Riki Ott

The Legacy of Rachel Carson

Recorded: February 7, 2014

What is going on when robins fall out of the sky and die? This pressing question is asked by a young daughter to her father. It is also the first step in the journey that led Riki Ott to her passion in life. Riki later became a marine biologist and toxicologist and was one of the first to respond to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound Alaska. Another video in this series describes the disaster [Moving Ideas Into Action] - watch as Part II to this story.  Here is a quick link: http://theforcesofnature.com/movies/riki-ott/  

Riki Ott, PhD is a marine toxicologist, author, and former commercial fisher. Ms. Ott was born and raised in Wisconsin, but has lived and worked in Alaska for almost 30 years. Her father was an opponent of DDT and very passionate about nature, imparting a strong environmental ethic to his children. Her father successfully campaigned to have the DDT banned, which made an impression on the teen. Riki soon began to read Rachel Carson’s books on the ocean, and the landmark, Silent Spring. It was only natural that Ms. Ott would decide to become a marine biologist and toxicologist. In 1985, she moved to Alaska.  When the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, Riki was one of the first people on the scene. Now an internationally-recognized expert in oil spill impacts to wildlife, people, and communities, she is called into communities impacted by oil disasters to assist people by exposing the extent of damages.  Riki’s website has detailed information about these spills: http://riki.ott.com.

Ms. Ott is the featured character in the award-winning film BLACK WAVE: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, a documentary that tells the tale of the battle between commercial fishers against the largest corporation in the world, Exxon-Mobil and DIRTY ENERGY – The BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster: First-hand Stories from the Louisiana Bayou. She is the author of Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008).

Ms. Ott directs Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute, and teaches rights-based community organizing from fifth grade to university, sharing practical skills for sustainable living and ending corporate rule. She is an itinerant campaigner.

Riki lives in Cordova, Alaska.

Riki Ott:  It was 1967, 1968, I was a middle school student, and as I walked to school, there were robins that were falling out of trees, and I didn’t know what was going on.  And finally one day, what does a little kid do, you go and ask your father or your mother.  So I asked, “Why is this happening?”  And my dad, instead of making me feel better, he put my hands together –dying robins were everywhere — and he just stuck a bird in them.  And I watched this bird’s eyes dilate and constrict as my father explained to me about the neurotoxin DDT.  My dad was a paper salesman. I didn’t see him as like an Aldo Leopold, or I didn’t even know about Aldo Leopold then, you know, and it turns out that my father was one of the last students of Aldo Leopold’s.

Huey Johnson:    Oh how fun.

Riki Ott:    Yeah.  So in my kid’s world view I had an ordinary dad — and it’s wrong when birds are falling out the sky, dying.

Huey Johnson:    Yep.

Riki Ott:    But my dad then put in my hand Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and I read that the summer I turned 14 sitting up in the sugar maple tree, just leafing through this, and being amazed that a person could know so much and write so beautifully. It engaged people like my father to then make a difference, because my father didn’t just give me a dying bird.  He went on and he raised money for Environmental Defense Fund and sued the state of Wisconsin over the use of DDT, and that was EDF’s first big – the lawsuit that made them EDF in the long run.

Riki Ott:    But for me there was another element to it.  We weren’t overtly conservationists; I think that was what the beauty of this education was.  And I remember standing in the dining room with my father and my siblings, my younger brother and sister one day, and we were watching a DDT — a truck going through the neighborhood spraying DDT — these big white clouds and my father would not let us walk to school.  He would not let us be outside when those trucks were in the neighborhood.  I realized that, “oh, its bad for us too.”  So in my mind, my kid mind, I’d made this connection that it’s bad for the animals, the birds, it’s bad for the kids — the people — and my dad wasn’t just doing this for the robins and the peregrines and the eagles.  He was doing it for us — us kids.  He was doing it for everybody.  And I – so I grew up realizing that if you have an idea, it’s your idea and you need to give it legs and make it work.  And my dad wanted to stop DDT, so he figured it out, he problem solved it.  Raised money, raised awareness, raised people.

Riki Ott:    My sort of take home from the DDT days were realizing that one person, one passionate person could make a difference if you had a plan and you acted with courage.  The other take home was that this beautiful book by Rachel Carson and all her other books was that, wow, I so wanted to be part of this think-tank business where you could know so much, and write it in a way that empowered and motivated and inspired ordinary people to step up and be part of the change to make the world better.