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

November 22, 1996

Air Date: November 22, 1996


William McDonough: Portrait of a Green Designer

Architect Bill McDonough is Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He is profiled by host Steve Curwood and producer Sandy Tolan. (17:45)

Listener Letters

Listeners respond to last week's segment on the "Eden Alternative" concept of nursing homes and to our query on what else they would do, or suggest, to improve life in nursing homes. (02:40)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... birth control. (01:15)

EV-1 For Lease

The first electric car by one of Detroit's "Big Three" auto manufacturers will be available in three western states beginning December 5th (1996). The so-called "EV-1" cars will be leased, not sold, to allay consumer fears that the technology is relatively new and unknown. Steve Curwood speaks with author Michael Schnayerson whose recent book titled The Car That Could examines production of the EV-1. (08:50)

The Urbanization of Africa / Cindy Shiner

Cindy Shiner reports from Accra, Ghana with its population of three million and another million residents expected over the next few years. In Accra, efforts are being made to welcome rural migrants in order to stabilize the city's population base. (09:45)

Thanksgiving Native Harvest

Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki tribe member, author and storyteller talks with Steve Curwood about what recipes the Abenaki might be cooking this time of year. One of Joe Bruchac's recent books is titled American Gardening: Projects, Activities and Recipes for Families. (06:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 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: Dan Grossman, Steve Helwig, Cindy Shiner
GUESTS: Michael Schnayerson, Joseph Bruchac

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Today we meet William McDonough, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and a leading apostle of green design. Mr. McDonough says too often industrial design ignores the environment.

McDONOUGH: Emerson in 1831 goes over to Europe in a sailboat, and he returns in a steamship. He's going over in a solar powered recyclable vehicle and returning in a steel rust bucket putting oil on the water, smoke into the sky. These are both designed objects. We are still designing steamships. For me, the question really is, what does the next ship look like?

CURWOOD: Designer William McDonough, an advocate of disciplining technology with ecology. That story and more, plus your letters and comments on Living on Earth. But first, this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley.

Dutch scientists have proven that artificial chemicals can cause sex changes at least in fish. A letter published in the journal Nature says researchers exposed young male carp to plain water and 4-terpetophenol. Fish later developed an oviduct which female fish use to lay eggs, and showed a reduction in germ cells, the cells that later become sperm. Estrogen-mimicking chemicals are widely blamed for feminizing effects in male animals, including fish and alligators.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to come out with new air pollution standards by the end of the month. These standards will for the first time regulate emissions from sources like wood stoves and diesel engines. Living on Earth's Dan Grossman reports.

GROSSMAN: Scientists have known for years that air polluted with particulate matter like soot, smoke, and dust, is unhealthy. But recent studies show particulate matter is a major cause of lung disease and death. Dr. Joel Schwartz is with the Harvard School of Public Health.

SCHWARTZ: We have studies at this point in dozens of cities showing that the number of deaths per day goes up and down with the particle concentrations in the air. More people die in the United States from particulate air pollution than from auto accidents or AIDS.

GROSSMAN: Schwartz says the culprit is the very smallest particles, some barely one-hundredth the width of a human hair. Unlike larger particles, these microscopic ones are inhaled deeply into the lungs. But the EPA doesn't currently regulate fine particles, which are mostly produced by combustion in wood stoves, certain power plants, and many other industrial activities. A spokesman for the industry group The Air Quality Standards Coalition says new laws could cost billions of dollars and aren't supported by enough research. For Living on Earth, I'm Dan Grossman in Boston.

NUNLEY: Only 2% of human cancers are caused by environmental pollution, and a study by the Harvard School of Public Health says most are caused by bad habits or the lack of good ones. The study attributed 30% of cancer deaths to smoking, 30% to poor diet and obesity, and 5% to lack of exercise. Carcinogens in the workplace, family history, and viruses each were blamed for 5% of cancer deaths. Alcohol, socioeconomic status, and reproductive factors each were blamed for 3%. The study was published in the journal Cancer: Causes and Control.

An international agreement to stop producing ozone-destroying chemicals will avert a vast skin cancer epidemic over the next century. But researchers say that even with current agreements to reduce production of chlorofluorocarbons, skin cancer cases will double. Writing in the journal Nature, researchers found that by 2100, controls on the industrial compounds that attack Earth's ozone layer will prevent 1.5 million US cases of skin cancer a year. In northern Europe, 550,000 cases will be prevented annually. Currently, there are more than 800,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year. Fewer than 10,000 of them are fatal.

In Oregon, a disease native to Highland Douglas firs is appearing more frequently at lower elevations. Scientists think it may be due to heavy replanting of the trees. From KLCC in Oregon, Steve Helwig reports.

HELWIG: The disease, called Swiss needle cast, causes the needles of the Douglas fir to fall off prematurely. That slows the growth of the tree and threatens its health. Alan Kanasky, a forest pathologist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, says the infected trees were all grown from seeds not native to this elevation and not accustomed to the coastal fog.

KANASKY: They were from maybe the right seed zone, but they were from higher elevation in the coast range. And then they were planted at a lower elevation, and the thinking is the trees at the higher elevation where the disease conditions aren't as favorable may not have had the natural level of tolerance that occur in the coastal Douglas fir.

HELWIG: Kanasky also says the fir has been heavily planted on the coast range because it is so highly valued by the timber industry. The infected trees were planted over the past 30 years by individual landowners, timber companies, and state foresters. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Helwig in Eugene, Oregon.

NUNLEY: In Ireland, even the bats are divided along religious lines. According to Irish scientists, long-eared bats build nests in Roman Catholic chapels, while natterers bats live in the eaves of Anglican churches. But the difference is a question of flight, not faith. Natterers bats like to nest in stone walls and take their warm-up fly in enclosed roof spaces. Both are common in Ireland's Protestant churches. Long-eared bats, on the other hand, like to squeeze their nests between roof slates and roof beams, then take their warm-up fly in the interior of the church. That construction is typical in Catholic churches. Researcher Kate McAney has found only 2 places where the long-eared and natterers bats mix it up: a Galway youth hostel and a ruined monastery that dates from long before the Protestant Reformation.

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

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William McDonough: Portrait of a Green Designer

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

McDONOUGH: In personal life, the whole idea of taking on guilt as an operating method is not necessarily productive, because we find ourselves saying I'm guilty, I'm guilty, and then we keep doing the same thing.

CURWOOD: If this sounds like a group guilt therapy session, well perhaps it is. But the man speaking is a university dean, an architect, and someone who believes we can solve the global environmental crisis by simply drawing up and implementing some new designs.

McDONOUGH: We're not saying feel guilty. We're saying feel excited. We're asking people to get up, get going, and fix it.

CURWOOD: His name is William McDonough. He's dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia, and one of the architects of the so-called Green Design Movement. Today on Living on Earth we take a long look at the man and the ideas he's expounding to change the very ways society and industry work. The man major corporations often call when they want to go green.

(A motor; beeping sounds)

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is in constant movement, a blur streaking through a slow-motion world. He's the green dean, flamboyant in his bow tie, cape, and Armani suits. He's at once an intellectual and a businessman, a professor who believes his own green ideas can change the world, an entrepreneur who says his own success will teach global corporations there's money in going green. His admirers call him an eco-visionary, a man helping to draw up the map for the way out of the global environmental crisis. Others worry his strategy of embracing the Monsantos and Walmarts of the world is naive, and may only help perpetuate the crisis. But Bill McDonough says he doesn't worry too much about his critics. He moves forward, fully occupied with his mission of redesign, head filled with ideas.

McDONOUGH: (speaking aside) No, I'm going to a meeting with the president of the university, so I'll be out of pocket...

CURWOOD: Whether it's a brainstorm for implementing green design in corporate America --

McDONOUGH: Over here is the Gap corporate campus, and it's an office building that is designed to be housing in the future. So we're designing a building to be recycled...

CURWOOD: -- or a new washing machine that saves on water --

McDONOUGH: A stainless steel drum, all right, that's hexagonal inside, an octagonal drum. Uses one fifth of the water of a regular American washing machine...

CURWOOD: -- or reviewing the new design for a factory that uses hardly any outlet pipes because it generates hardly any waste.

McDONOUGH: The industrial filters of the future will be in our heads and not at the ends of pipes, or smokestacks. In the future we could have industries where their effluent is cleaner than their influent. That means you can cap your pipe. That means you're no longer regulated.

(Ambient voices; gulls)

CURWOOD: Or building a new generation of green designers, as he glides toward his first lecture of the semester in his custom designed rain cape.

McDONOUGH: Good afternoon. Today we start on this -- this notion of making environmental choices. I'd like to begin by saying that design, I see here, as the first signal of human intention.

CURWOOD: He's 45 but looks younger. He has a youthful, impish smile, suggesting that so far he's managed to avoid life's tragedies. Colleagues say McDonough possesses the enthusiasm and optimism of a child, but with the mind of an architect. Standing at the podium in the old lecture hall, Bill McDonough makes a central point: society has a design problem.

McDONOUGH: Would you design an industrial system that produces billions of pounds of highly hazardous material and puts it in your soil, your air, and your water every year? Could you design a system that measures prosperity by how much of the earth's natural capital you can dig up, cut down, deplete, bury, otherwise burn, while 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the world's resources. Could you make up a few things that are so highly toxic and dangerous that they'll require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror? Is that an ethical assignment?

CURWOOD: But it is not enough, Bill McDonough tells his students, to bemoan the legacy of bad design.

McDONOUGH: So let's think of a new design assignment, and that would be the design assignment of this course. Let's design systems which produce no hazardous material and put it in the soil, the air and the water every year? Let's measure progress by how many buildings have no pipes.

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is not just blueprints and brainstorms from the ivory tower. His message of green design is starting to move into corporate boardrooms and even onto factory floors. In designing a furniture company's fabric, he sought out the chemical giant Ciba-Geigy to produce chemical dyes with no known toxins, no heavy metals, no carcinogens. The result: a safe, biodegradable fabric. For a carpet maker, he introduced a leasing program where carpet tiles are replaced and recycled with a goal of zero waste, zero toxic emissions. He's worked with the city of Chattanooga to design a zero-emission zone, where one factory's waste could become another's fuel. These are examples, says Bill McDonough, of the next industrial revolution, a green design poles apart from the legacy of trash and pollution of the first industrial revolution.

McDONOUGH: Emerson in 1831 goes over to Europe in a sailboat, and he returns in a steamship. He's going over in a solar powered recyclable vehicle operated by craftspersons practicing ancient arts in the open air, and returning in a steel rust bucket putting oil on the water, smoke into the sky, operated by people working in the darkness shoveling fossil fuels into the mouth of a boiler. These are both designed objects. We are still designing steamships. For me, the question really is, what does the next ship look like?

CURWOOD: The key in the design of the next ship, Mr. McDonough says, is to think of life as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Like reincarnation, everything is used again. As he says...

McDONOUGH: Waste equals food.


McDONOUGH: There is no such thing as away any more. Away went away.

CURWOOD: There is no away any more. Waste equals food. These are the central ideas of what Bill McDonough believes is the next revolution for manufacturing and construction. Sitting in a Colonial living room off the long lawn at the University of Virginia campus, a place so carefully designed by Thomas Jefferson, Mr. McDonough describes a redesigned world where most products would return naturally to the earth. Furniture, fabrics, soda cans, packaging, would simply decompose, destined not for the recycling bin but for the compost pile. Then there would be durables like old TVs or refrigerators. They would not be sold but licensed to consumers and eventually return to become technical nutrients to be sent for reprocessing at the factory.

McDONOUGH: The television set that's broken, that gets thrown out, the back of a pickup truck into a dumpster, essentially has no value at this point in history. It's got a negative value because we're going to have to deal with it environmentally. Under the new protocol, that -- that very thing would be very valuable to Sony, because it would be the technical nutrient of that industry.

CURWOOD: Factories without pipes. Fabrics that get tossed onto the compost pile. TV sets that never see the dump. Soda cans from material you can grow and then toss out like an apple core. Ashes to ashes, refrigerators to refrigerators. Mr. McDonough says these ideas represent a dramatic shift going well beyond things like curbside recycling. But this notion of useful trash, where one factory's waste would become another's fuel, is not all that new. Barry Commoner, biologist, environmentalist, and former presidential candidate, was writing about this in his seminal book The Closing Circle back in 1971.

COMMONER: Basically I said that the engineers had darn well better do something about changing the technologies of production. So I think it was my writing, particularly in The Closing Circle, that laid out the argument for a green industry.

CURWOOD: It is true that some of the ideas Bill McDonough expounds have been circulating for a while. Yet a fellow green architect, Peter Calthorpe, says it really doesn't matter whose ideas belong to whom. He credits his colleague for reinterpreting many old ideas and putting them into practice.

CALTHORPE: I think that he's done, you know, an incredible job of articulating for people principles like interdependence and then kind of reinterpreting these older ideas. The Scandinavian countries have been using cogeneration in terms of their power and using the waste heat from electrical generation for a very long time. So he's not, you know, profoundly new, but restating it and bringing it into today's context is terribly important.

CURWOOD: Today's context belongs to the global marketplace, where corporations increasingly dictate the way we live. The market economy constantly pushes for more growth, more consumption, more consumer demand. It is here, McDonough believes, that the real work needs to be done.

(Many ambient voices. McDonough?: "I'd like the granita and some tea, please. A cup of tea with milk.")

CURWOOD: And so we find Bill McDonough and his partner, the German environmental chemist Michael Braungart, breaking bread in a chic Italian restaurant in Washington, DC, with Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of the Monsanto Corporation.

BRAUNGART: But you'd better design it, better product.

McDONOUGH: And that's why what's happening in China is so interesting, because really, you know, we talk about globalization of companies.

CURWOOD: This is the first encounter between the 2 green designers and the head of the huge multinational. Before real change can come to global corporations, McDonough and Braungart believe face-to-face conversations have to take place.

SHAPIRO: It's exciting stuff. You guys have been worried about this set of issues for a long time. How do you keep from despairing?

McDONOUGH: For me I think it's really, once you start to talk about these things you realize that it's not just about despair, it's also about hope. And that we have the capacity to rethink what we're doing and enjoy that creative prospect. That's why I think it is important that we take these issues and get it into commerce.

SHAPIRO: I think we're at a point now where you can start to hope that that's going to happen at a scale that makes a difference.

CURWOOD: At the table, Mr. McDonough envisions a world where environmental regulations are no longer necessary. He praises the speed of commerce. Some worry when they see environmentalists supping with a corporate giant such as Monsanto, long one of the world's biggest producers of toxic chemical emissions. Monsanto's CEO Bob Shapiro says his company has decided it's time to go green.

SHAPIRO: I think about sustainability because it's easier to think about it than not to think about it. It is here, it's the elephant sitting on the table. Let's figure out some ways to do something useful. Let's find out how to have sustainable economy. That means reinventing just about everything we do. It's no longer how am I going to minimize how much damage I do so I'll feel less guilty. It's how can I really help? That's exciting.

CURWOOD: To some, this talk sounds convincing. A corporation searching its soul for a way to be useful while being profitable. Bill McDonough, the son of a Seagram's executive who spent many of his early years in Hong Kong, seems comfortable in the world of the international marketplace. And so he's invited in, in this case to consult with Monsanto's new products design team. But some worry that in working with such global corporations, Bill McDonough may be doing more harm than good. By teaming up with Monsanto, is he giving undeserved credibility to a chemical and genetic engineering giant? In dealing with Ciba-Geigy, is he helping the company adopt a softer, greener public face? And in helping design an eco-friendly Walmart, is he helping to perpetuate the consumer culture that generates so much of the waste in the first place?

KORTEN: You've got a whole corporate decision making structure which is driven by the demands of the financial system, which says, you know, sell whatever is profitable. Keep unions weak and wages low, dump your waste wherever it's cheapest, lobby for tax breaks and subsidies, and buy the politicians so you can rewrite the rules in ways that allow you to externalize as much of your cost as possible.

CURWOOD: David Korten is author of When Corporations Rule the World.

KORTEN: Most talk of greening the corporation from within neglects a very basic reality: that the corporation is not a benevolent institution. There's a hope there, almost a blind faith, that somehow the most environmentally responsible technology is going to be the most profitable, but I think these are very definitely the exception. If they weren't the exceptions, our corporations would already be far greener and we would have phased out a lot of useless and environmentally destructive products.

CURWOOD: Bill, I wonder if you're worried about being used by industry, that they bring you in on their team to show that aha, they're a green company. But maybe they're not really such a green company after all.

McDONOUGH: We can't expect that a company, just because we're there, is a green company all of a sudden. One of the problems, I think, that a lot of people have is that they won't understand why I would work with a Walmart, for example. Aren't they part of another system that's trying to pave the planet? You know, aren't they part of the consumption machine? But you see, I look at it as a designer. I look at that and say well, if you don't work with them, it's like Thoreau and Emerson. When Thoreau was in jail for civil disobedience and Emerson came to see him and said, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" his response was, "Ralph, what are you doing out there?" You know, and in a way somebody coming to me and saying, "Why are you working with Monsanto? I thought you were an environmentalist." And I'm saying, "I am. Why aren't you working with Monsanto?" If we don't all work together ecumenically we're never going to get there. This is not about fighting. This is about redesigning. If we don't work with these companies, we're all dead.

CURWOOD: Some environmentalists believe the market economy cannot possibly provide solutions to the global environmental crisis. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no competing economic model. And Bill McDonough insists that the solution is simply a matter of redesign.

McDONOUGH: It is a revolution of the market economy and capitalism. It is pure market economy. It is pure capitalism, it's also a pure sense of social equity and a pure sense of ecological intelligence. It's really a balancing. The difference is that a socialist revolution often ignores economic effect and central market economies have been a disaster. Socialism is not good for the environment. Pure capitalism is not good for the environment, either.

CURWOOD: Real change, Bill McDonough insists, will come as corporations engage in enlightened self-interest, as companies come to understand that doing the right thing is profitable. And that will come by the examples corporations understand best: generating wealth. Bill McDonough says he plans to get really rich to prove to the rest of the corporate world how profitable his green ideas are.

McDONOUGH: If I have to be a billionaire in order for people to copy what I'm doing, that's what I'll do.

CURWOOD: Do you want to be a billionaire?

McDONOUGH: I don't need to be a billionaire. I'm very happy. But I think -- I think the idea is attractive in terms of its inspiration for other people.

CURWOOD: So that if Bill McDonough becomes a billionaire with these ideas, that's the way to get the world's attention.

McDONOUGH: I think, yeah, I think it's an important way to get the word out. So if I have to go out and get supremely wealthy so that other people go "That looks like a good idea," well then so be it. I'll suffer through that if I have to. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: He says it with laughter, but you get the feeling he's serious. With his bow ties and capes, youthful good looks, and a brain packed with innovation, Bill McDonough feels comfortable mentioning himself in the same breath as Jefferson and Thoreau. Others wonder about the comparison but agree on this: William McDonough is a true believer in the power of ideas to change the world. And the important thing is, he is doing something about it. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, Bill McDonough says, there's an opening, a possibility that didn't exist in the years of the first Earth Day. There's a chance, he says, to implement completely different thinking.

McDONOUGH: What I'm talking about is a positive agenda that allows us to get up in the morning and say I'm only 60% sustainable, I'd like to be more sustainable. It's a positive view of the world, which gives assistance in what we should do. It's not a question of just what we shouldn't do. To spend our lives being told what not to do in the end is a world that is focusing on waking up in the morning and feeling terrible and then trying to be better by being less bad. And I think it's much better to wake up in the morning feeling that one has to become highly creative and start to imagine what perfect might look like.

CURWOOD: William McDonough: architect, green designer, Dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia.

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CURWOOD: Next week we'll take a broader look at the green design idea, examining how business and science are beginning to mimic natural systems to get us out of our environmental mess.

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CURWOOD: Our profile of William McDonough was written and produced by Sandy Tolan, and edited by Dan Grossman and Peter Thomson.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Our story last week about the Eden Alternative, a group of innovative nursing homes where children, pets, and plants are welcome, and where the natural world is replicated, elicited a flurry of responses. We asked what would you do to make nursing homes more livable? Several listeners said that nursing homes should incorporate baking and cooking chores into the daily routines of residents. Another said that computers could help link the elderly to the outside world. Barry Filer called from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home of WUNC. He suggests that when possible nursing home residents physically get out into their communities.

FILER: I think that the people should have volunteer opportunities to heal the planet, you know, to do some environmental work, to do some service in the community so they can feel a part of, you know, life.

CURWOOD: Susanna Mathey, who hears Living on Earth on KQED in San Francisco, reminds us...

MATHEY: Most old people grew up in rural America, and I think nursing homes should have chickens in the patio and rabbits that people can hold. Most people grew up hearing roosters in the morning, and I think it's a very lovely sound.

CURWOOD: Many of you commented on the way death was handled at the nursing home in our story. As reported, a woman dies in her room, and while the other residents are playing bingo, a nurse slips the nameplate on her door into a drawer. Marilyn Bentoff of Cambridge, Massachusetts, says this scene upset her.

BENTOFF: People that age are not children. They do know what's happening. And it would be wise to establish a ritual when that happens, when someone passes away, and that the name not be taken immediately off the door, so that people don't feel that they, too, will be thrown immediately into the trash can. But that the death be acknowledged and people be allowed to form a circle and talk about the person who has passed away and their own feelings about it.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program. To let us know, call the Living on Earth listener line right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Or if you prefer the feel of paper, drop us a note at Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. And for you web-slingers, check out our page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is brought to you by 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 National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

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CURWOOD: After years on the drawing board, an electric car hits auto showrooms. The story behind General Motors' EV-1 is just ahead on Living On Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Human population and the condition of the environment are linked hand in hand. More people mean greater demands on resources and less space for other species. So we note that this year marks a landmark in attempts to control population. Eighty years ago Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in New York City. Back then, birth control devices and instructions on how to use them were closely held by physicians and available only by prescription. In Ms. Sanger's day, birth control methods were limited to condoms, primitive cervical caps, and the calendar. Today, distribution of birth control is so widespread that condoms are sold in convenience stores and given away in some schools. Between 1982 and 1990, the most recent period we have statistics for, the number of women between 15 and 44 who said they used contraception hovered around 35%. Probably because of the risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, condom use increased by 4% during those 8 years while other methods, such as the pill, IUD, or diaphragm, declined. Overall, we think Ms. Sanger would be pleased. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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EV-1 For Lease

CURWOOD: On December 5th the EV-1 will be available at Saturn dealers in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The EV-1 is the first mass-produced electric car ever made. General Motors, hoping to ease consumer fears around this new technology, is offering the car and its special charging for lease only at about $500 a month. For all that you get to go silently, without emitting pollution, for about 70 miles in warm weather before recharge. And of course you never need to buy gas. It has taken GM about 8 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to move the EV-1 from the drawing boards to the showrooms, a journey that is chronicled by author Michael Schnayerson in his book The Car That Could an inside look at the struggle to invent, produce, and market the EV-1. While the EV-1 isn't the most poetic name, people seem to like it better than the prototype name: the Impact. I asked Mr. Schnayerson: who came up with that one?

SCHNAYERSON: I tried in my report to figure out exactly who would come up with that name, and I couldn't pin it on anyone in particular. But there are a couple of people who are my suspects. Yeah, of course they had this ridiculous idea that it would be called Impact for the impact it would have on the world, little realizing what the double entendre could suggest. In fact that night, Johnny Carson got on the air and said, "My God, what will be next: the Ford Whiplash?" I mean it was, you know, it was the stupidest name ever.

CURWOOD: Did the EV-1 get its start almost by accident? I mean, the chairman of General Motors, he made this boast, right? In 1990 at Earth Day he says "I can build this car," right?

SCHNAYERSON: Much to the shock of his adjutants around him. That's right. And the flukiness of this story is part of its appeal, I think. GM didn't set out in 1988 to produce an electric car. What they did was agree to fund a little California R&D firm called Aerovironment to do a one-of-a-kind car. And then things just kind of almost got away from them inexorably. That car was so cool, and when it was introduced at the LA auto show in January of 1990 it was so acclaimed that Roger Smith just sort of -- he lost himself and said well, by God, we'll produce this. And then the cat was out of the bag.

CURWOOD: Now, GM has proven that it could do an electric car. But the other carmakers weren't very happy when Roger Smith said that in fact this could be done. And even GM itself has had some resistance with California officials over clean air standards.

SCHNAYERSON: When Roger Smith announced that GM would produce this car, the California regulators, on a body called the California Air Resources Board, who have this sort of unique power to set emissions standards in California, because of course it has the dirtiest air in the country, they said well gee, if GM can do this, it can be done. So we will declare that all the major car makers have to come up with electric cars, essentially emission-free cars, by 1998, and 2% of their fleets in California will have to be, quote unquote, emission free, which basically meant electric. Now that mandate overshadowed the whole story, as GM struggled to develop this EV-1 over the next years, as the program stumbled and was essentially put on a shelf. All along there was this mandate, which now the carmakers had to somehow figure out how to accommodate. They didn't like it. So all 3 American car makers, including GM, rallied together, spent a lot of money lobbying, also did this in partnership with the oil companies, I'm sorry to say. The oil companies spent far more than the car companies. And the result was that they got this mandate ordered down, delayed, pushed aside last December. And at that point Ford and Chrysler and the other carmakers no doubt heaved huge sighs of relief and thought great, now we don't have to worry about electrics for at least another 5 years. And that was when GM startled them by saying that it had secretly revived the EV-1, and would be coming out with it this fall. So Ford and Chrysler are if anything angrier at GM, because now that this car's going to be a reality, if it succeeds they've got to compete with it.

CURWOOD: So why did GM want to bring back the electric car?

SCHNAYERSON: Well, they had this mandate still hanging over their heads. They were having --

CURWOOD: But they could have just thrown a few batteries in the bottom of a van or a pickup truck --

SCHNAYERSON: Well that's true --

CURWOOD: And made the law. So why think -- it's a lot of money to make a new car, right? I mean we're talking of hundreds of millions of dollars, right?

SCHNAYERSON: Yes, indeed, at least half a billion. That's I think where GM looks particularly commendable, or almost courageous. Because as their lobbying effort against the mandate seemed to produce nothing, and as the other car makers grudgingly did exactly that, they began cobbling batteries together and making conversions, GM chose not to go the low road, and spend perhaps $20 million doing a conversion that would, you know, fulfill its obligation for the mandate but be a car that no one really wanted.

CURWOOD: Michael, I'm wondering, is there really a market for this car? I mean, 35 grand for a little 2-seater. Are people going to buy this?

SCHNAYERSON: Well, I think that a few thousand people will certainly be intrigued enough by the promise of electric cars to lease an EV-1 for $500 a month. What's got to happen in the next 3 years as that lease period unfolds is that the costs have to come down dramatically. And I think that there's where there's actually grounds for real optimism.

CURWOOD: Really?

SCHNAYERSON: Yeah. Critics of electric cars have said in their lobbying campaigns against it that, you know, this car costs $35,000. Only the very richest people would want to buy such a thing. That's true, especially given its limited range. But this isn't like a new gas model that has a few incremental improvements and costs a little more than last year's model. It's more like the first PC or the first cellular phone, and what you saw in those technological marvels is I think what you'll see here. Namely that the electronics costs can come down dramatically. And if at the same time that very promising nickel-metal hydride battery can be produced, and GM is struggling very hard right now to do so, that could really expand the market dramatically. Nickel-metal hydride has been put, a nickel-metal hydride pack has been put into a prototype EV and taken the car 375 miles. Now that's a prototype --

CURWOOD: But that's a tank of gas.

SCHNAYERSON: Well, that's right.

CURWOOD: This car comes out to the public on December 5th. Tell me, now, is this really a cool car? Is this really a great car?

SCHNAYERSON: For one thing it looks like a cool car. It is -- it looks sort of like a Mazda Miata, but even, I would say, smaller and sort of lower to the ground, and more jellybean-like in shape. It is a really cool car.

CURWOOD: Michael Schnayerson is the author of The Car That Could a very inside look at the struggle at GM to invent and produce an electric car. Thanks, Michael.

SCHNAYERSON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Michael Schnayerson spent 4 years researching and writing The Car That Could, the story of the world's first mass-produced electric car. The EV-1 is not the only new type car making headlines. Toyota has announced that it will offer a hybrid diesel and electric powered car. The hybrid will have a range of 70 miles a gallon. The as yet unnamed vehicle is expected to hit the market by the end of next year, with a sticker price around $22,000.

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(Music up and under "Go be racer! Go be racer! Go be racer, go!
Go be racer! Go be racer! Go be racer, go!")

CURWOOD: African cities cope with burgeoning populations, and a Native American recipe for harvest feasting. Those stories ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The Urbanization of Africa

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just about everywhere in the less developed world, people think that they can find a better life in the cities. So they leave the countryside, even though the cities may not be ready for them. Africa is a leader in this trend. Rapidly growing populations in urban areas are taxing governments and societies to the limit and beyond. Accra, the capitol of the West African nation of Ghana, is a prime example. It's home to 3 million people and in the next 7 years another million more are expected to settle there. As you might imagine, overcrowding is profoundly affecting the lives of Accra's citizens and the city's environment, but there is a ray of hope. As Cindy Shiner reports, efforts are underway not to stem the flow of immigrants but to use them as a base to create a more stable society.

(Bustling sounds, voices and traffic)

SHINER: This low-lying swamp area of Accra is known as Kukumba Market. It's also a neighborhood of shanties no larger than the average-sized living room. Each houses up to 15 people. Dirty water, garbage, flies, and wood chips from furniture craftsmen cover the ground. In the middle are 3 islands, blue, green, and red buildings. They're daycare centers for the infants of street girls. Children, most of them visibly malnourished, sleep on the open concrete in the afternoon heat. Some are half dressed; others have no clothes at all. Girls who immigrated here from the countryside who are hardly able to care for themselves have little to provide their babies.

(A baby cries; a woman shouts)

SHINER: And where do they get the provisions to be able to take care of the children? Are they provided by mothers, or who provides for them?

WOMAN: They sometimes leave money or food to the care of the minder of the babies. It is not everybody who is able to afford this. Those that have, the others go without leaving anything for the babies.

SHINER: And so what do they do? How do they feed them?

WOMAN: Some don't eat the whole of the day till their mother returns from the market.

(Crying children)

SHINER: This is the new Africa. Burgeoning cities unable to assimilate new immigrants from the countryside. More than 40% of the continent's population will live in cities by the year 2000, almost twice the percentage of 1970. And yet the continent's leaders and the rest of the world haven't caught up with the change. Nicola Shepherd is an urban aid worker with the United Nation's Children's Fund.

SHEPHERD: There seems to be a belief in Africa in general that poverty is still in the rural areas. But yet people are coming to the cities; this is the most rapidly urbanizing continent right now. And with people coming to the cities there needs to be a shift.

SHINER: Independence came late to Africa compared to the rest of the world. By the 1960s most other countries had broken with their colonial rulers. That's why urbanization is being felt so heavily across the continent now. Most attention in the past had been aimed at alleviating suffering in the rural areas through agricultural development projects. The economic focus now is on industrialization. But tackling the many problems of the resulting urbanization isn't easy. Improving infrastructure is costly and doesn't always eradicate the problems of overcrowding. Accra mayor Natnuno Amartafeo.

AMARTAFEO: Most often, we find that with the rapid increase in the size of the city we are forced to provide as a basic amenities, like roads without drainage, because it costs. It adds at least 50% more to the cost of a road if we are to build drainage. So we figure okay, we'll build the road and then come back later on and do the drainage.

SHINER: But the result of a lack of drainage is chronic flooding, which affects impoverished settlements in low-lying areas the most. Shanties are deluged. Dumping grounds are submerged, increasing the spread of disease. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have ample pools and blocked sewers in which to breed. In a recent 3-year period malaria accounted for at least 40% of visits at outpatient facilities. Immigrants from the rural areas make their homes on the cheapest and often most unhealthy land they can find. Some people have moved into converted public toilets. There is incessant traffic congestion with the proliferation of private taxis and buses. Despite the problems newcomers arrive daily.

(Construction sounds)

SHINER: The government has attempted to make rural areas more attractive by building roads and installing electricity, hoping this would stem an urban influx. Ironically says mayor Natnuno Amartafeo, it's only made the problem worse.

AMARTAFEO: There are all kinds of ways that people gain access to the news on radio, they watch television when it gets to them. And all they see is wonderful city pictures. And why should they stay in the rural areas when they can see every night, you know, young men and women in fancy cars and bright clothes walking down wonderfully lit streets? Which is Accra. So they all want to come down here.

(A rooster crows)

SHINER: Most newcomers hawk petty items on the street, sell produce in markets, or shine shoes. The vision of a better life lured Cula Nuo from his village Bigro in eastern Ghana to Accra when he was 19.

NUO: [Speaks in dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Well he's saying that in Bigro where he was, when people travel from Bigro and come from Accra the kind of reports they bring back to Bigro in his home town indicated that there was a lot of money, there was a lot of employment, a lot of good things. So that really excited most of them, the young men, to also come and taste of these goodies.

SHINER: But ever since Cula Nuo came he's been struggling to make ends meet.

(Hammering sounds)

SHINER: Only now, after 7 years, he's becoming skilled in metalworks. About 15 young men receive training at the metalworks shop with the assistance of a local non-governmental organization known as Sancosad. It's one of a growing number of groups across Africa that encourages grassroots efforts at reducing the cycle of poverty that urbanization often breeds.

WOMAN: How will you know when the discussion goes on?

MAN: (That is what...)

SHINER: Here, Sancosad trains community residents how to more effectively communicate with one another to address the problems and needs of their neighborhoods. There's a trend across the continent to promote self-sufficiency among communities. Maxwell Videaco is a project coordinator with Sancosad.

VIDEACO: We're looking at the whole area of micro-enterprise development, where we are trying to see how people could turn around kind of little sums of money in their meso-kind of activities that they are doing with the ultimate aim of seeing whether we could establish a community development bank, the communities who have asked us to credit their loans that improve themselves.

SHINER: The hope is that this will stimulate a development cycle, better income leading to better education, again leading to better jobs. And a wealthier population, it's hoped, will have a low birthrate, which will ease the burden on cities. Meanwhile, the city government is also struggling to find a way to get ahead of the game. It just received its first direct loan from the World Bank. Most of the money will be used for infrastructure projects run by local private enterprises. But the government is worried that the development this brings won't be spread evenly throughout the population.

VIDEACO: We're trying to create an indigenous entrepreneurial class that can deliver privatization. At the same time, we have to be mindful of the fact that we are also creating a whole class of people who are beyond the ability to pay for the privatized facilities. It's a hell of a dilemma; we're struggling with it.

(Busting sounds, voices singing)

SHINER: Most of Accra's residents can't afford to pay for services. They're the ones living in shantytowns making less than $300 a year. But it's the more affluent population that village dwellers are thinking of when they leave for Accra. And up to a million more are expected to come over the next 4 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner reporting.

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(Singing up and under, followed by instrumental music up and under)

Thanksgiving Native Harvest

CURWOOD: The leaves have fallen. There's a chill in the air. Indeed, in some parts of the United States there is now snow on the ground. And many turkeys are counting their final days. It can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is nearly here. The annual holiday enacted by Abraham Lincoln coincides with long-established Native American harvest celebrations. Joe Bruchac, an Abenaki storyteller, is co-author of Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families. I asked Mr. Bruchac what the Abenaki might be cooking up this time of year.

BRUCHAC: Well, one thing that we have in American culture is the celebration of Thanksgiving, but within the native cultures here in the northeast we had not one Thanksgiving but many Thanksgivings. In fact, you were supposed to give thanks every day; that was the first teaching that our Creator gave us: always be thankful. Give thanks to those things that give life to you. The harvest festival that would be taking place right now, the big harvest festival, is the one that is closest to the traditional Thanksgiving. And as I'm sure you know, the people of Europe got the idea of Thanksgiving from Native Americans, and their survival here in Massachusetts in the Plymouth Colony was only made possible by native people such as Squanto, who taught them how to plant corn and beans and squash.

CURWOOD: And then just briefly, here we don't have a lot of time for a story, but we couldn't have you here without hearing one.

BRUCHAC: One story that I'm particularly fond of that has to do with this harvest time is the story of Nibun Amonba.

CURWOOD: Okay. Nibun Amonba?

BRUCHAC: And I'll explain that to you; I'll tell you the story briefly first. Long ago, they say, there was a man who was a good planter. His name was Noth Kikad, which means He Who Plants. But one year it seemed as if everything went crazy. When he planted his plants the first time, it became cold and everything froze. He planted them a second time; the rain fell down so hard it washed all the seed away. A third time he planted and this time insects came in and ate everything. A fourth time, and the crows flew down and pulled out all the plants. By now he had used all of his seeds, and by now it was late in the year. Too late for them to plant and grow crops. In fact, the leaves were changing color and there was a bit of snow in the air. But instead of complaining about his fortune, this man prayed to the Creator and gave thanks for all he had been given before. And as he slept a dream came to him, and he heard the voice of the Creator saying, "Because you have been so thankful for all you have been given, I am giving you a special gift: seeds that you can plant and a time at which to plant them." When he woke the next morning, the sun was shining. It was as warm as if it was still summer. He had there, sitting at the base of his bed, a bag full of big seeds that he had never seen before. They looked like corn and beans and squash but they were very large. He went outside and planted them. By the time he had finished planting his field, those seeds had grown. By the end of a week they had grown to the size that they could be harvested. And he gathered in enough to support himself and his family and his village through the winter. Now, those seeds no longer exist, but every year to remind us to be thankful, that time comes back, given by the Creator. We call it, in English, Indian summer. In Abenaki we say Nibun Amonba: a person's summer. That gift from our Creator to remind us to be thankful.

CURWOOD: There's a basic underlying principle about food and people that comes through in your book on Native American gardening.

BRUCHAC: I think that one thing that you find within native cultures is an understanding that we are not alone in the world. That we are not completely in control in the world. And so, instead of giving thanks for our food, we give thanks to the food plants that sustain us. As if by recognizing their contributions, they would produce more and continue to sustain us.

CURWOOD: What's your favorite recipe in here?

BRUCHAC: I think probably my favorite recipe at any given time changes, but one that's very common for where we are right now is this one that is called Johnny Cakes. Of course, Johnny Cake is associated with the New England area, and it is a traditional Native American dish.

CURWOOD: It's Rhode Island.

BRUCHAC: That's right. Johnny Cake is basically a cornmeal cake.

CURWOOD: Mm. Can you just briefly give us the Johnny Cake recipe?

BRUCHAC: Sure thing. A cup of stoneground white cornmeal, a pinch of salt, 2 cups of boiling water, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, three quarters of a cup of light cream, and one quarter of a cup of oil for frying. This is a fried cake. You mix the cornmeal and the salt together. You scald the dry mixture with boiling water, gradually adding the water as you stir rapidly, about a half a cup of water at a time, working out the lumps until you have a smooth batter. And that's when you stir in the maple syrup. And if you like it sweeter you can put in more. You cool it a bit. You thin it with some cream until it's about a medium consistency so that it doesn't run too fast when you pour it into the pan. And then you pour it in the same way you would a pancake, and you fry it just like a pancake, and cook it about, oh, 5, 6 minutes per side. This is on a medium flame. And the Johnny Cake, you can let it dry out or you can eat it warm.

CURWOOD: Mm. I didn't know that the Native Americans would have kept cows so you'd have milk. What would be the traditional --

BRUCHAC: Well, you wouldn't use milk as a traditional ingredient. This is more -- you can actually do it without the milk. That would be fine without the milk. You could use water.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BRUCHAC: But this is Ella Sacotal's recipe and who am I to complain? Ella is an elder of the Narragansett Nation. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: (Laughs) And it's delicious.

BRUCHAC: It is, it's very good.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much for taking this time with us today.

BRUCHAC: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Joseph Bruchac's book is called Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families, and actually his latest book is called The Roots of Survival: Native American Storytelling and the Sacred. Thanks for taking this time with us.

BRUCHAC: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Kim Motylewski, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chainey, and Jason Kral. Chris Ballman is our senior producer and Dan Grossman edited this week's program. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin at WBUR, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

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