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

March 31, 2000

Air Date: March 31, 2000


Protesting Globalization / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Activists are planning another mass protest to highlight the issues of globalization which captured public attention during protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. This time the targets are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports. (06:35)

Globalization and Agriculture

The globalization of agriculture is ruining sustainable farming in the developing world, according Dr. Vandana Shiva (VANdana SHIva), director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy. The author of “Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply” discusses how this is affecting India. (08:45)

The Real Erin Brokovich / Jon Beaupre

"Erin Brockovich," the new Julia Roberts box office hit, is based on a true story. Roberts plays a legal secretary who uncovers the contamination of a small California town's water supply by a large utility company. Jon Beaupre (BO-prey) reports. (05:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the Census and what all the numbers really mean. (01:30)

MBTE Update

Host Diane Toomey talks with environmental reporter Jane Kay of the San Francisco Examiner about the gasoline additive MTBE. News from a recent American Chemical Society meeting on dealing with the ground water contaminant is not encouraging. (05:15)

Rainwater Save Enough to Drink / Kristian Foden-Vencil

Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on a Portland couple who have just become the first city residents permitted to capture and drink their own rainwater. (04:55)

European Perspective on Environmental Issues

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) reports on how the Europeans are dealing with their environmental problems -- and how this is different from what we are doing here in the US. (05:00)

National Geographic / Alex Chadwick

NPR’s Alex Chadwick takes us aboard the schooner “Odyssey” on which scientists are looking for sperm whales and what they have to tell us about what chemicals are doing to the oceans. (08:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

CO-HOSTS: Steve Curwood, Diane Toomey
REPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Jon Beaupre, Kristian Foden-Vencil, Alex Chadwick
GUESTS: Vandana Shiva, Jane Kay, Mark Hertsgaard

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey

MAN 1: How many of you think we're going to shake the pillars of power on April 16th?

MAN 2: Yeah.

(Shouts and hollers)

CURWOOD: Go East, young protester is the cry as the anti-globalization movement heads to Washington. We preview the upcoming meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

DAWSON: There is certainly, if one thinks about what happened in Seattle, there is this sort of primal scream against globalization.

TOOMEY: Also, evoking the tactics of Gandhi. India's Vandana Shiva is crusading for independence from what she calls the agricultural colonization of her nation.

SHIVA: The technologies are becoming more life-threatening. The monopolies are even harsher. And the assault is on the very basis of life.

CURWOOD: Those stories and the real Erin Brokovich stands up, this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Protesting Globalization

TOOMEY This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood.

(Booming, amidst cheers)

CURWOOD: Seattle, Washington, December 1999. The usually sleepy negotiations of the World Trade Organization are suddenly the target of mass protests. As the media chronicled the Battle in Seattle, demonstrators succeeded in focusing attention on the influence of international corporate interests in the lives of ordinary people. But the WTO is not alone in setting the agenda of the global economy. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also play major roles. The IMF and World Bank are getting ready for their April meeting in Washington, DC. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on how all parties involved are preparing for the upcoming event.

(Milling crowd)

WOMAN: May we have your attention, please? May we have your attention, please?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: On a rainy night in Washington, almost 70 people are packed into a meeting of the Mobilization for Global Justice. Some are radical leftists. Some are members of church groups. There's a woman eating peanut butter, a man in a beret, and a monk in an orange turban. It's an eclectic group with a common goal: to draw attention to the policies of The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at their upcoming joint meeting.

MAN 1: How many of you think we're going to shake the pillars of power on April sixteenth?

MAN 2: Yeah.

(Shouts and hollers)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For these activists, The World Bank and the IMF are the twin towers of globalization. They see the organizations finance harmful development projects around the world and, along with the World Trade Organization, set economic rules which benefit transnational corporations at the expense of citizens and the environment. Soren Ambrose of the IMF World Bank watchdog group Fifty Years is Enough is helping organize a week-long series of demonstrations, which will culminate in a mass protest.

AMBROSE: The message that we're sending out in April, the message that we sent out in Seattle, is that the people who are affected by these economic rules will not accept these rules being made solely in the interests of an economic model that says that if we have profits on the high end, they will trickle down to the rest of the population.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Criticism of The World Bank and the IMF as promoters of unjust, unsustainable development isn't new. But it has gained new volume since protesters shut down the meeting of the WTO in December. And the outcry has been heard inside the walls of the two organizations.

DAWSON: There is certainly, if one thinks about what happened in Seattle, there is this sort of primal scream against globalization.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Tom Dawson is the director of external relations at the IMF. He doesn't deny there are good reasons to be skeptical of the rapid spread of the global economy. But he says institutions like the IMF can actually help ease the strain.

DAWSON: There are, certainly in the globalization process, losers. And one of the goals of governments and of institutions is to try to ease the burden on those who are, in one fashion or another, either disadvantaged or left behind by globalization. But it certainly remains our belief that development and that growth do provide much better opportunities than an approach that basically tries to turn back the clock.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The IMF and The World Bank have made nods toward their critics, but they still fund a lot of big-ticket development project, which critics say often devastate the environment and local communities. One current hot topic is World Bank support for an oil pipeline in the African countries of Chad and Cameroon. Detractors say it's a risky project in a region whose environment has already been harmed by IMF policies. And Andrea Durbin of the group Friends of the Earth says top-down projects like an oil pipeline don't help ordinary residents.

DURBIN: There are other ways of doing that, such as investing in the social sector, investing in health and education, investing in programs that are directly going to benefit the poor people in those countries. The reality of it is that the biggest beneficiary of this project will be Exxon.

GEORGIEVIA: The reality of life is, this is what these people depend on to get incomes that would allow them to get out of really desperate poverty.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kristalina Georgievia is The World Bank's environmental director. She says the pipeline will probably be built with or without World Bank money. But if the bank doesn't get involved, she says government corruption in Chad and Cameroon could lead to a total disregard for the environment. For Ms. Georgievia, the pipeline case represents a common development challenge.

GEORGIEVIA: Development is a very complex process so, of course, it is always difficult to say what is right, what is wrong. And actually from World Bank point of view, we do appreciate that we have an external audience that watches the Bank and comes hard on the Bank if we do something wrong.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ms. Georgievia is holding monthly meetings with environmental advocates. And she says her staff is developing a strategy to make environmental concerns fit better into the bank's overall mission to reduce poverty. This spirit of conciliation is also taking hold at the IMF. It's offering to engage activists in the weeks before the demonstrations. External relations director Tom Dawson hopes that might keep the streets calmer than they were in Seattle.

DAWSON: We've indicated to organizers of some of the events that if they would like to have Fund participants speak to the groups, we are happy to oblige them. Certainly to the extent that a lack of a dialogue with the WTO may have been seen as being part of the problem, we don't want to have that accusation made toward us.

(Traffic amidst bird song)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In a park across from The World Bank and IMF buildings, David Hunter of the Center for International Environmental Law isn't particularly moved by the organizations' efforts to placate environmentalists. He says The World Bank, at least, hasn't really changed.

HUNTER: At the core of the bank's lending, the projects are anti-environmental, they're anti-sustainable. There are a few peripheral, interesting projects in renewable energies or in this or in that; but at the core, the bank is still not integrating and mainstreaming environmental concerns.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Protesters will gather here in a couple of weeks. Few think that global financial institutions are going to disappear, or that the process of globalization itself can be ruled back. But many do hope that they're part of a movement that will change the priorities of the global economy. Organizers are expecting up to 10,000 people to turn out on April 16th. No one's predicting protests on the scale of Seattle, but the D.C. police aren't letting down their guard. They say they have an experienced civil disobedience unit, and they're confident they can keep this demonstration from getting out of hand. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington, D.C.

Back to top


Globalization and Agriculture

TOOMEY: In India, activists are pledging to mount a new round of civil disobedience to protest genetic engineering, environmental destruction, and other impacts of what they call the globalization of agriculture. One of this movement's leading voices belongs to Vandana Shiva. She heads the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, and her latest book is called "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. " Our interview with Ms. Shiva begins by her describing the food in her grandmother's kitchen. It was a time before the so-called Green Revolution in which, she says, science was used to increase the productivity of the world's farms in the name of progress.

SHIVA: Well, the memories I have of my grandmother's kitchen is the bathwaga saag [phonetic spelling] she would make. Bathwa [phonetic spelling] is the chenerpodium [phonetic spelling] that grows as a volunteer in our wheat fields. And till the Green Revolution came, it used to be the only so-called weed, a very useful weed, and she used to cook it in an earthen pot, all day long. And it is the most delicious saag, or green, that I have ever eaten. And I remember my grandmother cooking and talking about the food dancing -- the music in the food -- because she used to talk to the food. She used to literally have conversations with her pakoras and her parathas and her pooris.

TOOMEY: What would she say?

SHIVA: She would basically encourage them to dance more, and tell them the rhythm was wonderful, or tell them, scold them and say, "No, no, no, you didn't come out right this time."

TOOMEY: You mentioned until the Green Revolution happened. Talk to me about the effect of the Green Revolution on so-called weeds.

SHIVA: The weeds that have nourished us, that have been the greens, the sources of vitamin A, iron, growing freely in our fields, with the Green Revolution became competitors of the wheat or the rice, and had to be wiped out with herbicides. The Green Revolution in fact declared a war against biodiversity -- both in terms of plants that nourish us, like bhatwa [phonetic spelling], and in terms of the diverse species that maintain sustainable agriculture -- through pesticides.

TOOMEY: You write in your book, "The seed is not merely the source of future plants. It is the storage place of culture and history." What do you mean by that?

SHIVA: In the area which is the home of rice, called Chatesgar [phonetic spelling], the tribals have a festival called Achti [phonetic spelling]. And in that festival they all bring their rice varieties together -- hundreds of rice varieties in one village. They offer it to Creation and say we've received this diversity from you, we give it back to you, with remembrance that this is our collective heritage. When they plant the seed after that ceremony in their fields, they're not just planting a biological species. They're replanting their culture. And the fascinating thing I found in India is women never perform ceremonies with hybrid seed and introduced seed. They only use their own farmer's varieties.

TOOMEY: You tell the story of basmati rice and the patent that has been taken out on a certain variety. If you could, explain that to me.

SHIVA: Actually, the patent is not just on a certain variety of basmati rice. The patent claim says that Rice Tech, this Texas-based corporation, has made an instant invention of another rice line. Now, the basmati that they have used came from Pakistan and India, and they have just interbred it with the semi-dwarf varieties to be able to cultivate this in Texas. But in the attached claims to the patent, they say any rice with qualities similar to theirs, which means qualities of aroma which they pirated in the first place, will be treated as an infringement. Their patent claim has defined itself in such a way that even the traditional basmatis, because they have similar qualities, that will be treated as piracy of this proprietary product, which is now the private property of Rice Tech. The aroma of the basmati that evolved in my valley, Verdun [phonetic spelling], is the private property of a Texas company.

TOOMEY: So is this Texas company going to march into that valley and play crop police?

SHIVA: They would like to do that. Otherwise, they don't have to waste their time with patents. The only reason the company takes patents is so that they can exclude others from making, selling, distributing, producing the product which is patented. And that is the reason we have this huge movement in India to say we do not recognize patents on life. We do not recognize claims that plants and seeds are inventions of corporations. And we will never be reduced to being forced to pay royalties. We will not be treated as criminals for doing our duty with respect to the earth, and our ancestors and future generations.

TOOMEY: And talk to me about seed sharing and the criminalization of that.

SHIVA: Once you have a patent on seed, since a patent is an exclusive right to make, sell, produce, the moment the seed makes itself on a farmer's field, and the farmer harvests not just the crop but also the seed for the next season which is the way plants have regenerated themselves over millennia, that act of saving seed is now being redefined as a crime and as a theft. Similarly, even when farmers exchange seed with each other, it is being treated as a theft and piracy from the company.

TOOMEY: You have an organization which is actually committing civil disobedience with regard to seed-sharing.

SHIVA: Well, in 1987 I took a decision that, if this was the world the corporations wanted, then I would spend the rest of my life creating seed banks for civil disobedience so that farmers would continuously save seed and exchange seed freely. I also know that, in spite of eight years of fighting, attempts to change our national laws, introduce patents in seed, introduce breeders' rights that would exclude the farmers from being able to save seed, we have struggled on this for eight years. The corporations are desperate to change the Indian laws. We still have Parliamentary debates around this. But if tomorrow they actually institutionalized those laws, we are ready to continue to commit civil disobedience. And that is what our movement, called the bija satyagraha is about, just like Gandhi, picked up salt from Dondi [phonetic spelling] Beach and told the British that he would never obey salt laws that made salt a monopoly of the British, to generate higher revenues for their armies. Every year, on the anniversary of the salt satyagraha , we take a pledge across thousands of villages that we will never obey laws that treat seed saving and seed exchange as a crime.

TOOMEY: When you speak in those terms, you really do make this issue sound as critical as the issue of independence that Gandhi was dealing with.

SHIVA: It's even more critical than the period in which Gandhi lived, because after all, what they had taken control of was clothing, and therefore Gandhi created a movement for independence around the spinning wheel, around our spinning our own cloth. Today, what agribusiness and the biotechnology industry is trying to control is not just our clothing, but our food and our biodiversity, the very basis of life. It is more critical, because the technologies are becoming more life-threatening. The monopolies are even harsher. And the assault is on the very basis of life. Because it's a deeper level of attack, this freedom movement, for freedom of different species to stay alive, freedom of biodiversity to flourish, freedom of small farmers to be able to save their seeds and be economically viable and grow food, freedom of consumers, for consumers to have good, accessible, low-cost food according to their cultural priorities, these many freedoms are what seed saving has become.

TOOMEY: Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resources. Her new book is called "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply." Thank you for talking to me today.

SHIVA: Thank you to you.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Fighting pollution, and winning. The true story of Erin Brokovich, as told by Hollywood. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The Real Erin Brokovich

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The poison water saga of the little town of Hinckley, California, is now a movie box office hit for actress Julia Roberts. In "Erin Brokovich," Ms. Roberts portrays a legal secretary who uncovers how the Pacific Gas and Electric Company contaminated the town's water supply. The utility later settled with 650 Hinckley residents for a record $330 million. Jon Beaupre visited Hinckley and reports on the story's legacy.

BEAUPRE: In Hinckley, California, the khaki-colored Mojave Desert has given way to verdant, lush pastures of alfalfa and hay. What has made this land so successful is not only the tenacity of local families, but also a valuable, politicized commodity: water.

(Water sprinklers)

BEAUPRE: When it was discovered that PG&E had fouled the groundwater with an industrial pollutant known as hexavalent chromium in the early 90s, local citizens were up in arms. Denise Gonzalez has lived in Hinckley almost a decade. She believes "Erin Brokovich" the film will make small communities more aware of their vulnerability.

GONZALEZ: There's a lot of dumping and uncaring for people around them, and along things by a lot of the big companies, and I think a lot of people are concerned about that. Now it's kind of brought it out into the open. And maybe some other issues, you know, that other people have talked about over the years, that maybe haven't gotten to the national forefront or even to a state forefront, now maybe will be coming out.

BEAUPRE: The real-life legal secretary Erin Brokovich did the leg work that linked the dirty water to illnesses in the community, a connection that locals hadn't noticed.

BROKOVICH: Think about it. In your own neighborhood you have a bout of rashes or nose bleeds or gastrointestinal problems or a bunch of breast cysts coming and going. You don't go knock on your neighbor's door and ask them if they have the same problem. We tend to be private about stuff like that. So unbeknownst to them, this was going on and they just thought that that was their lot in life, to be sick.

BEAUPRE: In the face of a giant utility like PG&E, it seemed that these people who suffered from a wide range of illnesses would never get help. Brokovich's boss, Ed Masrey, gives considerable credit to San Fernandino County Superior Court Judge Leroy Simmons, who plays himself in the film.

MASREY: [phonetic spelling] He's a no-nonsense type of judge. And none of this documentation ever talked about hexavalent or chromium-6. It talked about chromium, the good chromium, the vitamin supplement. And I think he was really incensed at that, because not only did they poison the people, they told them it was good for them.

BEAUPRE: PG&E realized the tide was turning against them and agreed to a landmark out-of-court settlement. But some experts feel that the deal was won more in the court of public opinion than due to hard science. Dr. Harvey Gonick [phonetic spelling] is a toxicologist at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He says that only some of the symptoms discovered there, like skin rashes and lung cancer, are typical for this kind of poisoning.

GONICK: [phonetic spelling] As far as I know, no other cancer has been reported to be associated with hexavalent chromium and I think there was somebody with leukemia in that picture. I don't think that that's been reported with hexavalent chromium. There were a number of points that were being stretched well beyond the limits of what is an acceptable scientific relationship.

BEAUPRE: Besides hexavalent chromium and water, the other commodity that drove this case was paper. Blizzards of it. There were hundreds of motions, appeals, depositions, and medical histories. The evidence that ultimately turned the case were records from PG&E's own files. In this scene from the film, Erin Brokovich, played by Julia Roberts, with a baby on her lap, uses some of the papers she has found to better her position with her boss, Ed Masrey, portrayed by Albert Finney.

FINNEY: There, that document you found at the Water Board, the one that says about the bad chromium? You didn't happen to make a copy, did you?

ROBERTS: Of course I did.

FINNEY: Could I have a look at it?

ROBERTS: I want a raise. And benefits, including dental.

FINNEY: Erin, this isn't the way I do business.

ROBERTS: What way is that?

FINNEY: Extortion.

(The baby laughs)

FINNEY: Okay, a five percent raise. We'll talk about benefits later.

BEAUPRE: A spokesman for PG&E says he enjoyed the film as a work of fiction, but declined to comment further on the movie or the case. Whether Hollywood has exaggerated reality or not, the message of the film is one of perseverance and faith. Erin Brokovich recently received a call from a woman in another California community asking for advice on how to handle a big corporate polluter.

BROKOVICH: I told her, I said don't ever stop believing. Keep looking for documents. Keep following your leads. Keep listening to your gut. Sometimes that's the only thing we have to go by, and I believe that. And by gosh, she called me about six months ago, and she'd done exactly what I told her and she turned up something that's going to turn the whole thing around. I'm very proud of her. And I believe in every toxic case or every case you have there is an individual that has that sense of what's right or wrong. And if they just keep with it and follow it and believe it, I think eventually they'll overturn something. And they might get to see some justice.

(Train whistles)

BEAUPRE: This tiny community has gotten its few minutes of fame, which may fade as quickly as the whistle of the train that cuts through town, heading west toward Bakersfield. But their story will stand as an inspiration to others, that sometimes you can take on big polluters and win. For Living on Earth, I'm Jon Beaupre in Hinckley, California.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And 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 reporting on science and the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

TOOMEY: Just ahead: The latest on MTBE, the gasoline additive that's going to be hard to subtract from the environment. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: George Gershwin Prelude)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

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

(Music up and under: Leroy Anderson)

The Living on Earth Almanac

TOOMEY: One, two, three, four . . .

CURWOOD: In 1790, George Washington sent the first federal census-takers across the new nation with orders to, quote, "enumerate every individual." The Constitution mandates a population count every ten years to apportion Congressional seats, but today's Census, which is now officially underway, has become more than a simple head count. It's a statistical snapshot of the nation, telling us such things as how many Americans live alone, take public transportation to work, and heat their homes with oil. The data is used to assess and plan federal programs. For example, Census data can inform efforts to reduce traffic congestion and forecast fuel needs. Each year, 185 billion federal dollars are awarded to local communities, based on the Census results. That works out to $673.95 for every American living in the USA at the moment. And that certainly counts for something.

TOOMEY: Two hundred seventy-four million four hundred seventy-six thousand six hundred fifty-two. Two hundred seventy-four million four hundred seventy-six thousand six hundred fifty-three. Whoo!

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

Back to top

(Music up and under)

MBTE Update

TOOMEY: For years, the chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether has been added to gasoline to make it burn cleaner. The Clean Air Act mandates that gas additives, like MTBE, be used in areas with heavy air pollution. MTBE was meant to reduce air pollution, but it turns out to be dangerous to groundwater. Even small leaks can quickly contaminate wells, and that's exactly what happened in many places around the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to eliminate MTBE from gas, but even an immediate ban won't solve the problem, since there's no efficient way to clean up all the MTBE already underground. Jane Kay, a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner, just attended a meeting of the American Chemical Society, where dozens of studies on MTBE were presented. She says the results are discouraging.

KAY: They had confirmation of what they already suspected, that MTBE is very, very widespread in the nation's wells. There is no effective way to clean it up. The EPA has completed no human health studies on MTBE. And if the Agency did want to put a primary drinking water standard in effect, it would take six years to do so. So, the news was most dismal all around.

TOOMEY: So how do we clean this all up?

KAY: Scientists are using Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California as an experiment plot, and they've put almost sheets of plastic tubing in the ground and oxygen is put through the tubing, and it diffuses into the groundwater. And the bugs, the bacteria that kind of eat up the MTBE, are attracted to that oxygen. And that's one way of cleaning it up. Another way, used at south Lake Tahoe, which has 15 wells down because of MTBE, is just the conventional way of running it through carbon filter and treating it that way.

TOOMEY: Who gets to pay for all this cleanup?

KAY: Well, the EPA is saying it's not our fault. We wanted you to use an additive, but we didn't tell you to use MTBE. So we didn't make you use it. And the gas stations and some of the oil companies are saying we never wanted to use an additive. We were following your rules. We put this fuel underground. That's from where it leaked. Some of the environmentalists are saying the oil companies really wanted MTBE and they have to take responsibility for its moving in the groundwater. That issue has not been resolved. We know that there will be a great deal of loss in terms of natural resource, in terms of drinking water, and I think that's the greatest worry right now, rather than the money.

TOOMEY: So now that ethanol is poised to become the replacement for MTBE, Jane, I'm wondering is it possible that we're headed toward a similar problem down the road? Are we operating in the dark about ethanol, the way we were about MTBE years ago?

KAY: Well, you know, ethanol is an alcohol, which is made of corn and rice and other organic matter. And so there have been many health studies on alcohol, and alcohol is a carcinogen, and it is a reproductive toxin. But of course, that's, you know, the level of a martini. And of course the scientists like to joke that if it gets in the groundwater, all you have to do is add olives to it. But there has been no human health, ill human health effect, in ethanol diluted to the proportion that it would be if it leaked in the groundwater. But yes, scientists, when they were presenting their papers, did caution that there needs to be more studies about ethanol, and there shouldn't be just a cavalier switch-over. The environmentalists are divided on the matter. Some are happy because they want renewable fuels, and some environmentalists are backing California's position.

TOOMEY: And what is California's position?

KAY: California has said that it needs no additive, either MTBE or ethanol, to manufacture a clean-burning gas that can meet EPA's standards under the Clean Air Act. If it works for California, it could work for other parts of the country, and this would become a model.

TOOMEY: Jane Kay is an environmental reporter with the San Francisco Examiner.

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Rainwater Save Enough to Drink

CURWOOD: The MTBE problem drives home the point that clean water is indeed a precious resource. In many places where water is scarce, people are encouraged to capture rainwater and sanitize it for drinking. But in the soggy Pacific Northwest state of Oregon, rain collection has been slow to catch on. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on a Portland couple who have just become the first city residents permitted to capture and drink their own rainwater.

(A toilet flushes)

FODEN-VENCIL: It can take 10 gallons of water to flush a toilet, 70 gallons to wash a load of laundry. And that's all water which isn't in the streams for fish -- water that's kept behind a dam for storage, then cleaned, chlorinated, and piped into homes. In fact, the whole water delivery network is quite a complicated system for something that, after all, lands on our roofs. Ole Urson [phonetic spelling], a Portland family doctor, thought so.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Everybody knows now we're facing major environmental crises in modern society. And we have to make some changes.

FODEN-VENCIL: The rain collects on his gable roof, then it’s funneled through gutters to a large tank. It settles there until it's about to be used. Then it's drawn into the basement where Urson [phonetic spelling] has built a mini-water purifying system.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] This uses off-the-shelf components that you can get at almost any hardware or home improvement store.

FODEN-VENCIL: You've got a Jacuzzi pump there.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Right, right. That's just a half-horsepower pump that is used in millions of homes in America. The only component that's fairly unique is this ultraviolet sterilizer.

FODEN-VENCIL: The water is run past the ultraviolet light, which neutralizes any bacteria. After that, it runs directly to the home faucets.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] I really love the rain, especially for showing.

FODEN-VENCIL: Maitre Urson [phonetic spelling] is Ole's wife.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] It's really good for the hair.

FODEN-VENCIL: Explain that.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Well, it's very soft. And I don't even use any more conditioners, so with the rain I cut down on step. I think I like the rain better because sometimes the city water, you could actually smell the chlorine. It's just dead water. Rainwater is very, you know, it's always fresh, so straight from the sky into your, you know, kitchen.

FODEN-VENCIL: But rainwater isn't always as fresh as you may think. In heavily-polluted areas, it can absorb all kinds of chemicals and acids as it falls through the atmosphere. There can also be a problem with indoor pipes. Rainwater's like a sponge, ready to soak up any lead or copper. Home purification has other problems, too. Russell Smith is with the Department of Health in Ohio, where rain collectors are more common. He says anyone who doesn't keep a very close eye on maintaining their system risks serious illness.

SMITH: There can be just about any microorganism that's out there. Crypto-sporidium [phonetic spelling] or giardia or different bacteria, E-coli, viruses. There can be a lot of microorganisms that can basically congregate in a cistern.

FODEN-VENCIL: In Portland, Urson [phonetic spelling] has been told to test his water twice a year, and change the filters regularly. In fact, complex maintenance schedules are the reason Portland city isn't leafleting people to follow Urson's [phonetic spelling] example. Dick Gasman [phonetic spelling], a Portland city building manager, says the official position is that they're neither encouraging nor discouraging people from drinking the rain.

GASMAN: [phonetic spelling] My personal position is, in looking at it, it just looked kind of complicated. You know, I wouldn't want to do it. It's just a whole lot easier just to turn the water on.

FODEN-VENCIL: That kind of attitude is surprising, especially as the city of Portland spends millions of dollars to keep rainwater out of the sewage system. The trouble is, every time it rains heavily here, water overloads the pipes, sending raw sewage directly into the Willamette River.

(Traffic and sirens)

FODEN-VENCIL: Standing next to one of those sewage discharge pipes in downtown Portland, Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates says it's not a good system for the endangered salmon that call the Willamette home.

BELL: I think that this issue does represent one of those sort of environmental issues where you have two competing needs. And one is to get the rainwater out of the sewage system, and then the other is to try and make sure that people stay healthy.

FODEN-VENCIL: She thinks the city ought to encourage people to collect rainwater, not necessarily for drinking, but for things like gardening, showering, and toilets.

(Shower water runs, a toilet flushes)

FODEN-VENCIL: Back at the Ursons' [phonetic spelling] home, they think the dangers of running their own mini-purification plant are overblown. They'll keep drinking and showering in their own rainwater, and hope others will follow suit. For Living on Earth, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.

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(Music up and under: "You and me and rain on the roof, caught up in a summer shower. Drying while it soaks the flowers. Maybe we'll be caught for hours, waiting out the sun...")

TOOMEY: Coming up: We go continental for the latest in European environmental trends. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Gershwin's An American in Paris)

European Perspective on Environmental Issues

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europeans must contend with many of the same environmental problems that we have to deal with here in the U.S.: weather-related disasters, traffic congestion, pollution and the like. But often, the European approach to tackling these chronic problems is different from our own. Our political observer, Mark Hertsgaard, is just back from a trip to Europe, and he says there may be some lessons for us over there. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: So, Mark, what really stood out to you from your trip?

HERTSGAARD: Well, I learned a lot of things. But I must say, the most striking image I will carry back with me for a very long time is all the trees that had been knocked down in Paris. I went to the biggest park in the city, the Bois du Boulogne, and this terrible wind storm that came through after Christmas knocked over 200 million trees across all of France, with these 140 mile-an-hour winds. And there, in Paris's biggest park, I would imagine probably two out of every three trees, as you walk through that park, have been blown over to the ground. And these are big, sizeable, mature trees. It was very sad to see, and it was a real symbol of the kinds of changes that we can expect with global warming. And I must say that the wind storm really got the attention of the French people and the French government.

CURWOOD: So they're not laissez-faire about the question of climate change any more.

HERTSGAARD: No. In fact, the government came out with a plan, now, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol by 10percent over 1990 levels by the year 2010 -- and even doing something that would be unheard of here in the United States, which is to tax energy consumption.

CURWOOD: What about the rest of Europe? What did you notice that was so different from what we're doing here?

HERTSGAARD: I went to a conference in Hanover, Germany, on sustainable towns and cities. And there were 2,000 very high-level officials from government, business, activist circles, from all over Europe. At least half of them, very encouragingly, came from Eastern Europe.

CURWOOD: So, what are some of the policy solutions to those urban problems that everyone seems to face: development, green space, traffic congestion, pollution?

HERTSGAARD: Well, I spent most of the time following the discussion about transportation and cars. And I was very struck there, first of all, that they are talking about taking on that problem quite directly. Here in the United States, because we're so addicted to cars, it's hard for us to talk about that. And yet the Europeans had very direct and yet, I thought, substantive conversation about what do we do. Well, it's not just the car, it's also how do we zone our cities? How do we change land use policies so that we can encourage, for example, dense development downtown, keep our city cores vibrant and alive, and avoid suburban sprawl? Let's not build the highways out there, let's strengthen our existing mass transit systems -- a real, integrated approach, and that was very encouraging to see. These are the kinds of things that are going to be bearing fruit over five, ten years from now. More immediately, what the average citizen is going to notice, I think, are these car-free days that many cities throughout Europe are beginning to have. In Italy, for example, 150 cities held a car-free Sunday in February, and that's going to be continuing throughout the summer. And all of Europe is planning a continent-wide car-free day this fall, on September 22nd, where people will have to leave their cars at home, and the only transportation around the city will be either mass transit or bicycles or on foot.

CURWOOD: But just one day? What kind of effect do you think this has on air pollution?

HERTSGAARD: Not much of an effect on air pollution. In fact, the organizers are very clear about that. I talked to the guys, for example, in Rome, who are planning that program. And they say, we're really not trying to deal with pollution right away on this. We are trying to change public consciousness about the car, to remind people of what their cities looked like before cars took them over. What do they sound like? What do they smell like? How do you as a pedestrian experience them? As a citizen, how do you experience them? And that there are real benefits to being without cars, and that you don't necessarily need a car. So that's really what they're trying to do, is to change the public consciousness about this, and therefore build support for the bigger structural changes that are going to be needed down the road.

CURWOOD: And talking about cars, the Europeans have done something else recently that has American businesses kind of uneasy, and that is a ruling from the European Environmental Commission that by the year 2006 all car manufacturers will have to take back cars at the end of their useful lives for recycling. So what do you think that means for Europe, and what could it mean for us here in the U.S.?

HERTSGAARD: It's a major development in terms of economic planning. If you've got car manufacturers knowing at the front end, we're going to have to take this heap of metal back when its useful life is done, they're going to produce it differently to start with. They're going to produce it with materials that can be recycled much more easily. You know, and one of the things it's going to mean for Europe is a lot less toxic waste. Cars are polluting vehicles, but they also cause a lot of environmental problems when they are disposed of. That is now going to change. And I must say, there's a difference here. The European manufacturers, especially the Germans, they're not crazy about this but they go along with it. They know that it's the future. The Americans, on the other hand, are still, let's face it, way back in the Dark Ages on this. It's going to be harder for them to get ready for this. They could face a competitive disadvantage starting in 2006, but you know, the train has left the station. If they want to sell into Europe now, they've got to do this.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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National Geographic

TOOMEY: Before conservation laws ended most whaling, great fleets hunted the creatures for meat, oil, and bone. Today, a scientific schooner is off on a three-year, around the world voyage. Its crew is looking for sperm whales, and what they may tell us about chemicals that have some scientists worried, even frightened, about the health of the seas. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick reports from on board a ship called the Odyssey.

(Boat engines)

CHADWICK: A shake-down cuise out of Baja, Mexico, four months ago in the Sea of Cortez. In the morning, we can already see whales from the deck.

JONES: We're looking right now at probably five whales here. There are three clusters close by the boat.

CHADWICK: There are vast schools of squid in these depths, and in whale terms, squid means something like gobs of free ice cream.

JONES: At ten o'clock there is one cluster of two animals, looks like a big animal and a small animal. And that's 250 meters away.

CHADWICK: The Odyssey's first mate and chief science officer, Josh Jones.

JONES: What it is, there are seven more on the surface on the other side, so we have the luxury of being surrounded by whales.

(Water lapping against the boat)

CHADWICK: They're sperm whales. Not the biggest of their kind, but some are more than 50 feet. Josh sidles out a very long aluminum spar, jutting off from the bow. It ends in a small platform a couple of yards above the water. Here he settles, and uses a walkie-talkie to guide the pilot of the Odyssey to get a whale in range.

(Voices on radio)

CHADWICK: He carries a crossbow and a harmless sampling dart. It will bounce off the whale, a plug of tissue stuck in its hollow tip. It's an unexpectedly delicate maneuver, closing a large boat on a large animal without scaring it. And you’d think it wouldn't take much to hit a whale with a dart gun at 50 feet or so. But I'm glad I'm not taking this shot. Listen for the bow to snap.

(Ringing, a snap)

JONES: Good job.

CHADWICK: You got him?

JONES: I think we got a good sample on that one.

(Water against the boat)

CHADWICK: The bit of skin and fat they'll get from the floating dart is no bigger than a pencil's eraser, but it can reveal a lot. The Odyssey belongs to a conservation group, Ocean Alliance, led by while scientist Dr. Roger Payne.

PAYNE: We're collecting data on the background concentrations of stuff in the sea, particularly synthetic pollutants.

CHADWICK: He is looking for what he calls immortal poisons: dioxins, PCBs, and other chemical compounds that last a long, long time. They get used in agriculture and industry and eventually they drain or get dumped into the ocean, because that's where a lot of stuff ends up. But how much and where, who knows?

PAYNE: It's just absolutely incredible that we could have been dumping into the ocean for 50 years a series of compounds which have devastating effects on living systems, and still have made no effort, up until now, to find out what the overall picture is.

CHADWICK: Scientists disagree about the full effects of these compounds, but they are known to accumulate in the fats of animals that eat them. And the government limits them in the fish we eat to minute amounts.

PAYNE: Because they're synthetic compounds that have never existed in nature before, and therefore there are no mechanisms built into animals to get rid of them. So they concentrate them, and just hang onto them.

CHADWICK: Roger Payne thinks these compounds are extremely dangerous. With help from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he will try to use whale tissue samples to establish baseline data, a map of these pollutants in the world's oceans as we begin this century. We talked in the stern of the Odyssey with a canvas shroud hung to make a shadow from the sun. A sperm whale, hanging at the surface of the calm, flat sea a mile away, was slapping the water with its tail like a bass drum metronome.

(Distant, deep slaps)

PAYNE: Exactly right. It is a mile, because I counted five second. Now if you were in the water you'd hear it after one second.

(Another slap)

CHADWICK: The study focuses on whales for two reasons, Dr. Payne said. First, the chemical compounds settle in fats, and whales have more fat than any other animal on Earth. And, people care about whales.

PAYNE: They also are very charismatic. People are interested in whales. So maybe we can get the world interested in this problem of toxic stuff in the sea and getting into fish and getting into humans. And very soon, I suspect, some species of fish, in fact some of the ones we like to eat most, will become so polluted you can't eat them any more.

CHADWICK: Research partners at Cambridge University and Cornell are taking genetic data from the whales and making audio recordings for bio-acoustic studies. This is what they sound like.


CHADWICK: It's not very interesting, is it? Sperm whales seem to use sound simply as a kind of radar. They send out a series of clicks to bounce back images of what's around them. The whales to listen to are humpbacks.

(Whale songs)

CHADWICK: That's a recording we made a couple of years ago in Hawaii. But if you're heard them before, it's probably from an album that came out in the 70s: "Songs of the Humpback Whale."

(Whale songs continue)

CHADWICK: The album was put together from Roger Payne's field tapes. He is a co-discoverer of whale song. He's the one who told the world about them.

PAYNE: I think that they are irresistible. And I think when people finally heard them, they suddenly realized there was some presence in the sea that was worth their attention, and they fell in love with them.

CHADWICK: And that's who's leading the Ocean Alliance study of whales. The Alliance is still fundraising, but has already launched the first toxicology study ever planned to track one ocean species around the world over a period of years. Hundreds of tissue samples are at Woods Hole and other sites already. The first data from the studies should be available in a few months. They'll put regular expedition reports on their Web site, oceanalliance.org.

(Boat engines)

JONES: Okay, keep your eyes peeled somewhere directly ahead.

CHADWICK: One morning, Josh took us out in the dinghy. We wanted to record a passing whale, and the dinghy was much easier to maneuver.

JONES: You find a group and watch them for a while, and put the boat sort of in front of them and cut the motor, and let them come to us. That works far better.

CHADWICK: It did work more easily than I expected. The whales swim at the surface, where they loll along, breathing easily. And they travel in a straight line. All you do is get in front and wait, quietly.

(A blowhole)

CHADWICK: But the thought does occur: sitting here, this dinghy is pickup size, and the whale bearing down on us is more like a city bus. It's going to pass within a few feet, or maybe closer. But probably it doesn't want to bump its head any more than I want it to.


CHADWICK: It comes on at majestic speed, a long, low, black oval in the water, tail beating powerfully just beneath the surface, leaving barely any wake.

JONES: Here comes a fluke.

CHADWICK: And then, very close, with no change in speed or direction, the whale raises its massive head from the water. I think I can see it looking back at me, but I know I hear it, the steady toc-toc-toc of whale radar pinging us.

(Pinging sounds)

CHADWICK: Then, satisfied, or simply uninterested, the great creature settles back into the Sea of Cortez, and slowly disappears into the horizon.

(Water splashes)

CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

TOOMEY: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Our story on the Odyssey was produced by Carolyn Jensen and engineered by Marcia Caldwell.

Back to top

(Whale songs up and under)

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

CURWOOD: Next week, the popularity of extreme sports has ski resort owners saying they're stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to accommodate the new crowds and softening the environmental impacts of expansion.

WOMAN: It's ironic, because the same person who views themself as an environmentalist and who really appreciates the natural beauty that surrounds them when they're skiing, will be the same person who will want a faster lift, will want some new terrain to conquer.

TOOMEY: It's the slippery slope of ski expansion, next week on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, Barbara Cone, and an unnamed punster. We had help this week from Hannah Day-Woodruff, Stephen Belter and Emile Sadigh. Michael Aharon composed the theme.

TOOMEY: Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Peter Thomson is special projects editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Whale songs up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health; www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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