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

October 8, 2010

Air Date: October 8, 2010



UN Climate Negotiators Meet in China

View the page for this story

Delegates from 150 nations meet in China for climate negotiations. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate talks, about her expectations for an international agreement, given the disappointing results at the Copenhagen summit last year. (06:30)

U.S. Still Behind in Climate Talks

View the page for this story

Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute is at the climate talks in China. She tells host Bruce Gellerman the international community is still looking to America and hoping President Obama will take a strong stand on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. (05:30)

Still Fighting Labor’s Historic Battle of Blair Mountain / Jeff Young

View the page for this story

Blair Mountain, in West Virginia’s coal country, was the scene of the most important event you probably never heard of. The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain pitted thousands of union miners against machinegun toting coal operators. Historians call that five-day battle the largest armed insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us about a new battle for Blair Mountain, one between those who want the site protected and a mountaintop removal coalmine. (11:10)

MacArthur Bee Genius

View the page for this story

What do a jazz pianist, a linguist, a stone carver, and an entomologist have in common? They’re among the winners of this year’s MacArthur genius grants. Host Bruce Gellerman gets the buzz from award winner Marla Spivak, a honeybee expert from the University of Minnesota. (06:30)

Government Low-balled Gulf Oil Disaster

View the page for this story

A new National Commission report finds that the Obama administration underestimated the amount of oil that flowed into the Gulf and then overestimated how much had been removed. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Kate Sheppard, the energy and environmental politics reporter for Mother Jones magazine, about the findings. (03:50)

Up on the Roof with Goats

View the page for this story

Some restaurants have goat on the menu; this one has goats on the roof. A Swedish Restaurant in Wisconsin has become so famous for its rooftop stable that the owner has decided to patent his design. Host Bruce Gellerman asks proprietor Lars Johnson about intellectual property and ornamental livestock. (04:30)

Other Planets Like Earth

View the page for this story

For as long as we've gazed at the heavens, we've never seen a planet that looks quite like us. Some planets were too close to their sun, and some were too far away. Now host Bruce Gellerman asks astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the "Goldilocks” planet that is potentially just right for life. (06:35)

BirdNote®- Christopher Columbus’ Birds / Frank Corrado

View the page for this story

In September of 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew were beginning to feel desperate about reaching land. But he was reassured after seeing some birds that landfall was not far off. Frank Corrado has our BirdNote®. (01:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Christiana Figueres, Jennifer Morgan, Marla Spivak, Kate Sheppard, Lars Johnson, Neil de Grasse Tyson
BIRD NOTE: Frank Corrado

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Climate talks in the People’s Republic set the stage for a technological revolution - maybe we should call it Green China?

FIGUERES: The green race is on and the United States is not a part of that race. In fact, it is remarkably absent from that race and is letting developing countries take the lead.

GELLERMAN: We talk with the UN’s chief climate diplomat about the road to China and beyond. Also - past and present collide in coal country, as mining threatens to bury an historic battlefield.

RULE: It’s worse than burying it. It’s just completely obliterating it. Doing away with it altogether. They’ll ruin an opportunity for a national battlefield monument, which could be a real boon to the economy.

GELLERMAN: The long forgotten battle over Blair Mountain. These stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stay with us!

[MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000).]

Back to top


UN Climate Negotiators Meet in China

Christiana Figueres is the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The Obama Administration plans to put solar panels on the roof of the White House - or rather, back on the White House roof. President Jimmy Carter put them up there first in 1976, with an eye to the future.

CARTER: In the year 2000 the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap efficient energy. A generation from now this solar heater can either be a curiosity – a museum piece, an example of a road not taken -- or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.

The documentary “A Road Not Taken” chronicles what happened to those White House solar panels. Today, one is a museum piece at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. President Reagan had the panels removed in 1986. Now President Obama has told the Department of Energy to buy new solar panels for the executive mansion, but US manufacturers will face stiff competition from Chinese companies.

China has become a major provider of solar panels because of high internal demand and low labor costs. This past week the Chinese city of Tienjin was showcasing its clean energy technology for delegates from around the world. Negotiators gathered there for the final UN climate meeting before the summit in Cancun at the end of the year. The last summit in Copenhagen last December ended in confusion and frustration without a new international treaty.

But there’s an ancient Chinese proverb, “Failure is the mother of success.” And so Christiana Figueres, the new executive secretary of the UN’s climate talks, says now she’s cautiously optimistic.

FIGUERES: I think the major difference is that we all went to Copenhagen with the ambition of having one huge legally binding agreement that somehow would miraculously solve all climate change problems. And I think the big lesson learned is that there is no such magic bullet.

This is a major effort that the global community has embarked on, which is the transformation of the structure of the economy, and that’s not going to happen overnight. The purpose here, for Cancun, is to identify the cornerstones of what will become a new green revolution and new economy, but to do it in a much more realistic way.

GELLERMAN: Cancun of course is the big meeting in Mexico scheduled for the end of November, beginning of December. But are you saying that you don’t anticipate or expect a new international agreement to be added to the Kyoto Protocol which lapses in, what, 2012?

FIGUERES: Let me put it this way: I think the conclusion is that you cannot build a tall building without setting the foundation. And, last year, they tried to build a tall building without having any foundation.

This year countries have been focusing and are quite eager to set the foundations in Cancun, upon which they will then build. There are many countries that are still very committed to building the tall building-- which would be a legally binding agreement.

GELLERMAN: Well, lets parse the problems. Foundations are built out of concrete, what are the concrete- the expectations that you have- for this?

FIGUERES: First, the very important objective of capturing the commitments that have been made during this year, but that have not been officialized.

We have all industrialized countries having made commitments as to what targets they would be able to commit to with respect to their emissions reductions. We also have 38 developing countries that have made public their intent to manage their carbon growth. Since we are in China, let me just share with you the Chinese commitment.

China has a national climate change program- they’re very serious about this, and they’re doing this because of two major reasons: A. because they know that it is good for their own economy and their own growth; and B. because they know that it is their responsibility toward the rest of the world.

GELLERMAN: China and the United States produce, what, 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases- is the United States doing enough?

Christiana Figueres is the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

FIGUERES: No, sadly the United States is really not doing enough. The United States is in a, I would say, in a very sad situation, where, over eight years it did not participate in any of these global efforts. The United States is vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, as we have seen recently the reliance on fossil fuels led to a very dangerous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, the United States is not exempt from the negative impacts of climate. On the other hand, the United States could very well be addressing climate change in a responsible manner as a very important opportunity to give a boost to its clean technologies. The green race is on, and the United States is not a part of that race. In fact, it is remarkably absent from that race and is letting developing countries take the lead.

GELLERMAN: I guess China spent, what, two times as much on clean energy as the United States.

FIGUERES: Good example. They are having one million new jobs being created in the clean energy sector. Because China knows that it is to its competitive advantage to prepare now for what we will undeniably see, which is a low carbon future.

GELLERMAN: You have an incredibly hard job and you sound cautiously optimistic. I’m wondering- how are you holding up?

FIGUERES: Wonderful! It’s not hard, I have a passion for this topic. Actually, it’s the most inspiring job in the world.

GELLERMAN: That’s Christiana Figueres, the new head of the UN climate talks speaking to us from Tienjin, China.

Related link:
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Back to top


U.S. Still Behind in Climate Talks

Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute. (World Resources Institute)

GELLERMAN: Jennifer Morgan was also in Tienjin. She once served as a senior advisor on climate change to the British and German governments. These days Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute.

MORGAN: I think the mood is mostly one of pragmatism- a sense that there’s quite a lot at stake with these negotiations. So, you do have a greater sense that people are trying to find solutions to get some outcomes at the next big meeting in Cancun.

GELLERMAN: Jennifer, what’s the biggest nut to crack in the climate talks?

MORGAN: I think one piece is countries around the world- many of whom are already moving to put renewable energy laws in place and energy efficiency laws in place- are looking to see that the United States is really serious about tackling this problem.

The lack of the Senate’s ability to even vote on a climate bill has brought a bit of dismay, I would say, internationally. So, I think one big step is, that they need to hear from the President that this remains a priority and that he stands by the promise that he made at Copenhagen.

GELLERMAN: Can there be a new international climate treaty without US legislation?

MORGAN: It is possible. We, at WRI have done some analysis on how far the US could reduce its emissions. Based on some very basic authorities that the administration already has, given to it by the Supreme Court, and we found that if the US is able to, the administration, to really push far ahead and states move forward in acting- that without legislation they could get close to the Copenhagen pledge that the president made last year.

GELLERMAN: In the absence of federal legislation, the states have been moving ahead. Thirty or thirty-one states have renewable energy portfolio standards, which demand that there be an increased amount of renewable energy used in their states. But, there is the effort in California now, to roll that back- to move California away from a renewable energy standard.

MORGAN: Yes, I don’t understand that effort at all. California is one of the leaders, which has befitted it not only from, obviously, reducing emissions that cause global warming, but also making it much more efficient, and therefore less vulnerable to electricity and energy shocks, and also positioning itself in the clean energy race, as far as investments in renewable energy.

So, it doesn’t make sense either from an economic or an energy jobs or climate perspective. And I certainly hope that those efforts to roll that back don’t succeed.

GELLERMAN: Are we running out of time? The UN scientists had hoped to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. There was a leaked document earlier this year that suggests we’re heading to three degrees Celsius.

MORGAN: Well we are certainly running out of time. I mean, the pace of these negotiations is so far away from the pace of the build up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and the impacts that are already starting to happen around the world.

And, what we would hope is that the gap would be closed between that science and the political will. We need emissions, optimally, to peak in 2015 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And unless leaders really re-emerge and make sure that the world collectively is on track, we are not going to be able to avoid some of those impacts.

Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute. (World Resources Institute)

GELLERMAN: I remember in Copenhagen the sense of enthusiasm was palpable, and then by the time this thing ended, there was such a sense of disappointment. I’m just wondering now- do you feel that the momentum has been regained?

MORGAN: Some of the momentum is being regained. This weekend, actually, there is a day of action on the tenth of October in 2010, where I believe there are actions planned in over 170 countries around the world to take action and show that the movement to tackle climate change amongst youth and everyday citizens is still strong.

And I hope that that can enthuse the governments to listen to their citizens and not to be just dismayed from one meeting. But, to really take on this challenge and find solutions, because time is ticking. And, there is an opportunity to grasp in Cancun.

GELLERMAN: Well Jen, good luck. I look forward to seeing you in Cancun, Mexico.

MORGAN: Thanks! I think we will need luck, but hopefully luck will be on our side.

GELLERMAN: Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program of the Washington based World Resources Institute. She’s in Tienjin, China for the climate negotiations. Jennifer, thanks a lot.

MORGAN: You’re very welcome, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth will have extensive coverage from Cancun when climate negotiators meet in December. And check out our website. There you can explore the issues, the effects and the science of climate change. You’ll find it at L-O-E dot org. And while you’re on line, head over to our Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth.

Related link:
World Resources Institute

Back to top


Still Fighting Labor’s Historic Battle of Blair Mountain

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The battle over mountaintop removal just heated up. Coal companies and West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin have sued the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wants to curb the destructive form of mining, while the coal industry is trying to get a permit for what would be the largest mountain top removal project ever. It’s at Arch Coal’s mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

In the mountain state, mining is the political issue, and in the race for the US Senate, Govenor Manchin, a Democrat, and Republican businessman John Raese are angling to show who is the best friend of coal.

Certainly, it’s not third-party candidate Jesse Johnson. Johnson is among those fighting to preserve the Logan site. This isn’t the first battle that’s been fought over these mountain ridges. They were also the scene of a bloody, nearly forgotten chapter in American labor history, where, as L-O-E’s Jeff Young tells it, mining rubble now threatens to bury the memory once and for all.


YOUNG: It wasn’t something Jimmy Weekley learned in school. When he was a child the state erased the Battle of Blair Mountain from textbooks. But Weekley knows the history the way many people here in West Virginia’s coal country do: from stories passed down in family lore.

WEEKLEY: I heard many, many stories on it. This was the largest battle.

YOUNG: Weekley, a painfully thin, chain-smoking 70 year old, stands on the ridge not far from his home. It’s where union miners and coal operators once met in one of labor’s bloodiest battles.

WEEKLEY: See the North was already unionized but the South wasn’t, so they started a march to come here.

YOUNG: Now, Weekley’s among a handful of local people working to save a mountain and resurrect a forgotten piece of American history.

[WOMAN SINGING: “Come all you poor workers good news to you I’ll tell,
how the good old union is coming here to dwell. Which side are you on, which side are you on?”]

YOUNG: In late august 1921 some ten thousand union coal miners armed themselves with hunting rifles and World War I weapons and started to march.

GREEN: There’s been nothing quite like it in modern American history. It was the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the civil war.

YOUNG: Labor historian James Green at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is working on a book about the battle. Green says the marchers were heading to Mingo County, which was controlled by non-union coal operators.

GREEN: Martial law had been declared in Mingo County, union organizers were put in jail, they were not allowed jury trials, no one was allowed to even read the newspaper in Mingo County. And, they were determined to march on Mingo County to liberate their brothers from prison.

YOUNG: To get there, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. That’s where coal operators had a mercenary force of their own led by a sheriff named Don Chafin.

GREEN: Chafin and his men had fortified Blair Mountain with machine guns and their own force of over three thousand men. So it really was a full-scale battle and what journalists at the time referred to as a virtual civil war. And they did start shooting at each other.

YOUNG: The Battle raged five days. At least 16 died. Coal operators dropped crude bombs from biplanes-- the first aerial bombing of US civilians. It took federal troops to end the fighting—18 hundred of them, the largest peacetime deployment against civil unrest.

But maybe the most remarkable thing about the Battle of Blair Mountain is that very few Americans have even heard of it. In West Virginia, Jimmy Weekley and his allies want to change that.


YOUNG: Weekley walks Blair Mountain’s ridge with Tom Rule, a photographer and history buff, and Jesse Johnson, a filmmaker and political candidate. They begin sifting through the leaf litter.

RULE: Well, we were up here the other day and we came up with a bunch of…

JOHNSON: Shell casings!

RULE: With a bunch of shell casings right in this little area.

JOHNSON: You know, there’s more than a million rounds of spent cartridges laying all over this. And you know, we had metal detector hits going all the way up this ridgeline here.

YOUNG: The age, type and location of the spent shells tell Johnson he’s on the very spot where miners and mercenaries fought it out nearly ninety years ago.

Johnson’s connection runs deep. His great, great uncle was among the union marchers.

JOHNSON: You know, I feel honored to be here and I feel humbled to walk this hallowed ground. It’s no different than walking on any of the great battlefields from the civil war or from revolutionary war except this particular battle was for the people and giving people their rights.

YOUNG: Johnson thinks Blair Mountain could be a tourist destination if it got the right protection and promotion. He’s trying to make it an issue in his long-shot campaign for the US Senate. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates are strong coal supporters.

Johnson’s a candidate for the Mountain Party, which formed in opposition to mountaintop removal and that mining puts Blair Mountain’s past and present on a collision course.


YOUNG: A short walk from the battle site, Johnson, Rule and Weekley watch trucks loaded with drilling and blasting equipment climb the hill.

RULE: And they’re blasting up there?

WEEKLEY: Yup. They’re coming right this way with the mountaintop removal job. Going right on through.

YOUNG: Arch Coal company wants to expand its mountaintop removal mine to blast away the remaining ridge and expose billions of dollars worth of coal. At peak production that could employ some 230 miners. But Rule argues that deep mines could get the coal without burying the historic site.

RULE: It’s worse than burying it, it’s just completely obliterating it. Doing away with it altogether. They’ll ruin an opportunity for a national battlefield monument, which could be a real boon to the economy.

YOUNG: The mining added urgency to the campaign to protect Blair Mountain. But that effort has taken some strange twists and turns. Appalachian State University archeology professor Harvard Ayers worked to get the National Park Service to recognize the site.

And in March 2009, it paid off. Ayers says, the Park Service put Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places.

AYERS: We popped champagne corks and celebrated across the Appalachians to see this wonderful and important archeological site finally protected.

YOUNG: But Ayers says the celebration did not last long.

AYERS: It lasted about six or seven days. [Laughs] On April sixth, the state historic preservation officer sent a letter to the National Park Service saying, ‘you know guys, we just screwed up, and we just happened to find some things that got lost on our desk and now it turns out there are more people who object than don’t object.’

YOUNG: Park Service rules say that if more than half of the affected landowners object, a site cannot be on the National Register.

And in December, the Register’s Keeper removed Blair Mountain from the list. Ayers thought that late discovery of new landowners seemed fishy. So he hired a real estate lawyer to track down deeds and tax records.

AYERS: Lo and behold he found that there were two dead people on there, one who had been dead for 20-something years. It was amazing. And taking those numbers then, we found that indeed, the state had fudged the numbers.

YOUNG: According to Ayers’s list, most landowners support putting the site on the register. Ayers, along with local groups, the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued the Park Service.

A Park Service spokesperson declined to comment. At the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, deputy director Susan Pierce says her department just followed the rules.

PIERCE: We provided lists of property owners. There’s a been a lot of talk regarding the list that may or may not have included folks that were deceased, however we’ve moved forward from that.

YOUNG: Pierce says the site is still eligible for listing on the register. She wants the Park Service to start over with the nomination.

But a petition circulating among historians rejects that approach, and urges the Park Service to restore Blair Mountain to the national register. Historian James Green is among the three dozen academics, artists and filmmakers who have signed on.

GREEN: This is where an important battle was fought for industrial freedom. And to not only forget about it and leave it out of textbooks, but then wipe out the physical reality of that place is also to eliminate a very important memory from the national landscape.


YOUNG: A coal truck roars to the foot of Blair Mountain, through the little community of Blair—or what’s left of it. Jimmy Weekley walks a grassy roadside lot where houses once stood.

WEEKLY: Well you see all the empty spaces here, there was one, two, three houses here. There’s one, two… [counting as he walks off]

YOUNG: A little more than a decade ago there were nearly five hundred homes in Blair.

Now, there are about 40. Weekley says it’s due to the mountaintop removal mining. The constant noise and dust from blasting and excavation took a toll. Then coal companies bought out landowners. Weekley has stayed put.

WEEKLEY: My price? It can’t be sold. I lived there 70 years, sir. They offered me $2 million for it and I turned it down.

YOUNG: Two million dollars!

WEEKLY: Yes sir.

YOUNG: I mean, that’s a pretty plot, don’t get me wrong, it’s really pretty, but two million dollars seems pretty rich!

WEEKLY: Not rich enough for me.


YOUNG: If Arch Coal gets its EPA permit, it could mine more than two thousand acres, bending in a horseshoe shape right around Weekley’s little plot of land.

After that, the wooded hills and stream he grew up along would look like the mined-out sites nearby. Weekley points to one across the valley.

WEEKLY: Look over here to this place right here, you don’t see no mountain ranges, it’s all flat. Ten square miles over there. Now, that’s what they’re wanting to do here.

And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit up there and let the son of a b****es cover me up! They ain’t gonna do it!

YOUNG: For most of America, what happened on Blair Mountain is long forgotten. But here in Appalachia, it’s a battle that’s still being fought. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Blair, West Virginia.

Related links:
- Read more of the history and the petition circulating among historians at Friends of Blair Mountain
- Sierra Club statement on its lawsuit against the National Park Service
- West Virginia History and Archives collection on Blair Mtn.
- NPS National Register of Historic Places
- UMass Professor of Labor History James Green

Back to top


MacArthur Bee Genius

University of Minnesota bee scientist Marla Spivak. (University of Minnesota)

GELELRMAN: Genius comes in many forms and every year the MacArthur Foundation rewards genius in many fields, and sometimes, many fingertips.

[MUSIC: Jason Moran “To Bob Vatel Of Paris” from Ten (Blue Note Records 2010).]

GELLERMAN: A jazz pianist and composer is among the 23 winners of the MacArthur Award – the so-called genius grant this year. So is a stone carver, a linguist working to preserve the Algonquin language, a TV writer, and John Dabiri, a Cal Tech biophysicist who studies jellyfish.

DABIRI: In my work we study both the successes and the failures of biological systems. And then we try to take that knowledge and use it to improve engineering systems like underwater vehicles, cardiac diagnosis of heart failure and more recently wind energy.

GELLERMAN: In recognition for their creative contributions in their fields, MacArthur Fellows each receive half a million dollars, no strings attached.

One winner who created plenty of buzz this year is Marla Spivak, a professor of Entomology. She studies honeybees at the University of Minnesota. Congratulations Professor!

SPIVAK: Thank you very much!

GELLERMAN: So, how did you find out that you were a MacArthur Fellow?

SPIVAK: They set me up. They told me a woman named Liz Brooks was coming to talk to me about a freelance story she was writing and she didn’t’ show up.

And instead the phone in my office rang and they asked for, they said they were calling for Liz Brooks and I said that she hadn’t arrived. And they said, well that they were calling for her and that I should sit down and, at that point I had thought that Liz Brooks had died.


SPIVAK: I didn’t even know her. But, it took me awhile to figure out what the whole conversation was about (laughs.) But then they let me know that I had received this fellowship.

GELLERMAN: And, what did you think?

SPIVAK: Well I was floored. Actually, I didn’t really believe they had the right person. And I was having a lot of trouble getting my mind around what they were trying to tell me, so I had to take some notes (laughs) as they were speaking, to help it sink in.

GELLERMAN: Your work with bees sounds fun. Where’d you get the passion for bees?

SPIVAK: Well, I’ve been interested in bees since I was 18 years old. And, I worked for different bee keepers, and done research in different areas, and I just have loved bees ever since I read about them and started working with them.

GELLERMAN: Well when I was reading about you and your work with bees- it’s easy to think that working with bees is kind of quirky, but, they’re really important- they pollinate, what, a third of the United States’ food supply?

SPIVAK: That’s mostly our fruits and vegetables. And if you include alfalfa hay, and you know we need seed, we need alfalfa seed to plant the hay and considering where the hay goes- you know, to our dairy industry and to our meat industry- then you can see that the benefits of pollination extend way beyond just some fruits and vegetables.

GELLERMAN: So, lets talk about your work. What you’ve been focusing on is ways to keep bees healthy.

SPIVAK: Yes, that’s what we do. And that includes things like breeding bees for their own defenses against diseases and parasites. And, currently we’re looking at resins that bees collect called propolis from certain trees.

So, up in this area it would be poplar trees, birch trees, alder. And, they use the resin inside the nest to seal up cracks and to line in the nest cavity.

And, for humans we’ve known that propolis has a lot of antimicrobial properties. So, for example, it even has activity against the HIV virus, and many other bacteria and fungi and viruses, but no one has ever thought to ask what the resins do for the bees themselves.

And we know now, from a student’s PhD research that it really benefits their immune systems. They use it like a varnish, or a cement, inside the nest. An analogy might be if you are living in a house with dust mites or mold, if you would paint your house inside with these resins, propolis, they would kill of the molds and the dust mites, and so your immune system wouldn’t be constantly fighting that battle.

GELLERMAN: I was reading that you also focus on how genetically influenced behaviors confer disease resistance to the entire colonies.

SPIVAK: Yes, we’ve been breeding bees for hygienic behavior, which is a particular behavior of the bees, and that, at a colony level, gives them resistance to disease and mite parasites. And so, in this behavior the bees sniff out diseased larvae.

And they sniff this out with their antennae, their antennae is their nose, if you will, and they’re able to detect these diseased larvae and then they throw them out of the nest.

GELLERMAN: Bees have been really taken it on the chin, lately. I know about the varro mite, I did a story on that 10 years ago. But now they’ve got this colony wasting disease. Do you think your research is going to help bees be sustainable?

SPIVAK: I hope so, it’s going to take a big collective effort. It won’t be just me, for sure. There’s a lot of good research going on throughout the United States now on how to keep bees healthy, and actually a lot of good research from Europe and Canada, too.

So, I think, together we’ll come up with, we’ll try to figure out together what is causing colony collapse disorder and what’s compromising bee health in general. And, I think we can make some changes, some cultural changes, maybe some genetic changes in the bees- the cultural practices in the beekeepers- to help keep bees alive.

University of Minnesota bee scientist Marla Spivak (University of Minnesota)

GELLERMAN: Professor, I’ve got to ask you. Do you like honey?

SPIVAK: I love honey (laughs).

GELERMAN: Well, Professor Spivak, I want to thank you very much, and congratulations!

SPIVAK: Thank you so much.

[MUSIC: Jason Moran: Planet Rock” from Modernistic (blue Note Records 2002).]

GELLERMAN: Well, by the way, do you know Jason Moran? Did you ever hear of his music?

SPIVAK: I have to admit that I’ve only heard his music in the last day. And, I hope that if he hears that…he’s not offended.

GELLERMAN: Well he probably just heard about you, Professor, too.

SPIVAK: (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: The music of fellow MacArthur fellow - Jason Moran. And here’s some sweet news that’ll prick up the antennae of Marla Spivak and fellow honey lovers. Scientists believe they may have discovered the cause of the mysterious colony collapse disorder, which has killed up to 40 percent of the nation’s honey bees. Make that causes-- researchers have found a fungus and a virus, working together, may be the culprits.

Scientists at the Army’s Edgewood Biological Center and the Bee Alert Team at the University of Montana report finding the fungus-virus combination in every killed colony, though neither appears able to destroy the bees alone. Other suspected causes of the bizarre disorder have been floated. They include genetically modified crops, pesticides, and radiation from cell phone towers.

Back to top


Government Low-balled Gulf Oil Disaster

Kate Sheppard is an environmental journalist for Mother Jones. (Mother Jones)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. An investigation into the BP Gulf oil spill raises serious questions about how the White House handled the disaster and the flow of information to the public. The findings are in preliminary reports by a national commission. Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics for Mother Jones magazine. Hi Kate!

SHEPPARD: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: This is a preliminary report, but it’s pretty damning.

SHEPPARD: I think that is absolutely the case. I mean, this report really shows that the administration was not necessarily at all prepared for this disaster in the Gulf, and didn’t react as quickly, or was not necessarily as honest with the public about what was going on down there, as we’d like to think it was.

GELLERMAN: It was President Obama who appointed the commission in the first place, yeah?

SHEPPARD: It was, but this is a bipartisan commission that has two chairs, one from either party here, and it’s intended to be non-partisan in its exploration of the disaster and the future of off-shore drilling.

GELLERMAN: Well they charged that the Obama Administration, at least in this preliminary report, was too optimistic at the get-go, was slow to respond, consequently.

SHEPPARD: It absolutely shows that that is the case. It shows that it initially underestimated the extent of the spill, and did not necessarily send enough responders to the area, and then, in realizing how bad it was flooded resources there without necessarily sending them to the right places.

GELLERMAN: I remember they first said that there was a thousand barrels, then a few days later it was five thousand- but that was no where near really what was spilling into the Gulf.

SHEPPARD: I think this is probably the most interesting part of the report is you see those numbers grow over time.

The report reveals that that one thousand barrels per day figure that they used for the first week after the spill, actually just came from BP and it seems that it was kind of pulled from the air. The administration didn’t really seem to verify it at all and relied on that number for the first days.

Kate Sheppard is an environmental journalist for Mother Jones. (Mother Jones)

The number was later increased to five thousand barrels per day, but again the report shows that that number also really seems to have come from nowhere.

A scientist over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came up with that figure, but he was not someone who was necessarily an expert on coming up with that calculation, he wasn’t using peer reviewed existing methodologies. And even the scientists said that this was just a rough estimate. And then we found out the actual figure was about 12 times that size.

GELLERMAN: It was by August that this thing is capped. And, Carroll Browner, who is the director of the White House office of Energy and Climate Change policy, appears on all the networks and she comes up with a very rosy understanding of how much oil is in the Gulf.

BROWNER: I think it’s also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment and more than three quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone- it was captured, it was skimmed, it was burned, it was contained. Mother nature did her part, and that’s good news.

SHEPPARD: I think absolutely she was wrong. If you actually look at the report it showed that 75 percent of the oil wasn’t gone, it was still out there in the environment.

It was dispersed, it was on the beaches, it was in the atmosphere in some way. It wasn’t gone, it was just maybe not visible. This is something else that this report points out is that the administration also said repeatedly that this was a document that was peer reviewed by independent experts, and that’s absolutely not the case. That did not happen at all.

GELLERMAN: Kate, when is the final report due?

SHEPPARD: Final report is not due until mid-January. This is just the initial staff-draft, so it could change substantially between now and then.

GELLERMAN: You expect more revelations?

SHEPPARD: Well, we’ll see. One of the big issues that seems to be impairing the ability of this commission to obtain information is that they don’t have the power of subpoena legislation to give them the power has stalled in the Senate.

If they do get that power, which will let them call forward witnesses and demand documents- they could actually have a lot more information to work with before they put out that final report.

GELLERMAN: Kate, thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.

SHEPPARD: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics for Mother Jones Magazine.

Related link:
Click Here For The National Commission’s Series of Reports

Back to top


Up on the Roof with Goats

Goats are natural climbers and enjoy the elevation.

GELLERMAN: We got this from the Wall Street Journal, not from the paper’s ‘Heard on the Street’ column -- it’s more like herd on the roof story. At Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in beautiful Door County Wisconsin you’ll find traditional Scandinavian meatballs, pancakes, and salmon on the menu -- and goats on the roof. We kid you not.
The goats are the restaurant’s unusual trademark, and owner Lars Johnson will lock legal horns with anyone who dares to copy it. We caught up with Lars Johnson by cell phone early one morning.

JOHNSON: Hello? Hello?

GELLERMAN: Where are you right now?

JOHNSON: We’re in the process of putting our goats up on the roof for the day.

GELLERMAN: Goats on the roof….

JOHNSON: Yeah, well, you know, we back in 1973, we brought the building over from Scandinavia similar to Lincoln logs, and it’s a Norweigan farm building from Norway, and we put grass on our roof. And, shortly after that we decided the best thing for our restaurant was to let goats graze on the roof.

GELLERMAN: And, how many goats have you got?

JOHNSON: Usually up on the roof there’s anywhere from six to eight, and the roof is approximately 15,000 square feet, and its up and down and the pitch is similar to any roof- but it’s grass. And goats are natural climbers, and they’re very affectionate animals.

GELLERMAN: Where are they right now?

JOHNSON: Well, they are on the roof with me, this morning. I am actually talking to you on top of our roof this morning, and it’s a beautiful sunny day in Door County, Wisconsin.

GELLERMAN: The goats are a big draw, people flock to your restaurant.

JOHNSON: They do indeed. We serve about 3,000 people a day in 124 feet restaurant. And, the goats are indeed part of the draw.

GELLERMAN: I guess there’s so much of a draw that you’ve trademarked the goats on the roof.

JOHNSON: We did. And I guess the legal term is called ‘tradedraft’. And it’s a service mark, and we did this in the mid-90’s- our law firm recommended to us that we have something that we should protect.

GELLERMAN: You really can trademark having goats on a roof of a restaurant?

JOHNSON: Well, evidently so. We filed a mark back in the ‘90s with the US Patent and Trademark office, and we have a service mark.

GELLERMAN: Now I heard that you’re a really naysayer when it comes to other people putting goats on their roof.

JOHNSON: Well, not necessarily true. I think that in order to protect the mark, we’re always interested in who possibly has violated the mark, and we’re certainly interested in talking to people about licensing agreements. And that’s the whole intent. It’s that we’re not out to put people out of business.

GELLRMAN: So, have other restaurateurs tried to put goats on their roof?

JOHNSON: Well, to our knowledge, only one in the United States. And, it was down in Georgia. We certainly recognized that he has a very viable business and a very popular business, and we entered into an agreement with him, so that he can continue keeping his goats on the roof.

And, I wish them all the luck and continued good success in business.

GELLERMAN: Cause I heard that there were some goats that had hoped up on an iHop sign in Virginia, I guess it was.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that is indeed true. I guess recently, and that was a very innocent thing that happened, on a billboard, I think, and the goats were grazing on the hillside and goats are climbers. So, they would jump up on the billboard, and naturally people would pull over and found it very interesting and people were taking pictures of the goats on the billboard.

And so, there’s really no violation of the trademark or tradedraft in that particular case. Certainly if they appear on the roof of any iHops, then there possibly is a violation.

GELLERMAN: So, McDonald’s has it’s arches, KFC it’s Colonel, and you’ve got your goats.

JOHNSON: There you go.

GELLERMAN: Now I guess you’ve heard all of the goat jokes there are, right?

JOHNSON: Ha, most of them.

GELLERMAN: Got a favorite?

JOHNSON: Oh, you know, I do have a favorite, you know, but it’s funny because I have a great deal of respect for Muhammed Ali and a few years ago he called himself the goat and I was wondering why he did that. And if you looked into a little bit further, goat stood for Greatest of All Time. And I thought that if anybody deserves that title, it was Muhammed Ali.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Had you ever heard this one? When people copy your trademark it really gets your goat?

JOHNSON: Ha! I love it! (Laughs) I love it.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Johnson I want to thank you very much, it’s been a real pleasure.

JOHNSON: Thank you as well.

GELLERMAN: Lars Johnson pastures his goats on the roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Door County, Wisconsin.

Related links:
- Live goat cam, so you don't miss a bleat
- Al Johnson is one of the top grossing restaurants in Wisconsin
- This story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal

Back to top


Other Planets Like Earth

Neil deGrasse Tyson brings the wonder of the cosmos to everyone. His program NOVA Now resumes on PBS this winter.

GELLERMAN: Who hasn’t stared into the starry night and felt, you know, alone?

Well, seems there are a lot of neighborhoods in our universe and over the past 20 years astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets. However, they’ve been either too big, too small, too hot or too cold to sustain life.

But astrophysicist Neil de GrasseTyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, says a newly discovered planet holds out the tantalizing prospect of being “ just right.”

DE GRASSE TYSON: Yeah, yeah, it’s a jackpot actually. What we’ve always been curious about was whether any of them orbited their host star at the right distance where you could sustain liquid water- if the planet had an atmosphere. And most of the planets, nearly all of those planets were not in this ‘Goldilocks Zone.’

The one or few that were are huge Jupiter-sized planets that no one imagined that you’d have life on Jupiter. So, the holy grail in this exercise, was trying to find an Earth-sized planet in the Goldilocks zone around one of these stars, and that’s what was just announced.

GELLERMAN: This Goldilocks planet- the one that’s outside of our solar system, does it have a name?

DE GRASSE TYSON: Uh, yeah, well it’s Gliese-581G.

GELLERMAN: It kind of rolls of the tongue.

DE GRASSE TYSON: I know, and Gliese is the name of the catalog. 581, that’d be the number in the catalog. G is the Gth object found the system- so it’s not a lone planet in orbit around the single star, there’s other stuff there.

And, so that’s part of what’s exciting about it is that it’s a star system that it’s a part of. It’s where many of the exo-planets have been found.

GELLERMAN: So, what exactly is an exoplanet?

DE GRASSE TYSON: That’s just a word that we give to planets outside of our own solar system. So, we’ve got our 8… get over it. (Laughs).


DE GRASSE TYSON: And then we go to other stars and they’ve got planets of their own. And, they used to be called extra-solar-planets, but that’s too many syllables and unnecessary, so, they’re exoplanents. And then there’s the field of study that is in search of life and it’s exobiology. The exo is what gets you out of our own solar system.

GELLERMAN: In exobiology the ex could also be for extreme biology.

DE GRASSE TYSON: Yes, in fact, excellent perceptive point. There’s biology on earth thriving in extreme conditions that would kill us post-haste. And, we call those extremophiles, actually, lovers of extreme environments.

That has allowed people who look for life elsewhere in the universe to cast a much wider net of the conditions under which they think life might thrive. Simply because of the broad conditions that we find life thriving here on earth- high temperature, low temperature, high pressure, high radiation- and you say ‘hey, wait a minute! It doesn’t just need a room temperature warm pond.’ If it can thrive in all these conditions- bacteria life that is- then why can’t we look in many more places than we have before?

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it turns out that life is so tenacious, it really can exist in very extreme conditions.

DE GRASSE TYSON: Right. Not all life. There’s some life that can, and does and thrives. And so, what it means is, if you need intelligent life to have a warm pond- forget it (laughs). Figure out how to talk to bacteria and that might be all you’ll be finding. But, nonetheless, it would still be a remarkable discovery to find life of any variety out there, even if it’s just single-celled life.

GELLERMAN: But if we went to an exo-planet, we could literally trip over something and we might not know it’s life.

DE GRASSE TYSON: Yeah, that’s an interesting philosophical point. Whether there could be forms of life that are beyond our awareness, or our capacity to even register as life- and I once sat a little too long with a philosopher who towards the end said, “I wonder if rocks are alive.” I said, “Ok, I’m done with this conversation.”


DE GRASSE TYSON: (Laughs). “I’m sorry, I’m not going with you there on that one, alright? Take that one back to the philosophy coffee lounge.” But, normally when we think of life we think of a metabolism, an ability to process energy, we think of its ability to make copies of itself. But now, by the way, biologists as much as they might celebrate the diversity of life on earth, at the end of the day they have to confess that they have only a sample of one.

Because all life on earth has common DNA. All life we’ve ever investigated- oak trees, lobsters, jellyfish, humans. And, as a result, we’re not really in a position to assert what the minimum criteria for life should be. And so, that’s an unfortunate situation and part of what feeds this eager search for life elsewhere in the universe and nearby stars.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson brings the wonder of the cosmos to everyone. His program NOVA Now resumes on PBS this winter.

GELLERMAN: In astronomy, nearby is a relative term.

DE GRASSE TYSON: (Laughs) I should have made that clear! You’re absolutely right. This one is about 20 light years away, which if you wanted to visit it on the very fastest spacecraft we have ever launched, it would take about 300,000 years. So you need really fertile people on board this spacecraft, or just be happy with the telescopes.

I’d rather just stay at home at Earth, on Earth, and use my telescope to check it out.

GELLERMAN: Well, the Russians say they are going to be launching a space hotel soon, within five years. Have you heard about that?

DE GRASSE TYSON: Yeah, well, you know everybody…here’s the problem: normally we are at the head of this innovation and entrepreneurship, and my big concern is, just as an American, that the rest of the world has discovered space. We know that. China has just sent a mission to the moon just a few days ago, and here we are trying to convince ourselves and Congress that it’s a cool thing to do.

And that there’s unlimited resources. And, people aren’t listening strongly in America as they are listening in other countries. So, sure, more power to them. Put up a hotel. And then that means they collect our rent, that’s just how that goes, you know.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m just thinking about all the frequent-flier miles I could have by going to this Russian hotel actually.
DE GRASSE TYSON: (Laughs) I bet they’d have to recalculate what the unit of reward is.

GELLERMAN: Frequent light-years, actually.

DE GRASSE TYSON: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson. He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. T, always a pleasure.

DE GRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me!

GELLERMAN: You can hear our program anytime on our website, or get a download for your MP3 player. The address is L-O-E dot org. That's L-O-E dot O-R-G. There you’ll also find pictures and more information about our stories. And check out our Facebook page, it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And while you’re on line, visit My Planet Harmony dot com. Our sister program, Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at My Planet Harmony dot com.

Back to top


BirdNote®- Christopher Columbus’ Birds

Sandwich Terns (Photo: Tom Grey ©)

GELLERMAN: From space exploration in search of distant planets to a seafarer seeking a distant place on earth. As every school kid knows, ‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ And as BirdNote®’s Frank Corrado recounts, he discovered birds.


CORRADO: As Christopher Columbus neared land in 1492, clues in the form of birds gave him hope that landfall was not far off. We read from his journal: “14 September. The crew of the Niña stated that they had seen a type of tern …which never goes farther than twenty-five leagues from the land.”


CORRADO: “17 September. This morning we saw a tropic bird, which does not sleep at sea.”


CORRADO: “19 September. This day a pelican came on board these birds are not accustomed to go twenty leagues from land.”


It could be an ancestor of this Sandwich Tern that Columbus saw before he made landfall in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)

CORRADO: By late September, Columbus’s men were beginning to feel desperate about reaching land. Perhaps to soothe their fears, on September 30th, he wrote: “Four tropic birds came to the ship, a clear sign of land, for so many birds of one sort together show that they are not straying about, having lost themselves.”

“7 October. Observed large flocks of birds coming from the North and making for the southwest. We accordingly shifted course.”


CORRADO: If you should happen to travel to the Bahamas this winter, you may see descendants of the Sandwich Terns that were there when Columbus’s ships landed on October 12th, 1492.

Sandwich Terns (Photo: Tom Grey ©)

GELLERMAN: Our BirdNote ® was narrated by Frank Corrado. For photos and more info, chart a course for our website L-O-E dot org.

Related links:
- BirdNote® Columbus’ Birds was written by Ellen Blackstone
- Bird calls provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Sandwich Tern recorded by O.H. Hewitt, White-tailed Tropicbird by B.R. Ward, and plunge of the Brown Pelican by W.W.H. Gunn.

Back to top


GELLERMAN: 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, 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. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

[All Living On Earth music themes composed by Allison Lirish Dean (2001)]

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


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth