Turn ON Your TV

It is over 14 years since we’ve had TV in our home except for an old set to watch movies. Yet I recognize that TV can do wonders in changing people’s attitudes and behavior.
Perhaps you remember reading about the effect of TV in Brazil. The family size is less than half of what it was 50 years ago. Although there are many factors that have brought about this rapid decrease, one of them was unintentional. TV telenovelas (what used to be called “soap operas” when I was a kid) are very popular in Brazil. They depict families dealing with the usual joys and problems that people handle all over the world. Can you imagine being the director and trying to supervise four kids on a TV set? As a consequence upper middle class TV families have only one or two kids, and this has become the Brazilian ideal.
Consciously or unconsciously, people follow the models that they see in the media. That is why advertising is so powerful. And that power can be put to good use.
Miguel Sabido pioneered using radio and TV to educate and change behavior. “What we know today as the Sabido methodology, or ‘Entertainment-Education,’ was not born miraculously one day”, he wrote. “It started as a childhood dream, conceived almost 50 years ago, when I understood that the housekeepers at my house in Mexico literally believed everything they saw in Mexican telenovelas (‘soap operas’).”
The first time Sabido actually tested using the media to educate and entertain was in 1977. He launched a primetime telenovela to educate viewers on family planning in Mexico. Acompañame (Accompany Me) focused on the issue of family harmony and educated viewers about family planning. During the time it was aired there was a 33% increase in attendance at family planning clinics as well as a significant increase in the sale of contraceptives. Acompañame was followed by other telenovelas with similar messages, all helping to lower the Mexican population growth rate.
Today the foremost organization to use the Sabido method of entertainment/education is the Population Media Center (PMC). The Center works in 18 countries, including the USA. They have branched out from just informing their audiences about family planning; now they promote empowerment of women, avoidance of HIV, and encourage education and reproductive health in general. They use “…serialized dramas on radio and television, in which characters evolve into role models for the audience for positive behavior change.”
An example is the Center’s program to combat abuse. One third of girls and women will suffer physical, mental or sexual abuse during their lifetimes. Usually the perpetrators are males who learn the pattern of abuse when they are young. This abuse can devastate women and be harmful to the men, too. Fortunately, PMC has a program geared to combat abuse worldwide. Designed for computer-savvy young teens, Breakaway is available in four languages.
“Sixteen and Pregnant” is a very popular series on MTV, showing pregnant teens who struggle with life after becoming pregnant. In the episode that is available free online, Aleah, 18, contends not only with the pregnancy but also diabetes and an irresponsible boyfriend. Now 5 years old, this program is a very popular reality show that has made its mark with adolescents. There are also follow-up shows, “Teen Mom”, that track some of the young mothers’ lives.
“Sixteen” and its spinoffs have had a major influence on teens in the USA. The teen birth rate has (fortunately!) hit all time lows—and part of that success is due to “16”. A careful analysis suggests that one third of the decrease can be attributed to “16”! The poor economy is another reason that adults and teens both are having fewer babies, and the availability of family planning for teens ahs decreased the number of unplanned pregnancies. Fewer births, fortunately, is not the result of increased abortions, all too common in TV commercials.
There were two ironies in the episode of “16” I watched. Most egregious was an advertisement—of which there were many. One ad, for a cherry-flavored cola, used sex to sell its product.
The sad fact is that Aleah lives in St. Louis, which has a wonderful, innovative family planning program. The Choice Project provides women of all ages with free contraception.
We can celebrate that the teen birth rate has plunged. The study of “16” ends with these words: “We find that media has the potential to be a powerful driver of social outcomes.”

© Richard Grossman MD, 2014


Harness Methane—5-2014

For years I had heard about a mysterious source of power here in La Plata County. This month I had the chance to see it for myself.
Perhaps you have heard the term “San Juan Basin”. It is not a river basin, but rather a geological formation that is rich in oil and gas. Durango sits close to the Basin’s north edge. Shaped like an irregular bowl, communities near its borders also include Cortez, Shiprock, Gallup, Cuba and Pagosa Springs. The edges of the Basin are close to the surface, but it is thousands of feet deep in the middle.
Much of our county’s wealth is thanks to the gas that is found in coal seams in this formation. Fortunately the coal here gives up its natural gas (primarily methane) easily. In other areas and other strata the rock has to be fractured (“fracked”) to produce enough gas to be profitable. That is another, concerning story, but this is a happy one.
The coal seams come to the surface at the edge of the Basin; this is called an “outcrop”. In some places this is pretty obvious—even to me who knows almost nothing about geology. Unfortunately, where the coal daylights there are often appreciable emissions of methane. You cannot smell it, but where it is emitted under water you can see bubbles. If methane collects in a confined space, such as a home built on the outcrop, it can cause an explosion.
Not only is this a fire hazard, but also methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG). Indeed, it has a much stronger effect than CO2, the GHG that gets the most attention. Depending how you measure methane’s effect—long term or short term, by mass or by volume—it is 20 to 70 times as destructive as CO2. The world’s best scientists acknowledge that the climate change that the world is experiencing is due to GHGs, especially CO2 and methane. We should do whatever we can do to decrease methane emissions.
Another problem with methane is that it inhibits the growth of plants where a large quantity escapes to the surface. Indeed, aerial surveys are used to spot methane seeps because you can spot where trees are stressed or dead due to the gas. Often the soil is bare in those areas.
What can be done to limit the escape of methane from the coal bed, and can this gas be put to good use? An experiment was started right here in La Plata County in the early 1990s. With funding from BP and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), land was bought where there was a high-output seep. The earth was dug up, perforated pipe laid and covered with sheet plastic, then this was covered with native soil. Pipes lead the gas to a shed where it is used to run a turbine that then turns a generator. The electricity is then fed into a power line. Our electrical coop buys this power, and says that it improves the quality of the service to the neighbors.
It is easy to see the areas where methane was being captured. Healthy green grass grew there, but it was obvious where the methane was not being collected. The ground was bare where the gas still bubbled through the soil.
This system is a win-win proposition: dodgy methane is captured and put to good use. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay for itself yet. It cost $350,000 to establish and it costs more to run than the value of the power it produces. Thanks to BP it is still operating, however.
I am pleased that BP and COGCC chose our county to build this experimental unit. It is the first to use this technology in the world! The unit is win-win-win: it keeps methane out of the atmosphere, it generates electricity and it improves the soil. Its only problem is that it is expensive to run.
Independently, the Southern Ute Tribe is experimenting with a different technology to attain similar goals. They use a series of shallow gas wells close together where a lot of methane is emerging from the outcrop. This has the advantage that the natural gas can be collected and sold along with gas from other wells.
We live in a beautiful, geologically exciting area. Our natural resources are usually blessings, but can also pose problems. Fortunately people with imagination and skill at times can turn liabilities into assets.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014