The Pope and the Sin of Environmental Degradation
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Pope Francis has called environmental exploitation the sin of our time. He is working on an encyclical about humanity’s relationship with nature. Christiana Peppard, Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University and author of the book Just Water, discusses the Pope’s call to “care for God’s creation” with host Steve Curwood. (12:45)
Climate Risk for Real Estate Values in South Florida
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Biologist Phil Stoddard is the mayor of South Miami, a South Florida suburb threatened by rising sea levels. Mayor Stoddard tells host Steve Curwood that municipalities in Florida are doing all they can to prepare for climate change, but he does not think the state government is taking the issue seriously, and the risk to real estate values is considerable. (09:50)
A Summertime Ice Mine/ Kara Holsopple
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Tucked away in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains lies an unusual cave. It’s the Coudersport Ice Mine, a roadside attraction closed 25 years ago that only recently reopened. Kara Holsopple from the Allegheny Front reports that this strange cave only forms ice in the summer. (04:05)
Beyond the Headlines/ Peter Dykstra
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In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra speaks with host Steve Curwood about the decline of mule deer in Colorado, New Jersey’s artificial phosphorus eating island, and recalls President Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. (03:55)
The End of Night
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Humans have always had a basic fear of the dark, but the advent of electric light in the late 19th century brought control over the night in the developed world. But with an explosion of light pollution blocking out the natural night sky in much of the world, host author Paul Bogard tells living on Earth’s Helen Palmer we might have gone too far and it might be harming our health. (16:20)
HOST: Steve Curwood, Helen Palmer
GUESTS: Christiana Peppard, Phillip Stoddard, Paul Bogard
REPORTERS: Kara Holsopple, Peter Dykstra
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Pope Francis says environmental degradation is the sin of our time as he revises Roman Catholic doctrine and calls for humanity to care for “God’s creation.”
PEPPARD: If we think of fresh water or environmental goods like clean air, clean environments as right-to-life issues, wow, that radically reframes our sense of morality and global ethics in the 21st century.
CURWOOD: Also, rising sea level means there’s already ocean water at times in the streets in parts of Florida, with the flooding predicted to get far worse, but real estate markets haven’t caught on yet.
STODDARD: House prices are going up down here. It's still a great place to live, but ultimately if the water is going to cover us, real estate prices are going to go from high to zero. And the only thing we don't understand is exactly when that’s going to happen and what's going to precipitate it.
CURWOOD: We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies – innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Pope Francis has called on the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics he leads and the rest of humanity to quote, “protect creation.” Speaking to students in Southern Italy, he called environmental exploitation the sin of our time.
[SFX: POPE: “Questo è il peccato nostro: di sfruttare la terra e non lasciare che lei ci dia quello che ha dentro, con il nostro aiuto della coltivazione.”]
TRANSLATION: This is our sin: exploiting the land and not allowing it to give us what it has within it, with our help through cultivation.
CURWOOD: The Pope is also working on an encyclical to lay out his doctrine about how humanity should relate to nature and our environment. To put all this in perspective, we turn to Christiana Peppard. She’s Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University in New York and author of the book Just Water. Welcome to Living on Earth.
PEPPARD: Thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here.
CURWOOD: First tell me what’s an encyclical?
PEPPARD: An encyclical is fancy Catholic talk for an authoritative document from the highest levels of the Vatican, signed with the signature and seal of the Pope. It is one of the most authoritative documents in all of Catholic tradition. It is of course written first in Latin, but then it has to be translated into all of these other languages.
CURWOOD: I see. So what’s Latin for nuclear power or fracking, for example?
PEPPARD: [LAUGHS] That is a great question. A lot of times documents will say, ‘In the present day there are problems of extraction of valuable natural resources, including the new technology of , and then in quotation marks “fracking.”’
CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] OK.
PEPPARD: The Romans certainly had encounters with the natural world, but their relationship to it was really different, and I think what’s different now is that we are in significant ways in control.
CURWOOD: How fair is it to say an encyclical is a really big deal?
PEPPARD: An encyclical is a huge deal, at least for the Vatican hierarchy, and in theory, should also be a pretty huge deal for Catholics in the pews. Though frankly, encyclicals are not the most gripping reading that you’ve ever accessed. They tend to be written from a perspective that is meant to illuminate major issues, and so they don’t always delve into the particularities that bring narratives and documents to life. The way that a lot of Catholics, at least in the US, have access to the Catholic Church’s teachings is primarily through their pastors on Sunday, and even when an encyclical is released, the priest in question may or may not have opted to give a sermon about it.
CURWOOD: How frequently do Popes issue encyclicals?
PEPPARD: That is entirely up to the Pope. Benedict issued several; he issued Caritas in Veritate which means “Charity in Truth.” Like many encyclicals, it focused on theology and quoted Nietzsche, Augustine, Scripture as well as some various UN and transnational government sources, but he also released a number of encyclicals that had to do with topics like Christian Hope. So it really depends on the issues that he thinks are important to explore with regard to people who are living in the world today and trying to make sense of how to be faithful in a Catholic sense, as well as how to be good citizens of the world.
CURWOOD: Why now? Why is Pope Francis saying that he's going to issue an encyclical about the environment?
PEPPARD: Well, one of the things that we’ve really seen with this papacy is that Francis is trying as hard as he can under the circumstances of his elevated post to remain pretty close to the ground. So he was known back when he was in Argentina for spending a pretty good amount of time in various impoverished communities. He’s known now for, you know, driving a relatively humble Pope-mobile and not wearing fancy Prada shoes, and living in not too fancy quarters in the Vatican.
I think that his experience in South America, seeing the ways in which extractive industries and environmental degradation often have negative impacts for people living in situations of poverty, has informed a lot of his comments on the economy and on ecology more broadly. But I also think he understands his role as a kind of moral compass. There has not yet been an encyclical explicitly about the environment. There have been encyclicals that deal with the environment, sort of at this nexus of social justice, environmental degradation and economic development. And environmental degradation really is one of the signs of the times that no moral leader, or in this case theological faith leader, can afford to ignore.
CURWOOD: The sin of our time sounds like a pretty strong statement. What do you think Pope Francis means by that?
PEPPARD: It is a really strong statement. I mean for a Pope to say that deforestation and ecological destruction are the sins of our times is really throwing down a gauntlet. It prompts Christians, especially in the U.S., to think about how we understand sin and how we understand responsibility. So much of Western moral tradition, whether theological or philosophical, has really been based upon a very individualistic paradigm wherein I commit some kind of action, usually intentionally, and it's seen as wrong or sinful. In some sense we can ascribe a clear cause, a clear effect—there’s someone who can repent for it, someone who is affected; there might be some mode of remediation. What's really interesting about applying the language of sin to environmental destruction is that there is not necessarily one person who is the sole cause of things. Causality is much more complex. It has to do with patterns of global economy, of governance, of incentive, of poverty, of the need for arable land and subsistence. And how we think about sin and in that context is complicated, and I appreciate that he's trying to complicate the picture.
CURWOOD: You appreciate that he’s trying to complicate the picture?
PEPPARD: Yes, well, on the one hand he is complicating the picture because he’s saying, “Hey, it's not as simple as sin being reduced to what we might call pelvic issues, issues related to reproduction or to sexual behavior or morality.” Part of what I really see Pope Francis doing in his recent comments as well as in previous statements is to try to illuminate how economy, environmental degradation and social injustice all relate to one another in complex structural ways, and how we think about responsibility and sin in those contexts is a complicated thing.
CURWOOD: Pope Francis focused on resource depletion in his most recent public comments on the environment. Why do you think he’s so interested in this?
PEPPARD: So on the one hand I think Pope Francis is familiar with how environmental degradation and the difficulties faced by people living in poverty intersect, and I think that probably comes from his experience witnessing communities where resource extraction is very heavy, where mining is incentivized, and yet there are negative effects, the cost of which, both economic and otherwise, are often foisted onto local communities who may or may not have access to channels of power to advocate for themselves.
I think another source has to do with what we might call a theological orientation, that the created world is good in and of itself, it is not here merely for human use or for economic gain. Are these extractive—we’ll just called them extractive excesses—are they depleting a world that the Catholic Church understands God to have created as good? So is that then not just a sin, using Pope Francis’ language, is that not just a sin against fellow humans, but also perhaps a sin against God, and the integrity of the created order—the natural order? And so the question then becomes, how do we conduct our economic and our social and political activities in a way that respects the needs of equity of people around the world, but also respects the fact that creation, that is the environment, has a value beyond what we humans try to get out of it?
CURWOOD: By the way, in the past what has the Vatican done in terms of using its weight regarding environmental issues to get policy results?
PEPPARD: While the Church may not be an expert in matters of policy, it is an expert in matters of humanity. The Vatican is not a policy-advocating arm, but at the same time, I think the Vatican has really started to throw its weight behind initiatives that can be seen to have global human relevance, and this tends to happen at the United Nations. I think the biggest example is actually with regard to the human right to freshwater.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a convention on the right to freshwater. The Catholic Church was strongly in support of this and has indicated its support in a range of documents. In a number of those documents it makes absolutely clear that there needs to be a fundamental human right to freshwater, that it should be enacted through the United Nations, and that, in fact, access to freshwater is not just some sort of convenience issue, but is actually fundamental right-to-life issue. And that's really strong language for an organization that, at least in the United States, tends to be associated with, again, shall we say reproductive or pelvic issues. If we think of freshwater or environmental goods like clean air, clean environments, as right-to-life issues, wow, that radically reframes our sense of morality and global ethics in the 21st century.
CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the upcoming intense round of climate negotiations worldwide influenced him to say, “It's time for me to do an encyclical about this.”
PEPPARD: What I do know is that the release of this encyclical is currently scheduled to be timed relatively concurrent with some of those big meetings and negotiations, and hopefully an eventual final report and agreement. Partly I think Francis is following up on a trajectory that has been established before him. I think it's noteworthy that the Vatican has an advisory council called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and on that council sit many, many esteemed scientists many of whom are not Catholic, including an atmospheric chemist who won the Nobel prize for his work in atmospheric chemistry and the greenhouse effect, and it was he, this man is named Paul Crutzen, who coined the term “Anthropocene,” that is the geological era in which humans are shaping Earth systems in ways never before seen and that have long-lasting impacts.
CURWOOD: By the way the Pope is of course, head of the Catholic Church, but he’s also head of state at the Vatican...
PEPPARD: He is indeed.
CURWOOD: …and the Vatican is only an observer in climate negotiations. What sense do you have that the Pope might decide to actually join the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change?
PEPPARD: I think it would be it is fantastically interesting if the Pope were to join the Framework Convention. I think that that would be a moral statement with actions as well as words. This can be a really interesting moment for the Pope and the Vatican to figure out how they want to engage on what many folks have called the most pressing moral issue of our time, and the one that will impact future generations irrevocably. This is a very acutely important moment in terms of thinking about the global common good, not just about nationalities, but about what it means to be human on a changing planet, and what role we bear that.
CURWOOD: Christiana Peppard is an Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University. Thanks so much for taking the time with me today.
PEPPARD: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
- Read more of the Pope’s speech from Radio Vaticana
- Visit Christiana Peppard’s page to read more about her work and Just Water
- Listen to “End of an Epoch” to learn more about the Anthropocene
[MUSIC: Elvis Costello and The Roots “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” from Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note Records 2013)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: heading to one of Appalachia’s strangest places – a mine that makes ice in summer.
PATTY STAFFA: Whoa, it is cold. It’s freezing in here.
KEVIN STAFFA: This is what I remember last time being here.
MCMANUS: They think that during the winter the air is pushed into the mountain. And then in the summer, the air comes out, mixes with the humidity and the heat, forming the ice.
CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John Coltrane/Tadd Dameron: “On A Misty Night” from Mating Call (Verve RVG Reissue 2007)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The latest climate science is sobering when it comes to projected sea level rise in the years ahead. Only days ago, the Obama administration awarded several millions to helping states and tribal regions prepare for the effects of climate instability, including flooding. For Miami, Florida, one of the most affluent cities in America, sea level rise is already a problem. This low-lying region is seeing flooding and local politicians are trying to figure out how best to respond. Philip Stoddard is the Mayor of South Miami, a suburb. He was also trained as a biologist. Welcome to Living on Earth, Mayor Stoddard.
STODDARD: Well, thank you very much. Good to be here.
CURWOOD: So tell us about the situation in south Florida. How is sea level rise affecting the Miami area right now?
STODDARD: Well, what we’re seeing right now is effects on the coastal areas and effects inland, and they’re a little bit different.
So in the coastal areas, South Beach, this is the south end of Miami Beach, gets these king tides particularly in the autumn where on the high tide the water currents are coming in pretty hard, and they force their way in the storm drains and the streets fill up with seawater. And people’s cars rust, and people kayak down the street, and they sell their apartments and move. And so now, Miami Beach is investing a huge amount of money in backflow preventers and pumps and so forth to stop this problem. So that's the coastal problem.
Inland, it's a little bit different. South Florida is extremely flat and so when we get a lot of rain inland it tends not to go anywhere. Now with the sea level gradually creeping up on us it means that there's less downhill for the water to go, and so we tend to see more puddling. We’ve been installing pumps in the inland areas trying to move the water out, but pumping water uphill doesn’t work very well. So the projection is that at some point we’ll no longer be able to pump the water out. There will be too much sea level rise to move the water out, and at that point the inland low-lying areas are just going to flood out.
CURWOOD: So what are the sea level rise projections in the Miami area, and with that rise in sea level, what do you expect to have in terms of impacts?
STODDARD: The scientists believe now that there's enough heat already stored in the oceans to melt the polar ice sufficiently to put probably 60, 70 feet of water over the planet. That takes out all of South Florida, we don't have any land that’s above 25 feet above sea level. So in the long run, we're all gone, and then the question is how long are you talking here?
CURWOOD: Yeah, how long are you talking here?
STODDARD: I think we'll be looking into -- in about maybe 100, 200 years before we start seeing total inundation on that scale. Now the problem is that we have systems that are very sensitive to sea level, particularly our freshwater supply and our sewage systems that fail at one foot. We've seen now somewhere in the range of eight inches to ten inches in this area since people begin recording, and that has caused some, you know, some problems. We can address those problems in the short term. We can have a good life here for, I don't how long, but certainly the rest of my lifetime I think. Now will my children be able to survive in South Florida for their lifetimes? I very much doubt it.
CURWOOD: Looking at your town, South Miami in particular and the Miami area, how is the advent of global warming affecting things such as housing prices or insurance?
STODDARD: I mean, house prices are going up down here. It’s still a great place to live. What we’re starting to see is pressure on the flood insurance. Our insurance rates are higher than elsewhere in terms of flood insurance, and we have to have flood insurance for mortgages. And the federal government has held off increasing them by one more year. But at some point we're going to have to start paying what someone in FEMA considers to be the realistic risk and our insurance rates are going to go up, and that makes it hard to sell your home.
CURWOOD: What are the odds, do you think, that the Miami area is going to see a crash in real estate prices as people begin to realize that this climate thing—it's not an “if” but a “when”?
STODDARD: Well it’s—we get to debate this one. I mean, here, we’ve gotten out of the solid science into the area of economic speculation, but I think it's inevitable, and what we don't know is when. Ultimately if the water is going to cover us, real estate prices are going to go from high to zero, and the only thing we don't understand exactly is when it's going to happen and what's going to precipitate it.
So my own prediction and I could be wrong on this, but this is my prediction, is that there will be some natural event, a hurricane, a big storm surge—I call these primary disruptors—and one of these primary disruptors is going to shake people, shake their confidence, and some people are going to start moving out. And that point, it's anybody's guess what happens to real estate prices. Once the perception is there, that it’s not a safe place to park your money for real estate, prices drop. Perceptions are very, very important.
CURWOOD: Now what are you doing as the Mayor of South Miami to address this problem?
STODDARD: Well I think the most important thing we can be doing right now is educating people, just starting the discussions, explaining the science to people in terms they can understand. I don't know that I'm smarter than anybody else, but I sure work hard at trying to understand what's going on, and so I'm able to explain the science to my residents. I’m able to assure them that we are in fact paying attention and the things that we need to be doing, we are doing.
So, we are watching for flooding. We're correcting drainage problems where they occur. We’re looking into the land development codes and what changes have to be made in order to prevent people from creating problems in the near future. I think we’re doing all the right things. We've also got larger scale sustainability issues where Florida has to take a leadership role. We’re not going to solve the problems of flooding by putting solar panels on our houses, but we need to be setting the example; because I mean, if we who have the most to lose don't set an example, who else is going to follow us?
CURWOOD: Now what about the state government there in Florida? What is the state of Florida doing about the threat of climate disruption?
STODDARD: I think the state’s official position involves an ostrich with his head in the sand. I mean we have a governor who was asked about climate change in my presence, and he says, “I’m not a scientist, next question please.” I mean that was a stupid answer quite frankly. Everybody can't be a scientist, but you have to listen to scientists. And you know, you hear people say, “Oh well, the scientists don’t agree.” Well, scientists never agree on everything exactly; that's the process. We debate stuff; we look at evidence. We sort it out. But the state of Florida? No, the state of Florida is in the dark ages.
CURWOOD: So you’re a politician, but you're also a biologist. So as a scientist, what do you think when you hear politicians really ignoring this threat of climate disruption?
STODDARD: [SIGH] I mean, I despair, quite frankly. You know, this is the largest threat that the planet has ever seen. I mean, you know, if we thought for instance that there was a Death Star posed over the Earth, and they said, “We’re going to send a big tube down into your atmosphere and pump it full of carbon dioxide until we cook you guys out of there.” Well, we would mobilize all of the forces we could as a civilization to fight back. “Oh no, you’re not going to cook us out of here.” But yet here we are essentially doing it to ourselves through the fossil fuel industry, and we’ve got people saying that it’s not happening, people who don't want to talk to the scientists, people who really have a vested interest in the destruction of the planet. How can we have these people as leaders? How can we elect them? It boggles the mind.
CURWOOD: Why do you think that local politicians such as yourself are leading the way on climate—addressing climate change in this country, which is clearly a national, international issue?
STODDARD: I think we're leading the way because we see what's about to happen to us. When you see the train coming, and it’s coming directly at you, it's hard to ignore it. You know, when I talk to my geologist colleagues and my hydrologist colleagues, and they say, “Oh, yeah…” I’m not sure I should say this on public radio, but they said essentially, you know, “We’re done for. There's nothing we’re going to do down here.”
I have colleagues who've sold and left, figured they’ll get their money and take off. But most of them, I have to say are sticking it out, and a lot of them are very dedicated to making changes in the medium and short term that will sustain our civilization for longer. And there’s a very, very good reason for doing this even if you sort of despair in the long term, and that is that we can handle problems better if we have time to adapt to them. If something happens very quickly, it creates mayhem because you can't plan. If you can see it coming, then you can start planning, then you can have intelligent solutions to even very, very difficult problems. And that's why it is so critical that we do things now and in the short-term that buy us time, that let us take an orderly approach to the changes that are coming for the planet.
CURWOOD: Philip Stoddard is the Mayor of South Miami. Thanks so much for joining us today.
STODDARD: You're very welcome.
[MUSIC: Charlie Haden/Hank Jones “Wade In The Water” from Steal Away (Verve Records 1995)]
CURWOOD: At this time of year, many people head for the shore or the mountains to escape the city heat, and there’s one special spot in the Appalachians of Pennsylvania that’s still as cold as winter. The Coudersport Ice Mine in Potter County was a roadside tourist attraction for many years, but it closed down a quarter of a century ago. This natural wonder is open again, and Kara Holsopple of the public radio program, the Allegheny Front, takes us on a tour.
HOLSOPPLE: On Ice Mountain, part of the Appalachians in North Central Pennsylvania, at the top of Ice Mine Road, $4 will get you one admission into something a little different from the campsites and hiking trails around here.
[CUSTOMERS IN GIFT SHOP]
HOLSOPPLE: One, please.
HOLSOPPLE: A lot of folklore is attached to the Coudersport Ice Mine, including the rumor it’s man-made. That’s because some people, even people who live here, can’t believe that ice inside the ice mine only forms here during the summertime.
But 19-year-old Jeff McManus is a believer. He’s giving tours today.
MCMANUS: My dad was a tour guide in the ’70s and my grandma worked in the gift shop in the ’50s.
HOLSOPPLE: The site has been closed longer than he’s been alive, but it’s just reopened under new management. He opens the lock on a weathered door with a shiny new key.
[KEYS IN LOCK AND DOOR OPENING]
PATTY STAFFA: Whoa, it is cold. It’s freezing.
KEVIN STAFFA: This is what I remember last time being here.
HOLSOPPLE: Kevin and Patty Staffa are visiting with family from New Jersey. They were here once before it closed. It’s about 32 degrees behind the door, like walking into a refrigerator.
A small group of people at a time can stand around a wooden platform and lean over the metal railing, which surrounds the opening into the earth. It’s really just an eight by ten feet pit, a cave a few dozen feet deep. Below there are icicles like elephant tusks clinging to the sides of the mine.
MCMANUS: There’s about 18 inches of ice right now on the bottom.
HOLSOPPLE: All around the opening are layers of rocks, covered in moss and dripping with water. It’s a small dungeon-like room that’s open at the top. Looking up, you see clouds and old hemlock trees swaying in the breeze.
MCMANUS: They think that during the winter the air is pushed into the mountain, because the rocks are layered like this through the whole mountain, and then in the summer, the air comes out, mixes with the humidity and the heat, forming the ice.
HOLSOPPLE: You can feel it if you put your hand up to the tower of rocks.
PATTY STAFFA: Right here, it’s cold, very cold. Right there.
KEVIN STAFFA: This is really cool.
MCMANUS: The bigger icicles are under there. You can kind of see them.
HOLSOPPLE: The hotter it is outside, the more ice forms.
MCMANUS: A few weeks ago there was ice around the whole entire thing, touching the bottom. But because it’s been colder weather, and we had all this rain, it’s broken down inside.
HOLSOPPLE: The mine was found by a silver prospector in 1894. It was used to store meat, and the ice was harvested. Then it was turned into a tourist attraction in the early 1900s. This ice mine is one of many so-called “cold spots” from southern New York to West Virginia in these mountains.
Outside the mine on the patio, Diana Buchsen is greeting guests.
BUCHSEN: Hello! Go right on in!
HOLSOPPLE: Buchsen and her husband Gary own a nearby inn, and bought the old ice mine about a year ago. Buchsen says the ice mine is never going to be Niagara Falls or an amusement park. She wants visitors to experience something else here.
BUCHSEN: I just hope they take that quietness, and peacefulness, and stress-free lifestyle that we’re hoping to promote up here.
HOLSOPPLE: So far hundreds have come to take a peek at the ice and sign the guest book from as far away as Germany. Buchsen’s cousin Chris Herzig didn’t travel as far—she’s from right here in Coudersport, and she has a new idea to promote the mine.
HERZIG: Those of us that are of a certain age that have hot flashes, I think there should be a special ticket that you can go in and out as many times as needed [LAUGHS] for medicinal purposes.
CURWOOD: Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front prepared this audio postcard. There’s more at our website, LOE.org.
[MUSIC: Johnny Winter “It’s My Own Fault” from Progressive Blues Guitar (Capitol records 2005)]
CURWOOD: Off now to Conyers, Georgia. That’s where we find Peter Dykstra. He’s the publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News, EHN.org, and he’s been mining the world beyond the headlines. Hi Peter, what did you find today?
DYKSTRA: Well, hi, Steve. You know in much of the U.S., for as far back as any of us can remember, there’s been concern that we have too many deer. The iconic White-tailed deer that thrive in the eastern half of the country in the “edge habitat” of the suburbs, and we’ve certainly expanded the suburbs for over the past 60 years or so.
CURWOOD: Oh, yeah, and by “edge habitat,” you mean that’s where the woods meet the cleared land along roads or fields, or subdivisions?
DYKSTRA: Right. But in the Western U.S., deer appear to be on the decline. A reporter named Bruce Finley of the Denver Post tells us that mule deer may have dropped by about a third in the past decade alone in the state of Colorado.
CURWOOD: So what’s the culprit?
DYKSTRA: There are multiple suspects. Extreme weather’s on the rise, disease, human development, oil and gas drilling, fire suppression tactics that make forests too dense to support deer, and other reasons, but here’s your irony of the week: Fewer deer might also mean less money for conservation, since conservation is funded sometimes by hunting license fees, and they’re also down. But let’s go on to something a little bit more positive than that.
CURWOOD: Oh yes please do! Positive is always welcome around here.
DYKSTRA: A little innovation from my ancestral home state of New Jersey, the Garden State. Jersey’s biggest lake is Lake Hopatcong, and they’ve had a little problem with phosphorus there. Phosphorus acts like a fertilizer in the lake, helping to grow algae and waterweeds, and those things deprive fish of oxygen and snag everything from swimmers to boat propellers.
CURWOOD: Wait a second, I thought you said this was going to be positive.
DYKSTRA: Well, I’m just getting to the positive part. The Newark Star Ledger reports that they’re dropping artificial wetland islands into Lake Hopatcong. And if they work, they’ll suck up some of the excess phosphorus, and they’ll keep the lake clean. This could be a big deal if it works because freshwater lakes all over the country are at risk from runoff, from leaky septic systems, and from warming temperatures. It might even help one of the greatest lakes of all, because they’re expecting another bad year for algae blooms in the western half of Lake Erie.
CURWOOD: Well, let’s move on now to the history calendar.
DYKSTRA: Steve, 35 years ago this past week, America heard what became known as the “malaise speech” from President Jimmy Carter.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah, in which he pretty much scolded the entire country, huh?
DYKSTRA: Yes, he talked to us like we were teenagers. But more to the point, the speech was mostly about energy and our dependency on oil imports. President Carter actually spoke a lot of truths to America that we’ve since spent more than a third of a century proving we didn’t want to hear. He said, “Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation.” Two specific proposals from the speech were a dramatic ramp-up in solar energy, and an $88 billion dollar plan to make synthetic fuel from oil and natural gas.
CURWOOD: Well, that synfuels plan never happened, and solar has certainly taken its sweet time.
DYKSTRA: Yes, but bear in mind that Carter intended to inspire the country, not scold us all. Either way, the speech didn’t take. He got trounced by Ronald Reagan in the Presidential election a little over a year later, and one more thing about the “malaise” speech.
CURWOOD: What’s that?
DYKSTRA: Jimmy Carter never actually said the word “malaise;” that was just the word that stuck in the press coverage of his speech. But he did a pretty good job of predicting what would happen if we stay addicted to fossil fuels, and finally, we just learned that 2013 was the first year since 2007 where U.S. oil consumption rose, rather than fell. Back in the day, at least Jimmy Carter wasn’t facing opposition from members of Congress who view energy efficient light-bulbs as a sinister plot. So energy seems to be dividing us more these days, not uniting us.
CURWOOD: Hmm, more un-learned lessons. You can link to the speech where Jimmy Carter didn’t say “malaise” at LOE.org. Thanks Peter.
DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot Steve, talk to you soon.
CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is the publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org.
- Read The Denver Post’s piece on Deer declining across Colorado and West
- More about the Floating wetland islands installed at Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey
- Significant Algae Bloom Predicted for Lake Erie This Summer
- President Jimmy Carter’s energy warning and “malaise” (Crisis of Confidence) speech, revisited
- Read the transcript of President Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech
[MUSIC: Charlie’s Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra “This Is Not America” from Not In Our Name (Verve Records 2005)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: In the developed world we’ve managed to banish the darkness, but it may not be so good for us. That's ahead here on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.
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[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny: “Our Spanish Love Song” from Beyond The Missouri Sky (Classics Jazz France 1997)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the glories of the summer, the Perseid meteor shower, comes up in August, putting on an amazing show for stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s assuming one can find a nice dark place to watch it. Most of us now live where the advent of electric light has banished the darkness, too much so, says Paul Bogard. His book called The End of Night has been shortlisted for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science writing award. We found Paul Bogard’s thesis intriguing, so Living on Earth’s Helen Palmer got in touch with him.
PALMER: So Paul, you grew up in the countryside in Minnesota. Tell me about your relationship with the dark when you were growing up and how did that influence your decision to write this book?
BOGARD: Well, we were lucky enough to have a cabin in the northern part of Minnesota, so all my life I've come to the woods here by a lake, and I've experienced real night, real darkness, standing on the end of the dock with more stars than you could ever count, and woods so dark that you can't see your hands in front of your face. And I think it's that first-hand experience, especially as a child, that just imprinted on me how beautiful darkness can be, how beautiful the night can be, and when it came time to learn the constellations - which was actually after college - I quickly found out that we've lost so many of the constellations, so much of the night sky, because of light pollution and that we need darkness to see the stars. And from there it just kind of led me to understanding how important darkness is for so many reasons.
PALMER: So in fact the world's really changed—you talk about light pollution. I mean, we haven't really had electric light for that long—basically since the end of the 19th century, but it's changed most dramatically in the last couple of decades, I think.
BOGARD: Yeah, it's really true. It's, you know, I like to say that it's happened very quickly when you look through the course of time as you say, most significantly just over the last two or three or four decades, but just slow enough that we haven't really noticed the lighting on the gas stations and parking lots in the U.S. It's about ten-times as bright as it was just 20 years ago. And I think, you know, if that happened from one night to the next, people would be alarmed and obviously they would notice and think maybe we don't need all this light, but because it's happened so gradually over the last 20 years we tend not to notice. And we just tend to think that all this light is normal.
PALMER: I learned reading your book there's actually a scale where you can measure this—measure all this light. It's called the Bortle scale - could you tell me about that?
BOGARD: Sure, the Bortle scale is a scale that astronomers use to really gauge the levels of darkness. The scale starts at 9 in our brightest places, like Las Vegas or Times Square or really the downtown of any major city, and it works its way down to 1, which would be no evidence of artificial light in the sky or on the ground. And the significant thing for me with that scale is a couple of things: One is that most Americans live most of their lives in levels five and above, and rarely or never experience anything darker, and then what's even more troubling is that when I started the book and I began to ask folks where I could go to experience a level 1 on the scale, they recommended the outback of Australia, or other places like that. They said, "You know, we might not even have any of those nights left in the U.S."
PALMER: Do we? I mean, are there any number ones left here in the U.S.?
BOGARD: You know, what they told me is that—and when I say they I’m talking about the National Park Service's Night Sky team—they go around measuring the levels of darkness in the national parks. Dan Duriscoe, who's a friend of mine and who was kind enough to take me with him out into Death Valley, told me that he's taken measurements in more than 200 locations in the U.S., and he's only ranked three of them as a level 1 darkness. So, they're very rare at this point.
PALMER: Now, one of the reasons I think that people have embraced light is basically this fear of the dark. Do you think that's really what’s at the base of this growth in light?
BOGARD: Well, you know it's a complex problem, a complex issue, but I do think that we have a basic fear of the dark. [LAUGHS] I sometimes laugh because I admit in the book that I'm afraid of the dark, and people think, you're the guy who wrote the book on the value of darkness, how can you be afraid of the dark? But I think it's a perfectly natural thing to be afraid of the dark. I think what's not natural is to then compensate for that fear by trying to light up our nights as bright as our days and to think that we can somehow do away with darkness by turning up the lights ever brighter.
PALMER: But I think there is this feeling that with light will come security, you know. You have this feeling of the murderer or the thief sort of lurking in the darkness, and so obviously, we turn on the lights to become more safe. Has it made us in that way more safe, or does more light make us more safe?
BOGARD: Yeah, sure, I think that's really at the heart of it. When you ask people, you know, do we need all this light? People say often times, "Well, yeah, we need it for safety and security." But the truth is that well, some light can help us be more safe and secure, and no one's suggesting that we just turn off all the lights. But what people are suggesting is that we don't need all this light for safety and security and that in fact, when you have ever more light, you often create more problems than solutions. Oftentimes when you have lights that are too bright, they cast shadows where the bad guys can hide. There's so much light in our nights that are glaring lights that make it hard for us to see. And then also too much light which tends to create the illusion of safety; we think we can be reckless purely because it's light out, and that's obviously not the case.
PALMER: So basically, it destroys our night vision as well.
BOGARD: Yeah, it really does. I mean, one of the most startling estimates that I found when I was doing the research for the book was that some 40 percent of Americans and Western Europeans ever experience or rarely experience night vision. We're in the light so much that our eyes never switch to night vision.
PALMER: You told that very sad story of somebody saying, "What are all those white dots up in the sky?"
BOGARD: [LAUGHS] Exactly. You know, if you live in a major urban area, major city, you're not seeing anything close to the night sky that we ought to be able to see, and I had several nights where I was traveling for the book where, say, I was standing on a bridge in London, and I looked up and I could count about 20 stars. And that's nothing when it comes to the night sky.
PALMER: Well, it's not only our inability to see the stars that's the problem. You actually point out that this excess light is actually making us sick.
BOGARD: We're learning more and more. More and more research is showing us that light at night, in fact, is impacting our physical health, and in three primary ways. It is interrupting our sleep and contributing to sleep disorders, which are tied to every major disease that we're dealing with now. It's confusing our circadian rhythms, those internal rhythms that orchestrate our body's health, and then perhaps most troubling, it's impeding the production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is only produced in the dark, and what scientists are finding is that a lack of melatonin in our bloodstream is linked to an increased risk for breast and prostate cancer. So, nobody's saying yet that light at night gives you cancer, but what everyone I talked to did say was, we've evolved in bright days and dark nights just like all life on Earth. And we need both for optimal health; to think that we can simply flood our nights with artificial light and have it not have an effect on our health is probably foolish.
PALMER: Obviously one thing that I know, night workers complain of is that they all put on weight. It seems that somehow it really upsets the circadian rhythms in terms of digestion as well.
BOGARD: Yeah, it really does, and I think, you know, the folks that are bearing the brunt of all this light probably most directly right now are those people who are working the night shift or rotating shifts, and that happens to be more and more of us. And too often, it's the poorer folks who need to work at night. But I talked to a number of folks who work the nightshift who have put on weight and just say it's really, really difficult to live this way. You feel exhausted all the time; you feel tired all the time. And they can sense that it isn't right, but they have to do it.
PALMER: Well, even if we actually sleep in a theoretical dark room, there are all sorts of LED lights—the little lights on the alarm clock by our bed, the lights on our watches, the lights on our phones—it's amazing if you just look around the bedroom, theoretically the dark bedroom, what’s still on.
BOGARD: [LAUGHS] It's true. We have lots of little lights, and I think though that a lot of folks aren't even aware of how important it is to be sleeping in the dark—to pull those shades completely shut and to turn off the lights in the hall room. And to, if you get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, to not turn that bright light on.
One thing that researchers are seeing a lot of is that people are doing a lot of reading on the computer or on the tablets, their phone, what have you, right up to the time they turn off the light and go to sleep at night, and this keeps the production of melatonin from starting when it normally should. What scientists are finding is that it's the blue lights in the screen that's having the most negative effect on her physical health. And, you know, a lot of the new LEDs that were seeing in our streetlights and in a lot of our gadgets and that kind of thing, are really heavy with this blue-rich white light that we really shouldn't be seeing in the night.
PALMER: Of course, people like the idea of LEDs because they're much more energy efficient, and everybody's thinking, oh, this could be a really good answer to how much electricity we're using all the time, but you're saying this actually may be doing a number on our melatonin production and our health.
BOGARD: When I talk about LEDs I like to say, you know, they're full of promise, but they also may be full of peril. They're full of promise because they do immediately cut our energy use, our electricity cost, which is obviously a good thing. They're highly programmable so that a city could have a system of streetlights where, maybe they're a little bit brighter during rush hour, maybe they're a little bit darker or even off at three o'clock in the morning when we don't really need all that light. But the peril is that, at least right now, a lot of the LEDs that we're seeing are full of this blue-rich white light, and they also tend to be brighter than a lot of the lights that they’re replacing.
PALMER: Do you think there's a kind of spiritual aspect to this, the excess of the light and the harshness of the light?
BOGARD: Oh, I think absolutely. I think it all goes back to being able to see a real night sky or not. You just to start to think about all the different inspirations that come from standing face-to-face with the universe, whether it's religious or spiritual or just thinking about your life. I think, sometimes I say, think of all the young van Goghs out there who haven't been inspired to paint a night sky because they've never seen something like that. When you're standing there under the stars you can feel really small, like your troubles aren't so bad, but you can also start to feel how wonderful life is here on earth and how we need to take care of everything that we have here.
PALMER: What about the rest of life on Earth, all the other species that we actually share a planet with. What effect are we having with all this light on other species?
BOGARD: Well, it seems like we’re having a tremendous effect. A couple of specific examples: Many people have heard about the sea turtles in Florida that have come ashore for hundreds of millions of years to lay their eggs and those baby turtles when they hatch—they've evolved to swim or scurry to the brightest light on the horizon, which for all those hundreds of millions of years has been the stars and the moon reflected on the water, but now it's the hotels and parking lots in the wrong way, and migratory birds are drawn off course, for example. Bats are impacted. The wild world comes alive at night and really needs darkness, and we benefit from that as well. So, it's important that we cut down our use of light for our health; it's also important that we cut down on the use of light for the ecological health.
PALMER: One of the things you're doing in your book is going around searching out these advocates for dark skies across the world, actually there seem to be many of them. What did they advise or could we basically do to reverse this trend of ever-brighter, ever-brighter, ever more destructive?
BOGARD: Well, you know, I'm optimistic about it. I think there's a lot that we can do, and it starts with the way that we use light. And I like to say that light at night is not the problem, it's how we use it—so that is true in our homes where we can have light that is shining only downward; we can turn off our lights when we go to bed. That continues into our communities where we can have a lighting ordinance in our communities that will describe the kind of night that we want to have in the places that we live. Most of us don't want to live in places with glaring super bright, ugly lights. We prefer to have lighting that is subtle and nuanced and maybe even beautiful, even as it provides us with the safety and security that we know we want. So from the individual all the way up to the community and even on the statewide level, there are things we can do right now to begin to control this.
PALMER: Things like downward pointing streetlights and stuff like that you're talking about?
BOGARD: Absolutely. You know, one of the biggest problems that we have with our lighting, one of the, I guess, basic problems is that we have light shooting in all directions right now. We have light that's being sent straight into the sky; we have light that's being shined into our eyes as we drive down a street. And we have too much light that's just shining from one neighbor or one streetlight into our houses, and none of that light is doing any good. In fact it's just all a waste of light. So simply by directing our light downward just to where we need it, we can have a huge positive impact.
PALMER: Now, one of the things you did in your book was to go around visiting various national parks, and you end the book with a visit to Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and that's a very dark place not far from a very bright place, Las Vegas. You go stargazing there with a group of amateur astronomers. Can you take us out by reading the final page please?
BOGARD: Absolutely. So the epigraph for my book—and I come back to it at the end here—is a really beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, and I'll read that and then read to the end.
“I think of the Wendell Berry poem I have carried with me while writing this book.
‘To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.’
How upside down this world where what was once a most common human experience has become most rare, where child might grow into adulthood without ever having seen the Milky Way and never feel as though lifted from Earth into surrounding stars. Where most of us go into the dark armed not only with a light, but with so much light that we never know that the dark too blooms and sings.
How right it feels to be in this place standing with dozens of others gazing at the Milky Way. How right it feels to know a true night sky; how right to know the dark. And as my companions and I head back toward the parking lot, back toward the light, I let the others walk ahead and turn one more time before I go inside, before the lights take my night vision. To see in that darkness our home in the universe, the rising ribbon of billions of stars slashed overhead, horizon to horizon, just as it always has been.”
CURWOOD: Paul Bogard’s book is called The End of Night. He teaches English at James Madison University in Virginia. He spoke with Living on Earth’s Helen Palmer.
Paul Bogard’s website
[MUSIC: The Sound Styalistics “Night Theme” from Plays Deep Funk (Freestyle Records 2007)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, James Curwood, Lauren Hinkel, Jake Lucas, Abi Nighthill, Jennifer Marquis and Olivia Powers all help to make our show. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org and like us on our Facebook page—it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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