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

April 13, 2012

Air Date: April 13, 2012



Lead Poisoning from Gold Mining

View the page for this story

In the Nigerian state of Zamfara, a gold boom has led to a medical disaster with more than 400 children dead from lead poisoning and thousands sickened. Jane Cohen of Human Rights Watch tells host Bruce Gellerman why so many children were exposed. (06:00)

South Africa Gold Mining Lawsuit

View the page for this story

About half of South Africa’s gold miners suffer from silicosis, a life-threatening disease caused when silica from gold lodges in the lungs. Now, thousands of gold miners have signed on to the largest class action lawsuit in Africa’s history. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Michael Cohen, a reporter covering the story for Bloomberg News in Capetown, South Africa. (06:00)

The Guar Gum Bubble / Ike Sriskandarajah

View the page for this story

Big business is in a bidding battle over a little legume that’s used in everything from food to fracking. The interest in guar gum has caused the price to dramatically spike. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah explores the popularity of this desert crop. (06:55)

Emerging Science Note: Nano Ear / Sophie Golden

View the page for this story

Scientists in Germany have created the world’s smallest ear, capable of detecting sound waves six orders of magnitude below the threshold of human hearing. As Living on Earth’s Sophie Golden reports, this nano ear may be able to hear the bacteria in our bodies. (01:35)

The Continuing Plight of the Sage Grouse

View the page for this story

The dwindling sage grouse population in the American west has caused a longtime controversy over whether to list the bird as an endangered species. Ten years ago we reported on the plight of the sage grouse. Host Bruce Gellerman updates the story with Tim Griffiths from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Griffiths says an unlikely alliance has come together to protect the sage grouse without putting it on the endangered species list. (07:45)

Space Chronicles; Neil DeGrasse Tyson

View the page for this story

Astrophysicist extraordinaire Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses the past, present, and future of America’s space program. Tyson talks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his latest book “Space Chronicles – Facing the Ultimate Frontier” and about why America needs to return to space. (14:35)

Celebrating Poetry Month

View the page for this story

Susan Edwards Richmond reads her poem "Longspur in a Field of Larks." (03:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman.
GUESTS: Jane Cohen, Michael Cohen, Tim Griffiths, Susan Edwards Richmond, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Clay Scott, Ike Sriskandarajah.
NOTES: Sophie Golden.


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. Eureka! Unfortunately they found it. In Nigeria, a gold mining bonanza has turned into a lead poisoning disaster:

COHEN: In one home where we measured the lead level it was about 72,000 parts per million. A safe level is under 400 parts per million. So the children who have been exposed at a very high level, they will be affected by this for their entire lives.

GELLERMAN: Also, the many uses of guar gum:

TROSTLE: Every home in the U.S. is going to have guar in some form or fashion, in the pantry, or in the refrigerator or up on the shelf.

GELLERMAN: Guar's in toothpaste, cheeses and ketchup - and the fluids used in fracking.

TROSTLE: Part of the reason we’re having this conversation is
because of the dramatic increase in the activity in the oil field services industry. I get more calls on guar now than I've had probably in the previous ten years combined.

GELLERMAN: This week on Living on Earth - Stick around!

Back to top

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

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

Lead Poisoning from Gold Mining

Artisanal mine worker in Nigeria (Photo: (c) 2011 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

For the past two years a medical disaster of historic proportions has been unfolding in remote villages in northern Nigeria. The soaring world price of gold sent villagers prospecting for flakes of the rare metal, but what the local miners also found was rock laced with lead. So far thousands of villagers have been exposed to massive levels of lead and 400 children have died from the neurotoxin, in what is believed to be the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.

Jane Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the disaster is far from over.

COHEN: There are still about 2,000 children who we know are now in need of urgent treatment. And there are also villages that have not been cleaned up, so there's still an acute situation with exposure.

But I think it's really important to point out here that lead poisoning, it usually does not cause death. Usually what it causes is problems with cognitive development. So the children who have not died but who have been exposed at a very high level, they will be affected by this for their entire lives. Additionally, we're seeing high rates of miscarriage and a lot of impotence in these communities, as well. So it's really affecting whole generations of children and families in the community.

Workers come from all over Nigeria come to mine for gold in Zamfara State. (Human Rights Watch)

GELLERMAN: What are the lead levels now?

COHEN: Well, it varies. In one home, where I was with the team and we measured the lead level, it was about 72,000 parts per million. Just to put that in perspective, a safe level is under 400 parts per million. And these are homes where there are numerous children who are crawling around on the ground and putting their hands in their mouths and we know that in this area there are still children who are convulsing, children who need to be rushed for medical care. It's really still ongoing.

Parents who work in the gold mines bring lead contaminated dust into their homes at the end of the day. (Human Rights Watch)

GELLERMAN: Jane, how did this ever happen?

COHEN: It's a result of artisanal gold mining, which is small-scale mining. And in northern Nigeria, there's a geologic anomaly where the gold is actually running with lead. So there's lead and gold together, which is not something that we normally see. And when people take the rock ore out of the ground, they crush it and they grind it and then a dust is made from that and that dust is contaminated with lead.

And people were doing that crushing and grinding often in their homes, so the lead dust was getting all over their homes. The men and women who do the grinding, that dust covers their clothes, so when they come home and pick up their children, their children are also breathing that dust in. So now, the situation is that it's not only new exposure, so people continuing to crush and grind ore in their home because, for the most part, that has stopped, but all of that contamination that happened previously is still in these homes unless those homes have been already cleaned up.

GELLERMAN: How many villages are affected by this?

Pounding rocks to release gold creates dust that children can ingest. (Human Rights Watch)

COHEN: We know of about 16 villages that have severe lead poisoning, so seven of those villages have been cleaned up. The biggest and most highly contaminated village, where we know there are 2,000 children right now who need treatment, that village has not been cleaned. And then we know of six or seven other villages that also have some level of contamination.

GELLERMAN: Didn't people who lived in these villages know that there was lead in the rock?

COHEN: No, I mean, they had no way of knowing, just like you or I would have no way of knowing. In fact, when it was discovered that there were mass deaths happening in this area, it took the scientific community quite a - it was hard for them to figure out what was going on, as well because we just don't see this. We don't see that artisanal gold mining leads to acute lead poisoning.

GELLERMAN: Jane, you've been to this area in northern Nigeria, right?

COHEN: Yes, yes.

GELLERMAN: What does it look like?

COHEN: Well, so the homes are made out of mud, which is also problematic because a lot of that mud is also now contaminated with lead. There are a few generators but there's no electricity, no running water. This is very, very remote. Just to put it in perspective, to get there from the nearest city is about a four hour drive and two of those hours are on a bush road that's basically impassable during the rainy season. This is about as remote as you can get. But it's this major hub now for gold mining in the north of Nigeria.

GELLERMAN: So you have lead dust everywhere; how do you clean up a mess like this?

COHEN: Basically, they remove all the contaminated soil and they bag it and put it in landfills and then they move in clean soil. You know, it's a difficult process but it's not impossible and it's also something that once you train people, they can really do it. It doesn't have to be, you know, really highly trained experts.

GELLERMAN: What kind of money are we talking about here, in terms of cleaning up at least this largest of villages that's still contaminated?

COHEN: Well, first of all I just want to clarify that what we're talking about here is really a three step process, that needs to be carried out in this order, because you cannot treat children for lead poisoning if they're going to go back to a contaminated area because the treatment for lead poisoning actually makes them more susceptible to the harms of lead. So their homes must be remediated.

But there's no point in remediating a home if mining is still being done unsafely and people are coming home with lead dust all over them. And then there really needs to be mass screening and testing for all children who have been exposed to this lead dust and then a treatment plan for all of them.

Children pour water contaminated with lead from gold mining into a trough. (Human Rights Watch)

And, you know, estimates really vary but we're looking somewhere in the four to five million dollar range, probably. So it's a commitment, but it's not overwhelming for a government like Nigeria. But until the government makes that commitment to show them how this mining can be done safely, people will still be mining and putting their families at risk.

GELLERMAN: Jane Cohen is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. Jane, thank you so very much.

COHEN: Thank you, Bruce.

Related link:
Human Rights Watch on Lead Poisoning in Nigeria

Back to top


South Africa Gold Mining Lawsuit

Forty percent of all the gold ever mined comes from South Africa. (Photo: Grassroots Group via Flickr)

GELLERMAN: Now, from small-scale gold mines in Nigeria we go to the massive mines in South Africa, which has long had the Midas touch. Over the past century forty percent of all the gold that’s been mined has come from South Africa. But all that glitters is definitely not gold. The rock that bears gold contains silica, which lodges in lungs. And it’s estimated half of South Africa's gold miners suffer from the life-threatening disease silicosis.
Now there is a class action lawsuit, the largest in Africa’s history. Michael Cohen is a reporter covering the story for Bloomberg News. Welcome to Living on Earth, Michael.
COHEN: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.

GELLERMAN: So Michael, how big a problem is there in South African gold mines?

COHEN: The issue actually is no one really knows. There were thousands and thousands of miners who worked in South African mines and who contracted silicosis, this scarring of the lungs. The estimates range as high as almost 300,000 people who might have contracted the disease. The mining companies clearly have a big problem on their hands.

Oryx gold mine near Welkom, South Africa.

GELLERMAN: But they've been mining in South Africa for decades and decades and decades. Why the problem now?

COHEN: Mining companies have said that they have complied with the safety laws needed to look after their miners. And now a couple of lawyers have picked up on it, saying, no, you didn't. And the whole thing came to a head last year when South Africa's highest court ruled that miners had the right to sue their mining companies for compensation in addition to that covered by the state compensation fund.

Up until that point, the mining companies had always argued that under South African law, miners were limited to claiming that limited compensation. So that argument has now been put aside and that has opened the way for these lawsuits.

GELLERMAN: But it seems ironic, it was back in 1911, more than a hundred years ago, that South Africa became the first country in the world to pass a law that recognized the need to compensate miners for silicosis.

COHEN: Sure, but I think the way the laws were structured were pretty prejudicial to the miners themselves. The amount of compensation that was paid out was pretty small amounts. For instance, the miner who won this compensation case in South Africa's highest court last year, a guy by the name of Thembekile Mankayi, who died, actually, just before the ruling, won a settlement, I think it was slightly more than two thousand dollars. He wanted to sue the mining company for substantially more than that. And that court case has now opened the way for substantially bigger settlements.

GELLERMAN: I saw some online videos of mining in South Africa, some very new ones, some very old ones, and I don't see any of the miners using masks or respirators. They're using wet bandanas and t-shirts.

COHEN: Certainly some of the miners that I've spoken to who've worked in the mines a long time ago said the safety procedures that were utilized were substandard. They weren't being given masks and so on. I think things have substantially improved over the past couple of years. They pump a lot more compressed air into the mines and settle the dust much more effectively and I think we've seen over the last little while the number of new cases has decreased substantially. So certainly the mines have taken steps to address the problem. It was a lot worse in the past. The safety procedures were substandard.

GELLERMAN: So there've been hundreds of thousands of miners potentially contracting silicosis in these mines, but as I understand it, only a couple of thousand have signed on to this class action lawsuit, even though it is the largest in Africa's history.

COHEN: Class action lawsuits are not commonplace in South Africa. This is going to set new legal precedents here. And they are in the process of signing up people. The last time I checked a couple of weeks ago they had reached a number of almost 7,000 people.

As I said, it's very difficult to know how many people we're talking about. The last comprehensive study I looked at was from 1998, and then they estimated that there were 196,000 miners from South Africa and just over 84,000 from neighboring countries who were potentially claimants. A lot of these people are no longer working, they're situated in rural areas, they might not know about the lawsuit, they might not have the information, maybe even too sick to participate, and some of them have, of course, died.

The National Union of Mine Workers estimated that nearly 5,400 miners died between 2003 and 2009 from respiratory illnesses. So there's an active recruitment process to bring people into the lawsuit.

GELLERMAN: What role, if any, does apartheid play in this? It ended nearly twenty years ago, but does it have a role?

COHEN: I think certainly. I mean, a lot of apartheid laws were structured in such a way to ensure that the mines were able to supply cheap labor. A lot of the occupational disease laws were formulated to protect mining companies. The miners, largely, were black, had very few rights and very little scope to contest this. A lot of these cases date back to pre-Apartheid, people working underground who were doing so pre-1994 and are still living with the disease today. Certainly apartheid created the conditions for substandard working conditions.

GELLERMAN: How have the mining companies responded to this lawsuit?

COHEN: Defensively, so far. Most of them are saying they complied with the law at the time, that they're not liable, that they will defend any action. They're saying they're going to defend it in court. I think we're talking about substantial amounts of money here.

GELLERMAN: How big is gold mining today in South Africa?

COHEN: It's still a major employer. It's fallen off quite a lot since the heyday in 1983, but still one of the major sources of export revenue. And it's a very mature industry, an industry in decline, production has been falling for a number of years. It presents the government with somewhat of a problem, because you've got this industry which is in decline. They understand the miners' complaints and they are concerned about inadequate compensation and at the same time you've got an industry which still employs a lot of people and you could potentially destroy it if the claims are too big.

GELLERMAN: Michael Cohen is a reporter covering the story about gold miners in South Africa for Bloomberg News in Capetown. Michael, thanks a lot.

COHEN: My pleasure. Cheers.

Related link:
Reuters’ Special Report on Silicosis in South Africa

Back to top

[MUSIC: Hugh Masakela “Stimela” from African Breeze 80’s Masakela (Emporio Records 1996)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: Guar gum - it’s in soft-serve ice cream, tortillas, shampoo and wait 'til you hear what else! Keep listening to Living on Earth!
#1 CUTAWAY MUSIC : Herbie Hancock: “4AM” from Mr. Hands (Columbia Records 1980)

The Guar Gum Bubble

Guar is in every aisle of the grocery store. In the freezer section, it keeps ice cream from crystallizing. (Photo: FlicrkCC/ I-5 Design & Manufacture)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
Shampoos, ice cream, toothpaste and barbecue sauce have something in common - it's a ubiquitous, often overlooked ingredient, that comes from a little legume called guar. And as Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports, guar has become very popular and very expensive lately because of a use that just might surprise you.

SRISKANDARAJAH: When you read labels in the grocery store, you start to see it everywhere. Alright, so I've been through almost every aisle in the grocery store, and I've found a recurring theme in the bakery section. Martin's potato rolls...squishy potato rolls...flour, milk, salt, butter, soya, - near the bottom, guar gum.

Over to the ethnic food aisle. Maria and Ricardo's Tortilla Factory: guar gum. Thai Kitchen coconut milk: water, guar gum. In the dairy section - Hood cottage cheese with chive: guar gum. Almost every aisle of the grocery store, from the tip of your tongue to your Head and Shoulders, you've got guar gum.

TROSTLE: Every home in the U.S. is going to have guar in some form or fashion in the pantry or in the refrigerator or up on the shelf.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Calvin Trostle is an agronomist at the Texas A&M Agriculture program who studies this very common but little known ingredient.

TROSTLE: I went through agronomy training in Kansas where I grew up and two other universities in my training and I had heard of guar but had never seen it 'til I came to west Texas.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Most haven't heard of this desert crop. Actually, when you look up guar online, you're more likely find this:

The band, Gwar; not to be confused with the legume, guar.
(Photo: Wikimedia/ Mark Marek)

[music from band GWAR]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Unlike GWAR the metal band, famous for their nightmare-ish costumes, guar the plant is pretty unassuming. Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, in Latin, grows a couple feet off the ground with seed pods hanging off its stalks. The legume was once used for cattle feed in India; "gawaar" is Hindi for cow food. But it became more common as people food around the world during the 1950s. That's when food companies industrialized the process of extracting the large, starchy endosperm from guar beans to turn into guar gum. The magic bean derivative helps keep soft serve soft, milkshakes thick and pie crusts crumbly. And now, there's more interest in guar than ever.

TROSTLE: Part of the reason we're probably having this conversation is because of the dramatic increase in the activity in the oil fields services industry. I get more calls on guar now than I've had probably in the previous ten years combined.

Guar gum is the legume's extracted endosperm, ground into powder. (Photo: Wikimedia)

SRISKANDARAJAH: The hydraulic fracturing boom has created unprecedented demand for guar gum, which is used by the ton in natural gas wells.

TROSTLE: It's possible that an industry average of guar gum per fracking job could be as much as 20,000 pounds, or ten tons of guar gum. That number, to me, is striking.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Compared to the thousands, sometimes, millions, of gallons of water injected into wells, guar gum is used pretty sparingly. But the EPA counted 35,000 new wells drilled last year and that helped raise the price from one dollar a kilogram in 2010 to 18 dollars. Even though the guar gum bubble has inflated the price nearly twenty-fold, natural gas companies are stuck.

TROSTLE: There are other materials that could be used in lieu of guar, but when you come back to it, they may be too expensive to produce, or maybe they don't work quite as well.

The chemical structure of guar. (Photo: Wikimedia)

SRISKANDARAJAH: So how did guar become the workhorse in natural gas wells? Roger Willis, a geologist and president of Universal Wells Services, a fracking company that works Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, explains, water injected at high pressure breaks fissures into rock.

WILLIS: And we want to take something in there to hold it open which we call proppant, which is sand, just nice, round sand, and it's easier to transport the sand farther away if the water's thicker. So what we try and do is make the water a little bit thicker with the guar gum. If you could look at it on a microscopic level, turns into almost hairs, or filaments in it. That's what gives it that viscosity.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Those hairs in water carry the sand farther horizontally in the bedrock. Then, once the natural gas is seeped out of the rocks, enzymes break those hairs.

WILLIS: You can actually time the break, and that's what we call it in our industry. The point at which the guar loses its viscosity is called its break. And it means it gets back to a, back to almost water.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The fracking fluid won't break back to "almost water" for about an hour. The breaker is a peroxide disulfate, and like many of the other multisyllabic chemicals used to help retrieve gas from wells, it draws public and scientific concern. But guar is touted by the industry as an all-natural ingredient. Clint Forbes, founder of West Texas Guar, is one of the few American guar farmers.

FORBES: We're trying to do the best we can to put a natural product and an organic, decomposable product, back into this fracking technology.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And just beyond his thousand acres of guar, he can see it in action.

FORBES: Well, they drilled an oil well and they're scheduled to frack it in two weeks, right about a mile from my house.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Though they're not using his beans.

FORBES: No, it's Indian guar!

80% of the world’s guar comes from India. (Photo: FlickrCC/ vm2827)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Less than five percent of guar used here is grown here and according to Forbes, all American guar goes into wells, not food. Which leaves the food industry short on the sticky bean. Devin Miller is the vice president of sales and marketing at Caremoli USA in Iowa, a food additive company.

MILLER: All historic highs - never seen anything like this before.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The big food brands they supply guar to get outbid by big gas.

MILLER: They can sustain these larger costs because of their profitability. For example, let's talk about a tortilla company. You know, their pennies for pound count.

The company West Texas Guar grows about 1000 acres. (Photo: Calvin Trostle)

SRISKANDARAJAH: If prices stay high, this could mean the tortilla company might switch from guar to another binding agent, like xantham gum. It could also mean a deeper look into expanding American guar crops. Or it could mean just waiting for the guar gum bubble to burst.

MILLER: It's just one of those quiet ingredients that's always there and will always be there, but to what volume and what sustainability it's just a matter of waiting for the cycle to come back around.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The future of this quiet crop is uncertain, but one thing's for sure: when the gum bubble does pop, the market won't be able to ignore guar. For Living on Earth, I'm Ike Sriskandarajah.

Related links:
- West Texas Guar grows and process American guar:
- Caremoli sells guar to a variety of food makers:
- Calvin Trostle’s Power Point presentation on domestic guar

Back to top

[MUSIC: Dr. John “Revolution” from Locked Down (Nonesuch Records 2012)]

Emerging Science Note: Nano Ear

GELLERMAN: Coming up – the sage grouse - does it belong on the endangered species list or on the menu of a French bistro? But first this note on emerging science from Sophie Golden.


GOLDEN: Imagine hearing a bird swallow, or the footsteps of an ant. Well, if scientists in Germany have their way, supersonic hearing may become a reality. Physicists at Ludwig Maximillian's University have developed the world's first nano ear, capable of detecting vibrations six orders of magnitude below the threshold of human hearing.

The microear was created by trapping a nanoparticle of gold in a laser beam. The fleck of gold can't move on its own, but is affected by sound waves. To test the ear, scientists submerged it in a water-based medium and then introduced a variety of sounds. They measured the amount the gold particle moved to pinpoint the frequency and direction of the sound waves. What they discovered is that this tiny piece of gold can detect vibrations of minus 60 decibels.

The physicists hope the nano ear will allow humans to hear live microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses. So, if your doctor only has to listen to your body to find out what's ailing you, ear scopes and throat swabs may eventually be tools of the past. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Sophie Golden.

Related link:
Article in Physics World

Back to top


The Continuing Plight of the Sage Grouse

The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a large, ground-dwelling bird. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

GELLERMAN: For a bird just a bit bigger than a chicken, the sage grouse has stirred out of proportion passions. Once, the sage grouse numbered in the millions and occupied more than 175 million acres across the northern plains of the US and Southern Canada. But today there are just a few hundred thousand left. Environmental advocates want the sage grouse placed on the Endangered Species List, but then there are those like Utah Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz who says the sage grouse should be listed on the menu of a French bistro.

Sage-grouse mating dance

We first reported on the plight of the sage grouse a decade ago. And today, as part of our on-going series updating some stories from the past, we find out what’s happened since 2002 when we broadcast that story by reporter Clay Scott.

In this clip from his story, we hear Clay and Ben Deeble of the National Wildlife Federation.

SCOTT: Sage grouse can have home ranges of hundreds of square miles, yet each year, like spawning steelhead, they return to the exact same spot to mate. But that extraordinary fidelity to place also makes them vulnerable to changes in their habitat, and almost everywhere the birds live that habitat is being altered, sometimes radically.

DEEBLE: They’re like the canary in the coal mine, from the standpoint that they’re one of the first species that disappears as these sage steppe ecosystems become unraveled.

SCOTT: The sage steppe ecosystem is a vast, arid area of mostly public land stretching from eastern California to the western edge of the Dakotas. Sage grouse, in particular, are dependent on old growth sagebrush. Their mating and nesting grounds have been disturbed by oil and gas drilling, coal bed methane development, the conversion of sagebrush to agriculture, and especially by the grazing of livestock.


Throughout the west the majority of grazing has been on leased federal land. Now, some environmental groups say it’s time for that practice to stop for the sake of the sage grouse and for the health of the entire ecosystem. But ranchers here say banning grazing on public land would deal a death blow to entire communities. Roger Peters is the owner of the Dragging Y Ranch. Like many ranchers, he’s suspicious of what he calls the environmental agenda.

PETERS: In Beaverhead County, Montana, we’re dependent on grazing on federal lands because that’s so much of what there is. You know, we live here. You have to use federal lands because there’s not enough deeded land to go around. So now it appears to us that sage grouse, they say, "Ah, sage grouse, we’ve got them on sage grouse. We’ll get them on something eventually to get their cows off the public lands."

SCOTT: Peters’ ranch is on 60,000 acres of his own land, along with several times that amount of leased federal land, much of it sage grouse habitat. He says he manages the land in an ecologically sound way and he has no patience for those who want to tell him when and where to graze his cattle. He’s especially angry at those environmental groups who think the sage grouse should be put on the endangered species list. If the bird is listed, Peters says, many western cattle operations would effectively be brought to a halt.

PETERS: Why penalize the guy that’s got the last one? He’s obviously the best caretaker of this endangered species, whatever it is. But whoever the poor guy is, the endangered species are found on his place, he’s the one whose management is penalized.

Male Sage Grouse during a mating display. (Photo: Flickr CC/vividcorvid)

GELLERMAN: Well, that was the situation in southwest Montana back in 2002. And now to update our sage grouse story, we turn to Tim Griffiths. He’s the Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA.

GRIFFITHS: That last piece that you had played gave a situation where the sage grouse is really a canary in a coalmine. Because they have incredibly diverse seasonal habitat requirements and extensive home ranges, they really occupy habitat that's home to a whole host of other species like elk, mule deer, pronghorn, as well as a lot of neotropical migrants. And what the landscapes represent are really the Wild West. It's the large, un-fragmented base that we have left and that's why the birds are still there.

GELLERMAN: So there's a lot at stake over this little bird?

GRIFFITHS: This is a very high stakes game.

GELLERMAN: So there was a huge controversy back in 2002 when we aired our story about sage grouse about whether the animal was going to be listed as an endangered species. What's happened? Did the sage grouse get listed as an endangered species?

GRIFFITHS: Well, a lot has happened. The Fish and Wildlife Service who actually makes that determination most recently in March of 2010 determined that sage grouse were, in fact, biologically warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act but precluded by other, higher-priority species.

GELLERMAN: So the sage grouse is considered endangered but not legally because there are other animals which are threatened more.

GRIFFITHS: Exactly. So it's quote "biologically warranted" but they literally don't have the resources to move forward with the listing at this time.

GELLERMAN: So it's a matter of money?

GRIFFITHS: It is. At the same time, what we've really done, the U.S. Department of Ag, because of the huge nexus between, you know, obviously, our livestock producers out west and sage grouse, have really taken what appears to be a major threat to the agricultural community and turned it into just an amazing good news story filled with opportunity to voluntarily recover this imperiled species, at the same time increase sustainability and productivity of these western ranches.

GELLERMAN: Well, tell me more. You say that there's a voluntary silver lining to the sage grouse story.

GRIFFITHS: Absolutely. So what we've really done, starting early 2010 at the US Department of Ag, really took it upon ourselves to find out everything we could about sage grouse and what we learned was that sage grouse are highly clumped in their distribution. There's literally two here, three here, 500 here. And so if we can identify where these high abundance centers are for instance, we can proactively target resources to alleviate threats facing sage grouses in that area.

GELLERMAN: So you don't have to deal with all 186 million acres, you can just look at these hot spots.

GRIFFITHS: Exactly. So now that we know this, we can literally go to these areas and then do enough of the right practices to actually benefit populations of birds and use science to assess the benefit, to quantify the results, to continually adapt our program to make sure we're achieving the biological results that we wanted.

GELLERMAN: But besides the cattlemen and the grazing issues, you've got eco-energy interests, mining, gas, wind power that have been moving into this and are environmental drivers. How are you going to deal with those interests?

(Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

GRIFFITHS: Another great question. So what you're seeing is a question of not if you're going to extract those resources but where you're going to do it. And so you're seeing this invent of what they're calling these core areas. So I'll take you to Wyoming, for example. That's ground zero for oil, gas, and wind and sage grouse. The most populous state of sage grouse anywhere in the world. They have about 38 percent of all the birds, and literally have energy resources directly overlaying those - so what's happened was former governor David Freudenthal had established a sage grouse task force made up of energy, agriculture, and state and federal governments that delineated out those core areas where the majority of the birds were. And by doing so, they opened up roughly 75 percent of the state and that gives energy the green light and the certainty to know that they can go ahead and develop our nation's energy future and at the same time preserve these incredibly large, intact landscapes that support the majority of sage grouse.

GELLERMAN: So you can have peaceful coexistence between ag interests, energy interests, and the sage grouse interests.

GRIFFITHS: Without a doubt. And that's the novel concept here. They're really capitalizing on the shared vision. Nobody wins if we end up listing this bird and we have all these restrictions put in place that really have dire economic consequences for both our ag and our energy and for western economies in general.

GELLERMAN: Joining us from Bozeman, Montana has been Tim Griffiths. He’s the sage grouse initiative coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Well, Tim, thank you so very much.

GRIFFITHS: Thank you as well.

Related links:
- Listen to our 2002 piece on the Sage Grouse
- Learn more about the Sage Grouse Initiative—a non-regulatory success story.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “A Ride With Polly Jean” from Mischief And Mayhem (Jenny Scheinman Music 2012)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – Houston, we have a problem: the U.S. is lost in space. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

#2 CUTAWAY MUSIC: Eddie Bo: “Mardi Gras In The Boiler Room” from New Orleans Solo Piano (Night Train International 1995)

Space Chronicles; Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (Photo: Chris Cassidy/ Casspix.com)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. NASA has been sending Americans into space for half a century. But now that proud chapter is history. With the end of the space shuttle program, we have no way of launching astronauts in an American spacecraft from American soil for at least a decade, and maybe longer.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has big problems with that and he writes about them in his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and he recently spoke to Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about space exploration, science education, and the role of discovery.

CURWOOD: So, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, tell me, why aren't we sending people into space like we used to?

TYSON: [laughing] You're asking me to give the argument of those who I'm trying to argue against? Don't ask me why aren't we, ask me why should we!

CURWOOD: [laughing] Well, no, but give me the analysis. How did we get, in your view, how did we get to this place?

TYSON: Here's my best understanding of it. We got complacent. There's a branch point in people's understanding of why we went to the moon. The actual reason why we went to the moon is that we were at war. NASA was created in a militaristic environment. Russia had put up Sputnik in 1957; one year later, in reaction to that, we found the agency known as NASA.

We went to the moon because we felt threatened by the communists. When you feel threatened, money flows like rivers. And so, out came the money for us to go to the moon. The war driver does not match the reflections on the era for why we went to the moon. And then we find out Russia's not going to the moon? We stop going to the moon. That’s obvious, once you realize we went to the moon for war purposes. And it's not obvious if you think we went to the moon because we're explorers and we're discoverers and it's in our DNA and all these arguments that space enthusiasts had given, leaving them disappointed to find that it never matches.

CURWOOD: So, tell me, why should we explore space, with people?

TYSON: I've got my own reasons for exploring space, that I don't presume others should have these reasons. I think we should explore space because it's cool to do and that you discover interesting things tomorrow that you didn't know today, and that's enlightening. That's why I like to explore.

But I'm not going to require others to want to write the checks for those reasons. We should do it because our economy is tanking right now and people need to recognize the role and value of innovation as a cultural directive on the health of an economy. And innovation, I mean the capacity to dream about a tomorrow that doesn't exist today, the capacity to want to accomplish something tomorrow. In space it would require some kind of application of science, engineering, and technology to do something tomorrow that you didn't know how to do today and when you innovate on that scale, you invent the economies of tomorrow.

And when you do that, the kids want to become scientists because they can see what role, it's writ large in the daily headlines, they see what role science and engineering fluency plays in the trajectory of your society. And then the entire country becomes a participant on that frontier rather than sitting on our hands watching the rest of the world do exactly what we used to dream about doing for ourselves.

CURWOOD: Whoah! So, your analysis that we're not sending people into space, into deeper space than just low earth orbit these days, is based on the military history of what we've done in space?

Space Chronicles (W. W. Norton & Company)

TYSON: Well, military was the original driver, of course, that was the cold war driver that got us to the moon. And so, space exploration, among those who remembered it as a military exercise, would think of it as, well, we'll do it again if we have military reasons but otherwise there's no point. And, of course, if China, I joke, they should leak a memo, it doesn't have to be true, just leak a memo that they want to put military bases on Mars, [laughing] we'll be on Mars in ten months!

So, no one wants war to be a driver of anything. At least, I don't. But, once you recognize that in that era, apart from war being the driver, we gained significant economic growth out of that period in spite of the fact that we had heavy expenditures in the war machine that had been created for the cold war. People don't think about it that way.

And I'm trying to assert, based on my read of the history of the conduct of nations, that the two greatest drivers of doing great, adventurous things are the "I don't want to die" driver, that's the war driver, and then "I don't want to die poor," that's the economic driver. We can go forward in space. The explorers will do the exploring, but the people who write the check need to recognize that to be a huge return on the economy of the nation that makes that investment.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you say one of the biggest motives is the "I don't want to die" motive and in your book you talk about huge threats, extinction of life on earth, from asteroids floating around out there. Could that be a motivation to get back into the game of getting out into space?

TYSON: That's the biggest military driver of them all, of course. However, the asteroid that might take us out, you calculate the orbits and you predict when it will happen, that will be in a thousand years, or five hundred years. And 88 percent of Congress gets elected every two years. So there's a mismatch of time scales there and I'm saying that would be among several reasons to go into space, and a really important one.

But I claim that if you go into space because you know it has an economic return, not only from the direct spinoffs from the space investment but from the cultural shift that exploring big brings onto a nation, and onto its peoples, so that everybody's a participant in the "innovation nation," if you will, this spreads into our culture and in society. And then you have dreamers who once again dream about tomorrow.

CURWOOD: So let me ask you this: with NASA's limited budget these days, what would you prioritize?

TYSON: No! No! I say double the budget! I'm not going to argue about the crumbs that Congress feels like that's all they can afford to give NASA. No. That's the wrong conversation. There are people doing that now, yes. I was called days after the book came out to testify in front of Congress because NASA's budget is in play right now. And I said "I'm not going to argue over the pennies that we’re going to redistribute within the NASA budget." They said, "okay, come and talk about the future of what you think NASA should be." And I said "this half a penny on the tax dollar that's the NASA budget? Double it. Make it a fat penny. Then that will be big enough to go into space in a big way."

CURWOOD: So then the flip side of this question is this: let's say that funding was not an issue. What would you like to see NASA do and what should NASA do first?

TYSON: Excellent, excellent! Thank you! What I would do is create an entire suite of launch vehicles that can be differently configured depending on the needs. So if you need to go into space, you strap it together, four rockets from column A, two from column B, that gets you to deep space. I might want to go to the back side of the moon, set up an observatory, the military might have reasons to go one place or another, the entrepreneurs might want to give you a tourist ride and visit a moon colony, space then becomes our backyard. That is how I see the healthiest way to take us into the future. And you don't sit on your laurels, you always advance the frontier. Otherwise, you don't stay ahead of where you were the day before.

CURWOOD: So, what has happened here? Now back in the sixties, I remember, there was this sense of wonder about the world -

TYSON: You're telling me!

CURWOOD: - and what's happened, that when kids go into the classroom these days, they don't get that sense of wonder about the natural world?

TYSON: And the people want to believe that the solution to that is, let's get more inspiring teachers. Well, in mathematics we call that a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve the goal. Yes, you want inspiring teachers. Go ahead. But don't believe that that's going to solve the problem. Because a teacher can light a flame but something has to keep that flame fanned as they proceed through their educational pipeline.

So when you have a big, ambitious mission, such as space exploration, a field that taps all the traditional STEM fields, the science, technology, engineering and math fields, here you have the call for excellence and innovation on these frontiers because we're going into space in a big way and that will reverberate down the academic pipeline in ways that - it will be like a force of nature.

You create the more scientists and engineers that you've been searching for. You innovate and you have new products. Your factory can't go oversees because they haven't figured out how to make it yet. And when new economies get invented, and developed, and promoted in a next generation, we rise up out of our economic doldrums and we become a competitive nation once again. Rather than on the sidelines watching the rest of the nations who do understand this take the lead.

CURWOOD: How much does the public need to know about science? And what makes someone science literate?

TYSON: I think there's a misunderstanding. Many people think that being scientifically literate is being able to recite the theory of evolution or how does your microwave oven work or internal combustion engine car and that's an aspect of science literacy but I don't think it's the most important. The most important aspect of science literacy is recognizing that science is not a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking and querying the world around you.

And it's what empowers you to ask the right questions when someone confronts you with a claim. If someone says, "I have these crystals and if you rub them together it will cure all your ailments." So what' s your first thought in that encounter? Is it, great, great, how much do I pay for them? Or is it, well, what are the crystals made of? And what evidence do you have that it's worked in the past? You start asking questions and the person runs away in tears because they don't have the answers to those questions. And you've just exposed the person as the charlatan that he or she is. Without knowing anything in advance, you're just curious about a claim. And so science literacy is the capacity to ask intelligent questions about the physical world around you.

CURWOOD: These days, a substantial portion of the population, I'm not sure I'd pick a number, exactly, is skeptical of the science behind the concern about climate. Why?

TYSON: Oh, yeah, because they get their news from people who don't know how to tell the difference. And they're not trained to study the raw data themselves. Psychologists have known for a while that even if you know something to be true, if someone else is telling you the opposite and they do it persistently that you eventually believe what you've been told multiple times. It kind of overrides your brain's memory of what was the actual truth and you're just believing what's repeated to you. When you turn on the news, you believe that, and you're left with no further capacity to analyze the situation because someone else handed you your worldview. As an educator, I see it as a duty to empower people to be able to construct a worldview of their own.

CURWOOD: So, your concern about the media brainwashing people about science, and we were just talking about climate, raises an interesting question about your role in the media, because I understand you're working on a reboot of Carl Sagan's landmark television series Cosmos. But it's going to be on FOX!

[Tyson laughing]

CURWOOD: FOX has this reputation, in fact there've been academic studies showing that FOX is among the quickest of the network news channels to trot out climate skeptics any time an issue regarding climate disruption comes up in the news. How do you reconcile working with a company whose record would appear to be contrary to your view of how science should be treated?

TYSON: It's why Cosmos needs to be on FOX. [laughing] That's the answer. You don't put Cosmos where everyone is already scientifically literate and already understands how to interpret scientific research. That's not where you put Cosmos. You put Cosmos where it's most needed, where it has the greatest access to the heartlands of America.

CURWOOD: Now, back in the day, Carl Sagan was, well, I don't want to use the word vilified exactly, but the scientific community didn't treat him very well. They felt, somehow, that he had betrayed many of them. How is the scientific community treating your ability to communicate so powerfully and effectively in the wider world of media?

TYSON: That's an excellent question. Back in his day, it hadn't been done before. And so there's always blood on the tracks if you're the pioneer. Carl Sagan went on Johnny Carson. He was criticized for that. And it turns out Johnny Carson was a fan of science and a fan of Carl's and a fan of Cosmos and what happened was all boats started getting lifted.

Congress was talking about astronomy in ways they hadn't thought to do so before because Cosmos was such a hit series and Carl Sagan had such charm and such wit and such bedside manner in his delivery of the frontier of science in ways that other scientists had not developed. So my field, the field of astrophysics, among sciences, was the first to embrace that activity for all the benefits that it brought us. And since then, there've been many of us, I'm not alone on this landscape, that have brought science to the public.

CURWOOD: So, final question before we go: What intrigues you the most right now, either a recent discovery or a question that we should be addressing in the cosmos?

TYSON: I think the right questions are being addressed by the scientific community. We're searching for life. We want to get our inventory of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars outside of our own solar system, to see if there are any ones that kind of look and smell like us, earth-like planets. We're a little biased there, of course, but we're self aware of that.

There's dark matter, dark energy. Eighty-five percent of the gravity of the universe has an unknown origin, it remains a mystery. It's the longest standing unsolved problem in modern astrophysics. Then there was dark energy, this mysterious pressure in the vacuum of space that's making the expanding universe accelerate, against the wishes of the collective gravity of all the galaxies within it. That's a mystery as well. Combine those two sources of energy and it is 96 percent of what's driving the universe.

So our entire understanding, all of our knowledge of the laws of physics and chemistry and biology - is contained in four percent of what's driving the universe. We don't know what's happening in the rest. I look forward to a day where some discovery is revealed that turns out to be the missing puzzle piece that brings all the rest of this under one simple-to-understand umbrella.

CURWOOD: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist. He's director of the Hayden Planetarium. His new book is called Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Always a pleasure, Neil Tyson.

TYSON: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Related link:
Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Web Page

Back to top


Celebrating Poetry Month

A Horned Lark. (Photo: David Larson, Mass Audubon)

[MUSIC: Sun Ra “Fate In A Pleasant Mood” from Fate In A Pleasant Mood (Evidence Records 1990)]

GELLERMAN: One of the reasons we love radio, the pictures are terrific. And according to writer Susan Edwards Richmond, a poem can also be a portal to the mind’s eye.

Joppa Flats, a prime birdwatching area in MassAudubon's sanctuary at Newburyport MA. (Photo: Melissa Vokey, MassAudubon)

RICHMOND: Poetry is a very compressed form, it can capture a moment very precisely and concisely. Poetry can be very experiential, you want to invite the reader to experience the experience that you've had and to be drawn to the same, to an epiphany, it might not actually be the same conclusion or epiphany as you are in, but that you're not telling the reader what to think, you're drawing them in and letting them have your experience and having it for themselves.

GELLERMAN: Well, since April is National Poetry Month we’ve asked some bards to help us commemorate the craft and read from their work. Poet Susan Edwards Richmond offered us a flight of fancy.

RICHMOND: I love writing about birds. I write a lot about birds and their places and this particular place is Newburyport. A lot of birds come to winter in coastal Massachusetts that you don't really see the rest of the year, and that's true of these two species of birds, the Lapland Longspur and the Horned Lark. And we saw a field of Horned Larks and there was this one bird that was clearly not a Horned Lark. The Horned Lark does have these little tufts that looks like it has these little horns and it has a very black "V" on its chest. In the wintertime, the Longspur is very nondescript, it's kind of a buffy-colored. And in this poem I describe some of its markings that are just beginning to come into view, as it's the end of the season.

A Horned Lark. (Photo: David Larson, Mass Audubon)

Longspur in a Field with Larks

distinguish himself, doesn’t
want to, is perfectly
content to be
whatever the situation
requires-would sprout
horns if he could.
Tumbling over this
invented tundra
after the seething,
rearranging texture of lemon
vests, darkling
Vs, he takes the low
drafts in the same
easy wheel, though more
timid; hides behind
one of two
white stones, scurries
to a slanted
into scooped hollows
to shimmy shake sand
from his wings.
In another week, he won’t

Horned Larks Feeding in Winter.
(Photo: David Larson. Mass Audubon)

be able to hide
brown stripes
sharpening against
buff, the telltale throat’s
slow darkening,
chestnut blush already
coming up under the collar.
Wrong place, right
time, but soon,
where to? Rejoin his kind
on breeding fields
under high arctic
sun. Farewell
to the abetting
larks who remain
indifferent to his difference
until this winter sojourn
ends, and all true
colors are revealed.

[MUSIC: Omar Sosa “Walking Together” from Calma (OTA Records 2011)]

GELLERMAN: Susan Edwards Richmond reading her poem 'Longspur in a Field with Larks.” She's a founding member of
The Concord Poetry Center.


Related links:
- Mass Audobon
- Concord Poetry Center website

Back to top


GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet and Helen Palmer with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and don’t forget our Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth – and you can follow us on Twitter – at Living on Earth. That’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
ANNOUNCER ONE: 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 dot 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 dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER TWO: 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