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

December 3, 1993

Air Date: December 3, 1993


Cow Waste and Artifical Wetlands / Lorna Jordan

Lorna Jordan of member station WVXU reports on artificial wetland used to clean up agricultural runoff in LaGrange County, Indiana. Animal waste can contaminate water sources, but by first sending it through constructed wetlands, about forty percent of phosphates and nitrites on this farm are safely filtered out. (05:08)

Permaculture / Deborah Begel

Producer Deborah Begel travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Basalt Mountain, Colorado to examine an emerging approach to agriculture known as permaculture. Permaculture is a holistic method of growing food which combines agriculture, husbandry and careful engineering to create a low-waste, ecologically-viable system. (08:41)

Toward a Greener Commerce

Host Steve Curwood talks with author and businessman Paul Hawken about creating an environmentally sustainable system of commerce and trade for the planet. Hawken believes that we can create an ecologically- sound global economy by taxing environmentally harmful goods and activities and imposing trade sanctions on countries with poor ecological habits. (05:42)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c)1993 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
REPORTERS: Steve Hershberg, Thomas Lalley, Mike Shatz, Lorna Jordan, Deborah Begel
GUESTS: Paul Hawken

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Permaculture - permanent agriculture. It's a wholistic, sustainable approach to organic farming that's growing in popularity.

MACK: In permaculture we have the philosophy that we are in heaven; we've been given on the earth everything we need and if we take care of the earth first, we can take care of everybody that lives here.

CURWOOD: Also, The Ecology of Commerce, businessman Paul Hawken's call for a radical change in the relationship between our economic and tax system and the environment.

HAWKEN: Right now, you and I unintentionally destroy the world. We get up, go to work, we shop, we go home, we take care of our families and the world is the worse for it. What I'm suggesting is, wouldn't it be interesting to have an industrial system where we do the same thing and the world actually gets better?

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, first this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The amount of radioactivity released from one of the country's dirtiest nuclear weapons plants was seriously under-reported, according to Federal officials. The Centers for Disease Control says the Fernald Nuclear Weapons Plant - near Cincinnati - released three times more radiation than previously reported by the Energy Department. Steve Hershberg of member station WVXU has more.

HERSHBERG: The CDC says the Fernald Uranium Processing Plant outside Cincinnati released a million pounds of uranium into the air between 1951 and 1988. The document says the largest releases of uranium came from the dust filters which failed on a routine basis in the 1950s and 1960s. The study also showed that over 200,000 pounds of uranium leaked into the nearby Great Miami River over the same period. The figures will be used to estimate the doses received by individuals. Those results in turn will be used to study possible health effects. Regardless of what these studies show, residents say neighbors of the plant are dying from cancer. They have tracked higher disease rates in the path of the wind and water runoff from the plant. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Hershberg in Cincinnati.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, an internal Department of Energy report says the agency pays a third more than market rates to clean up radioactive wastes at nuclear weapons plants. The report has led the DOE to tighten its oversight of private cleanup contractors. Thomas Lalley reports.

LALLEY: The Energy Department has a long history of getting bilked out of billions of dollars by private contractors. But if new Assistant Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbley has his way, 1,600 contracted workers will be replaced by Federal employees who will keep an eye on cleanup costs. Currently, expenditures are exorbitant compared with private industry and other Federal agencies. That's according to the new Energy Department report, which also says that half of DOE's contractors at nuclear weapons sites run over their budget. Almost all projects take longer than anticipated, and DOE spends more than twice as much on management and overhead than other government agencies. This year, DOE will pay 4.5 billion dollars to clean up nuclear weapons plant sites in 12 states. The work is expected to take decades. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Washington.

NUNLEY: Farmers will have an extra year to use the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide. The EPA says the extension to the year 2001 will allow growers to find a substitute for the farm chemical. Some environmental activists see the move as a payback to Florida representatives for their votes in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but others say the decision was made months ago.

After decades of lending almost entirely to governments for mega-development projects, the World Bank says it will start funnelling money to families and individuals to start businesses. The change in lending strategy for the World Bank comes with a report acknowledging what many anti-poverty activists had argued for years - that there is enough food to feed everybody on earth, but that millions are just too poor to afford it.

This is Living on Earth.

The US Supreme Court will take another look at the conflict between property rights and environmental regulations. The court will hear the case of an Oregon businesswoman who was required to set aside part of her land for open space and other public uses before being allowed to expand her store. The store owner says the restrictions amount to a "taking" of her property without compensation. State courts in Oregon ruled that the requirements are constitutional. Last year the Supreme Court issued an ambiguous decision in another case pitting a property owner against environmental regulations.

A Japanese court has awarded nearly two million dollars to three dozen victims of one of the world's most infamous toxic dumping cases. The decision could finally clear the way for compensation of thousands of aging victims of a rare form of mercury poisoning, known as Minamata disease. From Tokyo, Mike Shatz reports.

SHATZ: The disease is named for the southern port city of Minimata, where residents were poisoned by fish contaminated with organic mercury in the 1950s. Some 13,000 Minimata residents claim to have suffered severe paralysis and other symptoms since the incurable disease was first reported in 1956. In the latest ruling the court said the central and local governments failed to adequately monitor Minimata Bay for contaminants. It also said the Chiso company, which dumped the mercury, should have known the danger. After years of stonewalling, the government may now move to settle with more than 2,000 others seeking compensation. Prime Minister Morihito Hosokawa, whose home district includes Minimata City, is also reportedly eager to close the book on Japan's most notorious pollution case. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: Researchers at Cornell University have found a strong link between fiberglass and other common workplace fibers and workplace health problems such as eye, throat and skin irritations. But the researchers found no connection between sick building symptoms and such common suspects as formaldehyde and cigarette smoke. The study said frequent vacuuming and air filtering reduced the risk of symptoms.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Cow Waste and Artifical Wetlands

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

When one thinks of farming, it's not hard to conjure up a bucolic image, complete with fresh air, green fields and bountiful crops. So the notion that farming is a major cause of pollution can be jarring. But in fact some farming methods do dump significant amounts of pollutants into the ground and waterways. Some comes from pesticides, but a good deal comes from animal wastes, loaded at times with dangerous bacteria. Agricultural runoff is at the top of the list of reforms as Congress considers reauthorizing the Clean Water Act. In LaGrange County, Indiana, a group of researchers has responded to the challenge with an experimental natural treatment system which they hope will catch on with farmers around the country. Lorna Jordan of member station WVXU has our report.

JORDAN: The 100 head of Jersey cattle on Rodney Taylor's Norwood Farms in LaGrange County, Indiana, produce 140 hundred gallons of milk every day. The cows also produce something else - politely called animal runoff. The residue used to flow through a four-foot gully which drained into Appleman Lake on the edge of the farm. But now, three tiny wetlands lie between the barn and the lake. Farmer Rodney Taylor says the wetland may look like an ordinary gully, but it's cleaning the water flowing into Appleman Lake.

TAYLOR: It's doing the job. It is working. You know, the water that goes through there, which is rather yucky looking, ends up as pretty decent water going into the pond.

JORDAN: Wetlands like this could be one of the solutions to the growing threat of farm pollution. This farm was chosen, in part, because of the high levels of nitrates and phosphates found in the lake. Runoff from this farm is probably the cause of that pollution, and in time it produces so much plant growth that the lake would choke.

DUBOWY: In many places agricultural runoff is one of the principle factors contributing to pollution of surface and groundwater.

JORDAN: Dr. Paul DuBowy is a professor of wildlife ecology at Purdue University. He designed this wetland.

DUBOWY: What you're seeing in these constructed wetlands really isn't very different from your typical sewage treatment plant. The same biological processes that happen in a municipal plant are the same ones that are happening right here.

JORDAN: DuBowy says the wetlands clean the water with specially-picked plants. First the manure settles in a cement holding pond. Then the contaminated water is pumped into the wetlands, where the plants convert the nitrates and nitrites into food and allow the nitrogen gas to escape into the air. Most of the phosphorus settles onto the bottom of the ditch or adheres to the plants. Finally the cleaned water is released into the lake at the other end of the wetlands. DuBowy says tests have shown that this wetland reduces the amount of phosphates and nitrites by about 40%. Russell Baker is the District Water Conservationist in LaGrange County.

BAKER: One of the reasons we's looking at this wetland is we are looking at alternative facilities, or alternative treatment facilities. So many of our facilities now are things where they'll store the manure but you still have to deal with it later. Whereas this here, you got the runoff, it goes through the wetland cells, hopefully gets treated, and then you can just discharge it. You don't have to worry about it again. Now, you still may have to worry about the solids, but his certainly could help.

JORDAN: In a wetland system like the one on Norwood Farms, the solid animal waste is scraped out of the holding pond and spread on the fields. Although this may be a major step forward in fighting farm pollution problems, it's only a partial solution. This wetland project is designed to attack contamination created by animal waste, not farm chemicals.
In addition to treating farm runoff, the project developers are hoping the wetland will attract birds and other wildlife. But area farmers are worried that the wetlands will attract the wrong kinds of animals, such as mosquitoes. But that shouldn't be the case if the wetlands are built right with the water flowing properly through the system. Similar projects attached to municipal sewage treatment plants have not proven to be magnets for mosquitoes.
Another problem is expenses. This wetland was funded by a $30,000 grant, and farmer Rodney Taylor says the high cost could be an obstacle.

TAYLOR: I didn't have $30,000, no, to put into this. That's the whole problem with this type of project. You've gotta have help from somewhere else. You know, farming these days, there's not that kind of money just available for the use of what we would consider... It's really not gonna put money back in our pockets.

JORDAN: But the cost of doing nothing could be even higher - pollution or high-tech water treatment plants. Before long, farmers may not have these choices. Lawmakers are concerned about this kind of non-point source pollution, and may enforce stricter water treatment standards for farms. For Living on Earth, this is Lorna Jordan.

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(music up and under)


CURWOOD: For many farmers, the search for sustainable methods of agriculture goes beyond addressing problems of animal waste and chemical runoff. Other practices that are being used more and more often include organic farming, rotational grazing, and the move away from single-crop cultivation. But perhaps no new approach is as broad and holistic as permaculture. That's the shorthand expression for permanent agriculture, a sustainable, organic system of farming that relies on a web of interdependent crops and livestock, and a relatively low amount of careful human input. Permaculture farms are sprouting all over the world. Producer Deborah Begel visited two such farms in New Mexico and Colorado and filed this report.

BEGEL: At a desert ranch outside Santa Fe, members of New Mexico's Youth Ecology Corps are working in the hot sun beside an adobe tool shed. Some are mixing cement for greenhouse foundations. Others are building a frame for a new water tank. Jessie MacDonald is working on a system to capture and distribute water, a scarce resource here in the desert Southwest.

MACDONALD: A lot of time people build their gutters so that all the water just dumps right off into a certain spot, and it really doesn't get used by anything. So one of the things that we're working on out here is to build a cistern system which will catch and hold the water so we can use it to feed our plants and crops and whatnot in the dry season.

BEGEL: MacDonald and the other corps members are adapting this 200-year-old ranch to a new type of agriculture known as "permaculture" - short for permanent agriculture. It's based on a relatively simple premise - that the only way to organize an agriculture system that's truly sustainable, or permanent, is to cut back on the use of human inputs and technology and make the most out of the resources nature has provided. Thomas Mack is teaching the corps members both carpentry and permaculture techniques.

MACK: Permaculture is about how we can create a sustainable human habitat, take care of the earth, take care of plants and animals, and take care of people in a way that will do little damage to the earth and sustain us in a life of abundance.

BEGEL: Mack says permaculture begins with organic farming - growing food without any artificial chemical inputs - but it doesn't end there. It relies on innovations in design and engineering, and on such modern technologies as passive solar energy and drip agriculture. The cornerstone of permaculture is observation - watching for patterns and relationships in nature, noticing which plants thrive together and where, working with the landscape rather than trying to tame it. And it shuns modern practices like reliance on annual crops that have to be replanted every year. Thomas Mack.

MACK: We like to emphasize the use of perennial crops, which will continue to return year after year, and to put our crops into a mix so that we've got tree crops, vine crops, herb level crops, bush level, and ground cover crops to get a multiplicity, a diversity and more abundant yields so we use three dimensionality in our systems to create high yields.

BEGEL: The basic principles of permaculture are broad guidelines and meant to be adaptable to any of the world's microclimates.

(Sound of grain being shoveled)

BEGEL: It's 7 a.m., and it's time to feed the chickens at Jerome Osentowski's farm near Aspen, Colorado. Osentowski grows salad greens and starter plants on a steep, high-altitude farm on Basalt Mountain. When he designed his chicken coop, Osentowski put one of permaculture's major premises to work - that by careful design and placement, he could organize animals, plants, and even buildings on his farm to perform several functions at once. For example, he wanted his chickens to provide meat and eggs. But he also realized they were a source of heat, so he built his chicken coop on the west wall of the greenhouse, with a door between the two that he could open up at night. He then got still another use out of his chickens - he arranged for them to help him build his soil.

OSENTOWSKI: The straw yard here is about 30 or 40 feet by 12 feet wide and it's on a sloping gradient, and so that as they work this material through, picking and shredding and manuring on it, it moves down the whole slope and deposits down at the very bottom. And it turns into very nice compost. So we're using gravity and chickens to make compost.

BEGEL: About four times a year, Osentowski opens up a gate at the bottom of the chicken yard and hauls out about 4 cubic yards of rich compost. After a tour of the farm, Osentowski pulls out a slide projector and ten years of permaculture's radical approach to farming unfold in photographs. Osentowski shuns monocropping and planting in rows, because he believes these practices damage the soil and create a greater need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, Osentowski advocates planting in what he calls "guilds." A guild is a symbiotic association of plants in which one plant is the center and several others provide services for that plant.

OSENTOWSKI: So here we have an apple tree, it's sort of the center of this guild, and then we have comfrey, it's on the drip line that helps keep the grasses away, we have nasturtiums and chives and fennel, all these insectarary plants, and then we have the acacia as a nitrogen-fixing tree. So these are the sorts of things, we're looking at nature, how nature would set up the wild guilds and then we can come back and do them with more commercially-valuable plants.

BEGEL: So far, few exponents of "conventional agriculture" have paid much attention to permaculture. But Gary Cunningham, an associate dean of agriculture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, says permaculture does have lessons to offer the world of agribusiness.

CUNNINGHAM: The techniques that are involved in permaculture and other sustainable agricultural practices are going to be very useful in teaching us some things about how we can adapt commercial-scale agriculture, maintaining mineral nutrients on the land, conserving water, and reducing our use of energy and chemical inputs.

BEGEL: Although permaculture is primarily a new approach to growing food, its advocates urge a social vision as well, one that calls for organizing communities to provide food, energy and other needs locally. Permaculture designers, as they call themselves, are constantly on the lookout for better ways to conserve water and energy and recycle wastes.

(MACK: "OK , let's gather and figure out what our status is with the project and what to do for today..." fade under)

BEGEL: Back at the ranch outside Santa Fe, teacher Thomas Mack gathers his students for a noontime break under the canopy of 200-year-old black walnut trees. He says permaculture offers an opportunity to turn back what he views as society's collision course toward self-destruction.

MACK: As we observe the processes and functions of nature, we can begin to adapt and model our own lives, our technology, and our human settlement in a way that conforms with nature's cycles and patterns, and work cooperatively rather than imposing our own will on the land. In permaculture, we have the philosophy that we are in heaven; we've been given on the earth everything that we need and if we take care of the earth first, we can take care of everybody that lives here.

BEGEL: Adapting permaculture to take care of everyone who lives on the earth is a long way from reality. But it is beginning to catch on. Farmers and gardeners are already applying permaculture's techniques in small pockets of more than 160 countries, including several 2,000-acres farms in Australia. For Living on Earth,
this is Deborah Begel in Santa Fe.

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(music up)

Toward a Greener Commerce

CURWOOD: The economy versus the environment. It's a conflict that resounds around the world as countries and communities try to reconcile the desire for economic growth and development with the need to protect natural resources and public health. But many environmentalists and businesspeople have been saying in recent years that it's a false split; that the economy and the environment needn't be - in fact ultimately can't afford to be - viewed separately.

Paul Hawken is one such person. He's a highly successful businessman who's just published a book called The Ecology of Commerce. He says we must recognize the environment is a key part of our economy. And that while our natural resources are absolutely vital to our survival, our commercial and tax systems don't give people any incentive to protect them.

HAWKEN: Right now, you and I unintentionally destroy the world. We get up, go to work, we shop, we go home, we take care of our families and the world is worse for it. What I'm suggesting is, wouldn't it be interesting to have an industrial system where we do the same thing and the world actually gets better? Right now, conservation restoration are basically for upper middle class white people. That's who can afford to conserve. Unless the cheapest alternative is the conservative, restorative one, it's not going to happen. So what I propose is to scrap the tax system altogether.

CURWOOD: Get rid of the tax system altogether?

HAWKEN: Well, yes, taxes on employment, payrolls, salaries, profits, business - all things we supposedly encourage in economic terms.


HAWKEN: And phase in "green fees" on fossil fuels, coal, pesticides, herbicides, virgin materials, water mined from the Oklahoma Aquifer, and other activities that are basically going to cost us more in the future if we don't pay for them now in real terms, full cost accounting. Then the cheaper products become the one that are renewable, that are sustainable, that have a conservation ethic to them, so that your incentive to save is going to lead us to a more sustainable world.

CURWOOD: This sounds like a revolution. How do you take the first steps here? What do you do? And what are some examples that you can give us of everyday business decisions that are working in this positive feedback loop that you feel we should have?

HAWKEN: Well, Germany basically is instituting what I describe in the book as the intelligent product system, where basically there are only two types of products. Either products you literally throw away - I know this sounds heretical when you talk about the environment - but you throw them away, they completely degrade back into dirt. And there's no toxins or metals or persistent or biocumulative chemicals inside them. The other types of products are called products of service, which we know as durables - TVs, radios, cars, refrigerators. And what the Germans are instituting and mandating right now is if you make a durable product it's yours. You can let a consumer use it indefinitely, like a license, but when he or she is done with it, it has to go back to you. You must take it back. And you can throw away nothing. So the Germans are designing their automobiles to have value when they come back. BMW, for example, has reduced the number of plastics from 400 to 13 and is creating a revolution in chemistry and materials composition in assembly techniques which are actually making them economic, more efficient, increasing the amount of employment per car, and so you have essentially a win-win situation. Less stuff, more employment.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about a number of examples of true costs not being respected. I'm wondering how your concept deals with the global inequity of the distribution of wealth - that it's been built up primarily by paying a very low price for Third World materials - let's say, raw timber - and then collecting a very high price when these goods are sold back to these countries, gradually impoverishing them.

HAWKEN: That's an excellent question. In Rio, Agenda 21, all the nations agreed in principle that they would move toward sustainable development with no means whatsoever to accomplish that. One of the means we have at our disposal is the tariff system. And what we should have is a most sustainable nation tariff system as opposed to a most favored nation tariff system. Those countries that destroy native cultures, that exploit child labor, that are clear-cutting the Amazon, or what have you, would have such prohibitive tariffs on their products that there would be no incentive to continue those practices.

CURWOOD: How does the NAFTA agreement compare to your views here?

HAWKEN: There's many good things in the NAFTA agreement - it's not, you know, black or white. But there's a very deep flaw in it, which is we are holding up a model of prosperity to the rest of the world, not just the Mexicans, that is absolutely unattainable. 20 percent of the industrial world's population consumes 80 percent of the world's resources. If the rest of the 80 percent of the world emulates us, the world is stripped down bare, gone. And so therefore what NAFTA does is basically sort of tell a lie, which says, 'You can do what we have done and we're gonna open up the border, reduce the tariffs, and have free trade.' You know, it's a nice thing. But free trade that perpetuates an industrial system that destroys in the very act of manufacturing, that creates more pollution than we're possibly gonna mitigate is really leading ourselves and our trading partners down the wrong path.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Paul Hawken is the author of The Ecology of Commerce. Thank you.

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(music up and under)

CURWOOD: 1994 is rapidly approaching, and we at Living on Earth want to be ready. That's why we'll be airing a feature in several weeks looking to the new year and making some predictions about the environmental times ahead. We'll be talking with journalists and activists and researchers - and we'd also like to hear from you. What do you hope or fear abut the coming year when it comes to the people, politics, science, economics - you name it - of environmental change? What kind of issues are emerging in your neighborhood, your region, the parts of the world you care about? Let us know, and your thoughts might end up on the air. Give us a call or write us a letter with your eco-prediction for 1994. Our listener line number is 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Please be sure to give a telephone number where we can reach you during the day. Transcripts and tapes are also available through the same address and phone number. The cost is ten dollars each.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Jan Nunley, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Andrea Cassola, Jessica Bellameera and engineers Laurie Azaria, Karen Given and Doug Haslam. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; by all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy; by the Pew Charitable Trusts; and by the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Support also comes from the Joyce Foundation and the Great Lakes Protection Fund for reporting on the Great Lakes Region.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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