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

July 10, 1998

Air Date: July 10, 1998


Globe Ablaze

The wild fires that forced more than a hundred thousand people to evacuate their homes this month in the Pinelands of North Florida are not unique; they are the latest in a wave of massive blazes around the world. Since last year, millions of acres have burned in Indonesia, Malaysia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico, and Brazil. Changes in the world’s weather, including the effects of El Niño, have been blamed for much of the incineration. To help us understand the connections between changes in the planet’s climate and the epidemic of wildfires, Steve Curwood spoke with forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center at his Massachusetts office, in between trips to the Amazon in Brazil. Dr. Nepstad has observed many forest fires in his career. (07:45)

Mexico City's New Mayor / Bob Carty

Mexico City is one of the most populated and polluted cities on earth where thick smog usually burns the lungs of its 18 million inhabitants. But a year ago, Mexico City residents, for the first time, elected their own mayor. They chose an opposition politician Cuauhtemoc (cu-wow-TEH-moc) Cardenas (CAR-den-as), who has pledged to make environmental reform a top priority. Bob Carty offers this profile of Mayor Cardenas and the challenges he faces. (14:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the Chicago heat wave of 1995. (01:30)

Alaska Road

Congress is considering a controversial plan to cut a road through the remote Alaskan wilderness area of Izembek (EYE-zem-bek) National Wildlife Refuge. The Izembek is nestled among the rugged mountain terrain and teeming coastal wetlands of the state's remote western tip, out towards the Aleutian islands. Republican lawmakers from Alaska are asking Congress to build a road through the refuge in order to link two isolated villages. Proponents say the road is needed for medical emergencies, while opponents say it could knock the region's eco-system off balance, and set a dangerous precedent of allowing construction in a federally protected area. Greg Siekaniec (sa-CAN-ick) is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. From his office in Cold Bay, he described to Steve Curwood some of the waterfowl that stop over in the refuge. (05:35)

Fish Camp / Nancy Lord

The days are long and the salmon are running in Alaska, so it's time for Living On Earth commentator Nancy Lord to make her annual migration to her favorite place on earth; an isolated stretch of beach that the rest of the world has passed by. Nancy Lord is the author of "Fishcamp: Life On An Alaskan Shore." Her essay was produced by Living on Earth's Peter Thomson. (05:25)

Earth's Company

More and more companies are trying to project a green image. Steve Curwood spoke with Carl Frankel, who is the author of a new book called "In Earth’s Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability. " (05:40)

Snake Sounds / Peter Clowney

Hissing, spitting, and an occasional growl. These are the sounds that snakes usually make to get their message across. But how snakes make these sounds is more of a mystery. Bruce Young, an assistant professor of biology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania studies the how's and whys of snake sounds. Professor Young took producer Peter Clowney on a tour of his multi-roomed laboratory, beginning with the venomous snake room. (07:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Peter Clowney
GUESTS: Daniel Nepstad, Greg Siekaniec, Carl Frankel

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The summer's wildfires in north Florida are just the latest in a worldwide epidemic of massive forest fires. Global climate change may be triggering the blazes.

NEPSTAD: The fires that we've seen in 1997 and '98 I see as really a harbinger of things going awry on a big scale. And the scary thing is that this could be part of the new pattern.

CURWOOD: Also, Mexico City's new mayor takes on its legendary pollution.

CARDENAS: We are trying to introduce the use of natural gas in our public transportation. If we could change the whole of our public transportation to gas, that would mean that we could reduce about 40% air pollution.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth but first this round-up of the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Globe Ablaze

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The wildfires that forced more than a 100,000 people to evacuate their homes this month in the pinelands of north Florida are not unique. They are just the latest in a wave of massive blazes around the world. Since last year, millions of acres have burned in Indonesia, Malaysia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico, and Brazil. Changes in the world's weather, including the effects of El Nino, have been blamed for much of the incineration. To help us understand the connections between changes in the planet's climate and the epidemic of wildfires, we turn to forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center. We caught up with him at his Massachusetts office on a break from his research in the Amazon. Dr. Nepstad has observed many forest fires in his career.

NEPSTAD: When you wake up at sunrise and you're lying in your hammock, you realize that your lungs are burning. The rural poor of the Amazon, who live at the forest edge, spend months breathing smoke. When you walk through a burning forest, it's like walking through a ghost land. Nothing is moving. There are some insects that have been displaced that are sweeping in. You run across tortoise carcasses and lizard carcasses; many animals simply cannot get away from the fire. It's a very depressing, depressing sight to walk through an area burning because you know that that forest will never be the same.

CURWOOD: Are we actually seeing more fires than usual? Or are we just simply noticing it more?

NEPSTAD: We're definitely seeing more fires than usual. Just in the Amazon this year, for example, there are 8 times more fires than there were last year, which was already a record number of fires.

CURWOOD: Now, what's caused all these fires?

NEPSTAD: Most of the fires are caused by severe drought. If you can think of rainforests perched upon a sponge, the soil acts as a sponge, what happened in 1997 is that sponge was dried out, and the forest couldn't draw any more water out of that sponge. And they started to shed their leaves. And the leaves accumulated on the ground. And the sun filtered through the dense rainforest canopy, making a tinderbox out of rainforests.

CURWOOD: El Nino is brought up as the culprit. Is that responsible for these fires? And how is El Nino related to climate change, if at all?

NEPSTAD: Well, I think this is the beginning of one of the effects of climate that's changing. El Nino events are central in this change. They're more frequent, they're more intensive, and it looks like they're probably related to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What increasing drought does is pushes forests that are already close to the edge of the amount of rainfall it takes to keep them going and to keep them protected from fire. It pushes them over that edge so that several months a year they become vulnerable to fire.

CURWOOD: Explain to me why Florida became such a problem this year.

NEPSTAD: Well, it appears that Florida was hit with, really, a one-two punch -- flooding followed by severe drought. One thing that flooding does is it kills plants. Dead plants are excellent fuel for fires. Whether or not the crazy weather in Florida is related to El Nino or not is really up for grabs. The El Nino is really a warming of the ocean temperature, which affects circulation patterns around the planet. So it's hard to pin down exactly what is an El Nino effect and what is not.

CURWOOD: The prognosticators are saying that the El Nino effect is dissipating now, that we should see a La Nina, its counterpart, over this next year. Does that mean that we'll see fewer fires...if we don't know about Florida, at least in, say, Indonesia or in the Amazon?

NEPSTAD: We're at the end of this particular episode of severe burning. As La Nina kicks in, there should be more rain in both Southeast Asia and in the Amazon Basin and in the northeast of South America and some of the other places that have been catching fire. My concern, though, is in the long term. If this is part of a new pattern where El Nino, instead of being an event that occurs every 4 to 7 years, is something that comes around every 2 to 4 years and sticks around for longer than it used to stick around, that to me is a concern. That means that areas that right now support rainforests are going to be invaded by grasses, by fire- prone savannah ecosystems.

CURWOOD: Well, the fires themselves add more and more carbon dioxide, which is one of the things that's blamed for global climate change, for global warming. With more fires, do we get more climate change?

NEPSTAD: Certainly the prospect of replacing rainforest with savannah would release an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Even if a small corner of the Amazon were to burn, we could release as much carbon in the atmosphere as a year's worth of fossil fuel consumption. That didn't happen this year, but the risk is there. To the extent that carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere is provoking global warming and perhaps an increase in El Nino events, there is the potential for a positive feedback loop, where burning fosters greater severity of El Nino events which foster greater burning.

CURWOOD: These fires around the world, are they a warning to us ecologically, Dr. Nepstad?

NEPSTAD: The fires that we've seen in 1997 and '98 I see as really a harbinger of things going awry on a big scale. We're getting beyond the ability of huge areas of forests to tolerate drought. And the scary thing is that this could be part of the new pattern; it's not just an anomalous event that we can forget about.

CURWOOD: Daniel Nepstad is a tropical forest ecologist with the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Thank you, sir.

NEPSTAD: Thank you, Steve.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up, meet Mexico City's new mayor, a man who is vowing to clean up the environment of perhaps the world's most polluted city. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Mexico City's New Mayor

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Mexico City is one of the most populated and polluted cities on Earth. Civil society is plagued by rampant crime, and thick smog usually burns the lungs of its 18 million inhabitants. But some relief may be in sight. A year ago Mexico City residents, for the first time, elected their own mayor. They chose an opposition politician, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who has pledged to make environmental reform a top priority. Bob Carty offers this profile of Mayor Cardenas and the challenges he faces.

(Fireworks explode; a band plays)

CARTY: With firecrackers and a brass band, the people of Masatepec are celebrating. Masatepec is a dusty neighborhood of cinderblock houses, dirt streets, and open sewers. It's also part of the history of the valley of Mexico. Five centuries ago Masatepec was little more than a small island in a crystal blue lake. To the north you could see the great city of the Aztecs arising from an island in another lake. And all about the valley, pine trees sloped up the volcanic mountainsides.

(The band continues)

CARTY: Three centuries ago, Masatepec was a tiny church and a few houses on the road to the colonial capital of Mexico. The lake was disappearing, slowly being drained to allow the city to expand. Today, Masatepec is part of Mexico City. There is no lake. There are barely any trees. The downtown skyscrapers are hidden behind a veil of smog. But the people of Masatepec are celebrating because their mayor has come to open a new market.

(Man announced Cardenas in Spanish; applause)

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas towers over his audience even without a platform. He is tall, but like the poor people in the audience, he's also dark and Mestizo. His forehead and nose could be that of an Aztec prince. At 64, however, his frame is now a bit stooped, as if burdened by his office -- presiding over the most polluted, populous, and politically unmanageable city on earth.

CARDENAS: We want a city that operates with rationality - that improves the quality of life - having a different kind of a government with no corruption.

CARTY: When you look at all the problems that Mexico City has, do you ever wonder if it can be done?

CARDENAS: The challenges are immense, yes. But I think that the city can change and improve. It is possible.

(A man shouts "Viva" [rest inaudible]. The crowd shouts, "Viva!")

CARTY: One year ago, tens of thousands of Mexicans converged on the central plaza to cheer Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Cardenas is the son of a former popular president. He served as a senator and a state governor for the governing PRI party. He was on a career path towards the presidency. Then, in 1987, he suddenly resigned from the PRI over matters of principle. He claimed the party had abandoned the poor and embraced corruption. In 1988 Cardenas was an opposition candidate for president, an election many believe he won were it not for electoral fraud. Throughout, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has earned a reputation, even among his enemies, for honesty and integrity. But it was his courage in breaking away from the governing party that won the respect of Jose Alvarez Icaza, a Catholic activist and, like Cardenas himself, a civil engineer.

ICASA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: He's very competent. He had a good record as a state governor. One of his virtues is his tenacity. And I have seen how it works -- his honesty, his determination, and his seriousness. He is very serious. I have given him advice that he should smile from time to time, and now he smiles constantly.

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas does smile more often now. Winning the election for mayor is a political comeback for him. Overnight he became the second most powerful politician in Mexico, according to political scientist Sergio Aguayo.

AGUAYO: Cardenas is already one of the leading candidates in the race for the presidency of the year 2000. He won the heart of the country. Mexico is a highly centralized country, and the capital concentrates finances, industry, intellectual activity. And the fact that he won this city has had profound implications for the rest of the country. And Cardenas is now trying to tame the monster.

(Shouting in the crowd)

The monster is right outside of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's office window in downtown Mexico City. Here in the Zocalo, the central plaza, there are hundreds of street vendors. They clog every corner, hawking cigarettes and videocassettes and hoping for a better life. They are part of the invasion from the countryside that swells this city by 36,000 people every day.

(Milling crowds, music playing)

CARTY: Then there is the Cathedral, tilting to the right and propped up only by scaffolding. The problem is that the city is draining the underground water table. And as the water is taken out, the soil gets more and more compressed. The city is sinking 3 inches a year. Buildings like the Cathedral are falling down. And still, one million people in this city are without running water.

(Traffic sounds)

CARTY: And then there is the air, the worst in the world. It's not just the ozone that scars the lungs of children, or the fumes from 3 million vehicles and countless factories that cause lung diseases and thousands of deaths a year. The air is also rife with fecal matter, picked up from the city's open sewers. Tourists come down with the intestinal trouble known as Montezuma's Revenge not so much from drinking the water as from breathing the air.

Rogelia de la O is an economist who runs a consulting firm for multinational corporations investing in Mexico. All too often, businessmen ask him not about the quality of stocks and bonds but about the quality of the air.

DELAO: People do get very, very ill in Mexico City, and this also increases the cost of being in Mexico City -- both personally, health-wise, and also economically. It also impinges on the morale and absenteeism, etc. Now, because of this level of problems, businessmen wanted a much more radical departure, a shake-up, from the past pattern.

CARTY: Now here's an ironic situation. Part of the Mexican business community has welcomed Cuauhtemoc Cardenas as mayor, despite his left-of-center credentials. And not only that, they say he's being too cautious. They want him to make change faster. For his part, Mayor Cardenas has just launched a program to plant 12 million trees over the next 90 days. It's a massive effort to improve air quality, contain soil erosion, and replenish underground water supplies. Meanwhile, Cardenas is also working on programs to reduce motor vehicle emissions.

(Music in the background)

CARDENAS: We are substituting polluting cars for non-polluting cars, old cars for new cars. We are trying to introduce the use of natural gas in our public transportation. If we could change the whole of our public transportation to gas, that would mean that we could reduce about 40% air pollution in the valley of Mexico. We expect and we would be optimistic that we will be able not to be an ecological disaster but to improve the quality of life in this valley of Mexico.

CARTY: For Cardenas, improving the quality of life means, firstly, changing the way environmental programs were run by previous administrations. Last December, when his officials took office, they found the city's environment program in a state of chaos. Civil engineer Jose Alvarez Icaza.

ICAZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The former mayor invented a program of environmental monitoring. And they gave the job to relatives of the administration employees. They paid them salaries for the first month, the second month, and the third month of work. But after the first month they said the job is done. So people went home, with two extra months of salary in their pockets. There were 8,000 of them and they did absolutely nothing. This was the ecological program of the valley of Mexico before Cardenas.

CARTY: For Mayor Cardenas, the front line of environmental change is the fight against corruption. For the first time, the new mayor and his top officials publicized their salaries and took a 30% pay cut. But the biggest challenge is not the physical environment; It's the social environment. More than anything else, the residents of Mexico City are worried about crime.

(Television newscast)

CARTY: The nightly tabloid television show "Hard and Direct" is a relentless litany of murders, fistfights, and robberies. Every day in Mexico City there are 2 killings, 1 kidnaping, 4 rapes, 160 stolen cars -- an average of 722 crimes a day. Only 10% are solved. And foreigners are not immune. There are 26 assaults on foreigners reported each day. Newspapers carry stories of businessmen, arriving at the airport, being kidnaped or mugged in taxi cabs on the ride downtown. Economist Rogelio de la O says his business colleagues are terrified.

DELAO: Completely afraid. I myself am afraid. There is a tremendous sense of insecurity the moment one puts a foot in Mexico City, regardless of where the foot is, regardless of the level of hotel or the quality of the neighborhood. I think it has damaged very seriously the reputation of Mexico as a place that attracts foreign investors.

(Newscast continues)

CARTY: Mexico City's crime wave is the product of growing poverty and a judicial system that doesn't work. Those are largely the responsibilities of the federal government. Where Cuauhtemoc Cardenas can make a difference is in a shake-up of the city police. He's fired officers linked to human rights abuses and replaced corrupt officials with ones he trusts. He's launched a program of neighborhood policing. So far, the crime rate has fallen 10%. Progress -- but nothing to celebrate.

(The band continues playing)

CARTY: Back on his tour of Masatepec, Mayor Cardenas is handing out land titles to a group of 30 men in cowboy hats.

(Cardenas calls name, papers are passed)

CARTY: The men are squatters. They're former peasants who have come to the city to exchange rural poverty for urban opportunity. And this is the core of so many of Mexico's social and environmental problems. The city is a human magnet. It will continue to grow beyond its ability to provide the necessities of a sane and healthy life until it becomes more attractive for people to stay in the countryside or to move to other centers. And so, unlike mayors in any other part of the world, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is asking the federal government to spend more money not in his city, but elsewhere.

CARDENAS: The government, the national government, should have a decentralization policy. But that means investments in industry, in creation of jobs, and in infrastructure - housing, schools, universities, hospitals, etc. - in other parts of the country where we have cheap water and energy. That means we have to make high investments in our coastal regions. But we don't see up to now this policy in the interest of the present national government.

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's first months in office have been ones of gradual, not revolutionary, change. And he has stumbled on occasion. Several of his officials have had to resign over suspected links to criminals. Because of a combination of smog and smoke from forest fires, the rain recently came down brown and muddy. The mayor's approval rating dropped. And there are lingering questions whether someone of his political generation can inspire the changes this city needs. Sergio Aguayo does not have great expectations, but he is hopeful.

AGUAYO: I think he's a decent human being. And now he has to deliver. And that's a question -- I mean, if the decent human being will be the efficient manager capable of dealing with the disaster of Mexico City. I mean Mexico is a major urbanistic, demographic, environmental disaster. Mr. Cardenas will have to deliver at least honesty. And the moment that I detect inefficiency, corruption, then we will criticize him. I hope that he succeeds.

(The band continues to play)

CARTY: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas only has a 3-year term to try to make Mexico City more livable. If he succeeds, he will have a very good chance of becoming Mexico's next president in the year 2000. If he fails, his political career will be over. And for Mexico City's environment, it will be an opportunity lost. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Mexico City.

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(The band continues)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(The band continues)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, for reporting on science and the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts, for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility; the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, 'the standard of purity'.

(The band continues)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Congress considers a controversial plan to cut a road through a remote Alaskan wilderness area. That's coming up in just a minute right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, makers of pure, all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 800-PROCOWS.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: We've had our share of beastly hot days this summer but none so bad as the Chicago heat wave of 1995. For 5 days in mid-July, the city became a lethal oven. At its peak, the mercury hit 106 degrees. But because the "windy city" wasn't so windy that week, and it was stiflingly humid, the heat index reached 119 degrees: that's how hot it actually felt because of the still and muggy air. About 700 people died as a result of these conditions, three quarters of them over the age of 65. Thousands of farm animals throughout the Midwest and Plains states also died. The hottest day on record for the Western Hemisphere was also at this time of year, but 85 years ago and, not surprisingly, in Death Valley. On July 10, 1913, the temperature there rose to 134 degrees. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Alaska Road

CURWOOD: Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is nestled among the rugged mountain terrain and teeming coastal wetlands of the state's remote western tip, out towards the Aleutian Islands. Republican law makers from Alaska are asking Congress to build a road through the refuge in order to link 2 isolated villages. Proponents say the road is needed for medical emergencies, but opponents say it could knock the region's ecosystem off balance and set a dangerous precedent of allowing construction in a federally-protected area. Greg Siekaniec is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. From his office in Cold Bay, he described the waterfowl that stop over in the refuge.

SIEKANIEC: There are large populations of Pacific black brant, emperor geese, Stellars eiders, myriad of other species such as tintils, and mallards, and scop. The unique landscape features are of course areas that have inhabitants of the Alaskan brown bear, wolves, caribou.

CURWOOD: Is this one of the wildest places in America?

SIEKANIEC: Oh, it certainly can be in terms of both species of birds and mammals that are represented and even in environments at times.

CURWOOD: Now, we called you up because there is a proposal in front of the United States Congress to build a 30-mile road through 10 miles of your refuge, and that would include some 7 miles of Congressionally-designated wilderness area. The legislation that calls for the road say it would be a simple, single-lane gravel strip that would be there to promote public health and safety. Would a road really make that big a difference there?

SIEKANIEC: In regards to, would it compromise wilderness values, you know, that, to me, sort of goes without saying. The act is very clear that roads and man-made structures are just not meant to be within wilderness areas or developed within wilderness areas.

CURWOOD: What are the things that concern you directly about the wildlife and this road?

SIEKANIEC: The proposed road route would bring, on a daily basis, the human access into the edges of the Joshua Green River system, which is recognized as a key natal area for the Alaskan brown bear. Some of our fall survey work up there, when we do the brown bear population work, we have upwards of 125 to 150 brown bears along a 6-mile by 18-mile survey area. This road would be within a mile and a half or two miles of that area right there. It's been well-demonstrated that large carnivores, particularly brown bears, even grizzly bears in the lower 48, when you have the element of humans introduced to the area, typically they lose.

CURWOOD: What's at stake in this debate over the building of a road here?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think that, you know, are we willing to continue to take a notch out of our wilderness areas, out of our refuge areas, when we've had populations of different species exhibiting declines for reasons that we're totally not certain of? When do we sort of say enough is enough?

CURWOOD: Why do you think that politics has gotten involved here? Why do you think the Alaska delegation is pushing for this road right now?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think they've been approached from the standpoint of: this is a life safety need and in the views of many people that they feel strongly that there is only one opportunity here to try and resolve some of it, and that would be a road. And I think that from the standpoint of, certainly me, being the refuge manger, that I think that you really should look at it from the standpoint of review. Are there other alternatives out there that will, one, not only meet that need but may perhaps serve the need even better than would perhaps a road through the area?

CURWOOD: Some have argued that the push for this road is an attempt to put the camel's nose under the tent, if you will, of building roads inside of national wildlife refuges -- that this would set an important precedent, and no national park or refuge would be safe after this. Do you agree with that?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think that we have to be very, very concerned that that may be at issue here. There's lots of places that have expressed interest in having a road pushed through. You know, small wilderness areas, even in the lower 48, that would conveniently link two communities or provide access to different parts of areas of the country, roads, perhaps, through some of the areas that we're looking at for oil developments in the future, even in Alaska and so on, that would need to go through wilderness areas.

CURWOOD: And the people listening to us talk right now, if there is a single message from your perspective as a biologist and manager of this wildlife refuge that you'd like them to take away from what they're hearing now, what would it be?

SIEKANIEC: I think the single message is that we need to be very careful when we approach roads through national wildlife refuges and/or especially wilderness areas and particularly in areas that are recognized for the abundance and the types of species and birds that we actually have here in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and lagoon area. And, again, how it fits within the national wildlife refuge system as a whole -- that these lands were looked at and, you know, that weren't haphazardly picked and just thought of, oh, that would be a neat spot. They fit into a very obvious pattern of protecting breeding grounds, protecting migration habitats, and then protecting wintering habitats again. As we continue to sort of nick away at them, when are we going to say, boy, we went too far, we went one step over that line?

CURWOOD: Gary Siekaniec is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, out in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Thank you, sir.

SIEKANIEC: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

Fish Camp

CURWOOD: The days are long and the salmon are running in Alaska, so it's time for Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord to make her annual migration to her favorite place on Earth, an isolated stretch of beach that the rest of the world has passed by.

LORD: Every summer, my partner Ken and I leave our Alaskan town and fly to a more remote, roadless area, where we spend 3 months fishing for salmon. Every year we eagerly anticipate our return to what we call Fish Camp, a stretch of beach where we have a small cabin, and our skiff and nets... and which feels to us, more than anywhere else in the world, like home.

(Small plane engine)

LORD: We have a little float plane that we land on a lake. Then we hike a trail through the woods and down a creek bed to the beach.

(Footfalls, splashing water. Ken shouts, "Oyesumi nasai!")

LORD: There are bears around, so we always make a lot of noise to let them know we're there. I usually just yell out, "Ho, bear!" But Ken shouts, "Oyesumi nasai!" It means "good night" in Japanese, but I guess he thinks it sounds fearsome.

KEN: (Shouts) Oyesumi nasai! Here we are.

(Sounds of surf and birds)

N. LORD: Our setting here isn't all that impressive, by Alaskan standards anyway. The water is gray and silty, and there are a bunch of rumbling oil rigs offshore. We don't have any tidepools or all that much sea life aside from the salmon. We do have seals, and a few sea lions in spring, and beluga whales that swim by in pods of 100 or more, really close to shore. We've also had quite a few brown bears in recent years. We tend to avoid one another, but now and then we meet on the beach. There are always eagles around. Just about all the animal life here depends on the salmon runs, the same as we do.

We have human neighbors, too -- but not too many and not too close. One lives about a mile and a half up the beach, the other about four miles the other way. We're a small community; we borrow things back and forth and look out for one another. I think of our community in a larger sense, though, more in the Native American sense of everything having its import. Even rocks. There are the ones where we set our nets, another one we walk to every evening. We touch it and walk home again. We have an intimacy with particular drift logs, and clumps of beach greens, and seeps of spring water. They're all part of a sparse place. That's what we have: rocks and sand and mud and water and sky, all very elemental things.

We know the plants, too. Early on, a neighbor taught us the saying, "The sockeyes come when the fireweed blooms," so all summer we watch the fireweed grow and bud. And when the first blossoms burst, we start looking for the sockeye, or red, salmon. It's the most valuable of the 5 species we catch.

(Nets moving, clanking sounds)

N. LORD: On a fishing day, we pile our nets into the skiff so we can set them out over the stern. We have setlines along the beach, strung between buoys perpendicular to the shore line.


N. LORD: We tie one end of the net onto the line, then motor out so the net goes out over the stern, and then we tie off the other end. The corks on the net go clank clank clank clank clank as the net sets.


N. LORD: We don't make a lot of money fishing, but we like the simplicity of what we do. And we like spending our summers in a place we're so fond of. When the fishing's slow, we just clip the bow line to the cork line of the net and sit and wait for fish to hit, and we get into the lunch box and eat and watch for seals. Sometimes we take a nap.

(Clanking sounds; fade to surf and birds. Fade to a bell ringing, a door opening)

N. LORD: When we come to the beach there's something that happens with time. Those of us who live in Western cultures tend to be very conscious of time, and we focus on being busy. My winters are like that. But in summer, the beach has its own time. There are two Greek words for time: kronos, which means chronological time, and kairos, or sacred time. At the beach we live in kairos time, when we live by tides and the work that needs to be done without looking at our watches. When I mend a net, I do it because it's part of the life here, and I don't rush. If you're restless or in a hurry, you're not going to be happy here. But if you fall into the rhythms of the place, you can enjoy just watching the birds for a long time, or listening to the water, or just being.

(Surf and birds)

N. LORD: In years past, the fish we catch here were mostly frozen and sold to Japan. But now, some of our fish are being shipped fresh to American markets. I like to think of people in Montana or Ohio grilling salmon in their back yards, very much like the way we cook our own over a driftwood fire. I hope they appreciate as much as we do the good taste of a wild salmon that grew up in Alaska's clean, cold water. I hope they might also think of the place where their salmon was made and of the people who exist in that place, too, by the bounty of the salmon cycles returning year after year.

(Surf and birds)

CURWOOD: Nancy Lord is author of Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore. Her audio essay was produced by Peter Thomson.

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CURWOOD: Your comments about this program are always welcome. Please call 1-800-218- 9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. And be sure to check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org.

Coming up: hissing, spitting, and a few growls. Hear the sounds of slithering and sometimes venomous snakes. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Earth's Company

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. More and more companies are trying to project a green image. A recent survey by Arthur D. Little found that 80% of companies believe that incorporating a sustainable development approach into their operations would have, quote, "real business value." But, the study also found that few companies are going beyond piecemeal projects like recycling or energy efficient retro-fits, measures that are relatively easy to implement or those that get a quick return on investment. Carl Frankel is the author of a new book called In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability, and he joins me now in the studio. Carl, thanks for coming.

FRANKEL: It's a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: First off, we've heard some numbers, but how would you characterize the level of commitment in the big business world to make the shift to sustainable practices?

FRANKEL: It's very mixed. Leading companies are putting a lot of effort into cleaning up their own nest. And this typically takes the form of what's known in business lingo as eco- efficiency, which is basically a function of shrinking the corporate metabolism -- using less stuff on the input side and producing less waste on the output side. And it's really a big question as to if and how corporations are going to up their own consciousness and their own behavior to address the full gamut of sustainable development issues.

CURWOOD: Now here's one of the $64,000 questions today. What does sustainability or sustainable development mean to you?

FRANKEL: That's the question, of course, and I think it's not a bad thing that there is a lot of difference of opinion about it because it means it's vague enough for a lot of people to believe in. If you started articulating exactly what it meant, then a lot of people would stop pursuing it. That said, I will share with you the two -- what I believe are the most conventional definitions of it. One definition basically says we have to use resources in a way now that maintains them for future generations. We cannot use up the Earth's resources so that the children, our children and our children's children, won't have a viable planet to live in. The second definition goes by what is called the Three Es, and the Three Es are, in no particular importance, environment, economy, and equity. Historically, we have pursued economic growth without regard to the environment, in fact, the environment has been something we've used in order to pursue economic growth, and without much consideration to social justice and equity issues. The problem is that doesn't work any longer. There is an expression that says even the frog knows enough not to eat the lily pad on which it sits. Every living system on the planet is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating. We are rapidly creating a planet that is not really going to be viable for economic growth especially in view of the fact that the world's population is expected to double in the next 30 to 40 years.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book, you say that right now we're in what? The third era of corporate environmentalism, this eco-efficiency. And we're just starting to advance into a fourth era. What is this fourth era? What do you expect business to do in the 21st century?

FRANKEL: Corporations have to start devoting themselves to measures that go beyond cleaning up their own house, to cleaning up the world's house. There are a number of companies in various ways that have set about, quite consciously, to make sustainability a core element of their business strategies. British Petroleum, to take one example, about a year ago publicly said, and broke ranks with its big oil colleagues, by saying, we accept that climate change is something we have to take really seriously. And as a result they are sinking big, big bucks into alternative energies like solar power. In fact, we're on the threshold of a solar and alternative energy revolution, which may be a significant step in the direction of sustainability. Another company that I tend to mention, with the absolute assurance that arrows are going to be shot my way from progressives --

CURWOOD: Okay, I'll get ready now --

FRANKEL: Okay, is Monsanto. Now, Monsanto is a very, very complex company, and it's one that environmentalists love to hate and with good reason. Monsanto has done a lot of very dubious things and it's pursuing a strategy that's premised on biotechnology, which quite rightfully frightens a lot of people. That said, they are planning to make money in the future by addressing the world's food shortages and the lack of potable drinking water.

CURWOOD: You mention British Petroleum. You mention Monsanto. These are companies that overall, one might say, are engaged in unsustainable practices, even if they are shifting their approach. What companies are basically sustainable in their outlook as far as you're concerned?

FRANKEL: Ultimately, I don't think any companies are sustainable. The closest company trying to move as close to sustainability as it can is a company called Interface, which is based in Georgia. And the CEO is a fellow named Ray Anderson, who has a very interesting story to tell. He was just plugging along, being a rich business man, and then he read a book by a fellow named Daniel Quinn called Ishmael. Then he read a book by a consultant, a person named Paul Hawkin, called Ecology of Commerce. And he really had what he himself characterizes as an epiphany. So he's done things like launch a program that instead of selling carpet, he leases it. That way, if you want to change the color in 3 years you can change the color. And most importantly, when the natural life of the product is over, he takes it back, and he can reprocess it, recycle it, or do whatever he wants. People have an extraordinary capacity for innovation to respond to challenge. Right now, sustainable development, especially in the United States, is kind of getting lost in the media clutter. But I think the solutions are available and if the will can be mobilized I think we can meet the challenge.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today.

FRANKEL: It's been a real pleasure.

CURWOOD: Carl Frankel is the author of In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability.

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Snake Sounds

CURWOOD: A hiss, a spit, an occasional cobra growl. These are the sounds that snakes usually make to get their message across, but how snakes make the sounds they do is more of a mystery. Bruce Young, an assistant professor of biology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, studies the hows and whys of snake sounds. Professor Young took producer Peter Clowney on a tour of his multi-room laboratory, beginning with the venomous snake room.

(Machinery humming; voice echoes)

YOUNG: The signs out here just make it clear what is in this room. It simply shows a gentleman who was bitten on the back of his hand by a spitting cobra. You can see that he is now missing much of the top of his hand, and indeed much of the skin over his forearm, that can probably never really be repaired. It's simply a reminder, this is not a casual, relaxed place.

(A key turns in a lock)

YOUNG: Let's just make sure everyone's where they're supposed to be. Yeah. Now, unfortunately, although this is a little uncomfortable, the room is full of spitting cobras, which can blind you. So you need to put on goggles before you can go in.

(The door opens. Shifting and hissing sounds)

YOUNG: Oh, don't get yourself tied up in a knot.
I've been working with these animals for 17 years now. I have never been bitten by a venomous snake, and I have never had a snake escape. And I have very strong motivation to keep that record alive. (Laughs) Yeah, this would be a nice cross-section. (Moves items.) All right, cover them up with blankets so we don't alarm anyone in the hallway.

(A new, quieter room)

YOUNG: This is my research lab. We have kind of a research platform that's right beside my computer. What we'd really be doing is turning the snakes loose here on this recording platform and coupling the microphone directly to the computer. As you can see, around the work table, we've put up this little plexiglass barrier. That means even if we do get a little too close and they strike, they're going to hit the plexiglass. In fact, you can see from all the venom over it that it's earned its keep. (Some clanking sounds)

We're going to start with an Eastern hognose snake. It's kind of a real beautiful dark green and black with a series of yellow bands or blotches on it. You'll see, he'll rapidly flare out the back of the head. He winds it, now he'll start making noise as well. (Hissing sounds)

That was a very nice series of couplets, which you can hear is first the snake hissing while he's exhaling. There's a little pause. Then he hisses while he inhales, and there's another pause. You can actually small, now, I don't know if you can pick it up, there's a little bit of a musk. Which is another fairly common defensive behavior in snakes. They've got some special glands back at the base of their tail that release a variety of scents, especially as kind of alarm or warning scents.

All right. Let's put him back. (Clanking sounds)

This is a North American pine snake. The only snake that has a vocal cord. And so, what happens is when they hiss, which they do with their mouth open, it produces a very distinct kind of shrieky, rasping sound.
(Hissing, then clanking sounds)

Now the next snake I want to show you is really dramatically different to all of these. (More clanking sounds) Both in appearance and in the sound he makes. This is an absolutely gorgeous little snake called a Sawskill viper. This one actually isn't so little; it's almost two and a half feet long. You can see it has kind of a nice pink, almost a pale scarlet color. And the interesting thing about him, if you look at him, you can see his body appears to be kind of rather rough or jagged looking. The scales of this snake are different than a typical snake scale. They're held at different orientations and are larger, and you can hear just why that is. Because unlike all the other snakes I've shown you that hiss, this snake produces noise by simply rubbing his body scales together. (Scales rubbing) You can see watching him that this particular species is really prone to biting. They're not a particularly easy snake to keep (hissing continuing from scales rubbing. More clanking)

See if this snake will perform for us. This is Russell's viper, which may have the distinction of killing more people than any other snake on earth. Estimates range of over 15,000 people a year. The reason I have them is you can hear. (Hissing sounds) They produce an incredibly loud sound. (Loud hissing) What we think is going on is that his nasal passageway ends up being built almost like the end of a trumpet. So you have this distinct flare to the end that allows him to really amplify the sound.

Now, what's coming up is undoubtedly the rarest sound produced by snakes. I'm going to play for you the sound of a Sonoran coral snake, and when these snakes get agitated they actually expel air from the end of their digestive tract, their body opening called the cloeca. (Sound like a duck quack)

No matter what it sounds like this is not the equivalent of snake flatulence. There's no material expelled from the digestive tract, and the sound is only produced if the snake's head is held and his body is pinched. So it's truly a defensive sound. (Sonoran coral snake sound continues.) One of the simple explanations for why snakes don't talk, quite simply, is they're making sounds they can't hear. (To snake:) Oh, settle down, now you've been so good.

CLOWNEY: You know he doesn't listen to you, and yet you speak to him anyway.

YOUNG: I talk to all of my snakes. And yeah, it makes absolutely no sense (laughs).

CURWOOD: Professor Bruce Young talked to his snakes with producer Peter Clowney.

YOUNG: All right, guys, come on. (A door opens) Let's go home.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta DeAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau, Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn, Jody Kirshner, and Rebecca Sladik-Knowles. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Surdna Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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