Air Date: August 9, 1996
Modern Nativity/ Katie Davis
In the season celebrating the birth of one important figure, Katie Davis reports on birth trends in the United States among citizens concerned with the future well-being of the planet. (11:52)
Richard Nixon: Environmental Hero/ Terry FitzPatrick
Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the largely forgotten environmental legacy of one of our most controversial Presidents, Richard Nixon. The peculiar politics of the man and the moment put Nixon in a position to preside over the creation of the country's most important environmental laws and institutions: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. (This was #15 in our continuing series of profiles of 25 leading figures in environmental change.) (05:13)
EPA at 25
One of the most contentious budget items is proposed deep cuts in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, created by executive order of President Nixon. As Congress debates future funding for the agency, William Ruckelshaus — EPA’s first director — comments. (02:41)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about... the dog days of summer. (01:15)
Civilization/ Sandy Tolan
Producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through human civilizations and the causes of their environmental decline, as we attempt to understand the deeper causes of how we got to where we are today. (21:00)
A listener and teacher called the Living on Earth listener line and told us about her class and their recent environmental clean-up success. Steve Curwood called her back and asked her more about it. (03:37)
Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Jennifer Schmidt, Catalina Reyes, Frank Contreras,
Katie Davis, Terry FitzPatrick, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Dana Opland
COMMENTATOR: William Ruckelshaus
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
August is the biggest month for births. As we celebrate the births of babies, we also ponder what it means to bring a child into the world today.
BEALS: You feel you're a responsible, caring person and that, that, that you could have some, even some small impact on the environment now. Having children and trying to instill those values in them -- makes the future look brighter for them and for yourself.
CURWOOD: Also, a look back at a man who helped create America's key environmental laws. The legacy of President Richard M. Nixon.
SHABECOFF: Nixon was, whatever anyone else wants to say about him, a very canny politician. He responded to what he saw was an important impulse among the electorate. And that made him the right person at the right time.
CURWOOD: President Nixon on Living on Earth. First the news.
NUNLEY: For Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. President Clinton has signed into law new regulations requiring local water suppliers to tell their customers what chemicals and bacteria are in their tap water. Another provision of the law allocates nearly $10 billion for improvements to local drinking water systems. The reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act is considered one of the most important and few pieces of environmental legislation passed by the 104th Congress.
Also in Congress, a bitter fight over renewing the country's most important fisheries law may be resolved. Senators from Washington State who'd been threatening a filibuster have agreed to allow a vote on the reauthorization of the Magnusson Act in early September. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.
SCHMIDT: The vote was held up for months as lawmakers from Washington and Alaska bickered over key provisions of the legislation. In the final compromise, Washington's two senators were calmed with language that guarantees Seattle-based fleets a portion of the
North Pacific harvest, the most lucrative in the world. Meanwhile, environmentalists say the compromise is reason for celebration. Suzanne Utacello of the Center for Marine
Conservation says provisions to provide greater protection for fish stocks were inserted some time ago, and she's been pushing for passage ever since.
UTACELLO: What this agreement does is it resolves the squabble that's been going on for quite a while and allows the bill to come to the floor. So that's the big conservation win, allowing the bill to come to the floor.
SCHMIDT: The compromise requires fisheries managers to set strict catch limits to reduce over-fishing, and it includes a new policy to cut down on the amount of fish caught by accident and tossed overboard, usually dead. The big question now is whether lawmakers in the House and Senate can move fast enough to resolve their remaining differences before Congress adjourns. For Living on Earth I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.
NUNLEY: In northern New Mexico, several urban-based environmental groups have gone to court to prevent Hispanic Indian villagers from logging old growth pines. When environmentalists held a camp-out on the disputed land the Hispanos responded by hanging them in effigy. Catalina Reyes of station KUNM reports.
REYES: Hispanos in Tierra Maria County say the groups that sued, including Forest Guardians of Santa Fe, are destroying villagers' economic base by taking away a resource they had to battle for in the first place because of racism. But locals finally agreed to take down the effigies when environmentalists said they'd come and talk if they did. Achi Devargas is one of the villagers who won the timber sale in a legal settlement with the Forest Service.
DEVARGAS: We're talking about cutting one tree out of 10 in a forest that is over-stocked. That's what we need to sustain our village. Is there a problem with that?
HIT: Yeah, there is a problem with that, because the Forest Service violated environmental laws.
REYES: Sam Hit of Forest Guardians says the Forest Service didn't adequately study the effect of logging on endangered species before offering the timber for sale. Until the environmentalists' challenge is resolved in court, no logging can begin. Legal proceedings continue later this month. I'm Catalina Reyes in Albuquerque.
NUNLEY: Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has handed out contracts to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The contracts total $11 billion, making them among the largest environmental grants ever issued. Under new Department of Energy guidelines, the contractors must meet specific clean-up goals before they get paid.
Hundreds of Texans gathered at a public hearing in the border town of Sierra Blanca to protest a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump there. Frank Contreras of Latino USA reports.
CONTRERAS: Under the proposal, Sierra Blanca, a border town of 600 people, would accept radioactive waste over the next 30 years from nuclear reactors in Texas, Vermont, and Maine. The hazardous waste would be trucked to the site on interstate highways and taken to its resting point at the Mexican border 80 miles from El Paso. A bill now in Congress would allow waste from any state to be buried at the proposed site. Texas officials say the dump will bring in money. Each state that sends waste to Sierra Blanca will pay $25 million under the plan. But opponents worry that accidents and earthquakes could leak radioactive matter into the area's water supply. More public hearings are planned, and state officials are expected to make a decision later this year. For Living on Earth I'm Frank Contreras in Austin.
NUNLEY: It's been a tough summer for the endangered right whale. Nine right whales out of a estimated total population of 300 have died off the East Coast within the last year, and now the National Marine Fisheries Service wants to prohibit boats and swimmers from approaching within 500 yards of those whales. The Fisheries Service has also proposed to step up its monitoring of the lobster industry, since some right whales have wound up tangled in lobster nets.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood with an encore presentation of Living on Earth.
Here in the heat of August, more babies are born than in any other month. In August of 1994, the last year for which figures are available, 350,173 babies were born in the United States. But even with this annual baby boom, birth rates in general in the US have dropped dramatically since 1950, by 60%. There are a host of economic and cultural reasons for this. Among them is that more and more people are weighing their desire to pass on the gift of life against their concern for the environment and those already here. Reporter Katie Davis talked with some couples who share those concerns.
DAVIS: Jessica Beals was 5 years old when she started tagging along with her mother to pick up litter in the streets of New York City, and she quickly became a champion recycler.
BEALS : And we had this wonderful time squashing things, as the older kids really got into that. But I remember my parents really talking to us about why we were doing that.
DAVIS: And Jessica Beals has never stopped giving new life to old objects. The Washington, DC, apartment she shares with her husband is filled with used furniture. "I'm not interested in new things," she says, jiggling her 5-month-old daughter Anika on her knees.
BEALS : Yes, she's a new thing. We couldn't get a used one, at least not yet.
DAVIS: Jessica, who's 32, met her husband, Chuck Berg, an environmental policy analyst, 7 years ago. They felt a certain synchronicity when they discovered they both came from 2-child families, and that their fathers had vasectomies to keep it that way. Chuck, who's also 32, says he'll have the same operation after they have one more child. "We only want to replace ourselves," he explains.
BERG: I know that a lot of the reasoning that went into my decision, and my feelings about this, is that every extra child born in a Western country has far greater impact on the global environment than a child born in, say, India or China. Food, we eat far more food per capita than a child in China or India does. Especially protein. Animal protein, and the amount of grain that goes to fatten our cattle in this country is enough to feed a Third World nation easily. You have to take those things into consideration.
BEALS : I know that by raising her in our house, we're teaching her kind of by osmosis some of our values. We're feeding her organic baby food when we can, you know, we're using unbleached paper, recycling stuff. And I think, we're hoping that she will grow up thinking that that's a normal thing to do, and just incorporate that in to her own life and her own way of thinking.
DAVIS: Jessica and Chuck fit an emerging pattern in the country, a pattern of smaller families. The number of children per woman decreased from 3.6 in 1960 to 2.0 today. And nearly 1 potential mother in 10 now says that she never expects to bear a child. Compare that to the 1880s when the normal American family had 7 children. And while these numbers are not hard to read, it is more difficult to explain why this is happening. Almost no research has been conducted on why couples are choosing to have fewer children, although some analysts mention the fact that more women have joined the workforce and that it costs more to raise children these days. Certainly the global perspective that Chuck and Jessica brought to their decision is rare. But if you came of age in the 1960s, it made a lot of sense. At least that's how Sharon Pickett remembers it.
PICKETT: I decided to only have one child, and it's been a good decision for me. I think it's been a good decision for my child. I'm certainly very proud of her. She's a wonderful, wonderful girl. She's 21 years old and she's becoming an elementary school teacher, and she majored in Spanish. And she seems to be the kind of person I would want to go out into the world and make a difference.
DAVIS: Sharon Pickett is 46 now, and works as a communication director of Zero Population Growth in Washington, DC. She says she began to worry about all of this when she was in high school and read a book called Limits to Growth. And then there was college, and it was 1967 and Sharon Pickett says she couldn't get a slogan out of her head -- if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem -- so she decided she would only have one child.
PICKETT: Well, there are so many people in the world who are having more than 2, that unless some people have less than 2 we're not going to achieve population stabilization, which is something that's very important. And it was really my decision not to have any more. My husband would have wanted to have more. But he was fine with the fact that we didn't.
DAVIS: As Sharon Pickett raised her only child, she worked as a teacher, and then in the anti-nuclear movement, for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Back in the 1970s, she says, her overriding fear wasn't so much the amount of people on the planet but the number of bombs.
PICKETT: I guess I reached a point where I was feeling very hopeless about the future, and overwhelmed with the problems and so pessimistic that things were just getting worse and worse. And I think some people react to that, particularly young people these days, with a sense of despair. And the, you know, the Prince song "Let's party like it's 1999," because there are so many problems we just have to -- let's escape. And have our pleasure in the moment, because there is no future. And I was -- I think I fell into that for a while. And realized that that's a pretty sad state to be in for very long.
DAVIS: To combat her despair, Sharon Pickett made small choices: not eating meat, for instance. "Maybe one less hamburger will save a sliver of the rain forest," she smiles. Mostly, though, she focused on raising her daughter to believe in making sacrifices for the common good.
PICKETT: I came from a family of 4, and my mother came from a family of 8. (Laughs) So I think we're moving in the right direction in my family, anyway.
DAVIS: Does your daughter talk about this yet? Has she asked you about it, and what your thoughts are about it? She's still quite young, but she might have already had some thoughts about motherhood.
PICKETT: Oh, she definitely has; in fact, she's getting married next summer. And she and her husband want to have 2 children. But she is strongly considering the fact that the second one might be adopted. She wants to have one of her own, but she said she wants to adopt a little girl from India. For some reason that's in her mind.
DAVIS: At the end of our talk I asked to see a picture of Sharon Pickett's daughter, and her professional demeanor melts as she leaps from the sofa to rummage in her purse.
PICKETT: This --
DAVIS: Like any good mother you're bringing your wallet over.
PICKETT: Here's my daughter.
DAVIS: She's gorgeous. She looks European.
PICKETT: And she's a dear. (Laughs) I'm very lucky.
DAVIS: So where does that leave us now? First, there were 2 children, then there was one, and then there was none. Let's meet Jim Lazar of Olympia, Washington.
LAZAR: I decided not to have children when I was still an undergraduate. I was studying environmental economics, energy economics, resource economics. I looked around the world, and I said this is not going to be a very nice place to live.
DAVIS: Jim Lazar rides his bike to work every day, as any serious transportation consultant should. He lives with his partner Karen of 7 years, and neither of them want children.
LAZAR: So it was, I guess it was my birthday present in 1976, my then-girlfriend gave me a vasectomy for a birthday present. And it was a challenge finding a doctor who would perform a vasectomy on a 22-year-old with no kids. Most doctors kind of felt like I was a little too young to make that decision. But there was a doctor in Seattle who ran a clinic called Population Dynamics, and near as I could tell he was committed to the peaceful eradication of the human race. And he was perfectly happy to take the worry out of being close.
DAVIS: Jim Lazar shared the same fears of nuclear annihilation that Sharon Pickett had. And while 1995 is not the nightmare he imagined, he says, it's still not a good place for children.
LAZAR: My world is not as bad as I expected my world to be. I'm reasonably well off financially. I have a successful business. I live in a small town in America that has a relatively good environment, relatively low crime rate. My life is much better than I thought it would be. But I look around the world at India, at China, at Africa, at what's going on in Bosnia. I'm not sure that the world is not declining at about the rate that I thought it would. The big difference is I thought that we were going to disappear in a flash of light. I now think that we're going to go down slowly and painfully from poverty and famine and pestilence. I just don't see any way that we're going to continue to feed 6 billion people on this planet.
DAVIS: But hope is an elastic word. For Jim Lazar, foregoing children creates hope for the world. While Jessica Beals feels her 5-month-old daughter's potential outweighs any fears she might have about the future.
BEALS: I have some friends who have decided not to have children because they're so afraid of what the future may hold. I can understand how they feel to a certain extent, but on the other hand I really feel sad about that, because I think if you feel you're a responsible, caring person and that you could have some, even some small impact on the environment now, having children and trying to instill those values in them makes the future look brighter for them and for yourself, if you want to be a little more selfish about it. I mean for the entire human race. You can't just stop having kids because you're afraid of things. You've got to try to influence the future in what little way you can. And you know, this could be the person who figures out the way to help the ozone layer, I don't know. There are any number of things. If she's interested enough in these issues, she could, you know, professionally or just for personal reasons figure out some way to help the world. And there's no reason to be afraid of that.
DAVIS: Jessica Beals and Jim Lazar would agree on many environmental issues. But they have both looked at this one and made different choices. And isn't that just like people: seeing the same problem and choosing absolutely contrary solutions. For Living on Earth, this is Katie Davis.
CURWOOD: The first administrator of the EPA looks ahead at its second quarter century. That's coming up on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The picture is forever etched in the collective memory of the nation. A president raises his arms, fingers forming a "V", waves good-bye, and boards a military helicopter that lifts him one final time from the White House lawn. Twenty-two years ago this month, Richard Milhouse Nixon resigned as the 37th President of the United States. While his legacy remains the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and breakthroughs with China and the Soviet Union, this Republican president also oversaw the greatest era of environmental legislation in modern times. In fact, many of today's environmental fights involve measures developed by his staff. We asked Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick to explore the environmental legacy of the Nixon years. Here's his report.
(Flowing water with waves, gulls)
FITZPATRICK: The beauty of Puget Sound has stirred the hearts of environmentalists for decades. Curiously, this is where Richard Nixon first learned about the problems confronting America's environment. In 1962, well before his election as president, Nixon went boating here with a Seattle lawyer and Republican activist named John Ehrlichman.
EHRLICHMAN: I had really planned a few days off for him, and thought that it would be very refreshing to go up among the islands, and it was.
FITZPATRICK: Inspired by his surroundings, Ehrlichman had become a local hero for blocking industrial development on a pristine island in Puget Sound. His boating discussions with the future president became Nixon's environmental primer.
EHRLICHMAN: It was really the fundamentals. He didn't really understand what the issues were.
FITZPATRICK: Hardly anyone understood environmental issues back then. But Nixon never forgot his boating trip and tutor John Ehrlichman. Their relationship would lead to an explosion of environmental legislation.
(Campaign music and marching bands)
FITZPATRICK: As Nixon campaigned for the White House in 1968, pollution was beginning to emerge as a national issue. Nixon never spoke about it during the campaign. Instead, he spoke of healing the social wounds created by the Vietnam War.
(Nixon: "That will be the great objective of this administration at the outset: to bring the American people together.")
FITZPATRICK: Protecting the environment became a part of Nixon's attempt
to unify the country. John Ehrlichman, who'd been picked by the President to coordinate domestic issues, persuaded Nixon that fighting pollution was both the right thing to do and politically popular among young voters. Nixon gave Ehrlichman and his staff tremendous freedom to draft environmental policy.
EHRLICHMAN: We would tell him what we were doing. When we got into a political pickle we would come to him for his decision as to what he wanted us to do. But otherwise, we had a pretty free hand.
FITZPATRICK: As the first Earth Day unfolded in 1970, members of Congress were also climbing aboard the environmental bandwagon. They competed with the President's staff in an unprecedented struggle to out-green one another. This competition resulted in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, all passed by Congress and signed by the President in just 3 years. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
(Nixon: "The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings. The destiny of our land, the air we breathe, the water we drink, is not in the mystical hands of an uncontrollable agent. It is in our hands.")
FITZPATRICK: Was Richard Nixon an environmentalist? Reporters covering the administration say not really. Phil Shabecoff covered the White House for the New York Times.
SHABECOFF: Nixon was, whatever anyone else wants to say about him, a very canny politician. He responded to what he saw was an important impulse among the electorate. And that made him the right person at the right time.
FITZPATRICK: But Administration insiders like Ehrlichman give Nixon credit as a risk-taker. Without Nixon's support, the environmental movement could have languished amid the gridlock of Washington.
EHRLICHMAN: I guess I would put it, he was a passive sponsor. He lent his name, he lent his clout, he lent his staff, and he let them do what they thought was right in invoking his name and power and prestige to bring about those results.
FITZPATRICK: The Administration's environmental accomplishments will never outweigh history's judgment about its actions in Vietnam and its disintegration amid the scandal of Watergate. As well, Nixon has a checkered environmental record. He allowed the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He approved the Alaska Oil Pipeline. And he vetoed a massive funding bill for sewage treatment plants. Still, President Richard Nixon and his advisors presided over the most productive period of environmental legislation in history. They set a direction for the country that has lasted more than 25 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: When President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, he named William Ruckelshaus as the agency's first director. As Congress continues its debate over the future funding of the EPA, we invited Mr. Ruckelshaus, who is now chairman of the waste handlers BFI, to share his thoughts about the agency's relevance today.
RUCKELSHAUS: The Environmental Protection Agency is 26 years old, and the problems that led to its creation, gross air and water pollution, symbolized by belching smokestacks, uncontrolled automobile emissions, and rivers that caught on fire, smell touch and feel kinds of pollution, are now largely under social control. Not completely, but largely. This success is due to the combination of an outraged public in the late 60s, a political response in the form of the creation of EPA, and 10 statutes passed in the 1970s, massive regulations which followed and billions of public and private dollars spent to deal with pollution.
The laws we put in place in the 1970s are no longer adequate. In many cases they are far too prescriptive, and set standards of perfection impossible to achieve. They force EPA to act in ways that defy common sense and often unnecessarily anger our citizens. These laws need to be rewritten to conform to the environmental realities of the 1990s. EPA needs way more flexibility and Congressional trust than it now has if it is going to be an effective, efficient, and fair instrument at carrying out our national purpose of protecting the environment.
In my view it will not happen by the quick fixes and name-calling that has so characterized the current debate in Washington. Reform will not happen by drastically reducing EPA's budget, or by this Congress prohibiting EPA from carrying out assignments given by previous Congresses, and which assignments are still in the law. This is the approach which some in Congress favor and which has created so much furor in Washington in the last several months. It will not work, and the gridlock now emerging in the Congress and between the Congress and the White House will make that fact increasingly apparent.
Hopefully, out of this gridlock will come a growing awareness about the need to forge a consensus about reforming our laws. And Congress will give the appropriate assignment to EPA and the states to continue to progress toward our environmental goals. This is what reform is all about. So let's lower our voices and get on with the hard work.
CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus is the chairman of Browning Ferris Industries and was the first administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Let us know what you think about our program. Our comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our e-mail address; that's LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.
(Music up and under)
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: What did many ancient civilizations have in common? Environmental mismanagement that led to their downfall. That's ahead in the second half hour of Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Feel like lying down and letting your tongue wallow on the floor? Don't want to fetch one more thing because of the heat? Well, it's no surprise: the dog days of summer are upon us. Of course, humanity's problem with the summer heat is an old one. The dog days got their name from the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. The ancients believed that Sirius, the Dog Star, which rises simultaneously with the sun during this time of year, adds to the heat of the sun, thereby causing the unusually hot weather. The Romans called it Canecularis Dies, and also thought that earthly dogs were more inclined to madness and rabies during this time. In general, the dog days are said to last from July 3rd until August 11th. The English thought that if it rained on the first dog day, the rain would continue for the next 40 days. Which inspired this bit of doggerel: "Dog days bright and clear indicate a happy year. But when accompanied by rain, for better times our hopes are in vain." That's a bone to chew on until it cools down again. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: The language of environmental decline, unheard of a generation ago, is now familiar to us all. Ozone depletion, global warming, soil erosion, endangered species, smog. Words so commonplace now our eyes may glaze over when we encounter them. Today, some assign blame for particular problems to particular culprits. Logging companies, population growth, consumer demand, exhaust pouring out of tailpipes. Yet there may be more fundamental causes of environmental loss. To some the problems stem from an ethic of exploitation imported first to the Americas by Columbus, an ethic now prevailing across the world. Others say we may never emerge from our environmental morass unless we understand that the roots of the problem go much deeper, thousands of years more distant. That they are perhaps as old as humanity itself. Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through time as we attempt to understand how we got to where we are today.
TOLAN: One night a few years ago I was in a tiny Indian village in South America. The village was nestled in the Amazon. It had no lights, no roads, no running water. But it was in the midst of Ecuador's oil country, and so it was a tiny island in a whirl of change. Late one evening, in a wooden shack on stilts, a young man swung slowly in his hammock, telling me how life used to be before the coming of western man only 15 years before. His name was Toribe.
TORIBE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The whole structure of our lives has changed. The changes have been so fast. So many things, one on top of the other. Our forefathers, they lived miraculous lives. We hunted in peace wherever we wanted to go. We worked our field. We lived from the natural medicines. With the coming of the petroleum companies came the epidemics. We didn't know anything about the flu, the measles, almost all the region was hit. Many fled from here. Those that stayed were finished.
TOLAN: Toribe's hands cast giant shadows on the warped gray walls of the shack. They told stories of the Texaco helicopters, the seismic explosions, the pipelines and roads, the invasion of settlers, the oil spills, the poisoned river, the shaman who died of drink and a broken heart. Today, still, I hear the echoes of the American expansion west, of the Spanish conquest 4 centuries before that. Down in the Ecuadorian rainforest, history is repeating itself.
TORIBE (through translator): There were 70,000 of us. Now, there are only about 3,000 of us.
TOLAN: It's an old story: the legacy of Columbus, of colonial expansion being played out again and again. But perhaps this is just one part of an even older story, a story perhaps as old as human civilization. For it seems many people, long before Columbus, got into deep trouble themselves.
(A vehicle rolls across terrain)
FERGUSON: We're on the Sioux Indian reservation.
TOLAN: Four thousand mile to the north, in the Badlands, at the edge of Lakota Sioux Indian country, I'm in the back seat of a 4-wheel drive with a grizzly old rancher and an archaeologist heading towards a blackening sky in the snarl of canyons.
HANNUS: My name is Adrian Hannus. I am an archaeologist. I'm on the teaching faculty at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
FERGUSON: My name is Les Ferguson. I've lived in this country all of my life.
TOLAN: We slope down through fields of wild grass and sunflowers, toward the traces of the first civilization in the Americas and maybe the first environmental problems.
FERGUSON: Across right down in that brush.
(Sound of movement through tall grasses)
TOLAN: Twelve thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age, perhaps the first bands of nomadic hunters crossed the frozen Alaskan land bridge and began to populate a hemisphere. Carrying spears, these Clovis people traveled south into a new land, encountering the mastodon, camels, saber-toothed cats, beavers the size of bears, and the woolly mammoth.
HANNUS: We can probably find some fragments of mammoth bone coming out along this butte over here.
FERGUSON: Now see here, here's some of our bones that we're looking for right now, coming out clear over here, you see.
TOLAN: But it's not just mammoth bones the old man and the professor have discovered in the Badlands. Lying in the rib cages of the ice-age elephants, they found spear points from the Clovis Indians. The people believed to be the first Americans had a taste for mammoth meat and the skill to fell the 16-foot giants with their spears. But for all their knowledge and hunting skill, the Clovis may not have known how to protect their sustenance for future generations. In digs like this lies evidence for a provocative and controversial theory: that the Clovis hunters wiped out the mammoth and dozens of other species. Jared Diamond of UCLA says the Clovis people triggered an extinction Blitzkrieg.
DIAMOND: Within 200 years of the arrival of Clovis hunters, we see the extinction of the mammoths, the ground sloths, Harrison's mountain goat, other animals whose ancestors had been in the New World for millions of years. They're gone within 100 or 200 years of the arrival of the first Indian hunters.
HANNUS: At the time that this hunting was occurring, these were just about the last mammoths.
TOLAN: The Blitzkrieg theory is of course impossible to prove or disprove. Some say it's ecological revisionism designed to assuage the guilt of European descendants and make all society's ethics appear equal. Make the Clovis the Stone Age equivalents of the culture that produced the Exxon Valdez, that ruined Ecuadorian rainforest.
HANNUS: You know, this probably is, Les. It's probably elephant, it's probably mammoth. Juvenile. It's a part of a pelvis.
TOLAN: Adrian Hannus thinks the mammoths may have been done in more by massive climate change at the end of the last ice age. Yet he says perhaps the mammoth, teetering on the brink, got a final push from the Clovis.
HANNUS: When you have a predator that is the ultimate predator, humans, thrown into the equation, it certainly is an important factor.
TOLAN: Even if the Clovis provided just that final push, it was only one early part, says Hannus, of a long human history of self-inflicted wounds.
HANNUS: The cultural system, if it overshoots its environment and there's nowhere for the people to move to, to a different environment that they can further exploit, you can ultimately see the end of a system or a system that breaks apart and, you know, scatters itself. And that is in the archaeological record time after time.
(The sound of wind)
TOLAN: A great cathedral of red rock, a scattering of trees and pale green sage in the sharply-lit highland terrain of what would become northern New Mexico. Another culture is at its peak, the Anasazi. Master astronomers, traders, builders of roads, holders of a vibrant culture that stretched for thousands of square miles. The center was a Chaco canyon. Now, there are ruins there.
TOLAN: The descendants of the Anasazi, including the Hopis in Arizona, don't like to talk about what happened. Not to outsiders. But some others will.
SMITH: I will sing you a song, one of those grinding songs. It goes like this. Ya yo we ho, lalawe....
TOLAN: The song is a thousand years old, says Tucson Smith. It's what the Anasazi women used to sing when they were grinding corn.
(Smith continues to sing)
TOLAN: He's a maintenance man at Chaco, one of those invisible people in the national parks who keep the roads clean and the lights burning. He's Navajo, a storyteller.
SMITH: It is a very good song, but it makes me cry.
TOLAN: We stand by the side of the road in the wind and shadows of a steep mesa, in view of where the Anasazi homes once stood.
SMITH: Those people were what you call holy people. They talked to the wind, understand the wind. What is going to happen next.
TOLAN: Among the holy people, says Tucson Smith, there was a gambler. A gambler who didn't know his limits. Who in revenge for being cheated started a great fire and destroyed everything. There's a similar story about the Anasazi from a tribe to the north, near where the mammoth bones lie, where the Lakota people live today. Charlotte Black Elk, a Lakota oral historian, tells their story of the Anasazi, or the Ana Ana.
BLACK ELK: The Ana Ana, over a period of time, became so removed from the land that they took resources, too much resources from the land. And when there was nothing to hold the trees together, they began to die and because there were no trees there to block the water, all of the alive soil ran off. And then the soil that wasn't alive was left there, and it could not support the food and the grasses. That contributed to the creek areas becoming clogged and the creeks drying up.
TOLAN: Because they wouldn't let the land rest, says Charlotte Black Elk, the Anasazi devastated their own home, and so they had to leave.
BLACK ELK: And those that weren't killed by enemies were incorporated into neighboring peoples, and so they just kind of bled out of existence.
TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk's expertise is to explore the common ground between scientific hypothesis and old Lakota legends. The lesson from both Lakota and Navajo stories is this: the Anasazi created their own problems. And in fact that understanding, as passed through oral history, is now shared by many scientists.
BETANCOURT: We were driving around in an old '49 beat up Chevrolet pickup truck. We got to Chaco Canyon, we pulled out the maps, looked at the elevation, and, you know, at 6,100 to 6,300 feet in elevation that elevational range should support pinyon juniper woodland. And yet it looked like beat-up Mongolian steppe.
TOLAN: At Chaco Canyon, paleobotanist Julio Betancourt has been trying to figure out why there are hardly any trees at Chaco. He's been examining ancient piles of sticks and grasses collected for shelters by a species of local rodents, pack rats. For centuries, these pack rat middens lay undisturbed in dry caves. Then 20 years ago Betancourt came along. He knew that in order to figure out whether the vegetation was different before the Anasazi arrived, all he had to do was study the pack rat middens, the ancient time capsules of local vegetation.
BETANCOURT: Almost every sample that you picked up had pinyon pine and juniper in it, and yet pinyon pine was not anywhere in sight. And at that point I realized that something grave had happened at Chaco Canyon and not, not a long time ago.
TOLAN: Through carbon dating and pollen analysis, Betancourt could tell that the vegetation changed drastically after the Anasazi arrived. As their culture grew, the pinyons and juniper began to disappear, and this he believes happened all over the ancient Southwest.
BETANCOURT: This is not just Chaco Canyon. This is a scenario that probably played itself over and over and over again throughout the Southwest, whether we're talking about the Anasazi or the Hohokum or the Molyon. The prehistoric peoples in the Southwest, prehistoric Indians, had tremendous impact on their environment.
(Sounds of a fire and crickets)
TOLAN: Did the Anasazi lose their way? Were they themselves the engineers of their own demise? It's something to ponder, sitting by the fire under the spectacular Chaco night sky. And what of the others? The Clovis, the Maya, the builders of Rome and Petra and Tehuatihuacan? Is this destructive power inherent in human nature, or as Harvard's E.O. Wilson asks, is humanity suicidal? Wilson is a pioneer of sociobiology. He says the evolution of the human brain prepared us well for immediate dangers threatening the family, but not for seeing much beyond our own tribe, our own generation.
WILSON: It doesn't matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice. It doesn't matter because there is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening 10 generations down the line or 20. Only what is happening right at the moment. Now, with that cardinal principle of evolution, that is, evolution seen at short-sighted, then it is to be expected that human beings will be myopic. That is to say they'll have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 or 200 years hence. So we therefore work like some great all-devouring juggernaut and it takes a considerable stretch of the intellect to start thinking in terms of centuries-long future.
BLACK ELK: Our stories say that those who didn't learn no longer are here. That they've been cleansed from the Earth.
TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk lives with a different philosophy. Her great grandfather was a famous Lakota holy man. Westerners, she says, tend to gloss over differences between people, but it's too simple to lay the blame on human genetics. Societies do have real differences, Charlotte Black Elk says, based on ethics, world views, and rooted in the different values embedded in origin legends.
BLACK ELK: Look at the origin legend of Genesis, and what does Genesis tell you? It tells you that because of a transgression humans were banished. So the place of exile is the face of the Earth. It's an enemy, it produces brambles and thistles and thorns, and that man will live when it dominates this enemy. Whereas for Lakota people we say you live with the choices you make. Every single thing you do in life is a choice. It's a conscious choice. And that the result of every choice has impacts for 4 and 7 generations.
TOLAN: The Lakota oral historian will get no argument here from the Harvard professor. But E.O. Wilson says preservation ethics among Native American tribes are not innate to an Indian human nature. He believes these ethics were learned from terribly hard lessons in the far-away past.
WILSON: A general trait of early people was to eat up everything they could get their hands on, and to become conservationist only when finally they realized that it was necessary for their survival.
TOLAN: And in fact, much native legend is filled with stories of ancient transgressions. Of warnings not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is Edward Valandra of the Rosebud Sioux reservation.
VALANDRA: Certainly in Lakota oral history, we have narratives saying our conduct seriously threatened the natural world. And we paid a price for that. We were admonished. We paid a price.
TOLAN: The price: a recognition of limits. A lesson learned and incorporated into the beliefs of many native people. A lesson that E.O. Wilson says is just beginning to be transmitted into the Western experience.
WILSON: The reason why we are conspicuously lacking it in Western cultures, including the American culture, is that we have just concluded a, several centuries of worldwide colonization in which we always had another place to go. When the place that we ruined was no longer sustainable. Finally when you come to the other shore, and finally when a few generations have suffered, then you begin to think like a conservationist.
(Fog horns and shushing waves)
TOLAN: Nineteen ninety-five, Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is my home. The British set up the first fishing fleet in the colonies here in 1623. For centuries the town lived and died from the sea. Men came home in boats hip deep in cod and haddock. Now, they're closing it down. The fishermen, with their fish finders and small mesh nets, took too much. The grand banks are fished out. A way of life is disappearing.
(Fishermen speak: "Hooray for me and to hell with the other guy." "Why don't you say it's the government's fault?" "The government's at fault, too. You know why the government's at fault?")
TOLAN: And now I sit and talk to the old Italian men of the sea on wooden benches in front of the St. Peter's Club. The patron saint of the fishermen no longer protects them, or their schools of fish.
MAN: They stop because there are no fish. Before you happy, you go fishing. You'd stay 5 days or 10 days, 11 days. You get a, $40 or $50 a pound of fish. But now you stay at all 13 days or 14 days, you know what you'll get? $10 or $15. Sometimes you get nothing. It's all over. It's dead.
TOLAN: It's all over, he says. It's dead. At least for a long time. If the grand banks ever come back, perhaps then we'll know better. And yet, says UCLA's Jared Diamond, it didn't have to be this way.
DIAMOND: We are persisting when we ought to know better. Whereas past societies persisted without being able to know better. When Mayan society was collapsing, the Mayans had no knowledge that society in the Fertile Crescent had already collapsed because of salinization. They had no knowledge of the fall of the Roman Empire several hundred years before that. So they could not learn the lessons. And similarly when Easter Island society collapsed in the 1600 and 1700s, the Easter Islanders had no knowledge that classic Maya civilization had collapsed 800 years before that. They could not learn those lessons. And yet we can.
(Fog horns and sea swells)
MAN: Before you get a lot of fish, now there's no fish. The fishermen, they get nothing.
TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
MAN: This is all over, all over the world now, isn't it?
(Waves and fog horns continue)
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Environmental progress doesn't always come down in edicts from a protection agency in Washington, DC, or in the results of a study published in some prestigious journal. It often takes place right under our very noses. That's why we ask you to let us know about what might be called small acts of environmental heroism or invention taking place in your community, or your own back yard. This week's offering comes from Dana Opland. She's a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who tells us that a recent social studies assignment at the Custer High School blossomed into a lesson about toxic waste and civil action.
OPLAND: Students were given a map of our city, of Milwaukee, that had all of the toxic sites here from Superfunds to smaller noted toxic sites, and they were to go look at one, and they had a questionnaire that their social studies teacher, Larry Miller, had created, that they were supposed to answer after they looked at it. And all of them had a site within 8 blocks of their home.
CURWOOD: Okay, and what did they come up with?
OPLAND: Well, 2 of the students took a shortcut that they always taken to and from school, and they had happened to look at their map and noticed that this big, muddy spot that they've always walked by was really a toxic site. They were surprised to see that it looked so normal and wasn't a green, bubbling mass of mess that they would have thought from TV and from, you know, from what you read. So think they were real shocked, and they came to us the day after they noticed it, and they were like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you have to come see this." It had seeped into the adjacent playground. There was like a softball field, and like some swing sets and stuff and a tennis court, that it had seeped onto. And so the students were like well, if this is on our school property, we should be able to get it cleaned up. And they initiated going to the School Board and getting it cleaned up.
CURWOOD: How contaminated was it?
OPLAND: I don't think it was a major, major contamination problem. But it was there for quite some time, and because of a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, the company that was there had gone through a lot of trouble to try to get it cleaned up. But they were having trouble getting through the DNR and through MPS, Milwaukee Public Schools, and getting it all cleaned up. And so I think the kids were kind of angry and really wanted to do something about it, at least that's what I saw, because the kids stayed after school on their own time many nights. They put together these videos and they showed the videos at conferences and parents went in. And they made flyers and handed them out to parents and really wanted to get this out to the community that this is a problem that needs to be fixed.
CURWOOD: Is the site clean today?
OPLAND: Yes; it was cleaned up. We went back a few times after they initiated the cleanup, and we looked at it and it's pretty well clean, yeah. So we were real happy. It was nice to see some closure to it.
CURWOOD: And the kids made the difference.
OPLAND: Yeah, they really did. I don't think it would have been cleaned up as fast had they not been the driving force behind it all.
CURWOOD: Well, Ms. Opland, thanks so much for talking with us.
OPLAND: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Dana Opland is an English teacher at the John Muir Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting environmental tale to tell us, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. If you want to mail us a letter, the address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Heather Kaplan, Paul Masari, and Jennifer Sinkler. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are John Marston and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
(Music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
This Week's Books
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth