Animals Gone Wild
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Recent studies suggest that more might be learned in the wild than in the lab about how chemicals can scramble hormone signals in animals. Researchers typically look at development and physiological changes in lab animals to set safety standards for human exposure to these chemicals. But a growing number of researchers say these methods ignore the subtle consequences these chemicals have on animal behavior. Host Steve Curwood talks with Prof. Ethan Clotfelter, who teaches biology at Amherst College, about the implications of the studies, one of which he co-authored. (05:20)
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Around the nation aging nuclear power plants are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow them to produce more power then they were licensed for. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is one of them, and as nearby residents wait for the commission’s decision, there’s a controversy over whether the plant can handle the increased load. Reporter Eesha Williams, of the Valley Advocate newspaper in Western Massachusetts, spoke to Steve Curwood about the issue. (06:40)
The Plight of the Kalahari Bushmen
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The Bushmen of the Kalahari are being squeezed off their ancestral lands to make room for industries like diamond mining and cattle ranching. So, they’ve filed a lawsuit against the government to get their land back. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Rupert Isaacson author of The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert who’s helping to lead the effort. Joining them are two Bushmen, Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone. (16:40)
Emerging Science Note/Self-Sustaining Robot/ Eileen Bolinsky
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Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports on the EcoBots, a new design of robots that create their own energy by eating flies. (01:20)
California Air/ Ingrid Lobet
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California is moving to counter climate change, by requiring new controls on cars in five years. Detroit is up in arms and says it’s a federal, not a state issue. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet takes a look at where greenhouse gases fit into California’s 50 year fight against air pollution. (15:00)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Ethan Clotfelter, Jumanda Gakelebone, Rupert Isaacson, Roy SesanaREPORTER: Ingrid LobetNOTE: Eileen Bolinsky
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. With the federal government opposed to mandatory limits on global warming gasses, California is taking matters into its own hands, much to the chagrin of automakers.
GARCIA: California is looking at implementing regulations to control greenhouse gasses from automobiles. Technically what that means is controlling the fuel economy. The concern that we have is whether California or any other state were to do that on a state by state basis.
CURWOOD: As the state pushes its anti-climate change measure, some predict a fight in court. But others say California has already accomplished its mission.
EDGERTON: What they’ve done is they’ve got a blueprint for how we could, as a nation, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Well, that’s pretty terrific.
CURWOOD: Keeping it cool in California, this week on Living on Earth. Also, new evidence that synthetic chemicals are changing the way animals behave in the wild. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
For years, research has linked pollution from industrial and agricultural chemicals to physical abnormalities in animals. The chemicals are thought to scramble the ability to send and process hormones and other neuro-chemical signals that control growth and physiology. For example, alligators living in a Florida lake contaminated with pesticides have been found to have grossly malformed sex organs.
Now, there’s evidence linking these so-called endocrine disrupting chemicals to increased abnormalities in animal behavior. These phenomena are harder to observe than physical deformities, but they could be warning signs of population crashes for many species. Ethan Clotfelter of Amherst College co-authored an article in the journal Animal Behavior that details what scientists have so far been able to piece together about how chemical pollutants can change the way animals act.
Professor Clotfelter, just what are you seeing?
CLOTFELTER: Oh, there’s a whole list of kinds of behavioral changes that we’re seeing. Everything from really gross anatomical impairments – animals that can’t really stand up straight or can’t move in a coordinated way to much more complex social interactions. Courtship behaviors is a common one, but even things like being able to adequately construct a nest, in the case of birds, or really complicated cognitive functions. So in primates and rats, being able to solve a maze or solve some sort of a cognitive task really seems to be impaired by these chemicals. So really it’s a whole range of kinds of behaviors. Pretty much everything you can think of that animals do in some way has been affected.
CURWOOD: How might long-term exposure to these substances affect entire populations of animals, do you think?
CLOTFELTER: Well, the case of DDT in the 1970s is sort of the classic one that we all keep in the back of our minds as we’re thinking about these things. Where birds such as osprey, bald eagles and such began to experience massive population declines because of exposure to DDT. We certainly are mindful that long-term – even subtle changes in behavior – might have similar large-scale effects again, ultimately resulting in population declines or perhaps even extinctions in small areas.
CURWOOD: Now, as you studied these groups of animals who’ve been exposed to chemicals that disrupt hormone functions, what do you think the implications are for us as humans – human health from all of this?
CLOTFELTER: Well, I think it’s a pretty significant question, and I think it’s one that deserves a lot more attention. There are several very intriguing and very scary studies that have linked exposure to possible chemicals to changes in the way that children play. There was a really frightening study of schoolchildren in parts of Mexico where one population was heavily exposed to pesticides and the other wasn’t. And they found pretty marked differences in everything from just how coordinated these children were, to their ability to draw specific items, to how well they could pay attention. So certainly a lot of behavioral problems in children could conceivably be linked to exposure to these chemicals.
CURWOOD: Typically when you look at chemicals being dangerous, being toxic, the more of something is usually considered the more toxic. But in this area of research it seems that you and your colleagues are looking at situations where a low dose of some chemical might in fact be worse than a higher dose. How true is that? And how do you explain that?
CLOTFELTER: Well, I think how true it is is really a very hard question to answer, because there’s certainly some people who have done a significant amount of work showing that this phenomena of these non-linear types of responses are quite common. And some estimates may be as high as 40 percent of the chemicals tested actually have shown higher effects at small doses than at intermediate doses. So there certainly are some suggestions that it’s a fairly widespread phenomenon.
But a lot of people have resisted that idea. Certainly because the field of toxicology is largely based on this assumption that, you know, that the dose makes the poison. And so as you add more, then you have more of an effect. If a substantial number of chemicals in a substantial number of animals, including humans, have this sort of non-linear effect, then I think we have a much, much greater problem because all of our regulatory decisions from agencies like the EPA are based on this assumption that lower is better.
And so there have been a few studies by my colleagues that have shown that, at what are considered environmentally-acceptable doses of chemicals, that you see real behavioral and physiological effects in animals. So certainly that opens up a whole slew of questions about whether or not we’ve been missing all this, and that at these low doses there’s actually worse things that could happen.
CURWOOD: Ethan Clotfelter teaches biology at Amherst College. Thank you so much for taking this time with us today.
CLOTFELTER: Okay great, thanks for having me.
[MUSIC: Jon Anderson “Concerto Uno” EARTH MOTHER EARTH (Ellipsis Arts –1997)]
CURWOOD: The owners of 90 nuclear power plants across the United States are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to increase the amount of power their plants can generate. The move would also boost their profits.
Vermont Yankee (Photo: Eesha Williams)
Joining me now is Eesha Williams who covers the nuclear power industry – and Vermont Yankee - for the Valley Advocate newspaper in western Massachusetts. Using Vermont Yankee as a starting point, he’s here to talk about the controversy over this latest trend in the nuclear power business. Hello, Eesha. Thanks for joining me.
WILLIAMS: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
CURWOOD: Why is Entergy seeking to increase the power there?
WILLIAMS: They will generate 20 percent more power. They can sell that, make 20 percent more profits without major investments in the plant. They’re in business to make money and they see this as a good way to do it.
CURWOOD: So how well has the plant performed? I mean, how reliable is it? And what kind of problems has it had?
WILLIAMS: Vermont Yankee, by and large, has been a very reliable source of energy. It’s only in recent years, as the plant has aged, that it’s had a few problems. This year, cracks were discovered in a critical component at the plant. Actually, 20 cracks. There was a fire in a non-radioactive part of the plant that required the plant to be shut down for almost three weeks.
CURWOOD: What about the question of compromising safety by increasing the power output? The companies – what do they tell you is the margin of safety that’ll happen even if this plant were to go up by 20 percent in power generation. They must be presenting convincing evidence to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they can do that safely. What is that evidence?
WILLIAMS: Well, Steve, that’s an excellent question, and to be perfectly honest, it does increase risk. There is an increase. You run this power plant 20 percent harder, hotter, faster than its ever been run before at a time when it’s developing cracks, it’s over 30 years old. It’s been running 24 hours a day almost seven days a week for 32 years. This does increase risk.
What is Entergy’s say? They say this plant was over-designed when it was designed back in 1967, the engineers incorporated extra protections – just like when they build a bridge, they design it for the worst possible hurricane times ten. Vermont Yankee was built to withstand more than the worst possible accident that could happen. But ultimately, the safety margins are reduced.
The federal government has estimated that 7,000 people would die within a year of a serious accident at Vermont Yankee. And, in fact, just early September this year, Vermont, for the first time of any state in the country – any one of the so-called uprates, or power increases – the state of Vermont has intervened, has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the right to have a hearing to express its concerns about just this issue, about safety.
CURWOOD: Now what’s the public response been to Entergy’s request to increase the power at Vermont Yankee?
WILLIAMS: Well there’s only been one hearing so far in the area around Vermont Yankee. The town is called Vernon, a town of about 2,000, where Vermont Yankee is based. And the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent of a group of high-ranking officials from its headquarters in Washington to come out to Vernon. And they held the hearing at the elementary school, which is right across the street from the nuclear power plant, and I think they were surprised. I think it’s fair to say they were surprised by the turnout. Over 500 people turned out. I was at the hearing. It lasted far beyond when it was supposed to end – it started at seven o’clock at night and went I think about till midnight. And I think it’s fair to say that 99 percent of the speakers were adamantly opposed to the uprate, to the power increase at Vermont Yankee.
CURWOOD: And why did they say they were opposed?
WILLIAMS: People are concerned about the waste. There was never a deal between Vermont Yankee’s owners and the people in the towns around it that there’d be a permanent nuclear waste dump in their town for 10,000 years. They were given assurances that this waste would be shipped to Nevada to the desert to be buried under Yucca Mountain. And now that is very much in doubt. In fact, John Kerry has said that if he’s elected he will not let Yucca Mountain open.
CURWOOD: So where will Vermont Yankee’s waste go, if not to Yucca Mountain?
WILLIAMS: Vermont Yankee’s waste – 500 tons – is now sitting in what they call a spent fuel pool. It’s like a giant swimming pool, it’s 40 feet deep and it’s seven stories high, in this tall building on the side of the Connecticut River. That pool has been what they call “re-racked.” Basically they’ve re-arranged it so they can fit more waste in it than it was intended to hold. The way that pool works is that – and the reason nuclear power plants are always by a large body of water, a river, an ocean – is that they need huge amounts of water. Tens of thousands of gallons every hour to cool down this waste. If that water ever stops flowing around that waste a nuclear fire would take place, and that would cause terrible consequences.
CURWOOD: So, what does the Nuclear Regulatory Commission look at when it considers whether or not a power plant, a nuclear power plant, can increase its power?
WILLIAMS: Well, that’s a good question, and that’s much in the news these days. Maine Yankee, which was another nuclear power plant similar to Vermont Yankee – that was closed in 1997 following an investigation, an independent safety assessment which was demanded by the public, by the communities around the plant and by then-governor Angus King of Maine. And due to this real rigorous public pressure the NRC appointed independent observers and conducted a very rigorous inspection. Thousands of hours of engineers were crawling over this plant. They found so many safety problems at Maine Yankee that the owners found it cheaper to just close the plant than to fix all the problems. Now with Vermont Yankee, critics say the NRC is being much less rigorous.
CURWOOD: So what do you think the odds are that the NRC is going to approve a power increase for Vermont Yankee?
WILLIAMS: Well that’s the big question in Vermont. The NRC has said it will issue a decision by January. There’s never been this kind of public opposition. A state has never asked to intervene with the NRC regarding an uprate application, or power increase application. The Congressional delegation for a state has never intervened in this way and requested a Congressional investigation. So, at this point it’s anybody’s guess. But if you were a bookie in Las Vegas, you’d look at the NRC’s history. And it’s 90-plus “yes’s,” zero “no.” So, that would make it seem that the odds are pretty good that Entergy will get at least some uprate. Maybe not 20 percent, but at least some amount of power increase for Vermont Yankee.
CURWOOD: Eesha Williams covers the nuclear power industry for the Valley Advocate newspaper in Massachusetts. In 2003 he won Vermont’s top award for investigative journalism from the Vermont Press Association. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
WILLIAMS: Thanks Steve.
CURWOOD: Coming up: a plea to keep life as humans have known it for thousands of years in Southern Africa. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Jon Anderson “Harptree Tree” EARTH MOTHER EARTH (Ellipsis Arts – 1997)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The Bushmen of the Kalahari have traditionally been an isolated culture. Their way of life dates back tens of thousands of years, and they may be the oldest aboriginal tribe of humans. Hunting and healing form the backbone of their society. Until recently, they largely kept to themselves, and rarely had to appeal to the outside world for help.
Now all that’s changed. Thousands of Bushmen, or San, are being squeezed off their ancestral lands, to make room for industries like diamond mining and cattle ranching. In Botswana, this is playing out on a Bushman homeland called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The bushmen there have filed a lawsuit against the government to get their land back and they’re looking for support here in the U.S. and at the United Nations.
Rupert Isaacson is helping organize this effort. He’s author of: “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Rupert, welcome back to Living on Earth.
ISAACSON: Thank you for having me back.
CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been traveling across the country with members of the Bushmen of Botswana, two of whom are with you in the studio, Roy Sesana, and his translator, Jumanda Gakelebone. Welcome, both of you.
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): Thanks, welcome you.
CURWOOD: Rupert, let’s start with you. Part of the reason that your group is here in the United States has to do with a particular parcel of land in Botswana, which is called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. What kind of relationship have the Bushmen – have the San – historically had with this land?
ISAACSON: Well, it’s their ancestral land. You could say – it’s true to say – that really all of southern Africa is originally the San, or Bushmen, ancestral land. But over the course of the last few hundred years they’ve been gradually extinguished, displaced, from almost all of the Subcontinent. And now the traditional culture hangs on in a few spots – in Botswana, Namibia and some of the neighboring countries.
(Photo: © Survival)
So this was a fairly enlightened move that the British government made just before they left Botswana. They took this very remote area the size of Switzerland – the second largest conserved area I think on the continent of Africa – called it the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and in its mandate, in its constitution, said this is for the Bushmen to continue their hunting and gathering culture in perpetuity, and will protect the ecology to allow this to happen.
CURWOOD: How long do the Bushmen go back on this land?
ISAACSON: The Bushmen culture itself is thought to be the oldest on the planet. Earlier this year an artifact was found – a necklace that is apparently Khoisan Bushmen – on the coast of South Africa. It was dated at 70,000 years old. Which is pretty old (LAUGHS). So how long have they occupied the Central Kalahari Game Reserve? Let’s just say longer than anybody else.
CURWOOD: So, the San, or the Bushmen, have been on this land tens of thousands of years, perhaps more. What has happened recently now?
ISAACSON: In 2002, they were forcibly relocated against their will. This is a process that had actually begun back in the late ‘80s. And then in the ‘90s, the government moved in and took people out of one village, put them outside the reserve in a relocation settlement, where the conditions were pretty dire, and there was a sufficient human rights outcry back then to make the Botswana government back off. However, in 2002, I guess, world attention had gone elsewhere. And they went back in and moved the rest out – all but about a hundred people who have refused to move, who are still in there surviving as best they can.
CURWOOD: Why does the government want to move these people? Why is the government moving the people?
ISAACSON: The governments say that a) this is not a forcible relocation, that they’ve persuaded the Bushmen to move for their own good. They say that they can’t offer them the developments that they need to become modern Botswana citizens inside a game reserve. And that’s more or less about it. However, over the last 30 years or so since independence, really enormous numbers of Bushmen have been relocated and displaced within Botswana. For the creation of new national parks and reserves, diamond mines, and particularly cattle ranching that the European Union poured a lot of money into – the Botswana cattle industry after independence.
And a lot of Bushmen sort of woke up with fences around them, literally finding themselves living as serfs in other people’s cattle ranches. All this of course happened during the apartheid era when Botswana was, if you like, one of the “good people” in Africa, and was sheltering exiles from apartheid and so on. So there wasn’t any attention, really, to these sort of quiet human rights abuses that were going on. And there was no culture of finding a voice among the Bushmen. So these people more or less sort of evaporated. They became scavengers around the outskirts of the towns, a lot of them died, etcetera.
And then there is something else, which is hard to underestimate the importance of. You can get Roy to speak more about this. But there really is a true cultural racism at work with this process, that traditionally the relationship of the Botswana government and really the Botswana tribe who they, to a large degree, they represent, towards Bushman, has always been a master/serf relationship. So I think it didn’t really occur to a lot of people in government there that there would be any kind of outcry.
CURWOOD: Let me turn to you, Roy, and ask you: What about the cultural divide with the Botswana who run the country now? Rupert suggests there is ethnic, there is racial, tensions here. What’s your analysis?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): The true answer is that we as Bushmens, wherever we are and we stay with the Botswana people, they oppress us. There’s racial discrimination. And it’s part of using us as servants.
CURWOOD: Now, the government has said that diamond mining, ranching, these things have nothing to do with the issue. And, in fact, that it’s not even forcibly removing your people from your ancestral homelands. What’s your response to these statements, Roy?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): My response to this question is that it’s not the truth. I can say that we’ve been forcibly removed. I am myself right now sitting here talking with you. My home has been dismantled during my absence. They even stopped the services like water. There used to be mobile health, which also stopped. To say that those things … and we have been asked, if you don’t move, you are not going to be given all those services. By so doing there are some who refused to move right now, saying like this, they are not given those services. That shows that there was force. If there was not force, why are those who refuse to move not been given those services?
CURWOOD: So no water, no medical help?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): That’s correct. Even I myself was [sic] sometime when I went outside the camp myself, tried to bring water inside to help those who have remained behind. The government officials especially, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. In their case they stopped me and asked me not to bring inside the water. My elder brother is very sick, who refused to move in [sic]. I’m stopped not to visit and see how he is. Who is saying they did not force us to move? It is not the truth.
CURWOOD: Roy, you organized a lawsuit against the government to get your land back. What made you decide to do this?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): I look at the Bushmens and they don’t have rights everywhere in the land, especially in the country, being moved every day. And whereever they are moved I see their culture keep on changing. So this worried me. And then I see if the Bushmen is all going to be moved in [sic] then we’ll, in the end, not have any Bushmen in Botswana.
CURWOOD: Now, the government says by moving your tribe, your families, off of this land, that they’re bringing you to a better life. That away from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve there’ll be modern conveniences and such. What’s your understanding of how you and your friends and family live now after being displaced from the game reserve?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): That is not the truth – we are not moved to be developed. In our land we stayed with our culture; we did not have a lot of diseases, which we get from our neighbors and whatever. To me, to be moved to outside of the reserve is to take us to the fire. According to our culture, our land is something which makes us to be rich, and is our life. If you are hungry staying on your land, you know where to go and find what to eat. Where we have been moved – right now to three new settlements – seems like we have been put in custody.
CURWOOD: So it’s prison?
GAKELEBONE: Yeah, that’s prison, yeah.
CURWOOD: What kinds of things can you do now outside of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to preserve the San culture? What chances do you have to hunt, for example?
SESANA (TRANSLATED BY GAKELEBONE): There is nothing we can do to preserve our culture. What I’ve seen is that we’ve been taken outside for prison – that is the thing which we see. And now our kids are taken to school, and they don’t bring good results. They don’t do much in education. We take our kids to school, then they get HIV and pregnancy. But other tribes outside that have been taken – there have been a lot sexual abuse by other tribes with Bushmen. And we have got other children, kids from the different tribes, and all these Bushmen are going to be killed by this disease of AIDS. So I’m afraid that’s all, that we won’t have Bushmen, that’s all. So these new kids which are born are not Bushmen, they’re something else.