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

September 24, 2010

Air Date: September 24, 2010



Electrifying a Nationwide Standard / Mitra Taj

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Two years ago hopes were high for tough legislation on climate change in this Congress. But a Senate bill failed this summer and left the policy mechanism "cap-and-trade" battered and bruised. Now green lobbyists are swinging behind a modest approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: a federal renewable electricity standard. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports this could be the 111th Congress's last chance to move the country toward a low-carbon economy. (06:00)

Putting Air Pollution on the Front Burner

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Millions of women and children in developing countries breathe in dirty smoke from stoves every time they cook. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just announced a public/private partnership to help fund and distribute safer cookstoves around the world. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Leslie Cordes, the Director of Partnership Development at the UN Foundation, a partner on this project. (06:00)

Science Note/Sticky Rice / Meghan Miner

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Chemists from China have discovered the formula of a durable ancient mortar made of sticky rice and limestone, which will help archaeologists restore ancient tombs and palaces. Living on Earth’s Meghan Miner brings us this science note. (01:40)

The world’s largest solar power plant

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California’s Mojave Desert may soon house the world’s largest solar power plant, after The Blythe Solar project won clearance from the California Energy Commission. The plant would pump renewable energy right into southern California’s central artery, but some environmentalists are concnerned. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Matthew Nordan, Vice President of Venrock, a venture capital firm specializing in clean energy. (06:45)

The Scoop on A Unique Dog Waste Digester / Bruce Gellerman

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A conceptual artist in Cambridge Massachusetts has come up with a novel way to curb canine waste while illuminating a large and growing problem. Host Bruce Gellerman tells the tale. (05:45)

A Tornado of Birds / Mark Seth Lender

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Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Seth Lender heads to the marshes of the Connecticut River to witness an extraordinary event: a funnel of migrating tree swallows. (03:15)

Listener Letters

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Host Bruce Gellerman dips into the mailbag to give Living on Earth listeners a chance to sound-off. (02:20)

Heinz Winner

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A photographer was one of this year’s Heinz environmental award winners. James Balog’s project -- the Extreme Ice Survey -- documents the rapid melting of glacial ice through time-lapse photgraphs from cameras in some of the world’s most remote areas. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with James Balog about the Extreme Ice Survey. (06:45)

Taming the Colorado River: Hoover Dam turns 75

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The Hoover Dam was dedicated 75 years ago on September 30, 1935. The following years saw the Western US transformed from uninhabitable desert to cities and farmland. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Michael Hiltzik wrote the new book “Colossus”, which documents the history and impact of the Hoover Dam, and spoke with Jeff Young. (07:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman, Jeff Young
GUESTS: Leslie Cordes, James Balog, Michael Hiltzik, Matthew Nordan, Jay Santos, Matthew Mazzotta
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Bruce Gellerman
FEATURED LISTENERS: Margo Pellegrino, Jon Parker
BIRD NOTE: Mark Seth Lender
SCIENCE NOTE: Meghan Miner

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. With Congress running out of time and energy, renewables are getting a last gasp chance from some Senators…. And solar thermal power gets a green light in California.

NORDAN: Renewable energy is a wonderful thing. There’s no risk of radiation like there is in nuclear, no CO2 emissions like in coal, undeniably a good thing. The downfall of this kind of technology is that you need an enormous amount of land.

GELLERMAN: A giant solar project focuses attention on the economics of sun power in the golden state. Also, a conceptual artist curbs canine carbon. His work of art sheds light on a common problem.


MAZZOTTA: Owning a dog is sometimes not the most environmentally sound thing you can do. I guess this is one way of reducing that footprint.

GELLERMAN: Or in this case, paw print. Making methane from what man’s best friend leaves behind. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth! Stick around.


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Electrifying a Nationwide Standard

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions isn't the main goal of a new Senate bill, but supporters think it will help push the utility industry -- responsible for a third of the country's greenhouse gas emissions -- toward renewable investments. (Photo: haglundc)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Mass., this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The sun’s rapidly setting on the 111th Congress, but before this session becomes a dim memory, a few Senators are trying to reach across the aisle to set new goals for renewable energy. Their bill would boost the amount of electricity that comes from sources such as the sun, wind, waves and biomass. But as Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports, the legislation aims low and comes late.

TAJ: When 2008 ushered in a Democratic-led Congress, many concerned with climate change thought the time was ripe for legislation to curb greenhouse gas pollution. Two years later, with a comprehensive climate bill dead in the Senate and little time left before the next Congress brings in a new political mix, the focus has shifted from what global commitments demand, to what U.S. politics allows. Introducing the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010…

BROWNBACK: The beauty of this one—it’s not cap and trade.

TAJ: Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, was turned off by a proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions known as “cap-and-trade.” But now he’s co-sponsoring this bipartisan bill, which would require utility companies to use renewables for at least 15 percent of their electrical production.

BROWNBACK: It’s a low enough level— there are a number of people who would like it to be higher— but this is a level that we can attain to, and do in a balanced fashion, balancing energy, environment, and economic needs.

Senator Sam Brownback says more green jobs will be created in his home-state of Kansas if a national renewable electricity standard is put in place. (Photo: the Pickens Plan)

TAJ: If passed, the bill would bring the 15 percent goal into effect by 2021. But for the next few years, just three percent of electricity would have to come from renewables, slightly less than what the country as a whole is already producing. The relatively weak short-term goal is part of why many environmental groups criticized the legislation when it came up before. But things have changed.

WENTWORTH: The politics has changed, the probability of passing something in the Senate has changed.

TAJ: Marchant Wentworth lobbies Congress for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental groups now supporting this stand-alone bill.

WENTWORTH: It’s not what we would have wanted. We would have preferred to have the Congress take prompt action on climate change this year. That’s probably not going to happen. But, you know, we believe this does set up the national framework to move renewables forward.

TAJ: The policy would become the first national market mechanism for renewable power. And it actually does allow utility companies that generate more than the required solar or wind energy to sell credits to others having a harder time. Smaller utilities are exempt from the requirement, and up to a quarter of the 15 percent target can be met through energy efficiency.

WENTWORTH: We’re looking to say industries throughout the world, come to the United States. We want you to set your renewable industries here, because there is a market.

TAJ: At least 29 states and the District of Colombia have already set their own renewable electricity targets, but a nationwide standard would encourage more trading of credits, more investments in renewables, and a small step toward a national carbon-constrained economy.

Texas Governor Rick Perry credits the state's renewable standard with helping the state become the country's top wind producer. Since the standard was put in place, wind power development there more than quadrupled. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, for the first time, China surpassed the United States in investments in clean energy— a finding not lost on Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from wind-swept North Dakota.

DORGAN: The wind energy industry is falling off a cliff. The second quarter of this year showed a 71 percent decrease in wind energy production.

TAJ: Dorgan is also a co-sponsor for this renewable electricity bill, known as R-E-S.

DORGAN: In my state we have 770 wind towers at this point, could be a lot more, there are more projects ready on the shelf, designed, ready to be built, and the fact is—the RES is the catalyst that will drive this.

TAJ: But other states, particularly in coal country, might not have as much to look forward to in the bill as North Dakota. Energy policy expert, Nick Loris, of the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation:

LORIS: It may make sense in certain states but not others and that’s why a federal mandate isn’t the way to go. If wind and solar and other renewable energy sources could compete economically they wouldn’t need a mandate. This isn’t not about reducing carbon dioxide but picking winners and losers among energy sources.

TAJ: Supporters say federal policies for decades have favored the coal industry, and this would only begin to reverse that course. But the bill clearly does pick winners among renewables: solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy, biomass, landfill gas, and hydrokinetic energy can all be tapped. Excluded are offshore wind, hydroelectric energy from new dams, ethanol, and nuclear energy.

The bill isn’t guaranteed an easy pathway to passage. One challenge, says Senator Brownback, is to keep the delicate compromise already achieved, in tact.

BROWNBACK: People can’t get cute with this. This needs to be 15 percent and set. Personally I’d like for ethanol to be a part of it. So if things get added on that are extraneous, you’ll see people shuck off of it.

TAJ: But already demands have been bubbling up. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says he won’t vote for it unless nuclear energy can count. Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana says she won’t support it unless the offshore drilling moratorium is repealed.

But perhaps most importantly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel’s has used a three-letter word to describe the policy, calling it a defacto tax on utility rates. And for those who watched cap-and-trade be vilified as “cap and tax,” those are fighting words. Marchant Wentworth with the Union of Concerned Scientists:

WENTWORTH: We’re saying bring that fight on.

TAJ: Senate Majority leader Harry Reid is expected to take up the bill in the lame-duck legislative session. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

Related links:
- For more on the Renewable Electricity Standard bill, click here.
- Learn more about states that have already set renewable electricity goals.
- Click here to read the report from earlier this year that found China attracting more clean energy investments than the U.S.
- LOE's coverage of the EPA's role in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
- LOE's coverage of one of the factors that led to the premature demise of the Senate climate change bill this summer.

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Putting Air Pollution on the Front Burner

GELLERMAN: There’s a simple device that can combat climate change, dramatically improve livelihoods, and make women and children safer. The device is a clean cookstove and according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it’s available, and affordable right now.

CLINTON: I know that maybe this sounds hard to believe, but by upgrading these stoves millions of lives could be saved and improved. This could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines. So today I am very pleased to announce the creation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

GELLERMAN: The Secretary of State launched the Alliance this past week. The UN is part of this new public-private effort. Leslie Cordes, Senior Director of Partnership Development at the United Nations’ Foundation estimates that right now nearly three billion people in the developing world cook on polluting stoves and open fires.

CORDES: About half the world’s population uses over 500 million stoves every day to cook their food. They’re incredibly polluting and they’re often dangerous, they’re often not stoves at all. They’re often open fires, six-stone or three-stone fires. They give off an number of harmful and toxic pollutants that really poison the air that the women who use the stoves breathe, as well as the children and other family members that surround the stoves while they’re being used.

GELLERMAN: Mrs. Clinton was saying that there are two million premature deaths a year, and that, that’s twice as many as from malaria.

CORDES: That’s right. That’s the latest World Health Organization numbers that put that figure at close to two million. And, it’s really remarkable that the issue hasn’t received more attention, given the large number of deaths worldwide. In addition, millions more are sickened by the smoke from the stoves, the exposure. Children get early childhood pneumonia, emphysema, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and a number of other very serious health impacts. So, it’s even a much larger problem than those numbers tell the story.

GELLERMAN: Of course, it’s women who do most of the cooking in many of these places.

CORDES: That’s right. And, they also do most of the wood collection, and it’s also an expensive burden for women to fuel very inefficient stoves. And, women and girls travel often miles each day to collect wood, often at great personal risk. Especially in conflict countries, these women are at grave risk for gender violence and other physical injury.

GELLERMAN: So what makes a clean cookstove, clean?

CORDES: There’s a number of different things, but, basically what you want to do is combust the fuel as quickly and completely as possible. In addition to looking at cleaner stoves, we’re also looking at cleaner fuels and moving people up the fuel chain so that they are using fuels that are as clean as possible.

GELLERMAN: And climate clean, as well. That is, they don’t change the climate.

CORDES: That’s right. They reduce the emissions of CO2, methane, and a very potent climate-forcer, black carbon, which is particularly a problem for the arctic regions where it lands on the snow and absorbs the heat, and can cause problems in terms of melting snow.

GELLERMAN: So, it accelerates climate change?
CORDES: It accelerates climate change, that’s right.

GELLERMAN: But this is not a new concept, clean cook stoves, so what’s new here with the partnership?

CORDES: No, you’re right, it’s not a new concept. People have been addressing cookstoves and grappling with how to deploy clean cookstoves at scale for many years. But, we have some recent advances in design and testing and monitoring. We have new research on the health and environmental benefits of clean cookstoves, and some very exciting national programs that we think can really be built on to make clean cookstoves to scale in the developing world.

GELLERMAN: How much is a clean cookstove?

CORDES: They range in price anywhere from twenty to a hundred dollars. But obviously, our goal under the Alliance is really to make those stoves affordable for really the poorest of the poor, in which, use of inefficient stoves exacts a very high health toll and economic toll.

GELLERMAN: So what’s your goal? Do you have a specific goal in mind?

CORDES: Yes, we’re really…frankly our high-level goal is to seek universal access and adoption of clean cookstoves. But, we have an interim goal as well, and we’re looking at achieving a hundred million additional clean cookstoves out in the market by 2020. And, we also have an underlying goal to really strengthen the market for these stoves, because, as you know, giving away stoves that people don’t use is really not going to provide any health or environmental benefits.
But we’re excited by the opportunity presented by some of these new business models. We’ve got women owned businesses distributing stoves at the local level, we have innovative financing and micro-lending models. I was speaking with somebody yesterday who runs a stove manufacturing facility in Ghana, who has developed a very simple lending scheme for his stove.

He knows that women cannot afford the stoves up front, and it takes them about two months to pay back the cost of the stove upfront. So what Toyolla is doing is putting a small, almost like a little piggy bank in each home, and the people put a the money they would have spent on the wood fuel into this bank each day. And then after two months, he comes by and collects the bank, and that’s the payment for the cleaner stove.

GELLERMAN: Well, what about the cultural component? I mean, different places use different sized pots and pans.

CORDES: You’re absolutely right. Someone who is getting up in the morning to boil coffee and cook tortillas for their family is going to have a very different technology need than someone who is in Cambodia who is cooking rice. And so, one of the things we’re really trying to do under this alliance is look for those stoves which are culturally appropriate where the materials can be readily available, that are accessible to women in each of these different sectors. And we aren’t looking for a one-size-fits-all stove, we are really looking to address these cultural needs that you raise.

GELLERMAN: Leslie Cordes is Senior Director of Partnership Development at the United Nations Foundation. Ms. Cordes, thanks a lot.
CORDES: It was my pleasure, thank you.

Related link:
Watch Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announce the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves at the Clinton global initiative Conference in NYC

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[MUSIC: Led Zeppllin “The Rain Song” from Houses Of The Holy (Atlantic Records 1973).]

GELLERMAN: In a moment, power from your pooch! Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

Science Note/Sticky Rice

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead: sun, sun, sun, California here it comes! But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Meghan Miner.


MINER: Sticky rice is popular in East Asia, partly because it’s conveniently clumpy for eating with chopsticks. But its stickiness also made it useful to ancient Chinese builders.

Fifteen hundred years ago, Chinese bricklayers mixed heated limestone and water with sticky rice to create a mortar. The sticky rice-lime paste may be the world’s earliest “combination mortar,” that used both organic and inorganic materials.

The use of sticky rice mortar persisted through the Ming Dynasty, which flourished until the mid seventeenth century. City walls, tombs and palaces built with the rice-lime paste have proven durable- resilient to earthquakes and standing up to the test of time.

Chemists in China have recently uncovered the ‘secret ingredient’ that makes this rice-lime paste work. It’s amylopectin, a complex carbohydrate in the sticky rice.

The researchers say this information will prove helpful in restoring ancient buildings. And, this can be a tricky process…using modern alternatives can lead to the failure of the restoration work and even further damage to the historic structures.

Which just goes to show that sticky rice is not only tasty, but restorative too. That’s this week’s note on Emerging Science, I’m Meghan Miner.


Related link:
Read the report

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The world’s largest solar power plant

The Blythe Solar Power Project will use parabolic trough technology to generate electricity. (Photo: California Energy Commission)

GELLERMAN: What would be the largest solar power plant on the planet has just gotten a giant boost of support. The Blythe Solar Power Project has won approval from the California Energy Commission. Now it’s up to the Federal Bureau of Land Management to decide if the project gets the environmental go-ahead. If it does, the solar thermal station in the Mohave Desert could soon be generating enough energy to power 300 thousand homes in southern California. Matthew Nordan is vice president of the venture capital firm Venrock where he specializes in energy and environmental technologies. Mr. Nordan, thanks for coming by.

NORDAN: Thank you for having me!

GELLERMAN: We’re not talking about rooftop solar here, this is not photovoltaics.

NORDAN: Very different beast. So in rooftop, you have a solar panel, and it both harnesses the sun’s energy and converts it into electricity. This is an entirely different thing.

GELLERMAN: So, how does this work? How does solar-thermal work??

NORDAN: So, you have these mirrors, they’re in the shape of a parabola. They’re curved, right. Imagine a long trough of these, kind of like a feeding trough for pigs up on its side, and it’s angled so that the sun is going to hit it.

And running down the middle of that trough, you have a tube, and that tube contains an oil. And what happens is the mirrors concentrate the sunlight on that tube, it heats the oil up. Then you move the oil from one end of the tube to the other, where you have a turbine, the same kind of thing you’d find in a coal plant, or a nuclear plant, that boils water to make steam and spins it around. In this case the heat that you’re using is in the oil from the concentrated sun rays bounced by the mirrors, rather than from burning coal or burning something else.

The Blythe Solar Power Project will use parabolic trough technology to generate electricity. (Photo: California Energy Commission)

GELLERMAN: And this is going to produce the energy equivalent of a small nuclear power plant.

NORDAN: One gigawatt of power. It’s right up the alley of a typical nuclear power plant.

GELLERMAN: Now, this plant, that they’re proposing has won clearance from the California Energy Commission.


GELLERMAN: What does that do? Does that give it the green light to go ahead?

NORDAN: It gives part of the green light. It gives one of the green lights. There are some other green lights to go. This enables the plant to be constructed, and, to interface with California’s electricity grid.

GELLERMAN: So, where does the Federal Bureau of Land Management come in?

NORDAN: So, that was the next step, actually right after the approval came from the California Energy Commission. There was an approval from the Bureau of Land Management that said, ‘we’ve completed the environmental approvals, we think this is fine.’ That thing goes out for a 30-day comment period, which is happening now. And then, once those comments come back they’ll be processed by the BLM. If they were to give the final go-ahead, that’s probably some time in October.

That’s not the biggest hurdle though. Right, after all these things are done, the plant still has to get financing. People to stump out the capital to go out and build this one gigawatt, seven thousand acre monstrosity. And that won’t be done until all these approvals are completed.

GELLERMAN: And how much money are we talking here?

NORDAN: Six billion dollars, I think is the target price tag.

GELLERMAN: Are there federal subsidies to this?

NORDAN: There is a federal loan guarantee program. The Department of Energy would not speak about using that until all the Bureau of Land Management stuff is done. So, I would expect the DOE raise its voice on this project sometime in October, November, something like that.

GELLERMAN: Environmentalists, curiously enough, have raised their voices about this project, some are for it, and some are against it.


GELLERMAN: Why? Why would you be against renewable energy resources?

NORDAN: Renewable energy is a wonderful thing. And, if you compare this kind of technology against the way we get most of our power now, from nuclear and coal, it’s the one way in which it’s unambiguously better, right? There’s no risk of radiation like there is in nuclear, no CO2 emissions like in coal, undeniably a good thing. The downfall of this kind of technology is that you need an enormous amount of land.

If you do the back-of-the envelope math on this, to make one gigawatt, we’re using seven thousand acres. That’s about 35 watts per square meter of surface. Take a typical coal plant. I just picked a random one out of Wisconsin, 595 megawatts, 345 acres. That’s 426 watts per square acre, more than ten times the amount of energy per unit of area that you get from solar-thermal.

So, if you’re going to build one of these, first of all, you need a place that’s a lot of land, a lot of sunlight, no competing use for the land, and it’s got to be one big contiguous tract. And, there just aren’t many places like that in the world. It’s hard to go out and build something this big on one, without getting environmentalists concerned about habitat destruction, disrupting migration routes for wildlife, things like that.

GELLERMAN: But we’re talking Mojave Desert here, there’s not a lot out there. Is there?

NORDAN: While there’s not a lot out there, you can’t get anything for free, right? You’re going to be disrupting somebody’s habitat, if you go out and take seven thousand acres of land and devote them to some different kind of use.

GELLERMAN: So, do you anticipate that environmentalists would sue to prevent this project from going ahead?

NORDAN: It’s possible. I think if that trigger was going to be pulled, it probably would have been done. There was a bill that went through Congress last year, called the California Desert Protection Act of 2009 that aimed to block off a large amount of land to the north in the Mojave, from projects exactly like this one. This is a little further away form people, it’s not attached to things that have been thought of as tourist destinations or public lands that people have wanted to preserve. So, it’s a little less controversial than the northern sites of them.

GELLERMAN: Now, I understand that a solar-thermal plant like this winds up using a lot of water. And this is going to be in the desert, where does the water come from?

NORDAN: It does. So typical solar-thermal….again, you’re concentrating the power of the sun to create heat, but on the back end, you’re using that heat to boil water and turn a turbine, just like in any other kind of power plant. The challenge on that back end is that you need that same kind of water that you do in coal and nuclear, which you typically find with big cooling towers next to lakes, right?

Because you have a way of cooling the steam down to turn it back into water. People usually do that by using more water, which means you need to be located near a river or a lake, some kind of source like this. You don’t have this in the desert. The way they’ve gotten around that in this project is by using dry-cooling technology, a fancy name for blowing air past the steam to get it to cool again. That increases the expense, that makes the power more costly, but it also fixes the environmental bomb.

GELLERMAN: So, Matthew Nordan, when do you expect that solar-thermal will become a formidable form of energy in the United States?

NORDAN: My bet would be never, in terms of being a very large part of the electricity mix. And, the reason is, that to build one plant like this one, you have about ten times the amount of land required to build a comparable coal facility, even a greater multiple against a nuclear facility.

And you’ve got to get it all in once place. It’s got to be all together; one continuous big tract, located where there’s a lot of sunlight, where people don’t live, the land is not being put to another use, and there’s not a tremendous concern about wildlife that you might disrupt. I just don’t think that there are that many sites.

This one is the low-hanging fruit. It makes perfect sense. There may be several dozen more like this in California, perhaps multiples of those in other states like Arizona and New Mexico. But as a major contributor to the electricity mix across the country? There just aren’t many places you can put these things.

GELLERMAN: Well, Matthew Nordan, thank you very much, it’s been a real pleasure.

NORDAN: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Matthew Nordan is vice president of VenRock, it’s an early-stage venture capital firm, specializing in clean energy.

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[MUSIC: The Youngbloods “Sunlight” from Ride The Wind (Warner Bros 1971).]

The Scoop on A Unique Dog Waste Digester

Methane and its makers. (Matthew Mazzotta)


GELLERMAN: This is a tale with a happy ending…


SANTOS: Gio, come here puppy. Come on puppy, let’s go. Good boy! Good boy, Gio.

GELLERMAN: Once upon a time there was a man, and his best friend…

SANTOS: I’m Jay Santos and I live in the neighborhood. My dog Gio and I come here probably once or twice a day just to have fun and use the park.


GELLERMAN: Lots of dogs use this small corner park in Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s designed for dogs.

Gio and his best friend Jay Santos. Business is picking up. (Andre Gellerman)


GELLERMAN: There’s a chain link fence surrounding a field of gravel, where Gio, a sleek pharaoh hound, and his new friend, Sadie, a curbstone setter, can run and take care of business. For Gio’s owner Jay Santos, business is picking up.

SANTOS: I have a bag in my hand. I will be making a deposit. (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Ordinarily, Santos would dump the bag into a garbage can, and city workers would haul the contents to a landfill. But since August dog owners at this park have been dumping their pet waste into a work of art called the Park Spark Project.

SANTOS: It’s form and function. I think it’s fun. We put our dog poop into it everyday, and it powers the light. What’s better than that? (Laughs).

Methane and its makers. (Matthew Mazzotta)

GELLERMAN: The art installation is a device that converts pooch waste into gas that powers an antique street lamp, shedding light on a common problem: how to curb canine carbon.

MAZZOTTA: Well my name is Matthew Mazzotta, and I’m a conceptual artist and I live here in Boston and I produced this Park Spark Project. Owning a dog is sometimes not the most environmentally sound thing you can do. I guess this is one way of reducing that footprint.

GELLERMAN: Or carbon paw print, as the case may be. It’s estimated there are nearly 80 million dogs in the United States. That’s a lot of climate changing waste, going to waste, in landfills. Last year, Matt Mazzotta traveled to India where he saw methane digesters used on farms. When he came back home, the light bulb went on over his head

MAZZOTTA: That garbage can used to be full all the time. That’s where I got the idea. It used to be totally full a year ago. I thought to myself, we should be using that…

Making a deposit into the methane digester. (Matthew Mazzotta)

GELLERMAN: Show me how it works…


GELLERMAN: At the edge of the park are two bright yellow metal tanks, and the old fashioned street light.

MAZZOTTA: So this is a digester, it’s a passive system, there’s no electricity, there’s no anything involved. The technology all lies in the fact that it’s anaerobic, which means, what you’re putting in there, you’re depriving it of oxygen.

So, here you have inlet pipe, and when a dog does it’s business, you pick it up, and you throw it in here, in one of these biodegradable bags, it goes inside and sinks to the bottom. And, in that environment, the microbes that are already in the waste, they start the breathe out methane, the same way we breathe out carbon dioxide, they breathe out methane. The dog waste goes in, and then there’s a little stirrer here that just agitates it.


MAZZOTTA: So it just turns like that. This is an old… I wanted some old looking handles, so I went to an antique store and I got this thing. And it kind of mixes this up a bit. It’s not the most essential thing, but it makes it a little bit more efficient.

GELLERMAN: How long does it take for the average bag to turn into a light?

MAZZOTTA: Well, the whole thing is that the bag has to biodegrade first before the dog poop can become usable. I started on cow manure, so I had to wait about a week and a half. And, actually had a scientist come down and he tested it. He says, ‘you know, you’re a little bit low on your pH, put in two boxes of baking soda.’ So then that actually cleared it up, and now the gas is burning nice and white.

GELLERMAN: So, you’ve had nothing else since then?

MAZZOTTA: No, and that’s why I think it’s so magical. I think that’s why I was interested in it. It’s a passive system and it just uses one technology- just close off the oxygen. So you’re using dog waste and water, and nothing else.

GELLERMAN: How much light will a daily dose of doo do?

Conceptual Artist Matthew Mazzotta and his latest creation. (Bruce Gellerman)

MAZZOTTA: So, the digester, the amount of light you’ll get is how big it’s scaled. This particular one I scaled it, I think on the rather small side for the amount of waste that’s coming in here. What I’ve been doing is just burning it all night. Turn it on at 7:30, and then turn it off in the morning when I wake up. But if you scale them a little bit bigger, and if there is more dog waste, this thing could run 24 hours a day, which is the idea, I think. That’s where I think it gets the most exciting-- this free energy source.

GELLERMAN: Not only is it free, but it burns free. I mean, it’s a carbon-recycling project.

MAZZOTTA: Yeah, I think, so there’s three, I think, three layers of awesomeness with this project. The first one is that you’re greening the park, you’re collecting this methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. It’s like 70 times worse than carbon dioxide; this is reducing that by burning it. The second is a free energy source. And, then, the third layer is— what are we going to do with this? And I think that’s an exciting moment. What do we do with this free energy inside the city? I’m trying to collect ideas, so we can either turn it into a popcorn machine, or, something the community actually would want, and participate in.


GELLERMAN: What’s interesting is that it wasn’t an engineer that did this.


GELLERMAN: It was an artist.

MAZZOTTA: Well, I think that there’s a breed of artists that are these interdisciplinary, or trans-disciplinary, artists. They go into other disciplines. Say this technology has already been used, in biology in physics, but I think the artist’s role is to bring it to this new context to make this social role, or something more environmental. I think that’s the role of an artist that I’m in.

GELLERMAN: So, it’s art in context. It’s the context that makes the art.

MAZZOTTA: Yep, yep. It’s where you’re presenting this information. So, scientists might present it in journals, and have all kinds of mathematics involved. I’m taking it and presenting it to a park.

GELLERMAN: Do you have a dog?

MAZZOTTA: I don’t. That’s funny, right? I’ve met a lot of dogs through this, though.


GELLERMAN: Conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta. The lights will go out on his Park Spark Project later this month…but his dog power methane digester has generated a lot of interest from as far as Bogota, Colombia, a small town in Italy, and Hungary. You can check out photos of our happy tale at L-O-E dot org.


Related link:
Park Spark Project

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[MUSIC: Dave Douglas “Dog Star” from Moonshine (Koch Records 2008)]

A Tornado of Birds


GELLERMAN: Call it – the swallows’ swan song. As a prelude to migration, Tree Swallows gather this time of year at the Connecticut River where they merge into a massive cloud, called the Swallow Funnel. Writer Mark Seth Lender lent an ear to their symphony.

LENDER: On the fly-out the tree swallows rise with a roar. Up and up and up and fold into a single form, then spread then crash then break apart and drop down low, just above the island’s shore. Five hundred thousand muted bells, toll left, and toll right, and dive into the tall reeds: No sign; No sound; Not come to rest but a vanishing. Consumed. Then spit out, chord by phrase by crescendo, an echo of birds, dark and brilliant notes upon the sky.

Allegretto. The cloud of Swallows rolls and lofts, a C above High C, clarion to passing hawks and falcons. How it turns their predatory ears and eyes. Passing through and through this great music made by the living flesh of birds their talent fails them.

Finale. In the last descent the swallows funnel down, a grand cacophony. Here they feel most vulnerable, each phrase tutto presto as speed replaces virtuosity. But nothing can follow them, can capture more than a blur. Wings folded back like sixteenth notes cascading in slurs and in staccato. Only a shiver marks their entrance into the phragmites, a fall that should have broken bones. Perhaps, like the conductor’s stern baton - abruptly pianissimo - it is the reeds themselves which bring them to a stop and this safe cushion is why they come here, for the coda of soft landing. To sleep. To wait. To arise once more…

Tree Swallows go their separate ways. They will stop for bayberry when they can find it but mostly they will feed on insects plump with the indulgences of summer and the mild days of early Fall. Over water they gather the all-but-invisible life which hovers there, scooping with open mouths and tiny tongues.

The Connecticut River is an ancient parchment, its ebb and flow a score long studied and well known. Winter is the great river’s last movement, a measure tree swallows can never master, a chorus they must not sing on pain of death. Acclaim will therefore be late, sung by Tree Swallows only at their grand Return to this once and still untrammeled place -

Encore! Encore! Encore...


GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender's is author of the soon to be released book "Salt Marsh Diary, A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” And while you’re at our website, L-O-E dot org, see a slideshow of some of Mark’s photos.

Related link:
Salt Marsh Diary

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[MUSIC: July Skies “Swallows and Swifts” from Dreaming Of Spiers (Rocket Girl records 2002).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead, seeing is believing. A climate change skeptic changes. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

Listener Letters



GELLERMAN: Time again for listener letters, feedback and backtalk. Our story last week about the FDA considering the merits of genetically modified salmon landing on the nation’s tables caught the attention of Margo Pellegrino who heard it on WHYY.

PELLEGRINO: My first reaction was, I'm sorry, but this is scary. We are still learning about genetically modified crops. Maybe I'm just a simpleton, but the "kiss" rule is the best rule to live by (and eat by)-- "keep it simple, silly."

GELLERMAN: Many listeners wrote to say, the thought of a genetically modified fish on their plate didn’t make their lips smack. Support local farmers some said…other’s suggested grow your own food or go vegan. Listener Jon Parker, a supporter of WYPR in Baltimore, Md, had this advice for producers of transgenic fish.

PARKER: Industry: agree to label and try it out in a few markets. Take your time, do this right. Good science, slow open studies, are good business.

GELLERMAN: In response to our story about political interference with Government food inspectors we received this email. It reads, in part…

“I am a Federal Employee who knows first hand about the risks of speaking out and the subsequent retaliation by agency administrators. The Merit System Protection Board, the No FEAR Act, and other so-called Whistleblower protections are considered ineffective by attorneys who specialize in Federal employment law. A real achievement would be changing the law to make speaking to media about agency intransigence and wrongdoing a protected practice. Please do not publish my name or email address.”

Last week, Robin Moore of Conservation International talked to us about expeditions in search of a hundred species of amphibians scientists fear are extinct. Moore said he was hopeful he’d have some good news to report, and promised to let us know as soon as he did. Well good news travels fast. Researchers found three species that didn’t croak.

If you have comments – kudos or criticism – you can leap over to our Facebook page, PRI’s Living on Earth. Our email address is comments@ L-O-E dot org. Or give us a buzz at 800-218-9988.


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Heinz Winner

February 2008, An EIS team member provides scale in a massive landscape of crevasses on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland. (Photo: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)

GELLERMAN: Winners of the prestigious Heinz environmental award have just been announced. This year the Heinz Foundation is honoring a wide variety of environmental innovators including a distinguished academic for his work in sustainable transportation, a pioneer in green chemistry, and a scientist who studies the suspected endocrine disrupting chemical BPA.

Awards and checks for a hundred thousand dollars will also be going to several winners who focus on climate change, among them James Balog. He’s director of Earthvision Trust and a one-time climate change skeptic. James Balog joins us from Boulder Colorado. Welcome to LOE…and congratulations.

BALOG: Well, thank you so much. It’s a wonderful week, and a wonderful honor and a privilege. I feel very blessed.

July 2009, Photographer James Balog with icebergs at Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland, UNESCO World Heritage site. (Photo: Adam LeWinter/Extreme Ice Survey)

GELLERMAN: A climate change skeptic winning one of the premier environmental awards. Now, that’s an achievement.

BALOG: Well, I’m not a skeptic, and I haven’t been in a long time. Twenty years ago, I thought this whole science was based on computer modeling, and I’m a bit of a technological luddite, and I thought that if it was all based on computer modeling, there could be something wrong with it. But then I took the time to learn about the evidence that was in the ice cores, and then I got out into the field and looked at what was happening to the glaciers, and I realized that this was not about models and projections and statistics. This was incredible concrete and real and immediate and happening really quickly.

GELLERMAN: In a sense, seeing is believing.

February 2008, An EIS team member provides scale in a massive landscape of crevasses on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland. (Photo: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)

BALOG: Yeah, absolutely. As a photographer, my whole career and as a once-upon-a-time experiential educator for Outward Bound School, and as a mountaineer for forty years, I am quite keyed in to the feeling of experience. You know, seeing things, feeling things, touching things. Letting the vibrate in your chest, well when you are standing at the side of these glaciers and you’re watching huge masses of ice go away, you really get it.

GELLERMAN: And you’ve captured these images….and, something you call the ‘extreme ice survey.’ Tell me about that.

BALOG: Yes, the extreme ice survey is, so far, a four-year project. We have time-lapse cameras, permanently stationed at glaciers in many parts of the world. They photograph every fifteen minutes, every thirty minutes, every hour, whatever the case may be. And, they keep a living record of the glaciers as they are changing. And, we periodically go out to these remote locations, download the cameras and turn these pictures into video that animate the changing life of these masses of ice.

GELLERMAN: You freeze frame this moment in time, this historic moment in time.

BALOG: What I find so captivating, and what has had me so obsessed by this the past five years, is the realization that this is a monumental and truly historic moment of earth history right now, as the impact of carbon-burning is having these gigantic effects on really enormous masses of the landscape. And, for me as a photographer, to have the opportunity, however sad it may be, to capture these things on film is really extraordinary. You know, you’re seeing history passing in front of the lens, in front of your eyes. And, it’s an awesome and inspiring thing.

July 2009, An EIS field assistant, rappels into Survey Canyon, a meltwater channel, Greenland Ice Sheet. (Photo: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)

GELLERMAN: I went to your website and you have some extraordinary pictures and videos, you’ve made these kind-of time lapse collages. Lets listen to one:

[SOUNDS OF TIME LAPSE COLLAGES FROM BALOG’S WEBSITE: This is it, ground zero. More ice is released into the global ocean, from this glacier, than from any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. If sea level rises, this is where it all begins. This is it, ground zero.]

GELLERMAN: Where is ‘ground zero’? Where is this place that you were photographing?

BALOG: Yeah, what we’re seeing in that clip is the Ilulissat Glacier on the west coast of central Greenland. And, it’s been retreating quite dramatically the past nine years. This summer in Greenland has been the warmest since records started being kept in 1873.

GELLERMAN: One of the images that you have, in your video, shows part of the glacier falling off into the sea, and you super-impose upon it three hundred capital buildings.

BALOG: Three thousand. Yeah, that block of ice that breaks off in that picture is equivalent to 3,000 US Capitol Buildings in volume. So, it was an enormous piece of ice, and when I have opportunities to show that animation at the US Capitol to Congressmen or Senators or to government agency officials, of course, every body gets a big kick out of that comparison.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, but do they get it? Do they get climate change?

July 2009, Extreme Ice Survey field assistant, Adam LeWinter on northeast rim of canyon (approx 150 feet deep) carved into the Greenland Ice Sheet by meltwater. The black deposit in bottom of channel is a sooty deposit called "cryoconite." (Photo: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)

BALOG: I think the vast majority of the legislators do get the climate change story. They understand the factual evidence that’s at hand. But, they have a problem with accepting that evidence because of various other factors, many of them financial and commercial that impinge on their best judgment. And, I’m afraid that the future is going to judge our moment in history rather poorly, when they realize that we’ve been asleep at the wheel, and we haven’t been dealing with the facts that we’ve had at hand.

GELLERMAN: You go way out there, you’re in helicopters, and canoes, you’re out in the middle of nowhere! A lot of adventures. Any misadventures?

BALOG: Ironically, when it’s just about me as a mountaineer, engaging with the landscape- I feel relatively secure with that. The place where I feel anxious is with machinery. We have some of these sites that we only get to by helicopter, and we have had one helicopter, at least, with some serious mechanical problems and it almost wound up going down into the ocean.

And the prospect of trying to survive a swim in 30 degree water with icebergs is not very appealing, and actually, you know you’re going to die in five or ten minutes, so, fortunately, we got through that and everything was fine.

GELLERMAN: You have two children, as I understand, right?

BALOG: I have two girls, one is almost nine, and the other one twenty-two.

GELLERMAN: So, you put your life at great risk here, and yet you’ve got two kids, a wife, and you know… why?

BALOG: That’s a hard question to answer and, you know, I lay awake at night anxious about that many times. But I feel a devotion, and a dedication and an obligation to this work. You know, at a certain point, photography is not a job. It’s a vocation. It’s a calling. This bearing of witness to this historic moment is what calls me. I have to do it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Balog, I want to thank you very, very much. And, congratulations again!

BALOG: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for the time! I appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: James Balog is director of the Extreme Ice Survey and Founder of Earthvision Trust. You can see some of James Balog’s extraordinary photographs on our website, L-O-E dot org. And thanks to KGNU in Boulder, Colorado for the use of their studio.

Related link:
Extreme Ice Survey

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[MUSIC: Soulphonic Soundsystem “Catalina Sunset” from Volume 1 (Convincing Woodgrain Records 2007).]

Taming the Colorado River: Hoover Dam turns 75

Hoover Dam straddles the Arizona-Nevada border on the Colorado River. (Photo: http2007)

GELLERMAN: September 30th marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam. When it was finished in 1935 it was by far the largest dam in the world and considered one of the country’s 7 modern civil engineering wonders, celebrated in films like this 1950s era documentary.

[DOCUMENTARY: “Build a dam in the wilderness, and the world will build a path to it. For many centuries, this was a lonely canyon, unseen and untouched by man. Scorched by a desert sun. Scolded by an angry river slashing its way to the mother sea. Now it lies peaceful and silent, except for the gentle hum of a hydroelectric power plant. The bubbling up of water as it leaves mighty turbines. The cheerful sounds of America on-the-move to see this multipurpose reclamation project man built in black canyon.”]

GELLERMAN: Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the LA Times. His new book “Colossus” documents the history and importance of Hoover Dam. Michael Hiltzik spoke with Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.

A view from the control tower as concrete is poured to build the Dam in February 1934. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

YOUNG: Now the full title of your book is “Colossus: The Hoover Dam and the Making of The American Century.” Why that subtitle?

HILTZIK: Well my thesis, the theme of the book, really is that this project really made America. Hoover Dam provided the water and the power that really allowed the west to grow. And, because the west grew to this extent, really the nation changed.

YOUNG: Tell me a bit about the dam, and the Colorado River, and what is so exceptional about both.

HILTZIK: It’s a beautiful structure, it’s the epitome of machine-age architecture from the 1930’s, and it was a tremendous engineering achievement then. It still stands, head and shoulders above, much of the engineering that we have today. This dam was twice the size of any dam that had ever been built at the time. It required more concrete than had ever been poured in all the dams that the US government had built up to that day. It had to be invented as it went up, because existing construction methods and equipment weren’t adequate to do the task.

Colossus; Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.

Even concrete-- concrete had to be reformulated, new formulas had to be found because mass concrete had never undergone the stresses and strains that this dam was going to undergo. And, this was all done at a time when the United States was under great stress, economic crisis, political uncertainty, and yet the country came together to build it, and it still serves us, today.

YOUNG: Toward the beginning of your book, you have this quote that really stood out to me because it says so much about how people viewed the world back around the early years of the last century. And, I was wondering if you could read that for us. This is from Woodrow Wilson’s Interior Secretary. Who was he?

HILTZIK: His name was Franklin K. Lane. Just to put it in context, this was an era where the word ‘conservation’ didn’t mean the way we think of it today. It meant putting natural resources to use for mankind. The way he put it was, “Every tree is a challenge to us, and every pool of water, and every foot of soil. The mountains are our enemies. We must pierce them and make them serve. The sinful rivers, we must curb.” And, of course the most sinful river of all, was the Colorado.

YOUNG: The sinful rivers? Wow.

HILTZIK: The sinful rivers.

YOUNG: Did they curb that sinful river? The Colorado?

Hoover Dam straddles the Arizona-Nevada border on the Colorado River. (Photo: http2007)

HILTZIK: Well, they achieved a lot in curbing it. But, the river still is willful, some would say it still is sinful. Certainly, the people who lived downstream of the floods in the 1980’s, they would consider it still very sinful. The people’s who lived in the basin, long before Europeans got there, used to think of the river as a dragon because it was so unpredictable and so violent. And, it still has a way of flicking its tail at us even today.

YOUNG: And, the big idea here is to put water to best use for us. But, I was shocked to read in your book how much water we end up wasting, simply because we create these impoundments and allow for evaporation.

HILTZIK: That’s right. There’s a tremendous amount of evaporation, a tremendous amount of loss. Lake Mead, the reservoir of Hoover Dam, occupies the hottest part of the hottest region. It’s the Nevada and Arizona desert. Engineers have measured that twenty percent of the river is probably lost to evaporation each year. On a single weekend, enough water evaporates to serve 17 thousand households for a year.

The white ring around Lake Mead shows how far the water level has dropped since the lake was created. (Photo: loop_oh’s photostream)

YOUNG: And, what becomes of the river after we’ve had our way with it. With the dams, with the impoundments, with the diversions, with the canals. What’s left of the Colorado by the time it finally limps out to the sea?

HILTZIK: The Colorado is probably the most heavily exploited river in North America, possibly in the world. There are six dams downstream from Hoover Dam, now. And of course, one major dam, at least, upstream- Glen Canyon Dam. And that water, every molecule gets used over and over and over again. And, by the time the river reaches it’s delta, it’s barely more than a trickle. This used to be a river that reached the delta with such violence that it could wreck boats in the Gulf of California with its tides. Well that doesn’t happen anymore, it’s barely a trickle. And, the quality of that water is heavily compromised by agricultural chemicals, and salt and silt.

YOUNG: With climate change beginning to show its affects in the American West, what do you think is in store for Lake Mead and the other impoundments on the Colorado as the snow patterns, the snow pack in Colorado begins to change?

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the LA Times and author of “Colossus; Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century”.

HILTZIK: Well, that’s a very good question. We have a good sense of what’s in store, because it’s been happening for at least ten years, and in some cases, even longer. The snow pack, which feeds the Colorado and eventually feeds Lake Mead, has become very erratic, the droughts have gotten longer. There’ve been studies by the National Academy of Sciences and other experts who say there are going to be more periods of violent flooding on the Colorado, and more periods of drought. Well, that’s very hard to manage.

YOUNG: So much of what you write about resonates with us today. Conflicts about how we are going to generate our power. Conflicts about how we are going to distribute water in arid regions. Whether big public works projects can get us out of an economic crisis… these could be today’s headlines!

HILTZIK: That’s right, well, they are today’s headlines. We’re going to be reading these headlines more and more as the years go on because this crisis is not going to go away, it’s only going to get worse. And, we need to be much smarter about how we use resources. Hoover Dam created a tremendous resource, a great economic boon to region and to the nation, but it’s a boon that really needs to be husbanded, and treated with a great deal of respect.

YOUNG: Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, and author of “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.” Thank you very much.

HILTZIK: My pleasure.

Related link:
Bureau of Reclamation on the Hoover Dam

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GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth cartoon super hero Captain Planet turns 20, saving the earth for a generation of kids.

PLANETEER1: Saving our planet is yes, a good thing, however we are but youth! What can we do?

PLANETEER2: Hey, love your accent, babe. You Russian?


GELLERMAN: Captain Planet lasted just 3 seasons but his eco message outlived empires and TV ratings. Living on Earth and our sister program, Planet Harmony, asks 20-somethings how Captain Planet affected their lives. My Planet Harmony dot com welcomes all, and pays special attention to stories affecting minority communities.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Annie Glausser and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Nora Doyle-Burr and Honah Liles. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org, and check out our Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: 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 artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners. The Ford Foundation, The Town Creek Foundation, The Oak Foundation—supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance at a healthy and productive life. Information at Gates foundation dot org. And Pax World Mutual Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at Pax world dot com. Pax World for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI – Public Radio International


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