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

September 30, 1994

Air Date: September 30, 1994


Reconsidering The World's Bread Basket / Becky Rumsey

Becky Rumsey reports from central Kansas on the findings of the Land Institute, which advocates a return to the prairie's native grain ecosystem. Returning to the original grains could lessen soil erosion, water and pesticide use, and increase long term crop yields. (07:22)

Empowering Pakistani Women

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Pakistani journalist Nafisa Hoodhby on the many challenges facing the Islamic nation if they are to meet the goals recently outlined at the Cairo Conference on Global Population. (05:39)

Let Exxon Pay / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord expresses her view on the $5 billion in damages a jury recently awarded to Alaskan plaintiffs for the oil spill in Prince William Sound. (03:14)

Biophilia Response

Listeners discuss the recent broadcast about Edward O. Wilson and other scientists' theories that people and nature are genetically linked. (05:12)

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: Doug Phillips, Michael Lawton, Liana Thompson, Becky Rumsey
GUEST: Nafisa Hoodbhoy

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

A century and a half ago, Europeans began plowing the tall grass prairie on North America's Great Plains to grow wheat and corn. The prairie became the world's bread basket, but now the area is dependent on pesticides and fertilizers. A sustainable future may lie in a return to native plants.

JACKSON: If you compare, say, a wheat field or a corn field with a prairie, you see that the prairie runs on sunlight; wheat field runs on fossil fuel.

CURWOOD: Also, empowering women is key to the world's new population strategy, but that' s a tall order in many nations.

HUDBOY: In Pakistan, one of the things that cannot be implemented is the talk about empowerment of women. Very few women even venture out on the streets.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this summary of environmental news. The search is on for a new location for Disney's American History Theme Park. Disney officials say the company still hopes to build the park in eastern Virginia, near the nation's Capitol, and Virginia officials hope they can work out a deal on a new site. Disney scrapped plans to build the park near a Civil War battlefield 30 miles west of Washington. The plans received local officials' approval, but met with stiff opposition from historians and environmentalists.

The Federal Government has unveiled am ambitious draft plan to improve the health of the Florida Everglades. The plan would partially reverse decades of destruction caused by water diversions in central and south Florida. From Miami, Doug Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: Federal planners know it's impossible to entirely undo the complex series of drainage canals, dams and dikes that were built after World War II to encourage farming and development in south Florida. Plans drawn up by government scientists, however, will recommend a series of strategies meant to drastically alter current farming and water use practices. They include the purchase of sensitive private lands by the government and doing away with some of the canals built by the Army Corps of Engineers. This restoration plan builds on a more modest Everglades restoration law enacted by Florida's legislature last Spring. Early drafts of the Federal plan are being praised by environmentalists, but criticized by Everglades farmers, who say it threatens their livelihood. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Phillips in Miami.

NUNLEY: Floating above its tracks on a powerful magnetic field, it carries hundreds of passengers over the countryside at up to 260 miles an hour. It's called the magnetic levitation or Maglev train. And Germany is using the controversial technology to link up its 2 largest cities. From Cologne, Michael Lawton reports.

LAWTON: The new Maglev link will whisk passengers over the 170 miles from Hamburg to Berlin in under an hour: a journey which currently takes 3 hours by train. Environmentalists might have been expected to love the idea; relative to its high speed, the Maglev is quiet and fuel-efficient, and its builders say it will get people off the roads. But critics say the future lies with upgrading the regular railroads, which will soon be almost as fast and cost only half as much. They also complain that stations for the Maglev will be outside city centers, so the passengers will have to change to reach conventional train terminals, thus losing most of their high-speed advantage. But Parliament's vote means it's too late for such arguments now. The three-and-three-quarter billion dollar Maglev link should start regular service by 2005. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Cologne.

NUNLEY: Ecuador has announced new restrictions on the number of tourists allowed to visit the ecologically sensitive Galapagos Islands. The move follows growing concerns that tourism and development endangers the Galapagos' unique animals and ecosystems. President Sixto Duran-Ballen says travel to the isolated islands will be reduced by more than a third until the environmental impact of tourism can be studied. He's also ordered new restrictions on fishing in the area and called for 2 new boats and a plane to beef up anti-poaching patrols. Forty thousand people a year flock to the islands, which lie 600 miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast.

The United States has pledged millions of dollars to help Bulgaria preserve some of its broad swaths of forest, home to a number of rare animal and plant species. Liana Thompson has the story.

THOMPSON: Bulgaria's sparse population has left more than a third of the country untouched. Its mountains are home to 300 species of bird, including the globally threatened griffin vulture, the Egyptian vulture, and the imperial eagle. Animals such as the lynx and wild boar which have disappeared from most of the earth, continue to thrive in the Balkan wild. But earlier this summer, Bulgaria's government began the mass privatization of land. That brought a boom in hotel construction along Bulgaria's coast, and environmentalists fear the same might happen with ski resorts and other development in the mountains. In response to that fear, the government set aside large chunks of land as national parks. The US aid will help develop infrastructure and educational programs in the parks. For Living on Earth, I'm Liana Thompson.

NUNLEY: Already awash in red ink, the Federal Government may soon add another color to the mix and begin printing all of its documents in green ink, so to speak. The Vegetable Ink Printing Act, one of the few environmental laws to make it through Congress this term, would require the government to substitute inks derived from such plants as soybeans for traditional petroleum-based inks. The bill is intended to reduce oil consumption and harmful emissions from the ink making and printing processes. It would also cut down on toxic chemicals released during recycling. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill. No word as yet on what kind of ink will be in his pen.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Reconsidering The World's Bread Basket

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A century and a half ago, a sea of tall grass blanketed North America from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains. The fertile soil seemed a godsend to early European settlers, who eagerly plowed it up to plant profitable grains like wheat and corn. Over time, the soil wore out and yields declined. Then chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other technologies boosted yields again after World War II. But some say we're now approaching the limits of those methods, and that a more sustainable future lies in the original ecology of the prairie itself, and the mix of grains that grew there for thousands of years. Among the pioneers of this new approach is The Land Institute in central Kansas. Becky Rumsey recently visited The Land Institute and has this report.

(Sound of wind and walking through tall grass; birdsong)

RUMSEY: On a clear summer morning in central Kansas, John Piper walks through grasses that in a good year grow 6 to 8 feet tall.

PIPER: We're near the western border of what's considered the true prairie or the tall grass prairie. And so the dominant grasses here are a Big Blue Stem, Indian grass and Switch Grass.

RUMSEY: Piper is staff ecologist at The Land Institute. Located on 300 acres near the town of Salina, The Land Institute is pioneering an approach to agriculture that uses nature as its model.

PIPER: We're standing in a small patch of never-plowed tall grass prairie. It's probably as close as we can imagine to what original prairie was like. We have an 8-an d-a-half...

RUMSEY: A century and a half ago when waves of settlers crossed the grassland sea, they plowed up native grasses, planted crops, and transformed the region into the bread basket of the world. But researchers at The Land Institute say the early sod-busters and the industrial agriculture that followed sacrificed the land's health for high yields. Land Institute founder Wes Jackson says modern agriculture is extremely vulnerable to collapse. The native Kansan, trained in botany and genetics, points to massive soil erosion; depleted aquifers; chemical residues in water, soils, and food; and a dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels. Jackson says the secret to sustainable agriculture lies in what the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope would have called "consulting the genius of the place."

JACKSON: If you compare, say, a wheat field or a corn field with a prairie, you see that the prairie runs on sunlight; wheat field runs on fossil fuel. The prairie has species diversity, which is chemical diversity. So it would take a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or a pathogen to mow it down. The prairie sponsors its own nitrogen. The nitrogen in most of our fields comes from natural gas that's a feed stock for nitrogen fertilizer.

RUMSEY: There are 2 key properties of the prairie that Jackson and his colleagues want agriculture to mimic. One is its diversity. Most farmers grow crops in monocultures: whole fields of a single crop. In the prairie, many species grow together. Ecologist John Piper.

PIPER: This naturally manages insect, pest and plant diseases, because the insects or the pests, diseases have a harder time locating host plants and they're moving from host to host.

RUMSEY: In the prairie, different plants play complementary roles. Legumes, like lead plant or cat claw sensitive briar, add nitrogen to the soil. Sunflowers repel weeds. Seasonal grasses alternate growth periods. Most of them are perennials, and that, says Piper, is the other cue The Land Institute is taking from the prairie.

PIPER: Ninety-nine percent of the plants that you find out in the prairie are perennial plants. In other words, they don't die each year after producing, flowering and producing seed, but they come back year after year from perennial roots or crowns of some sort of underground structures.

RUMSEY: It's this thick mat of roots that accounts for the prairie's rich, self-regenerating soil. When farmers tilled it, they permanently interrupted the prairie's soil-building process. In its place they planted annuals like wheat, corn, and soybeans. Most agriculture is based on annuals. But according to Jackson, that's where it went wrong: at its very beginning some 10,000 years ago. To cultivate annuals, a farmer must till and plant every year, exposing the soil to wind and water erosion. Perennials, on the other hand, reproduce on their own. But it's precisely because they don't produce many seeds that there aren't any perennial grain crops in the human inventory. So in the late 1970s, The Land Institute surveyed hundreds of native prairie plants and found 4 species that showed promise. The Illinois Bundle Flower, Mammoth Wild Rye, the Maximilian Sunflower, and Eastern Gamma Grass. Again, John Piper.

PIPER: Eastern Gamma Grass is a relative of corn or maize. It can be ground and used a lot like cornmeal. It even tastes good. It contains about 29% protein, which is about 3 times that of corn. And its major limitation is that the seed yield is relatively low.

RUMSEY: And that's the crux of the challenge: breeding new crops that combine the ecological advantages of perennials with the high seed yield of annuals. Scientists at The Land Institute are optimistic that a whole array of perennial crops can be developed, even if it takes 50 to 100 years. Here on the Great Plains, conventional agriculture could last at least that long, especially if fossil fuel stays cheap. But Steve Marglin, a economics professor at Harvard University, sees long-term value in the work Wes Jackson is doing.

MARGLIN: There should be 100 Wes Jacksons and we should be supporting each one of them, generously, on the grounds that maybe one of them will produce something that will replace the present system, at such point as it becomes untenable.

RUMSEY: Margolin thinks The Land Institute's approach could be applied to ecosystems around the globe, from tropical and temperate forests to deserts. Wes Jackson compares The Land Institute's progress on the American prairie to that of the Wright Brothers at the time of Kitty Hawk. It' s a modest test of a potentially revolutionary principle: a sustainable grain agriculture modeled on the genius of nature itself. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey.

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(Cricket song fading to music up and under)

Empowering Pakistani Women

CURWOOD: The new mantra of world population policy is empowering women. It took its place as the number one priority of government and independent policy makers at the recent world conference on population and development in Cairo, displacing the traditional focus on contraceptives and economic development. But with the rhetoric quickly fading, the real challenge of putting the plan into practice lies ahead. And perhaps nowhere will it be more difficult than in traditional Islamic countries such as Pakistan. Pakistan's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was one of the few Islamic heads of state in Cairo, where she took a leading role. At home, she's faced with the fastest growing population in southern Asia. Nafisa Hoodbhoy reports on Pakistani politics and social issues for the English language daily, Dawn. She says Bhutto faced a tough balancing act in Cairo, and faces a tougher one ahead.

HOODBHOY: Benazir Bhutto was trying to emphasize that she was a modern, progressive leader and would not be cowed down before fundamentalist threats. For the country I think she, too, tried to show that Pakistan was not a backward nation but could become a leader in the Muslim world. And that Pakistan was serious about implementing certain progressive social policies. Pakistan's population currently is 126 million, which is something like the 8th highest in the world.

CURWOOD: Pakistan has some pretty ambitious goals for stabilizing its population. Tell us what the government's trying to achieve and how.

HOODBHOY: Well, the government plans to control population by a 10% increase in contraceptive use by married women. In this manner, plans to avert 4.6 million births by 1998. So Pakistan would employ some of the methods used in Indonesia, which would be to send women health visitors to houses in the rural areas to impart family planning education.

CURWOOD: Government plan sounds pretty good. The notion of going from 6 or 7 children per woman down to 3 is certainly a laudable goal. What are the possible problems here? What's the likelihood of success?

HOODBHOY: Well, the biggest problem in Pakistan is the lack of funds. Last year, all foreign aid was cut off. Foreign aid to Pakistan has been linked with Pakistan's nuclear policy, and Pakistan has refused to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty on the ground that India hasn't signed it, either. And this caused over 500 family welfare centers and surgical centers to close down. The other problem is the general conservatism amongst the people, and there is a certain level of fundamentalist opposition even at the grassroots level.

CURWOOD: On the money question, my understanding has been that there has been some discussion since the Cairo conference between the United States and Pakistan about more aid. What do you know about that?

HOODBHOY: There's been a great deal written about this issue in the Pakistani press. When Benazir Bhutto went to Cairo, she apparently met with the US Vice President, Al Gore, who promised $10 million aid for Pakistan's social action program. Now, in Pakistan, the government says it has not received the money yet.

CURWOOD: What would be some of the essential characteristics for successful family planning programs, given the particular social context of Pakistan?

HOODBHOY: In Pakistan, one of the things that cannot be implemented is the talk about empowerment of women, which was at the heart of the Cairo conference. Instead, I think, Pakistan's family planning program will be confined much more to simply giving of contraceptives. And in that sense, even then, this is a very conservative society. And so the Pakistan government will have to convince the Islamic forces because this is a real fear in Pakistan, that family planning is actually aimed at cutting down the Muslim population.

CURWOOD: What's life like for women in Pakistan? Is it a safe society for them?

HUDBOY: Oh - Pakistan is certainly not a safe society for women. In a country where women can't walk out of the door, you know, without being chaperoned by a man, it's hardly likely that the streets will be safe for women. Only 3% of Pakistani women are currently in the work force, and very few women even venture out on the street. And if they do so, they do so veiled or half-veiled. There are numerous instances of murders and rapes. So there is no way that women are safe in this country.

CURWOOD: Yet in covering this issue we hear over and over again that empowerment of women is indeed key to stabilizing population. What's the first order of business, then, on this front in Pakistan?

HUDBOY: Well, in Pakistan we have a number of discriminatory laws. We have the laws of evidence in which 2 women's testimony is considered equivalent to that given by 1 man. The woman's evidence is not considered admissible in cases of rape. And Benazir Bhutto would first have to address doing away with discriminatory laws and getting women involved in the mainstream before talking about the empowerment of women.

CURWOOD: Nafisa Hoodbhoy is a reporter for the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn. She joined us from her home in Karachi.

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Let Exxon Pay

CURWOOD: After more than 4 months, jurors in Alaska recently rendered a verdict against the Exxon Corporation for punitive damages from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. The $5 billion judgment is the largest punitive award ever levied against a corporation. Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord was one of the plaintiffs in the case. She says the jury award is a mixed blessing.

LORD: Five billion dollars is a lot of money, no question about it. One of Exxon's attorneys said, when it was over, that he thought it was a case of the jury not appreciating what $5 billion means. Exxon plans to appeal. I think, in fact, the jury knew precisely how much $5 billion is. Early on, they determined that Exxon and Captain Hazelwood had been reckless in causing the spill. And the whole idea of punitive damages is punishment. The fine should hurt. The fine should make Exxon and others who put our environment at risk think about potential costs and make business decisions accordingly.

The Exxon Valdez was an almost new tanker at the time, but was built with a single, rather than double, hull, to save money and leave more cargo space for oil. A captain with an alcohol problem was put at the helm, and the crew was trimmed, again to save money. Somewhere along the line, Exxon calculated that such savings, short cuts, and yes, recklessness, were profitable. They decided to assume a level of risk as a cost of doing business.

So, $5 billion. That equals $455 for each of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled. It's about 3 times the value of Alaska's yearly total fish and shellfish harvest. If evenly divided among the 14,000 plaintiffs, each would receive over $357,000. Looked at with a different yardstick, $5 billion equals roughly one year's profit for Exxon. The initial reaction of the stock market was telling: Exxon's stock rose slightly. Analysts say the judgment will not have significant long-term effects on either Exxon or its shareholders.

Does it hurt yet? I have my doubts. But already the oil industry and its apologists are threatening their worst. They say large jury awards make it tough to do business in this country. And if we make it too tough for them, they'll take their business elsewhere. I'm not sure that threats to abandon highly profitable oil fields and markets to do speculative business with unstable Third World governments are very credible. But there is a real question here. As we safeguard our American environment and health, do we sometimes end up exporting pollution and other problems to peoples less able to protect their homelands and themselves? The Exxon Valdez case shows the need for uniform international standards that will keep rust buckets and cavalier attitudes from all our oceans. We're all, after all, riding aboard the same blue boat.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is a writer and salmon fisher from Homer, Alaska. She comes to us from member station KBBI.

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Biophilia Response

CURWOOD: By the year 2020, projections show, more than half of the Earth's humans will live in cities, surrounded almost exclusively by other people. Increasingly cut off from the rest of life. Yet, billions of us are still drawn to the nonhuman world: to mountains, to fields, to zoos and wildlife refuges. It's almost as if there's something in us that can't be satisfied with a world entirely of our own making. Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson thinks that something is genetic. That over the long sweep of our evolutionary history, we relied on other creatures and plants for crucial resources and information. And that we developed a need for contact with other life forms that became encoded in our genes. And Professor Wilson worries that as humans push more and more other species extinction, we may be sowing the seeds of our own demise. Living on Earth recently featured a segment on this theory, which Professor Wilson calls 'the Biophilia Hypothesis.' Wilson's theory is essentially scientific, but the comments we received ranged far beyond. What we heard on our comment line was not so much a series of responses, as a conversation. We received this call from a listener to KWIT in Sioux City, Iowa.

CALLER: If you look around our rooms and see the colors that we use, our concern with flowers and the way we decorate our homes, we all try and recreate in some way a small part of the outdoors indoors. And this seems to be a part of our genetic nature, that if we cut ourselves off from life around us, we cut ourselves off from our own being. It's just a wonderful idea, and it's a very liberating idea, and it changes our whole relationship to the earth and perhaps causes us to interpret, once again, the book of Genesis about what is the role of man's place on earth?

CALLER: My name is Bill McElroy; I'm calling from Seattle. My public radio station is KPLU. I do believe there is a genetic factor, particularly in our aesthetic response to landscape. In fact, if you think about it, if there is no deeper meaning of an aesthetic response within human beings, then what is its significance at all? On a deeper level I think we have to admit that as the earth's capacity has less capacity to support a diversity of life, its capacity to support us diminishes. I think people really have a need to begin to understand how we're all in this game together.

CURWOOD: The theological implications of the notion that we evolved with an innate need for contact with other species also resonated with this listener to KVNF in Paonia, Colorado. He's a divinity school graduate who thinks the theory lays a basis for a new kind of spirituality.

CALLER: I think we, in religion we look at deities, but sacredness would have to do more with the nature of life. The nature of life being this inner-relatedness. And the quality of those relationships determines the quality of our life. It's kind of like the flip side of the Golden Rule. Instead of do to others as you'd have others do to you, it's what we do to others we do to ourselves.

CALLER: Hello. This is Chaska Wright from St. Paul, Minnesota, calling with regard to Professor Wilson's Biophilia Theory. I found no scientific facts to substantiate macro-evolution. I've come to the conclusion that macro-evolution is not a science thing but rather a world-view thing, or a religious thing. What I suspect is happening with the Biophilia Theory is a shift from evolution in cold, materialistic robes to evolution in New Age pantheistic robes.

CURWOOD: Ms. Wright says there's new evidence that human life came about not through evolution, but by the hand of a great designer.

CALLER: Hello, this is John Konapac calling from Norman, Oklahoma, where I listen to Living on Earth on KGOU. With regard to the Biophilia Hypothesis, I fully support it. I think it's absolutely crystal clear. Fundamentalists, particularly the plural conservation and the theories that support it, because it means that there's perfectibility on Earth. That Earth was perfect before God and then man muddled in it. Which bothers them because it means that men are responsible for the state of the Earth. But what is the legend of Noah if not a primitive statement of the Biophilia Hypothesis? That man alone is not man.

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CURWOOD: We'll be continuing our exploration of the Biophilia Hypothesis in future weeks. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our Internet address is LOE @ NPR.ORG. That's LOE @ NPR.ORG. Or you can put your comments in the mail; send them to Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes of the program are $10 each.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and the associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Deborah Stavro, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer Coxe, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, and Nora Alogna. Our engineers in the studios of WBUR are Mark Navin and Rich Johnson. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation; from all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Pew Charitable Trusts; and the Joyce Foundation for the coverage of sustainable agriculture issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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