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

June 22, 2012

Air Date: June 22, 2012



RIO+20: The Earth Conference Revisited / Bobby Bascomb

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In 1992 officials from countries around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Earth Summit to tackle the biggest environmental issues of the day. Twenty years on, the challenges still remain. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports from Rio that much of the action took place on the sidelines. (06:30)

The UN Summit…What’s it Wirth?

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Diplomats, organizations and corporations gather once again in Rio to assess progress and plot a path forward. United Nations Foundation President Timothy Wirth talks to host Bruce Gellerman about what’s needed to achieve sustainable development and energy for the world. (06:00)

Fracking with Propane Instead of Water / Matt Richmond

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Hydraulic fracturing uses millions of gallons of water at each well site in order to release oil and gas. A Canadian company has found a method that uses propane instead of water. Gasfrac says the propane technique uses biodegradable chemicals and doesn’t pollute groundwater. But as The Allegheny Front’s Matt Richmond reports, others say propane fracking is risky business. (06:15)

Engineering a Better Mosquito

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A new strain of mosquito has been engineered to self-destruct within a generation. Key West, Florida is considering unleashing these bugs to keep dengue fever at bay. Michael S. Doyle, Executive Director of the Key West Mosquito Control District tells host Bruce Gellerman that the genetically modified mosquitoes could save money and serious discomfort. Luke Alphey, Scientific Officer at Oxitec, the British company behind the bugs, promises limited risks with genetically engineered mosquitoes. (10:00)

Euro Trash Powers Sweden

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Sweden’s waste-to-energy program converts household trash into energy, providing electricity and heating to hundreds of thousands of homes across the nation. But the program may be too successful; they’re now running out of homegrown trash to fuel the power plants. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with Catarina Ostlund of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency about the country’s decision to import waste from its European neighbors to keep incinerators running. (04:30)

Fastest Natural Flier / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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Ken Franklin knew there was something special about Frightful, the peregrine falcon he raised from birth. He took her skydiving, and the driven bird kept pushing the limits of speed. From the IEEE Spectrum Radio special “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports on a man and the bird he loves who broke records as the fastest creature flier on the planet. (04:50)

Paradise Lost?

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Mongoose have invaded the Hawaiian island Kauai, much to the dismay of scientists and birdlovers. The invasive species has no natural predators and Keren Gundersen, project coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, tells host Bruce Gellerman that mongooses are putting the island’s native birds at risk. ()

Earth Ear

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A small waterfall on the big island of Hawaii, recorded by Toby Mountain for his CD A Week in Hawaii. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Timothy Wirth, Michael S. Doyle, Luke Alphey, Catarina Ostlund, Keren Gundersen
REPORTERS: Bobby Bascomb, Matt Richmond, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Toby Mountain

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


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The UN Rio +20 summit is now history. Sustainable development was the goal of the mega-conference, but without a new way forward the earth could be history. Don’t blame it on Rio…

WIRTH: It has to be a partnership between governments, making sure that the right rules are being set: non-governmental organizations, which tend to have the most yeasty ideas and sense of the future, and corporations, which are the most efficient institutions.

GELLERMAN: Coming up, recapping Rio +20. Also, the fastest creature on two wings: a falcon named Frightful.

FRANKLIN: We were able to take her higher up to 17,000 feet and at that point, she clocked at 242 miles per hour. She never left my side – she was there the whole time.

GELLERMAN: Wait ‘til you hear what happened next. We'll have those stories this week on Living on Earth—stick around!


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RIO+20: The Earth Conference Revisited

Nearly 1500 people used Rio’s Flamengo Beach as a canvas on June 19, 2012. Their bodies formed the lines of an enormous image promoting the importance of free-running rivers, truly clean energy sources like solar power and including indigenous knowledge as part of the solution to climate issues. The activity was led by Brazil’s many indigenous peoples organized under the umbrella of the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples. (Photo: ©Spectral Q/Chico/Paulo)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It was 20 years ago this month that world leaders gathered at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a landmark meeting that put sustainable development and environmental protection on the globe’s agenda.

Two international agreements resulted, one protecting the planet’s biodiversity, and a process to deal with climate change. One hundred-seventy-two governments participated in that Rio Summit and 108 heads of state attended, including then U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

GELLERMAN: Our story from the Rio summit was made possible with support from Internews and Earth Journalism Network.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the plenary
session of UN Rio+20 Conference. (Photo: UN /Maria Elisa Franco)

BUSH: America's record on environmental protection is second to none. So I did not come here to apologize. We come to press on with deliberate purpose and forceful action. And such action will demonstrate our continuing commitment to leadership and to international cooperation on the environment.

GELLERMAN: The U.S. would later sign the Kyoto Protocol establishing binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions but the treaty was never ratified by the Senate. Well, now two decades on from that first UN summit, nations have yet to come up with a new climate change treaty, and world leaders have once again convened in Brazil at Rio +20.

Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb interviews a delegate from
Bhutan. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

And while the music was upbeat in the country that gave us the samba, the outcome of the sustainable development summit was more subdued. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports from Rio:


BASCOMB: White sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean border Rio on the east. To the west is a ring of green cone-shaped mountains. Locals aren't humble about the beauty here; Rio's nickname is Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City.

Some 50,000 people are here for this Rio +20 Earth Summit. It’s not one of the world climate talks. Instead the goal was to make specific commitments on critical issues like sustainable fisheries and access to safe drinking water. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff struck an upbeat tone as she greeted 120 heads of state.

ROUSSEFF (translated from Portuguese): The number of world leaders attending this session in Rio de Janeiro is a clear token of an unmistakable commitment to the very pressing issues of sustainable development. I have no doubt that we will live up to the challenges presented to us on a global scale.

Protestor demands at Rio +20 (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: But noticeably absent from the negotiations are President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the other hand, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Monmohan Singh of India and Francois Hollande of France are here.


BASCOMB: The agreement coming out of this summit contains only vague language, like "recognize and “reaffirm," rather than “will” or “can.” There are no binding targets or goals.

LEEP: The text negotiated here falls far short of what it needed to be.

The Equator Prize winner from Colombia with one of her recycled bags. (Photo:
Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Jim Leep is Director General of World Wildlife Fund International. He says the document will allow delegates to claim success though it does little to move the world towards sustainable development.

LEEP: What you see is a lowest common denominator product that took on board every objection and did not find a way to galvanize the international action we need to see to accelerate progress towards sustainable development.

BASCOMB: Much of the world is too distracted by the Euro crisis to make a strong showing here, says Manish Bapna. He’s acting president of the World Resources Institute. And he adds another reason for the inability to strike large meaningful accords.

BAPNA: There are vested interests that stand to gain from the status quo. And the type of process that we have in place that requires unanimity -- that everyone agrees -- makes it incredibly difficult to make sufficient progress when the process is not necessarily designed to move forward ambitiously.

[SOUND OF MEETING…“On behalf of nine major groups under Agenda Item 8…”]

BASCOMB: While the main document negotiated may not be truly significant, this Rio meeting does give rare recognition and perhaps a boost of confidence for hundreds of local activists who organize in their home countries without access to reliable internet, electricity or clean water.


BASCOMB: Two members of the Ashaninka Tribe from the Amazon open a UN awards ceremony for environmental leaders from 25 tropical countries. They’ve managed to bring sustainable economic development to their communities.


BASCOMB: A fashion show of Bangladeshi sarongs, Fijian flowered shirts and Moroccan headscarves takes the stage. Celebrities including Richard Branson and Edward Norton presented the prize. Charles McNeil is senior policy advisor for environment and energy at the United Nations Development Program.

MCNEIL: We realized there was an unusual overlap of the richest biodiversity in the world; all the plants and animals in the equator belt and yet that's also where the greatest poverty was located. And we were beginning to see that some communities were able to transform that biological richness into economic development.

BASCOMB: One winner, a Bedouin man from Egypt, organized a cooperative in which members grow medicinal plants they can sell. In Colombia a women's group got fed up with the sight of plastic bags on their street and saw a way to make money.

Richard Branson hosted the Equator Prize awards ceremony. (Photo: Bobby

ARROYO (translated from Spanish): And we take these plastic bags that have been collected in our community recycling campaigns and cut them into strips, and our artisans will then crochet them into these amazing tote bags that we call eco-mochillas.

BASCOMB: Before this project, many people in her region sold tamarin monkeys into the illegal pet trade as their source of income.


BASCOMB: Across town from the official Rio + 20 Earth Summit is the People's Summit.


The beaches of Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Here, amid troubadours and fair trade booths, posters condemn high emitting countries for their global carbon emissions. Those have doubled since the first Earth Summit here 20 years ago, tipping the planet towards climate disruption. But there were a few concrete commitments made to sustainability. Development banks say they’ll launch a 175 billion dollar fund for sustainable transportation. And Norway pledged 140 million dollars to replace kerosene lamps with solar energy in rural Africa. For Living On Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb at the Rio +20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


Related links:
- United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
- World Resources Institute
- Equator Award
- United Nations Development Program
- Earth Journalism Network

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The UN Summit…What’s it Wirth?

United Nations Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth. (Photo: Wikimedia/World Economic Forum)

GELLERMAN: Well, expectations for the summit were low going in, but coming out Timothy Wirth had a positive spin on events. The former U.S. Senator from Colorado served in the Clinton Administration as Undersecretary of Global Affairs and is now President of the UN Foundation, which was started with a billion dollar grant from media mogul Ted Turner. The goal: to encourage other donors to support UN activities.
Senator Wirth was at the 1992 Rio Summit and he joined us from Rio +20.

Participants at the 1992 Earth Summit sign onto an
Earth Pledge. (Photo: United Nations)

WIRTH: It's a very different world from then to now. In 1992 I think most heads of state and finance ministers had just discovered the environment. Since Rio, people thought that maybe there would be implementation by itself. People thought that maybe all of the agreements would suddenly turn into some kind of regulatory patterns. Well, they didn’t. The devil is in the details, the devil’s in implementation, and so I think over the last 20 years what we’ve learned is that implementation is going to come from the ground level up, not from the top down, and largely with the engagement of the private sector.

GELLERMAN: Well, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said of this conference, he said, ‘We’ve got a once in a generation opportunity.’ So, did we make the most of it or did we blow it?

WIRTH: Well, it depends on what lens you’re looking through. I think for those who were looking for an overall framework for the whole globe, that did not occur. That already exists in Agenda 21 and elsewhere. For those who were looking for climate agreements or long-term agreements on population, you know, they are not part of this discussion and this deliberation.

If, however, you are looking for what the Secretary General calls the ‘golden thread’ of development and all social and economic activities-- energy-- then this has been a huge success. We’re obviously on an unsustainable course now in the developed world. The use of fossil fuel and the dumping of carbon garbage into the atmosphere cannot be continued, we’re going to have to shift and make the transition to renewables and we’re going to have to use the energy that we have much more efficiently.

And, for the first time the world has come together and really focused together on the issue of energy, access to energy for the poor and much more efficient use of energy for the developed world, and the transition to renewables for everybody.

GELLERMAN: Well, how does that happen? I mean, so far the model has been, you know, “Grow now, clean up later.” How do we reverse that?

WIRTH: The “grow now, clean up later” model is really bankrupt. And I think now people are largely understanding that. Utilities are making the shift away from great dependence on coal to a transition for the short-term to natural gas and a long-term to renewables. Automobiles are becoming much, much more efficient.

When I had my first car it got about eight miles to the gallon, you know, we’re now moving to 50 miles per gallon. That is a great step in efficiency. These are all opportunities that we have to take advantage of right now. If we don’t make all of these other steps then we’re going to so foul the atmosphere that we are end up boiling the earth and we don’t want to do that, obviously.

GELLERMAN: Well, what’s the role of the United Nations then? We’ve had twenty years of experience…

WIRTH: The United Nations is at its best as a norm setter. It sets the broad agreements that then other people operate against. That’s what the UN does on human rights, it does that on women’s issues, it does that on a whole series of global issues that move beyond national borders. And another very good example of this is of course climate change; there was the original UN agreement on climate change that was framed in Rio 20 years ago, and now part of the implementation of that is the energy initiative announced here in Rio.

GELLERMAN: And… what’s that?

WIRTH: That’s the “sustainable energy for all” initiative. You know, obviously climate is energy, energy is climate: they are the same thing. And, if you don't have a sustainable energy pattern, you certainly aren’t able to solve your climate problem. And we think that this new alliance on energy is going to be an example of really how to make one of these major partnerships really go, and it’s already moving with commitments from more than 50 governments, hundreds of billions of dollars of financial commitment-- it’s a pretty remarkable beginning.

Rio in Sand (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

GELLERMAN: So if I read you correctly, it sounds to me that you’re giving a greater role to corporations in terms of addressing the world’s environmental and developmental problems.

WIRTH: Corporations have a major role to play. It has to be a partnership between governments making sure that the right rules are being set, non-governmental organizations which tend to have the most yeasty ideas and sense of the future, and corporations which are the most efficient institutions.

GELLERMAN: You sound very optimistic, actually. The stuff I’ve been reading from Rio would suggest otherwise, but you actually sound up-beat!

WIRTH: Well people are depressed about Rio because they expect that one negotiated document is going to solve the problems, and that’s a very naïve view, I think, and it’s also the UN is changing dramatically. Just look at the makeup of the power at the UN: it used to be the United States, Europe, Japan and maybe Russia that were making all the decisions.

And now, you have the emergence of Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico, major countries with major voices and they think differently about the world and they are making their thoughts felt. Of course there are people who are resisting that. There are people in the traditional north who don’t like that to happen—people are always averse to change—but if you don’t respect and understand change, you’re doomed to failure.

GELLERMAN: Well, Senator Tim Wirth, thank you so very much.

WIRTH: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Talking to us from Rio, that's Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation.

Related links:
- The United Nations Foundation
- The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

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[MUSIC: Lee Ritenour “Dolphin Dreams” from captain Fingers (Sony Music 1977).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: fracking for natural gas is booming and a new drilling technology is potentially kabooming. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Jazz Soul Seven: “It’s All Right” from Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield (BFM Jazz 2012).]

Fracking with Propane Instead of Water

Workers at a Cabot Oil & Gas drilling site in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. About a quarter of the natural gas produced in the US comes from the drilling process know as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. That’s a lot of gas…and it takes a lot of water to extract it from shale formations deep in the ground. A lot of water.

For example: It takes anywhere two to eight million gallons of water to open a single well in the Marcellus Shale in the gas rich Appalachian Basin. That’s where a Canadian company called Gasfrac comes in. It’s developed a fracking technique that eliminates the need for all that water. But as The Allegheny Front’s Matt Richmond reports, the technology is proving to be a hard sell:

This rig first drills deep into the rock and then digs horizontally. (Photo: Matt Richmond)


STARK: We’re at a wellpad in Susquehanna County, this is the Tetic pad.

RICHMOND: That’s Cabot Oil and Gas spokesman George Stark. Behind him, a drilling rig slowly digs down into the rock. Surrounding the rig are trailers for the workers, the diesel generators that run all day all night and stacks and stacks of metal pipes.

STARK: Each casing is lowered down in varying degrees. So you’re first…at the surface, we use what’s called conductor casing.

RICHMOND: The drilling rig will grind down about 9000 feet down into the rock and then about 3500 feet horizontally. During the vertical drilling, cement will be poured around the pipes. This is to prevent the well from leaking.

STARK: Casing and cementing are by far the critical pieces to do up front to ensure that you’re protecting the groundwater up front.

RICHMOND: This rig will be here as many as 20 days for each well. Then the drilling rig is packed up and shipped off and another company comes in to hydraulically fracture the well.

The amount of water used in a hydraulically fractured well is staggering - as much as 8 million gallons for a single well in the Marcellus Shale. The water that comes back out of the well poses other threats. Open storage ponds can leak and improperly treated wastewater can contaminate drinking water supplies.

Now a Canadian company called GasFrac has begun fracturing wells without all that water. It’s using propane. Last year, the company performed more than 500 waterless fractures in North America, almost four times as many as in 2009. GasFrac spokesman Kyle Ward says the company fracked its first well just four years ago and it takes time for companies to switch over to a new technology.

WARD: But if they start seeing the production value and that they can actually make more money, then that’s when their ears perk up and that’s what we’re starting to see.

RICHMOND: According to Ward, using propane instead of water to fracture a well eliminates many of the threats to groundwater. Millions of gallons of flow-back water are eliminated. And propane doesn’t dissolve the salt or naturally occurring radioactive materials that are already in the rock. Ward says only four ingredients besides propane are sent down the well and all of them are organic.

WARD: So what we’re doing basically is once we’re done, there’s nothing in the hole except sand, I mean everything is gone.

RICHMOND: The 100 to 150 thousand gallons of propane used to fracture the well comes back up with the natural gas and can be sold or reused. But the switch to propane is no sure bet. First of all, it’s not clear how effective propane is.

That’s because companies already using the technique keep any increased production a secret for the competitive advantage. Companies will move away from using water if propane is proven to be more profitable. David Yoxtheimer is a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. He says the cost of water usage and disposal could propel the switch.

YOXTHEIMER: You know, it ranges from roughly five to ten percent of the cost of a well so that could be anywhere from 200,000 to maybe upwards of maybe even a million dollars in some cases for a bigger well.

A Cabot Oil and Gas drilling rig in Susquehanna County,
Pennsylvania. The rig drills vertically, then horizontally. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

RICHMOND: Yoxtheimer says propane may be more useful in areas with what’s known as ‘wet gas,’ like in Western Pennsylvania, where there’s already more propane in the reservoir. But water is better suited for deeper shales. That’s because it takes high pressure to fracture a well.

With water, it is easier to create the pressure needed to open up the spaces that allow gas to travel out of the rock. Derek Ellsworth, another researcher at Penn State, agrees. He compares opening a fracture to blowing up a balloon, and using propane is like blowing up the balloon with air.

ELLSWORTH: As you pump it into the balloon, certainly the balloon does get larger, but it doesn’t get larger as quickly as if you were filling the balloon with water.

RICHMOND: Ellsworth says propane might not be the best substitute for water. He says other gases, like nitrogen or CO2, would be cheaper and may work just as well. Nitrogen is basically air, not hard to find, and pumping CO2 into the ground is better than releasing it into the atmosphere, says Ellsworth.

ELLSWORTH: Having large amounts of CO2 available that could be utilized in some way with portions of it sequestered in these shale reservoirs by absorption has some attractiveness to it.

RICHMOND: Everybody agrees that more research on propane, or LPG, fracking is needed. Nadia Steinzor of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project says the risks of working with a highly explosive gas, at high pressure should give everyone pause.

STEINZOR: Every time there’s a new technology that could get more gas out of the ground and get it online, it’s…a lot of people get really excited about it. But, just because LPG is new and it’s different and it doesn’t use water, doesn’t make it safe.

George Stark works for Cabot Oil and Gas. The company is drilling a well deep into the rock formations to enable gas extraction. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

RICHMOND: Gasfrac company spokesman Kyle Ward says that, since an explosion last year at a well in Canada, the company shut down operations and increased safety precautions. And they seem to have recovered. They’ve expanded operations into Texas and fracked test wells recently in Ohio’s Utica Shale. And in the end, the company’s growth may be the best way to gauge whether or not its technology works. For Living on Earth, I’m Matt Richmond.

[MUSIC: Andrew Bird “ Desperation Needs” from Break It Yourself (Mom + Pop Music 2012).]

GELLERMAN: Matt Richmond’s story on fracking with propane comes to us by way of of the Pennsylvania public radio program The Allegheny Front.

Related links:
- Find out more about Gasfrac and propane fracking
- Oil and Gas Accountability Project
- The Allegheny Front – environmental radio for western Pennsylvania

Back to top


Engineering a Better Mosquito

The Aedes aegypti , the yellow fever mosquito, can also spread dengue fever. (Photo: USDA)

GELLERMAN: Dengue fever is known as break bone fever—that’s because the disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, causes intense joint pain, and suffering. Worldwide it’s estimated as many as 100 million people a year are infected with Dengue…and the rate has increased 30 fold in just 50 years.
There’s no vaccine, and no treatment… we are losing the war against Dengue. But there is a new weapon in the works: it’s a genetically modified mosquito that’s designed to self-destruct within a generation. Officials in Key West are hoping to enlist the new mosquito in their fight against Dengue... but first, they need permission from regulators. Michael Doyle is Executive Director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

Genetically engineered males will produce larva that die in development. (Photo: Wikimedia/ Brasil Econt)

DOYLE: The last time there was really active transmission in the United States and Florida in particular was the mid 30s. And it was pretty much eradicated through mosquito control and hasn’t been here since. And then in 2009, we started getting confirmed cases of it in Key West proper, which was a surprise in the US for many people.

GELLERMAN: So, the last case of Dengue was a few years back, right?

DOYLE: Yeah, November 2010 was the last official case that we know of. When Dengue arrived, we realized that we had to reduce these mosquito numbers en masse in order to prevent any further transmission and to keep Key West as safe as it is, as it always has been.

Key West, Florida. (Photo: Wikimedia)

And so, we hired about eight full-time people in addition to the two that we had. And those folks have been going door-to-door ever since. Literally- there’s about eight thousand properties in Key West and our inspectors try to get to every one of those once a month to six weeks to dump out containers and treat with low toxicity insecticides.

GELLERMAN: Sounds very expensive.

DOYLE: It is, very. It’s about a million dollars plus. We’re now doing aerial treatments using the same bacterial product- called BTI- and spraying it from a helicopter, over the entirety of Key West, right now once a week. That seems to be effective, but again it’s very expensive.

GELLERMAN: So, now, there’s this company called OxiTech, which is based in England and they have a new technology that uses genes, actually. They treat the male mosquito with a gene and I understand that you’re considering using it.

Spraying for mosquitoes cost Key West $500,000 a year in chemicals alone. (Courtesy of FKMCD)

DOYLE: Yes. Yes. And the solution is based on some really good successes in the agricultural world. There’s been people working on this thing called the sterile insect technique, which essentially means you sterilize males of millions of male insects of whatever species—Mediterranean fruit fly or screwworm or anything else—and you flood the environment with these sterile males. They mate with the wild females and the offspring either don’t happen at all or they die before they become adults and pests.

GELLERMAN: So, you’ve got birth control for male mosquitoes!

DOYLE: That’s exactly right and it’s been amazingly effective.

GELLERMAN: In terms of OxiTech’s technology- this gene technology- how much would that cost you?

DOYLE: The technology that OxiTech is offering, which essentially would be us buying mosquito eggs from them and then we would rear them and release these genetically modified males- we’re told between $200,000 and $255,000 a year. And, if promises are true, then we would have better control for less money.

GELLERMAN: So, who has to approve this new technology- this new gene technology in Florida?

DOYLE: Hence the problem. Mosquitoes are not an agricultural insect; they’re a public health insect. And so the USDA, unfortunately, we got a letter from them saying that it’s not in their jurisdiction. So, we were very disappointed, very, very disappointed that they were not taking this on, and handed us off to either EPA or CDC or FDA. CDC is not a regulatory agency, so they’re not really a possibility- none are required to take it on. It’s not in their jurisdiction, so it’s essentially fallen between the cracks.

GELLERMAN: Well in the absence of a regulator, couldn’t the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District- meaning you and the other people on the board- just decide to… hey- let’s just do this, let’s just use this new technology.

DOYLE: (Laughs.) Well, it’s…technically I guess you could. I mean, if we decided that using high-power squirt guns and squirting the mosquitoes with water would solve our problem, we could go out and do that without a permit and very few people would have a problem with it. But the fact that word genetically modified is connected with the whole process- that conjures up some scenarios in many people’s minds that have serious consequences.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, the imagination doesn’t have to run too far wild- I'm thinking of the movie Mothra, you know…

DOYLE: Or Jurassic Park, which was mentioned in a recent city commission meeting that someone came up and said this could be just like Jurassic Park, you know- mother nature will find a way. What potential impacts could there be on the environment or on human health if one of the mosquitoes bit someone or something of that nature- and those are real questions that need to be answered with real facts, and unfortunately we have no one to look at the facts for us.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’re going to speak to OxiTech’s Chief Scientific Officer, and we’ll put those questions to him.

DOYLE: That would be tremendous.

GELLERMAN: Michael Doyle is the Executive Director of the Mosquito Control District office in Key West, Florida. Well for answers we now turn to Luke Alphey. He’s Chief Scientific Officer with Oxitech- that's the company making the new genetically modified mosquitoes.

ALPHEY: It's very safe. We, of course, have dealt with independent regulatory authorities in a number of different countries, who have been each analyzed our technologies prior to any kind of field use or indeed, in many cases, prior to any laboratory use. And they have concluded that it is as safe as one could reasonably hope for.

GELLERMAN: So, I know that you’ve released these in Brazil and in Cayman, Malaysia, right?

ALPHEY: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: The regulatory agencies there have given their seal of approval there to do field experiments?

ALPHEY: Yes, precisely. Of course each of those trials are with collaborators in those countries- usually with the governments of those countries. In each case, those field experiments were preceded by risk analysis, but also after the fact, they have shown that our mosquitoes did exactly what we anticipated that they would.
In the Cayman Islands, for example, we showed that they would mate wild females- which is what it’s supposed to do- and then when we stopped releasing them it all went away, as expected from the environment. This gene has of course a very strong selective disadvantage- like death or sterility, and it so it disappears from environment very quickly if you stop releasing those mosquitoes.

The Mosquito patrol leaves no stone unturned in their search for stagnant, mosquito-breeding water. (Courtesy of The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District)

GELLERMAN: So, no unexpected accidents? You didn’t have females, for example, pick up this gene and then go out and spread this gene, biting people?

ALPHEY: Right, well nothing picks up a gene. But of course when you’re separating males from females, that is not 100 percent accurate. And so, in practice, we release about one… in the Cayman Islands, experiment… we released about one male for every 3,000 females. So, an extraordinarily low number of females. But both the males and the females are just like regular wild mosquitoes except for having this gene that will kill their offspring.

GELLERMAN: So, in the case of Cayman, you had 3,000 males that were genetically modified to one female… but you release three million mosquitoes… so you had like a thousand genetically modified females. If one of those were to bite me, what would happen?

ALPHEY: You would be bitten by a mosquito. What normally happens when you’re bitten by a mosquito? For many people you wouldn’t notice at all- particularly for this mosquito, which is not a very aggressive biting mosquito. Some people would have a small reaction to mostquito bite and this mosquito is much like any other.

Backyard water features can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. (Courtesy of FKMCD)

Now, remember, those were released over the period of six months- so the per week, per whatever addition of females is very low. Some of the numbers get a bit intimidating with this kind of approach, when we talk about releasing millions of mosquitoes. But to give you one sort of analogy: We produced the eggs at Oxford for that trial and shipped them out to the Cayman Islands. And we shipped- I don’t remember what it was- 30 million eggs or something like that. And that really sounds like a lot- but it’s probably half a coffee cup of eggs for the entire trial.

GELLERMAN: But the numbers of mosquitoes that you’re releasing- I was reading- at least in Brazil and Malaysia- is a huge number compared to the native population- like ten to one!

ALPHEY: Yeah, we aim to release about ten engineered males for each wild male. So that most of the wild females, most of the time, will see and mate a sterile male instead of a wild male.

GELLERMAN: Now, what happens if you have that rare male mosquito that does get the gene that doesn’t express it the way that you want or hope or want or intend? And, their progeny becomes a superbug and goes on to be immune for later generations to your gene.

ALPHEY: Right. So, what we have put into the mosquito is something that is bad for it. So if our gene was to be less effective or less active, it would just make the mosquito weakened than it otherwise would be. That doesn’t make it stronger than a normal one. So, just to be clear, we don’t put in antibiotic resistant genes or insecticide resistance genes or anything like that that might help a mosquito or anything that comes into contact with it.

GELLERMAN: But, aren’t you putting selective pressure on the population by introducing this gene?

Male (left) and female (centre and right) Aedes aegypti. (Wikimedia)

ALPHEY: Anything you do to the population will put some kind of selective pressure on it. So, if you spray off chemicals, there is some pressure that builds up resistance to those. If you went round and filled all the breeding sites and filled them with concrete, then that would provide some selective pressure for those mosquitoes to use a wider range of breeding sites.
And so, you would get some possibility of resistance through a behavioral change. So, I certainly wouldn't say that there isn’t the possibility of evolving resistance to our approach, or any other approach to controlling the mosquitoes. But, in the 50 year history of sterile insect industry, with billions and billions of irradiated sterile male fruit flies, for example, being released every week- history would suggest that this approach is somewhat less susceptible to resistance than many other approaches.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Alphey, thank you so much.

ALPHEY: Thanks a lot!

GELLERMAN: Luke Alphey is Chief Scientific Officer with Oxitech.

Related links:
- The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District
- Oxitec uses genetics to eradicate pests

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[MUSIC: Manuel Galban “Batuca” from Blue Cha Cha (Nonesuch Records 2012).]

GELLERMAN: Be sure to check out our website for a new feature - we call Living on Earth Now - regular updates, new stories and features. That’s at LOE dot ORG. You'll find food for thought- and a story about healthy school lunches. Coming up – A country that has so little garbage it needs to import it. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

VOICEOVER: 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: Jazz Soul Seven: “Gypsy Woman” from Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield (BFM Jazz 2012).]

Euro Trash Powers Sweden

The Uppsala combined heat and power plant. Central heat plant.(Photo: Vattenfall. Flickr)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. When it comes to recycling, Sweden is sensationally successful. Just 4% of household waste in Sweden goes into landfills. The rest winds up either recycled or used as fuel in waste-to-energy power plants.

Burning the garbage in the incinerators generates 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating and provides electricity for a quarter of a million homes. The problem is, Sweden’s waste recycling program is too successful! Catarina Ostlund, is Senior Advisor for the Swedish EPA.

OSTLUND: We don’t have enough burnable waste within our own country so that’s why we import waste from other countries. We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration.

GELLERMAN: You’ve got an enviable problem there! You don’t have enough trash!

OSTLUND: It’s not a problem- we can import some trash from the rest of Europe, because in the rest of Europe you landfill quite a lot of trash and I think they need us to take care of their trash.

The Uppsala combined heat and power plant. Central heat plant.(Photo: Vattenfall. Flickr)


GELLERMAN: So they’ve got more than enough trash, and you’ve got too little. How much do you import right now?

OSTLUND: It’s about eight hundred thousand tons.

GELLERMAN: Eight hundred thousand tons! That’s a lot of trash!

OSTLUND: Well, yeah, but in fact we hope that in the future Europe will build their own plants so they can manage to take care of their own waste. And we need to find ways of reducing our own waste as well in the future so I mean, this is not a long-term solution really, because we need to be better to reuse and recycle, but in the short perspective I think it’s quite a good solution.

GELLERMAN: What countries? Where are you getting your garbage now?

OSTLUND: Some from Norway. And also I think that there is some from Germany. The most part it’s from Norway right now.

GELLERMAN: But why doesn’t Norway burn their own garbage?

OSTLUND: They have incineration plants, but it’s more expensive to burn it in Norway- it’s cheaper for the Norwegians if they export their waste to Sweden. I think they will do in the near future—that they will burn their garbage in their own facilities—and I hope that we instead will get the waste from Italy or from Romania or Bulgaria or the Baltic countries because they landfill a lot in these countries. They don’t have any incineration plants or recycling plants, so they need to find a solution for their waste.

GELLERMAN: So, Miss Ostlund, I’ve gotta ask you- who pays who? They’ve got the trash that they want to get rid of, and you’ve got the trash that you want… do you have to buy it from Europe?

OSTLUND: We get paid. We get money from taking the trash to Sweden, and also we get money while selling it—electricity and heat. So, it’s quite the good business in fact. But, of course, you have dioxins in the ashes, so that’s a problem: what to do with the ashes.

GELLERMAN: Dioxin, you’re saying?

OSTLUND: Yeah, dioxins. And also, you have heavy metals but you get the dioxins and the heavy metals captured within the ash and then you need to landfill the ash. And in fact we export ashes to Norway! [Laughs] That’s the way it is.

GELLERMAN: It sounds really strange! Norway sends their garbage to you, they pay you to take it off their hands, you turn it into energy, you get to power your society and then you send the waste product back to Norway!

OSTLUND: Yeah. They aren’t so happy with that. [Laughs.]

GELLERMAN: Well, since Sweden is so good at this, why don’t you just export your technology so other countries don’t have to export their waste to you?

OSTLUND: I would say we do this. But Sweden has a different situation since we need the heat from the waste. You know in Italy maybe they don’t need the heat for heating, they just want the electricity. And when you use both heat and electricity, you get a much higher efficiency on your plant.

So that’s why we have the world’s best incineration plants concerning energy efficiency. But I would say maybe in the future, this waste will be valued even more so maybe you could sell your waste because there will be a shortage of resources within the world. So, I mean, the waste will be more and more valuable.

GELLERMAN: Well, that’s an interesting take - waste as a rare energy resource!

OSTLUND: Yeah! I would say it is. It could be, yeah it will be, I’m sure it will be.

GELLERMAN: Well Ms. Ostlund, thank you so very much.

OSTLUND: Thank you very much.
GELLERMAN: That’s Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

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[MUSIC: Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric “All Apologies” from 20th Century Folk Selections (Royal Potato family 2012).]

Fastest Natural Flier

Ken Franklin was so upset when Frightful the falcon died, he decided to store her body in the freezer. (Photo: Yuko Kodama)

GELLERMAN: In just a few weeks it’s off to the races as the London Olympics get underway. It’s an international showcase featuring the world’s fastest athletes. Too bad falcons can’t compete because they’d win, wings down. Ari Daniel Shapiro has the tale of the fastest falcon of all. He found it on San Juan Island in Washington State.

His story comes to us by way of the I-Triple E Spectrum Magazine special: “Fastest on Earth”.


SHAPIRO: Ken Franklin reaches into his kitchen freezer. Right next to the strawberries…

FRANKLIN: And here she is.

SHAPIRO: …is Frightful, a frozen peregrine falcon. Franklin takes Frightful out of a plastic bag.

FRANKLIN: She’s still, uh, beautifully preserved.


SHAPIRO: Franklin strokes her feathers. He loves this bird. You see, Franklin helped Frightful achieve a staggering speed record. So, they’ve got history.

The late falcon Frightful, laid out on a scale next to tools of the falconry trade. (Photo: Yuko Kodama)

FRANKLIN: You know, we raised Frightful from an egg and she had full liberty to fly, but of course she chose to stay right here.

SHAPIRO: Frightful imprinted on Franklin and his wife Suzanne – meaning that the bird considered them her parents. Once she was old enough, they worked with her on flying exercises, just as they do with all the falcons they raise. These birds are fast.

FRANKLIN: It’s really amazing to have a falcon go up to a couple thousand feet out of sight. And you kinda think, “Well, that’s the end of that.” And about 15 minutes later, it sounds like ripping canvas and some bird that’s completely free comes back to land on your glove.

SHAPIRO: There was something special about Frightful, though – even for a falcon. She was driven. She was the first chick to stand up, the first to eat on her own. She was faster than the other falcons. And Franklin wanted to know just how fast. So he and Frightful began taking trips into the air together. They’d ride up to seven thousand feet in a skydiving plane. Franklin would release Frightful from the plane, and then he’d leap out. The two would rendezvous in the air, and Franklin would let go of a weighted lure. The lure would plunge towards the Earth at 150 miles an hour, and Frightful would catch it effortlessly on wing.

Ken Franklin and his wife, Suzanne, forged a deep bond with Frightful, the peregrine falcon, which they raised from an egg. (Photo: Yuko Kodama)

FRANKLIN: Then we started working on going faster to the point where we could build a lure that would approximate between 160 and 180 miles per hour.

SHAPIRO: Frightful easily caught the new lure. Franklin wanted to push her further, but he worried that a heavier lure might hurt Frightful as she caught it in freefall. So he got inventive.

FRANKLIN: So then I, as a skydiver, started becoming the lure – she would chase me to higher and higher speeds.

SHAPIRO: Franklin would leap from the aircraft, and just cannonball through the air.

FRANKLIN: I would hyper-streamline from a higher altitude, and then Frightful would follow me. We were able to take her higher up to 17,000 feet and at that point, she clocked at 242 miles per hour. She never left my side – she was there the whole time.

SHAPIRO: 242 miles an hour is the fastest recorded speed of any creature on the planet. And Franklin, locking eyes with Frightful while falling through the air, got to see how she did it.

FRANKLIN: In 120 to 150-mile an hour range, she was kind of in a diamond shape. But as the speed range increased, pushing into the 200 mile an hour range, she seemed to elongate herself, she’d get very streamlined and long-looking. And I knew, when I saw that, that I had seen what I wanted to see – that was how falcons go fast. That’s how they transition.

SHAPIRO: All this training and flying forged a real bond between Frightful and the Franklins.

FRANKLIN: We could freefall with her to 17,000 feet. And then she enjoyed coming in the house, like one of our children, watching Monday night football. I mean, she would sit on the couch next to us.

SHAPIRO: Ken and Suzanne Franklin worked and lived with Frightful for 14 years.


SHAPIRO: Then one day, they found her in here, on the floor of her aviary. They think she died of a stroke or a heart attack. Suzanne was so sad she couldn’t talk about it for a year. Ken knows he’s unlikely to ever work with an athlete like Frightful again. It’s why they can’t bring themselves to let her go.


FRANKLIN: She’s actually in a pretty good streamlined position the way, the way we froze her.

SHAPIRO: Her right set of talons is extended, as if she’s about to catch one of those plummeting lures. And at least for now, Frightful’s world record is secure. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Our story about Frightful the falcon is from the the I triple E-Spectrum Magazine special, “Fastest on Earth.” The publication received the 2012 National Magazine Award for general excellence.

Related link:
Check out IEEE Spectrum Radio’s special report: Fastest on Earth

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[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Chris” from the Falcon And The Snowman (Capitol records 1985).]

Paradise Lost?

Pat Gmelin, KISC Mongoose Response Technician, in field with captured male mongoose. (Photo:Kauai Invasive Species Committee)

GELLERMAN: In Rudyard Kipling's classic, "The Jungle Book," he tells the story of
a mongoose in India named Rikki Tikki Tavi. The mongoose protects his human friends from murderous cobras. Well, Kipling's tale about a mongoose in India had a happy ending, but in Hawaii, it's a different story.

Keren Gundersen is the Project Coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee. Keren, welcome to Living on Earth.

GUNDERSEN: Thank you for having me!

GELLERMAN: You know, everything I know about mongooses is from Rudyard Kipling, you know, from his “Jungle Book” and writing about Riki Tikki Tavi. They’re really fierce fighters, they’ve remarkably fast reflexes, and they look a lot like a weasel.

First mongoose captured on Kauai. Sharp teeth and claws help it dig for insects and break eggs open. (Photo:Kauai Invasive Species Committee)

GUNDERSEN: And the interesting thing though, that you may not know is that there are 33 species of mongoose.

GELLERMAN: Well, his came from India. Where did yours come from?

GUNDERSEN: Well, it is the small Indian mongoose.

GELLERMAN: How did they get to Hawaii?

GUNDERSEN: They, actually- it’s a funny story. So back in the 1800s, sugar cane was growing as a major agricultural crop here, and also in Jamaica. And one of the major pests to this growing agricultural crop was rats. So, someone in Jamaica, the sugar cane industry, decided that it would be a great idea to introduce mongoose to battle these rats and take care of the problem.

But, meanwhile, after they were introduced to Jamaica, they were then introduced to Kauai from Jamaica for the same, exactly the same, reasons. Apparently somebody didn’t do their homework really great because they didn’t turn out to be that effective.

And this is why it didn’t work: rats are nocturnal and mongoose are diurnals, meaning they’re active during the day. But, the mongoose quickly found another prey item and that was our native ground nesting birds.

GELLERMAN: So, they came over a hundred years ago to Hawaii- I guess they were on Oahu, they were on Molokai then Maui. How long have you had them on Kauai?

GUNDERSEN: I can confirm that we’ve had them on Kauai since May 23rd, [Laughs] when we had a capture. But we actually had a sighting way as far back as 1968. So, we really have no idea of what the population base is here, but they are very elusive, and over 44 years of sporadic trapping, we’ve never been able to capture one until May.

GELLERMAN: So, is the mongoose a good swimmer? Could they have swum over from one of these other islands?

The red-tailed tropicbird is also threatened by the mongoose on Kauai. (Photo: Hob Osterlund with the Kauai Albatross Network)

GUNDERSEN: No, that’s too far. They can swim, but they don’t choose to really do that if they can help it. But they probably came most likely, as stowaways, on cargo.

GELLERMAN: Well, I was looking at some statistics; it says that since the arrival of the Europeans to the Hawaiian Islands, 71 out of 113 endemic species that existed at the time of the first human colonization, they’re gone. And of the remaining 42, 32 are federally listed as endangered, and ten of those have not been seen for 40 years!

GUNDERSEN: Yeah, I know. That is such a sad story and Hawaii is often referred to as the extinction capital of the world. We are having a huge loss in biodiversity and one of those reason is the introduction of mongoose.

GELLERMAN: I’m not sure if this is a really good idea or a really really bad idea, but since you’ve got a predator there, why don’t you get a predator for the predator? Why don’t you get something that preys on the mongoose?

Among birds threatened by the mongoose on Kauai is the Laysan Albatross. This chick is 2 months old. (Photo: Hob Osterlund with the Kauai Albatross Network)

GUNDERSEN: Hawaii is a very finely balanced ecosystem. You know the native flora and fauna that developed here over millions of years did so in isolation. And so the native species are what we call passive; our onions have no scents and our raspberries have no thorns, because they didn’t have a predator. So anytime you introduce a predator to a passive ecosystem, it can wreak havoc in all kinds of ways to unintentional consequences.

GELLERMAN: Well, how have Oahu and Maui, how have they dealt with the mongoose problem?

GUNDERSEN: Well, the only way they can deal with it is actually to ramp up predator control in high-value areas like bird refuges, sanctuaries, that sort of thing, where they can put up predator-proof fences to prevent mongoose from going in and can, you know, active trapping in the areas.

GELLERMAN: Sounds expensive!

GUNDERSEN: Very expensive. But, you know, a big issue is how this is gonna continue to be funded. We are in a recession still, and funding is very tight in all areas of conservation in Hawaii, so I think we’re going to have to look at creative ways to fund this project as we move forward. You know, we’re just hanging onto preserving; what we have here is very unique in Hawaii and Kauai.


GELLERMAN: Ms. Gundersen, what is that bird sound I hear behind you?

GUNDERSEN: (Laughs.) I’m not sure! It could be a Mynah bird, it’s probably… it’s not a native—whatever you’re hearing is not a native bird.

GELLERMAN: Oh really, how do you know that?

GUNDERSEN: Because the native birds have had to move to very high elevation to escape avian malaria. So you only really find our native forest birds very high up.

This Laysan Albatross shelters its 3-day-old chick; the mongoose is a serious threat. (Photo: Hob Osterlund with the Kauai Albatross Network)

GELLERMAN: Boy, Hawaii does have a lot of problems with its birds!

GUNDERSEN: Yeah we do, you know, we’ll call them challenges. Oh, that was a Mynah bird right there. You know, we are battling invasive species on every front: you know, whether it’s mongoose or a little fire ant or, you know, watershed-destroying weeds. You know, it’s an ongoing battle.

GELLERMAN: Oh, Ms. Gundersen, thank you so very much.

GUNDERSEN: Oh you’re welcome, I’m really happy to chat with you today.

GELLERMAN: Sounds great, sounds beautiful, I bet it smells terrific right where you are today actually.

GUNDERSEN: We are tucked up right next to the mountains and it is unbelievably gorgeous. It’s paradise!

GELLERMAN: Except for the mongoose.

GUNDERSEN: Even with the mongoose… you can't take the paradise out of Hawaii!

GELLERMAN: Keren Gundersen is Project Coordinator for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee.

Related links:
- Kauai Invasive Species Committee webpage
- American Bird Conservancy’s news release about mongoose on Kauai

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[MUSIC: Stanley Clarke “Mongoose Walk” from Thunder (Heads Up records 2008).]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, there's never been a better time to grab some rays.

SULLIVAN: Right now there are great incentives, certainly at the federal level there's tax credits, there are here locally in Massachusetts the cost of installing solar has also dramatically come down.

GELLERMAN: Better hurry before the sun sets on those solar tax breaks and incentives- next time on Living on Earth.


Earth Ear

A hidden fall in Akaka Falls State Park (Photo: zeroorone)


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week amid a mist: fine droplets floating from a waterfall. The Akaka Falls on the east coast of the big island of Hawaii get all the attention: they plunge more than 400 feet into a gorge. But follow a narrow path through the jungle and you’ll find a much smaller cascade feeding a stream beneath a wooden bridge. Toby Mountain recorded its soothing sounds for his CD, A Week in Hawaii.

[SOUND: Toby Mountain “Waterfall – A Week In Hawaii (Rykodisc 1987)]

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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jessican Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jeff Young and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. And we welcome Christy Perera; she joins our interns Annabelle Ford and Annie Sneed. 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!

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

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