their 2 children clinging to life in a hospital. How horrible, you think, as you rush out the door and into your own car. You don't have a second thought about getting in and heading out onto the freeway. There's no impulsive fear at the sight of the potentially deadly machine, or the sound of its revving engine, though more than 100 people are killed in car crashes in the US every day. But as you turn to back out of your driveway and glance at the back shelf, you gasp in horror and freeze at the sight of a giant spider. After composing yourself for a second or two, you look more closely and notice that it's not moving. Still closer inspection makes you feel quite stupid; it's made of plastic. A joke left by your kids.

WILSON: It's a remarkable fact that we have the propensity to develop phobias, meaning deep, autonomic, averse response. Cold sweats. Panic. The inability to shed them with therapy. For the ancient naturally, natural enemies of humankind, for example, people readily develop phobias, deep, aversive responses to snakes, to running water, to closed spaces, to heights, spiders, and to dogs, but not to the dangers that actually surround us in modern, urban civilization. Not the knives, not the guns, and not to electric sockets or speeding automobiles.

CURWOOD: Professor Wilson says primitive responses are logical, because the human brain evolved in a world of plants and animals. Not a world of machines and asphalt. And compared to the hundreds of thousands of years humans have forged on Earth, it's been just a blink of an eye since agriculture and industry began to separate us from the rest of the natural world. Still, he says, it's a tough idea to embrace. Especially tough, perhaps, for scientists.

(Human ululation; sounds spooky and meditative at once)

WILSON: Biophilia is very much related to emotions, and furthermore, to emotions that are very ancient and not easily expressed because they fall outside this sphere of social intercourse. And therefore very difficult to put into words.

CURWOOD: For Professor Wilson, the question gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Are we a part of nature? Or do our intellectual, cultural, and technical capabilities place us beyond nature? He says the question is crucial today because so many plants, animals, and natural places are disappearing, never to return.

WILSON: There are 2 fundamentally different, even polar views of humanity's place in the world. One of them has us as being completely freed from nature, and therefore any world that we make that could be moderately comfortable and interesting in, then that might be free of nature, is humanity's destiny. We make our own destiny. The other very different view is that we are part of nature, that our mind has evolved, so as to be affiliated closely with the remainder of life and dependent upon certain configurations of it and an abundance of it and a great variety of it. That, that type of response to nature was of great survival value through the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and it cannot be erased by concrete buildings and high tech. So that is the question before us today. Which of those 2 human species are we?

(Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring)

CURWOOD: The spring breeze rustles the new leaves and fills the air with the sweet, unmistakable scent. A group of early humans scans the area, committing the location of the flowering trees to memory. They know that where there are flowers now, there are likely to be fruits or nuts in another few months. This is a place to remember. Another group of modern humans is also eager to capture a memory of such a place. They spill off a tour bus. Cameras are clicking; it's just the right time to get pictures of the famous cherry blossoms along the tidal basin in their nation's capitol. Professor Wilson says it just makes sense, really. We call it instinct when a dog chases a cat. But the very qualities which we like to think separate us from other animals - reason and enlightenment - often cause us not to recognize our own instincts. Steven Kellert is a professor of environmental studies at Yale University, who recently edited a book of essays on biophilia with Professor Wilson.

KELLERT: It's a type of predisposition, if you will, a genetic tendency which are greatly influenced by human experience, culture, and in effect learning, and in the absence of cultural and experiential support it can become atrophied and stunted.

CURWOOD: Isn't this something that people have known and written about for centuries?

KELLERT: I think so. I think that we've intuitively recognized it to a large degree, certainly poets and philosophers have been very articulate and persuasive and profound in extolling the way in which humans derive emotional and intellectual sustenance from their relationship to nature. But I think that we haven't demonstrated it, particularly in a scientific way. I think we also haven't identified the full range of ways in which we derive benefit from nature, from our aesthetic appreciation of nature, which we often think of as a cultured or cultivated trait rather than something that has a biological basis.

(Music with percussion, rattles, drums)

CURWOOD: A herd of gazelles grazes peacefully on an African plain. Some of the graceful, slender animals catch a break from the blazing tropical sun under a grove of trees. Others seem to be drinking from a small pond: a rare find if it's really there. Suddenly, almost as one, their heads snap up. Their ears twitch. Their noses tests the soft breeze. Another minute, and the herd is racing away, a cloud of horns, flanks and tails flying across the landscape.

(Birdsong, crickets)

CURWOOD: To tourists watching from afar through high-powered binoculars, it's a once in a lifetime experience: the natural world at its most glorious and untamed. To a small band of their ancestors crossing the plain 5,000 generations before, it's also a meaningful experience. If they can catch one of the gazelles they'll eat for a couple of days. Even if they don't, the herd provides crucial information about the environment. It says water is here, and their placid grazing at first indicated that the area was safe: no lions or other predators around. And then their sudden flight also warned the relatively unprotected humans to be on guard for a possible threat.

(Percussive music returns)

CURWOOD: So, not only did other animals and plants give humans food and materials, they also told us about resources and threats in our surroundings. The early humans that learn these lessons well were favored for survival. Professor Wilson says we carry these ancient lessons with us today, in our near-universal human desires to have contact with certain animals, foods, even landscapes.

WILSON: The reason why is very much a question of evolution. The prevailing idea is that humanity evolved in savannah, park land, along the edge of water, with bunches of trees available for retreat but with an open prospect all around to see potential food, game, and enemies. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that we have very strong residue of that type of preference alive within us today. And here we have something that does run across cultures from Babylon to MesoAmerica, back to the formal gardens of Europe and on to the exquisite gardens of old China and Japan, where we find people typically building small or sometimes large houses that serve as retreats, surrounded by vegetation, and looking out over swards with beautifully arranged trees and ponds, or lakes. And to, in many cases, animals, from peacocks to cattle and horses. And so this appears to be a configuration which arises many times.

CURWOOD: Some might say that these are just nice things that you described. Well of course, it's obvious that people like some water and some trees, but that doesn't mean it's biophilia or some scientific theory.

WILSON: Yes. What is pleasant to people, what they accept and what they have been drawn to all their lives seems perfectly obvious, so what's the need of an explanation? This is the same category of why is sugar sweet? And that might seem to be a trivial question, quite pointless. Until we come to related issues, such as why do people so like fat? Well, these are the very foods that were scarcest and highest in caloric value, so why do we like sweets and fat? There's a reason, very likely, in our evolutionary history.

(Meditative music)

CURWOOD: Okay, the biophilia hypothesis. What does it mean for us as humans?

WILSON: To the extent that this phenomenon exists, it's very important to us for several reasons. First of all, it tells us something about who we are as a human species. It is potentially a very important part of human history, what I call deep history. That is, genetic history. And then the question is of fundamental importance in conservation. If it is true that humanity makes itself completely, that we are capable of living happily and fully developed as human beings in a world of steel and stone, or out there in satellites colonizing space, if we're capable of that, of finding our fulfillment in other ways that has nothing to do with a living world, then the argument might be made for getting rid of most of the rest of life, at least most of the variety of life. Most of the natural ecosystems. On the other hand, if we do have this biophilic nature deep within us, which I believe is the case, then we are committing a tragic mistake from our own selfish point of view in disposing the rest of life and not paying more attention to the conservation of living forms. So as to give the maximum potential for aesthetic and psychological development and a healthy life for our descendants.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson, University Professor at Harvard, and editor, along with Steven Kellert, of the new Island Press book of essays, The Biophilia Hypothesis.

Back to top

Do you agree? Is there a biophilia response in humans? Call our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

(Music up and under)

Munching Central Park

CURWOOD: If you're in Manhattan and don't have a garden, where can you go for some pick-your-own organic veggies? Producer Joe Richman has met a man with the answer: Central Park.

(Children and birds)

RICHMAN: Wildman Steve Brill is walking through Central Park with a group of fourth and fifth graders following close behind. None of the kids have had lunch yet, and it's a good thing.

BRILL: Now here's a plant you're going to absolutely love. Okay, take a look at this; come here, kids, and look. It's called wood sorrel. It tastes like lemon. [Kids: "Ooh, ooh!] And everyone's going to get some. And then you're going to see if you can find some of your own. Take a leaf. [Kid: "Mm mm mmm!"]

RICHMAN: There are 18 kids chewing their way through Central Park, and they've all brought plastic bags so they can bring samples back home. In just the last hour they've tried lamb's quarters, which is like spinach but even better for you, explains the Wildman. Plus mulberries, violet greens, and even a little poor man's pepper.

BRILL: Let's have one person taste it. Wait, let's watch him first. Chew on it for a while. What's your name?

CARLOS: Carlos.

BRILL: Okay. Chew on it for a while. Keep chewing before you swallow it, so you get the full flavor, and tell us what happens. He's hitting his chest; it's giving him spasms in his hand.

CARLOS: It's spicy!

BRILL: It's very spicy. Okay, break off leaves and pass them out to people.

RICHMAN: Wildman Steve Brill is 44, with a shaggy beard and a safari hat. Brill says there are certain rules for foraging in Central Park. Don't take more than you can use, don't eat anything within 50 feet of heavy automobile traffic. Unless a plant is dying, don't pull it up by the roots. And don't eat anything poisonous. You have to know what to look for, says Brill, and if you do, it's possible to get 50% of your food shopping done in the park.

BRILL: Red mulberries with white mulberries. There is purslane growing in the park; there's witch hazel, there are all kinds of mushrooms, too. Raspberries that are out of season; there's wild rhubarb and curly dock which are already past. Dandelions also are past their prime, although they will have another season in the fall. Day lilies, which is a delicious flower that you can eat; in the beginning of the summer you can eat the shoots, also. You could just go on forever.

RICHMAN: Wild black cherries, carrots, water mint, mustard, wild rhubarb, field garlic, even coffee beans, can be found in Central Park, says Brill. Of course some of the fourth and fifth graders along on today's tour are busy making their own discoveries.

BOY 1: There's a hair dryer, a bottle, a Coke can it looks like.

BOY 2: There's a beer can. And a beer bottle right there.

BOY 1: Yeah. And...

RICHMAN: It may gross some people out, the idea of eating things that are growing in a grimy metropolis. But wild man Steve Brill argues the plants are pesticide-free. Many have more vitamins than store-bought produce. They're cheap and most of them taste pretty good, especially the June berries.

BRILL: June berries! These are June berries. Help yourselves!

BOY 1: You can just eat them like that?

BRILL: Yeah. The blue ones are the best.

BOY 2: Mmm! They're really good.

BRILL: Yes. Here.

RICHMAN: June berries are related to apples, but they look and taste like blueberries with seeds like tiny almonds. The class surrounds the June berry trees, and while they eat, an interesting thing happens. Joggers on their afternoon run slow down to watch, and after a few minutes they, too, are munching on June berries.

BRILL: Are these delicious or are they delicious? Tell me.

CHILD: Ooooh!

RICHMAN: Wild Man Steve Brill has been giving these tours since 1982. He was a natural foods cooking teacher back then, when someone in the park showed him where to pick grape leaves. He went home, made stuffed grape leaves, and was instantly converted to urban foraging. Of course, the idea wasn't initially so popular with the Parks Department. In 1983 Brill was giving a tour, and eating dandelions, when 2 of the nature lovers in his group turned out to be undercover cops. Brill was handcuffed and arrested, but the media had a field day with the story. "The Man Who Ate Central Park" read the headlines. The Parks Department quickly dropped the charges and instead gave Brill a job as an official tour guide. These days Brill is making a living leading his own educational tours. He gives about 150 a year. And it's become something of a crusade.

BRILL: We've lost contact with the environment, and we have all of these misconceptions. We've got to go back into the woods, into the parks, studying the plants, the rocks, the birds, the insects, the fossils. And realize, as a culture, how valuable our natural resources are.

RICHMOND: Wild Man Steve Brill is a firm believer that you can't learn about plants just by pointing and lecturing. You have to pop them in your mouth. People remember what they eat, he says. But some worry that if the foraging tours become too popular, the park could be over-harvested. Brill thinks that's ridiculous. Not even the Central Park lawnmowers can do damage to most of these plants, he says. And by cutting back some of the overgrowth, plant eaters are actually helping the crops. More importantly, he says, the tours are part of the Wildman Message: that cities aren't the enemies of nature.

BRILL: Cities are actually the best places for people to live, because you don't have to get in the car and waste all this fuel to go from one place to the other. They're living on top of each other, which means each human being is taking up less space and leaving more space for other creatures. And most cities, especially New York City, have lots and lots of large parks and natural areas, which are beautiful. I actually find more in Central Park than I would in a national park because there's more habitat variety.

RICHMOND: A place like Central Park, says Brill, offers forests as well as lawns, meadows, marshes, and disturbed areas, all of which yield different types of plants. And hundreds of those plants, plus recipes, are collected in Wildman Steve Brill's new book. It's called Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not So Wild Places. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.

BRILL: Everyone help me pull this root up. You're going to be able to make root beer with it. One, two, three, I need more help! [Kids: Hrrrah! Hrrrah!] Okay, this is going to be for the whole class. You take the root.

BOY 1: You can make root beer?

BRILL: Yes. yes.

BOY 2: Free root beer!

BRILL: Smell, does it smell like root beer?

BOY 3: We can make homemade root beer.

BOY 4: Smells good; wanna smell?

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is directed by Deborah Stavro and produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our production team includes coordinating producer George Homsy, associate producer Kim Motylewski, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, Julia Madeson, Nora Alogna, J.P. Anderson, and Danielle Wyser-Pratte. Our engineer at the WBUR studio is Laurie Azaria, who had help this week from Mark Navin and Rita Sand. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

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 all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional support is provided by the Jessie B. Cox Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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