Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Inside Bold Scientists

Chapter 1 When the river roared

Henry Lickers, Seneca First Nation biologist

In my initial approach to Henry Lickers, I mentioned that I’d like to explore with him the deepening fault lines between nature, science, and power. What did he think, could we talk?

Henry replied, “This question is most intriguing and has occupied much of my thoughts for many years. I’d say nature, science, and power can co-exist if they are viewed through a lens of peace. But used as engines of greed or commerce, science and power can easily become unbridled and destructive. Yes, I think we should talk.”…

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Chapter 2 Digging thistles

Ann Clark, plant physiologist and farmer

Ann tells me she plans to “stack enterprises in order to capture ecological and economic synergies.” Delivering this manifesto, she has the good grace to smile, then translates: “Each crop or activity is selected to foster other functions.”

I suspect that some of her technology-driven former students might find her approach backward, even primitive. “Probably some would,” she says crisply. “But if you accept that the days of easy oil are numbered—and what sane person can still deny it?—then really this farm isn’t backward at all. On the contrary, it’s future-oriented.”…

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Chapter 3 A dialogue with the world

Craig Holdrege, Goethean scientist

“This,” says Craig, “is the skunk cabbage.” Named for its pungent aroma, the plant features in Craig’s research. “It’s the first flower to emerge here, often when they’re still under snow. It sits in a big leaf like this”— he cups his hands to form a grotto—“and remarkably, it generates its own heat, enough to melt the snow and ice around it. That’s what got me fascinated with it.”

Craig’s fascination drives his long quest to understand our co-inhabitants on earth, not for their mechanics or usefulness to us but for their inherent qualities and their place in the larger community of life…

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Chapter 4 Blood on my hands

Michael Riordon, writer and gardener

In our garden I welcomed the wild grass for its airy dance among the hollyhocks. But when the grass grew tall and thick enough to obscure them, it had to go. Cutting it close to the ground with shears, by accident I slice into a green frog, hidden there. It sits immobile, wide-eyed, as innards bulge from its back.

This frog must have assumed it was safely hidden, and sadly it was, unseen by me until the indifferent blades close on its back. Its blood, like yours and mine, is red.

Gardening is an act of will. The more alien to its surroundings a garden is, the more forcefully human will must be applied to control it. The frog is collateral damage in my quest for control…

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Chapter 5 Stolen children

Dr Patricia del Carmen Vásques Marías, forensic geneticist, Pro-Búsqueda (For the Search), El Salvador

In 2012, Patricia experienced one of the rarest, most thrilling aspects of her job: a cold hit. In other words, after long, meticulous work, a lucky break.

In the case of three siblings who disappeared in 1982 during a military attack on their village, Pro-Búsqueda had already tracked down one, a girl, but there the trail ended. Then someone in the same village speculated to a Pro-Búsqueda investigator that a young man they had met might be one of the children who had disappeared. The investigators take careful note of any such clues, no matter how vague. They managed to locate the young man, interviewed him, and he consented to donate a DNA sample, which was sent to the lab for analysis.

On one of her late night work sessions, Patricia imported the resulting profile into the DNA-View software, and as usual scanned hundreds of family profiles for comparison. This time the program indicated a genetic match, a strong one, with one particular family…

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Chapter 6 The Cloud

David Lyon, sociologist and international authority on surveillance

In a quiet Canadian way, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada shocks and awes. Like more sensational U.S. and British exposés of the national security state, it tracks the global shroud of state/corporate surveillance that’s rapidly tightening over and among us.

Distilled from seven years of meticulous research, the report was co-authored by Dr. David Lyon and a team of graduate students at the Surveillance Studies Centre, in the sociology department at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Given the pervasive, creeping security regime the report describes, its authors have surely been under particular scrutiny, so the surveillants should not have been surprised by their work.

In a world of perpetual inequities, surveillance is nothing new, but as global elites gobble earth’s dwindling resources, and the rest of us get hungrier and more desperate, the battle for justice and freedom is bound to escalate. It is being waged on many fronts, in streets and squares, across the internet and social media, and ultimately in our heads…

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Chapter 7 ODD

Bruce Levine, clinical psychologist, writer, and mental health activist

For my appointment with clinical psychologist Bruce Levine, I fly to Cincinnati, Ohio, rent a car, and navigate my way across the Ohio River to a tiny loop of street impressively named Dragon Way. Bruce’s small office contains a desk crowded with papers, two chairs, a rumpled couch. To talk, he wheels his chair to sit beside the desk—no barriers here.

Still, I’m nervous, primitively, enough to generate a dry mouth and a fine line of sweat down the spine. I haven’t entered a psychiatrist or psychologist’s office since 1968: Dr. John Jameson worked in an elegant townhouse in downtown Toronto.

In a tumultuous year when millions of my contemporaries took to the streets in exultant rebellion, the year before homosexuality between consenting adults was decriminalized in Canada, I’d consented to be the subject of a psychiatric experiment. “How are you today?” he had said. It was a trick question. In this room the encounter had not been about trust, but about punishment…

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Chapter 9 Pesky data

John Smol, paleolimnologist and university professor

In October 2013, a team of five research scientists, John Smol among them, released a study on ecological changes in lowland lakes west of Hudson Bay, in northern Canada. According to the new study, after relatively little change in two hundred years, suddenly the Hudson Bay lowlands are no longer immune to global warming. The sea ice is thinning and receding. Ice reflects the sun’s heat, but dark water absorbs it, so a disastrous feedback loop drives further loss of ice and further rise in temperature. The study’s lead author, Dr. Kathleen Rühland of Queen’s University, concluded: “Our findings suggest that ecological tipping points have been crossed and that, sadly, we are witnessing the loss of Arctic ecosystems as we know them.”

“The future is grim,” says John Smol. “Very grim. All the predictions we’ve been making, they’re coming true faster than we expected. It’s a difficult, wicked problem, and we’re seeing very little action on dealing with it. After finishing each of these studies, I do wonder why we aren’t all out screaming in the streets: We need more action on climate change, now!”…

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Chapter 10 The unsolved problem

Anthony Ingraffea, engineer, consultant, and university professor

Climatic Change, a study by Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Tony Ingraffea at Cornell University concludes, “The large Green House Gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming.”

To the oil and gas industry, this measured statement was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Forbes magazine ranted: “… Cornell Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, whose own absurdly flawed work in the realm of methane emissions has been debunked so broadly by so many credible sources that it borders on being considered rank crackpottery by anyone outside of the anti-Fracking activist segment of society.”

Like others in a similar position, the targets had a choice: They could back down, mute or qualify their work, recant as the Italian astronomer Galileo famously did when threatened with torture by the Catholic Church, or they could meet the attacks head on…

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Chapter 10 No time for cowardice

Diane Orihel, marine biologist and founder of Save ELA

On Thursday, May 17, 2012, Diane went to work at the Freshwater Institute on the Winnipeg campus of the University of Manitoba. As usual, she would continue working on her PhD thesis, on toxins in prairie lakes. Heading upstairs to her office, she ran into a member of the Experimental Lakes science team, who told her that in a closed meeting just concluded, all seventeen ELA scientists and support staff were informed that the federal government would shut down the research facility within the year. Their work at the world-renowned research facility was no longer aligned with the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and therefore their jobs were now “surplus to Canada’s needs.”

They were told to go to the research station and remove their equipment from the labs. They were also warned not to communicate any of this to the media or to any member of the public.

Fortunately, one of them communicated it to the first member of the public they met. By chance or by fate, that member of the public was Diane Orihel…

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