Air Date: December 15, 1995
Cellular Phones/ Daniel Grossman
The FCC says mobile phone companies can build relay towers wherever they please, just like electric companies’ transmission wires. But some in Congress think cellular towers can be a blight on the landscape. Daniel Grossman reports from Boston. (05:30)
In today’s highly mobile society, few of us have the time or the skills to construct a shelter with our own hands. At the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont, students are trained to build communities by designing and constructing their own homes. (10:00)
Let's Eat Now! Let's Eat More!/ Ian Shoales
The holidays are upon us, stirring up feelings of goodwill towards fellow humans and sometimes, fellow animals. But commentator Ian Shoales says there’s no reason to go overboard with this. (02:00)
Kids' Holiday/ Deborah Stavro
To discover the true meaning of the holidays, we turned to the kids from Boston’s Renaissance Charter Public School, making Christmas ornaments from things that otherwise would have been thrown away. (01:37)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Decorating plants to celebrate the winter solstice. (01:00)
Christmas Wreaths/ Catherine Winter
Increasingly, Christmas wreaths come from boughs clipped off growing evergreens. Cut the right way, the trees will produce for years; but if it’s done the wrong way, the tree is ruined. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports on fears the demand for wreaths may be outstripping a safe supply. (02:12)
Mexican Gold/ Sandy Tolan
Across the Mexican state of Sonora, US and other foreign mining companies are searching for gold, and creating local jobs. But some say this income bears a high cultural and ecological cost to Mexico’s Indian communities. Sandy Tolan reports. (09:10)
Cattle and Mines/ Laura Carlson
Copper mines north of the Arizona border face environmental challenges, including what to do about piles of mine waste. Now some copper companies have come up with new ways to bring life back to these spoiled lands. Laura Carlson of KJZZ in Phoenix reports. (03:48)
Global Warming/ Ross Gelbspan
A new report confirming that humans are a key contributor to global warming raises questions for commentator Ross Gelbspan about the public’s misconceptions of scientific knowledge. (02:42)
Lambeth Children/ Nancy Schimmel
Storyteller Nancy Schimmel celebrates the children of Lambeth, Ontario, who saved some big maples from a road-widening project in 1966. (01:22)
Copyright c 1995 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
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Joel Southern, Dan Grossman, Deborah Stavro, Catherine Winter, Sandy Tolan, Laura Carlson
COMMENTATORS: Ian Shoales, Ross Gelbspan
STORYTELLER: Nancy Schimmel
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Look just about anywhere and it seems there's someone talking on a cellular phone. Cell phones are sprouting like mushrooms, and so are the towers which transmit their calls. And that has some neighbors upset.
EAD: They're tall, and they're ugly. You wouldn't want to live with one. I don't want to live with one.
CURWOOD: Also, what do you want for a dream house? A colonial? A log cabin? Something with a greenhouse, maybe? Want to make it with your own hands? A Vermont school will teach you how to do it and then some.
CONNELL: By the way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way if it's going to save you money and energy, than that way? Wouldn't you rather put your house here on the land that's not going to trash this habitat of this animal, and keep it around for your kid?
CURWOOD: And some holiday decorating tips from kids, this week on Living on Earth. First this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. North Korea is threatened by widespread famine, but the UN says emergency food deliveries will have to stop unless western nations pledge more in relief funds. The country's Communist government issued its first appeal for international assistance after floods devastated acres of farm land last August. UN officials estimate that 1.5 million tons of grain were lost in floods described as the worst in 100 years. UN relief officials describe hungry North Koreans foraging for roots in plowed paddy fields, and children barely surviving on watered-down corn porridge. Some 500,000 people were left homeless by the floods with subzero winter weather approaching. But so far the World Food Program's appeal for $8.8 million in food aid has yielded little more than $200,000 from Denmark and Finland. Some observers think Westerners hesitate to aid North Korea out of fear that supplies won't get to those who need it.
A moratorium on the sale of mining leases has been extended for another year by House and Senate negotiators. The Senate had opposed the moratorium and it's been a chronic stumbling block in negotiations over the $12 billion Interior Department funding bill. The mining moratorium is aimed at an 1872 law requiring the government to sell mining rights on Federal land for as little as $2.50 an acre. President Clinton says he supports the moratorium, but he has threatened to veto the bill unless Congress removes provisions allowing expanded logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and blocking the US Park Service from managing a newly created national preserve in California's East Mojave Desert.
Alaskan native groups who favor drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are suing the US Interior Department in Federal court. They say top officials have ignored their needs by siding with the native group that opposes drilling. Joel Southern of Alaska Public Radio reports from Washington.
SOUTHERN: Three native corporations, Alaska's alternative to reservations, are suing the Interior Department over the Arctic refuge dispute. They allege Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has failed to honor what they claim as majority Alaska native support for proposed oil drilling on the Arctic refuge coastal plain. Babbitt opposes drilling and has sided with Gwitchen natives who fear development will harm their subsistence base, the porcupine caribou herd that migrates between the coastal plain and northwestern Canada. But Arctic slope regional corporation vice president Oliver Levitt says Babbitt is breaking the law by ignoring what most Alaska natives want.
LEVITT: And if the Secretary is not going to do his job, we're going to have the courts tell him what his job is.
SOUTHERN: Critics of the drilling proposal called the lawsuit frivolous. The Interior Department says it's being used over a disagreement about the future of the Arctic refuge coastal plain, but says the lawsuit will not change its position. Joel Southern,
NUNLEY: Investigators say fears of an outbreak of the dreaded Ebola virus in war-torn Liberia are unfounded. The World Health Organization says a team of medical experts who visited Liberia found that 10 deaths were due to cholera and a form of bloody dysentery. The team also visited the Liberian town of Plibo, the home of a man confirmed to have a mild strain of Ebola. Four people who lived with that man are being checked to see if they also have the disease. One strain of Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected. More than 200 people died in an Ebola outbreak in and around the city of Kikwit in Zaire earlier this year, but the Zairian strain of the disease is thought to be much more virulent than its West African counterpart.
The fallout from the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other activists continues to dog Nigeria and Shell Oil. A UN committee has condemned Nigeria's military government for the executions. Spearheaded by the United States and the European Union, the resolution invites UN members to consider appropriate steps consistent with international law against Nigeria. Toronto's regional government has refused a $900,000 gasoline contract to Shell Canada because its parent group, Anglo-Dutch Shell, is blamed for the environmental damage in Nigeria's Ogoni region. Environmental activists and human rights groups have called for boycotts of Royal Dutch Shell for not pressuring Nigeria's military regime to reform. The company says its presence in Nigeria benefits ordinary citizens as well as the military dictatorship.
The nuclear power industry may be set to answer the prayers of drinkers of jug wine and rotgut whiskey. Using doses of gamma radiation strong enough to kill 250 people, Japanese scientists say they can make bad wine taste good and cheap whiskey smooth. And they predict this kind of food irradiation could be legalized worldwide in as little as 5 years. But if you're a single malt scotch aficionado or a Chateau Lafitte Rothschild fan, you're out of luck. The head of research at the Japan Atomic Power Company says if you irradiate good wine or whiskey it tastes terrible. Scientists say the main drawback is that the irradiation of food products is illegal in most countries. Many consumer groups also insist it increases the risk of cancer.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you want to put up a structure, you need a building permit, and you usually get it from your local city hall. But the Federal Communications Commission is trying to eliminate local control of permits to build cellular phone towers. The FCC says mobile phone companies should be able to build relay towers wherever they please, just as electric companies can't be stopped from stringing wires by local authorities. But there are some in Congress who think these towers can be a blight on the landscape. A vote on a measure that would preserve local control and block the FCC proposal is expected shortly. Reporter Daniel Grossman has more.
(Hammering sounds, construction vehicles)
GROSSMAN: On a construction site south of Boston, a crew is building the foundation for a 150-foot tower. When completed, an antenna mounted on top will improve mobile phone service to this community and to commuters on a nearby highway. It's a story repeated every day across the country. Thousands of antennas are being hoisted aloft to improve reception to the country's 30 million mobile phones. Many are inconspicuously bolted to buildings, but others sit atop tall steel towers, looming 100 feet or more above the landscape.
EAD: They're tall, and they're ugly.
GROSSMAN: John Ead, chairman of the department that oversees Boston's zoning code, has a panoramic view from his downtown office. Looking out, he says these towers are a threat to the visual integrity of his city.
EAD: You wouldn't want to live with one. I don't want to live with one. And the residents of the city of Boston have been pretty clear they don't want these hanging -- and I mean literally -- hanging over their heads.
GROSSMAN: Unlike radio and television transmitters, which generally broadcast a powerful signal from the top of a single tall tower, a cellular phone signal is broadcast from a spread-out network of low-power antennas. Phone companies divide each city into a patchwork of cells, a sort of checkerboard with irregular boundaries, each with its own antenna. As customers move from cell to cell, a call is transferred or handed off seamlessly from one antenna to the next. But industry analysts say the nation's 20,000 existing antennas can't keep up with demand for mobile phones. They say by the end of the decade, 100,000 more will be needed. Many will be mounted on tall, slender towers, sometimes called monopoles. So last October, Boston adopted regulations to protect the appearance of this tidy city. John Ead.
EAD: What we're concerned about is that technology today does not become a burden tomorrow. And this is always the trade-off with technology, I think, everywhere. We're not saying no cellular communication, no monopoles. But how do we accommodate the technology in a way that we can live with it and it visually and physically enhances our city?
GROSSMAN: Boston's rules strictly regulate the location and appearance of the antennas. Cincinnati, San Diego, Dallas, and other cities have taken similar steps. But industry experts say rules like these can delay the expansion of cellular networks, possibly with serious consequences.
SHOSTECK: But suppose that this delay happens and it's winter and you are stuck in a snow bank, and you're half a mile from a house? If it's any kind of reasonable blizzard, it would be fatal to try to go that half a mile to the next, to where you know a house is even if you could see the way. You'd freeze to death.
GROSSMAN: Telecommunications analyst Hershel Shosteck says mobile phone firms should be granted special authority to build where necessary, just like suppliers of other essential services, such as water and electricity.
SHOSTECK: You can't stop electricity being delivered to your house, or you can't stop water being delivered to your house, because somebody doesn't want the electric wire or the water pipe to go through their property. So the cellular industry is saying if you need a cell site in a particular place to cover a particular area, if the cell site isn't where it has to be you're not going to get service in that area.
GROSSMAN: Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission began writing rules that would have stripped city halls of the power to regulate phone towers. Congress responded by inserting a provision in the new telecommunications bills to protect local authority. Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia says the legislation preserves the rights of average citizens to play a role in shaping how their cities look.
GOODLATTE: They will have the opportunity to go down to their city council or county government, sit right in front of their elected representatives, express their point of view on the issue, and watch as they vote where they think a particular monopole or one of these towers should be located, and where they should not be located. The right of the people to be heard on the issue has been protected.
GROSSMAN: Still, the new legislation would subject local decisions on the towers to judicial review, and would require that decisions be made without unreasonable delay. Industry analyst Hershel Shosteck calls these provisions a judicious compromise, but Boston's John Ead says the compromise is too generous to telecommunications companies.
EAD: I fear that what this is intended to do on the part of the industry is to make reviewing of their proposals as intimidating and as costly as absolutely as possible for them to make it.
GROSSMAN: If one thing's certain, it's that more towers like this one south of Boston will surely be built. What's less clear is how the nation's thirst for new ways to talk and to listen will be balanced by the desire to protect the look of our communities. For Living on Earth in Boston, this is Daniel Grossman.
(Construction sounds. Music up and under)
CURWOOD: The image of pioneers building their own homes is an icon of American life. But in today's frantic and highly mobile society few of us have the time or the skills needed to construct a shelter with our own hands. Besides, nowadays, who stays in one place long enough to invest more than money in their home?
CONNELL: People now relate to their homes, or have been since the second World War, as a product that you move into for a certain phase of your life, hope it appreciates, and then sell it. And with it you sell all the relationships that you have with the other people in that community. You sell your children's memories. You sell a whole section of your life down the road. And a lot of people never put their lives into their homes just because of that.
CURWOOD: John Connell is founder of the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont. An architect and a builder, he started this training program in 1980 to help people build communities by teaching them how to design and construct their own homes.
CONNELL: We say look, you want a home? We'll help you design it, we'll help you build it, it will be more expressive of who you are. It'll cost you less. If you want to change it as your kids grow older and stuff, we'll empower you to do that. And you know, by the way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way that's going to save you money and energy, than that way? Wouldn't you rather put your house here on the land that's not going to trash this habit at of this animal, and keep it around for your kid?
(Construction sounds, hammering, a drill. Man: "The rafter needs a compound cut on the bottom." Man #2: "A compounder. Okay, it's this angle in relationship to that...")
CURWOOD: About a dozen latter-day Thoreaus surround their instructor. Inside a roofless structure about a 10-minute drive from the school.
(A drill sounds.)
CURWOOD: Under the watchful eye of 3 teachers, these students are building a small horse barn on which they practice basic construction skills. They learn to hammer a nail, cut a beam and shingle a roof. The students range from a California truck driver nearing retirement to a young couple from Alaska.
McDANNOLD: We're going to build a stone house, is what we're interested in. There's plenty of river stone around where we live.
CURWOOD: Doryi McDannold lives with her husband outside of Palmer, Alaska.
McDANNOLD: We live in a kind of harsh environment up in Alaska, and I think it's important just to consider where you live and what elements you have to deal with and build a building that suits that. Otherwise, you're always sort of fighting nature. I mean, you know, you do things the wrong way, you know, if you see people put huge windows on north sides of house and then they end up having to heat like heck, you know? And so it just doesn't make sense.
CURWOOD: Lynn Preston wants to build her dream home in rural Maryland.
PRESTON: I wanted something that was designed around the way I live. I guess I wanted a greenhouse; I also want a nice big tub in there, so that I can actually sit down and have my knees covered when I sit in the tub. I wanted -- I wanted a big library. I have a bookshelf right now that's about 8 foot tall and 24 feet long and there aren't a whole bunch of houses that they feel that will accommodate a library like that.
CURWOOD: Liz Preston and the others are introduced to construction skills, but they learn there is much more to homebuilding.
(People gathering in a room; ambient conversation)
CURWOOD: In an architect's studio, students toil, often until the early hours of the morning, shaping and re-shaping their designs on paper. Then they build models to test their house plans in 3 dimensions. For now, Dori McDannold's stone home looks like a cardboard doll house.
McDANNOLD: This is going to be the roof and that will be where the sawed roof is, so you have to use your imagination and imagine that this will just look like the ground.
But magically the roof comes off, and --
CURWOOD: Ms. McDannold peels off the roof and opens up the first floor of her model for viewing. She points out some problems that the model revealed and how she coped with them.
McDANNOLD: If you've got this plus the second floor laid over top here, actually approaches 2,000 square feet, 2,100.
CURWOOD: That's a big house.
McDANNOLD: Yeah, it got too big on me last night, in the wee hours. (Laughs) So I went ahead and thought okay, well if I eliminate that and just go with this and put the stairs back over there, then it dropped it back down to the 1,700 square foot, which includes the root cellar and the greenhouse.
ROOD: Unfortunately the attitude these days often is that hey, we'll just make it big. That'll make it flexible enough so that it'll work somehow.
CURWOOD: Yestermorrow instructor Mac Rood explains that controlling house size is an important environmentally sound building concept.
ROOD: You spend the time on paper, with paper and pencil and building models. You can design a space that is efficient, uses every square foot to the maximum, maybe just by moving some doors around you can reduce the traffic flow through a room and therefore be able to make the room smaller. Still as functional, still as gracious, but with less square footage, thereby saving material, saving the energy cost that's involved in heating that building for the 50, 100, 200 years that we hope this building's going to last.
CURWOOD: That's another of the key lessons taught at the Yestermorrow school. Building a sustainable home means building a structure that's going to last a long time.
ROOD: It means that the energy that's gone into creating that building, the materials and resources that have gone into that building, are going to be 2, 3 times more valuable if the building lasts 2 or 3 times as long. We've got to get away from the notion of disposable buildings.
CURWOOD: Mr. Rood and 2 other instructors go over these ideas again and again with students during marathon studio sessions. They also spend hours going over general architecture, building codes, and other basic concepts needed to plan a house. While those ideas seem simple enough, the students quickly learn that putting it all together takes time. Lots of time. Dori McDannold.
McDANNOLD: Before I came I was thinking, when we walk away from here we'll have blueprints for our house. But by the second week of this course I was like, yeah, I can let go of -- I'm not going to have blueprints. I'm not even going to be close. There are so many details and so many decisions, and I realize what a complex project it is just making all those decisions. So it might be a year, might be 2, who knows?
CURWOOD: You're going to be cold for a while.
CURWOOD: For those students who don't actually go on to build homes with their own 2 hands, Yestermorrow training puts them in a better position to deal with the architects and contractors who may create their home for them.
(A car door closes; people move around, ambient conversation)
CURWOOD: Every day Yestermorrow students take field trips to local homes. Most often the owners are architects or builders themselves who have created the long lasting space and energy efficient homes the school trumpets. Today, they visit the log house of instructor Joe Brent, who greets them as they pile out of the school van.
CHUCK: How's it going, Joe?
BRENT: Good, Chuck. You?
CHUCK: Good. This is neat.
CURWOOD: The log home is simple but elegant.
McDANNOLD: Nice job, Joe!
BRENT: Thanks, Dori.
McDANNOLD: That's great. This looks like a well-done log house.
BRENT: Oh, well.
MAN: There's a crack you could get a rhino through here! (Laughter)
BRENT: I didn't have anything to do with that...
CURWOOD: A cheerful man, Joe Brent describes how he built this house himself, using a lot of local resources. The logs came from trees on his own land and were milled nearby. Pieces of his furnace were salvaged from old copy machines. Mr. Brent says it was not a conscious effort to reduce waste or save energy, it was just the cheapest, simplest course to take. As the students gather in the living room, Joe Brent uses the midsummer sun to explain how designing with nature makes it easier to keep the building comfortable.
BRENT: Now as you can see it's about 1:20 and the sun's up about as high as it's going to get, and there's just a very narrow band of sun that's hitting the porch. And very little coming in the windows. Now here it is the middle of summer, we're just not getting that solar gain that you would get if you didn't have enough overhang and some other factors. But in the winter, when the sun is much lower in the sky, the light just literally streams right in to where Rob is standing. So -- yeah, it's astounding.
CURWOOD: Mr. Brent expects that he and his family will spend the rest of their days here. Yestermorrow School founder John Connell says no matter where you live, that sense of place is the best reward from personal home building.
CONNELL: See, if you build your own home, you put a lot of effort into it. If you live there, and for a long time, it's important, all of a sudden it's important to know where the water's coming from and where the waste is going to. But if you buy your home and you're going to sell it in 5 years, or flip it as they say, then you can endure whatever kind of crime or waste or poor schools or other social ills come along with that home, because you're going to sell it. It's only when you invest in a spot and commit to a community of people that you really start to see the reason for cleaning up our streets, for saving the environment.
CURWOOD: Cleaning up the whole world is not the goal of John Connell or the Yestermorrow School. But he hopes the hundreds of prospective home builders sent out from this rural Vermont valley will try to change their own corners of it. Perhaps then their message of constructing a home to reflect the owner's values, as well as respect the environment, will catch on.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Coming up on Living on Earth, some eco-friendly holiday decorating tips from kids.
(Music up and under: "Winter Wonderland")
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Yes, the holidays are upon us, stirring up feelings of goodwill toward our fellow humans and sometimes even our fellow animals. But as you might expect, commentator Ian Shoales says there's no reason to go overboard with this.
SHOALES: Let's not kid ourselves. One of the main functions of the so-called holiday season is to eat ourselves into a stupor and end up groaning on the floor with our friends and relatives trying to stay awake until the angel shows Jimmy Stewart what things would be like if he'd never lived at all. How things have changed. Jimmy Stewart's S&Ls have become Charles Keatings and the banks, forget about it, they're merging faster than the Blob. Even a miserable old coot like Lionel Barrymore would be no match for the new batch of bottom liners, he'd be out in his golden parachute before you could say have yourself a merry little Christmas or you're fired. And now it looks like the holiday feast itself may fall victim to the bottom line among animal rights activists, vegetarians, people panicking over their cholesterol levels, pesticide watchers and bacterial contamination counters; we may soon be sipping barley-flavored water as we watch our colorized Jimmy lurching through the snow screaming, "Burt! Ernie! Don't you know me?"
I'm second to none in my admiration of tofu and gluten, but forming a gelatinous mass into the shape of a large bird is a poor substitute for the actual turkey itself. Oh sure, I've read the literature. It takes 4 pounds of grain to create each pound of turkey meat. So, for a 20-pound butterball you're talking a waste of 80 pounds of grain, supposedly, to which I say who better to eat 80 pounds of grain than a bird? Were you going to eat that grain? I doubt it; you wouldn't leave room for the cranberries and mashed potatoes, much less the pumpkin pie. Besides, a turkey is nothing more than a fast vegetable anyway.
Holiday dinners are bad enough. Uncle Charlie who had one nog too many stand up and start screaming, "You people are all empty inside!" before passing out on the spuds. Cousin Bert a ditto-head, and Cousin Dell, a Clintonite will start heaving fruitcake at each other's heads; they can put an eye out with that thing. Aunt Sue will tell Aunt Bea there are special sauces, too much nutmeg just one too many times, she'll kick everybody out of the house. You'll all have to troop down to the all-night diner for the hot turkey and biscuit special.
And now we have to be environmentally conscious as well? Say, that'll really promote family harmony. Pass the candied yams to Elmo and he'll accuse you of despoiling the rainforest; before you know it you'll all be peeling sweet potatoes and blood off the ceiling. Measuring contaminants at the dinner table may become part of the etiquette of tomorrow, but it won't do wonders for our appetites.
Once upon a time in our glorious past, we'd go out and bring down a mastodon, render the hooves, make clothing and shelter from the hide, build a great big fire, cook that bad old thing, eat the meat gone, then cower in our stinking hovels in fear until the long cold winter went away. Those were the days. That's why we still have our eating holidays now; it's an atavistic throwback to the times when thinning the herd was an integral part of the hunter-gatherer economy. Nowadays the holiday feast is just another anachronism, a futile gesture against the downsizing of everything, urban indulgence in a massive whim poor old Mother Earth can no longer tolerate. She 's going to kick out all us good for nothing children pretty soon and we're all going to have to eat tofu down at the all night diner.
Until then I'll take the dark meat, thank you, and try to imagine the world as it might be if we'd never existed. Hey, don't even need an angel for that. Not in today's economy. I gotta go.
CURWOOD: A great-grandson of Ebenezer Scrooge, the semi-famous Ian Shoales lives in semi-obscurity somewhere west of the Mississippi.
CURWOOD: In recent weeks, we've been asking you for suggestions for holiday gifts that are eco-friendly. Well, to discover the true meaning of the holidays, we turn to children. This week we sent Living on Earth producer Deborah Stavro to Boston's Copley Square Hotel. There students from the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School joined hotel employees in making Christmas ornaments from things that would have otherwise been thrown away.
STAVRO: What are you making?
TARGETE: A garland. It's made out of wallpaper.
STAVRO: Now why are you making garlands out of wallpaper?
TARGETE: We're making it because we're trying to reuse other things. Because the earth doesn't have enough room for lots of stuff to throw away and stuff. So we can reuse the stuff. Make other things.
STAVRO: Great. Well thank you very much. What is this?
DUARTE: An angel.
STAVRO: Uh huh. Is that a halo?
DUARTE: Yeah, a halo. Made from the doily. And this is a fabric -- I mean not fabric, wallpaper -- and this is toilet paper roll on the bottom. A light bulb.
STAVRO: The light bulb is the face?
STAVRO: Well it's beautiful. What kind of paint did you use on the face here?
STAVRO: Gold paint. And then there's a smiling face, and you have doilies for wings.
DUARTE: And wires to keep the head standing up.
STAVRO: Why do you suppose it's a good idea to make ornaments out of light bulbs and toilet tissue rolls?
DUARTE: Because it's better than buying them. You can just make it yourself instead of going, you can use your imagination.
LEONARD: I made a picture frame to hang on my tree. It's made of cup holder and my pictures in it's made of cloth. It gives you an idea of how to recycle things. And if you recycle things the world will be a better place to live in.
CURWOOD: Vanessa Targete, Steven Duarte, and Sarah Leonard from Boston's Renaissance Charter Public School. They spoke with Living on Earth producer Deborah Stavro.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment, and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Music up and under: "Favorite Things")
CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, the race for Mexican gold has some U.S. companies taking chances with Mexico's ecological health.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: What if you pose a question with no right answer to a person who never has the wrong answer? That's a point we'll ponder as we begin some winter-time storytelling. Stories in honor of the shortest day of the year. We'll have that and more in this half hour of NPR's Living on Earth. First, this week's almanac.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Decorating plants to celebrate the winter solstice is an old tradition. Ancient Egyptians brought palm leaves into their homes on the shortest day of the year. Romans adorned their buildings with evergreens during the winter festival to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. In the Middle Ages, the Paradise Tree, an evergreen hung with red apples, was the symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve, held on December 24th. Today in the United States more than 34 million trees are cut down at Christmas. The average tree weighs 17 pounds, and is 6-and-a-half feet tall. While these trees are biodegradable, they make good mulch if they're chopped up, most end up in landfills where they degrade slowly. As an alternative some folks buy artificial trees, and others purchase small, live trees which can be potted all year or replanted in the back yard.
(Music up and under: "Subsequently!")
CURWOOD: One of the nice things about this time of year in the cold part of the country is stepping into a warm vestibule and smelling the rich pine fragrance of a Christmas wreath up on the door. But did you ever wonder where those wreaths come from. Increasingly, they come from boughs clipped off of growing evergreen trees. Now, cut the right way, the trees can go on for years sprouting fresh boughs that could be pruned from time to time. But if it's done the wrong way the tree is ruined , and a blight is left behind. The Northern Minnesota woods supplies much of the nation's holiday greenery, and as Minnesota Public Radio's Catherine Winter reports, there's a growing concern that demand for wreaths may be outstripping the safe supply.
WINTER: For 2 months, some people in northern Minnesota have been working as many hours as they can, cutting evergreen boughs in the forest or making the boughs into wreaths. At Cohasset Evergreen, piles of boughs dusted with snow lie on the ground. Inside, half a dozen people stand at long tables clipping sprays of greenery down to size, or clamping them onto metal frames. The smell of evergreen mingled with cigarette smoke is overpowering. Gwen Pierce tucks painted pinecones into a wreath. She says the likes the work, even though she goes home covered with balsam needles.
PIERCE: We've been out one night some place and I went home and took a shower and cleaned all up. Put cologne on and I went out and he said oh, you smell like a Christmas tree.
WINTER: In northern Minnesota it's tough to find year-round full-time work, and a wreath maker who works long hours can earn $4,000 or $5,000 in a season. The state estimates that Minnesotans make $30 million worth of wreaths every year. Cohasset Evergreen ships wreaths all over the country 40,000 or 50,000 wreaths a year. Co-owner Shirley Hines says, to make that many she buys at least 100 tons of boughs.
HINES: We buy from everybody. We buy -- we buy a lot of boughs from my kids. Kids on weekends pick a lot of boughs. We have older people that pick boughs. And we have just regular people that want to make some Christmas money and go out and pick boughs, too.
WINTER: Most people pick boughs on public land, in national, state, or county forests. They go out after the first frost with clippers and snip off the ends of branches. They're supposed to get permits, but not everyone does. Forest Ranger Howard Zeman caught a guy cutting without a permit just the other day.
ZEMAN: These are balsam trees, and these are -- this is boughs that were cut last year.
WINTER: Zeman slogs through deep snow in a stand of balsam trees in the Chippewa National Forest. Wind sings in the treetops and snow collects in his hair. He points out several young balsam trees with stubs instead of lower branches. Zeman says the man who was cutting here without a permit clipped the branches too short.
ZEMAN: Normally, we ask them to leave the little branches coming out, and then cut the ends of those, the main branches, the offshoots from those main branches. So that in the future, like next year, the new growth will just extend beyond that, like this -- like what he cut, that's history.
WINTER: Zeman says no one will be able to cut boughs from that tree in the future. Balsam stands that are near main roads and easy to get at are showing similar signs of wear. Sometimes inexperienced bough cutters even saw down whole trees. Zeman says people who cut boughs wrong aren't just hurting a resource; they're destroying animal habitat.
ZEMAN: It's for cover, for security, for protection from hunters. From wolves. And also it's for, from the weather. They gather underneath the trees for warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.
WINTER: Nobody knows how many people are cutting boughs or how many tons of boughs are hauled out of North American forests every year. In Minnesota, county, state, and Federal foresters began meeting this year, trying to figure out how much impact bough cutting has on forests. They've started circulating a brochure showing how to cut properly. People in the wreath industry helped put that brochure together. They want to make sure there are boughs in the future. At Cohasset Evergreen, Shirley Hines says when she buys boughs, she talks to the sellers about how to pick them.
HINES: My husband picked when he was a little tiny kid, and now my grandsons are out here, you know. And they can pick them and do it. It's just one generation after another can benefit off of it and it's all Mother Nature that's providing it for us. And if we just be responsible, then it will keep on coming back and coming back.
WINTER: Foresters say they don't think bough cutting is a serious problem in Northern Minnesota's forests yet. They're trying to prevent problems before they happen. They say if they can stay ahead of the curve, there will be enough evergreen boughs for animals and for Christmas wreaths for generations to come. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
(Music up and under: "Jingle Bells")
CURWOOD: Centuries ago, in the days of Coronado, gold mines dotted the landscape of Mexico. Indians worked the mines as slaves, and bricks of gold were sent on ships back to Spain. Thus began a long history of foreign ownership of Mexico's wealth. After the revolution, Mexico outlawed foreign control of its natural resources. But today, nationalistic pride has given way to the pressures of global trade. Since the crash of the peso a year ago, Mexico has been desperate for investment, and is now allowing foreigners to own Mexican resources. Across the northern state of Sonora, dozens of US and other foreign mining companies are now searching for gold and creating local jobs. But some say this income is coming at a high cultural and ecological cost, especially to Mexico's Indian communities. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has more.
(Sound of a bulldozer)
TOLAN: In a vast open pit, a yellow bulldozer with 6-foot tires scoops up 20,000 pounds of ore and wheels over to a 50-ton dump truck.
(Ore being dumped)
TOLAN: This is the sound of foreign investment in Mexico, in the age of free trade. As Mexico beckons with its minimal red tape, US companies like Hecla Mining stream south in search of gold.
MAN: This is the beginning of the process. After that, the second step is explosives...
TOLAN: Each month, rock crushers pulverize 200,000 tons of ore, all to produce a few hundred pounds of gold. Every few weeks a plane leaves the Hecla airstrip with more than a million dollars worth of gold bound for the US. The gold is buried on Indian lands, near the Tohono Oodham village of Quitovac. Acres of high Sonoran desert have been scraped clean, but my manager Ignacio de la Fuente says the area will be restored.
DE LA FUENTE: After we're finished here, all the, we're going to try to leave the area more or less the same way that it was -- not the same way that it was before, because we mined the area. But we want to use it like agriculture or something, there are going to be flood areas, so they can use it.
TOLAN: Beyond the yellow haze of the Hecla Mine, mesquite trees and barrel cactus slope of the Sierra Pinacate, toward the heartland of Tohono Oodham Indian country.
FLORES: Those big machines come in there and start digging and destroying the Earth, all kinds of stuff, and they're blasting and all that stuff.
TOLAN: Fifty miles north, on hard-packed terrain covered by ocotillo and jumping cholla, an old car bakes in the sun. A couple of old men sit in the shade of a lean-to. Ernest Flores and Angelo Matilla are Tohono Oodham elders. This is Arizona ground. The Oodham nation has been sliced in half by an international boundary. Sitting here in the quiet north of the line, the men are worried. The mine, they say, sits on sacred land, and it threatens Quitovac's springs, site of the people's origin ceremony.
FLORES: That's our roots down there, and I hate to see it go, because every year we go over there. There's the only church we have over there. And the white people, why they want to destroy it? Why destroy our church and contaminate that place? You know what roots is, it goes under the ground, it feels like it belongs to the Indians.
MATILLA: We come from that Pinacate Mountain, while back. And then when the people scattered around, and part of it that way, and part of it this way, all ways to up to the Salt River, and then we settled down right there, to Quitovac.
GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: This is a sacred place, where our ancestors met for many years.
TOLAN: Back across the border in Mexico, in the other half of the biforcated Oodham nation, elementary school teacher Rafael Garcia stands in the dusk, in an oasis . Reeds surround pools of still waters, reflecting the fading light at Quitovac Springs.
GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: This is a place where they did their ceremonies, and smoked the peace pipe. So that they received good things and that everything in nature will be good. And that there will be water. This must remain a sacred place. We are really worried. We consider it very grave. The man is contaminating, animals are dying.
(An engine runs)
TOLAN: There's no evidence that the mining has killed animals. Mining officials say modern techniques and precautions ensure against contamination from the cyanide used in the process. The cyanide is sprayed on a pile of ore. This pulls the gold out, downward into a stream. It's called heap leaching. Triple safety liners manager De La Fuente points out, lie under everything.
DE LA FUENTE: We make all the things careful, because we don't want to contaminate anything. You have to be careful every time that you make something like this. After we put some liner, we make a good inspection. And we invite the government people to make that inspection with us. After that we put the sand, and we put another liner. And that's the way because we want to be sure that we don't, we will not contaminate it.
TOLAN: But ecologists say there are no guarantees. For example, in Summitville, Colorado, a leaking heap leach gold mine sent tainted water into a mountain river. The company went broke, and it's costing taxpayers more than $120 million to clean it up.
GREGORY: To say that the modern mining is going to be protective of the environment is just plain out false.
TOLAN: Michael Gregory, director of Arizona Toxics Information, says there are long-term dangers posed by the new mines in Mexico. Dangers accelerated by Mexico's economic crisis.
GREGORY: The modern techniques themselves involve high quantities of hazardous materials. And those hazardous materials have a way of getting out into the environment. It's been well-advertised by mining companies themselves that they go to Mexico to escape environmental law. There is no question that the environmental laws in Mexico, which have the potential for being even stronger than US law, in fact are weaker because they are not enforced. There is just not the money to do the kind of enforcement that needs to be done.
TOLAN: And in some cases Mexican officials do seem willing to bend the rules for foreign investors. They've allowed Hecla to operate without a license for 8 months. And unlike in the US, the company is not required to post bond, to guarantee they'll clean up the site once the gold is gone. In Hermosillo, the state capitol, the director of the state mining office says he understands the concerns, especially of the Indians in nearby Quitovac. But Eduardo Mendoza says these worries are not based on fact.
MENDOZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The Hecla mine is not contaminated. We can control the mine before there's any harm to the groundwater. And there is even less chance that the community of Quitovac can be heard, because their water comes from a different aquifer. I understand -- people are worried about their environment. For the place where they have always lived. I think their doubts and concerns are healthy. We have tried to teach them and show them how the mine operates. The Hecla mine has no secrets. But it's very difficult to explain and convince these people. So we have to educate them, and give them more information and culture.
(Children shouting and playing)
TOLAN: In Quitovac, Rafael Garcia teaches Oodham traditions to the children in the elementary school. It's not culture he's looking for from the government, but he and his neighbors would like some information, and he says the government is not forthcoming.
GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Well, this government, people are covering themselves. Not long ago they had a meeting at the mine with all the government officials from the state of Sonora and from the Federal government in Mexico City. And instead of inviting the people who are involved in this, the people who want to understand the problem with the mine, they brought in other people. Not people from Quitovac. The people who are affected by this, they didn't invite. I think that says it all. When are we going to see some results? Maybe it's going to be our children who find out.
TOLAN: People from Quitovac are suing the mine and the government to void the contract because the community never voted for it. An early agreement, they claim, was made bogus when the past president of Quitovac pocketed the money. But Mexican law makes mining the highest priority. Officials say local people can be forced off the land to get at the wealth underground, and as more foreign companies come in, in search of those minerals, the conflicts are bound to increase. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.
CURWOOD: Toxic wastes aren't a problem for copper mines north of the Mexican border in Arizona, but companies still face environmental challenges including what to do about huge mounds of ugly, sterile mine waste. Now some copper companies have come up with a new way to bring life back to these spoiled lands. Laura Carlson of member station KJZZ has our report.
CARLSON: Deep in the desert mountains of southeastern Arizona, where scrub brush and mesquite trees dot the landscape, Magma Copper and other copper companies have been extracting ore from open pit mines.
Trucks the size of small homes transport tons of rock out of the mines for processing. The minerals are removed and what's left, basically sterile sand, is deposited in immense mounds called tailings piles. In the small town of Miami, Arizona, mountains of yellowish mine tailings literally spill into the downtown area. Raena Honan, with the Sierra Club, says she once recommended the site to a friend who looks for movie locations.
HONAN: And I said, you know, if you ever want a place that looks like World War III has hit, come, and gone, you ought to go up there.
CARLSON: Mining companies have been looking for ways to mitigate the blowing dust, erosion, and aesthetic problems created by tailings piles. And they're getting help from an unlikely source.
MAN: Hello, ladies! Hello! (A cow moos) That's more like it; say hi!
CARLSON: About 60 Texas longhorn cows are munching hay on the steep slope of a tailings mound at Magma's Pinto Valley Copper Mine. Jessie Mitchell, the mine's environmental technician, says the cows provide precious deposits of a different sort.
MITCHELL: The idea's as simple and as old as time. A huge number of animals in a small area are going to densely fertilize and till that area.
CARLSON: Magma is borrowing cows from local ranchers to turn once-useless mine tailings into soil, where grasses, shrubs, and even mesquite trees can take root. To accomplish this, the ground is covered with hay and topped with feed to attract the cows. They walk on the tailings, introducing air and fertilizer, organic matter that encourages plant life. Finally, Bermuda and indigenous range grasses are hand- scattered to hasten re-vegetation. Mitchell says he first thought of using cows for mine reclamation about 10 years ago, but he says no one took him seriously.
MITCHELL: Well it's very interesting, but thank you very much. Don't call us, we'll call you, and you can almost hear the roar of laughter as soon as we cleared the door.
CARLSON: But there's not much laughter now. Tailings piles that once looked like the surface of the moon are now covered with grass. The official word from Magma is that 250 acres have been re-vegetated and are even attracting wildlife. Not only do the tailings piles look better. Fast-growing Bermuda grass also is being credited with reducing erosion. However, there are a few concerns. Questions have been raised about possible toxins inside the tailings piles, but Magma officials say the cows have been tested and found to be healthy. Some say the project is commendable, but doesn't go far enough to address the environmental disruption caused by mining. The Sierra Club's Raena Honan says mining firms need to do more re-contouring and re-vegetation to, as she puts it, clean up their mess. That aside, she says using cow dung for reclamation is no joke.
HONAN: In one sense, yeah, you would kind of derisively laugh and go that's ridiculous. But in the other sense, you have to understand that this is really something that the mines are doing that they didn't have to do. They're making an attempt. And as far as I'm concerned I think that is a major step, considering what their history has been in this state.
CARLSON: Meanwhile, mining interests around the world are taking note of Arizona's cattle re-vegetation program. Magma officials recently outlined their results at an international conference in Santiago, Chile. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Carlson in Phoenix.
CURWOOD: Coming up in a few minutes on Living on Earth, it's winter time and we've invited a master storyteller to spin a yarn to help you through the longer nights. Stay tuned.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's official. The United Nations scientific panel has released a long-awaited report on global warming, which confirms what most scientists had believed for some time. Humans are a key cause of global warming. While this isn't much of a scientific surprise, as commentator Ross Gelbspan points out, it does raise a major question about public misconceptions of the state of scientific knowledge.
GELBSPAN: For at least the last 4 years the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars on a campaign of propaganda and disinformation to downplay concerns about global climate change. Much of that money has gone to amplifying the views of about a half dozen dissenting researchers, giving them a platform and a credibility in the public arena, which is grossly out of proportion to their influence in the scientific community. In 1991, for instance, the coal industry launched a disinformation campaign designed to, quote, "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact." They used 3 of the so-called scientific skeptics, Doctors Robert Bolling, Pat Michaels, and Sherwood Idso, in broadcast appearances, in newspaper columns, designed to target quote "older, less educated men and young, low-income women."
Later that year, Western Fuels, a coal industry collaborative, spent a quarter of a million dollars to produce a video narrated by Dr. Idso, which extolled the agricultural benefits of increased levels of carbon dioxide. What the widely-circulated video failed to mention is that even a slight increase in the global temperature could trigger an explosion of the planet's insect population with its potential for vast crop destruction and the spread of infectious disease.
The disinformation campaign is almost predictable given the staggering magnitude of the stakes. The trillion dollar a year fossil fuel industry versus the ability of the planet to sustain civilization. What is more difficult to accept is the undisclosed funding of some of the skeptics. Dr. Michaels, for instance, has received more than $115,000 in the last 3 years from US and foreign coal interests. Dr. Bolling has received about $300,000 in the last 5 years from US, German, and British coal interests, as well as from the government of Kuwait.
Can one say that the work of these scientists is tainted because it is funded by industry? Absolutely not. But one can say that given their frequent pronouncements in arenas as diverse as the Rush Limbaugh Show, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the US Congress, these few skeptics have an ethical obligation to tell their audience where they get their money.
Ultimately, however, even the funding question is a diversion from the real issue. Are we confronting a potentially catastrophic era of climate instability and planetary warming? The scientific opinion breaks down to something like 2,495 to 6. Without the millions of industry dollars being spent to amplify their views, the handful of skeptics would be no more than footnotes to the leading climate scientists of the world.
CURWOOD: Journalist Ross Gelbspan's article on global warming is the cover story in the December issue of Harper's Magazine.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Usually on Living on Earth, it's a reporter who tells us a story, who uses words and tape to take us on an audio journey through time and terrain. Or perhaps our emotions are awakened by the views of a commentator, or important information passed on through an interview with a newsmaker. But once a year, we follow the storytelling road less traveled these days, though our ancient ancestors wore the path well. We invite people to tell stories the old fashioned way, by weaving narratives of happenings real and imagined. Next week, we'll hear from 3 storytellers, who will spin tales of greed, stewardship, and why things are the way they are in nature. Today we have a short preview. It's a story and a riddle, a paradox really, about earth keeping. It's told by Nancy Schimmel.
SCHIMMEL: This is a story about an old man who was known to be so wise that he could answer any question. And he always had the right answer. No one could stump him. One time, 2 young people decided that they were going to stump that old man. They were going to ask him a question that he couldn't answer correctly.
"This is how we'll do it. We'll catch us a bird, and we'll go to that old man. We'll hold the bird in our hands, and we'll say: this that we have in our hands today: is it alive or is it dead? And if he says dead we'll let it go. But if he says alive, we'll crush it."
So they caught a bird, and they brought it to that old man. And they held it in their hands and said: This that we hold in our hands today, is it alive or is it dead? And that wise, old man looked at those 2 young people and smiled and said, "It's in your hands."
CURWOOD: Nancy Schimmel is a storyteller and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. Her recording of environmental stories and songs for children, called All In This Together, won the Parents Choice Award in 1990. More fiction, fable, and fantasy next week, with Living on Earth's second annual celebration of storytelling. Be sure to tune in.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson. And Deborah Stavro is our director. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, David Hammond, and Constantine Von Hoffman. Also Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Christopher Knorr, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Mark Borrelli, Jonathan Funtowitz, Marney Kimmel, and Eric Losick. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Karen Given and Laurie Forest. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthelliere and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth