Nuclear Renaissance?/ Bruce Gellerman
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Not long ago, nuclear energy was seen as a dying industry. There hasn't been a nuclear power plant built in 30 years, and the disaster at Three-Mile Island all but sealed the industry's fate. But today there are serious moves underway to bring nuclear back, and they are set to begin in the South. Host Bruce Gellerman reports. LOE also speaks with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Moore spent 15 years advocating against nuclear power, then he had a change of heart. Moore talks about his new role as a lobyist for the nuclear power industry. (12:00)
The Baby Business
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We may not talk about where babies come from very often, but there's a booming, and largely unregulated, business making sure they get here. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Debora Spar about her recent book, "Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." (12:40)
When Two Won’t Do/ Bonnie Auslander
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Commentator Bonnie Auslander weighs in on the trend in increasing family size. (03:15)
Emerging Science Note/Taste Test/ Emily Taylor
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Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tested the brain's ability to lessen the experience of a foul taste by anticipating one that is good. Emily Taylor reports. (01:30)
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Dai Qing has been an environmental activist since she left the Chinese Communist Party when tanks rolled into Tianamen Square in 1989. On a recent trip to the U.S. she came to our studio to tell host Bruce Gellerman about her experiences and the environmental situation in her homeland today. (06:30)
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As development in China soars, it's also spreading westward. Chengdu, a backwater city in western China, became an urban metropolis overnight. Jean Kumagai reports on the newest Chinese boomtown. (08:00)
Poison dart frogs of Central and South America.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Patrick Moore, Dai Qing, Debora Spar
REPORTER: Jean Kumagai
SCIENCE NOTE: Emily Taylor
COMMENTATOR: Bonnie Auslander
GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. How many nuclear power plants does it take to turn on billions of light bulbs? Try at least 16 new ones. Electric utilities have big plans for nuclear power.
O’DRISCOLL: Oh boy, they do (laughs). They do. The goal is to make nuclear the premier source of power generation, but it’s a very difficult, very politically difficult, very expensive process to get that done.
GELLERMAN: Also: the bottom line and the global baby business.
SPAR: In the US alone right now it’s about $3 billion a year. And it’s very unregulated.
So, right now, let the baby buyer be ware. We don’t want to set up a heavy-handed regulatory authority of baby creation, but I think we need some basic rules of the road.
Those stories this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Coming up, a founder of Greenpeace sees the light – and it’s powered by nuclear energy.
But first: There are 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States. And they generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. There were plans for a lot more nuclear plants. Then in 1979 the meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island put the kibosh on the industry. But now, like a phoenix, nuclear power is rising out of the ashes. Concerns over the burning of fossil fuels, global warming and the rising price of energy are setting the stage for a nuclear power renaissance.
O’DRISCOLL: Oh boy, they do. (laughs) They do. The goal is to make nuclear the premier source of power generation, but it’s a very difficult, very politically difficult, very expensive process to get that done.
GELLERMAN: There hasn’t been a nuclear power plant built in the United States in nearly 30 years. But despite past difficulties, utilities are taking steps to build no less than 16 new nuclear power plants over the next decade. Mary Olsen, with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says three-quarters of the plants will be located in the south.
OLSEN: The southeast is the nuclear heartland of the United States because of the number not only of reactors, but fuel factories, nuclear bomb factories, and all the supporting facilities. And this is already a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities in the United States.
GELLERMAN: But recent public opinion polls suggest 56 percent of Americans now favor nuclear power. And many people who once said "not in our backyard" now say, "put it in the front." So, when Duke Power just announced plans to build two new reactors in South Carolina, Jim Cooke, head of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, set out the welcome mat.
COOKE: It is huge news. We were just keeping our fingers crossed. We didn’t want to say, ‘we knew they were looking at several different sites.’
GELLERMAN: Duke chose Cherokee County, population 54,000. The textile mills and peach industries are long gone. Unemployment hovers near eight percent and Jim Cooke says just building the new reactors would put a thousand people to work.
COOKE: The number of jobs that they bring in during construction, and those types of folks coming in, will bring a lot of money in. And tax-wise it’ll be a windfall for our county. I don’t even think we realize the economic impact that it’s going to have here yet.
GELLERMAN: To sweeten the deal, Cherokee County is cutting Duke Power’s property taxes on the proposed 2,000-acre site in half. The company already runs a natural gas-powered plant nearby and seven nuclear reactors around the state.
COOKE: Duke power has been a great corporate citizen here. They’re a good company and they’re not just gonna come in here and go away.
GELLERMAN: Actually, once Duke did come to the county with plans to build a nuclear plant. And it did go away.
COOKE: We got our hopes up earlier, back in the – whoo, wow, I was in the service – probably the 80’s. They were gonna build here on this exact site. Matter of fact, there’s an old reactor that they had started and then, for different political and economic reasons, you know, boom, Duke Power pulled out of it. And they sold it to this fella in North Carolina, and he ran a film company and actually made a few films down there…if you recall the film "The Abyss."
[MOVIE CLIP - SOUNDS OF A HELICOPTER]
MAN: That there is a bottomless pit, baby. Two and a half miles straight down.
GELLERMAN: The filmmaker of "The Abyss" flooded the unfinished reactor containment vessel and used it for the underwater scenes. Ironically, the movie deals with recovering a sunken nuclear submarine.
MAN: Whatever happens, it’s up to us.
MAN 2: That guy scares me more than anything that’s down there.
GELLERMAN: The site is now a rusting shambles. The cost to build and abandon the reactor: six hundred million dollars. But Duke spokesman Tim Petite says times and attitudes have changed, and the old Cherokee site is the perfect place to build an atomic power plant.
PETITE: Well, right now we’re estimating that’ll be somewhere between four and six billion dollars, the initial investment in these.
GELLERMAN: Lot of money.
PETITE: It is a lot of money. You know, these are very large capital investments just like any large generating station is. But again, as you look at the life of that plant, the fuel costs associated with nuclear is much less than the other generation, and so it pays benefits to the company, the shareholders and the customers over the long-term.
GELLERMAN: To jumpstart the nation’s stagnant nuclear industry, the federal government is providing $13 billion in incentives and subsidies. If there is an accident, utilities’ liability is largely covered. The licensing process has also been streamlined, and taxpayers will pay half the $47 million application fee. Anti-nuclear activist Mary Olsen says that money is just a down payment on the trillions of dollars nuclear power will eventually cost.
OLSEN: Nuclear power is not cost-effective or competitive. The only way to build new reactors in the United Sates is to put tax dollars into it. What if we put trillions of dollars into wind, efficiency and solar? Couldn’t we do it faster? I bet we could.
GELLERMAN: One issue slowing down the renaissance in nuclear power is radioactive waste. Right now there are 50,000 tons of spent fuel rods at power plants around the nation. The controversial federal repository that was supposed to store reactor waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
To speed things up, the Bush administration has proposed streamlining the licensing process and lifting the cap on the amount of radioactive waste that can be buried at Yucca. Still, energy reporter Mary O’Driscoll says waste remains the industry’s Achilles heel.
O’DRISCOLL: They are paying to store nuclear waste of spent fuel onsite which does not make them happy, doesn’t make their shareholders happy, doesn’t make their rate payers happy. A lot of members of Congress aren’t happy. And so it’s a very difficult situation to resolve, and the feeling is that until you resolve, finally, the Yucca Mountain situation and get it operating and make sure that it’s operating, that the future of nuclear power in the United States is really going to be questionable.
PETITE: Well, certainly that’s something we’re taking a look at. We’ll follow that very closely.
GELLERMAN: Again, Tim Petite from Duke Power.
PETITE: We want to see a lot of progress made on that front. And before we decide to go forward with building additional nuclear plants we’ll certainly be evaluating the storage of the fuel before that decision’s made.
GELLERMAN: Petite says that decision could be made in a year...maybe two.
[SOUNDS FROM MOVIE, THE ABYSS]
GELLERMAN: One of the leading advocates of nuclear power today was once one of its most outspoken opponents. Dr. Patrick Moore was a co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace and served seven years as a director of Greenpeace International. Nowadays Moore has teamed up with former EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman to spread the word about nuclear power. Their organization, The Clean And Safe Energy Coalition, lobbies on behalf of the industry.
MOORE: Yes, I am very proud to be a spokesperson for nuclear energy, for the technology. I’m not pushing any particular company or any particular group of companies or any particular organization, for that matter, other than the Coalition for Clean and Safe Energy. That’s the only one I’m backing, and the reason for that is because I support the technology.
MOORE: Well, name-calling doesn’t really help much with the discussion, does it? I think it’s important to get to the issue. And it’s certainly not about me. The whole issue of energy for this world, and the other issue of climate change, which is very strongly related to energy in the form of fossil fuels, which account for about 85 percent of our total energy consumption in this world. These are big issues. One could say that the relationship between energy for civilization and the potential for climate change is the biggest issue we have today. And, from a scientific point of view, perhaps the most difficult.
GELLERMAN: So climate change poses a difficult choice. Is nuclear power the lesser of many evils?
MOORE: If you want to think of everything as evil, like so many of the activists do today. One of the reasons I left Greenpeace was because I had to be against everything all the time. I was really more interested, after about 15 years of being against things every day, I was trying to figure out what the solutions were and figuring out what I was in favor of instead.
And when it comes to energy these days there’s sort of two schools of thought from an environmental point of view. One group, which I think includes Greenpeace and many other of the activist organizations, actually believes that we can phase out fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and at the same time they don’t like hydroelectric dams. That accounts for about 99 percent of all of the energy in the world for making electricity. You cannot propose a solution which eliminates 99 percent of the world’s energy.
So I believe, and I think the second school of thought would be that the only way to substantially reduce fossil fuel consumption is to have a combination of renewables plus nuclear. Because you have to have a base load; you cannot make base load electricity with wind and solar, which are intermittent and unreliable. They can only fill a certain niche. And the only base load sources of power are hydroelectric, coal and nuclear.
Hydroelectric, unfortunately, is largely built out to capacity. Therefore, the real choice is between coal and nuclear. And, in addition, nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases and does not produce air pollution like coal does. So I don’t think it’s so much the lesser of two evils as, in fact, a very clean choice. And if you actually look at the statistics, a very safe choice for energy production.
GELLERMAN: Your old organization Greenpeace reported just in April 2006 that it reviewed NRC, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, documents and found there were two hundred near-misses to meltdowns since 1986.
MOORE: Ah, well, near-misses. you know, there’s actually ten levels of incidence that need to be reported to the NRC. Most of these are very minor. It’s sort of like saying you have two hundred car crashes where nobody was hurt. You know, well, okay, so the cars have to be fixed, but no one was hurt. And no one has ever been hurt by a nuclear reactor accident in the United States. It’s plain and simple. Even the worst accident that ever occurred, at Three Mile Island, did not hurt anybody. So, okay, accidents can happen. Accidents may happen in the future. But you have to weigh the risk against the benefit, and in addition to that you have to look at the record.
And the record shows that with the exception of Chernobyl, which was a stupid design, that nuclear reactors have been safe. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and it has not had a history of accidents that have hurt anybody, whereas 6,000 people die in coal mines every year, 45,000 that die just in the U.S. just from car accidents – it’s 1.2 million worldwide – and yet no one is banning the automobile. Why do people have such different perceptions of risk for different technologies? I do not understand this.
GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Moore, I want to thank you very much.
MOORE: Thank you Bruce, it’s been enjoyable talking to you.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Patrick Moore is head of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and chief scientist of Greenspirit.
[MUSIC: Pan American "Tract" from ‘Pan-American’ (Kranky - 1997)]
- Duke Energy Corporation
- Nuclear Information and Resource Service
- The Nuclear Energy Institute
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.
- Clean and Safe Energy Coalition
- Greenpeace, International
GELLERMAN: Coming up: How much is that baby in the window? How money, science and politics drive the commerce of conception. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Roots Tonic "Concrete Sunrise" from ‘Meets Bill Laswell’ (ROIR – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. On the world’s stock markets investors bid on shares in companies. On the world’s commodity markets you can buy and sell stakes in everything from gold bullion to pork bellies. Then there’s a largely unseen and unregulated global market that people don’t like to think of in terms of money: Kids as commerce.
It’s the baby biz: adoption, in vitro fertilization, sperm donation, surrogates and perhaps, one day, clones. Harvard business school professor Debora Spar has taken a look at the bottom line in the trade in children. Her new book is called "The Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." Thanks for coming in Debora, welcome to Living on Earth.
SPAR: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: How big is the baby business?
SPAR: Well, in the U.S. alone right now it’s about $3 billion a year, and that’s really only counting IVF treatments and some of the hormones.
GELLERMAN: IVF being?
SPAR: In vitro fertilization.
GELLERMAN: I was reading in your book that in, what, 2001 there were 41,000 IVF children born in the United States?
SPAR: That’s right. It’s a very large number.
GELLERMAN: Now, when they first started they were called test-tube babies, and it really was not accepted at all.
SPAR: That’s exactly right. First of all, it’s worth noting that test-tube is the wrong word here. Although these children are conceived outside the womb – they’re actually conceived in Petri dishes – but test tubes always seemed like a better image for people. But for sure when the first baby was conceived – Louise Brown, 1978 – people went wild, and there were protests in the streets, and picketing. And people said Louise Brown was a monster.
And yet what’s happened, as we’ve seen, is that there were so many parents who couldn’t conceive children the old-fashioned way, that they scrambled to the doctors who could produce IVF babies, and within a couple of years the demand was so high, and so many children had been born healthy, that really the opposition went away.
GELLERMAN: Has the demand gone up for children over the years? And if so, why?
SPAR: No. Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things that I found in this research. If you go back to the beginnings of time, or go back to the Bible, as I do in this book, we see that there has always been a demand for children. Because for whatever reasons, roughly 10 to 15 percent of all populations across all time have been infertile; and those people have always wanted to produce children. And it really wasn’t until the past several decades that technology gave them a way to produce.
GELLERMAN: But the notion here – that it’s become a business – is still unsavory.
SPAR: For sure it’s unsavory. It’s disconcerting. It upsets people. But what I try to do in this book is to say that we really have to fess up, if you will, and say it is a market, and people are spending money, and making money, and making babies.
GELLERMAN: You write that it’s largely unregulated.
SPAR: It is very unregulated.
GELLERMAN: I mean, if I were to want to adopt a child, say, there are regulations, there are rules, there are requirements.
SPAR: That’s right. And one of the things I’m arguing in this book is that I think we should look at the fertility market in some ways akin to the way we look at adoption. And we don’t want to set up a heavy-handed Regulatory Authority of Baby Creation, but I think we need some basic rules of the road.
GELLERMAN: Well what would those rules be?
SPAR: Well, I argue we need to start with the easy ones. First of all, we just need to look at the medical implications of what we’re doing here. Most of these technologies seem to be very safe for both the mothers and the children, but not all of them are. We need to look more closely. We need to look at the implications for women of shooting them up with massive amounts of hormones. We need to look at the implications for women who donate their eggs and also receive massive amounts of hormones. We need to look at the implications of multiple births; of doctors and clinics who are willing to implant four or five embryos at a time, giving rise to multiple pregnancies. We just need to look at these things and think about where we might want to draw some lines, purely for reasons of medical safety and the health of the mothers and babies concerned.
GELLERMAN: What other technologies are out there?
SPAR: Well, what we’re beginning to be able to do more and more, is to manipulate the embryo itself. So IVF creates the embryo artificially, if you will, or outside the womb. We now have technologies led by something called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows researchers to take the tiny embryo, when it’s really only eight cells large, remove a single cell from that embryo, and test it for a range of genetic diseases; then, once you do the tests, of course, the parents can choose which embryos they want to implant.
GELLERMAN: What about at the edges of the technology and where this might be going? I’m thinking of cloning.
SPAR: This pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is really quite intriguing because right now it’s being done largely for medical reasons to allow parents to select against some horrible genetic disease; it’s also being done for gender selection. But take that one step further and it’s not that hard to begin to screen for things like hair color and eye color. And I think we need to think about that, and make sure that that’s something we want to allow.
If you then go further down the spectrum – or the slippery slope, depending on your perspective – one can imagine parents trying cloning. The cases that we know of are not the crazy ones that people always think about. It’s not the mad scientist who wants 50 copies of himself to rule the world. It’s overwhelmingly parents who have lost a child. A four-year-old gets killed suddenly by a bus; the desperate parents don’t just want another child, they want that child back. And the doctors or the researchers who have begun to push to the edges of this technique have all told me that the calls they get are from these kinds of parents.
GELLERMAN: What about a parent who has a child with a genetic disease, and they want to create a child that can help cure their first child?
SPAR: Right. That’s something that we’re already doing right now. So it’s for a handful of genetic diseases where a child is dying and the only way to save that child is by having a perfectly matched blood or bone marrow donor.
GELLERMAN: And you can do that now?
SPAR: Yeah. Yeah. A number of those cases have occurred already using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. What they do, the parents go through IVF, they produce a number of embryos, and then the doctors, using very, very sophisticated screens, they screen the embryos for healthy embryos, and also embryos that are a genetic match for the sick child.
GELLERMAN: Is the United States the center of this global marketplace?
SPAR: California seems to be the center of the global marketplace. California has a very permissive environment, as you’d imagine, it has a large market for many of these technologies. And there has been not legislation in California, but court cases, which have put some kind of basic rules of the road out there, mostly having to do with making sure the intended parents can in fact get access to the child in cases of contestation.
GELLERMAN: But you’d think that with the intersection of science and ethics that there would be a tremendous amount of regulation of this commerce.
SPAR: You would think so, but, in fact, in this country we get precisely the opposite. And I think that has to do very deeply with the divisive nature of the abortion debate in this country. It’s very, very hard to deal legally with these technologies until you determine what the moment of conception is.
GELLERMAN: So instead of dealing with this they just let it go and out of mind, out of sight?
SPAR: There’s virtually no political incentive for someone in Washington to tackle this issue, and so it really has just been pushed to the sidelines.
GELLERMAN: Well they’ve gotten very good at making these embryos and implanting them and having children as a result of that kind of conception. But there are then excess embryos.
SPAR: That’s right. At the moment, the estimates say that there’s 400,000 excess embryos in the United States alone.
GELLERMAN: Four hundred thousand?
SPAR: Four hundred thousand.
GELLERMAN: And what’s the law say about the buying and selling of those?
SPAR: The law says nothing. There is no law. The one thing we do know legally now is you can’t use those embryos for stem cell research. So the only legislation we have, or prohibitions we have, say you cannot use those for research. Other than that, it’s kind of fair game. What’s happening at the moment is that there’s more of a friends and family market in these embryos; so clinics will make them available to couples or individuals if they’re not having luck with other means.
And there’s been a really interesting development, out of California again, where a gentleman who runs an adoption agency there has begun a program of what he calls embryo adoption, which is mostly among Christian conservatives, that if a Christian couple has created an embryo – they don’t want that embryo destroyed, they certainly don’t want it used for research – they will legally allow that embryo to be adopted by another couple. And clearly there’s a lot of implications here because if you can adopt an embryo, you presumably can’t do other things with an embryo.
GELLERMAN: And you can buy and sell it?
SPAR: That’s right. And again, that has not quite happened yet, but if you look at other elements of this market I see no reason not to expect that we’re not going to get a market in embryos as well.
GELLERMAN: So it’s astonishing, actually, that you have this incredibly large global business taking place unregulated and basically unobserved.
SPAR: That’s right. Because it gets back to the basic nature of this; because it’s so personal and intimate, people don’t want to subject it to the light of day. And again, what I’m trying to argue here is that everyone’s better off if we get over our disgust here, if you will, or level of discomfort, and say we’ve got to look at what’s going on and then figure out if there’s pieces of this that needs to be restrained in some way.
GELLERMAN: Of course, science really is pushing the ethical issue here. You have a couple, they have fertilized embryos, and the husband says, no, you can’t use it, I’m no longer your husband. The wife says, I want to have a baby and I can’t do it any other way.
SPAR: That’s right. And there was a case of that here in Boston last year where the embryos were implanted in the wife, who was now divorced from the husband, and the husband sued the fertility clinic for having forced him to become a father against his will.
GELLERMAN: So what did the court say?
SPAR: The courts forced the clinic to cover his child support payments.
GELLERMAN: Where does this go in 50 years? Technology’s driving this; what’s the edge of this known universe?
SPAR: The edge of this known universe, I suspect, is that we’re gonna have more and more children created through non-traditional means. I don’t suspect that technology will ever replace the old-fashioned means, because as one of the doctors said to me, people would still rather have sex. So we’re certainly never going to see full replacement, but we will see more and more people having more and more children through these alternative means. Having children later in lives; having children with same-sex partners.
I think the part that I find most worrisome is the potential for genetic manipulation, and I think we need to watch this. And I think we need to understand – which we don’t understand yet – what is it that people choose when they choose their children? Do they choose characteristics that are as much like themselves as possible – in other words, are they trying to replicate the children they would have had through natural means, or are they trying to create something different? Something better. If it’s the latter, I get worried. And I don’t know that it is, but I think that’s the part of the market we really need to watch.
GELLERMAN: What about the kids as commodities for people that, you know, are 60 years old? Women that are 60 years old and want to have a child because they want to have a child?
SPAR: Yeah, I think this is another very important piece of this. And this is very very hard to do politically. But as the technology gets better and better, I think we need to think as a society whether we are willing to let all people under all circumstances produce children. And this will be a horrible decision to make, but we do this already in adoption. We do say that a 65-year-old woman can’t adopt an infant. I think we’d want to be obviously looser when people are using their own genetic material. But I think we need to think about it. I heard recently of a case where a couple was using high tech means to produce children, because their existing children had been taken from them by the department of social services for child abuse. This couple was allowed to procreate again, and that makes me very worried.
GELLERMAN: You’re getting right up to the edge of eugenics.
SPAR: Absolutely. But I would much rather that we realize that we’re getting up to that edge and figure out where we draw the line, rather than just finding ourselves having already fallen over the edge, and have it be too late.
GELLERMAN: You have three children.
GELLERMAN: All natural?
SPAR: No. Two were created the old-fashioned way and the third was adopted.
GELLERMAN: Why did you adopt a child?
SPAR: I always wanted to adopt, for no strong reasons. There’s never been any adoption in my family that I’m aware of. I felt very blessed that I was able to conceive easily, and healthy children. And I did know there were an awful lot of children out there and it seemed like an intriguing thing to do.
GELLERMAN: Did you purchase your child?
SPAR: Yeah, I think I did.
GELLERMAN: You had trouble answering that.
SPAR: Of course, because nobody wants to acknowledge, no parent wants to put those words together, "I purchased my child." But I’m okay with saying that, because I think it was a transaction, if you will, that was a very good transaction. And I purchase health care; I will hopefully be spending lots of money to send my oldest child to a good college next year, I will be purchasing an education. We purchase lots of things that also have value, have personal value, to us.
GELLERMAN: With me has been Debora Spar, Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and author of the new book, "The Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." Professor Spar, thank you very much.
SPAR: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
[MUSIC: Liz Miller "Babies" from ‘Baby Fantasy: Projections of a New Mother’ (Busy Lizzy Music - 2002)]
GELLERMAN: Well, whether you decide to have children using the latest technology, or the old fashion way, you also have to decide how many children to have. Commentator Bonnie Auslander has been crunching the numbers.
AUSLANDER: My husband and I met in Asheville, NC, where writer Bill McKibben was giving a reading. So it was fitting that after our daughter was born a friend gave us a copy of "Maybe One," McKibben’s book, in which he argues that having only one child is the soundest environmental choice those of us in the developed world can make.
At least I think that’s what he wrote. I didn’t read it: I hid it. It had been difficult enough convincing my husband that we should have one child. I knew getting him to father two would be harder than making him take me to the latest Jane Austen film adaptation. I didn’t want any persuasive tracts lying around that he could use to bolster his position. So I took McKibben’s book and shoved it behind some old bank statements at the bottom of a filing cabinet.
Having two kids has always been my goal. It’s practically a family tradition. I’m one of two, so is my father, and so are all of his cousins. And I’ve always believed producing two kids who would eventually replace their parents was okay, even if it meant that for an overlapping time we would be planting a larger environmental footprint on the planet.
So, while intellectually I agreed with McKibben that producing one child was best, I couldn’t imagine intentionally raising a single child. They might turn out too bossy or too lonely, and who would they compare notes with later on about their nutty parents? If I had read McKibben’s book I would have learned that only children aren’t any more likely than those with siblings to be overbearing or friendless, but I waited until after our second child was born to see what he had to say.
Now, eight years after McKibben’s book was published, I find myself surrounded by friends and acquaintances who aren’t stopping at one, or hanging at two, but who are having three or four or even more. A conversation with a demographer confirmed my hunch: family size in the U.S. is on the rise.
So what’s going on here? Are these couples hoping for a girl at last after having two boys? Is it a desire to advertise their fertility? Or could it be as it was for one couple I read about, a marker of affluence that boasts "I can afford to have more kids than you?"
Then I remembered what Amir, a newly married Palestinian man I knew when I lived in Germany, said to me. "If I stay here, two kids is enough," he told me, "but if I move back to Palestine and stop at two, my friends will say, ‘What’s the matter with you? Are you sterile?’ "
The pressure Amir described, to have a big family, is about who he is and where he’s from, but as the planet’s crisis worsens, there’s pressure, or there should be, pushing us all in the opposite direction. In that sense we’re all Amir, standing at the crossroads as we weigh how many kids we want against how many kids the planet can bear.
[MUSIC: Jingle Babies "What Child Is This?" from ‘Rockabye Christmas’ (Jingle Cats Music - 2004)]
GELLERMAN: Commentator Bonnie Auslander, her husband, and two children – just two – live in Bethesda, Maryland.
GELLERMAN: You can hear our program anytime on our website, or get a download for your pod, mypod or iPod. The address is LOE dot org. That's LOE dot O-R-G. You can reach us at comments @ LOE dot org. Once again, comments @ LOE dot O-R-G. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. CD's and transcripts are fifteen dollars. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Roots Tonic "Road To Axum" from ‘Meets Bill Laswell’ (ROIR – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. And coming up:
That’s "Go west, young man." in Mandarin. A journey to Chengdu on the frontier of China’s economic expansion. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Taylor.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
TAYLOR: Remember your first curse word? You thought your mom was gonna wash out your mouth with soap, didn’t you? So you closed your eyes and prepared for the worst. Well, maybe you didn’t.
A recent study from scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that the human brain can have a response that is based on the perception of taste, regardless of whether the taste buds actually experience the sensation.
After enlisting 43 students to undergo MRI brain imaging, assistant professor Jack B. Nitschke tested the ability of their brains to reduce the experience of a foul taste by tricking itself through the anticipation of a less foul taste. He conditioned the students before they entered the MRI session to associate a specific cue with a taste, and monitored their brain activity as cues flashed and liquid was dropped into their mouths.
But Nitschke didn’t always match the cues with the tastes the subjects were anticipating. So, when some students saw a cue for a less bitter taste, less bitter is what they perceived even if the actual taste was bitter.
Nitschke was able to ultimately conclude that the brain acts differently when it anticipates a sensation as compared to when it experiences a sensation unexpectedly. Sensory input could be largely based on perceptions of, say, fear or joy, rather than on reality. Nitschke hopes to use these anticipatory processes in the brain to help people dealing with anxiety and depression.
That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Emily Taylor.
GELLERMAN: China’s leaders have plotted an ambitious course to ensure the nation’s power-hungry economy does not sputter and fall. Over the next 15 years, they plan to build 30 nuclear plants and double the nation’s hydroelectric output by 2010.
Much of that energy will come from the controversial Three Gorges project, which harnesses China’s mightiest river, the Yangtze. Hundreds of towns, villages, and ancient sites were submerged to create a reservoir as long as Lake Superior, and nearly two million residents were forced to relocate.
While promising energy for the future, the Three Gorges project also fueled China’s fledgling environmental movement, which was powered by a human dynamo - dissident journalist Dai Qing. Known as "DQ" by her friends, she published a book about the environmental consequences of the Three Gorges project. It’s called "The River Dragon Has Come." The book was banned in China, but Dai Qing has brought it West, and she’s here in our studios - may I call you DQ?
QING: Yes, of course.
GELLERMAN: Your book was written in 1990. It was published in English in, what, 1998? You predict some very dire consequences from the Three Gorges project. You say there’s going to be 1.9 million people displaced, ancient sites submerged underwater, that there was going to be flooding of hundreds of towns. It was going to be really a mess. Have your predictions come true? I mean, this project’s almost finished now.
QING: It will come worse than what we researched in 1980’s because, right now, lots of things get worse already. At the beginning, the builder of the Three Gorges project promised compensation. But actually, the central government only gave the money not directly to the people they’re uprooting but to the officials. And when the money arrived it’s very little. So right now, the hate, the angry, just accumulates in their heart, and maybe one day, when the environment gets worse and worse, they cannot live. So something definitely will happen. But it’s a beginning.
QING: Yeah, these kind of things have already happened. And it is going to happen in the future because in China there is no law to limit the big companies’ behavior. Of course, we have some environment-protecting laws, but when the officials try to let it work, lots of things happen. You know, pay some money to the company and then everything is resolved.
GELLERMAN: China sounds like an awfully polluted, dangerous place.
QING: Yeah, I agree with you, and the main reason, I think, is the ownership is not clear. The river belongs to whom? And the mine belongs to whom? And the land belongs to whom? And if you have some connection with the authority you can get the right to develop something. You know, you don’t have to pay for the resource. Very few people see behind the figures; the cost of resources and environment and human rights is huge.
GELLERMAN: You have these thousands of protests. People getting shot. You have people getting thrown off their land.
GELLERMAN: I was reading that the environmental protests have gone up dramatically in China over the years. In 2003, there was something like 58,000 protests – and these are government numbers. In 2004, there was something like 74,000. Do you see that becoming broader? Not just an environmental movement, but a political opposition movement that could challenge and disrupt the Communist Party?
QING: I think it’s already a political project. Because if they just obey and obey, they have totally no sense of their basic rights. This is old China, you know, Chinese, they’re so used to dictatorship they’re just looking for a good emperor in their country. So if the living condition is just okay, they will obey the government. But right now China, the Chinese people, with the help of journalists and environmental NGO’s, they got sense that they should try to protect themselves. So I think this will become a political movement, and I think it’s very important.
GELLERMAN: Now I know your dad was in the Communist Party. Were you ever in the Party yourself?
QING: I was a Communist Party member, and I quit the second day when the tanks, you know, went through the Tiananmen Street.
GELLERMAN: You were in jail.
QING: I was in jail. One person, one small cell.
GELLERMAN: And what were the charges against you?
QING: No charge. Just detain.
GELLERMAN: And why’d they let you go?
QING: Because no evidence. It’s very difficult to charge me. And everybody knows the true reason I was arrested [was] because I show my different opinion about Three Gorges project.
GELLERMAN: By you talking to me, and us broadcasting this conversation…
GELLERMAN: You go back to Beijing. Are you afraid?
QING: I can say right now I have lost almost everything. I have no medical insurance, I have nothing. Only I insisted that live in Beijing and just watch what kind of policy, what kind of things they are going to do. So, you know, maybe people will think that I give my opinion frankly and then I’ll face a very dangerous situation. My answer is, my situation is dangerous enough.
GELLERMAN: Would they put you in jail again?
QING: I don’t think so. I don’t think so, because right now the prison is already full of corrupted officials already. I don’t think there’s enough room for liberal independent intellectuals.
GELLERMAN: So, DQ, why do you still stay in China then?
QING: I’m Chinese. This is my motherland. And I’m a writer. My reader is in mainland China so I have to stay with them, suffer with them, fight with them. So this is my choice.
GELLERMAN: DQ, thank you for coming in.
QING: Thank you for giving me the chance to share my opinion.
GELLERMAN: Dai Qing’s book is called "The River Dragon Has Come."
International Rivers Network
GELLERMAN: So far, nearly all of China’s industrial development has taken place along its eastern coast. But recently, the central government has been pushing investors westward into the interior, underdeveloped provinces. This "go west" policy has, in just a few short years, turned the backwater city of Chengdu into a hi-tech boomtown. Jean Kumagai visited the city and has this reporter’s notebook.
[CITY SOUNDS; FLUTE MUSIC]
KUMAGAI: Chengdu isn’t on the way to or from anywhere. It’s in the middle of a wide, flat plain at the foothills of the Himalayas, 900 miles southwest of Beijing, a thousand miles northwest of Shanghai. Early on in its 2,400-year history, it was renown for its silk brocades, lively trade and intellectual life. But with the fall of the Shu Dynasty in the third century, Chengdu became a sleepy provincial backwater. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they sited their most sensitive military work here because it’s so cut off from the world.
KUMAGAI: Then, five or six years ago, the Beijing government launched the Western Development Strategy. Billions of dollars flowed into the hinterlands, extending new highways, rail lines, international airports and telecom links. Hundreds of multinationals flocked to Chengdu and the city was reborn.
I’d wondered what life was like in this sprawling city of 11 million at the literal frontier of China’s tech revolution. I figured I’d find a wild, freewheeling, anything-goes kind of place. Instead, I found darkness.
[CHINESE BROADCAST, THEN BLANK SIGNAL; AUTOMOBILE SOUNDS]
KUMAGAI: It was close to midnight on a Saturday, and I rode in a leather-upholstered sedan, exhausted and jet-lagged, on my way from the airport to the hotel. I gazed out the window only half-seeing the place. And then it hit me: there were no streetlights, no store lights, no lights at all. Just the darkened outlines of apartment buildings and office complexes stretching on for mile after mile like a modern day ghost town. Except for the car’s two headlights on the road, it was utterly dark.
KUMAGAI: Later I learned that, like every major city in China, Chengdu doesn’t have enough electricity to go around. Though the province boasts an abundance of natural gas and hydropower, its electricity is shipped back to the power-starved east coast. Chengdu suffers blackouts for two to five days every week.
[PERCUSSION SOUND; CITY SOUNDS]
KUMAGAI: By day, Chengdu was sunny and warm. The wide avenue in front of my hotel was packed with shoppers streaming in and out of gleaming indoor malls, checking out the latest from Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Esprit. Young women chatted on cell phones, young men packed the video arcades, young couples laughed, nuzzled and walked arm-in-arm in a way that would have shocked earlier generations of straight-laced Communist youth.
KUMAGAI: Chengdu is a place full of right angles and contradictions. By night, it’s an eerie void. By day, a shopper’s paradise. I’d heard from city promoters all about Chengdu’s 29 universities and its half a million professionals, cheap and plentiful housing, a Carrefours hypermarket, and soon, a Wal-Mart; a shiny new airport with direct flights to Tokyo and Paris, good air, clean water, and the Himalayas at your doorstep.
KUMAGAI: We drove to an industrial park where dozens of multinationals have set up shop. This area had all been farmland once, and amid the wide, well-paved boulevards and corporate complexes, I spotted some crumbling stone houses, many of them still occupied. These were probably the original inhabitants, their land and livelihood gobbled up by Chengdu’s rapid rise.
A few months earlier, in another city in Szechwan, a similar land-grab had triggered a massive protest. Tens of thousands of displaced farmers seized the local government headquarters and held the Communist Party chief hostage. But when I asked about the farmers in Chengdu, and even pointed at them from the car window, the promoters just shook their heads. Nobody lives here now, they said.
[CELL PHONE RINGING]
KUMAGAI: When I needed to get a new SIM card for my cell phone, the bellboy at the hotel directed me to a street just around the corner. "Any particular store," I asked him. "No, no, it’s all cell phones," he said.
KUMAGAI: And so it was. The city’s bustling cell phone district offered store after store, block after block, and thousands of models of gleaming new cell phones. Trying to escape the crowds, I ducked down a back alley. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found a parallel universe – an enormous second-hand bazaar entirely devoted to cell phones. Hundreds of vendors sat cheek-by-jowl, their battered wares arrayed on narrow card tables. In nearby stalls eagle-eyed technicians hunched over jewelers benches making precision repairs.
[MAN SPEAKING CHINESE]
KUMAGAI: The owner of one repair shop told me that he turns a monthly profit of 10,000 Yuan, or about 1,200 dollars. That day, he had five guys working for him. Assuming they split the profits equally, which they probably didn’t, they each took home about 200 dollars a month. Workers don’t get health care, or a pension, or paid vacation; those things went away years ago when the Communist government began embracing capitalism for real. More than a few Chinese people I met joked to me that the U.S. today, with its social security and Medicare, is more communist than China.
[CROWD NOISE, VENDORS TALKING ABOUT WARES]
KUMAGAI: In the end, I stopped trying to tease through Chengdu’s many contradictions and, instead, embraced the one thing that for me remained absolutely, unvaryingly good and true: the food. Szechwan is known the world over for its fiery cuisine, and no matter where or what I ate in Chengdu, I always ate like an empress. I had one of the best meals of my life in a state-run dumpling house. Sitting on a hard bench surrounded by office workers and students, I feasted on a 75 cent bowl of tender meat dumplings floating in an oily, spicy sauce. I still think about those dumplings, probably more often than I should say. For Living on Earth, I’m Jean Kumagai.
GELLERMAN: Jean Kumagai is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of IEEE Spectrum magazine. To find out more about Chengdu, and other hi-tech transformations in China, visit our website - Living on Earth dot org.
IEEE Spectrum's "China's Tech Revolution" article
[WATER, FROG SOUNDS]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in the dangerous world of Poison Dart Frogs.
[EARTH EAR: "Poison Dart Frog Species Montage" recorded by Darren Meyer and Dave E. Stiles from "Sounds of Poison Dart Frogs of Central and South America" (Ribbit Recordings – 2005)]
GELLERMAN: These sometimes fatal amphibians inhabit South and Central America. Darren Meyer and Dave E. Stiles recorded and mixed this collection of their calls.
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, Kelley Cronin, and James Curwood. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Allison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org.
I’m Bruce Gellerman. Steve Curwood returns next week. Thanks for listening.
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