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Our World Transcript — 28 October 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Health experts fear that a major influenza pandemic could kill millions of people worldwide and cripple the global economy. Since 2003, the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus has spread to nine countries, largely in Asia and Africa. It has wreaked havoc on the poultry industry and killed 150 people.

But should the virus mutate and spread more easily among humans, the consequences are difficult to predict.

What plans should a country make and how can a nation prevent widespread death and economic collapse?

New computer models based on a history of 20th century pandemics are helping to answer those questions.

Brookings Institution economist Joshua Epstein works with a specialized information network known as MIDAS, short for Modeling of Infectious Disease Agent Study. He says its computer models - a project of the National Institutes of Health - provide an orderly framework in which to understand how global pandemics play out in the real world.

EPSTEIN: "We need models to try to capture the global flow of people by air and other means, the transmission within large cities, and we can calibrate these models to historical cases. We can reconstruct true epidemics in these models and claim some credibility for them."

Since 2004, the MIDAS network has been focused on an outbreak of pandemic influenza in Southeast Asia. Its findings show that a variety of public health strategies -- including distribution of antivirals, school closings and quarantine -- if implemented early - could contain an outbreak at its source.

Warwick McKibbin with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia has developed another model that explores the effect a flu pandemic would have on the global economy. He says spread of the deadly H5N1 virus would lead to a number of severe economic shocks.

MCKIBBIN: "When people get sick or die, the labor supply changes. That changes the capacity of the economy to produce. It disrupts production. Another shock is that industry has to take some sort of action and that usually raises cost. A third important issue is that people change their behavior a lot. So they will stop going to open areas where they may interact with infected people. And so people shift what they spend, where they spend. They stay at home more often."

McKibbin says that in terms of gross domestic product, or G.D.P., a global pandemic could spark staggering economic losses.

MCKIBBIN: "For the U.S. - .6% of GDP (Gross National Product) - for the mild case, for the world .8% of GDP."

That's approximately 330 billion dollars in lost economic output. McKibbin says as the scale of the pandemic increases, so do the economic costs.

MCKIBBIN: "For the most severe - the ultra scenario - we had over 4.4 trillion dollars wiped off the world economy (and) 140 million people killed."

McKibbin says developing countries would be hardest hit.

MCKIBBIN: "Because they don't have the capacity to respond. Their conditions … density of populations, living conditions, health systems are unable to respond. And these are the countries that don't have the economic resources to prevent an economic outbreak in their own economies."

Warrick McKibbin says the enormous cost of a global pandemic raises the question whether enough is being spent to prevent an outbreak.

MCKIBBIN: "I don't think we are. We certainly are not spending enough in developing countries in public health systems, for example. Because by the time this pandemic influenza breaks out and most likely breaks out in Asia, you can't stop it at the border."

McKibbin says based on his model, the resources needed to contain the spread of avian influenza are far less than the costs that will be incurred after a pandemic strikes.

BRIDGE

In the upcoming mid-term elections for the U.S. Congress, all seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of those in the Senate are being contested. According to many experts, the races are tight and the now-minority Democrat party could win a majority of seats in both houses and re-take control of Congress from the Republican Party.

Here's how the environment is playing as a political issue leading up to November 7th.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg Poll, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the Bush Administration is handling the environment. In the same poll, 47 percent also say that the environment would NOT be a factor in their vote in the midterm Congressional elections.

RABE: "There's not a lot of evidence this year or in recent years to suggest that environmental issues are top-of-the-line drivers of elections. Probably [they are] somewhere in the middle of the pack unless there is a particular concern in a specific state or a region."

That's Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. He says the Iraq war, national security, the economy and immigration are commanding most voter attention. But he says Americans' environmental concerns ARE being reflected in numerous local and state ballot initiatives.

RABE: "There is one in Washington [state] that would mandate and increase the amount of renewable energy provided over time. It is a policy that is already in operation in over 20 states."

Rabe says that candidates across the political spectrum are campaigning on environmentally friendly policies in order to address important new economic realities facing the electorate:

RABE: "There are large industrial states like Pennsylvania that have a lot of environmental issues where candidates from both parties are beginning to argue that there are some new opportunities in environmental protection to develop new energy technologies, new energy efficiency mechanisms, to be on the cutting edge of the next generation of environmental protection and embed that into state economic development strategies."

Rabe says that when it comes to responding to the prospect of global climate change, states have stepped in where the federal government has failed to act.

Twelve states have set goals to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, which trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, and are a major factor in global warming. Twenty-eight states have climate action plans. And California and New York have agreed [October 17th] on a carbon-trading partnership that would link greenhouse-gas credit markets in Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, to spread out the cost of emission reductions.

Rabe says industries frustrated by inconsistent state-by-state energy standards could begin to push for legislation that would regulate their industry.

RABE: "There is an enormous precedent for this, not just in environmental policy, but in many other spheres."

And doing so, Rabe says would promote an environmental agenda with an unlikely coalition of partners.

RABE: "In some cases industry might want some degree of consistency, predictability, uniformity [of standards or regulations] alongside environmental and other groups that we normally would not think of as allies, but could in fact become allies."

While these alliance gain momentum, Rabe says votes for candidates friendly to the environment could help change the agenda in Congress. The League of Conservation Voters is pushing for exactly that.

The non-partisan group ranks environmental voting records for each member of congress and then publishes the scores. LCV spokesman Tony Massaro says the group has singled out the worst of the so-called "Dirty Dozen" lawmakers:

MASSARO: "We run independent expenditures to unseat people who have been named to the Dirty Dozen. Over the course of the past five election cycles, since 1996, 52 percent of the members of the "Dirty Dozen" have been defeated in the subsequent election. So if you get on the list of the "Dirty Dozen," odds are you are going to lose. We are very proud of that record at a time when 96 percent of incumbents have been re-elected."

It is not clear whether a candidate's stand on the environment will make a difference with voters in the November 7th elections. But University of Michigan political scientist Barry Rabe says with so many close races, almost any issue that brings more voters to the polls could change the outcome - and possibly alter the balance of political power in Washington.

Outside Washington and the halls of Congress more than 300 mayors from 46 states have signed an agreement to reduce the industrial greenhouse gas emissions that have been linked to global warming. Their goal is to meet the targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. climate change treaty that took effect last year -- without the participation of the U.S. government.

San Francisco has its own climate action plan, which since 2004 has made changes in city transit and has promoted energy conservation measures among government agencies, city businesses and consumers.

Just this week a new power plant went 'on line' on the University of California Davis campus. But there's no coal or natural gas fueling its generators. This plant is powered by organic waste including food - table scraps from San Francisco Bay Area restaurants. Tamara Keith explains.

KEITH: At Boulevard, an upscale restaurant on the San Francisco waterfront, diners lunch on seared sea scallops, paella and pan roasted halibut among other options. Back in the kitchen, cooks and waiters are careful to keep the food scraps separate from the rest of the trash. The food scraps from this restaurant and 2-thousand others in the area are already being collected to turn into compost. But now some of that waste, about 8 metric tons a week, is going to a new biogas power plant at U-C Davis. Boulevard chef Tim Quaintance says he's pleased that his leftovers aren't just going to a landfill.

QUAINTANCE: "It's nice that in the past things that have basically been thrown away are now actually being used and with this technology really contributing to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels."

KEITH: The experimental food-fueled power plant is known as the Biogas Energy Project. With its four large steel tanks and 22-kilowatt generator, it is the first real-world demonstration of a technique called anaerobic phased solids digestion. U.C.-Davis professor of biological and agricultural engineering Ruihong Zhang developed the technology.

ZHANG: "What you see here is 20,000 times larger than the reactor system I use for laboratory testing."

KEITH: Turning leftovers into power may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but Dave Konwinski says it's real. He's head of Onsite Power Systems Incorporated, which licensed the technology and will operate the on-campus plant

KONWINSKI: "Every ton of collected food waste will provide enough either electrical or thermal energy to run an average of 10 California homes.

KEITH: Konwinski sees this test plant as the first step to commercializing biogas power plants. Here's how it works. The food waste from the Bay Area - as well as grass clippings and other would-be-trash - go into a sealed tank where bacteria break everything down into water and organic acids...essentially speeding up the natural process of decay. When that's done, the organic acids are pumped into another tank where different bacteria convert the soup into methane gas. Konwinski says that's where the power comes from.

KONWINSKI: "Biogas can be used in a generator, we have a generator we'll be running here...and we're looking at taking the gas and converting it into vehicle fuels."

KEITH: If this technology proves to be commercially viable, and gets widespread acceptance the results could be huge. Not only does it promise to keep tons of garbage out of landfills, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and diminish America's reliance on foreign oil. Suddenly leaving a little broccoli on your plate doesn't seem like such a bad thing. For Our World, I'm Tamara Keith, in Davis, California.

BRIDGE, "FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE"

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences finds that important pollinators like birds and bats and bees are in sharp decline. In the last two decades the number of honeybees has fallen by twenty percent due mainly to disease and overuse of pesticides. Many important crop plants and fruit trees cannot produce normally without the honeybee to spread their pollen. The authors are calling for stepped up measures to monitor and protect the insects.

Our knowledge of the honeybee took a giant leap this week, with the announcement by an international consortium of scientists that it has deciphered the insect's genetic blueprint, or genome. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the scientists hope the work will enhance our ability to protect one of the most ecologically important creatures on the earth.

BERMAN: Almost in a class by itself, the western honeybee has evolved from a loner into a complex model for social behavior. The honeybee lives in a hive of thousands of bees in a strict social order. Through pollination, honeybees are also an essential part of global food production.

ROBINSON: "This is the first genome sequenced of a social insect to be presented and analyzed. Social insects have been extremely important in biology because they exhibit the most extreme form of social behavior that's known."

BERMAN: That's Gene Robinson, one of the lead authors of the paper describing the honeybee genome sequence project published in the journal Nature. In an interview with the editors of Nature, Robinson, who is with the University of Illinois in Urbana, says there are a number of reasons why it is important to understand the molecular structure of the honeybee, which appears to have transformed over millions of years to a highly evolved creature.

Humans, too, are highly evolved, and scientists believe clues about bee behavior might explain human traits. For example, researchers say both bees and humans have genes that encode a circadian rhythm - an innate sense of day and night. In the case of bees, the scientists think this makes honeybees more efficient at gathering food. Robinson says the bees have more genes that encode the sense of smell than other insects.

ROBINSON: "A lot of their social life is coordinated by odors, in particular by pheromones. The way they collect food, forage for food out in the field, find flowers, is by odor of the flowers."

BERMAN: Scientists say pheromones secreted by bees also determine their place within a complicated social order, including gender, age and caste. Robinson also says honeybees have fewer genes for taste than other insects, which, he speculates, helps them to avoid pesticides and plant diseases to find food.

ROBINSON: "Traits have evolved to attract them (bees) to the plant to effect pollination. So, you know, maybe they do not have to be so worried about their tasting. Now this is extending the findings a good deal into the realm of speculation. But this is the kind of filter that we wish to use in the future to sort of take the initial findings that we present here and explore exactly how they relate to bee life."

BERMAN: In a paper published at the same time in the journal Science, researchers analyzing the honeybee genome report every bee alive today had a common ancestor in Africa. Researchers say the bees spread to Europe in at least two ancient migrations. Also in Science, researchers describe the world's oldest bee fossil. Entomologist Brian Danforth, of Cornell University in New York says the fossil was found in a piece of Burmese amber believed to be 100-million years old, which would have made it an ancient ancestor of today's honeybee.

DANFORTH: "It is a very small bee. It is about three-millimeters long. It does have some of the attributes of modern bees, and some of those attributes are visible in the fossil. So, it has what looks like branched hairs; These are the fluffy hairs that bees have on their legs and all over their bodies that seem to be very good at picking up pollen."

But unlike evolved modern honeybees, Danforth thinks the ancient bee was a solitary creature that lived in the ground.

BRIDGE

Finally today, we take a journey with Indian American author and medical doctor Deepak Chopra. Chopra has made a career of answering some of life's hardest questions. In his latest book - Life After Death: The Burden of Proof - he uses scientific studies and ancient wisdom to argue his case for the afterlife.

Deepak Chopra has no doubts about the afterlife. "The idea that we have a fixed body locked in space and time is a mirage," he says. In Life After Death he writes: "Life's ultimate purpose is to discover who you are. After death, we see more clearly the goals to be attained."

DC: "We are the potential for memory, imagination, thought, feeling, emotions, desires, instincts, [and] drives. This is who we are and this is what projects as a mind, which then projects as a body, which then projects as the world."

RS: "Are you talking about the soul?"

DC: "This is our soul, yes. But the soul is not a thing. It is a process. It is a continuum. It is a dynamic constantly evolving bundle in consciousness."

Chopra takes the reader beyond the Christian concept of heaven or hell. He says the afterlife is fluid and open to infinite creative possibilities. Death, like birth is a miracle. Without it, he says, life would stagnate.

CHOPRA: "Anything that is beautiful is impermanent. Which would you prefer: a plastic rose or a real rose? So, as long as something is impermanent in form, it has a living essence, which we call the soul or intelligence or consciousness. So at the quantum level, the universe is being created and destroyed every moment at the speed of light."

In his latest book, Copra marries modern science and ancient wisdom to build his case for life after death.

CHOPRA: "In the book I cite six different areas. One is the extended mind experiments that have been done at Princeton [University]. The others were in the University of Arizona [where] researchers are looking how you can communicate with the consciousness of people who are not alive anymore. Others are doing research on out-of-body and near-death experiences, reincarnation [and] memories in children. These are the fertile areas of research."

But whether or not science can ever prove to us that there is an afterlife, Chopra says we can still benefit from letting go of the fear of death, and living our lif more fully.

CHOPRA: "First of all if you didn't have any fear, you would be much more present. Secondly, you would change your priorities. You would know what's important. You wouldn't waste your life on mundane, trivial unimportant things. You would spend time, a much more nurturing you would understand that we are inseparable from everything that exists, which would automatically make you more loving, compassionate, less hurtful to others."

In his new book, Life After Death, Deepak Chopra writes: "The human spirit is degraded when we confine ourselves to the span of a lifetime and the enclosure of a physical body. We are mind and spirit first," Chopra insists, "and that places our home beyond the stars."

OUR WORLD THEME

And, that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on "Our World."

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