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

December 30, 1994

Air Date: December 30, 1994


Protecting All Creatures Great and Small / David Baron

David Baron of member station WBUR examines the concept of preserving all the variety of life — even the tiniest. Microscopic organisms have their own ecosystems and make higher life forms possible, but because of pollution and other changes, many microbes are dying out. (10:22)

The Future Generation Looks Ahead / Jacinda Abcarian

Youth Radio producer Jacinda Abcarian interviews San Francisco Bay area teenagers on their concerns about growing up today, and their ideas for improving the environment tomorrow. (04:15)

New Year's Resolve

Living on Earth listeners and commentators call and write in with their resolutions for a better environment. If their promises are kept, there'll be more biking, hiking and having fun. (06:07)

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: Stephanie Hemphill, David Baron, Jacinda Abcarian
COMMENTATORS: David Catlin, Dale Curtis, Ruth Page, Russell Sadler, Fred Singer

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

When we think of microbes, we tend to think of germs and dangerous viruses that nobody wants. But human activity is endangering a host of good microbes, and some scientists say we're putting ourselves at risk.

MARGULIS: These organisms have no constituency; nobody's going to work and screaming for them on a daily basis. On the other hand, if they were to stop doing their function, life would die on the planet. Completely.

CURWOOD: Also, young adults confront their role in protecting the environment.

YOUNG WOMAN: What am I doing? I'm trying to better myself by getting an education, so that I can possibly, one day, come back and give back to the community. Because I feel that's what the whole circle of life is about.

CURWOOD: And New Year's resolutions from our commentators and listeners, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The US has implemented tough new anti-pollution rules on oil tankers, apparently without causing a feared disruption in oil supplies. The new regulations enacted in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster require all tankers to prove they can pay for cleaning up any oil spills in which they may be involved. Industry representatives have been concerned that the rules would squeeze out smaller independent operators who handle half of US oil imports, leading to supply problems. But the deadline passed in late December without any discernible impact on supply.

Well, it may sound like a plot by Boris and Natasha to catch Bullwinkle, but a plan by scientists to use satellites to track moose apparently has more down to Earth aims. Researchers in Minnesota hope technology developed to aid global navigation will enable them to find out more about how wildlife interact with their habitat. Stephanie Hemphill of Superior Radio Network explains.

HEMPHILL: How does a moose decide where to get its next meal? How does it change the forest as it munches its way through lunch and dinner? And what happens to the moose when trees are harvested? In the next few years, some of the answers to these questions will be coming in via satellite. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, will put electronic collars on 6 moose in the Voyager National Park in northern Minnesota. They'll be tracked by a global positioning system like that used to track ships at sea. Until now, scientists were limited to tracking moose from airplanes, which produced spotty data. Forest managers hope to use the new information to better plan where, how big, and how far apart their timber cuts should be to encourage moose and other animals to flourish in the woods. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie Hemphill in Duluth, Minnesota.

NUNLEY: Germany has pledged to help bring down birth rates around the world, but one of its own states is taking the opposite course by offering a cash bonus to induce its citizens to bring the local birth rate up. Officials at the state of Brandenburg in the former East Germany say their offer of $600 per child is a symbolic gesture aimed at raising birth rates which have fallen by two thirds in eastern states since unification. Local officials fear a rapid population drop could have serious social consequences for the region, but that absorbing other countries' excess population by encouraging immigration isn't an option for the time being. Gert Kunzer is Brandenburg's Head of Social Affairs.

KUNZER: It's rather difficult for our population to cope with the fact of living with foreign people. We try to preach tolerance towards other people, but this could not be appropriate approach to solve the problem of birth rates we have nowadays in Brandenburg.

NUNLEY: Germany's federal government has not followed suit on the birth incentive, but several other eastern states reportedly say they might.

After 5 years of planning, the US government is finally ready to let consumers know exactly what they're getting when they buy organic food. The Department of Agriculture will soon publish rules covering such things as how growers and packagers must handle food if they want to call it organic, how long fields must be chemical-free before their crops may be labeled organic, and whether radiation can be used to kill bacteria on organic produce. Up to now there have been no national standards for organic food production. The new standards don't require it, but some retailers are working on voluntary guidelines for stocking and storing organic produce.

A new plant and 3 new insect species have been discovered at the site of a former nuclear weapons factory in Washington State. Nature Conservancy scientists found the new species confirmed as previously unknown while conducting biological inventories at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The researchers also found populations of more than 50 rare plants at Hanford. The 560-square mile site was closed to the public from the second World War until 1992, which partially protected the land and preserved its plants, animals, and ecosystems. Hanford is still considered one of the nation's most polluted areas, however. The government is spending $1.6 billion a year to clean up nuclear waste there.

Australian scientists say they may be able to take the wind out of cows, sheep, and other livestock, and so eliminate a large source of the gases that contribute to global warming. Flatulence from the world's farm animals produces some $80 million tons a year of methane, a greenhouse gas that's far more potent than carbon dioxide. Now scientists funded by the Australian government are testing a food additive that they say can completely stop farm animals from passing gas. Researcher John Edgar.

EDGAR: By reducing methane production, you not only affect the greenhouse gas problem, but also increase animal production. So there will be an incentive for farmers to use a product of this sort.

NUNLEY: The scientists found animals grow as much as 20% larger when taking the food additive, but Edgar says further testing is needed.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Protecting All Creatures Great and Small

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the most hotly debated topics in environmental protection is how far to go to protect endangered species. Should we save an entire old growth forest to protect the spotted owl? Stop fishing for tuna to save dolphins? Never buy ivory to keep elephants from extinction? Some scientists say these debates have overlooked a whole category of creatures that can only be seen under a microscope. As much as half of all the living matter on Earth is microbial, yet discussions about preserving biological diversity rarely touch on bacteria, fungi, yeast, and other microorganisms. But there's evidence that the numbers of microbial species are declining, and that a shift in the balance of microbial ecosystems may be putting humans and other larger creatures at risk. David Baron of member station WBUR in Boston has our report.

(High winds)

BARON: A cold wind is blowing through the sagebrush of eastern Oregon's high desert. Snow covers the nearby mountains, and a blizzard is brewing on the horizon. But bubbling out of the ground is a small pool of steaming hot water.

CASTENHOLZ: Well, let's see what the temperature is.

BARON: University of Oregon biologist Dick Castenholz drops a metal probe into the water. It's attached by wire to a digital thermometer he holds in his hand.

CASTENHOLZ: This blows 178 Fahrenheit.

BARON: No plant or animal could live in water of such high temperature, but that doesn't mean this hot spring is lifeless. Castenholz uses a turkey baster to collect some green slime growing on the rock where the water pours out of the pool. He squirts the sample into a glass vial, and carries it to his jeep. In the cab, sheltered from the wind, Castenholz places a drop of water on a glass slide and peers at the sample through a microscope.

CASTENHOLZ: There are very small, little, slightly curved rods, which are about a micron and a half in diameter...

BARON: Castenholz knows these organisms instantly: Synechococcus and Chloroflexus, bacteria which, like plants, get their energy from the sun. The waste from these organisms provides food for other, non-photosynthetic bacteria that live in the hot spring. Those microbes are in turn eaten by tiny crustaceans. Castenholz says this small hot spring, only a few feet square, is home to its own ecosystem like any forest, prairie, or desert.

CASTENHOLZ: It's just a size difference, and complexity is there in the microbial world, too.

BARON: Microbes live virtually everywhere on Earth: in the soil, in the ocean, in our bodies. Even in glacier ice, oil wells, and toxic waste sites: places where nothing else can live. In fact, says University of Massachusetts microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the community of microbes makes higher life forms possible.

MARGULIS: It's that community that cleans the air, that prepares the soil, that cycles the nutrients, and that does all of these things that are sort of - sort of snidely characterized as so-called "ecosystem services" and then dismissed. Well, our lives depend on these ecosystem services.

BARON: Margulis says just as plant and animal species are being lost, the same is likely true for microbes, which represent a far greater variety of life forms than the higher organisms usually discussed in efforts to preserve biodiversity. There are bacteria that thrive in the complete absence of oxygen. Some microbes use sulfur compounds for their energy. And the protists, which includes single-celled creatures such as amoebas, have unusual ways of reproducing.

MARGULIS: These organisms don't have sexes by twos, for example. Some of them have up to several thousand different genders, and these organisms don't ever need sex to reproduce; they can reproduce all by themselves. And yet some of them have birth pangs and they actually have babies through holes. That is, their whole biology is very, very different from the familiar biology of the flower or the - or the mammal.

(Metal doors opening and closing)

BARON: The world's most extensive collection of microbial diversity resides here, in the basement of a 3-story brick building in Rockville, Maryland. The American Type Culture Collection stores its microorganisms in 50 stainless steel freezers chilled to below -200° Fahrenheit. Dick Roblin is one of the collection's associate directors.

ROBLIN: We have in these freezers bacteria, animal and plant viruses, protists, fungi, and yeasts. There are maybe 1.5 million vials of these 64,000 different strains of material in these freezers.

BARON: This huge collection represents only a tiny fraction of the millions of microbial species thought to exist in nature. But the numbers may be dwindling due to the same factors causing plant and animal species to vanish: pollution, development, and destruction of habitat. And among the microbial habitats considered most threatened are hot springs.

(Geyser blowing amidst the honking of geese)

BARON: A small geyser shoots into the air in the middle of a pond with geese standing on the shore. Hunters Hot Springs is about a hundred miles from the pristine hot spring microbiologist Dick Castenholz visited in the Oregon desert. But this area is far from pristine. While the springs are natural, the geyser is the inadvertent result of a well that was drilled in the 1920s. The pond is manmade. And the population of geese has swollen to unnatural levels because locals regularly feed the birds. These human factors have altered the environment for the microorganisms. Castenholz says the microbes used to grow along streams and sorted themselves according to the temperature of the water.

CASTENHOLZ: Instead of having distinct or discrete streams, it's now all been smashed down so it just flows out as a sort of a mud flat. That's because the geese have just trampled this whole area.

BARON: Castenholz doesn't know what the long-term consequences will be for the microbes here. He doesn't think any of them will go extinct. But the same can't be said of organisms in hot springs in other parts of the world that have been pumped dry to feed spas or hydrothermal energy projects.

CASTENHOLZ: In Steamboat Springs, Nevada, near Reno, there were some very interesting and extensive hot springs up in the hillside. And the geothermal drilling above that has completely stopped water flow. They had some unique microorganisms which have found only one other place, and the Steamboat Springs are gone now, so that they don't exist there any more.

BARON: Hot springs organisms can have great practical value. A type of bacteria found at Yellowstone National Park provides an enzyme used in genetic testing and DNA fingerprinting. And it's not just hot springs microbes that are valuable or potentially endangered. Many bacteria and fungi are the source of drugs. And some of these organisms could be vulnerable to extinction, especially those that depend upon a single species of plant or animal for their survival. Rita Colwell of the University of Maryland points to the example of the Sclerosponge, which lives in the Caribbean.

COLWELL: From our studies we know that about half the actual structure is comprised of bacteria found only in association with that sponge. And about 2 dozen of these bacteria have demonstrated some potential activity in treating cancer.

BARON: If this single sponge species found on fragile coral reefs were to go extinct, the bacteria associated with it would be lost as well. Some important fungi are already being lost according to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who points out that parts of Europe have seen about a 50% decline in fungal species in the past 60 years, apparently due to air pollution. Wilson says many of the species are fungi that live among roots, providing nutrients that are critical for the survival of plants.

WILSON: Ecologists have always wondered what would happen in the land ecosystems if these particular fungi were removed, and unfortunately, we may soon find out.

BARON: But Wilson admits no one knows to what extent microbial diversity is being lost on a global scale. So little is understood about the microbial world, and research funds to find out more are hard to come by. Scientists know it won't be easy getting the public behind efforts to study and protect endangered microorganisms when most people think of microbes only in a context of disease. In fact, the microbiologists' cause may have been hurt by recent debates over the fate of the world's remaining stores of smallpox virus. Those stores are scheduled for destruction June 30th. But some scientists have argued even smallpox should be protected from extinction. Biologist Lynn Margulis says public attention should really be focused on the vast majority of beneficial microbes people rarely notice.

MARGULIS: These organisms have no constituency; nobody's going to work and screaming for them on a daily basis. On the other hand, if they were to stop doing their function, life would die on the planet. Completely. The specialists have done a very bad job in making the case for their importance.

BARON: But that's changing. Microbiologists have stepped up government lobbying for research funding. And some suggest it's time to begin establishing microbial preserves. In fact, just last year Dick Castenholz, who's been fighting to save the microbes of Oregon's hot springs, scored a victory. When the Nature Conservancy purchased a small lake in the Oregon desert to protect an endangered minnow, it also bought at Castenholz's urging a series of hot springs nearby. The springs aren't home to any plants or animals, but Castenholz points out they're teeming with life nonetheless. For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should we be saving microbes? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. 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. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

The Future Generation Looks Ahead

CURWOOD: As 1995 begins, we thought we'd take a look ahead through the eyes of young adults living in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Many young people feel overwhelmed by the environmental problems that they are inheriting from previous generations. Nonetheless, some young folks are also saying they can, and indeed must, try to make a difference. Jacinda Abcarian, a student at Laney College and a producer for Youth Radio in Berkeley California, has our report.

ABCARIAN: When my parents were growing up, litter was a problem, but today my generation is faced with much more serious environmental dangers such as global warming, chemical spills, and air and water pollution. Young people are growing up in a world full of problems created by decades or ignorance, neglect, and exploitation of the Earth. In a world where politicians are too caught up in self-interest to find long-term solutions, I wanted to know: do people my age see the world becoming any better within the near future?

MAN: No, because there are very few regulations here in the US, and outside of the US there are even, you know, less. And it's getting worse and worse outside the US because all these corporations that don't want to meet the regulations here are moving out to other countries.

WOMAN #1: I feel that maybe, in like 30 years from now, if we don't straighten out this problem now, you know we're going to have to walk around with an oxygen mask on because the pollution is going to be so bad.

WOMAN #2: I'm pretty scared about my environment, and scared about my future and other generations to come. And I think that if we don't start saving the planet and saving ourselves, then we'll all just perish. (Laughs) It's pretty depressing.

ABCARIAN: For some teens, environmental problems mean more than just trash and smog. They're concerned with their social environment and the way people treat each other.

MAN #1: I notice that there is more violence going on these days and there's, like, a lot less respect for people, you know, especially females, and that people in general don't have respect for each other any more.

MAN #2: You know, if you go to school or you be on the bus going to school, whatever, you know, there's kids looking at you, you know, and they just pick a fight on you. Or we go, like, to a party or something, and if you dance with this girl or if you step on somebody's toe or something, they're ready to shoot you, you know what I'm saying? All this stupid mess, you know, it don't make sense.

ABCARIAN: Although movements to save the planet are growing and spreading awareness, most young people still feel somewhat helpless when it comes to stopping the Earth's destruction. However, many will be taking steps in the New Year to try and make this world a better place.

WOMAN: #1: What am I doing? I'm trying to better myself by getting an education. So that I can possibly, one day, come back and give back to the community. Because I feel that's what the whole circle of life is about. Why be on this Earth and not give any input to make it better? You know, that's a waste of time.

MAN #1: I try not to eat meat. I mean, I continue to do that. I try not to now, because I've seen what it does, you know, what they have to do in order to get such, such a market for meat. I think, you know, if everyone just cut down a lot, you know, you'd have a big impact. So I try to do what I can.

MAN #2: Well, I throw the trash in the trash can. (Laughs) And that's about it. I think that, you know, people that work for the city, they should put out a little more, you know, people power out there to help clean, because pretty soon we're just going to be walking on trash.

WOMAN #1: I think if everyone worked together instead of constantly trying to do for themselves.

MAN #3: I would like to see the Earth not be exploited any more by imperialist countries who just seek money and will do anything to get it. You know, which means cutting down the rainforest, digging up the earth. And that's got to stop.

(Music up and under - Marvin Gaye: "Whoa, oh mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be. No, no, where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and ...")

CURWOOD: Jacinda Abcarian is a producer for Youth Radio, a broadcast journalism training program in Berkeley, California. Her report was produced with help from Youth Radio's Ellen O'Leary and KPFA Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under: Bing Crosby: "Let's start the New Year right. Twelve o'clock tonight, when they dim the light let's begin...")

New Year's Resolve

CURWOOD: Ah yes, the New Year is with us and another chance to do things right. We asked you, our listeners and commentators, for your environmental resolutions for 1995. And you sent us a long list. If there was a general theme, it was to cut consumption and enjoy life.

CURTIS: Hello, everyone. this is Dale Curtis at Greenwire, the environmental news daily, calling with my New Year's resolution. About once a month our parent company sponsors a staff luncheon for about 40 people, and every time we use disposable plates, cups and forks and spoons. Now my resolution is to take an hour some afternoon and figure out whether it would cost less and be better for the environment to use and re-use regular dishes and silverware, instead of throwing away all that trash every month. That's it. Thanks. Take care, everybody. Happy holidays. Bye bye.

AMELIA: Hi, this is Trace Amelia. I live in Grayton, California, and I listen to Living on Earth through KQED. I have a suggestion for New Year's resolutions, and that would be a real simple one, to start re-using or using again clotheslines instead of clothes dryers. Of course, drying machines are real helpful in the rainy and snowy season. But there's a lot of time in the year when the good old sun would dry our clothes for us. And it might take a little extra time but it's certainly worth it for our beloved Mother Earth.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page in Burlington, Vermont, reminds us that peat is used as a fuel in some parts of Europe and as mulch in gardens, but the world's supplies are precariously low. So her New Year's resolution, in verse, pledges to preserve the precious peat that remains.

PAGE: There's no peat for my garden in summer ahead.
It'll not get a scrap in pathway or bed.
Peat's being used up at a rate that's indecent:
To me that was news both startling and recent.
Peat beds of the world are superb habitat
For bugs and for birds. Did you know that?
Bonny England's resources have fallen so low,
You soon won't see any wherever you go.
Ireland uses the stuff by the ton for home heating,
So the their peat's at risk, really taking a beating.
Yet that peat was laid down when the dinosaurs strode.
Who am I to waste any around my abode?
So I promise you all from now on I will strive
To keep my place peat-free through year '95.

CURWOOD: Kent Reid wrote to us via e-mail from Blacksburg, Virginia. He's a regular listener to WVTF in Roanoke and writes a New Year's resolution to America: "We will commute to work on our bicycles, on average for the year, once a week." Kent, that sounds good to me; I think I'll resolve to do the same.

SADLER: I'm Russell Sadler. I cover the Pacific Northwest federal forest management controversy for Living on Earth. My environmental New Year's resolution is abandoning this desk and exploring the environment more often. Ashland, Oregon, is at the top of the Klamath Knot . David Raines Wallace calls it one of the most botanically and geologically diverse places in North America. This year, I resolve to get to know my pack in the land as well as I know my rolodex in the library.

CURWOOD: Commentator Fred Singer, geophysicist and director of Science and Environmental Public Policy project in Fairfax, Virginia, resolved in 1995 to work to ensure that environmental public policy is based on sound science.

SINGER: We're now spending up to $150 billion a year on environmental regulations, and we want to make sure that these large sums actually do us some good.

CURWOOD: And we got this call.

CHASE: My name is Ruth Chase from Tallahassee, Florida. I listen to WFSU, and I think the best New Year's resolution we can make is to decrease unnecessary consumption, and learn to be happy with what we've got. We need to practice feeling appreciative just like we practice lifting weights or we practice driving our cars. Because without the ability to appreciate the present, we'll continue to consume with less satisfaction. Thanks.

CURWOOD: We received an e-mail from a listener whose resolution is not to burn wood in urban areas. He writes, "In recent times, society has taken tremendous steps to eliminate public smoking. However, many of the same pollutants in cigarette smoke are found in wood smoke. Here's a polluting activity that could be stopped at no cost while inconveniencing a few people in a minor way." And there was this:

CALLER: Hi, this is Sam from Chicago. I resolve to do what I can to cut back on junk mail, in particular I resolve to use the mailer's postage-paid envelopes to return the junk mail they send, complete with a little note asking them to remove me from their list, in their self-paid envelope.

CURWOOD: And finally, we heard from this Living on Earth commentator.

CATLIN: This is David Catlin, manager of the Springfield Conservation Nature Center in Springfield, Missouri and an occasional commentator for Living on Earth. There's only one new environmental resolution on my list for 1995. I plan to build with my 8-year-old stepson Jake the backyard frog pond we didn't get to last fall. I find myself a little reluctant to say that on the radio. It just doesn't seem very profound. But maybe Jake will think it is.

(Frogs croaking. Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Happy New Year, everyone, and may all your resolutions succeed.

Back to top

(Music: "Let's turn over a new leaf. And baby, let's make common sense that we can keep and call it a new year's resolution...")

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson and directed by Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Constantine Von Hoffman, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, Jonathan Medwed, Molly Glidden, and engineer Allan Mattes. Our engineers in the WBUR studios are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Mike Aharon composed our theme. Thanks for production help earlier this month to WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.

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

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Jessie B. Cox Foundation for New England reporting, and from all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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