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

October 21, 2011

Air Date: October 21, 2011



Feeding a Growing Population

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The world’s population is expected to reach seven billion by the end of this month. Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman about strategies to sustainably feed the growing number of hungry humans. (06:45)

Remembering a Native American Activist

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Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana fought the federal government for 15 years in a class action lawsuit that charged the Interior Department mismanaged Indian trust funds and owed Native Americans billions of dollars. The historic legal campaign resulted in a multi-billion dollar settlement. Ms. Cobell died recently at the age of 65. Her friend Carol Cross Juneau talks about the life of this “warrior for justice.” (04:00)

Occupy the Pasture

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While thousands of people protest in front of Wall Street, the London Stock Exchange, and other big cities around the world, a few are holding signs among sheep and prairie grass. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with rural activist Steph Larsen about her Occupy protest in the Nebraska pasture. (04:10)

Science Note: Healing Vocal Cords / Stephanie McPherson

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Voices wear out for many reasons – over-use, smoking, surgery. Now, researchers have developed a synthetic gel to repair damaged vocal cords and bring those lost voices back. Stephanie McPherson reports. (02:05)

The Sinking Nation of Kiribati

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The island nation of Kiribati could soon disappear beneath the sea. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are already enveloping the country’s small territory, pushing the Kiribati government to look for a new home. Kiribati President Anote Tong tells host Bruce Gellerman about a plan to move 100,000 people to manmade islands. (04:30)

Performing to Save Island Nations / Ingrid Lobet

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For twenty years, low-lying Pacific Island nations have tried to persuade developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions so sea level rise doesn’t swamp their countries. Now 36 island performers bring their plea directly to American audiences in The Water Is Rising tour. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet attended the opening performances and has our report. (07:00)

iCub Humanoid Robot Just Like a Baby / Giselle Weiss

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It crawls, it grabs, it even pounds a drum. A childlike robot designed by European scientists is made to study the learning process. IEEE Spectrum’s Giselle Weiss reports. (05:30)

Genius of Place

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Fredrick Law Olmsted was an inspired landscape architect, famous for spaces like Central Park. But his path to greatness was winding. Steve Curwood visits one of Olmsted’s jewels, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, with Justin Martin, author of “Genius of Place: The Life of Fredrick Law Olmsted.” (10:40)

Earth Ear: Red Squirrel

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Hunting and gathering nuts is a favorite pastime for red squirrel at this time of year in Northern England. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Janet Ranganathan, Carol Cross Juneau, Steph Larsen, Anote Tong, Justin Martin.
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Giselle Weiss, Steve Curwood, Richard Margoschis.
SCIENCE NOTE: Stephanie McPhersonhe


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. By Halloween, we’re told, there'll be seven billion people on the planet, and unless we rethink farming, the future is scary.

RANGANATHAN: We see a hungry world. We see a world where there is more conflicts. Not having enough food. There's nothing a human won't do to get that.

GELLERMAN: Coming up: farming in the future, a new approach to feeding the world.


GELLERMAN: Also: the water is rising - Pacific Islanders turn to song and dance to raise awareness as climate change threatens their homelands.

SEMELI: The tallest part of Tuvalu is a coconut tree, the tallest coconut tree. We have no mountains that give us hopes when come the sea level rise. When sea level comes up, where should we run to?

GELLERMAN: These stories, and we remember a Native American warrior - Elouise Cobell - this week, on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


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

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Feeding a Growing Population

Agroforestry increases productivity by combining trees and crops in the same agricultural fields. (Photo: treesftf)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Happy birthday to…us. According to the United Nations, on Halloween the seven billionth person on the planet will be born. A treat, no doubt for the proud parents, but it’s going to take a lot more than a trick to feed us all. Talk about scary: at this rate, just in the coming year, there will be another 80 million new hungry mouths to feed.

Janet Ranganathan, Vice President for Science and Research at World Resources Institute has written about the problem for the online journal Solutions. The title of her article: A New Approach to Feeding the World.

RANGANATHAN: There's been an intimate relationship between population growth and our ability to produce food since the beginning of time. And the modern food system has permitted really extraordinary growths in productivity in terms of food output. But it’s not sustainable. In terms of thinking about environmental challenges, agriculture really is the hungry elephant in the room.

GELLERMAN: Well, what’s the problem with how we grow food now?

RANGANATHAN: Food production consumes about 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. It contributes significantly to climate change, which, in turn, is going to impact our ability to produce food. And the fertilizer that we add to the modern production system, at best, only 50 percent of that is taken up by the plants.

The rest of it gradually works its way down the waterways to places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi Basin where you have what we call these "dead zones." In the Mississippi, the dead zone can reach something like the size of New Jersey at times.

GELLERMAN: So how do we make it sustainable?

RANGANATHAN: I like to talk about three potential solutions to the food production problem.


RANGANATHAN: The first one is where we actually have some significant success. And it comes from an unlikely place. It comes from Niger, which is a landlocked country in west Africa with a population about 15 million. So, the traditional African agriculture practice of growing crops and trees together - some people call it agro-forestry - that sort of ended when the colonists came to Africa.

They thought it was smart to grow trees and crops in different places. The fact of the matter is, we didn’t recognize the contribution that trees made in the crop production system. Trees act as a windbreak that reduces erosion, their roots help hold the soil in place, and their roots can also nitrogen fix - some trees are nitrogen fixers - actually increase soil fertility.

When we lost these, the landscape started turning to desert, and with that, food production decreased. It took some time to figure out how to regenerate the trees and to get the policies in place for that to happen. But something like an area the size of Costa Rica has been re-greened in Niger.

GELLERMAN: Is this something that will only work in Africa? Or could we use that agro-forestry here?

The Indonesian government hopes to use some degraded lands for future palm oil plantations to avoid clearing intact rainforests. (Beth Gingold, WRI)

RANGANATHAN: Probably not so much here - it’s particularly well suited for the ecosystems that you find in Africa. Already efforts are underway by the development community to expand that to Zambia, to Malawi and to Burkina Faso. We are starting to see a solution at scale there. So, it’s very encouraging.

GELLERMAN: Well, you said there were three things - what’s the second thing that you would do?

RANGANATHAN: The second thing I wanted to talk about was restoration. Right now, there is a clear link between the expansion of agriculture in the tropics and deforestation.

GELLERMAN: So, the idea is that you destroy the forest to clear the land to create acres for crops, and therefore you’re undoing the forest and you’re undoing the climate.

RANGANATHAN: Correct. We absolutely have to break that link. Forests play a really kind of crucial role in regulating the climate and the water cycle, both of which are imperative for sustainable agriculture. But it just so happens a readymade solution here to divert that expansion from tropical rainforests onto degraded land.

GELLERMAN: So, when you cut down a forest, you degrade the land, and you want to turn it to soil you can use for farming.

RANGANATHAN: Not all of it can be used for that, but certainly some subset. One of the things that we’re trying to do in Indonesia - which is where about one tenth of the remaining tropical forests remains - is to actually move palm oil. One of the things that’s driving deforestation in Indonesia is the expansion of palm oil plantations. And so we’re looking at how do we actually divert that palm oil plantations onto degraded land in Indonesia.

GELLERMAN: So, we’ve got agro-forestry. We’ve got improve degraded lands. What’s the third thing that you would do?

Roughly 30% of food is wasted, either in the field, by retailers or by consumers. (Photo: superclusterer)

RANGANATHAN: The third thing is to address the issue of food waste. It’s kind of a little bit like the energy efficiency issue. We lose something in the order of 30 percent of food between the field and the fork is wasted. You reduce that, you reduce the amount of land, you reduce the amount of water you need, you reduce the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. And you save money. To me, that’s a quadruple - win-win-win.

GELLERMAN: So it's very simple then, it’s basically what my mother said to me: clean your plate!

RANGANATHAN: That’s the solution to the consumer problem. And in fact, a lot of the food that’s wasted in the developed world is actually at that stage - it’s in the food services industry and in consumers.

In developing countries though, the waste tends to be more post-harvest. Here's an example: in Afghanistan, just a simple introduction of grain silos that could be made locally reduced food waste there from 20 percent to just two percent.

GELLERMAN: And we could feed, doing these things, seven billion people on the planet.

RANGANATHAN: Yes, if we take these kinds of solutions and others - I’ve just given you three examples - if we take them to scale. They can’t be sort of boutique projects here and there. We’ve actually got to think about - how do we scale these solutions?

GELLERMAN: You know, you surprise me a bit because I was expecting you to say something about having a second green revolution - where we have improved seeds, and you know, chemical inputs, improved farming techniques, but you don't mention of those.

RANGANATHAN: Well, I think I have. If you think about the example I gave you of greening the Sahel in Niger, I think that very much is the second green revolution. Only this is a green revolution that isn’t so highly dependent on chemical inputs and it’s more sustainable.

GELLERMAN: What kind of world do you see, if we don’t do these types of things? I mean, the obvious answer is we see a very hungry world.

RANGANATHAN: Yes, we see a hungry world. We see a world where there is more conflicts. Not having enough food - there’s nothing a human won't do to get that. The issue of food security has now shot right up the political agenda. We’re starting to see efforts now by national governments, by the World Bank, and others, to rethink about how they need to reinvest in agriculture. I mean, traditionally, the sort of "Cinderella" of the last 10 years - it's not sort of attracted a lot of investment - but we’re seeing a more concerted effort there. So I think some good news out of that.

GELLERMAN: Janet Ranganathan is Vice President for Science and Research at World Resources Institute. Mrs. Ranganathan, thank you so very much.

RANGANATHAN: My pleasure.

Related link:
A New Approach to Feeding the World

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[MUSIC: Booker T Jones “Everything Is Everything” from The Road To Memphis (Anti Records 2011).]

Remembering a Native American Activist

Elouise Cobell was also known by her Indian name, Yellow Bird Woman. (Montana State University, Photo by Kelly Gorham.)

GELLERMAN: For 15 years Elouise Cobell battled the US government. She filed a class action lawsuit charging the federal government mismanaged the Indian Trust Fund going back to the 1800’s and cheated Native Americans out of tens of billions of dollars due them for timber, oil and minerals taken from their land.

Just this summer, the government agreed to a 3.4 billion dollar settlement and President Obama apologized. For leading the fight, Elouise Cobell was declared a warrior of the Blackfeet Nation, of which she was a member. Now the Native American community has lost that warrior. Elouise Cobell - also known by her Indian name Yellow Bird Woman - died earlier this month. Carol Cross Juneau of Great Falls Montana was a member of the class action lawsuit and family friend.

JUNEAU: You know I lived on the Blackfeet Reservation from 1974 till just about a year ago we moved to Great Falls, which is not too far from there. And so I knew Elouise and her family for probably the last, you know, 30 years or so. So they’re long-time family friends.

GELLERMAN: What kind of a person was she?

JUNEAU: I think of her as a person who was just really willing to stand up and fight for American Indian rights and that takes a lot of courage and that takes a lot of bravery. You have to be absolutely determined to not give up - brave, courageous - those are good words for her.

Photograph of Elouise in front of mountains. (Native American Bank)

GELLERMAN: I want to play you something - this is Ms. Cobell, and this is when she was talking to a group in 2008. The lawsuit still had a couple years to go, and she’s talking about the trustee, which is the US government. I want you to hear this:

[Audio of Ms. Cobell provided by the National Rural Assembly/Center for Rural Strategies]

COBELL: When you take on the United States government, like we had to in this case, you have to pick up the pieces and you have to work so hard in those trenches, and you just keep on working because you are never, ever going to let this happen again. There can never be 121 years that our trustee can get away with never giving an Indian person an accounting of their money. So we’ve got to make sure that we stay in their faces! (Applause.)

JUNEAU: Gosh, wasn’t that great? Yeah. She was not afraid. And I think that’s an excellent example of Elouise being willing to speak out, to know that justice was not being done for American Indian people and she was able to carry that message so well. It’s inspiring, isn’t it?

GELLEMAN: She was extraordinarily accomplished. She had a farm, she ran the Blackfeet National Bank, she served as Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, the National Museum of the American Indian…

JUNEAU: Yeah. She was well known and well respected, I think, and, you know, sought after for her willingness to be a leader in American Indian country. If you think of the injustice that was done to the American Indian people as it is, it’s not just the governments, it’s the United States of America that didn’t live up to its obligations.

Photograph of Elouise Cobell at the oversight hearing. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL)

And, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs that was assigned to ensure that if resources were due to members American Indian tribes throughout the nation for their resources that were taken, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen effectively, and there were errors made, and there were records mismanaged. And so, it’s not just the BIA, I guess, when we look at it. And, it’s not just the United States government. I think it is kind of a reflection on America. And so, her loss, is an American loss.

GELLERMAN: Talking to us about Elouise Cobell who died earlier this month, at the age of 65, is Carol Cross Juneau. Ms. Juneau, thank you so very much.

JUNEAU: You're welcome very much. And, thank you for taking the time to honor Elouise, you know, with this, so - that’s great.

GELLERMAN: You can learn more about Elouise Cobell at our website - LOE dot ORG.

Related links:
- Indian Trust
- Statement from Secretary Salazar on the Passing of Elouise Cobell

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[MUSIC: Peter Kater/R Carlos Nakai “Gathering Of Souls” from Honorable Sky (Silver Wave Records 1994).]

GELLERMAN: And we have this correction - in our last show, we talked about the EPA under attack, and I mentioned that the US House of Representatives had passed what's called the REINS Act. It would require Congress to approve any regulation that cost the economy more than 100 million dollars. Well, I was wrong - the bill is still in the House Judiciary Committee.

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, the Occupy Wall Street protest spreads to the Nebraska prairie. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Carla Bley: “Ida Lupino” from Dinner Music (ECM/Watt 1977).]

Occupy the Pasture

Sheep join in to occupy the pasture. (Photo: Steph Larsen)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Occupy Wall Street has gone global. There’s Occupy Brussels, Occupy Taipei, Occupy Milan, and Occupy Rio de Janeiro and now the protest movement has spread to the prairie - specifically, a pasture in Lyons, Nebraska where Steph Larsen lives, works and recently took her anti-corporate food message to a field. Hi Steph, welcome to Living on Earth.
LARSEN: Thank you so much, Bruce, for having me.

GELLERMAN: So, why occupy the pasture?

LARSEN: We occupied our pasture because most of the occupy protests are happening in cities, but I live in a rural area, and I wanted to feel connected to this larger political movement that I agree with very strongly.

Prairie populists. (Photo: Steph Larsen)

I staged the protests to remind people that there are populists in rural areas too. And historically, rural places have been monumentally a political force for good. So I really wanted to help rural people remember those roots, and encourage them to stage their own protests, even if they can’t go to a city and be a part of a larger protest.

GELLERMAN: What's the pasture like? What kind of a pasture is it?

LARSEN: I raise sheep. And so, my pasture is five acres of alfalfa, red clover, timothy, orchard grass, rye grass, and fescue.

GELLERMAN: So, this is a real grassroots movement!

LARSEN: (Laughs). Yes.

GELLERMAN: You had a bunch of signs - what do they read?

LARSEN: There were three. One says: Prairie Populist, 99%. One said: Be Just, Grow Your Own Food, and one said: Occupy the Pasture, Rural Nebraska.

GELLERMAN: So, Steph, what’s the message from your pasture?

LARSEN: Well, Bruce, when I was in college, I came to the conclusion that if I believed that the current economic system was unjust, then the most rebellious thing that I could do was grow my own food. That way, the primary means of my own sustenance would be out of the control of corporations. So I think the message of Occupy the Pasture is do what can to grow your own food, and what you can’t grow yourself, support the locally owned businesses that can do it for you.

The Occupy Movement has spread to the ends of the Earth. (Photo: http://scapegrace.posterous.com/)

GELLERMAN: Well, of course there is not a lot of pastureland or farmland in cities!

LARSEN: There’s still lots of ways that people in cities can grow things from a front yard patch of tomatoes and peppers, to a community garden plot, even a pot of herbs in a windowsill it taking some of your food out of the corporate economy.

If you can’t or chose not to do any of those things, it’s important to show demand for locally produced products from small, local farmers. Dollars spent at locally owned businesses bounce around a community and strengthen that community’s economy much more than dollars spent at multi-national businesses.

GELLERMAN: So, it’s by means of social networking that you’re actually able to stand in this prairie, in this small town of 900 people and actually form a movement.

LARSEN: Well, be a part of the movement that is already existing, yeah. I just did this a couple of days ago, and it has been really exciting to watch it circulate around Facebook. So far, hundreds of people - many of whom I don’t know and have never met - are also getting excited about Occupy the Pasture.

Diane McEachern in Bethel, Alaska has a similar rural protest: Occupy the Tundra. (Photo: Diane McEachern)

What’s interesting about the Occupy Movement so to speak is that I can do that from wherever I am. I’ve seen an Occupy the Tundra. I’ve seen Occupy Antarctica. So, people are embracing the idea that we can share our passion for these issues and our desire to be a part of this larger movement from wherever we are.

GELLERMAN: Speaking to us from the prairie of Lyons, Nebraska is Steph Larsen. Well, Steph thanks so very much.

LARSEN: It’s been my pleasure Bruce. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: When Steph Larsen isn’t protesting in the Prairie, she’s a grass roots organizer and farmer. You can see photos of Occupy the Pasture and more at our website -- LOE dot ORG.

Related links:
- Read Steph Larsen's blog post on Grist about Occupy the Pasture
- Steph Larsen’s farm in Lyons, Nebraska
- Occupy the Pasture Facebook page

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[MUSIC: Jorma Kaukonen “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave” from Quah (RCA Records 1974).]

Science Note: Healing Vocal Cords

(Photo: DIY Dilettante)

GELLERMAN: Coming up – using art to raise awareness about climate change and rising water. But first, we head for the hills in this week's Note on Emerging Science from Stephanie McPherson.

[MUSIC: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music…”]

MCPHERSON: Julie Andrews is known for her soaring five-octave voice.

[MUSIC: Andrew’s voice jumps an octave at the end of “Doe a Deer”.]

MCPHERSON: But Andrews’ voice was damaged during surgery in 1997, and her vocal cords lost the elasticity that made that possible. Now, researchers have a synthetic material that restores the elasticity to damaged vocal cords.


MCPHERSON: After much trial and error, and funding from the Andrews-associated Institute of Laryngology and Voice Restoration, researchers at Harvard and MIT have produced a gel that vibrates with the same elasticity as healthy vocal cords.

Vocal cords are fleshy flaps of proteins covered in a thin membrane. These flaps vibrate when air blows across, making a buzzing sound. It’s up to the shape of individual throats and noses to create the sound of a voice. Healthy vocal cord vibrations determine a voice’s range or volume.

Vocal cords are damaged when a person loses some of the protein layer, for instance from surgery, or over-use, which is common among singers. The researchers’ gel would be injected underneath the membrane to replace the lost proteins, restoring vibrations to their former glory.

Variations of the gel are used in dissolvable sutures, so the team knows it’s safe for human use. They plan to begin trials soon, starting with cancer patients whose vocal cords were damaged in surgery. But eventually, they hope to return a voice to all the voiceless. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Stephanie McPherson.

Related links:
- New material could offer hope to those with no voice.
- Julie Andrews could sing again as scientists claim breakthrough.

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The Sinking Nation of Kiribati

LOE’s Executive Producer Steve Curwood interviews Kiribati’s President Anote Tong at the Cancun climate change conference. (2010) (Photo: Jennifer Stevens)

GELLERMAN: Kiribati is a collection of 32 atolls and a coral island, home to 100 thousand people spread over more than a million square miles of Pacific Ocean. The low-lying land is covered with palm trees, and surrounded by pristine reefs. It’s a picture post card of paradise, but soon it’ll be paradise lost.

Global warming is melting the ice caps, raising the level of the seas, sinking Kiribati under the waves. I Kiribati, who have called the islands home for three thousand years, are already looking into places to relocate, and one of those places doesn’t even exist yet - as President Anote Tong explained to me on a scratchy phone line from Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati.

TONG: Yeah, you're talking about the concept of floating islands?


TONG: The idea is that just like a drilling rig, but I think we must be in the position to offer the option, the choices to our people.

GELLERMAN: You’re actually thinking that it might be possible to actually create oil rigs, basically, that are large enough to serve as a homeland for your people?

TONG: Well, can you give me any other choices if our islands are going to be underwater? I mean, the only other option is to relocate, and that’s not very attractive I think. It would be so unfortunate if one day there would be no nation of Kiribati. Any marginal rise in sea level is quite catastrophic for us.

What we are seeing is the intrusion of saltwater into the freshwater ponds where people cultivate their food crops. We’re struggling with building sea walls, but they’re breaching that. And so, the food crop production is being affected, it's affecting the livelihoods of people and the frequency of communities being displaced is increasing.

About half the I-Kiribati people live on the island of Tarawa (Photo: NASA)

GELLERMAN: When I heard about this, I started looking around to see if anybody had done anything like this, and it turns out that the idea might not be so far-fetched. There was a tribe in Peru that built 40 grass islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

TONG: Mhmm. Well, building islands is an option that we would consider, first of all - that would be our first choice. To build up the islands that we have, but we understand it's going to be extremely, extremely expensive exercise. As you well understand, our islands don't have a shelf - a continental shelf - so there is no material that we can dredge up to build up the islands.

GELLERMAN: So, basically building up your islands with material that you would have to import?

TONG: That’s basically it, because if we are to use material that are already on top of the seamounds where we are, we’re going to be able to build up only small areas, because we don’t have enough material. So, it would be possible, but it’s not a viable solution. It has to be done in a different manner.

GELLERMAN: It really begs the question of how do you save, not just the people, but the cultural identity, if you have to evacuate a homeland that you've occupied for three thousand years?

TONG: I think that question is really an unprecedented question, and the question that we probably, and together with other countries, have to face. I think we would be able to better maintain our culture if the population could remain intact, in some form, in somewhere, with a distinct culture, some semblance of sovereignty.

It’s a very interesting intellectual exercise, but unfortunately, it is something that we have to deal with on a practical level at some point in time in the future. And the problem is of such a magnitude that we are considering even the most unlikely possibility.

I think the international community has to see the desperate situation that we have to face. And really, because it’s not a consequence of our doing, but a result of events, which have taken place over the decades in other parts of the world.

GELLERMAN: How much do you think it will cost to save your nation?

TONG: Oh, I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars. The question is finding the right engineering solution. But I think the point that I’m trying to make in discussing issues like floating islands is that - if you can come up with a better engineering solution, please, come forward and advise us.

GELLERMAN: Well, President Tong, I want to wish you and the people of Kiribati, the best of luck.

TONG: Thank you very much – bye.

GELLERMAN: President Anote Tong spoke to us from Tarawa, the capital city of Kiribati. Well, so far the urgent message from President Tong and other leaders from small Pacific island nations has largely gone unheeded - lots of talk about help from the world community, but little action on climate change.

Related link:
Kiribati considers 'floating islands' to combat sea

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Performing to Save Island Nations

A trio of dancers from the island nation of Kiribati (Water Is Rising)

GELLERMAN: Part of the problem is that the nations are so remote. So to raise awareness about their plight, artists from 36 Pacific island countries have come to the United States to perform in 13 cities a show that they call: “Water is Rising.” Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet was at opening night.


LOBET: The artists journeyed from Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu. From the most remote islands: Tokelau, the trip took weeks – beginning with a 40-hour boat trip to Samoa. Andrew Semeli of Tuvalu spoke at UCLA to the tour's first audience.

SEMELI: The trip to America takes a long way to go. And we make an effort, to paddle our canoe right from the Pacific Ocean to your ocean, just for you to hear our voice, my brothers and sisters. Just for you to know how vulnerable we are.

LOBET: The vulnerability in these performances is searing. Paddling a canoe becomes a dance, and the paddlers pray, in song, that their islands rise from the waters. Smiling as they hold grass weavings, dancer sing of pride in the materials God gave to them to use forever. What's the purpose of this culture, they sing, if it's going to disappear beneath the water?


LOBET: Male dancers strike their grass skirts in thunderous percussion.


SEMELI: When I talk about climate change, it makes my tears fall, every time. The tallest part of Tuvalu is a coconut tree - the tallest coconut tree. We have no mountains that give us hopes when come the sea level rise. When sea level comes up, where should we run to?

LOBET: With such questions, the artists hope to lead audiences to commit to lower energy use. But considering the divide between their land and this one, the message arrives like tidings from some immeasurably distant and kind place. The songs celebrate community. One shanty warns fishers to return to share their tuna catch with the whole village and “don't be selfish.”

SEMELI: And we are here to kindly ask, and we are here to look for a shoulder to lean on, and my brothers and sisters from the United States, please give us a shoulder to lean on.


LOBET: On this day, the artists share the stage with perhaps the most powerful environmental official in the world: Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. She spends more time than most people listening to testimony about climate change, but not this kind.


NICHOLS: This is not political. This is not what we're used to discussing when we talk about climate change. And maybe part of the problem that we've had in this country is that for most people, climate change is something very remote, very distant, very far away.

LOBET: Climate scientist Alex Hall compared what he saw on the stage to his own daily work discerning how the planet's ice sheets will respond, trying to predict sea level rise.

HALL: I was just really struck as I was watching these dancers by how irrelevant the science seems. I was thinking about what I could say up here, and I was thinking: I really wish that I could do my own dance to illustrate all these points.

LOBET: For the islanders, climate change is here. They live on narrow strips of curved sand - ocean on one side, lagoon on the other. Saltwater is already intruding on their gardens and during storms, washing over the street. On Tokelau, Teina Tuta Laura Tumua says residents are working daily to build a seawall.

Kiribati dancers in traditional costumes. (Water Is Rising)

TUMUA: Well, I wish that the United States can help our country. Because Tokelua is creating our seawall to help keep the land inside because it's been taken and… yes, taken by the waves.

LOBET: Tiny Tokelau is also trying to become independent of imported fuel and get its energy from solar collectors. The idea of bringing 36 artists here to tell their stories in person was Judy Mitoma's. She's director for Intercultural Performance at UCLA and first encountered people from the atoll nations at college, in Hawaii.

MITOMA: I could see these small atoll cultures have a very unique approach to their music and dance, so climate change aside, their culture, their civilization really struck me and my friends as being unique and powerful.

LOBET: Now decades later, she's organized this tour of nine states and the District of Columbia. Mitoma says an ebbing sense of urgency on climate change in this country doesn't matter.

MITOMA: I have an audience of 1,000 people and I know there is somebody in that audience that’s going to be changed by this effort.

LOBET: The artists of The Water Is Rising tour are on the road now, taking in the cities, highways and industry of an impossibly large country, with an eye to what that is costing them. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.


[MUSIC: Music recorded on site from Water Is Rising by producer Ingrid Lobet.]

[SONG TRANSLATION: Dear God, Answer our prayers for help.
Let our islands rise up from the waters.

ACT 2 “Te Kamei (Climate Change)”
Come along, come along!
Let us celebrate this day.
Kiribati is here to share our story.
To the developed countries,
We ask for your help.
Let us work together to reduce consumption
And save our precious islands.
Thank you “Water Is Rising”
For giving us the opportunity
To share our story with you.


My culture and language,
My values and my beauty,
They might be gone forever,
Because of your unloving ways.
My brothers and sisters,
Please listen to us.
Love us for who we are.
Now, please. Now, now, now.
What is the purpose of our culture
If we sink?]

Related links:
- Water Is Rising tour info
- Kiribati documentary on climate change
- Tuvalu documentary on climate change

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GELLERMAN: Coming up: visiting one of the crown jewels of Frederick Law Olmsted’s "Emerald Necklace." Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Martin Barre: “Spanish Tears” from Stage Left (Fuel 2000 Records 2003).]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Martin Barre: “Spanish Tears” from Stage Left (Fuel 2000 Records 2003).]

iCub Humanoid Robot Just Like a Baby

iCub learns like a small child. (Basilio Noris)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Researchers at eleven European laboratories are building a robot designed to imitate a small child. Each lab has an exact copy of the same kid-bot. Scientists want to study how it learns, then they’ll share what they learn. Reporter Giselle Weiss visited one of the labs in Switzerland, and filed this report for the IEEE Spectrum Magazine and National Science Foundation series, “Robots for Real.”


WEISS: A baby is a great explorer. Infants gnaw, lick, grab, prod, and crawl their way into awareness of the world and of themselves. But how do they do it? That’s the question posed by RobotCub, an initiative whose goal is to study cognitive function by building a humanoid, childlike robot, known as iCub.

Here at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne – EPFL for short – researchers are working on systems that control iCub’s upper and lower body.


Auke Ijspeert led the team that programmed the iCub. (Basilio Noris)

WEISS: Auke Ijspeert heads the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group at the EPFL. He and his co-workers specialize in locomotion. They’re programming the robot to get from A to B not on two limbs, but on four - by crawling, as an infant does. It’s no easy feat.

IJSPEERT: If you have wheeled robot, it’s very simple to control its locomotion - you have two wheels, you set the speed of the two wheels and then adjust both speed and direction. But if you have a humanoid robot, you have to move maybe, let's say, seven joints in each leg plus seven joints in the arm - so that means twenty-eight joints that you have coordinate properly.

WEISS: Full-fledged iCub robots were developed in 2004. Before that, the scientists used computers to explore principles like gravity and friction that are important in crawling. Then they tested simple arm movements on an existing robot by having it pound a drum.


WEISS: Eventually, in 2008, a robot with legs became available in Genoa, Italy, and one of Ijspeert’s students took it for a crawl.


WEISS: The robot moved a little clumsily, and even bruised its arms. But the scientists are helping iCub to clean up its crawling technique.

IJSPEERT: Something we haven’t done yet so far is dealing with complex terrain. So, for instance: going up or down a sofa, or going downstairs, climbing upstairs. These are very complex problems, both in terms of the locomotion coordination skills, but also in terms of visual processing.

(Photo: RobotCub)


WEISS: Several buildings away, Ijspeert’s colleague Aude Billard is also working on iCub. Billard, who heads EPFL’s Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory, is out of the country, and her student Eric Sauser shows me around. The robot is anchored vertically to a workbench, apparently snoozing.

SAUSER: So, it’s basically not that small sized robot, but it’s smaller than a normal human. It's about the size of a kid of four to five years old….

WEISS: The researchers are interested in three major questions. How does the brain build a model of its own body? How do you coordinate the motion of your eyes, head, and arms to reach an object? And how do you use that information to learn from imitating somebody else?


SAUSER: Sauser straps some sensors to his left arm and hand, and powers up iCub. As he moves his arm and fingers, the robot does likewise. Like us, it has an opposable thumb, which enables it to grasp objects and release them.


SAUSER: We had a screwdriver before. That may be a bit scary, a robot with a screwdriver. But, I’m confident since it’s me that controls the robot - and the programmers - I'm responsible for it. So, here the robot got the screwdriver. He can move it around in the air, hit the floor…


iCub learns to crawl. ( Photo: Sarah Degallier)

WEISS: The scientists will also study the kind of nonverbal information we can only get through touching - as when a tennis coach lifts the elbow of a player to correct a stroke. Eventually, Billard and Ijspeert hope to combine their efforts to study more complex gestures. But, as Ijspeert explains, that’s still awhile off.

IJSPEERT: I think we are now, just at the beginning, in terms of the software. So now we have a nice robot. And we have done, I think, a good job at starting putting together this piece of software, but there’s much more work to do in terms of really addressing questions of what it means to have some artificial intelligence.

WEISS: Perhaps someday, like any kid, iCub will be able to clean its room or to play ping-pong with you. For now, it’s not half bad on the foot-pedal drums.


WEISS: In Lausanne, Switzerland, I’m Giselle Weiss.


GELLERMAN: Giselle Weiss' story is from the series: ‘Engineers of the New Millennium.' It’s a co-production of the IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Spectrum-dot-i-triple-e-dot-org, and the Directorate of Engineering for the National Science Foundation.

Related link:
The iCub story is part of “Robots for Real,” a co-production of IEEE Spectrum Magazine and the National Science Foundation.

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[MUSIC: Pharaohs “Great House” from Awakening (Ubiquity Records 1994).]

Genius of Place

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. (Emerald Necklace Conservancy)

GELLERMAN: Frederick Law Olmsted literally invented the term “landscape architect.” His career spanned the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he’s perhaps best known for creating New York’s Central Park. It was his first work, and embodies Olmsted’s vision of crafting America’s democratic ideals into our nation’s parks.

Justin Martin chronicles the life and legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted in his new biography "Genius of Place."


GELLERMAN: It’s a story of strange turns and serendipity, as Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood learned while walking with the author in the Boston Park Frederick Law Olmsted designed and wanted to call "the Jeweled Girdle".

MARTIN: Once upon a time, this was just literally a fetid swamp. It was just really disgusting place where Bostonians dumped their garbage. And a Bostonian Parks Commission held a design contest. Olmsted takes a look and he sees right away that this is a really decrepit salt marsh - it’s really in disrepair, and he comes to the conclusion that with a lot of engineering, it’s going to be possible to be restored to being a salt marsh once again.

Salt marshes are a type of landscape that he remembers very fondly from growing up in Connecticut, and he ultimately executes this design for what’s known as the Back Bay Fens. And it really represents America’s very first active wetlands restoration.

CURWOOD: How is this typical of Olmsted’s style of design?

A portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted from 1895. (Credit: John Singer Sargent)

MARTIN: Well, it grows out of a design idea and that was the idea of the park system. And the park system was a brilliant idea. It was the idea that instead of trying to have one parcel of land be your park, why not have a park that’s put together? Or why not have a system of parks in which you have several, possibly very different pieces of land?

The Emerald Necklace is the absolute masterpiece of this concept, because in this case you have 1,100 acres, a 700-mile green ribbon extending from downtown Boston that incorporates so many different types of parks.

I mean, you have a salt marsh, you have a glacial kettle hole that a park’s built around, you have a nice wooded area, and an area of playgrounds, and you have all these waterways and parkways and so forth connecting them. So he really managed to cobble together all of these different types of park concepts and create his absolute masterpiece park system.


CURWOOD: Already famous for his work in New York’s Central Park, Fred Olmsted moved from New York City to Brookline, Massachusetts to oversee firsthand the construction of the Emerald Necklace. It would take 18 years. He would use science and engineering to mold the wild urban landscape while keeping it looking natural.


CURWOOD: The chain of parks that make up the Emerald Necklace may appear unpolished, but it is actually carefully crafted. Olmsted began his work in Boston, not far from where the Red Sox baseball team would later build Fenway Park.

A fen is a type of wetland, and Justin Martin writes that this visionary re-engineered the fens of Boston’s Back Bay into fields for sports and trails for serene walks, interspersed with cultivated gardens, ponds and tall trees.


CURWOOD: Where do you think Olmsted got his love of nature - his desire to use the esthetic of nature in building his parks?

MARTIN: Olmsted’s father was a very, kind of, gruff, heart-of-gold kind of man - not particularly well educated. It was not a family where book learning was particularly valued, but what was valued was nature. His father would take him on what he described as ‘loitering journeys.’

And he would place little Fred on a pillow that he'd set right in front of the saddle of the horse, and Olmsted later described it as being an atmosphere of ‘hushed reverence’ that they take in these landscapes. And I think it really shaped his appreciation for landscape from a very early age.

CURWOOD: How did he become such an amazing designer? This is a guy - in your biography you say, what - spent three months at Yale - that was his college education.

MARTIN: Uh huh. He wound up … he kind of studied in the school of life. He tried all different things, and he made lots of mistakes, lots of false starts. Part of the reason for this was he was just on a different clock than most people.

He felt like he had the time and the luxury to sort of dabble, particularly when he was young - learn different things. And he seemed to have a sense that somewhere over the horizon, something great lay in store for him, he just wasn’t sure what.

CURWOOD: Frederick Law Olmsted grew up in the home of a well-to-do Connecticut merchant. But as his short stay at Yale reflects, he had little taste for formal education. Still, a young man has to do something, so in a desperate attempt to find a career, he went to sea on a boat bound for China.

When that didn’t work out, he tried farming. And then he tried raising pear trees. At one point, his father underwrote a trip to Europe for young Fred, and there he would see the grand gardens that would later inform his own work.

[MUSIC: Erling Jan Sorenson “The Dream/Jenny Lind Song” (www.erlingmusic.dk).]

MARTIN: He takes this trip across Europe, and just as a coincidence, his neighboring farmer is a man named George Putnam. His name still has some resonance for people probably as the head of the Putnam Publishing Company. He asked Olmsted to write a book about his recent walking tour, and Olmsted produces a book called: "Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England." And that allows Olmsted to make this incredible transition from being a farmer/sailor, onto being a writer.

[MUSIC: Erling Jan Sorenson “The Dream/Jenny Lind Song” (www.erlingmusic.dk).]

MARTIN: At this point, what happens is just an extraordinary coincidence. Olmsted is thinking less and less about being a farmer, leaning towards being a writer. There is a brand new newspaper called the New York Daily Times, they’re searching about for a way to stake the reputation - this is the early 1850s - it’s a time of rising tensions between the northern and southern regions of the United States.

They want to send somebody down to the south, to treat the south, or cover the south almost as if they were a foreign correspondent. Olmsted applies for the job. He has a five-minute interview with the editor Henry Raymond. He’s handed the job. It’s actually because he’s a farmer and the south in this era is nothing if not an agrarian society. And the fact that Olmsted is a farmer, and is going to be traveling through the south visiting plantations and so forth is viewed as a plus, and he’s handed this incredible assignment.

CURWOOD: What did Olmsted bring to the story when, as a farmer, he tours the south to write these stories. What did he come away with?

MARTIN: Viewing the south, in part through a farmer’s eye, Olmsted produced a really well-argued series of dispatches in which he described how plantations were terribly inefficient enterprises.

What was wrong was slave labor. Anyone under 12 couldn’t work as a slave. Older people couldn’t go out and work in the fields. So, what you were left with was these plantation owners had to house, and feed, and clothe every one of these slaves. He made the powerful point, that, in order for people to allow this very inefficient system to continue, it really reflected something very grotesque.


CURWOOD: How does Frederick Law Olmsted get from being a sailor, farmer and writer for the nascent New York Times, to creating Central Park?

MARTIN: A great opportunity grew out of a terrible crisis, basically. In 1857, a terrible economic cataclysm in US history - what’s become known as the Panic of 1857 - Olmsted loses his journalism job, he’s low on coal, he has a hole in his hat, he owes money to everybody including his father, and he takes an incredibly modest job to try to just get by.

And this job is, he’s clearing a piece of land in the middle of New York City. It’s very prosaically named for its position in New York City - it’s called Central Park. There’s an existing design for Central Park that’s been provided by someone else. Olmsted is simply clearing this piece of land - knocking down shanties, and draining swamps to prepare it for someone else’s design.

CURWOOD: And how does he go from knocking down shanties and clearing land to becoming this amazing designer that we know today?

MARTIN: Well, Olmsted is the beneficiary for a lot of incredible coincidences, and sort of behind the scenes machinations sometimes that he benefits from. What happens here is an English-trained architect named Calvert Vaux. Calvert Vaux takes a look at that existing design for Central Park and he pronounces it horribly amateurish.

And Vaux has friends in high places - he’s actually designed the Fifth Avenue mansion of one of the Central Park board members. And Vaux starts saying - lets replace this amateurish design, what’s more, in England, where I’m from, when we want to get the best design, we hold a public contest.

The board agrees to hold this public contest. Then Vaux seeks out Olmsted and asks Olmsted if he wants to partner up for the design contest. And Vaux couldn’t care a wit about Olmsted’s profile - his accomplishments as a journalist - that was of no consequence here. What Vaux was drawn to was Olmsted had been out on this piece of land, knocking down shanties, draining swamps.

He figured if he and Olmstead teamed up, they’d have a leg up in the competition because Olmsted knew the lay-of-the-land. Nothing could have prepared Olmsted for what a spectacular talent, what incredible ideas he would bring to this design competition, because he did not want to create what I would describe as "imperial parks" that had huge triumphal archways and fountainry and so forth, because those would be constant reminders of visitors to those parks of their lowly station in the world.

You pass through a triumphal arch and you think there some great general or politician who this is a tribute to, and it is a constant reminder of one’s lowly station. Whereas nature, which was Olmsted's aesthetic - the aesthetic that he applied in his parks - nature belongs to everyone. You walk through a park such as Central Park or the Back Bay Fens in Boston, it's nature and everyone owns it

CURWOOD: So the vision Frederick Law Olmsted brought to the design of Central Park was shaped in part by his political beliefs. His goal was to create places where democratic values were realized - parks for all people.

But with success also came tragedy. Fred Olmsted was later forced out of his position in Central Park. His beloved brother died. And, to make ends meet he even ran a gold mine in California for a while. But his passion was shaping the land. And over the years, Frederick Law Olmsted would help design and engineer more than 5,000 park projects in 45 states and several countries.

MARTIN: He does everything from a variety of different parks - such as Prospect Park in Brooklyn - to the Chicago Parks System, university campuses such as Stanford. He does the grounds of mental institutions - that’s one of his favorite kinds of commissions because he himself suffers from all kinds of tumultuous mental states - he loves the idea of a landscape that actually can have a therapeutic effect on the patients.

He designs a couple of subdivisions, of sort of model suburbs, in the late 19th century and he designs the Chicago World’s Fair. Olmsted really played a key role in the preservation of Yosemite. He played a key role in the preservation of Niagara Falls. But even more importantly, Olmsted made the argument again and again that one could not look to any kind of private interest to take care of these wild places - it necessary for a benevolent and far seeing government to do this.

[MUSIC: Lorraine Hammond “The Emerald Necklace” from The Muddy River Suite (Snowy Egret 2008).]

CURWOOD: Justin Martin’s book is called "Genius of Place: The Life of Fredrick Law Olmsted: Abolitionist, Conservationist and Designer of Central Park." Thank you so much, Justin.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Justin Martin spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.

Related links:
- Learn more about the book
- Justin Martin web site

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[MUSIC: Lorraine Hammond “The Emerald Necklace” from The Muddy River Suite (Snowy Egret 2008).]

Earth Ear: Red Squirrel

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with Sciurus vulgaris - a red squirrel - in Cumbria, England.

GELLERMAN: It’s October and red squirrels are busy gathering food for the long winter ahead. Once, red squirrels were the only kind in Europe, but that changed in the late 1800’s when their larger, grey cousins arrived from the United States. Red squirrels have been on the decline ever since. Richard Margoschis recorded this red furry rodent for the BBC Library cd “Vanishing Wildlife – A sound guide to Britain’s Endangered Species.”


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[SOUNDS: Richard Margoschis “Red Squirrel” from Vanishing Wildlife (BBC Sound Library 2006).]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. 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. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.


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