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

May 11, 2012

Air Date: May 11, 2012



Brazil’s New Forest Code Under Fire / Bobby Bascomb

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The Brazilian Congress recently passed a controversial new forest code that many scientists believe could cause more deforestation in the Amazon. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports on the rules but says Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff still has the power to veto the changes. (08:00)

EPA Red Lights Palm Oil

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The Environmental Protection says that palm oil based biofuel does not meet renewable fuel standards. Jeremy Martin, senior researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains the agency’s new ruling on the biofuel to host Bruce Gellerman. Martin says that palm oil fuel emits more greenhouse gas emissions than other vegetable oils, and that the creation of palm plantations leads to deforestation. (05:00)

Microsoft Seeks Carbon Neutrality

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Software giant Microsoft tracks and taxes its carbon output. By investing in clean energy and efficiency, Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist, hopes to make the company carbon neutral. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that they have the will and the technology to tackle the challenge. (05:30)

Note on Emerging Science / Ants’ Social Immunity / Mary Bates

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Scientists have discovered that ant colonies function like a giant immune system. As Mary Bates reports, when one ant gets sick, others take action to immunize the rest of the colony. (02:00)

A Maine Island Struggles to Stay Afloat / Jack Rodolico

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The residents of Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, breathed a sigh of relief when the Postmaster General decided to keep small post offices open, at least for the time being. But that might not be enough to keep their island going as a year-round residence. Jack Rodolico took the ferry to Cliff Island and has our story. (07:50)

Deciphering Mayan Calendar Records

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Archaeologists have unearthed intricate calendar calculations on the walls of a ruined Mayan city in the remote rainforest of Guatemala. Boston University archeologist William Saturno spoke with host Bruce Gellerman to explain the secrets his team discovered. (08:00)

BirdNote® Swainson’s Thrush “Micro Napper” / Mary McCann

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The Swainson’s Thrush is something of a night owl – it stays up all night and travels long distances. And when it needs some zzzzzzzz’s, the bird takes daytime mini-naps, sleeping with one eye open. Mary McCann reports. (02:00)

Paper Made / Steve Curwood

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The recycling bin can be a source of creative inspiration. Steve Curwood talks to Kayte Terry about the fun and functional projects in her new book “Paper Made: 101 Exceptional Projects to Make Out of Everyday Paper.” (05:50)

LOE in Hot Water

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Jeremy Martin, Rob Bernard, William Saturno, Kayte Terry
REPORTERS: Bobby Bascomb, Jack Rodolico
NOTES: Mary Bates, Mary McCann


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


GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. Brazil rewrites the law of the jungle. The nation’s new Forest Code is supposed to limit deforestation of the Amazon.

RIEDEL: We think it's much better for the environment if you reforest, than you pay the fine. You don't pay the fine if you reforest.

GELLERMAN: But critics say Brazil’s new Forest Code is so weak, you could drive a truck full of trees through it.

BRINDIS: The message is that you can violate the law with impunity. You just don't need to take the code seriously.

GELLERMAN: Brazil’s president Dilma faces a dilemma: does she sign or veto the new code?

Also, the future of Cliff Island, Maine:

ANDERSON: For an island community to survive, there are certain things you need. School, post office, store are the basic things to keep year-rounders here. Without those, the island community tends to fall apart.

GELLERMAN: Our Maine event - and a lot more this week on Living on Earth.
Stick around!

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

Brazil’s New Forest Code Under Fire

Amazon landowners must keep forest on 80% of their land. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

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

Call it the law of the jungle. For the past 50 years, Brazil’s vast Amazon region has been governed by the Forest Code. It’s a set of detailed environmental rules and regulations designed to protect the rainforest by limiting the amount of land property owners can cut down and develop.

But over the past half century the Forest Code has often been more honored in the breach than the observance. Now, Brazil is set to get a new Forest Code, if the president agrees to sign the controversial changes. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports.

Cattle and soybeans are by far the largest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: In the 1950s and 60s the Brazilian government encouraged people to move to the Amazon and make it productive, grow food to feed an impoverished country.


[PORTUGUESE ANNOUNCER WITH VOICEOVER: It is not enough to build roads. We must colonize for agriculture or for cattle. The land is good. There are green pastures in the forest made of milk and honey. MUSIC FADES]

BASCOMB: Ninety-two year old Jospe Perrer de Brito was one of those early settlers.

Jospe Perrer de Brito and his wife inside their home. Jospe paddled here in a canoe to work in agriculture in 1958. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

DE BRITO WITH VOICEOVER: When I first came here I came by paddle in 1958. There were only wild Indians living here.


BASCOMB: De Brito paddled up the Rio des Mortes, in a dug out canoe. He came to farm and raise cows.

DE BRITO WITH VOICEOVER: When I first came here there was a lot of free land. Now every piece of land has been grabbed up by people. There was a lot of forest, very big. Not anymore. The people chopped it down. I think things will be worse if they chop down all of the forest.

Since the government started collecting data in the 1970s an area of rainforest nearly the size of France has been deforested to make way for agricultural production. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Today, half a century since De Brito paddled up the river, 150 million acres of forest has been chopped down, in spite of the Forest Code that requires landowners to keep 80 percent of their property forested. It’s called the legal reserve and people that cut down their legal reserve must reforest it and pay fines. Yet four point six million agricultural producers are in violation of the law.

RIEDEL: It’s a very complex situation where it made 90 percent of the producers outlaws.

BASCOMB: Eduardo Riedel represents those producers as vice president of the National Federation of Agriculture and Livestock. He says Brazil needs the new Forest Code Congress just passed because the current law is out of step with reality. The new code would create an amnesty for people that illegally deforested before 2008. People will not have to pay the fines as long as they reforest the degraded land.

RIEDEL: We think it’s much better for the environment if you reforest than you pay the fines. It’s not an amnesty that ‘oh,you don’t need anymore to pay the fine.’ It’s not that. You don’t pay the fine if you reforest.

Roads cut through the forest bring settlers to the Amazon and agricultural products out to ports. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: But environmentalists and scientists see two problems with that rationale. First is the problem of enforcement. The Brazilian Amazon is roughly half the size of the continental United States, yet has just 400 environmental police to patrol the region and enforce laws.

A second concern is that the amnesty clause could actually spur more deforestation. Daniel Brindis is a forests campaigner for Greenpeace, based in Brazil.

BRINDIS: The message is that you can violate the law with impunity. It’s actually sending the message that there might be another round of amnesty on the way or you just don’t need to take the code seriously.

BASCOMB: A piece of land cleared and ready to grow soybeans or graze cows is far more valuable than the same piece of land with trees on it. So Brindis says that farmers and ranchers are choosing to deforest now, assuming another pardon will come along later.

BRINDIS: We’ve actually seen this response in the rise in deforestation rates. The first quarter, the first three months of the year, deforestation was triple that of the same three months from the year before.

Philip Fearnside is a research professor with the National Institute for Research in the Amazon. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Another change in the law directly encourages deforestation by allowing landowners to cut down trees closer to riverbanks. The Amazon Basin is full of meandering rivers with broad bands of dark green forest along them. The new code will requires a narrower forest buffer along the rivers. That troubles Philip Fearnside, a research professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon.

FEARNSIDE: Those riverside forests are very important in terms of avoiding flooding and so forth, and there also very important for biodiversity because those are the corridors that allow animals and plants to move between the different patches that are left after deforestation has advanced.

Strips of forest follow the same meandering pattern as rivers. They are called permanent protection areas.(Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

What keeps the biodiversity viable is have some sort of connection between those little patches that are left, and by eliminating these areas of permanent protection, you have a much greater impact on biodiversity than cutting out that same area of forest somewhere else. It’s the worst place to have that extra clearing allowed.

BASCOMB: Most scientists agree that the new Forest Code will increase deforestation and reduce biodiversity. And Fearnside says the majority of the Brazilian public are against the changes, as well.

FEARNSIDE: Brazil is now over 80 percent urban, so most of the population has no direct economic stake in being allowed to deforest more. Opinion polls also show that most of the population was against this but still,the original proposal in the lower House passed by a margin of seven to one for something that’s basically against the interest of the majority of the Brazilian population.

Property owners are allowed to develop some land and must keep some as forest. From the sky the north of Brazil looks like a patchwork of forest and agricultural land. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: And so, why was the Congress so overwhelmingly in support of the forest bill if the Brazilian people are not in support of it?

FEARNSIDE: Well, that’s a very good question [LAUGHS]. You have a very powerful lobby, this ruralist lobby has a tremendous amount of money. There’s obviously the big soybean planters and ranchers and so forth that are contributing to this. It’s presented as if it were something to favor the small farmers but actually, of course, the money and the influence is coming from these wealthy landowners. And it shows very much the sort of balance of power which has shifted to be very anti-environmentalist.

BASCOMB: The fate of the new Forest Code rests on the pen of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. When she campaigned for the job she promised to balance economic development with environmental conservation. She has continued to say that she would veto any provision that allowed amnesty for illegal deforestation. The Brazilian public is holding her to that promise with a widespread campaign known as “Veta Dilma” - Veto the Forest Code, President Dilma.

President Dilma Rousseff has the power to veto the new forest code but congress could overturn her veto. (Wikimedia Commons)

The slogan even made its way to an awards ceremony for the former president Lula, hosted by a famous Brazilian actress Camila Pitanga.


PITANGA WITH VOICEOVER: Mr. President, I will break protocol for a moment, only to ask you onething....Veta Dilma!




Actress Camila Pitanga tells President Rousseff to veto the forest code.

BASCOMB: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has a line item veto. She has the power to strike down individual parts of the bill. She could remove the amnesty clause for illegal deforestation. But once its signed the bill goes back to Congress where her veto could be overturned. The president has until May 25 to decide what changes, if any, to make. As we record this story she has not yet weighed in on the Forest Code. For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Related link:
Living on Earth Report: Carrots and Sticks Saving the Brazilian Amazon

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[MUSIC: CeU “Rosa Meninha Rosa” from Vagarosa (Six Degrees Records 2009)]

EPA Red Lights Palm Oil

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/ Ryan Woo, CIFOR)

GELLERMAN: Palm oil comes from the bright orange fruit of the oil palm plant.
It’s high in vitamin E, cheap, and widely used as a cooking oil around the world.
But it’s palm oil's use as biodiesel or as a renewable biofuel that accounts for the rapid expansion of cropland in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As the price of petroleum oil soars, palm oil is increasingly attractive, but the U.S. EPA has ruled that palm oil isn’t good enough to meet federal renewable fuel standards.
The proposed ruling has been called the most important climate change decision of the year. Jeremy Martin evaluates the impacts of biofuels for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Freshly harvested oil palm fruits, Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/Tim Cronin, CIFOR)

MARTIN: The renewable fuel standard is an obligation on fuel providers, to people who sell us gasoline and diesel, to blend a certain amount of biofuel into their fuel. And, so, they need to demonstrate to the U.S. EPA that they’ve met their obligations under this policy.

GELLERMAN: So lets pick apart what the EPA recently announced – that this preliminary finding that palm oil falls short of the renewable fuel standard.

MARTIN: Well, the U.S. biofuels policies require that biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels – gasoline and diesel fuel. And what the EPA found was that biofuels made out of palm oil don’t meet a 20 percent reduction compared to diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: So they’ve got to be 20 percent cleaner than diesel fuel?

MARTIN: Yeah, in a full life cycle basis. And so that means the growing and the cultivation and the conversion to fuel, all, adding up all of those parts of the process and comparing them to making diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: So, according to the EPA, what does the palm oil clock in at?

MARTIN: Well, they evaluated two types of fuels. One was 17 percent, and one was 11 percent better than diesel, according to their preliminary finding. Although our analysis suggests that these are optimistic numbers and that actually palm oil based biofuels are likely dirtier than conventional diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: Dirtier than diesel!

MARTIN: Yes, unfortunately.

GELLERMAN: So, where is it dirtier than diesel?

MARTIN: Probably the most important place where EPA’s analysis fell short is the kind of land that’s been coming into palm oil cultivation. So, palm oil is grown primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia and over the last decade or so, a lot of the land that’s been entering palm oil cultivation has come from peat forests and peat swamps.

And, these forests are cut down and the swamps are drained, and that process releases tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. So, that’s the area where we think EPA’s analysis understated the extent of the problem.

Oil palm seedlings, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/Yayan Indriatmoko, CIFOR)

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s no wonder. Indonesia and Malaysia which are two of the largest palm oil producer say the EPA got the numbers wrong and that your numbers are wrong and they say palm oil is a great biofuel. In fact, they say it reduces by half the greenhouse gas emissions.

MARTIN: Sure, well, I mean I suppose it’s no surprise that they like the fuel. And, I guess I would say that we certainly recognize that palm oil is… it’s a very productive plant, and I think that there’s an opportunity for it to be a really good source of biofuel. The tragedy of it is that, you know, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments aren’t directing palm oil expansion into more suitable areas because there really is an opportunity to clean up palm oil production but, both, because of inadequate policies and even more because of inadequate enforcement of existing policies, that’s just not what’s happening on the ground.

GELLERMAN: Well, palm oil is a very productive and useful crop. It’s a staple food source.

An oil palm plantation. (Photo: Flickr CC/Rainforest Action Network)

MARTIN: Yeah, that’s right.

GELLERMAN: So, if you’re using it as a fuel are you taking it away from the fork?

MARTIN: So, that’s a big part of the impact of biodiesel production is essentially removing food primarily from poor consumers in China and India. When you take palm oil to make biodiesel, about 60 percent of it gets replaced by expansion of palm oil cultivation. And that’s what leads to the deforestation and the extra emissions. You know, the prices go up and the consumers can’t afford to eat as much. And so, that’s not the way, I think, we want to fuel our vehicles in the United States.

GELLERMAN: Let’s say the EPA does have it right, that it’s 17 percent better than diesel. Just for arguments sake. Is something better than nothing?

MARTIN: I mean, you know, these policies like the renewable fuel standards, set thresholds for different fuels and they started at 20 percent. And, actually, it’s possible to do a lot better than 20 percent. There are categories in that policy for 50, for 60 percent, and some of the cellulosic biofuels can do 80, 90, even 100 percent better. And, so, as we try to clean up our fuel supply, we really need to be aiming high and not investing a lot in fuels with limited benefits and lots of downsides. I mean, of course, the 17 percent is only the carbon score. The land, the forests, the peat bogs, the habitat, the impact on the people who live there are also things that one should consider. And, so, on balance, it doesn’t look like this is the solution to our very real challenges we have with our transportation fuel sector.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeremy Martin, thanks a lot!

MARTIN: My pleasure, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Martin is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Related links:
- Learn more about Jeremy Martin
- Read the Union of Concerned Scientists’ comments to the EPA

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[MUSIC: Jake Shimabukuro “Let’s Dance” from Live (Hitchhike Records 2009).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: A big deal for Microsoft. The company imposes a fee on carbon. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Stanley Turrentine” Mississippi City Strut” from Don’t Mess With Mr. T” (CTI Records 2012 reissue).]

Microsoft Seeks Carbon Neutrality

Microsoft Campus Building. (Photo: FlickrCC/ Carsten Knoch)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

The largest software company in the world is pledging to shrink its corporate carbon footprint – big time. Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington,with facilities in over 100 countries, is going carbon neutral, cutting greenhouse gases using a method most companies, and countries, have yet to consider: basically, a self–imposed tax. Rob Bernard is Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist.

The Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA are powered by hydroelectricity and solar. (Photo: Wikimedia/Ayoleol)

BERNARD: Today, Microsoft emits one and a half to two million tons of carbon per year.

GELLERMAN: Ooh! That’s a lot of carbon.

BERNARD: Compared to most multi-national corporations, we’re certainly not at the lowest end but we’re certainly nowhere near the high end. Looking at other companies in our industry, we’re about the same.

GELLERMAN: So, how do you hope to go carbon neutral? How do you hope to get it from here to there?

BERNARD: So there’s really two methods. The first is to use far less energy in all of our services and operations and travel less than we do today. And the second goal is to make that energy as clean as possible.

GELLERMAN: Now, the energy in Redmond is mostly hydro.

BERNARD: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: So, what about energy from coal and natural gas and atomic power, that kind of stuff?

BERNARD: So, there are a few ways. One is you can actually…as you pointed out, in Seattle we’re fortunate that we are able to get and source a lot of hydro-based power. In other places you can also source cleaner energy or you can buy what is called renewable energy credits. Basically, take those credits and take them off the market for others to buy.

GELLERMAN: So, the notion is this as I understand these renewable energy credits: let’s say I have a rooftop solar collector or a company does. I can take the energy that I create cleanly and sell…well, basically, I can sell it as a commodity. I can trade that with you.

BERNARD: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: And, therefore, you get the credit for my generating clean electricity.

BERNARD: And the value to you as the creator is, because you know companies like Microsoft or others will buy that energy, it allows you to get the investment capital you need to create that new source of energy, which is precisely what we’re trying to ignite in the marketplace.

GELLERMAN:You know, so your commitment to go carbon neutral starting July 1st of this year – I’m just wondering, what took you so long? Google has been doing this going back to 2008!

BERNARD: I think that the thing for us was not just the carbon neutral thing itself – which is interesting and important – but rather how we would approach it. And so what we’re doing is we’re actually creating an internal carbon price, which means that every division of Microsoft in every country we operate in will be responsible for the cost of their emissions.

GELLERMAN: Oh, and then all of your divisions have to report up to the head potato and they have to be responsible and responsive, and have to say ‘ hey, we’re trying to cut our carbon otherwise you guys are levying a fee on us.’

BERNARD: Exactly.

GELLERMAN: How has that gone over with the division heads?

BERNARD: Very well. I think people recognize…you know, we have a long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, that this is the right thing to do. And so, they recognize that things are going to change as society focuses more and more on the issues surrounding energy use, water use, and a whole bunch of resource use around the world.

GELLERMAN: So, you’re not calling it a self-imposed tax. What are you calling it?

BERNARD: A carbon fee.

GELLERMAN: And how do you calculate this carbon fee?

Microsoft offices worldwide, including this building in Hyderabad, India, will be accountable for their emissions. (Photo: FlickrCC/ Amit Chattopadhyay)

BERNARD: This is where information technology is critically important. So, if you were to fly to come see us here in Seattle, we’d know what plane you’re taking, what the carbon factor is, how many miles you’re flying, what class you flew. If you were to turn on your lights in your office when you went to work in one office at Microsoft around the world, we know how much energy that you’re using and we know what the carbon factor for that office is. So we can actually calculate how much carbon are you using in all of the activities that you’re dong around the company.

GELLERMAN: And you’re going to be able to account for all of that and do the math?

BERNARD: Yeah, exactly. And this is one of the reasons that, and you had asked why does it take so long? Putting these systems in place does take awhile. And our hope is that by us leading by example, others will following in our footsteps.

GELLERMAN: You know, it’s interesting that here’s Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, and basically you’re imposing your own carbon tax when countries around the world, including our own are not even talking about it.

BERNARD: We’re hoping that by leading by example, we’ll learn a lot of stuff, and we’ll be able to inform, not only other companies and our customers, but also, potentially, a bunch of governments around the world.

GELLERMAN: Because I’ve been to a bunch of climate summits. And I see that Microsoft is there and has a large presence, and actually your company has taken a huge step: you want to have a binding climate treaty!

BERNARD: Well, for us, I mean, I think we’re most interested in how can we impact difference in our own backyard. And then, hopefully, extend that to our customers and partners and if others want to follow our example, that’s great. But the primary thing for us is really thinking about how do we motivate and change behavior in our own company and see if that’s extensible to others as well.

GELLERMAN: So where does this go? What happens now?

BERNARD: What happens now is we move from the pilot to execution starting July 1st, is the date that we kick this off with our systems. And then we’re going to try to create a continuous learning process to see how effective are we at driving down energy use, driving down air travel and at making sure we’re making meaningful investments in clean energy around the planet.

GELLERMAN: July 1st, kind of like a carbon independence day.

BERNARD: Or the start of our fiscal new year.

GELLERMAN: Always thinking about the bottom line.

BERNARD: And the planet!

GELLERMAN: Mr. Bernard, thank you so much.

BERNARD: Thank you so much.

GELLERMAN: Rob Bernard is chief environmental strategist with Microsoft.

Related link:
Microsoft Pledges Carbon Neutrality

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[MUSIC: Erik Truffaz “Bending New Corners” from The Mask (EMI Records 2000).]

Note on Emerging Science / Ants’ Social Immunity

Healthy worker ants remove the infectious fungal pathogen from an exposed ant (marked with a red dot) by grooming. (Photo: Matthias Konrad, IST Austria)

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - Catching the ferry to Cliff Island, Maine. A trip back in time to see if the place has a future. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.

[SOUNDS FROM THE MOVIE “ANTZ”: “A soldier knows that the life of an individual ant does not matter. What matters is the colony. He’s willing to live for the colony, to fight for the colony, to die for the colony.”]

BATES: General Mandible in the movie “Antz,” inspired soldier ants to join together in their fight against termites. It turns out, in the real world, ants work together not just to defend themselves from other bugs, but in the fight against disease.


BATES: Ant colonies are like tiny, crowded cities. Like cities, there is a high risk of disease outbreaks. But scientists from the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria found ants have a system for keeping outbreaks in check.
The researchers applied fluorescent fungal spores to some ants and followed the sick ants’ interactions with nest-mates over two days. They watched as the spores spread throughout the colony without causing a major disease outbreak.
They discovered that ants do not avoid their sick friends. Instead, they lick them to remove pathogens from their bodies. By grooming an infected ant, the helper ant catches a low-level infection. This infection acts as a vaccination, revving up immune genes that help the ant fight off the pathogen.

Only two percent of an infected ant’s nestmates died after grooming their diseased comrade, while more than sixty percent enjoyed a stimulated immune system.

Taking care of sick ants and sharing germs protects the entire colony from disease. It gives new meaning to share and share alike.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.


Related link:
Article in PLoS Biology

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A Maine Island Struggles to Stay Afloat

The Cliff Island Post Office. (Photo: Jack Rodolico)

GELLERMAN: The bills at the U.S. Postal Service are stacking up faster than third class junk mail. These haven’t been red letter days for the USPS – it's been hemorrhaging 36 million dollars a day and a bail out check from Congress is definitely not in the mail.

The service considered shutting down 37 hundred post offices around the nation,
but now, it’s decided to hold off and cut back hours instead. Still, that may not be enough in savings so small communities like Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, remain worried. Reporter Jack Rodolico took a ferry to 04019 where a single post office serves the one square mile island.


RODOLICO: Cliff Island is classic Maine – windswept evergreen trees, set back from the rocky coast, quaint little houses with wooden shingles. Most of the island’s residents live on the west side, which is closer to the mainland and protected from the open sea.


RODOLICO: On a brisk, sunny day, Chester Pettengill stands at the ferry landing waiting for the noon boat. He’s lived here all his life, 76 years, and he’s a descendent of both families who originally settled the island.

PETTENGILL: Well, one half of the island belonged to the Griffin family, and the other half was Pettengill. Of course, they intermarried because there was no choice. [LAUGHS].

Volunteer firefighters at the Cliff Island fire station.
(Photo: Jack Rodolico)

RODOLICO: In some ways the island hasn’t changed much since it was settled in 1813. All the roads are dirt, no one locks their doors. There’s a church, a grocery store, a one-room schoolhouse, and a small fire station. And today, as he does six days every week, Chester takes the island’s mail from the ferry…


RODOLICO: …to his car…


RODOLICO:…across the street…to the island’s Post Office.


RODOLICO:There’s not much happening at the Cliff Island Post Office.…no big rush of customers, just a slow trickle over the course of an hour. But for the 50 people who live on Cliff Island year round, getting the mail is an important daily ritual. Chester Pettengill says islanders would be lost if the post office closes.

PETTENGILL: It would be very inconvenient for everyone. It would be a hardship really.

ANDERSON: If you’re on the mainland you can eventually get to a post office. But here, you can’t.

RODOLICO: Norman Anderson is a 78-year-old lobsterman. He says social interaction, no matter how small, is essential to island life.

ANDERSON: For an island community to survive, there are certain things you need. School, post office, store are the basic things to keep year-rounders here. Without those, the island community tends to fall apart.

RODOLICO:That’s already happening. Many Cliff Island houses have been sold and purchased as summer homes. The church closes for the winter, and so does the grocery store because there’s not enough business. Only a couple ferries travel to and from Portland daily, so if you want groceries or anything else in town, you have to schedule your day carefully. Islanders save time by shopping online – prescriptions, clothing and food all come in the mail. And for this small island’s residents, the post office is a public gathering place, especially in winter. Norman Anderson fears it’s the end of a way of life.

Norman and Pam Anderson on the front porch of their home, which they've owned for 40 years. Norman's lobster boat is anchored just out back.
(Photo: Jack Rodolico)

ANDERSON: The future doesn’t look too bright for the island, to be honest with you. It will eventually be a summer community, I think. Looking back at my age, unless things start going in the other way, and I don’t see that happening.


RODOLICO: The recess bell sits on a plaque with the names of every teacher the school has seen since 1880. Five-year-old Sofie Lent gives me a tour.

LENT: And this is the center’s area. And this is an iPad and this is a computer but the kids can’t touch it. And this is the pull up bar.

RODOLICO: You have to be really strong to do that.

LENT: Yeah, I eat broccoli.

RODOLICO: Some twenty children between pre-k and fifth grade used to cram into this schoolhouse. Now there are four students, and only one is old enough to write. Island parents have a hard time convincing young families to move here. But for the kids who are here, island life is great.

Fourteen-year-old Samantha Crowley graduated from this school. At the kitchen table with her parents, she says island kids enjoy freedoms unheard of on the mainland.

CROWLEY: People come out and think it’s so cool that you can lie down in the road and no one will run you over. You don’t have to be worried about that.

RODOLICO: Despite the fun, there are also major inconveniences. When they graduate from the Cliff Island school, island kids have to commute to the mainland.

CROWLEY: I have three hours of boat a day, and I have an hour of bus a day. So I have four hours of just traveling a day.

RODOLICO: And Norman Anderson says there’s another inconvenience: rising property taxes.

ANDERSON: My tax bill is so darn high and that’s what will kill us, is the taxes. Oh we’ll get by, just maybe not out here.

RODOLICO: Norman and Pam Anderson may have to move out of the modest oceanfront home they’ve lived in for 40 years. Fishermen used to be able to afford waterfront houses, but as vacation homes have become more common in Maine, waterfront taxes have skyrocketed.

If the Andersons sell their home, chances are someone will buy it as a second house. Samantha’s mom, Cheryl Crowley, says year-rounders know there’s a price to rural living.

CROWLEY: There’s an idyllic vision of what island life must be like, you know? And there’s definitely that. I mean, look at what we get to look at and walk around to. But it takes work. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle.

RODOLICO: Crowley and other islanders say if the post office closes, it could push the community over the edge.

CROWLEY: I always feel like we’re in this fragile balance of working towards the greater good: keeping our population going. And, yes, all age groups, all people contribute in some way or another.

RODOLICO: Cliff Island is a sort of time capsule that holds the way small towns in America used to be. If your kids disappear for three hours, you can be sure someone will watch out for them. People know who’s driving towards them by the sound of the car engine. And Cheryl Crowley’s husband Dave says there’s no anonymity.

CROWLEY: There was an old saying that I always stick to that the nice thing about living in a small community is if you ever forget what you’re doing, somebody else knows.

RODOLICO: Dave has been here since 1975, but he considers himself a relative newcomer. He says he carries the weight of the island’s legacy.

CROWLEY: There are people that are five, six generation Cliff Islanders. And I still feel like we should be stewards of their island.

RODOLICO: When this Island was being settled in the 1800s, there were 300 year-round islands off the coast of Maine. Today, there are just fifteen. Islands like Cliff Island are isolated social ecosystems, and Cheryl and Dave Crowley believe they’ll need new blood to survive.

CROWLEY: If you lose the younger age group of population – I don’t mean just the kids but their parents – then you lose the people who do things like the rescue, fire and rescue. You know, who’s gonna jump in the fire trucks and ambulance? Who do you want picking you up off the floor?

CROWLEY: It snowballs. And then what happens is once there’s nobody to take care of them because there’s no fire department, no rescue, they tend to leave. And then the island dries up and it becomes strictly summer community. And the light goes out.

RODOLICO: The Postmaster General’s decision to cut hours and not close post offices is good news for Cliff Islanders. As they struggle to retain and re-build their population, the post office will remain a cornerstone for their small community, at least for now.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jack Rodolico.


Related link:
Cliff Island website

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[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “Song For Sidiki” from Crossing The Field (Koch Records 2008)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: an accidental Maya discovery deciphered. 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.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Irvin Mayfield: “Jazz Poetry #1” from Half Past Autumn Suite (Basin Street Records 2003)]

Deciphering Mayan Calendar Records

“Younger Brother Obsidian,” was painted in the 9th century A.D. Archaeologist William Saturno excavates the house in the ruins of the Maya city of Xultún. (Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012, National Geographic)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

In 1915, while harvesting gum from trees in the lowland rainforest of Guatemala, Aurelio Aguayo stumbled upon a magnificent Maya city. For his discovery he was given the equivalent of twenty-five dollars in gold but the true value of his priceless find would not be clear until 95 years later. That’s when Boston University professor William Saturno and his team began excavating the lost, ancient Maya city of Xultun.

William Saturno’s excavation site in Xultun. (Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)

SATURNO: Xultun is a city surrounded by forest. If you were to walk through the site of Xultun, you would see towering pyramids covered in trees. The largest buildings at the site are more than 100 feet tall and the trees crane up from their heights. Today, the city occupies about 16 square kilometers of forest, and certainly tens of thousands of people would have lived there in the past.

GELLERMAN: How old is it?

SATURNO: The city was probably first occupied by around 200 BC, and certainly grew to its height in the period we think of as the early classics, so, between 400 and 600 AD.

GELLERMAN: So it was discovered in the early 1900s. You excavated it a few years ago… what was happening in between?

SATURNO: Since that time of the site’s initial discovery, so essentially for 100 years it sat without any legitimate archaeological excavations being performed. That’s not to say that the site wasn’t excavated because beginning in the 1970s, the site was absolutely ravaged by looters.

GELLERMAN: So when you got to the site about two years ago, was there an area or a bunch of buildings that weren’t looted?

SATURNO: Actually, there are thousands of buildings at this site of Xultun, and not a single one of them is un-looted.

GELLERMAN: So,you came to this one building, this room with a chamber. Can you describe that?

Numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Maya calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates may stretch some 7,000 years into the future. (Photo: William Saturno and David Stuart © 2012 National Geographic)

SATURNO: The room was actually found by one of my undergraduate students, a student named Maxwell Chamberlain. On his lunch hour, he peeked his head into one of these looters excavations and saw the remains of a painting. By the time I came to see it, I was relieved to see that there wasn’t a lot of paint left on the wall. Now, that sounds strange, but the amount of working- having just spent about a decade excavating nearby at San Bartolo, the idea of tackling another Mayan mural sounded rather daunting. So, I said to Max ‘you know, I’m very sorry, Max, this looks like this room was probably brilliantly painted in the past. It’s a pity we’re not going to be able to see what it looked like.’ And then I excavated about 30 centimeters to the back wall of the room and on that wall is the portrait of the Maya king in resplendent blue feathered headdress, holding this brilliant white scepter. His face just looks off, these beautifully rendered eyelash… he’s really quite stunning. So, seeing the face of that king on that back wall was certainly a eureka moment.

And then, we started to ask the question- well, why is there a painting of the king on the back wall of this room in the first place? What else is on these walls?

GELLERMAN: And there’s your real discovery. It wasn’t the Maya king. It was, well, I’m looking at your Science article and you’ve got pictures of the walls and it looks like, well, morse code…dots and dashes.

SATURNO: Yes. You know the first thing that we were struck by were the figures painted on the wall. But then all along the east wall of the room there are the absolutely miniscule Maya hieroglyphs. There’s a table of numbers, column after column after column of Maya numbers. And atop each of those columns was a single glyph that was the image of the moon and a patron deity for each associated column. So, what we were looking at was probably related to the lunar calendar.

GELLERMAN: So the Maya had a special fascination with the calendar. They had calendar keepers. Is that what you found here?

SATURNO: Yeah, I think that we found the workspace in which Maya calendrical almanacs were being read and used as reference materials by our scribes.

GELLERMAN: So, what’s the new here? We knew that the Maya had a special fascination with things calendar-wise. What’s so fascinating about this discovery?

SATURNO: Well, one of the things that sort of sets this bit of painting apart is that the only other place that we’ve seen writing like this from the ancient Maya are in the very few preserved Maya codices – the bark paper books that were preserved from the 13th or 14th centuries AD. We’ve long assumed that there were previous versions of these… that they were copied over, over time. But, of course, we’ve never found a classic period Maya codex. And this is really the closest we’ve ever come.

GELLERMAN: And this is many hundreds of years earlier.

SATURNO: Yeah, this is about 500 years earlier. And, you know, they are the earliest astronomical tables we have for the ancient Maya.

GELLERMAN: So, Professor, why were the Maya – and maybe you don’t know this – why they so enamored with things astronomical and time?

SATURNO: Well, certainly the Maya rulers sought to tie the historical events of their lives, their accomplishments, to larger cycles of time and larger more universal events. Being able to fix an event in the sort of the grand scheme of cosmic time was very important in Maya society. Their calendar was keeping track of those large cycles of time.

GELLERMAN: So when does the calendar end? We hear all about the Maya prediction of the end of the world on December 21st 2012. Does this calendar end on December 21st, 2012?

SATURNO: (LAUGHS). The Maya calendar has no end. The Maya calendar was a series of circles. And, like a circle, one could say ‘where is the beginning of the circle, where is the end of the circle?’ Well, the whole point of the circle is that it has neither beginning nor end, and it just goes around and around and around. And for the ancient Maya, that’s how their calendar worked.

GELLERMAN: So you say that there are thousands of buildings still left to be explored there. Are you going to do that?

SATURNO: Um, well, we plan on working at Xultun for a very long time. We just finished up a field season this week and we hope to continue there for many years into the future.

GELLERMAN: Is there one thing that you’d love to discover there?

SATURNO: Is there one thing I would love to discover at Xultun? Um…probably not. [LAUGHS]. I mean, I think one of the great joys of archaeology is discovering the unexpected. So, is there something that I think of that I would want to find. I think that if I had something in particular that I wanted to find, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much when I found it. Being able to uncover something like this that was unanticipated, that’s where the real joy is.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Saturno, thank you very much.

SATURNO: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: William Saturno is professor of archaeology at Boston University. His paper Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala is in the current issue of Science Magazine. He's also got a story in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Related links:
- Science Magazine Article
- National Geographic Article

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BirdNote® Swainson’s Thrush “Micro Napper”

(Photo: Andrew Reding)


GELLERMAN: Sometimes even birds need a little catnap. BirdNote®’s Mary McCann has this story about 40 winks, with nary a blink.


MCCANN: If you’re lucky, in late spring in the forests of the North and West you’ll hear the melodious, spiraling song of the Swainson’s Thrush. It will linger with you like your body’s memory of a gentle swell after a day on the open water.


(Photo: © Tom Grey)

MCCANN: March finds these secretive, bright-eyed singers departing their wintering grounds in Mexico and South America. They travel at night and can cover more than 200 miles in some eight hours of flying. To replenish themselves from the rigors of their journey, they must stop and feed during the day. When do they sleep?


MCCANN: Research by Dr. Thomas Fuchs of Pennsylvania State University suggests that while migrating, Swainson’s Thrushes take numerous daytime “micro naps,” lasting only a few seconds. The birds are also apparently able to rest half their brain by sleeping with one eye closed. The other eye remains open, with half the brain alert for threats from predators.

When they arrive on their breeding grounds in mid-May, you’d think they’d be ready for a long rest. But the demanding tasks of establishing a territory and finding a mate await them immediately. And that’s why the male thrush sings that haunting song.


MCCANN: I’m Mary McCann.

GELLERMAN: To get an eyeful of a Swainson’s Thrush, wing it over to our webpage LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Audio of the Swainson’s Thrush provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Song and “quip” call recorded by G.A. Keller.
- Swainson’s Thrush, “Micro Napper” was written by Todd Peterson. Check out BirdNote’s new website.

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[MUSIC: Tosca “Chocolate Elvis (Boozoo Bajou Soul Sufferer Version)” from Chocolate Elvis Dubs (G-Stone Records 1999).]

Paper Made

Author and freelance fashion and prop stylist Kayte Terry. (Photo: Deborah Ory)

GELLERMAN: Americans recycle about 90 billion pounds of paper every year.
That makes your share about 300 pounds. So what are you doing with all your old printouts, magazines, and newspapers? You can toss ‘em…recycle ‘em, or take some advice from Kayte Terry. Living on Earth's Steve Curwood talked to Kayte Terry about the projects in her new book, Paper Made.

CURWOOD: So, Kayte Terry, in your book, which is called “Paper Made: 101 Exceptional Projects to Make Out of Everyday Paper” you say that the recycling bin is the new craft closet- what made you start making art materials out of something that would have otherwise been thrown away?

TERRY: I’ve really been doing it since I was a little kid. My mom is a very, very crafty lady and she has always just talked to me about using just humble materials and turning them into amazing things. And, I think it’s, you know, some of it can be out necessity, but a lot of it is just looking at a raw material and thinking of all the things that you can do with it and just kind of opening your mind.

CURWOOD: We all know about recycling paper. Your book is about upcycling paper. What does that mean?

Paper Made! 101 Exceptional Projects to Make Out of Everyday Paper. (Photo: Deborah Ory)

TERRY: Well, I think about upcycling as taking just sort of a humble material such as cardboard, Yellow Pages, things like that and keeping them out of the recycle bin entirely and actually using them for functional things. So, using cardboard boxes to make an actual piece of furniture that’s functional. Using Yellow Pages to make beads that you can use into a necklace. And, I think it’s just about thinking about what you have and what you can work with and all of the different kind of things you can do with it.

CURWOOD: Now, I had a grandmother who was extremely frugal, but she would be impressed at the notion of using cardboard to make furniture. How do you do that?

TERRY: It’s actually really easy. Cardboard is very, very sturdy, you just need a lot of boxes. And, I actually moved a couple of years ago from Brooklyn to Philadelphia and I had tons and tons of cardboard boxes sitting in my basement, and I decided to make a table out of them. And, basically what you’re dong is cutting the same shape out of cardboard over and over again, and when you put it together it’s just as sturdy as a piece of wood.

CURWOOD: So, I have your book in front of me, and I’ve opened it up to page 54, which you may or may not remember, requires the use of empty toilet paper rolls.

TERRY: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS]

CURWOOD: And, you call this the “Secret Stash Beaded Curtain.”

TERRY: Um. [LAUGHS] I was, again, trying to think of all sorts of different things to make out of materials that you would normally just toss away. And, what do you toss away a lot of into a recycling bin? Empty toilet paper rolls. And, I just thought it would be funny that no-one really knows where these things come from… no one knows what it’s made of. You don’t have to tell anyone that it’s empty toilet paper rolls if you don’t want to. But, you know, once you cut them into little pieces and paint them and hang them from string, they just look like wood beads.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, there is special arm room that you need for your book. In particular, it’s a gun, right, a hot glue gun? That’s the secret to success here?

TERRY: A hot glue gun is a great tool to have. It’s pretty inexpensive. It’s great for paper. It adheres all kinds of papers together and it’s not as dangerous as it sounds.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] I suspect many households in America have a deck of cards… well, not quite a full deck of cards. You have a pretty fascinating project to re-use those, to upcycle those cards. Tell me about it:

TERRY: I come from a family of serious card playing. So, we would always come up against that problem where one of the decks falls short and you don’t have 52 playing cards anymore, so I decided to come up with an idea for making those cards into a lampshade. And, it’s pretty simple. All you do is actually sew each of the cards together. And once you sew all of the cards into strips, you can actually mold them into kind of a 3-D shape.

CURWOOD: You know, I get a lot of magazines, and honestly, I don’t really read all of them. But there’s a way I could upcycle these things that you have in your book, right?

TERRY: Oh, definitely!

CURWOOD: What do you recommend?

TERRY: Pretty much anything that you could make in my book that involves paper, you could use a magazine. There’s a vase in the book that is actually made from just hundreds of little rolled paper rings, and when you put them altogether they make this really beautiful geometric-shaped modern vase.

CURWOOD: I was really impressed by something that’s rather simple in here. It’s what you call “Paper Trail Earrings.” These things look beautiful and they don’t cost much of anything and they’re easy to do.

TERRY: They’re really easy. They’re just pieces of different colored paper, and I used, actually, some gold paper. And you just fold them into a simple shape and the mix of all the different colors and the different patterns together creates something amazing- and you can tailor it to whatever colors are your favorite. That’s one of my favorite things about working with paper is it’s so easy to find so many different scraps in so many prints and patterns and colors, and you can really personalize pretty much anything in this book.

CURWOOD: Kayte Terry’s new book is called “PaperMade: 101 Exceptional Projects to Make Out of Everyday Paper.” Thank you so much, Kayte Terry.

TERRY: Thank you!

CURWOOD: This is Steve Curwood.

Related links:
- Kayte Terry’s website
- Paper Made! From Workman Publishing

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[MUSIC: Jacko Peake/Various Artists “SFO” from The Best Of Cookin’ (Ubiquity Records 1993)]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, the road less traveled. One take on why biking is on the decline in Denmark.

MIKAEL: The Road Safety Council started promoting bicycle helmets for the first time, three years ago. And since the,n the same thing has happened here that has happened everywhere in the world, the number of cyclists is falling.

GELLERMAN: Do helmets hurt or help biking? That story – next time on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC CONTINUES: Jacko Peake/Various Artists “SFO” from The Best Of Cookin (Ubiquity Records 1993).]

LOE in Hot Water

GELLERMAN: Usually at this point in the show there’s a feature we call “Earth Ear” - sounds of the natural world from around the world. Well, this week we didn’t have to go far.


GELLERMAN: This is the noise blasting from giant fans and huge dehumidifiers. It’s the sound we’ve been enduring all this week, as we try to dry out the Living on Earth studios and offices. We had a flood - a hot water pipe burst over the weekend. One of the first on the soggy scene was producer Bobby Bascomb.

BASCOMB: Well, when I came in here there were a bunch of workers all over the office cleaning up the office. The carpets were soaking wet. There was so much water in the carpets that it actually went up and over your shoes. I think there were inches of water before that, but they were just sucking it up with vacuum cleaners.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is on the top floor of our building, so water cascaded down stairwells and walls. Our studios and 20 years of the show’s audio archives were particularly hard hit. Here’s Living on Earth’s technical director and mopper-in-chief, Jeff Turton.

TURTON: The archives are a mess. There were a lot of boxes that were on the floor so they were inundated with a couple inches of water. The studios? We survived okay, mostly because we have a sub floor and even tho it got wet under the subfloor and caused a bit of a mess the electronics and all the other stuff survived reasonably well but under the subfloor it was definitely a mess.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’re still soggy, but slowly drying out. To see some photos of our flood, sail on over to our web site LOE dot org.

Related link:
LOE's Flood Damage

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[MUSIC: Derek Trucks “Down In The Flood” from Roadsongs (Sony Music 2010).]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Sophie, we're grateful for your help, and sorry to see you go! 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 livingonearth…that’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Stay dry. 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 Just eat organic 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 decisionmaking. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is PRI, Public Radio International.


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