As yet another hurricane brings torrents of rain and flooding to another part of the
United States—this time the Carolinas—I can’t help but think how the attitudes of many Americans toward nature have changed over the years. Many of our leaders now seem to see nature as a foe to be defeated and conquered instead of as a priceless resource to be studied and understood.
During the early post-Revolutionary years, most of the leaders who shaped the country were awestruck by the riches of their new land. I have been reading a book about one of these Americans, David Hosack. He is hardly a familiar name, although his achievements during the early post Revolutionary period are still important. The book is called American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Gardens of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson.
David Hosack was a doctor, who is perhaps most often remembered for the role he played in attending Alexander Hamilton after the fatal duel between Aaron Burr and Hamilton. He was unable to save Hamilton’s life after that duel, but he was responsible for saving many other lives both through his own treatments and through the medical students he trained and the cures he discovered. Unlike many of our current leaders, Hosack had great respect for the value of science and of studying how medical treatment could be improved through learning more about the characteristics of plants.
One of Hosack’s most important legacies was the establishment of a famous botanical garden, called Elgin Garden located on the current site of Rockefeller Center. At the time the garden was established, it was far uptown from the small city of New York in lower Manhattan. For years Hosack taught at Columbia College and took his students through the gardens to learn about the medicinal qualities of plants. He established ties with fellow scientists in Europe, especially England and Scotland, and exchanged both information and plants with them. American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, honored Hosack’s work and sometimes exchanged plants with him. Like most leaders of his generation, Hosack understood the value of working internationally to improve the lives of Americans and others.
Generation after generation as the United States grew and expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of North America, much of its growth and prosperity was fueled by scientific advances. Land grant universities trained young people to understand science and improve agriculture. As the country grew more populated, farsighted leaders like Theodore Roosevelt understood the necessity of preserving the natural landscapes and resources of the continent and established National Parks.
Until recently government, scientists and community leaders worked together to preserve the natural riches and to enable people to lead better lives. Now suddenly, even as more and more scientists and ordinary citizens recognize the threat of climate change brought on by human activities, many of our leaders have lost their way. Instead of working to mitigate the dangers of greenhouse gases, we are encouraging corporations to spew more noxious fumes in the air and make the world less safe for children as well as the rest of us. Instead of working with other countries to improve the world, our leaders want to tear up treaties in the hope of immediate profits for a few wealthy corporations. Instead of encouraging scientists to study our changing world, many leaders are cutting funding for education and restricting scientific research. What has happened?
Do we really want our shorelines to erode? Do we want to increase the number of children and adults who suffer from asthma? Is it more important for a corporate executive to buy another jet plane than to preserve the fish, birds, and other disappearing wildlife? That is something that everyone who votes in November should consider. And everyone who could vote but doesn’t should feel a personal responsibility for failing to protect the country so many of us celebrate.
Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day, but the day did not offer much reason for working people to celebrate. The president struck a blow at the spirit of the day by cancelling scheduled salary increases for federal workers, citing a need to save money. It seems that the tax breaks for executives and corporations have to be paid for by workers lower in the hierarchy.
Still, there are bright spots on the horizon. This week we have also had a chance to see a
number of women who are working hard to protect all Americans. Even though women were the last major group of citizens to be given the right to vote in the United States, they have finally come into their own as powerful voices for all of us.
The week started with the presentation of the documentary film, The Notorious RBG, a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has devoted much of her career to persuading her fellow judges of the importance of women’s rights. When Justice Ginsburg completed law school and looked for positions, she found that women were consistently discriminated against in employment. She was turned down for a clerkship on the Supreme Court because, she was told, women just were not appointed to such positions. When she was hired to teach at Rutgers law school, she was frankly told that she would be paid less than a man would be because women did not have families to support.
Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has worked patiently, supporting small changes such as using “gender” instead of “sex” when talking about discrimination. It’s a small change, but it has moved discussion away from the emotion-laden word “sex” to a more neutral term.
Gradually Justice Ginsburg and others have gained acceptance for the idea that women and men should be paid equally for equal work and hired for their skills rather than
their gender. And women must be allowed to speak out on issues of importance. Having a voice and speaking out is an important part of being a citizen.
If you ever want a quick refresher in the history of how women have been silenced over the years, you should read Mary Beard’s short book called Women; a Manifesto. Beard, a well- known classical scholar, tells how women’s voices have been silenced over the centuries. Perhaps it started with Telemachus, the
young son of Odysseus, when he rebukes his mother for expressing an opinion: “go back up into your quarters” he said. “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
But women are no longer willing to be silenced. It has taken hundreds of years to develop their voices, but at last we are seeing it happen. More women are running for elective positions in 2018 than have ever run before. And this week we were able to see some of the results.
At the Senate Judicial Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, some of the most memorable questions came from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamela Harris. Whatever the outcome of the appointment may be, thousands of people across the country have had the satisfaction of seeing troublesome questions raised—questions about a woman’s right to choose, about limitations on presidential powers, and about the future of health care in America. Women spoke and attention was paid.
Now it is up to all of us to keep on speaking up—with our votes, with our actions, and with our voices. Democracy is not a spectator sport.