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

January 29, 1999

Air Date: January 29, 1999


Global Warming: Coral Reefs at Risk / Daniel Grossman

Living On Earth’s Daniel Grossman reports that researchers are finding new diseases attacking coral reefs off the Florida Keys. As they scramble to explain the outbreaks, some scientists say that warmer ocean temperatures could be an important factor. (03:21)

"A Civil Action," South-American Style

Amazonian Indians from Ecuador and Peru are facing off against Texaco once again in a New York federal courtroom. The rain-forest dwellers accuse Texaco of illegally dumping more than thirty billion gallons of oily toxic waste into the rivers and lakes of their homelands. Living On Earth spoke with Cristobal (kris-TOE-bal) Bonifaz, a lead attorney for the Indians. (04:16)

Brown's Town / Peter Thompson

Why is Jerry Brown, a well-known national figure, taking a job as a mayor of a mid-sized city? Brown was recently sworn in as chief executive of Oakland, California. He says national politics in America has bottomed out. He argues that it's in cities like Oakland that America's democracy can be revived and solutions can be found to environmental crises. But he's long on rhetoric and short on details. Living On Earth’s Peter Thomson reports. (09:50)

Canada Looks out for Cows / Suzanne Elston

The Canadian government recently rejected Monsanto’s application to use Bovine Growth Hormone in that country’s cows. But the ruling had nothing to do with the hormone’s human health impacts. Instead, Canadian commentator Suzanne Elston says they were protecting the health of their herds. (02:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the great Arctic Freeze of 1899. (01:30)

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Cars / Jeff Hoffman

In California, which has the strictest air pollution standards in America, the private electric car is gaining ground. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a Bay Area family who gave up a Volvo to test-drive Honda’s new electric car. (08:35)

The Limits of MTBE / Robert Braile

Technology has brought us a long way towards a cleaner environment, but commentator Robert Braile observes that the controversy over the gasoline additive MTBE suggests technology can only go so far. (02:20)

Garden Spot: Plants for Those Winter Blues

The cold, dark days of winter cause many people to feel depressed. Living On Earth’s Traditional Gardener, Michael Weishan, has some relief for the winter doldrums in the form of aromatic plants. (04:43)

Reindeer Herders Under Threat

The Nenets, reindeer herders in Russia's frozen arctic, depend on their animals for survival. They employ every part of the deer. But their way of life is now under threat: their territory sits on one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world and a gas pipeline under construction poses immense problems for the Nenets and their herds. William Gasperini reports. (07:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Peter Thomson, Jeff Hoffman, William Gasperini
GUESTS: Cristobal Bonifaz, Michael Weishan
COMMENTATORS: Suzanne Elston, Robert Braile

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Jerry Brown, twice the Governor of California and frequent Presidential candidate, is giving up the national stage to go local as mayor of Oakland, California. He says it's the only way to revive civil society and get the environment back on track.

BROWN: In America today politics are dead. The two major parties are corrupt. The President is being impeached for perjury and abuse of power and all the rest of it. His accusers are highly partisan and lack credibility themselves. This overall political system is in a crisis stage. Yet in a city and in the city of Oakland in particular, there's still a vibrant, Democratic culture.

CURWOOD: Also, Amazonian Indians sue for justice from the oil giant Texaco. That and more on Living on Earth. First the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Global Warming: Coral Reefs at Risk

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Researchers studying reefs off the Florida Keys are finding new diseases associated with the dramatic increase in dying coral. Biologists are scrambling to explain the outbreak, and some say the problem may be linked to human-induced global warming. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports.

GROSSMAN: Marine biologists are worried about the health of coral because reefs are the superstructure that support an immensely rich ecosystem of fish, plants, and microorganisms, considered by some to be among the most diverse habitats on earth.

PORTER: Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea.

GROSSMAN: James Porter is an ecologist at the University of Georgia. He's conducting a study of the health of reefs off the Florida Keys.

PORTER: They build structures which, a biological analogy would be cathedrals, in which the light streams into the environment, with these multicolored fish. The vibrancy is amazing.

GROSSMAN: But recently, Professor Porter has observed something very different.

PORTER: The three-dimensional complexity is not there. The fish life are not there. And it has a sort of mowed-over look.

GROSSMAN: Professor Porter estimates that in the last 20 years about 10% of the world's reefs have been severely damaged. At a recent scientific conference, he reported some even more dramatic statistics about coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Since 1996, the number of reef sites there with diseased coral has quintupled, and the number of coral diseases seen has gone from 4 to 14.

PORTER: One of the reefs that we've been following, in the last 2 years, has lost 62% of all of its living coral. And that's in the space of 2 years. Those kinds of losses are alarming, and clearly they cannot be sustained through time and still have a coral reef left.

GROSSMAN: Researchers believe pathogens are killing the coral, although in most cases the identity of the attacker is unknown. Last year a Florida researcher showed that a previously unknown species of bacterium was responsible for one coral blight, and Drew Harvell of Cornell University says a fungus called Aspergillus sedowiae is killing large numbers of coral sea fans throughout the Caribbean. She says this pathogen is well-known on land, but its appearance in the ocean was a surprise.

HARVELL: It's almost unprecedented that a pathogen could cross the terrestrial-ocean boundary.

GROSSMAN: Professor Harvell, who is conducting a study of sea fans in the Keys, says the big question is: why are these terrestrial microbes suddenly attacking marine life? In the case of the Aspergillus fungus, she thinks she may have an answer.

HARVELL: We do know from laboratory studies that the optimum growth temperature for the Aspergillus is up around 30 degrees, and that's the temperature that was reached at some sites in the Florida Keys last summer.

GROSSMAN: Researchers in the Keys report that in recent years the number of days when water temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit, has increased. Last year water temperatures there were the highest in nearly a decade, probably helped by El Nino. Drew Harvell fears that if climate change causes further warming, that could pose even more serious problems for coral reefs and the life they support. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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"A Civil Action," South-American Style

CURWOOD: In the latest round in a long-running battle, Indians from the Amazonian regions of Ecuador and Peru are facing off against Texaco once again in a New York Federal courtroom. The rainforest dwellers accuse Texaco of illegally dumping more than 30 billion gallons of oily toxic waste from drilling into the rivers and lakes of their homelands from 1964 to 1992. Six years ago the Indians sued, claiming Texaco ignored safe drilling practices and damaged the environment and human health. Texaco denies the charges, and at one point had gotten the case thrown out. But a recent ruling from an appeals court is forcing Texaco back into court. Cristobal Bonifaz, a lead attorney for the Indians, says much of the pollution still remains.

BONIFAZ: You see these lakes of oil everywhere in the Amazon. There are 300 to 600 lakes of oil in the Amazon, 4 or 5 acres each in size. And of course, if you go down to the Amazon, one of the sights that you cannot ever forget is to see all these animals that have fallen into the oil. A night owl, some birds. And they just die in there slowly, while the oil soaks them in there.

CURWOOD: Basically, let me understand what your argument is here. Are you saying that when Texaco drilled in a rainforest, it didn't use the proper processes that it would do elsewhere, like in the United States? Is that what you're saying?

BONIFAZ: Absolutely. That's exactly what we're charging Texaco with. They used a procedure for extraction of oil that was not allowed to be used in the United States or anywhere else in the world, and it's a procedure that had been discarded in Texas as far back as 1919.

CURWOOD: Now, why is this procedure so destructive, in your view?

BONIFAZ: The procedures are destructive because oil comes to the surface of the soil, always, with water. This water stops it because it has been in intimate contact with the oil, so it contains a certain amount of oil, and contains cadmium, mercury, arsenic. And this water has to be reinjected into the formation from which it came from, and that is the standard practice. That was the standard practice in 1971 and before that. And yet, Texaco decided to dump it because for no other reason that because nobody was watching it.

CURWOOD: Now, why would they have done this?

BONIFAZ: It was economics. I think that the cost of reinjection can be as high as $3 per barrel, and the cost of producing oil in the Amazon rainforest is $1 a barrel at the wellhead because of the lack of reinjection. So it's profit, you made a lot of money. They made a tremendous profit from not reinjecting.

CURWOOD: Now, Texaco says that it spent some $40 million in environmental restoration projects in the region. Isn't that a sign of good faith?

BONIFAZ: Well, let me just state what they did. The government of Ecuador and Texaco got together, and they came back in 1995 with this so-called agreement for $40 million. What that agreement did, is that they actually took bulldozers and they tried to put dirt on top of the oil ponds that existed. And today, you go to the Amazon where there was a previous oil pond from Texaco, and you walk on top of that dirt and pretty soon you begin to sink into oil. The oil is still there and it's still seeping into the groundwater.

CURWOOD: I understand you've pursued this case by using an age-old US law that was once used against pirates to get the case heard here in the United States.

BONIFAZ: Well, this is one of our arguments in front of the court. We have maintained that Texaco violated an international law, because of these actions. Once you have a violation of international law, these people, by this 1789 law, have the right to come to the United States and sue the violator of the rights and sue the violator of the international law. And we maintain that that statute's still in force. It has been used in the United States successfully to prosecute people that conduct genocide. And we believe it should be used for this case, also, because it's equivalent.

CURWOOD: What sort of precedent do you think all of this sets? I mean, how might this influence future cases involving the multinational businesses and environmental damage?

BONIFAZ: I think that the way it's going to influence it is, if we succeed in getting jurisdiction because of the violation of international law, it's going to put these people on notice that the rest of the world is not just a trash heap where they can go and do what they want and profit from it.

CURWOOD: Cristobal Bonifaz is a lead attorney representing the Amazonian Indians in their case against Texaco. Thanks for joining us today, sir.

BONIFAZ: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: former California governor Jerry Brown is back in action again, this time as the environmentally-active mayor of Oakland, California. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Brown's Town

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Jerry Brown was sworn in as Oakland, California's Chief Executive on January fourth, after already serving 2 terms as governor of that state and running for President 3 times. Skeptics suggest Mr. Brown might be more interested in reviving his political career than reviving that city. But Mr. Brown says that the best hope for restoring American political life and safeguarding its environment lies in its urban centers, and that Oakland can help lead the way. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson caught up with Mayor Brown in downtown Oakland.

(A radio blares rock music in the background)

BROWN: How are you doing?

MAN: Pretty good.

THOMSON: It's just past 8 in the morning, and before he can even start thinking about his new job Jerry Brown's got to find something for his nasty sore throat. Twenty years ago when he was Governor of California, he might have had to hunt around for a jasmine-scented health food collective. But today, he finds the herbal cure he needs at a national chain drug store, right in downtown Oakland. America has caught up to Jerry Brown, if only for a moment.

(Cellophane crinkles)

MAN: All 3 together, zinc, [inaudible] and Echinacea. You know, it's just like a candy, you can suck on it.

BROWN: All right. Thank you very much.

MAN: Good luck. Thank you.

THOMSON: The new mayor pops a couple of herbal lozenges in his mouth and heads for the door, ready to talk, impatient to get on with his day. He's got a city to tend to.

(Rock music continues; fade to car engine running)

BROWN: So okay, so this is a very lively part of Oakland. It's filled up with people, as you can see. You look all the way down, you see the Federal Building. I think it's an example of resurgent Oakland.

(Traffic sounds)

BROWN: Oakland had a fire, had an earthquake, suffered the ill effects of the recession and all of that really set Oakland back. But we're definitely on the move, now.

THOMSON: In this new incarnation, Jerry Brown is sounding like an old- fashioned civic booster. It's a bit of a shock, really, coming from a guy who's long thumbed his nose at politics as usual. In his 2 terms as Governor of California 20 years ago, his unconventional ideas earned him the derisive nick-name Governor Moonbeam. Later, he studied Buddhism. He ran a grassroots campaign for President in which he refused contributions over $100. And he hosted a high-brow radio talk show, featuring leading intellectuals and progressive activists. The common thread has always been a focus on the power of big ideas rather than the practicalities of everyday life. But now, as mayor of a city which has seen better days, he's vowing to focus on just those kinds of practicalities. Jerry Brown is promising 3 things to the citizens of Oakland.

BROWN: Dramatic reduction in crime. The creation of both charter schools and site-managed schools within the larger system. We want to see some academic improvement of substantial proportion. And then we have to have every neighborhood a safe place in which people will feel comfortable in living and having their children walk to school, and go to the school.

(A man calls over)

HALIB: How goes it, Brown?

BROWN: How are you?

HALIB: How are you?

BROWN: I'm fine. How are you?

HALIB: Good. My name is Halib. I own Take Five.

BROWN: What kind of a shop is that?

HALIB: Snack shop. Welcome to Oakland.

BROWN: Thank you.

HALIB: Yes, sir.

BROWN: Appreciate it.

THOMSON: Business people and regular folks are eager to introduce themselves to their new mayor, as they would be in any city. But there's an unusual sense of anticipation here. Jerry Brown trounced 10 other candidates in last year's election. Voters also approved a plan that Brown sponsored to vastly expand the mayor's powers. Oakland residents seem to have tremendous faith in their new mayor.

WOMAN: Hello. Congratulations.

BROWN: Hi, how are you?

WOMAN: Glad you're the mayor.

BROWN: Thank you.

WOMAN: You can clean up this city.

BROWN: Think it needs that?

WOMAN: Yeah, it does. 'Cause I'm scared to walk at night and I was born and raised here.

BROWN: Well, we're definitely going to do something about it.

WOMAN: I get to tell all the kids at the school I work at I shook your hand.

BROWN: What school?

WOMAN: I work at first...

THOMSON: At times, when talking to his constituents, Jerry Brown's restless mind slows down a bit, and his gruff demeanor softens. Along with his interest in big ideas, he's always had more than a touch of the populist in him.

WOMAN: Okay. Bye bye.

BROWN: Take it easy.

THOMSON: Still, some people outside the city have questioned his motives and his sincerity in Oakland. Where some see a dynamic and unconventional leader, others see a man who craved the spotlight desperately trying to keep from being yesterday's news. But if there's a hint of truth to that view, Mayor Brown doesn't let on.

(Various street sounds)

THOMSON: (To Brown) Now, you've been Governor of California, elected twice. You've run for President. You're a person with national stature, national ambitions, global ambitions in some senses. Why do you want to come back and be mayor of a relatively small city?

BROWN: In America today politics are dead. The two major parties are corrupt. The President is being impeached for perjury and abuse of power and all the rest of it. His accusers are highly partisan and lack credibility themselves. This overall political system is in a crisis stage. Yet in a city and in the city of Oakland in particular, there's still a vibrant, Democratic culture. There's room for conversation, for initiative, for local power. And that's what interests me, because I think out of these cities, out of the heartland of America, the democracy has to be saved and brought back.

THOMSON: But Jerry Brown can only help save democracy if he can also save his own city. And you don't have to walk far from the new downtown plaza to see some of what's broken here. We head up Broadway, in the shadow of imposing stone office buildings from the city's heyday, to the corner of another of the city's main boulevards, Telegraph Avenue. Where we stop to talk about Mayor Brown's vision for Oakland and how he's going to make it happen.

(To Brown:) Tell me about this part of downtown, looking to the north. What's going on there?

BROWN: Okay. Well, what you see here is you see The House of Wigs, you see a closed jewelry store. There's a loan shop. Then you see the beautiful remains of the Fox Theater. Down a few more blocks you see the Sears Department Store, which is the only one in Oakland. This is the part that definitely has to be brought back. And we already have plans for an entertainment district here, for several thousand units of housing, market rate, and that's really my vision for the city. As you see, right now, you know maybe there's a thousand people in the blocks that we've just walked. Well, we need tens of thousands of people.

THOMSON: And how are you going to attract those people to the city? You've got to do some real practical things. You've got to work with property owners, business people.

BROWN: You know, it's just happening because of the market. All you have to do is banish the bureaucracy and make sure that the policy of people living has an equally high priority to the use of buildings for work. Two thirds of the people who work in Oakland don't live here. So what we're missing, now, is the appropriate housing, and I want to see that housing downtown. What I would call the elegant density that we find in a great city.

(Street sounds continue)

THOMSON: But density is exactly the opposite of the trend of the last 50 years. People want space.

BROWN: Okay, the game plan now is to move out further and further into the greenbelt, the prime agricultural land, to pave it over with cement, for a very simple reason. The land's cheaper, it's safer, and the schools are better. We have to fold all that up and bring people back into the city by reducing crime, improving schools, and making this whole thing work right. Certainly, the national decision is not to go there yet. The national decision is still sprawl, fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gases, global warming, mounting social inequality. Now here in Oakland, which is a city of just about 400,000 people, we can deal with these issues on the micro level, and perhaps that will operate as an example.

THOMSON: Even in trying to take care of the small things that make a city work, Jerry Brown is still putting his faith in the power of big ideas. That faith served him well as Governor, when he was re-elected to his second term with the largest vote margin in California history. And it's made him the most popular guy in Oakland these days. But his popularity could crumble if the changes he's promised don't start happening. Perhaps more than any other job in politics, to succeed as mayor you've got to deliver the goods. Mayor Brown understands that. After his election, he said the real victory would come only when Oakland residents could take the bars off their doors and windows. Still, he doesn't seem to be sweating the details when it comes to making his city work.

BROWN: How did Jack Kennedy put a rocket ship on the moon? Not by getting down there and turning bolts, but by setting a goal and encouraging people and making the right kinds of appropriations to get the job done. You have to demand of the people that are hired to get the job done that they do it, and if they don't do it, find new people to carry it out.

(More traffic and street sounds)

WOMAN: I want to thank you for doing what you have for Oakland. I had to move over here from San Francisco because I could no longer afford it. It's like you've brought a kind of good spirit over here. Thanks for being a good person ... (trails off)

BROWN: So there, you see, they're already moving in. They're coming.

(More traffic and street sounds)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Oakland.

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Canada Looks out for Cows

CURWOOD: Canada has said no to the Bovine Growth Hormone. The Monsanto Company had been seeking Canadian approval for the controversial and genetically engineered drug, which is used to boost milk production in dairy cows. Critics say it may endanger the health of cows and humans. The drug is now being used in much of the US dairy herd, after the Food and Drug Administration concluded it posed no health risks for humans. The Canadian government also found that it's safe for human health, but it rejected the drug out of concern for the cows. That prompted these thoughts from commentator Suzanne Elston.

ELSTON: You have to admire us Canadians. We'll apologize for just about anything, and we'll allow just about anyone to bulldoze our sense of nationality. That is, unless you mess with our livestock. Perhaps it's an appreciation that other living critters are willing to share this frozen northland with us. Or maybe it's because we sympathize with dumb animals that get pushed around a lot. But whatever the reason, Health Canada, the northern equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration, recently made itself a few corporate enemies when it refused to approve Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone. They claim that although exhaustive studies found no human health impacts, the government didn't like what it did to our cows.

What Bovine Growth Hormone does is increase milk production in dairy cattle by about 15%. According to the Canadian studies, it's linked to mastitis, lameness, and infertility, among other things. Health Canada felt that the 15% increase wasn't worth the risk, and Canadian farmers support their decision.

The threat of infertility is probably the biggest reason. The bottom line is that an infertile cow doesn't produce any milk. And even if their cows don't become infertile, the farmers figure that by the time they've paid for the drug and the extra vet bills to repair any damage that the Bovine Growth Hormone might cause, they'd be no further ahead. And then there's the Canadian quota system for milk. For every gallon of milk they sell, Canadian farmers have to pay so much to the Milk Marketing Board. The more milk they produce, the more it costs to sell it. So why would they bother risking the health of their herds for something that will probably end up costing them money? It doesn't make sense.

There's no doubt that Monsanto will appeal the Canadian decision, and there's no guarantee that they won't win. But for now, our cows and our conscience are safe.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Suzanne Elston lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario. She comes to us from the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: No tune-ups, no oil changes, no radiator troubles. The comforts of electric cars are next. Keep listening to 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: If the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: The hundredth anniversary of the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899 is just a few weeks away. And by looking at wind patterns and sunspots, some scientists say conditions are perfect for a repeat of the chilliest cold snap ever recorded in the United States. In 1899, records show temperatures in Florida dropped 2 degrees below zero. Ice blocked the Mississippi River at New Orleans, and Washington, DC got a special Valentine's Day gift of 20 inches of snow. Weather researchers say that periods of high solar activity with strong winds from the West increase chances of what they call an arctic outbreak. And this February, they say, solar activity will be extremely high and winds from the West extremely strong. While weather forecasters have been fairly accurate in predicting artic outbreaks, politicians have been reluctant to heed warnings of bad weather. President William Henry Harrison died shortly after he was sworn in during a biting cold inauguration in 1841, and frostbite afflicted some of the 1976 swearing-in of Jay Rockefeller as Governor of West Virginia. As one onlooker put it, "We always knew it would be a cold day in Hell when a New Yorker got elected Governor of West Virginia." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under: "Button up your overcoat when the wind is free. Take good care of yourself, you belong to me...")

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Cars

CURWOOD: Private electric cars, out of vogue since the turn of the century, are coming back on the market in California. The state is under a mandate to reduce polluting vehicles over the next 4 years. Range is still the big problem, but these cars do boast sharply improved high-tech batteries. And with a small number of working parts, electrics are easy to maintain. So far most car makers are selling or leasing to government or corporate fleets, but GM and Honda have launched pilot programs aimed at ordinary consumers. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a San Francisco family helping to pioneer the EV market.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Right. Now, Jean is picking you up in half an hour, at 8:30; no, in 15 minutes.

HOFFMAN: It's breakfast time at the Braunstein's. Steve, Willa, and their 2 sons live on a quiet street of Victorian houses 5 miles from downtown San Francisco. As with most young families, the logistics of getting to work, school, and the grocery, is a big part of daily life.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: (Speaking above her small son) If Alice gets dropped off at Chris's house, then you have Alice, Max, and Chris, and then you can't take Ely.

HOFFMAN: But morning conversation here hasn't quite been the same since last February, when the Braunsteins decided to sell one of their 2 Volvos and lease a Honda EV Plus minivan.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: The person that's driving the furthest within the range of the EV on that particular day is usually the person that gets the EV, because it's much cheaper to run and we just want to put as many miles on it as possible.

HOFFMAN: That might seem counter-intuitive, since the EV-Plus goes only about 100 miles on an overnight charge of its batteries. But Steve, a bassoonist for the San Francisco Symphony, says that's more than enough to meet their needs.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: It's very rare that a day will pass when we drive more than 75 or 80 miles, which is well within the range of the car.

HOFFMAN: Today Willa will drive the EV across the San Francisco Bay to a Berkeley clinic where she works as a part-time X-ray technician. It's about a 30-mile round trip. Steve goes to get the EV ready.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Push the button.

(Opening and shutting sounds)

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Close the little hatch. And we're ready to go. That's easier than stopping at a gas station.

HOFFMAN: Oh yeah. For sure.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: (Laughs) I haven't stopped at a gas station since February 27th.

HOFFMAN: The EV-Plus dashboard provides continually-updated information on charge and range to make sure the driver doesn't get stranded. Honda does provide free towing with the $450 monthly lease, but the Braunsteins have never run out of juice on the road. Steve says not burning fossil fuels makes him feel better about driving.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: You know, I'm not out there in the inflatables with Greenpeace, but we try to do our part. When I make lifestyle decisions I try to think about the environmental consequences.

HOFFMAN: The EV charges with what looks like a big paddle that connects to an industrial-strength device the local utility installed in the Braunsteins' garage. Under the hood it has an electric motor and a pack of batteries where the gasoline engine would be. It has no gears, just a stick for forward and reverse. And of course there's no tailpipe. Otherwise, it looks and performs like any well-designed van. Honda built it from the wheels up as an electric. Earlier EVs were mostly converted internal combustion vehicles with extremely limited range and questionable reliability.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: I wanted to do a conversion 10 years ago, but that didn't quite work out. It was a lot of work to end up with a vehicle that was homemade, basically.

HOFFMAN: Honda pays for insurance and takes care of all maintenance. Subtract the cost of gas, add about $40 to the electric bill, and the EV-Plus ends up costing about $350 a month to operate. About the same as Honda's conventional Odyssey minivan. With the kids' lunches under control, Willa's set to go.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Ready for the big boom? Here it comes.

(The key turns in the lock, some beeps sound)

W. BRAUNSTEIN: We're ready to run. That's it.

(Electric powering up)

HOFFMAN: Indeed, the first thing one notices riding in an EV is how quiet it is. There's just a gentle whirring noise so pedestrians and other drivers often don't hear you coming.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Steve and I have both tried to be very aware when we drive the car that people are programmed for a certain rumble of an engine, and that you don't have this rumble. And you're not programmed to listen to this high-pitched sort of dentist squeal of this EV.

HOFFMAN: Willa says she's been extremely happy with the EV, which is surprisingly powerful and great for getting up San Francisco hills. But she concedes that because of limited range and size, the car isn't for everyone.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: You do have to have a certain driving profile for this car to work for you.

HOFFMAN: And the Braunsteins aren't about to give up their internal combustion habit altogether. For long trips and vacations, they still rev up the Volvo.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Hopefully they'll figure out a way to make these batteries a little more long-distance.

HOFFMAN: That advance could be a number of years away. While technology is improving, batteries remain the Achilles heel of electric vehicles. The nickel-metal hydride batteries in the EV-Plus are the best available, but they cost $20,000, more than a third of the vehicle's theoretical sticker price. That's one reason Honda and other auto makers are heavily subsidizing their EV lease programs.

BIENENFELD: We consider this really to be tuition.

HOFFMAN: Robert Bienenfeld is EV Program Manager for American Honda, which has put several hundred EV-Pluses on the road in California. Despite the losses the company takes on EVs, he says it's learning about consumer interest, which will help design and marketing. Car makers must sell thousands of zero emission vehicles, not only in California but also in New York and Massachusetts. Mr. Bienenfeld says selling that many EVs to consumers is going to be a challenge.

BIENENFELD: With the limited range which is offered by the batteries that are available today and in the near future, it does, unfortunately, look like a fairly limited market.

HOFFMAN: In fact, experts say the new EVs would make perfect commute vehicles or second cars for around-town travel. The average car only gets driven 35 miles a day, says Daniel Sperling, Director of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

SPERLING: The real challenge is for households to make some minor adaptations in their lifestyle, in their perceptions of how they use vehicles.

HOFFMAN: Honda's Robert Bienenfeld agrees that EVs would meet most people's driving needs. But that's a moot point for auto makers, he says.

BIENENFELD: We can tell them all we want about how it meets most of their needs. And although that may be true, they still have the perception that it's less function for more money. They may need not need that functionality, but we buy cars for our maximum need, not our minimum need.

HOFFMAN: Other technologies in the pipeline may resolve the battery and range problems while meeting the mandate for cleaner air. Toyota and Volvo will soon introduce hybrid electrics, which run on batteries in city driving and switch to gasoline power on the highway. That would help reduce smogs, since gas engines are least efficient and produce the most emissions at low speeds. California recently agreed that auto makers could sell hybrids and get partial credit toward meeting zero emission requirements. Car makers are also at work on clean-burning fuel cells that power electric drive motors. Transportation scholar Daniel Sperling says EVs are an evolutionary step, and they'll share the road with other low-emission vehicles.

SPERLING: Right now we have essentially a transportation monoculture: all vehicles have to serve all purposes and have to go on all roads. And what we need to do is, and in fact we're moving in this direction already, is thinking about vehicles being more specialized. It's very uncertain at this point in time which of these technologies will be superior, which will dominate, and it will probably be a mix of those.

(Ambient voices)

HOFFMAN: It's afternoon and Steve is out doing some errands. The EV is getting a lot of attention. People honk, wave, and ask all kinds of questions.

MAN: You have the motors going?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah, want to hear me rev it up? (No change in quietude) That's it.

MAN: That's pretty cool. (Steve laughs) How is it when you're driving it? Is it fast? I mean, can you go 60?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Oh, sure. It's electronically governed to go no faster than 86.

HOFFMAN: Honda might fret about how to sell EVs to other drivers, but the Braunsteins are sold on theirs. Ironically, they can't keep it; Honda wants it back for research. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.

MAN: Mind if I ask how much?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Four-fifty a month.

MAN: That's the same as my Suburban.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Is that right?

MAN: But a little worse gas mileage in the Suburban. (Steve laughs)

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The Limits of MTBE

CURWOOD: While consumers wait for more alternatively-powered cars to hit the market, government regulators are trying other ways to lower auto emissions. One method is with so-called reformulated gasolines. Perhaps the most widely- used is called methyl-tertiary butyl-ether, otherwise known as MTBE. But commentator Robert Braile says a problem with MTBE has developed, and it suggests that technology can take us only so far.

BRAILE: In 1990, Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act requiring 28 states, from Maine to California, to cut smog. The states were given many ways to make their cuts. Most methods, such as reducing power plant emissions or installing vapor-trapping nozzles on gasoline pumps, were hardly noticeable to consumers.

MTBE was supposed to be the least noticeable of all. It's simply a chemical that fuel refineries put into gasoline that has the knack of cutting smog. It also reduces toxics like benzene, a known carcinogen. The idea was to clean the air without hassling anyone. Government officials learned a hard lesson in some states when they tried to impose enhanced auto emissions testing programs on motorists. Those programs to cut smog backfired because they forced people to change their ways. The officials learned that smog could only be cut in ways that allowed people to live as they normally do. And the petroleum industry had the answer: MTBE.

The trouble is, MTBE may also be a carcinogen. And it's turning up in drinking water wells all over the country. Maine has 4,300 contaminated wells. California, 10,000. The chemical, which moves quickly through soil, seems to be coming from leaking underground storage tanks and traffic accidents involving fuel spills. But no one knows for sure. EPA Administrator Carol Browner convened a blue ribbon panel of experts in November, giving it 6 months to report on MTBE sources, risks, and benefits.

It's unclear what Browner's panel will decide. But what is clear is that technology may not be the panacea to our environmental problems. Yes, it has taken us far, so far that it's hard not to believe it cannot take us all the way. But as America's experiment with MTBE suggests, at some point we may also have to change our ways. We may have to drive less, consume less, exploit less. At some point, we may just have to change.

CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Braile writes on the environment for the Boston Globe.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth needs your help. We want to hear from listeners who have special ways of marking seasonal change. Perhaps you take a family ice fishing trip every winter. Maybe you band birds for migration studies every spring. We're looking for a few good stories that we can turn into some good radio here at Living on Earth. Call us toll-free with your suggestions at 877-PULSE99. That's 877-785-7399.

Coming up: fighting the winter blahs up north with flower power. The traditional gardener is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Garden Spot: Plants for Those Winter Blues

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. January and February are the darkest and usually the coldest months of the year. For many people the season can be a depressing time. But Living on Earth's traditional gardener Michael Weishan has discovered how to use plants to battle the winter blues. Hi, Michael.

WEISHAN: Hi, Steve. How are you?

CURWOOD: Now we've been coming to your office and gardens and greenhouse for many months now and it always seems so beautiful here. Are the winter blues something you and your colleagues have to worry about?

WEISHAN: Absolutely. Especially as the days are short and things are cold, there's no place I enjoy to be more than out here in the greenhouse. It really becomes a treasure at that time of year. And one of my favorite things actually are some of the scented plants out here. It's sort of a plant aromatherapy, if you will.

CURWOOD: Huh. Plant aromatherapy.

WEISHAN: Well you know, it's like, you know, when you walk to the kitchen as a kid and your mom would be making cookies or something, and the whole kitchen would smell just terrific. Or bread baking, how it makes you just feel really good. Well, good fragrances actually improve your mood. And there are a lot of plants that are fairly highly scented that you can grow pretty easily even without a greenhouse, just on a sunny window sill, that are terrific at this time of year.

CURWOOD: Okay, what are the best ones to do this?

WEISHAN: Well, one of my favorites are scented geraniums, and I've brought a number of varieties here over to the potting bench that we can take a look at. We'll haul some of this stuff out of the way. (Sound of things being moved) Scented geraniums actually have a very pretty flower. They're a member of the geranium family although they're not really true geraniums. Native to the southern part of the African continent, they came to Europe fairly early and were brought here with the first colonists. And they were very important in adding scent to things, like soaps and perfumes. Have you ever heard of the old Attar of Rose, rose water that your great grandmother might have worn?


WEISHAN: This was actually made out of this plant here, a scented geranium called Attar of Rose. Now you take a leaf and you just crush it, or you brush your hands through it.

CURWOOD: Ooh, wow, it's strong!

WEISHAN: It's a really strong rose --

CURWOOD: It's a rose smell, yeah.

WEISHAN: Fragrance, yeah.


WEISHAN: What's amazing about this is that there are probably -- well, there were formerly at least 100, and there are probably still 30 or 40 different types of scented geraniums commonly in cultivation, each with a different scent. This one is called Finger Bowl. This is a lot more lemony. It was commonly crushed up and put in finger bowls at dinner, and for formal dinner. So you'd dip your hands in there and you'd clean yourself off with this lemon fragrance. Pretty cool, huh?


WEISHAN: The best place, I think, to put a scented geranium is somewhere like near the kitchen table, or somewhere where you brush by it. Because that's what releases the scent, the touch. So you can place it in a sunny spot wherever you're going to be passing, and, you know, just brush by it. And it's an amazingly unexpected pleasure at that time of year.

CURWOOD: Well, are these hard or easy plants to take care of?

WEISHAN: Exceedingly easy plants. If you know someone with a scented geranium you can just go over to their house, snap off a piece like this. It's probably best to let it sit for a couple hours to let the bottom dry, so that it forms like a slight scab or scale, so that it doesn't have a tendency to rot. And you can simply stick it in the soil, and as soon as it has some roots you tug on it, you'd make sure that it doesn't come out easily out of the soil. You can put it in a sunny window. And they don't like to be terrifically over-watered; once a week is pretty much as much as they need.

CURWOOD: Now what other plants can you use aside from these wonderful series of scented geraniums?

WEISHAN: Well, (grunts) let's get this monster geranium here out of the way (moves pots).

CURWOOD: Mm. Smells pretty good, like something that should be in my kitchen.

WEISHAN: (Laughs) This is something that is in your kitchen, probably, but most likely in its dried form. This gigantic mat of green here is creeping thyme. And it's the culinary version of it, which you can cut and use all winter long. Most herbs are, of course, quite scented, and they're also very easy to grow.

CURWOOD: Now, is there any evidence that these wonderfully smelling plants really do cheer us up? They chase away the blues?

WEISHAN: Well, I'm not quite sure. It seems to work and you certainly pay a million dollars for it in most of the high-priced spas around the world. So there must be some truth in the matter.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, Michael, we'll give it a shot. Anything to get through these long, cold, dark days. Thanks for the help.

WEISHAN: Oh, my pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener, and he's publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. Find out more about gardening at our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. Click on the picture of the watering can.

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Reindeer Herders Under Threat

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: In the vast expanses of Russia's Arctic North, more than a dozen native groups live primarily by herding reindeer. This nomadic lifestyle has long since disappeared in most other parts of the world. An indigenous group known as Nenets have the most intact traditional culture in the Arctic. These nomads still live mostly the way they have for the past 1,000 years. But now, as Bill Gasperini reports, the prospect of drilling for oil and gas in their homeland is putting this way of life at risk.

(Strong winds blow)

GASPERINI: In the harsh climate of Russia's far north where the bitter Arctic winds blow, the snowy tundra seems to stretch away forever. It is a vast expanse that appears to be completely empty and quiet, except for the wind.

(Strong blasts of wind)

GASPERINI: Yet then, out of nowhere, comes a herd of animals. Gray, brown, white, and all shades in between, with hundreds of antlers pointing up into the sky.

(Scraping of hooves, calling sounds)

GASPERINI: These are domesticated reindeer, staff of life for an Arctic people known as the Nenets, who use only the most natural of resources in every sense.

(Whistles and voices calling)

GASPERINI: They live almost entirely off of these animals, moving the huge herds thousands of miles throughout the year, following the change of seasons. The Nenets' clothing is made out of reindeer fur, including hooded parkas and leggings which reach all the way up to the thigh. The thick deer hairs provide the perfect insulation to protect against the bitter winter, when temperatures routinely plummet to minus 40 degrees below zero.

(Scraping sounds)

GASPERINI: To an outsider, it seems like a hard life, but the Nenets don't see things that way. One herder named Yasha says he dislikes even going into the only town which his herding group passes by just twice a year.

YASHA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: I don't think life is very hard, because we live close to nature. It's always interesting. When we go to town we can't stay there for a long time. The stones push us down.

GASPERINI: It's a lifestyle most other Arctic peoples have now lost. A lifestyle much like that of Plains Indians in North America years ago.

(Pounding sounds; a dog barks)

GASPERINI: Walking into a Nenets camp is like stepping back in time. Most striking are the tipi-like tents known as chumes, made out of reindeer skins. Smoke curls out through the opening made by the poles, which provide the structure for the chume. Bryan Alexander is a photographer who spent over 25 years specializing in the Arctic. He's traveled with the Nenets on several occasions.

ALEXANDER: My first impression, when I saw a sight not dissimilar to this, was I almost had arrived in the American prairies or something in the middle of winter a couple hundred years ago. It's quite unique.

GASPERINI: Just as the Plains Indians of North America lived almost entirely off of the buffalo, the Nenets get just about everything they need from reindeer. Apart from the clothing, lassoes used to rope in individual animals are made from reindeer leather. Deer bone is fashioned into bridles. The diet consists mostly of reindeer meat, along with whatever fish they catch in ponds and lakes.

(A motor runs)

GASPERINI: The few other necessary supplies include tea, sugar, and salt, which the herders acquire in the region's only town, a settlement of just a few thousand people. The herding groups only come near it in April and November at the beginning and end of the summer migration season. In a legacy of the Soviet era, all herding groups officially belong to collective farms, which provide some assistance, such as a health clinic.

(A helicopter rotor whirrs)

GASPERINI: But for the most part they're out in the vast wilderness, areas so remote it's only possible to reach them by helicopter. There are no roads where the Nenets go as they constantly move from place to place. The herders spend winter in forested areas south of the tundra tree line. This allows the deer to forage beneath the snow to eat lichens, which are rich in carbohydrates.

(Sawing sounds)

GASPERINI: While the women sew new clothes, the men make the sleds, which carry them north once spring arrives.

(A man calls out, urging on)

GASPERINI: It then takes months of constant movement to reach the northern tundra far above the Arctic Circle. Often, huge snowstorms engulf the scores of sleds, each lashed one to the other as people, animals, and supplies make their way ever forward. Navigating in the snowy whiteness requires great skill, as another herder named Anatoly explains.

ANATOLY: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: If you want to live on the tundra, you need to be well-rounded and fully-developed. You need to know how to find your way, even in a blizzard. At times you have to drive at night. We don't have lights on our deer, and sometimes it's hard to know where you're going.

GASPERINI: The calves are born in late spring during the long migration to summer pastures where the deer graze on lush, protein-rich grasses. The animals' fur coats thicken as they fatten up in time for the return trek back south: nature's way of preparing them for the rigors of another winter. Like native peoples all over the world, the outside culture has presented constant challenges, beginning with the forced Communist collectivization in the 1930s.

(Helicopter rotors whir)

GASPERINI: Since that time, all Nenets children have been flown out by helicopter to attend boarding school, returning to help their parents only in summer. Most young men also serve in the armed forces, just like their Russian counterparts. Although exposed to the outside world, almost all come back to continue herding deer, demonstrating a remarkable cultural resilience. Sergei Serotetta is the leader of one herding group. He says there's never been a question for him about where to live.

SEROTETTA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: My mother is a good example. When she goes to the village, she just doesn't feel free. All she wants to do is get back to the tundra, back to home.

GASPERINI: Yet there's another challenge which may prove far more difficult to overcome. The area where most Nenets migrate sits on one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world, which has led various gas and oil companies into the area. For over a decade a major camp has been operating right near the migration routes of many herding groups. Russia's largest gas company, Gazprom, also plans to build a gas pipeline, which would ultimately run across the entire area. The company's already built an unpaved road to haul in heavy equipment, says the herder known as Yasha.

(Sleigh bells, footfalls, voices in the background)

YASHA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: Of course, it's very hard where the gas industry is developing. Already there are lots of machines and equipment everywhere.

GASPERINI: Yasha and other herders say the deer have gotten sick eating grass which grows near the big camp. Other animals have cut their hooves on rusting equipment discarded near the new road. Photographer Bryan Alexander has been with the Nenets as they've passed through the gas area. He says the implications are clear.

ALEXANDER: There's logistical problems of crossing the gas fields or going anywhere near them, because you've got these raised roads 2 meters high. You've got telegraph poles. They've got problems with gas workers' dogs going out and attacking their reindeer. They've got problems with their reindeer being poached. The lakes have been polluted, largely, I understand, from the lubricants used during the drilling process, which then go into the water system.

GASPERINI: There was a slowdown in the pipeline development this past year because low oil prices and Russia's general financial crisis led Gazprom to suspend activity in the area. But this is likely to be only a temporary halt to the pipeline plan, perhaps only postponing the threat which gas development poses to the Nenets and their reindeer herds. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Gasperini in the Russian Arctic.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. Our interns are Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyck, and Aly Constine. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. 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.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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