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Our World — 27 December 2008


Straight ahead on "Our World" … Advice for President-elect Barack Obama’s Green Team … the delivery of woman’s health care in conflict areas of Burma … and problems recycling Big-City Trash:

MALEC-MCKENNA: “You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach for a city this diverse. You have got to come up with a range of different kind of program options for it. We’ll come up with the right mix.”

Sorting garbage in Chicago. That, and celebrating the 40th anniversary of man’s first voyage to the moon.

Hi! I’m Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to the holiday edition of VOA’s science and technology magazine, “Our World.”

Economic recovery and environmental protection hand-in-hand in '09

With less than a month before his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has fulfilled his promise to quickly name his cabinet and senior staff positions. At a news conference to announce members of his environment and energy team, President-elect Obama reiterated a familiar message from the campaign trail: His administration would tackle climate change and develop new forms of energy and new ways of using it.

OBAMA: “This will be a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time. We can’t afford compliancy, nor accept more broken promises. We won’t create a new energy economy overnight. We won’t protect our environment overnight, but we can begin that work right now if we think anew and if act anew.”

Environmentalists have some thoughts on how to do that. Late last month, 29 environmental advocacy organizations submitted a green action plan to the Obama transition team. The 391-page report addresses the dual goals of environmental protection and economic recovery, which National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger says are central to solving the nation’s problems.

SCHWEIGER: “I believe that what we need to do right now is to dig our way out of the financial hole that we are in right now with a green shovel by investing in emissions reductions and by investing in adaptation in the natural world in the face of climate change.”

Congress is expected to pass an economic stimulus package in the early days of the Obama administration. Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, says how the money is targeted will show how committed lawmakers are to green change.

LASH: “A key question from an environmental point of view is going to be how much of this is traditional public works and how much of it is an investment in building the low-carbon, high efficiency economy of the future. There is enormous pressure to pass a stimulus package that will get into the economy fast.”

Barack Obama campaigned on a platform that would reduce carbon emissions through a cap and trade system, a program that has support in Congress and among many of America’s largest corporations. It also has an outspoken advocate in Mr. Obama’s nominee for energy secretary - Nobel-prize winning physicist Stephen Chu.

CHU: “What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries. It is imperative that we begin without further delay.”

A climate bill will be high on the agenda of the new Congress, but Jonathan Lash points to a concern left over from the previous administration … China.

LASH: “The concern goes like this: If we impose the cost of reductions CO2 emissions on American industry and country “X” read China, does not, we’ll lose even more jobs to country “X” and we can’t afford to do that at a time of financial crisis.”

That’s why the Bush administration backed away from the Kyoto Protocol. It argued that the global climate change treaty would hurt the U.S. economy, while allowing growing economies like China and India to ignore emissions targets.

In 2008, China overtook the United States as the world’s top polluter. Together, the two countries are responsible for more than 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To oversee the U.S. battle against global warming, Mr. Obama named Carol Browner, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Clinton. As climate “tsarina,” Browner will coordinate energy and climate policy from a new office in the White House.

BROWNER: “We can create jobs, curb greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help restore America’s leadership around the world by shaping an environmentally sustainable world economy. To succeed we must work together. We must work across party lines. We must enlist both the private and public sectors and we must summon the best from our partners around the world.”

Jonathan Lash agrees with that approach.

LASH: “If we were to find agreement on dealing with climate change, reflecting our mutual interests in defining and competing for tomorrow’s markets and our capacity to make reductions, the world will move. If an agreement between the U.S. and China on climate, technology, clean energy, energy security begins to emerge, that’s a really, really big deal for the hopes of what we can do together.”

Lash expects a top-level U.S. official to go to China next year. The outcome of those meetings, he says, could set the stage for a new global climate treaty when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

A new approach to bringing maternal health care to women in areas of conflict

In health news this week, we take a closer look at an effort in Burma to bring health care to women in need in remote parts of the country. As Rose Hoban reports, its success could have implications for women in other war-torn areas of the world.

HOBAN: Rebels in the eastern states of Burma have been engaged in low-intensity conflict with the military government for decades. As a result, the public health system in these areas has collapsed, and many women have babies without any care before, during or after birth. But a team from Johns Hopkins University is testing a way to get care to remote areas in conflict.

Public health professor Luke Mullany worked with local community health workers to survey about 3,000 women in these areas. They found that only about 5 percent of the women had access to anyone with the skills to handle basic care for pregnant women and newborns.

MULLANY: "Women had very little access to basic care such as tetanus toxoid immunizations to prevent tetanus in the baby, access to iron and folic acid supplements, access to insecticide-treated nets, which are important in that region because it's a malaria endemic region.”

HOBAN: In addition to widespread malnutrition and anemia among the women, the survey found about 12 percent of babies died before their first birthday.

The survey was too small to measure maternal mortality, but Mullany reckons it's probably quite high. Using the results, Mullany and his colleagues devised interventions that community-based health workers can be trained to use, to help women before, during and after they give birth.

MULLANY: "All women are receiving misoprostol, which is a drug that can prevent bleeding after delivery. They are also trained to deliver intramuscular antibiotics to treat sepsis in mothers, which is another important cause of death in mothers in this setting. They are also trained to deliver magnesium sulfate, and they deliver that intramuscularly as well. They do blood transfusions, which again is a critical emergency obstetric care intervention, but it's often considered only feasible to deliver this in facilities settings.”

HOBAN: Mullany says these mobile obstetric workers can carry most of what they need to do the interventions… in a backpack. And they can get to villages that are very remote.

MULLANY: "There are many settings around the world, you know, in and out of conflict, in which women have very little access to either the public or private formal health system. And communities do not have to be in active conflict to have very low rates of care seeking, very low rates of access to skilled birth attendants at the time of delivery, and it is possible that this project can provide a model to other communities for beginning to think about the feasibility of task shifting. What types of interventions can we shift from facility settings to community based workers?”

HOBAN: Mullany and his colleagues are testing this program for the next two years and collecting data to see how well their interventions do in preventing illness or death among new mothers and their babies. His article is published in the online journal PLoS Medicine.

Fighting malaria by changing the environment

U.S. researchers have developed a computer program that they say may help in the battle against malaria by identifying environmental changes that would be the most effective in controlling the spread of the mosquito borne illness. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The new computer program developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, is based on four years of observations in a mosquito-endemic area of Niger.

It compared conventional strategies, such as insecticide-treated bed nets, to physical changes such as leveling land to eliminate depressions in soil where water can accumulate. Standing water is a favorite breeding spot for mosquitoes.

MIT civil engineer Elfatih Eltahir says environmental changes can be a significant factor in the fight against malaria.

ELTAHIR: "Some of the experiences regarding elimination of malaria in some parts of North America and Europe and South America in the past relied maybe exclusively on these kind of approaches. So they definitely have a significant level of efficiency."

BERMAN: Each year, malaria kills nearly a million people - most of them children.

But Eltahir says the computer program he and colleagues developed creates environmental models for communities fighting to gain the upper hand against mosquitoes.

ELTAHIR: "It is like many applications of computer models we use to screen and compare different alternatives. I think we could bring that technology to look at the malaria problem in Africa, too, as an additional tool to plan environmental management to help in those kind of efforts."

BERMAN: The research was presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

You’re listening to Our World on the Voice of America. I’m Rosanne Skirble, sitting in for Art Chimes.

Online guide offers self-help checklist to reform wasteful habits

It’s time again for our Website of the week. And, today we turn to Robert Lilienfeld in Detroit, Michigan, who has a holiday conservation message that he sums up in three words: Use – Less – Stuff. Lilienfeld is editor of the U-L-S report, which started as an electronic newsletter in 1994. Now it’s featured online, at

LILIENFELD: “A great deal of what I do is to try to get people to understand that it is better to not to create waste than to have to figure out what to do with it after we’ve made it.”

Lilienfeld says readers can log on to the use-less-stuff website for the ULS newsletter or for conversation on the use-less-stuff blog.

LILIENFELD: “Right now, there are some holiday tips for what people can do to have a good holiday season without spending too much money and time buying stuff. There is also ten years’ of reports – with some 2,000 to 3,000 tips - and then there’s a bunch of research studies we’ve done on different products and packaging.”

And he says they all include references and weblinks for more information. Teachers can download a waste-prevention curriculum that Lilienfeld wrote for the National Science Teachers Association.

LILIENFELD: “The key thing is a giant poster called, “Life of a Hamburger,” how when you throw away food there’s a huge ripple effect all the way up the food chain back to the farm, and that’s what this talks about is that every little bit of a hamburger you throw away also wastes all the resources it took to produce the hamburger and the buns and the pickles and the lettuce and the special sauce.”

More food and packaging waste accumulates during the Christmas holiday season than any time of year in the United States. So Lilienfeld’s site visitors some guidance to change wasteful habits with a self-help checklist.

LILIENFELD: “We’re not saying that you should do them all. Find five or six that apply to your lifestyle and give them a shot. Do it because it is right for your pocketbook. If it is right for your pocketbook, it is also going to be right for the environment.”

Lilienfeld says these suggestions make sense not only at Christmas time, but throughout the entire year.

Bob, tell us again how we can find the site.

LILIENFELD: “Well, the address of the website is simple. It’s”

You can find that link and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, at our site,

Looking for recycling answers at the dump

As Bob pointed out, the best way to reduce trash is to not create it in the first place. The next best way is to recycle it. Most large U.S. cities support a variety of recycling efforts because the same program can’t apply to every high-rise, office building or condo. As Michael Rhee reports, America’s third-largest city is trying to attack this problem by digging through the garbage.

RHEE: This is a waste transfer facility on Chicago's South Side. It's kind of a temporary dump. Garbage trucks pick up trash from people's homes and pile it up here. The piles are then packed onto even bigger trucks and hauled to landfills far away.

Chris Martel looks over the mounds of trash here. Martel is an engineer and a solid waste expert.

MARTEL: “There's a lot of different paper types here. There's a plastic bottles, all things that are recyclable.”

RHEE: But they're probably not going to be recycled. They're going to a landfill. That's why Martel is here. He works for a consulting firm called CDM, or Camp Dresser and McKee.

The city of Chicago has hired the company to dig through residents' trash and figure out what exactly people are throwing away. Martel has been doing waste sorts like this for more than a decade.

We get to the waste sorting area. There's a group of workers surrounded by dozens of large and small bins.

MARTEL: “That boom was the tipper dropping the waste load.”

RHEE: A rugged, yellow loader dumps about 300 pounds of garbage at our feet. It's a sample from one of the large piles in the facility. A team starts sorting through the garbage. Scott Keddy is one of them. He picks up a plastic garbage bag.

They're sorting them into 81 different containers. Each one is for a kind of paper, plastic, metal, food or some other piece of trash. The point is to figure out how much of each material people are throwing out. And where it's all coming from.

Suzanne Malec-McKenna is commissioner for Chicago's Department of Environment. She says the tough thing about creating a recycling program in a city like Chicago is the diversity.

MALEC-MCKENNA: “Not only do you have residents and businesses creating waste, but restaurants, prisons, manufacturers for car parts. Each of these creates a different kind of garbage. The city has been trying to come up with a recycling program that works for everyone for 20 years.”

RHEE: Malec-McKenna says the study will help the city decide how to manage it all.

MALEC-MCKENNA: “You can't have a cookie cutter approach for a city this diverse. You've got to come up with a range of different kind of program options for it. We'll come up with the right mix.”

RHEE: But while the city figures recycling out, the garbage will keep piling up in landfills. Martel, the waste expert, says he hopes that waste is reduced soon. He says most people don't understand the sheer quantities of garbage that are out there.

MARTEL: “Unless you physically see and touch it you don't realize what a large amount it is and what the implications are and how easy it is to divert these materials.”

RHEE: Big cities around the country are realizing this, and working on a solution. For the Environment Report, I’m Michael Rhee.

To the moon and back

Forty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 8 – the first manned mission to the Moon - entered lunar orbit. The huge Saturn rocket had blasted off on December 21, 1968, carrying Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Mission Commander Frank Borman, in what was only the second manned mission for the Apollo program.

NASA CONTROLLER: “The engines are on. Four… three… two… one… zero. (engine roars) We have commit, we have liftoff! Liftoff at 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard time...”

The crew took three days to travel to the moon, and spent another day circling it 10 times. The three astronauts were the first humans to see the far side of the moon.

HOUSTON CONTROL: “Apollo 8, Houston. What does the ol’ moon look like from 60 miles?”

BORMAN: "Ok, Houston, the moon is essentially grey. No color. Looks like plaster of Paris, or a sort of grayish beach sand. You can see quite a bit of detail. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them…”

On Christmas Eve, the three astronauts sent back live television broadcasts showing images of the Earth and Moon as seen from their spacecraft. With that dramatic backdrop, the crew ended the broadcast by taking turns reading from the Biblical Book of Genesis, and Commander Borman closed with this holiday wish.

BORMAN: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

That Apollo 8 broadcast was, at the time, the most-watched TV program ever. Its feel-good message gave people back on earth hope and confidence for the future, especially in the wake of a series of shocking events in 1968: the escalating war in Vietnam, the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the murder of presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy.

On the eve of another New Year, another crew – this one from Japan, Russia and the United States - is also high above Earth, aboard the International Space Station. Flight commander Mike Fincke reflected on how far humans have come in space over the past four decades:

FINCKE: “On Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis while circling Earth’s closest celestial neighbor – an unforgettable moment. Now, 40 years later, we remember those brave explorers and are honored to stand on their shoulders as we continue their journey.”

The 2008 holiday greeting from the space station crew is more polished and produced than the one from Apollo 8’s crew… but the sentiment is the same:

FINCKE: “Happy holidays from the International Space Station. I’m Expedition 18 commander Mike Fincke with my flight engineer, astronaut Sandy Magnes.”

MAGNES: “It is this time of year we can reflect on our blessings and the opportunity to advance the cause of exploration through this great global project involving nations from the entire world.”

FINCKE: “So happy, happy holidays from the International Space Station, and best wishes for a happy and healthy year ahead.”

And best wishes from all of us at the Voice of America.

MUSIC: “Our World” theme

That’s Our World for this week. Michael Rhee’s report came to us with support from the Park Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Faith Lapidus is our editor. Our technical director is Bob Doughty. I’m Rosanne Skirble. Art Chimes will be back at this same time next week with a reprise of the best of Our World 2008. Tune in then or join us online at as we explore the latest in science and technology on Our World.