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  • NYS Writers Institute

"Rivers of Power" author Laurence C. Smith

In Chris Churchill's column in the Times Union last week -- Mr. Biden, tear down this highway!

he writes of Interstate 787, the miles-long belt of pavement that divides Albany from the Hudson riverfront: "The elevated highway and its swirling ramps divide Albany from a riverfront that should be one of the region’s biggest assets. The interstate is a blight on the landscape and a relic from the bad, old days when cities were treated as places to pass through, rather than enjoy."

It's with Chris's column in mind we present today's Q&A with Laurence C. Smith, leading environmental scientist based at Brown University in Providence, RI, and author of the new book, Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World.

Smith argues that, "Rivers, more than any road, technology, or political leader, have shaped the course of human civilization. They have opened frontiers, founded cities, settled borders, and fed billions. They promote life, forge peace, grant power, and can capriciously destroy everything in their path. Even today, rivers remain a powerful global force -- one that is more critical than ever to our future."

Jared Diamond called it, "As fascinating as it is beautifully written." Elizabeth Kolbert said that it "takes readers on a tour of the world's great rivers - past, present and future. The result is fascinating, eye-opening, sometimes alarming, and ultimately inspiring."

We support independent, local booksellers. You may purchase Rivers of Power from the independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza:

Is there anything on earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?

The melting surface of the Greenland ice sheet is the most sadly spectacular place I have ever seen. Imagine the world's greatest waterslide park, with raging pool-blue rivers cutting chutes, slides, and canyons through crystalline ice. Unfortunately, this meltwater is headed to the sea. Greenland is now adding over one millimeter per year to global sea level rise.

Should we be optimistic about the future of the Hudson River?

Absolutely. After a long, dank history of pollution including a Superfund site, the Hudson is rebounding. There is much to be optimistic about, for the Hudson and many other formerly industrial rivers of the Northeast.

Should we organize in Albany for better access to our river?

Yes. Like many other cities having formerly industrial waterfronts, communities along the Hudson are working hard to improve public access and greenspace to their river. Last year the City of Rensselaer, for example, submitted a revitalization grant application called "Redo Rensselaer - The Capital Region's Waterfront" that envisions creating a vibrant downtown waterfront along the Hudson, even repurposing 50 waterfront acres currently used as an Amtrak rail station maintenance yard. Another Hudson River redevelopment project in the area is Kiliaen's Landing. Albany has both the opportunities and interest to reconnect people with its river through exciting urban redevelopment projects.

What new technological development excites you the most?

The advent of CubeSats - small satellites the size of a breadbox carrying little more than a camera, GPS, and communications equipment, is now revolutionizing our ability to monitor the surface of the Earth. Because these little sensors are cheap and small, they are launched by the hundreds, creating swarms of tiny satellites that are just beginning to fill our skies. The data volumes they provide are enormous and exciting, but also introduce new ethical dilemmas. Together with a proliferation of other drone and sensor technologies, for example, they are increasingly shrinking our realms of privacy.

[Learn about pioneering work on CubeSats at UAlbany's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences:]

What idea, subject or field are you most looking forward to exploring in 2021?

I am excited about the forthcoming launch of a new NASA satellite called SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography), which I have been working on for nearly 20 years. It will revolutionize how we monitor and steward the freshwater resources of our planet.

What did you most enjoy about writing Rivers of Power?

I enjoyed not a whit of it. Writing books is a grueling grind, I don't recommend doing it!

What are you most looking forward to in your personal life this year?

In 2021 I am most looking forward to double shots of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine jabbed into the arms of myself, family, and loved ones.

What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?

Why, eating out with my family in all our favorite local restaurants again. Rhode Island has many wonderful places offering a full spectrum of experiences.

What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?

My biggest hope for America in 2021 is a satisfactory recovery from the pandemic, and a subsidence in political division across our great nation.

What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?

There are many important things we can learn from the pandemic. One of them, which isn't discussed much, is rediscovering the mental well-being benefits of spending more time outdoors. I wrote a short piece about this in Scientific American -- "More Time Out in Nature Is an Unexpected Benefit of the COVID-19 Sheltering Rules" -- and also discuss this growing urban opportunity at length in the last chapter of Rivers of Power.

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