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

July 8, 2005

Air Date: July 8, 2005




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As Congress nears a key vote on liberalizing trade with Central America and the Dominican Republic, opinions are split on how the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement would affect the environment. Some contend lax environmental enforcement in the region would harm the ecologically sensitive area. Other say increased economic growth will encourage greater stewardship. Host Steve Curwood talks with economist Kevin Gallagher about the environmental lessons learned from the North American Free Agreement with Mexico and Canada. (07:10)

High Court Opening = High Stakes for Environment / Jeff Young

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Washington Correspondent Jeff Young reports on how retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor shaped environmental law--and how important her replacement could be to conservation efforts. (05:00)

Denizen of the Sea

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The humble horseshoe crab has been around for 350 millions years. Over time, humans have found multiple uses for this denizen of the sea, and its most lucrative attribute turns out to be its blood. Host Steve Curwood visits with scientist Bill Sargent on the shores of Cape Cod, where these prehistoric creatures abound. (05:50)

Reactionary Pedestrian

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Abner Serd calls himself a “reactionary pedestrian.” In this audio postcard, he takes to the nation’s highways and byways, and traces the paving of America, as well as his own alienation in his solitary walking quest. (09:30)

Emerging Science Note/Hydrogen Plane / Eileen Bolinsky

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Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports on an experimental airplane using a hydrogen fuel cell that could be a prototype for environmentally friendly air travel. (01:20)

Ant Patrol / Sean Cole

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Stefan Cover likes ants. He likes them so much that he’s made a living collecting and caring for them. He’s the curator for Harvard University’s ant collection – the largest collection of preserved ants in the world. And to hear him speak, his arthropod specimens seem more human than ant-like. Reporter Sean Cole pays a visit to the ant scientist. (15:20)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Kevin Gallagher, Bill Sargent
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Abner Serd, Sean Cole
NOTE: Eileen Bolinsky


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Free trade is back in the news, with proponents praising environmental provisions of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. That vote will be coming up soon in the U.S. House of Representatives.

MURPHY: We see CAFTA as being the most environmentally forward leaning trade agreement ever.

CURWOOD: But critics say what may sound good for the environment of Central America won’t be so good.

GALLAGHER: If it goes through as passed, we’re going to see severe public works problems in the manufacturing centers, we’re going to see exaserbated pesticide use and water pollution in the banana growing areas, and we may see a crowding out of many of the biodiversity hotspots that we already know are there.

CURWOOD: Also, the green legacy of retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And the lifesaving talents of the horseshoe crab. That and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.



(MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000))

ANNOUNCER: Support from Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The US Congress is nearing a key vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA, as it’s called, would be perhaps the first free trade agreement involving the US that directly incorporates provisions aimed at protecting the environment. The North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had such environmental provisions added on as side agreements. NAFTA lowered trade barriers among the US, Canada and Mexico; CAFTA seeks to do the same among the U.S., the Dominican Republic, and the five Central American nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. John Murphy is with the US Chamber of Commerce.

MURPHY: We see CAFTA as being the most environmentally forward leaning trade agreement ever.

CURWOOD: Mr. Murphy notes that CAFTA allows citizens to monitor environmental quality and calls for action if environmental problems arise as a result of the agreement.

MURPHY: CATFA is actually going to create new tools for civil society to point out failings and also new resources to help see those laws implemented. What we see is a combination of new resources and commitments and citizen participation that combined will be a real shot in the arm for the environmental movement in the region.

CURWOOD: But some worry that it’s the governments, not the citizens of Central America, that are unprepared to be environmental watchdogs under CAFTA. Boston University economist Kevin Gallagher has studied the effects of NAFTA on the Mexican environment, and he says Mexico was caught off guard by the changes ushered in by the pact because it lacked strong institutions for environmental protection. Kevin Gallagher joins us now on the phone from Guadalajara, Mexico. Professor, how exactly could a free trade agreement harm the environment in Central America?

GALLAGHER: Liberalizing trade with the United States, Central American countries are putting their eggs in the manufacturing basket. What they’re really hoping to do is create large scale, many worker assembly plants, mainly in the apparel and textiles industries, that will sell textiles and apparel into the US market. That’s going to mean a lot of folks moving from the countryside into cities. The cities aren’t equipped to be able to deal with the massive influx in population growth that they will be experiencing. This is exactly what happened under NAFTA in Mexico. You have all sorts of new folks moving into the manufacturing centers, you need water sanitization services, you need sewage, you need roads to get people around, but also to buttress the air pollution that could occur, so you get a real degraded makeshift what we call sprawl around the central areas.

CURWOOD: So you have, you have studied NAFTA and Mexico, what lessons can we expect to take from that experience to bring to a Central American Free Trade Agreement?

GALLAGHER: Here in Mexico, just about every environmental medium has worsened since about 1985. If you look at levels of soil erosion, municipal solid waste, urban air pollution, urban water pollution, they’ve all grown faster than the economy itself and population growth in Mexico. According to the Mexican government’s own estimates, that environmental degradation has cost the Mexican government about 10 percent of its GDP each year or about 45 billion dollars each year in a country where half of its hundred million people live in poverty, less than two dollars a day. That’s not money that you want to let slip through the cracks.

CURWOOD: So it sounds to me like you don’t think the Central American Free Trade Agreement would be a good deal for Central American countries in terms of the environment.

GALLAGHER: No, absolutely not because I don’t think the Central American governments have the right policies in place to handle the major transformation that will occur in their economy. Nor do I think that the CAFTA environmental provisions are enough to fill the gap.

CURWOOD: Now proponents of free trade say look, free trade agreements can actually help the environment, what are the positive elements for environmental protection and stewardship that you see coming?

GALLAGHER: There absolutely are some positive points, but the key thing to remember is that they don’t come automatically. You need to have the right kind of institutional structures in place to be able to foster the market to be able to work better toward the environment.

CURWOOD: Now what about the argument that increased economic development makes these countries richer and therefore they’re better able to take care of their environment?

GALLAGHER: I don’t agree with the argument, and neither does the vast majority of the peer-reviewed economic literature evidence on the issue. What they’re evoking, it’s something called the Environmental Coos Nets Curve. It’s an academic, statistical analysis that was done in the early 1990s and there’s been numerous studies since then, but its central point was that as countries liberalize trade, they will grow and in the initial stages of such growth, there will be increased environmental degradation, but then you reach a sort of a plateau where incomes get high enough where the environment starts to improve on a per capita basis. What the proponents of the trade agreements, without any environmental components, use that literature to say is, ‘hey grow now, worry about the environment later,’ that the environment will automatically take care of itself. It’s been found not to be true. Mexico, the turning point when things are supposed to get better is supposed to be around 5,000 dollars GDP per capita. Mexico hit 5,000 dollars GDP per capita in 1985, but as I said, almost all of its pollution has been increasing faster than GDP and faster than population growth since that period.

CURWOOD: So how does one, from your perspective, how would you strengthen the Central American Free Trade Agreement to protect the environment and agriculture?

GALLAGHER: Central American countries have to in their own efforts have to recognize the need to having environmental policies in place and have infrastructure and institutions in place to be able to anticipate and be ready to manage the problems that are going to occur from a trade agreement.

CURWOOD: Kevin Gallagher is a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of the new book, “Free Trade and the Environment: Mexico, NAFTA, and Beyond,” published by Stanford University Press. Thanks for taking this time with me today Kevin.

GALLAGHER: Really appreciate it. Have a great day.

CURWOOD: In response to concerns over enforcement of environmental and labor laws under CAFTA, the White House recently pledged $120 million over three years to monitor and enforce those standards in the region. CAFTA has already passed the US Senate, but the outcome of the House of Representatives vote expected later this month is much less certain, with strong opposition based on concerns about labor and sugar production as well as environmental protection.

Related links:
- Tufts working group on Development and the Environment in the Americas
- Kevin Gallagher’s articles
- Kevin Gallagher’s book
- U.S. Trade Representative Office CAFTA briefing book

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(MUSIC: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos “No Me Llores Más” from Los Cubanos Postizos (Atlantic – 1998))

High Court Opening = High Stakes for Environment

CURWOOD: Since the first of July, Washington lawmakers, lobbyists and activists have been focusing on the vacancy on the US Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The Supreme Court rules on a wide variety of issues of course, and Justice O’Connor has a record of being a key swing vote on such hot button matters as abortion, school vouchers, and the death penalty, as well as tipping the balance, often as not, in environmental decisions. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young looks back at the legacy of Justice O’Connor and how her successor may affect rulings on environmental law in the future.

YOUNG: When the US Environmental Protection Agency told Alaska’s environmental officials to use tougher air pollution standards the state resisted and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Glenn Sugameli of the environmental law group Earthjustice watched, hoping the court would uphold federal power under the Clean Air Act. As was often the case, the decision came down to Sandra Day O’Connor.

SUGAMELI: She wrote for the majority holding that the federal EPA could step in and take action to reduce air pollution under the federal clean air act. It was a 5-4 decision; she was the key vote on that one on clean air protections.

YOUNG: Just one example of O’Connor’s opinions shaping environmental law. And an indicator of how important her replacement could be. Georgetown law professor Richard Lazarus has studied the high court’s conservation cases and even argued a few before the justices. Lazarus says the Alaska decision on state versus federal power represents one of three crucial environmental areas where O’Connor was key. The second was the tricky balance of private property rights and environmental protection.

LAZARUS: Justice O’Connor no doubt sort of starts from the premise of someone who’s worried about private property rights and she’s wary of government and she is ready sometimes to see government overreaching including in environmental protection area. But with that said, she parted ways in some significant respects from Justice Scalia who is sort of the champion on the court of private property rights.

YOUNG: Lazarus says O’Connor saw more benefits in environmental regulation than did her conservative colleague, Antonin Scalia. Their conflict reached its conclusion with a case from California’s Lake Tahoe, with Scalia in the minority and O’Connor’s view winning the day.

LAZARUS: A very sweeping opinion, quite, one that was widely hailed by environmentalists in behalf of, sort of, protection of sensitive ecosystems. And although Justice Stevens’ opinion for the court, if you read it, he’s quoting again and again and again Justice O’Connor.

YOUNG: Lazarus says O’Connor also made the difference on whether ordinary citizens can sue the government to make it enforce environmental laws. He says the outcome of all these could be quite different if the person replacing O’Connor leans more toward the court’s conservative voting block.

LAZARUS: And there are a whole host of issues like this. I actually think the Endangered Species Act could be quite close, the constitutionality. That might well be hanging in the balance.

YOUNG: Even though the scales could easily tip on environmental law, legal affairs analyst and author Benjamin Wittes says it’s received little attention so far in the debate about O’Connor’s replacement.

WITTES: Environmental law seems to me to be peculiarly under-discussed in the nominations process.

YOUNG: Wittes argued in his May column in the Atlantic Monthly that the threat to basic environmental protections is "broad-based and severe." But the cases in question are highly technical, difficult to follow and don’t lend themselves to snappy slogans to rouse public interest.

WITTES: They’re not simple questions like, ‘should abortion be regarded as a constitutional right or not.’ They’re fairly dense questions that aren’t fundamentally even about the environment. For example, how far is Congress’ reach under the power to regulate interstate commerce? I would be very impressed with anybody who could come up with a bumper sticker about the commerce clause.

YOUNG: That’s the challenge for Glenn Sugameli at Earthjustice as he tries to make the environment an issue for the next Supreme Court nominee. So what sort of nominee would Sugameli like to see? One very much like the woman who is leaving.

SUGAMELI: Earthjustice is urging that President Bush follow the example of President Reagan when he selected Justice O’Connor. Somebody who will be a moderate, will not always rule in the way we would like but will always at least have an open mind. Won’t have a bias in favor of industry and against the environmental protection, against conservation laws. That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what the American people have a right to expect.

YOUNG: Sugameli’s well aware that his counterparts in the industry and property rights lobbies will be pushing their agenda too. Which means the environment will likely become one more point of contention in a difficult confirmation process. The Senate confirmed O’Connor on a 99 to nothing vote. But that was nearly a quarter century ago. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

CURWOOD: Coming up, modern medicine gets help from a creature who has been here since the dinosaurs. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Related link:
Benjamin Wittes article in The Atlantic Monthly

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(MUSIC: “Mike Mills” from ‘Talkie Walkie’ (Astralwerks – 2004))

Denizen of the Sea

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. With its spiked tail that resembles a weapon, and its dark, mud-colored shell that looks like prehistoric armor, the horseshoe crab looks like it’s been around for 350 million years. And it has. Various creatures have found it handy. For perhaps thousands of years, the red knot, now that’s a modest sized shore bird, has found horseshoe crab eggs to be the key to its survival during its lengthy migration from the Antarctic to the Arctic each spring.

And now humans have found that blood from the horseshoe crab makes a handy and almost instantaneous test for diseases that doctors used to have to diagnose by injecting a rabbit and waiting a day or more. And with birds and humans alike on the hunt for horseshoe crabs, the population has been under some pressure. I spent an afternoon with a man who's made the horseshoe crab part of his life's work, and who argues that the critters are much more valuable than people who cut them up for fish bait might think. Bill Sargent wrote a book called "Crab Wars: Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health," and took me wading in the waters of Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod.


SARGENT: Okay, we can enter the water here, and we're going out on a very shallow sand bar.


SARGENT: And you should be able to... Here's one right here. You can see... Here's a nice fellow right here. And you can tell right away that this is a female. The way you tell that is that the males have this forward claw that becomes a little bit like a fist.

CURWOOD: Now, give me the big biological picture of horseshoe crabs: what are they, where they come from, and where they fit in the ecology.

SARGENT: Basically, they are one of the oldest animals that we have. They're arthropods.

CURWOOD: Arthropods? That means they're spiders?

SARGENT: Yes, their closest living relative is a spider. They're sort of an integral part of the ecology of the bay. Actually, a lot of people think by turning over the sediment, it's almost like a plow. So they're oxygenating the sediments, and you'll find more shellfish because of that.

CURWOOD: What are the biggest threats to these crabs? They've been here for 350 million years but, as I understand it, there's a lot of pressure on them now.

SARGENT: Basically, you're looking at 'em. We're the biggest threat, humans. Basically, these animals have been used as research animals for hundreds of years—pretty much every aspect of the crab, the behavior of the crab, vision of the crab, and the horseshoe crab blood. What's happened is that the horseshoe crab test is probably the most common medical procedure used in medicine today that is all based on a single species of wild animal. So if we get a wound, we have a whole series of antibodies that go to the area and fight the infection.

What horseshoe crabs have are very large, what are called, amoebocyte cells, and the amoebocyte cell simply goes to the area and coagulates and keeps the infection out. So, what scientists have been able to do is they catch the crabs, they extract its blue, copper-based blood, separate out these amoebocyte cells and make what's called lymulus amoebocyte lysate, which is used as a test for gram-negative bacteria. And whenever you go into the hospital, anything that's going to come into contact with the human blood system has to be checked for gram-negative bacteria.

CURWOOD: Remind me, what are some of the typical diseases of gram-negative infections.

SARGENT: Well, when you go into septic shock that's one of the things. A lot of e. coli are gram-negative bacteria.

CURWOOD: I've got to ask you this. How do you get the blood out of a horseshoe crab without killing it?

SARGENT: Basically, what you do, there's this little hinge right here, and you put these crabs in a rack. And then they put a needle right through that hinge and then there's a free flow of blood; and when the blood stops flowing, then they stop the bleeding and then release it. And if you do that right, you get less than ten percent mortality which is not perfect but it's okay. Each one of these crabs that we're looking at is worth about as much as a laptop computer. Because they get $250 worth of lysate each time they bleed them, and they can bleed them every summer for all their lives. So they have about ten years that they can bleed them.

CURWOOD: I imagine when people discovered that you could use it for this medical test that it was quite popular and they probably started to disappear.

SARGENT: Yeah, we started noticing that there were very, very few immature crabs, almost none. The whole population seems to have crashed. And then we realized what was happening is the crabs were being caught in the shallow waters when they were laying their eggs. They have about a four-day window of opportunity to lay their eggs, right around the full-moon and the new-moon high tides. They were being caught and then bled in Falmouth and then returned back to the deeper waters of the bay, and it would take them about 30 days to get from the deep water to the shallow water. So, essentially, what you'd done is taken them out of the breeding population. Then what happened about three years ago, the Cape Cod National Seashore established a reserve for horseshoe crabs on the eastern part of the bay. And it used to be that you would walk a hundred meters along this beach and not see any immature crabs, and now you're seeing lots of them.

CURWOOD: Okay, so now we're going to take this fellow back to the water.


CURWOOD: Let's see how he responds

SARGENT: Usually, they have two responses when you put them back. Either you put them in and they turn right over and they'll disappear quickly, or sometimes they sit on the bottom for a while, so we'll see what this one does.


CURWOOD: He's sitting.

SARGENT: He's sitting. Oh, now he's flipping over.

CURWOOD: There he goes.

SARGENT: There he goes. He made it. So he's fine, and now he'll just shoot right off into the deeper water.

CURWOOD: Bill Sargent's book is called "Crab Wars: Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism and Human Health." Thanks for taking this time with me today, Bill.

SARGENT: Thank you.

Related links:
- “Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health” by William Sargent
- The Horseshoe Crab: Natural History, Anatomy, Conservation, and Research
- Horseshoe Crabs “A Living Fossil” – Maryland Department of Natural Resources

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Reactionary Pedestrian

CURWOOD: Abner Serd had a simple, if ambitious plan. Walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. Well, that hike never happened. But Mr. Serd did set out on an alternate route along the nation's highways and byways. The detour turned him into, what he calls, a "reactionary pedestrian." And his string of audio postcards traces the paving of America, as well as his own alienation and conversion to fanaticism. Or maybe he was always that way. You can draw your own conclusion.

SERD: The way it begins, my friend Erin said she'd always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. She asked me if I'd do it with her and I said I would, knowing it was probably just talk, doubting she'd ever really want to do it and figuring it never hurts to dream.


SERD: Then came the accident, a 60 mile-per-hour head-on collision. Three people died. Erin spent four months in a hospital down in Phoenix. I wrote to her while she was convalescing. I told her I'd meet her on Springer Mountain in Georgia, maybe give her some motivation to get up on her shattered legs and walk again. Lest you get the wrong impression of me, I'd like to point out that I didn't stick around to help her get well. I wasn't there to lend her moral support during all those endless months of rehabilitation. I don't know how to be that kind of person, and this ain't that kind of story! This is a story about a fanatic reactionary pedestrian who despises motorized vehicles, who thinks any distance is walking distance as long as they let him across the bridge, who promises to walk 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and then walks 3,000 miles just getting to Georgia.


SERD: Good morning! Thursday morning, October 22nd. Well, it drizzled off and on for about half the night. The bivvy sack I picked up about six weeks ago and haven't had much of a chance to use seems to have kept fairly dry. The sky that was all different shades of gray yesterday is all blue today, with a patch of white here and there. The sun is out and steam is coming off the wet ground. I’m gonna get moving eventually. Think I'll have breakfast first.


SERD: So, the question is: what is a fanatic reactionary pedestrian? How does one get to be this way? What drives a person, excuse the pun, to pick up and walk 3,000 miles on roads that clearly weren't meant for walking?


SERD: It's a very strange sunset tonight. It's a very colorful sunset, it's brilliant reds and golds. A Hieronymus Bosch kind of theme, it looks like screaming demons from hell all racing to where the sun went down, flying through the sky with bellows of smoke and fire coming out of their mouths. Wow.


SERD: You understand, I didn't start out to be a fanatic. I sort of grew into it over several tens of thousands of miles. I'm not as bad as I used to be, though. I mean, I don't throw rocks any more.


SERD: Tuesday afternoon, Texas City. Passing by what looks like a Union Carbide Plant. Another mad scientist's dream with giant gray stacks belching smoke and fire.


SERD: I remember that time in Indiana, the guy in the Dodge Ram looking left and turning right, hurrying to beat the oncoming traffic. Never came to a complete stop! Pushed me a dozen feet backwards before he shut it down! If I hadn't managed to stay on my feet he never would have seen me go under.


SERD: Monday morning the 15th of February. Walking on little tiny seashells along the beach in Louisiana. It's kind of sad that people don't walk on the beach anymore. Last night, Valentines’ evening, went down to the beach at just about sunset, watching all the Valentines’ couples driving back and forth along the beach, driving in their four-wheel drive vehicles. Kind of made me feel like I'd lost, somehow.


SERD: I still have in my mind pictures of road kills that would break your heart. You want to hear about 'em?

Noooo, that's okay.

I can describe them in great detail. You sure you don't want to hear it?

No, we don't need that, thank you very much.

The dog thrown up against the barbed wire fence?


Are you sure?



SERD: Okay. Just had an encounter with a young woman back in Franklin. 20, 25 years old, and a couple of guys, but she did all the talking. She wanted to know where I took baths at. She said, "You gotta gun, right?" I said, "No, I haven't got a gun." She said, "Ah, you gotta get yourself a gun!" I said, "They told me I can't have a gun until I start taking my medication again."


SERD: I hear a lot these days about racial profiling. Racial profiling. I don't know how many times I've been stopped and questioned by Officer Friendly, not because I was doing anything wrong, but only because I happened to be passing through town on foot. I wanna tell these guys, look, all the really successful criminals drive cars. I should think that's obvious. In fact, the better the car, the more successful the criminal. You should be stopping people in BMWs!


SERD: The Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River. Well, we got about a third of the way across the bridge, then a state police officer hit his lights and stopped and got out of the car and started yelling. He didn't have very good people skills, so I started yelling back at him. I don't have very good people skills either. Nor very much common sense. But I found out there is no bridge anywhere in the state of Louisiana that you can walk across the Mississippi River. It is prohibited. It is becoming illegal to get across this country on foot. I can't believe anybody building a bridge across a river for four lanes of automobiles and not even considering pedestrians and bicycles. Anyway. Waiting on a bus to get across the river. I don't have the energy to get across any other way right now.


SERD: You've got to be out there, breathing exhaust fumes every day. You've got to walk down the road at night and step on a lump and not know whether it's a piece of blown-out tire or another dead owl. That's how you get to be a fanatic reactionary pedestrian. You can read all you want about the paving of America, about urban sprawl and smog and vanishing habitat and on and on, but that's just theory. It's awful out there by the side of the road! It gets worse every day! And here's the crux. Instead of saying to yourself, “hey, it's pretty bad out here, it's ugly and noisy and smelly and dangerous and I don't really want to be here. Next time, I'm gonna drive!” Instead of saying that, you've got to say to yourself, "Hey, it's pretty bad out here, but driving ain't gonna make it any better!" That's how you get to be a reactionary pedestrian. The fanatic part? Well, let's just take it one step at a time.


CURWOOD: Abner Serd is the "fanatical reactionary pedestrian." He produced his story as part of the series "Hearing Voices."

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Emerging Science Note/Hydrogen Plane

CURWOOD: Just ahead. Where humans are simply an asterisk. The world according to ants. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Eileen Bolinsky.

BOLINSKY: For years, environmentalists have stared up in dismay as trails of pollution spewed from jet planes. It’s estimated that air travel releases more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, and is responsible for almost 4 percent of all global warming. That figure could quadruple by 2050 as air travel becomes more and more popular. But one California company may have a solution.

Aerovironment’s experimental airplane, dubbed Global Observer, was first flown this spring at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. With its lightweight design and long wings, the craft resembles a glider much more than a 747.

But what really distinguishes this plane is hidden away in its mechanical belly. Instead of standard-grade jet fuel, the plane’s tank contains liquid hydrogen, kept at a frigid minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. After the hydrogen is converted back into a gas, it’s combined with oxygen from outside air in a fuel cell. The result is electricity, which is used to power propellers.
Aerovironment says the plane could fly for 24 hours on a single tank of hydrogen.

Many are optimistic about the plane’s potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. But there’s a hitch: water vapor, which is a byproduct of the fuel cell, is a greenhouse gas in its own right, trapping heat in the same way as carbon dioxide. So scientists will likely research the impact of the vapor as they continue to try to make flying in the sky environmentally friendly. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Eileen Bolinsky.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at mott dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable, and sustainable society; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924, on the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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(MUSIC: California Guitar Trio “Whitewater” from ‘Whitewater’ (Inside Out U.S. – 2004))

Ant Patrol

Ant specimens from Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (Photo: Christine Fichera)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lives perhaps the largest collection of preserved ant specimens in the world. The person normally associated with this array is acclaimed biologist and biodiversity champion E.O. Wilson, who has won the Pulitzer prize writing about ants. But the day to day maintenance of the Harvard ant collection is the responsibility of Stefan Cover, whose relationship with his subjects of study tends to range beyond the formal boundaries of science. Producer Sean Cole has our story.

COLE: When I first set foot in the ant room I got a headache. The air was heavy with this overpowering... sciencey smell. At first I thought it was formaldehyde. But it wasn't. It was...

COVER: Mothballs.

COLE: This is Stefan Cover, curatorial assistant of entomology at Harvard. He says mothballs, or naphthalene, keep hungry, preying beetles from eating his ant specimens the same ways it keeps moths away from your sweaters. There are 50 pounds of naphthalene flakes tucked away in the gray metal cabinets of this room. But Stefan told me he's been working here so long he can't even smell it anymore. Then he stuck his nose directly into a little white jewelry box full of naphthalene.

COLE: You can stick your nose in that!

COVER: Yeah. Yeah oh yeah, I'm immune. Either that or I'm, like, on my way out.

(Photo: Christine Fishera)

COLE: Actually Stefan looks extremely well-preserved for his 50-some-odd years. His face is almost cherubic, framed by silver-rimmed glasses and thick waves of salt and pepper hair. He spends ten hours a day in this room, a virtual city of cabinets stacked with drawer after drawer of specimens. Maybe a million ants, each of them lovingly labeled and mounted to its own slim, metal pin.

COVER: I can mount a hundred or a hundred fifty ants a day and that's it. And here we're talking I've got a backlog of hundreds, hundreds of thousands. So I'm never gonna get this done. So you become a fatalist when you do collection work, you know. Sometimes you don't even know why you persist.

COLE: As we ambled around the room, Stefan would occasionally pull out a drawer and we'd gaze down at ant carcasses arranged into these neat, toy-soldier brigades. If you think an ant is an ant is an ant, you're wrong. They range in size, shape, color, culture and temperament about as widely as we do. If not more. Stefan showed me ants both terrifyingly large and infinitesimal. Some had wings. Most didn't. Some were almost beautiful. Others were armed with huge stingers on one end.

COVER: Yeah, these are ants from a canopy fogging study in Panama.

COLE: There's tiny ones in here.

COVER: Oh, and here's paraponera. You see paraponera.

COLE: Oh yeah yeah.

COVER: Was... was...

COLE: Was the ant he almost let sting him in Costa Rica.

COVER: In 1979, when I was a dumb graduate student, I went to Costa Rica and did a scientific survey of the ant bites of Costa Rica. And I got variously nailed by all kinds of ants and was sort of trying to figure out who was the worst. But there was an ant in Costa Rica and in much of South America called paraponera. The Costa Ricans call it the bala, which I think means spear. And so I got to that one and I was about to let it bite me and someone said, someone from Costa Rica said, “I wouldn't do that if I were you. That's the ant that makes grown men weep.” (LAUGHS) And I said, all right, that's the end of this ant biting survey. Forget it.

COLE: As well as mounting the ants, Stefan also spends his day helping grad students find their way around the collection. He boxes up specimens to be mailed out on loan to researchers around the world. He identifies ants that laypeople send him, along with letters that say things like, "I found this in my kitchen. What is it?" And he'd probably deny this, but he's also something of an ant world phenom. He's discovered about 40 different species of ants on his annual excursions out west, 40 species that science didn't know about. And the main reason he does all this, he says, is because people are still asking the question…

COVER: What good are ants, you know? To which I'm always tempted to respond, well, what vital role are you playing in the maintenance of the universe? You know, besides taking up space? And in actual fact, we all have a role to play in the world. Ants have a role to play in the world that's completely independent of whether they make us happy or not. And ants actually are incredibly important in the natural world.

COLE: The main thing ants do, Stefan says, is break down dead organic matter into little nutrients so plants have something to eat, so we in turn can eat the plants or eat the animals that eat the plants. Stefan says ants and us are both links in the same chain. And the ant link is crucial.

COVER: If ants suddenly said, wait a minute, we're not getting any appreciation here. You know, no wages, no benefits, plus grief. They spray us with Raid, you know, and all this, and they said, we're going on strike. If ants went on strike it would have a dire effect on human society. You could actually speculate how long human society would continue to be recognizable in its present form. And answers might vary. But I'll tell you five years is a long shot.

COLE: And as well as being indispensable, Stefan says ants are endlessly entertaining. Their society works a lot like ours does, he says. So sometimes it seems like they were created to parody human beings. And sometimes, Stefan says, human beings seem like they were created to parody ants.

COVER: So, for example, ants make slaves. Some ants sneak into other ants' nests and sponge off the owners. Some ants keep other insects much the same way we keep domesticated animals. And it just, the list just goes on and on. Ants fight wars. And for just about as good reasons as we do too, you know? I mean, just meaningless violence is common in the ant world.

COLE: The thing is, not all ants do all this stuff. Different species exhibit different behaviors, vastly different behaviors. Researchers estimate that there are 20,000 or so different species of ants on the planet, only half of which have been discovered and named. The ant collection at Harvard contains only 36 or 37 hundred different species, with multiple examples of each one.


COVER: I'll just show you a few pictures that we've taken. Isn't that a gorgeous beast? That's the matamermex. It's a specialized ponerine ant of the South American tropics. And see, it has these beautiful long pitchfork-like mandibles. And it turns out we didn't know this for years, but it's a specialist predator of a certain family of millipedes. Doesn't eat anything else other than these millipedes, and it uses these, these pitchfork-like mandibles to catch them so it can hold them while stinging and paralyzing the millipede. Another interesting specimen we have here is this one...

COLE: Stefan's ant life began one bored summer when he was a kid growing up in New York City. He was scratching around for something to do and made the seminal discovery that if you put two ants of different colors together in a peanut butter jar, they'll fight. And that sealed it. Soon came the ant books and the ant farms. And then one late night when he was lying awake in bed, his mother called down to his room, telling him to turn on the Long John Nebel radio show.

COVER: And so I turned on this radio talk show. And there was a graduate student from the American Museum of Natural History named Howard Topoff who was talking about ants. He talked about ants until 5 a.m. I listened to the entire thing. It was fascinating. And the next day I wrote him a letter, as only an 11-year-old kid can write. You know, which is like, "Dear Mr. Topoff, so you like ants. I like ants too. I have ants in my backyard. Some are red. Some are brown." And so on, immortal prose. But I didn't think that an actual scientist would write back to a kid. I mean, hey, I knew I was a kid. So a week later an envelope arrives from the Museum of Natural History, and I'm terrorized. I'm horrified. A scientist, an actual scientist, has written back to me.

COLE: But Howard Topoff hadn't just written back. In that letter, Topoff was inviting Stefan to volunteer at the Museum of Natural History as a lab assistant. Now, as you've probably already guessed, Stefan was a bit of a shy-bones back then. He was terrified, terrified of meeting an actual scientist. His father, however, was not.

COVER: So he dragged me to the American Museum, walked down a long hallway. He finds the office door, and we look in there and there's this nice bearded young gentleman sitting in there. He says, "you Howard Topoff?" And he says yes. He said, “well, here's the kid.” And he slings me in the door and shuts the door on me.

COLE: Stefan got over his shyness when he found out working in the museum meant a day off from school. Besides which, he says, something about the work itself transformed him into Mr. Confident. He was tending Topoff's ant colonies, going on collecting expeditions with him. It was one of his luckiest breaks, the same kind of luck that led him to his current job. In 1986, shortly after an aborted stint at grad school, Stefan moved up to Cambridge hoping to gain access to Harvard University's ant collection. It was Christmas week and the campus was empty. But eventually he ran into a student named Mark Moffit, and asked him for keys to the collection.

COVER: And Mark said, "Oh," he said, "I can't do that. Only Dr. Wilson can give you keys to the ant collection." And I said, well, what should I do? And he said, give me your phone number and I'll have him call you up. And I thought, “oh my goodness, curses, foiled again!” I said, “you know, E.O. Wilson is not going to call up me. You know?” But I gave him the number and I went back home. And two days later the phone rings, and this voice comes over the line and says, "Stefan, I'm Ed Wilson. Mark Moffit tells me you want keys to the ant collection." Well, I almost fainted.

COLE: Wilson asked Stefan if he had any museum experience. We can't just let anybody into the ant collection, he said.

COVER: And I said, well, “when I was a kid I worked for the American Museum of Natural History.” And then I said it. Out it came. Then I said, “plus I mount an ant like Michelangelo chisels marble.”

COLE: You didn't say that.

COVER: I said it. And I couldn't believe it. It was one of those things where I said, “Oh, I can't believe it! I can't believe I said that!” Oh! If it was like casting a fishing line I would have been trying to reel it in, you know.

COLE: In the end, Wilson invited Stefan back over to Harvard. Stefan brought a box of his ant specimens with him. And when Wilson saw that a lot of Stefan's ants hadn't been discovered yet by anyone but Stefan, he gave him a set of keys there and then. That was 18 years ago. And Stefan's been working in the ant room ever since.


COVER: Yeah, here's a common one in the forests of eastern North America. It's called lasius umberatus.

COLE: Along with all the new specimens he's found in the southwest, Stefan discovered one in a state forest in Plymouth, Massachusetts, about ten years ago. New species, by the way, are the Holy Grail of ant researching, the most fun a researcher can have. Discovering something no one knew existed, figuring out what genus it comes from, giving it a species name. I asked Stefan what he called the ant he found in Plymouth.

COVER: Oh, I haven't named it yet, and this is very bad news. It's on the back burner. It will be described, but I haven't published the description yet.

COLE: Why not just name it after yourself?

COVER: Oh that's considered extremely bad form in science. You do not name species after yourself. And so if you want a species named after you, you have to get one of your pals to do it.

COLE: Of course, in Stefan's case, one of those pals is famed ant researcher E.O. Wilson. In his study of the ant genus pheidole, Wilson found more than 300 new species and named one of them...

COVER: Pheidole coveri.

COLE: Coveri being Stefan's last name with an "i" on the end. This is how scientists turn English into Latin.

COVER: So Dr. Wilson, for example, has a cockroach named after him. It's a genus of cockroaches, not a species. And the genus is E.O. Wilsonia. [LAUGHS]

COLE: You learn an awful lot about ants spending time with Stefan. For instance, he told me most ants are girls. It sounds terribly outmoded, but the ants that do most of the work around the colony are female. The few male ants hanging around are basically just there to inseminate the queen. Also, ants evolved from wasps. There's some argument as to whether they're once or twice removed from their wasp cousins, but Stefan says ants are essentially wasps-without-wings, adapted for life on the ground.

COVER: Ants of course would argue that they're new and improved wasps, and I wouldn't criticize them on that score. But that’s, fundamentally they just are wasps.

COLE: You say that as though they've told you this personally.

COVER: Well...well, you know, um...it's either too much naphthalene over time makes you dotty, or else you can't work. When you work with organisms of a group for a long time it's not actually off the radar screen to say that there's a communication process between...you know, between...you and the critters.

COLE: And this is the thing you learn about Stefan when you hang around with Stefan. Most of us carry around a mental catalogue of the characteristics that make us human. But to Stefan, a lot of those characteristics aren't ours alone. His mind isn't as human-centric as that. So sometimes he ends up talking about ants in the same way he talks about people.

COVER: Well, I do because...because... ants and other forms of life are beings. Now what on Earth does that mean? They're beings the same way we are. That doesn't mean they have our kind of consciousness. That doesn't mean that they worry about their stock portfolios. But they're beings, they're not...they're not like rocks. And we human beings, we relate to beings.

Ants experience, and I'm certain of this, they experience pleasure and fear and pain. And you can't not know that if you spend a lot of time with them. You can't not know that. You do find yourself reacting to them in part as objects of scientific study, but also in part as acquaintances, you know, and hopefully friends, really. You know. And, you know, if that makes some people nervous, well, let 'em, you know. That's the truth.

COLE: This might sound insane, but spending three hours in a room full of dead ants was pretty humbling. We go through life thinking of this as our world, as the place the humans live, and that our concerns as humans have universal meaning. But that just isn't true. Not if you start to let ants creep into the equation. Regimes change, governments rise and fall, and all the while there's this whole, separate, intricate society scurrying around our feet that could care less. As I said to Stefan, they don't even know we're there.

COVER: No, they don't, but, but, the thing that has to be said is, we don't know that they're there either. See, we think we're so smart. Now here's another great thing about ant collections and insect collections in general. This is an ant that was collected at dinner with Joseph Stalin in 1945 by Professor Harlow Shapely. He was at dinner in the Soviet Union at this banquet in 1945, and an ant ran across the table and he pulled a vial out and filled it up with vodka and shoved it in the vial and it's now here.

COLE: Oh my god. That little vial with the pink top?

COVER: Yeah, see it's a very unprepossessing smallish beast, but nonetheless it's of historical significance. How could you possibly, you know, how could I, as a curator, possibly get rid of an ant that was collected at dinner with Joe Stalin. You know?

COLE: Bow down to the ants of the earth my friends. They've seen more than we have. They're just smart enough to keep quiet about it. For Living on Earth, I'm Sean Cole in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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(MUSIC: Tipsy “Swallowtail” from ‘Uh-Oh!’ (Asphodel – 2001))

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: we all know the image, the man, the woman, the pitchfork. The American Gothic painting has been an American icon for decades. The portrait has long been regarded as an homage to farm life in America, but when the painting was first unveiled in 1930, rural women immediately took offense.

GUEST: One of the reasons it became to famous so quickly is because it produced an outcry among Iowa farm wives who saw it as an insult to them.

CURWOOD: The American Gothic. Next time, on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Thousands of Leach’s Storm-Petrels circle overhead, swooping and calling into the night. Lang Elliott captured these sounds.

[EARTHEAR – Lang Elliot “Petrel Night” from Seabird Islands (NatureSound Studio-- 1996)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Jennie Cecil Moore, Steve Gregory, and Susan Shepherd, with help from Chris Bollick and Kelly Cronin. Our interns are Max Thelander and Sarah Williams. Our technical director is Dennis Foley, Allison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use articifical growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, for coverage of Western issues .

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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