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

January 7, 2000

Air Date: January 7, 2000


Welcome to the Future: It's Warm

Host Steve Curwood talks with Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, about the state of the global climate at the cusp of the millennium. Dr. Trenberth says climate change caused by atmospheric pollution is clearly occurring, and that balmy winter weather in the U.S., and killer windstorms in Europe could be signs of things to come. (05:20)

Cleaner School Busses / Cheryl Colopy

Some school districts in California are switching from diesel buses to those powered by cleaner-burning natural gas. Many of the oldest and most polluting diesel engines are in school bus fleets. And health experts say that diesel exhaust contributes to lung cancer, asthma and other respiratory problems, putting school children at an especially high risk. Cheryl Colopy (CAHL-o-py) reports. (05:30)

Nikitin Freed / Charles Maynes

Charles Maynes reports from Moscow on the recent acquittal and release of Alexander Nikitin. The former Russian naval officer had been on trial for treason for allegedly giving state secrets to a European environmental group documenting radioactive waste at a submarine base in the Arctic Ocean. (03:30)

Buffalo Hunt / Jane Fritz

Over the past three winters more than twelve hundred Yellowstone bison have been killed by Montana officials when they wander outside park boundaries. A coalition of forty-nine Native American tribes has proposed another way of managing the herd - featuring a buffalo hunt. Jane Fritz report. (06:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about -- rhubarb, first introduced to the U.S. one hundred thirty years ago. (01:30)

Longevity Has Its Place / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

There are 72,000 Americans who lived through the first and last days of the twentieth century. Living On Earth sent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum around the country to talk to some of these centenarians to find out what it’s like to look back on the last hundred years. (25:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Cheryl Colopy, Charles Maynes, Jane Fritz, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
GUEST: Kevin Trenberth

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Climate scientists say the future is now. A check for human-induced global warming in the year 2000 finds the planet running a fever.

TRENBERTH: The last 10 to 20 years are clearly emerging as the warmest in the last millennium.

CURWOOD: Also, a drive to get diesel engines out of school buses and diesel exhaust out of the lungs of school children.

BALMES: Diesel exhaust and environmental tobacco smoke are probably sort of similar in terms of cancer risk.

CURWOOD: And Native Americans bid for the return of buffalo hunting at Yellowstone National Park.

AXTELL: Way back when I was a little boy, we used to have a lot of buffalo hides that my grandmother got when it got really cold. We'd wake up in the middle of the night and she'd be covering us with a buffalo hide.

CURWOOD: Those stories and the freeing of Alexander Nikitin in Russia, this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Welcome to the Future: It's Warm

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If there was ever a time when we could really say the future is now, this has got to be it. For many of us the year 2000 has always been that magic point when the future really begins. So now that the future is here, what's it like? Well, for one thing, it's warmer. And we're not just talking about the near-70-degree temperatures on New Year's Day in New York City. The year 2000 starts on the heels of a run of record warmth throughout the 1990s. Most climate scientists say human-induced climate change is here. Among them is Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

TRENBERTH: The last 10 to 20 years are clearly emerging as the warmest in the last millennium. The warmest years in order are 1998 as a clear winner, and then 1997 as second, and then 1995, 1991, and 1999 all come in next. And so, the warmest years are all in the past decade, and the reconstructions of the climate which can go back maybe a thousand years, the current indications are that what's happened in the last decade is way above anything that's happened historically.

CURWOOD: Now, is there any reasonable doubt any more that we're seeing the effects of human pollution in the atmosphere?

TRENBERTH: I don't think there's very much doubt any more. Part of the argument hinges about, well, how much has the sun done? And we believe that the sun has contributed a little bit to the warming. But it cannot account for most of what has gone on, and since the late 1970s I think there's very clear evidence that the human influence is emerging very strongly.

CURWOOD: Where I live in the Northeast, it has been unusually warm at the beginning of the year 2000. In Boston, where we do our program, we've had a string of 65-degree days. And there's all kinds of other strange weather going on. The windstorms in Europe, the horrendous rains in Venezuela. Is it fair to say that this weird weather is a sign of global climate change?

TRENBERTH: Well, of course, weather has a lot of natural variability that does occur. And what we can say is that certain of these kinds of things are consistent with what we expect to occur with global warming. But one of the things about global warming is that a lot of the extra heat that we get out of the increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes into not just raising temperature, but also evaporating moisture from the surface. This is especially so over the oceans. And so, the moisture gets into the atmosphere and that fuels all of our weather systems. It makes them more vigorous than they otherwise would, and it tends to rain harder.

CURWOOD: There are some indications from scientific studies that the climate doesn't change smoothly, but rather jumps. It has snaps. From your research, what do you think of those theories, and if you think those things do happen, are we in the middle of such a snap right now?

TRENBERTH: I think that's quite likely at some point or the other. And we have some examples of that from our climate models, that perhaps one that we can focus on a little bit is the El Nino phenomenon. In the last 20 years, since the late 1970s, we've had more El Ninos than we've had historically. It seemed as though there was a jump, a relatively abrupt jump. And so, one of the theories we have as to how this might happen, is that the climate system can sort of go along on its own way until we cross a threshold, and the global warming is large enough that it kicks it into a different way of behaving. And there are other examples where scientists are rather concerned about, if there is increased rainfall in middle latitudes, which is likely to occur with global warming, in particular over the North Atlantic Ocean, it can change therefore the ocean currents and the Gulf Stream and things like that. And this could have some big adverse effects in parts of Europe, for instance, that might be rather counter-intuitive. It could actually cool off in those regions, in spite of the fact that its close-by warming over the rest of the globe.

CURWOOD: The future is now. Climate change is here now. Is society coping with the real and threatened effects of climate change, do you think, Dr. Trenberth?

TRENBERTH: I don't really think so. For the most part, a politician's horizon is, you know, the next election, and not the decadal or 20-year or 30-year look-aheads that this kind of a problem requires. I think this a real concern that politicians do not have that long horizon, and there's very little action occurring in the United States in particular to address these kinds of problems.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth is director of climate analysis for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

TRENBERTH: You're most welcome.

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Cleaner School Busses

CURWOOD: Compared to gasoline-powered cars, there are far fewer diesel trucks and buses on the road. But there is a reason people react so strongly to the stink of diesel exhaust. The small particles it contains are particularly deadly. Indeed, the particulates from diesel engines and coal-fired plants combined are blamed for as many as 70,000 excess deaths each year in the U.S. alone. Some states have created incentives for owners of diesel fleets to switch to cleaner fuels, but some environmentalists say the change is coming too slowly. Children may be at an especially high risk, because many of the oldest and most polluting diesel engines are in school bus fleets. From KQED in San Francisco, Cheryl Colopy reports.

(Children laugh and call to each other)

COLOPY: Children emerge from a San Francisco school on a recent afternoon to board the familiar yellow bus. The driver starts the engine.

(The engine revs)

COLOPY: And the bus belches a cloud of black exhaust. Visual evidence, say diesel opponents, of the carcinogen-soaked soot particles kids are breathing as they board and ride these buses. In California, 17,000 diesel buses like this one carry children to and from school each day. Public health advocates deplore the continued use of diesel because they say it increases the risk of cancer. Dr. John Balmes says breathing diesel exhaust can be as bad as living with a heavy smoker.

BALMES: Diesel exhaust and environmental tobacco smoke are probably sort of similar in terms of cancer risk.

COLOPY: As the chief to the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, Balms conducts experiments to measure the effect of air pollution on people's lungs.

BALMES: This is the human exposure laboratory. This is a stainless steel chamber designed to expose people in a controlled way to air pollutants. And in general...

COLOPY: The chamber Dr. Balmes describes is like a little gym with a treadmill, a bicycle, and a pile of clean towels, but the air coming through the overhead vent is spiked with vehicle exhaust.

BALMES: It would be like jogging or bicycling on a very bad smoggy day in LA.

COLOPY: Balmes says subjects exposed to high amounts of diesel exhaust show acute inflammation of their lungs, as well as impaired ability to take in air. And some animal studies have linked lung cancer to the chemicals in diesel exhaust. Dr. Balmes is particularly worried about the alarming increase in asthma rates among children. He says diesel exhaust can bring on asthma attacks and may contribute to the disease in the first place. In response to fears like these, some school districts are trying to protect children from daily doses of diesel.

(Bus interior)

COLOPY: The Napa Valley Unified School District has converted about half its 62-bus fleet to less-polluting engines. Napa Valley Unified's transportation director Ralph Knight says most of the new buses, like the one we're riding in, have compressed natural gas engines. The bus is the same familiar yellow, but ...

KNIGHT: We're now burning a fuel that is so much cleaner, you don't have the residue of the oil from the gasoline or the diesel in here. So that's what keeps our motor oil so much cleaner for so longer. Unless something really goes wrong inside that engine, we're talking about an engine that can probably travel 300,000 miles plus before we ever have to do anything to it.

COLOPY: Ralph Knight says compressed natural gas engines emit only a quarter of the pollutants produced by diesel, but school districts that want to convert to natural gas have two big hurdles to overcome. First, the buses cost more. A natural gas bus costs about $130,000 compared to $90,000 for diesel. Napa Valley solved that problem with money from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, spending only $5,000 per bus. Then there was the problem of refueling. School buses once took hours to fill from portable tanks at the school.

KNIGHT: This is our fueling system here. There's a fuel gauge here that tells you how many pounds of pressure...

COLOPY: But since this natural gas station was built for about a million dollars adjacent to an Exxon station, drivers can fill up here in just a few minutes. Six tanks that look like big white torpedoes store the gas, which is pumped from a gas line at the street.

KNIGHT: We turn the valve on, so that it will allow the flow to begin, and then all we have to do is go ahead and turn the pump on.

(Clanging, hissing)

KNIGHT: So what's happening right now is you hear the gas beginning to flow. The pump is reading the amount of space in the tanks to find out how much it can actually put in there. So it stops and starts this check a couple times...

COLOPY: Environmentalists like Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists would like to see more school districts convert their fleets.

MARK: Diesel pollution is really becoming the air quality problem that we're going to have to tackle over the next decade. And although school buses are a relatively small portion of the whole diesel pollution problem, they're actually quite critical to the solution.

COLOPY: Because with their small, centrally refueled fleets they're a good testing ground. Jason Mark predicts new bus technology will set a model for freight trucks, the greatest source of diesel pollution. California's Air Resources Board recently released a proposal for new diesel transit bus regulations, to be voted on later this month. Environmentalists were heartened by the requirement that 15 percent of the transit district's new buses be zero-emission vehicles by 2008. But they're disappointed that the new standards don't go far enough to reduce diesel soot. The Air Board plans to tackle school bus regulations some time next year. Whatever decisions are made now are likely to affect health for decades to come, since buses last about 30 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead, a happy ending, it seems, to one of the saddest tales of Russian nuclear pollution. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Nikitin Freed

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Russia is rapidly changing. The so-far peaceful succession of the presidency is one sign, and a little-noticed court verdict is another. Alexandr Nikitin was found not guilty and freed by a judge in St. Petersburg. Charles Maynes reports.

(A voice intones in Russian)

MAYNES: After four years of trial delays, a judge in St. Petersburg says Alexandr Nikitin committed no crime when he helped environmental activists gather information about the radioactive pollution of Russia's Arctic waters. Speaking from his home in St. Petersburg, Nikitin said he's delighted.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: The ruling really shook me. I'd hoped for this, of course, but it was still a sensation.

MAYNES: Nikitin's troubles began when the former naval officer used his knowledge of Soviet warships to help a Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, publish an atlas of accidents and contamination among rusting nuclear powered submarines in Russia's northern fleet. Agents in the former KGB read the report and accused Nikitin of treason for revealing state secrets. But defense attorneys argued the material had been publicly available, some of it even copied from Russian school books. In dismissing the case against Nikitin, the judge upheld Russia's post-Soviet constitution, which declares that issues such as heavy nuclear pollution a vital public interest, and could not be considered state secrets. Greenpeace Russia's Ivan Blokov says the ruling may go some way toward bridging the gap between rights written in the law books and those etched out in the current Russian reality.

BLOKOV: The decision of the court is very important for the democratic development of the country as a whole. Maybe some of it too ambitious to speak about on this scale, but it's certainly extremely important for the whole country. Now you can realize that you can work with information, that you cannot be put into the prison for using, distributing, and collecting information, which is connected with your basic rights.

MAYNES: Nonetheless, Alexander Nikitin said it had been hard living under the weight of government accusations. He said security agents had harassed him during his years under trial. When they allegedly bugged his phone and damaged his car, his wife and children decided they had had enough. They left Russia and went to live in Canada. Still, Nikitin says he'll continue his work in Russia.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: In the new year, I'm going to try to catch up on time lost. I'll continue to work for the environment and for human rights. I'm absolutely convinced that environmental activism is right.

MAYNES: Nikitin's case drew worldwide interest. Amnesty International named Nikitin a prisoner of conscience, the first Russian to hold that title since the fall of the Soviet Union. He also received prizes from human rights and ecology lobbyist organizations, such as the Goldman Environmental Foundation in California. Alexander Nikitin's case could now go to Russia's Supreme Court for appeal, but the ruling is seen as a setback to the old guard in the Russian government. Attention will now focus on the ongoing similar trial of another former serviceman accused of environmental espionage in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostock. For Living on Earth, this is Charles Maynes in Moscow.

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Buffalo Hunt

CURWOOD: Under current rules, any buffalo that wander out of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park and onto Montana state land run the risk of being shot. Some are, and others are caught and tested for the disease brucellosis. Any animals that test positive are sent to slaughter. Over the past three winters more than 1,200 bison have been killed by these methods to protect grazing cattle from contracting brucellosis, officials say. And while they figure out ways to manage the nation's largest free-roaming buffalo herd more effectively, a coalition of 49 Indian tribes has come up with its own plan. Jane Fritz reports.

(Elk bugling)

FRITZ: As winds blow the first snows across the dry, grassy valleys of Yellowstone, the elk and bison are moving down from the high country. A severe winter could drive these wildlife to forage for food outside the park's boundaries. It's there that the bison risk being killed.

LAROSE: The present plan allows for bison moving out to be slaughtered by the state of Montana, and we think that there could be a lot of other solutions to that problem, and slaughter is not one of them.

FRITZ: Louis Larose is a Winnebago from Nebraska and president of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative. At a recent meeting with Yellowstone Park officials, Mr. Larose presented a plan that he says is a saner and more respectful way of managing the herd. But it concludes with a surprising request: Allow the tribes that have treaty rights in Yellowstone to hunt buffalo again in and around the park.

[Bird song and bison growls]

LAROSE: Most tribes have a spiritual and cultural relationship to bison that's very important to them as people, and it's very important for them in their cultural and historical and spiritual practices.

FRITZ: Native people once used the buffalo for nearly everything they needed. For food, ropes for blankets and clothing, bones for tools, and hides for their skin lodges. Horace Axtell is the spiritual leader of the Nez Perce tribe.

AXTELL: Way back when I was a little boy, we used to have a lot of buffalo hides that my grandmother got. And they were all really soft and nice, and we used to, in the winter time, you used them for covers, when it got really cold. We'd wake up in the middle of the night and she'd be covering us with a buffalo hide.

FRITZ: Yellowstone was a traditional buffalo hunting area for the Nez Perce. But it's been well over a century since any tribes have hunted bison there. By 1902, illegal sport hunters had reduced the wild herd, a remnant of the millions that once roamed the west, to fewer than 50 animals. Michael Durglo is a tribal leader of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation. Although they have no buffalo today, he says his ancestors helped save Yellowstone's herd. Free-roaming bison from the Flathead Reservation were given to the park to help repopulate the species.

DURGLO: You know, I've heard before that we are the original managers. And I think that's true. We manage not by textbooks or, you know, degrees or anything like that, but we managed out of respect. I think that's what needs to happen.

FRITZ: This past May another tribe, the Makah, began hunting the gray whale again, for the first time in 75 years. Even though it stirred up a lot of controversy, John McCarty, an elder of the tribe, was glad the hunt took place.

McCARTY: The Makahs probably feel a lot more worth for themselves as being proud. Proud Makahs. Because I think this brought a great energy to the Makah nation by bringing that whale up the beach. And I think that will maintain, be maintained in the Makah village for who knows how long?

FRITZ: The Makah whale hunt has inspired some Yellowstone tribes to re-establish their connection with the park's bison. Salish-Kootenai tribal leader Mike Durglo believes resuming hunts for subsistence or ceremonial purposes would revitalize his people's health, cultural identity, and spiritual values. But that's not a good enough reason to hunt threatened wildlife in national parks, says D.J. Schubert. He's a spokesman for the Fund for Animals, the nation's leading anti-hunting group.

SCHUBERT: Things have changed. The society has changed. Societal values have changed, because of Yellowstone's unique significance, not only in this country but in the world, as the first and most famous national park. We need to protect this park, and we need to protect the wildlife that live in the park.

FRITZ: But Michael Durglo says that while he respects Yellowstone's purpose, wildlife don't exist just for the amusement or curiosity of tourists. Bison are part of the cycle of life and death. Humans are also part of that sacred circle, and he believes the buffalo understand that. But Mr. Schubert of the Fund for Animals doesn't agree.

SCHUBERT: I don't think this argument that bison are not complete unless they give up their lives for our subsistence and our survival is legitimate any more, because, you know, Native Americans, even if they were never allowed to ever hunt a bison again, for the most part they're going to be able to survive. They're going to be able to buy clothing or otherwise make clothing. They're going to have food on the table. So that the entire relationship from a practical standpoint has changed.

FRITZ: But for Michael Durglo it's more than just about food and clothing. There is a spiritual connection with the buffalo essential to maintaining his Native American heritage.


DURGLO: What's going to happen to our children and our grandchildren? Are they going to be able to see the things that we see, or understand those things? You know, I always think about my ancestors coming here to hunt, and how that was. It must have been a great thing, a great experience. And I think about the blood of the buffalo that sustained their life. Runs in my veins. And I know that, what's given me life. I gave them life; that's why I'm here.

FRITZ: Yellowstone officials say any decision to permit tribal hunting of the park's bison is out of their hands. It rests with the courts and maybe even Congress. For now, the buffalo are safe from tribal hunters, but not from livestock agents in the state of Montana. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Yellowstone National Park.

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth for more than 100 years. Those voices just ahead on Living on Earth.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: One hundred and thirty years ago, rhubarb was shipped to the United States for the first time. Now, rhubarb is a vegetable, but its tart red stalks are most often used like fruit to make pies and liqueurs, and some varieties of the plant have medicinal properties. In fact, the Chinese used rhubarb as a digestive aid as early as 2700 BC. But also like many medicines, rhubarb can be toxic. The leaves are to be avoided, although you'd have to eat more than ten pounds of them at once to get really sick. Rhubarb's acidity also makes it handy for removing burn marks from pans, dyeing hair, even killing off leaf-eating insects. And according to Science magazine, chlorofluorocarbons like Freon, which put holes in the ozone layer, can be neutralized by the acid found in rhubarb. The late sportscaster Red Barber used the word rhubarb as slang to describe a particularly heated argument on the ballfield. And we like this limerick found on the Web and attributed only to a Peter W.:

Rhubarb when raw is so tough
And its leaves contain poisonous stuff.
But when cleaned and de-soiled,
Dipped in sugar and boiled,
Then the stalks are quite tasty enough.
And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac. And pass the rhubarb pie, please.

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Longevity Has Its Place

CURWOOD: As the new year has begun, most of us are looking ahead into the twenty-first century and the coming millennium. But it's also a good time to look back. So, we decided to check in with folks who have witnessed some of the most rapid and profound changes our planet has ever seen. They're called centenarians, people who are 99 or older, and there are about 10,000 of them in the United States alone who continue to lead full and active lives. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum traveled around the country to meet a few of these elders, and to look at the past 100 years through their eyes.
WOLF: My name is Hazel Wolf, and I was, I’m well along in years, 101 I think. Anyway, I was born March the tenth 1898.

REPORTER: ... Channel Seven Eyewitness News. No WTO, says one sign. Fair trade.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I meet Hazel Wolf in a Seattle hospital room, just a mile east of downtown. She's sitting up straight in a chair. Her pale brown eyes are fixed on the World Trade Organization demonstrations being broadcast live over the TV hanging from the ceiling. On her collar there's a button: Protest WTO '99 Be There. Hazel wants to be there, too, on the streets. But she had to come in for surgery.

WOLF: They have to put a new hip in there. Throw out the old one, or recycle it, or whatever they do with old hips. (Laughs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For 34 years Hazel was secretary of the Washington State Audubon Society. She stepped down a few months ago to edit a publication called Outdoors West. She's anxious to get home and back to work. The winter issue is already late. The newsletter is Hazel's latest passion in a long and active life that began in her hometown, Victoria, British Columbia.

(Music up and under: intro to "Union Maid")

WOLF: My mother was widowed early on. She had three of us. She had little education. One of the places she worked was an overall factory, which was organized by the IWW. She was secretary. I come from a long line of secretaries. And I went to union meetings with her. So I got this working class background, for which I am very grateful.

GUTHRIE: (Singing) There once was a union maid. She never was afraid of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs and made the raid...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel moved to Seattle in 1923. She was a member of the Communist Party, fighting deportation and organizing labor unions. She didn't seem bound for a life devoted to the environment, until a friend dragged her out on an Audubon bird watch.

WOLF: And there they are, there's a big fir tree. And here's a little bird going chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, eedie, eedie, eedie. Invisible things. Down to the first, when they get to the first lateral branch down at the bottom of the next tree, dip, dip, dip, dip. I thought, that little guy works hard for a living, just like I do. And they told me he never goes up the tree, always down the tree. Ah, he's got a lifestyle. Always one way on the tree, not the other way on the tree. My kind of lifestyle. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, take a bus, go to work, eat lunch, come back. Always on the right time. I have a lifestyle. So this little bird and I, we were pals. (Laughs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I ask Hazel what she's most proud of. Easy, she says. Beginning a dialogue between Native Americans and environmentalists concerned about the impending Alaska pipeline. That was in 1979. I do the math. She was 80 years old.

WOLF: And I did it by getting in my old jalopy and visiting every tribe in the state of Washington and a couple in Idaho. I just had a feeling that we had a lot in common. We should be together. It worked out. They came, we had a wonderful conference. First thing we do is file a lawsuit. (Laughs) We've never needed another conference. It wasn't necessary. It's just, I know every time at Audubon we have a board meeting, we being talking about issues, what do the tribes say?

(Crowds in the background)

REPORTER: Labor unions and environmental groups and any number of any number of other groups, they believe that this WTO does not have a moral conscience, and that there is much more than just profits to be had...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel and I sit next to each other in the hospital room, watching a new generation of labor leaders march arm in arm with environmentalists in protest of WTO policies. For Hazel, it's like coming full-circle.

WOLF: A lot of good things, you see, are happening. This thing that's going on in the Seattle streets, they were just getting ready because labor was beginning its march. So, it's a very different world, a very hopeful world.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel is the only centenarian I met who uses the term environmentalist to describe herself. But it's impossible to hear the stories of the other folks I interviewed without hearing tales of the land. Of people and their culture and beliefs. Everything that is in the broadest sense our environment.

(Music up and under)

HAZARD: My name is Joseph McKinley Hazard. Born September the ninth, 1901.

ELLIS: My name is Ruth Ellis. I was born in Springfield, Illinois, in July the twenty-third 1899.

ROSENBAUM: My name is Polly Rosenbaum, and on September fourth I was 100 years old.

LEVINSON: My name is Ben Levinson. I was born in Chicago on March twenty-seventh 1895.

STUBBART: I am Audrey Stubbart. I was born in the seventh day of June in 1895.

SCHAEFER: My name is Lenore Schaeffer. I am 103 years old.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's different talking to people who are four times my age. It's humbling. It's slow. It makes me patient. Makes me listen. And it wasn't always easy. There was hard news, like when Nanny Lackey came down with pneumonia a week before I planned to visit her. Or when Ollie Wells, in his bed at the VA Medical Center in Detroit, just couldn't get his words out clearly enough the day I came by to record him. And I have to admit, when I was flying home after my final interview, I couldn't quite see how these people belonged in the same story. They're as different as people can be. Married, single, rich, poor, urban, rural, college-educated, eighth-grade dropouts. But I listened. And I listened some more, until out of their voices grew patterns.

(An engine revs up)

SCHAEFFER: The Ford car was born the day I was born, 1896. And I was around five or six years old, and I saw someone cranking the car. And all of a sudden they jumped in the car and the car moved. And I just stood there.

(Music up and under)

SCHAEFFER: My father had a horse and buggy. The horse moved the buggy. How did that car move by itself?

ROSENBAUM: My father had one of the first automobiles in a little town.

HAZARD: I remember one time, from here down to the pier, a fellow had an old Model T Ford. And you could hire him to take you anywhere. And so, my mother, and so my grandmother, she wanted to ride. "Oh no, I ain't going to ride in them old contraptions!"

ROSENBAUM: And they were either black or red, no other color.

HAZARD: I had an old Model T Ford one time, I remember. And the gas, they called it gravity feed. When you're going uphill, well, the gas would run from the carborator and if it didn't go back fast enough, why, it stalled. Wow, that is some car.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: We didn't have paved streets and sidewalks. We had maybe a wooden sidewalk. So later on in life they started paving the streets in brick. The fellows could lay brick, some of them could lay brick so fast.

ROSENBAUM: They put in the sidewalks, and the streets were paved. But when it rained, you couldn't go out and wade in them and wiggle your toes and get the sand through them after they paved the streets. We missed it for a while, and then we forgot about it.

HAZARD: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia. I’ve driven a car in all those states. Yeah, I think it’s a good thing to know about different places.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: Where are you going to put all these different cars? There are so many automobiles, they don't have room to put the automobiles. So they take spaces that should be for people. So, that makes the country expand. People have to move out further.

ROSENBAUM: Phoenix has grown so fast. There was a time, we lived up in the mining camp of course. We came down. We knew lots of people here. We did lots of shopping in Phoenix. And nowadays, nobody knows anybody any more. It's just a big city.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: I saw that progress was making the poor classes of people move, keep moving, on the move. If they decide they want your property, they take it. That's what you call progress.

ROSENBAUM: When I see beautiful desert land being broken up for apartments, it's getting close to being out of control.

LEVINSON: We used to have clear days out here, see the sky. Now you can't even see it, except rarely. And the same is true in many other places; I found it in other parts of the world. Resources being used up. They're forgetting about so-called tomorrow.

(Music up and under)

STUBBART: If you mine, cultivate it, see what's there, it isn't going to ever go back again. Some part, we're going to throw it away.

(Music up and under)

ROSENBAUM: You raised the food you ate. If you raised string beans and picked them, you were going to eat them. They were yours. We were just a part of the family.

STUBBART: When I got big enough to have my own cattle ranch, we had 5,100 acres.

ELLIS: Just a regular house, upstairs and downstairs. Big back yard. My dad had horses and we had chickens and things like that.

ROSENBAUM: You never thought of buying milk at a grocery store. You bought from people who had cows there. Rich Jersey milk and cream.

ELLIS: I don't know what they're doing to the food. The food don't taste right. All the different chemicals they put in the soil, things like that. You take a hothouse tomato, doesn't taste like a tomato off the vine.

ROSENBAUM: You were a part of the land, a part of the people. And you got your living from the land.

HAZARD: Sweet corn, potatoes, turnips and carrots and onions ...

ROSENBAUM: You planted seeds, you watched them sprout. You watched them grow. You sort of got an idea that youngsters nowadays don't know about. There was sort of a communication with nature that's gone, I think, now.

ELLIS: I think people are getting too smart. They're going to outsmart themselves. Some big catastrophe is going to happen, I don't know what. Then we'll have to go back to where we started. You just go so far, then you have to come down. You go up, you have to come down. That's my philosophy. I'm no scientist or nothing, so I don't know. Just how I think.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The twentieth century wasn't sounding like the success story I was taught growing up. I asked Ruth if it scared her: the weird tomatoes, the impending catastrophe.

ELLIS: Well, I don't think so much about it, you know, that I'm afraid of anything. I just go along. Because I won't be here that long. (Laughs) That will be for you young people.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It turned out most of the centenarians had something to say about my generation.

ELLIS: I don't know about families nowadays. There's not too much togetherness. Not too much togetherness.

WOLF: People lived more or less in the same spot earlier on than they do now. They spread around a lot, because of jobs and because of educations. Don't you think so?

ROSENBAUM: I never came home from school in my life that my mother wasn't home or I knew where she was. Everything revolved around the family.

ELLIS: Now they've got all these fast food places. This one wants to go this way, the other wants to go that way. And the mother has to cook two or three different foods. It seems like people don't know how to raise their children now. They let the children raise them.

ROSENBAUM: They have different ideas, different ideals. I don't know that they have ideals too much any more.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In case you're wondering if at times I considered running and hiding my youth, I did. But I just kept on listening. And I didn't hear blame, just a kind of acceptance of the technology, the mobility, the sheer amount of stuff to own and things to do. They'd witnessed the arrival of modern times.

ROSENBAUM: It was World War II and air conditioning, which changed Arizona, but it changed life because before that everybody had porches. You sat out on your porches at night. You talked with your neighbors. With the air conditioning you stayed inside and shut the doors.

SCHAEFFER: When you get a TV, you just go to the TV, turn it on, bingo. Your face is in the TV. You're not talking to your mother. You're not talking to anybody in the family.

(Music up and under)

LEVINSON: One time my wife and I, we're in New York together. We took a tour of Rockefeller Center. There were some other people in the group. We were separated, and each one went to a different room. Something strange was happening. They put on a machine of some sort, and we could see the person in the other room. We don't understand that. We were dazzled by it, amazed. That was, insofar as we were concerned, the beginning of TV.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: We all know what happened after that. There was Sputnik, and men on the moon. Microwaves, computers, and the World Wide Web. VCRs, CNN, DVD. But technology was only a high-speed backdrop for something else: Social movements that were changing the landscape and its inhabitants in slower, but more profound ways.

(Music up and under)

WOLF: The first organizing job I did, you'll never guess what it was, was a girl's basketball team. And I went up to the principal. "Mr. Campbell, would you furnish a basketball for girls like you do for the boys?" And he said exactly what I thought he would. "Oh, I'm sorry, my dear, but girls don't play basketball." I said, "No, of course they don't. We don't have any basketball." (Laughs) "That’s what we want, a basketball." "Well," he said, "you go away and see if you can get a couple of teams together and you come back and see me later." I said, "Okay." We came back that afternoon. Total victory.

(Laughs) Total victory.

CHRISTABEL PANKHURST: Women have not been able to bring pressure to bear upon the government, and government rules only in response to pressure. We have waited too long for political justice. We refuse to wait any longer.

STUBBART: The people in Wyoming were the first ones to give women the right to vote. And I was so proud to think that I was in Wyoming, and I knew what they were doing and they knew what they were doing. And I was so proud to be in… (Laughs)

ROSENBAUM: Women did not get suffrage in Arizona early. They could scrub the floors. They could bake the bread. They could raise the children. They could do everything else, raise the gardens, milk the cows, make the butter. But they couldn't vote. So then they got out with initiative petitions. And it went on the ballot the same year whether they would ratify Arizona's statehood. And I'm sure that every man was told that morning by his mother, his aunt, his sisters, "You vote for statehood and you vote for women's suffrage or don't come home."

(Music up and under)

WOLF: I came to Seattle in 1923, and I wanted to swim. I love the water, I used to swim in it. And I went to the woman at the desk and said, "I'd like to go swimming." "Well," she said, "this is Negro day." I said, "Oh. Can I go in?" She said, "You wouldn't want to, would you?" I said, "Sure, I want to go swimming." "Go ahead, then," she said. I said, "Hey, wait a minute, maybe they don't want me there. I'm going to check this out." I go to the swimming tank, and five or six women came over. I said, "Do you people mind if I come swimming?" "No, come on in." So then I grinned and I said, "Hey, are you colorfast? Am I going to come out all over brown spots?" (Laughs) "No." I said, "I'm colorfast, too. You won't come all over white spots."


WOLF: Nineteen-twenty-three. We've come a long way. A long way since this was Negro day.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Do you think we have?

WOLF: Well, it's more fun to believe that way.


WOLF: Yeah, it's more fun to believe that way.

(Cheering crowd)

KING: I have a dream this afternoon, that one day right here in Detroit, negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them. And they will be able to get a job.

ELLIS: When Martin Luther King came to town, we got together and had a big march, and I was in that march. I'd never seen so many people. That was a great day.

KING: In a real sense, we are through with segregation now, henceforth and forever more.

(The crowd cheers)

ELLIS: Things changed quite a bit. Yeah, they changed quite a bit, on account of civil rights.

ROSENBAUM: I think it was a good thing for those involved. Made life a little bit easier for them, I guess.

ELLIS: We're not equal yet. I don't think we'll ever be. Never be.

STUBBART: I know. We have seen it in action: everything that's needed to be accomplished has been done by a black man or a black woman, probably just as good as the white person could do… You see, you touched a tender spot with me. I hate to admit that I have one bit of prejudice, but if you are honest, you will admit it, too.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: I wasn’t any different from anybody else, unless it was sex, that's all. And that wasn't a big deal.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I should mention, not only is Ruth Ellis a woman, and a black woman, she's a lesbian. Ruth lived with her partner Babe for more than 30 years. Their home was a central meeting place for Detroit's gay black community.

ELLIS: Used to be you couldn't tell anybody you were gay. Of course, we didn't know about the word gay then. It was woman lovers. We're working hard, trying to get the law people to make us feel like real citizens, because they don't think we are. They don't want us to do this, they don't want us to do that. So I don't know why, but what I try to do, I try to bring straight people and gay people together, so straight people can see that we're no different than anybody else.

(Music up and under; fade to news broadcast)

REPORTER: ... throughout the course of this day. And right now, the protesters are winning the battle. Seattle police chief Lawrence Stamper saying that yes indeed, the protesters have succeeded in temporarily stopping the WTO conference ...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's three in the afternoon back in Hazel Wolf's hospital room. I get up the courage to ask the question I've been waiting to ask since I got here. After watching the world for 101 years, where does she think we're headed?

WOLF: I don’t know how sound this is, but it's my observation that no creature has knowingly destroyed its environment, not knowingly. And I don't think the humans will, either. We will follow the general rule of nature. They will find a way.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I called Hazel a week or so later to see how her hip was mending. "Were you the one who brought the button?" she asked. "No, I was the one with the microphone." And I went back to Joseph Hazard's house to ask him a few more questions. He didn't recognize me. And then I learned that Ollie Wells, the World War I vet who wanted so badly to tell me his story but was too weak to get the words out, died two days after my visit.

In these lives that span three centuries I must have been like a blip on the screen. But they remember what's important, and they're passing it on.

I'll have to remember this. That maybe memory isn't a choice. Maybe it chooses you, just what's needed, what there's room for.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: You don't know. You just live from day to day. Day to day. No, I never dreamed I'd be 100 years old. Unh-unh.

STUBBART: I never thought of anything else. I just accepted it as, why not? I'm here.

WOLF: You know, I really don't think I did realize that I was going to live for 101 years. I never saw anybody around me living 101 years. (Laughs)

LEVINSON: At times, I feel like a recycled teenager.

SCHAEFFER: Sometimes I feel, why? Why am I living this long? I'm not the happiest person in the world.

ELLIS: And here I am, still kicking but not high. Look like the older I get, I have a better time. (Laughs)

WOLF: Did I tell you about the postcard I got from a little girl? She said, "I hope you live 111 years, because in 111 years I'll be old enough to drink a toast to your birthday in wine."

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

CURWOOD: Thanks to our centenarians Hazel Wolf in Seattle; Ruth Ellis in Detroit; Joseph Hazard of Charlestown, Rhode Island; Polly Rosenbaum and Lenore Schaeffer in Phoenix; Ben Levinson in Los Angeles; Audrey Stubbart in Independence, Missouri; and to Ollie Wells. Thanks also to Lynn Adler and the National Centenarian Awareness Project, and to the New England Centenarian Study. Our final word goes to Hazel Wolf, who, with her unusual insight, summed up the entire century this way:

WOLF: The biggest change I've seen is in swimsuits. You'd better believe it.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week we resume our profiles of the major presidential candidates with a look at the top two Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain calls the environment the campaign sleeper issue, and Texas Governor George W. Bush says the Grand Old Party is waking up.

BUSH: I can't tell you how wrong it is for people to assume that because you've got Republican by your name you don't care about the environment. I mean, I think Republicans oftentimes have the best plans to make sure we have clean air and clean water.

CURWOOD: It's McCain and Mr. Bush next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Hanna Day-Woodruff and Kaneed Leger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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 Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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