Category Archives: Current Affairs

Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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Creating Your Own Future

There are only a few more days until the elections, but some of us are wondering whether we will make it through the 2018 Midterms. And for those of us who have faithfully filled out our ballots and voted early, there is nothing to do now but chew our fingernails until the elections are over and the results are in.

How about taking a complete break? While the news media thunder their stories at us, election mailers clog our mailboxes, and our phones keep ringing with robocalls from woman writingcampaigns, now is the time to declare our independence and find a different path. And because this is the beginning of November, thousands of people across the country and around the world have decided to spend a month on creating something they have always dreamed about. NaNoWriMo is the name of a group dedicated to helping to encourage creativity through writing. The odd name stands for National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo, which will turn twenty years old next year, is a program to help writers and would-be writers sit down and produce a 50,000 word novel (or part of a novel) during the month of November. More than 400,000 people have tried the program either as adults or through the young writers program for students. Writing coaches help by posting pep talks and helpful suggestions for making the best use of writing time. And participants can join a group of other writers in a specific genre whether it is science fantasy, mystery, romance, or children’s books.

Setting goals to complete a specific project during a defined period of time is a wonderful way to make a start on some of your dreams. After trying NaNoWriMo for three years, I know how encouraging it is to feel the support of a group of people with goals similar to my own. You won’t finish a completed, ready-for-publication novel in a month, but lots of us have credible first drafts that we can build on over the year or more that writing a novel takes.

Perhaps other people who have creative dreams in different fields should come together to form similar groups. There are plenty of months that haven’t been taken yet. May might be a good month for making a movie, or September for writing a sonata. Too many people hope to start a great artistic project someday, but don’t actually do it. The first step is to start! And if the first time doesn’t work and your novel or movie or sonata dies away before completion, there is no need to despair. Failure once doesn’t mean failure always.

Millions of people over the years have been cheered by listening to the popular song written during the 1930s by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields:

Nothing’s impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
Start all over again

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad motto for an election either. Whatever happens next week, there will be another chance. Meanwhile

DON’T FORGET TO VOTE!voting

 

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Fathers and Sons Rule

The United States was founded by a group of men who wanted to do away with hereditary rulers. Leaders were supposed to come from out of the group of men naturally qualified to lead—the well-established, well-educated elites. They were to be

John-Adams

John Adams

 

the voters who chose the best among them to lead the country. The population of the country was small, just below 4,000,000 in 1790 when the first census was taken, so perhaps it was not strange that various members of the same family became leaders. John Adams, the second president, was eventually followed by his son, John Quincy Adams, who became the country’s sixth president.  It was a long time before the next father/son pair took the presidency—George H.W. Bush became the 41st president in 1988 and his son George W. Bush followed became the 43rd to hold the office in 2000.  By this time the population of the country had grown to 180,000,000. With so many people to choose from the chances of seeing many more such pairs seems slim.

Until recently, I had never seen a study of how fathers and sons who governed the same community have influenced one another, but now we have an account of how a father-son pair of governors in California did that. Miriam Pawel’s book The Browns of California tells the story of Pat Brown and his son Jerry Brown who were governors during half a century of California’s history.

When Pat Brown became governor of California in 1959, the population of the state was ten and a half million—more than twice as large as the entire country was when John Adams served as president. California was a relatively young state, at least compared with states on the Eastern Seaboard. The infrastructure had to be developed and a young population was eager to have a strong educational system. Pat Brown united the state, or at least enough of the voters, to develop a viable water system for the parched state and a system of highways connecting the large and diverse population. Under his leadership California instituted the country’s largest university system berkeley_lecture_hall_sticky

 

and a strong pre-college school system to prepare students for higher education.

By the time Pat Brown left office in 1967, the mood of the country had changed. The Vietnam War highlighted cultural divisions and led to unexpected violence. The mood of the country was shifting from the euphoria of post-WWII to the resentment and fears of a growing and ever more diverse population. By the time Pat’s son, Jerry Brown first became governor in 1975, some of his father’s policies seemed to be outdated and doomed. The population of the state had doubled again to over 23 million and taxpayers were beginning to revolt against the high taxes needed to support the state’s services.

Jerry Brown’s second tenure as governor, which will end this year, brought even more dramatic changes. Governor Jerry Brown has been a strong voice in the country and the world to call attention to the dangers of climate change and the need for new and less destructive ways of life. It is fascinating to see in this book how some of his father’s positions continue to dominate the state and how the son has changed and modified others to meet the current situation. His experience in local politics, perhaps especially his experience as mayor of Oakland, led him to value local control of some policies, while others, such as climate change, need to be supported internationally.

For anyone concerned with government and policy, whether in California or elsewhere, I strongly recommend The Browns of California. It is easy to read and filled with valuable insights into the way our world works.

 

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Don’t Just Watch the Vote

women-voting-WyoBlood pressure must have soared these past few weeks all across America as fury reigned in Washington over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The struggle pitted not only Republicans against Democrats, but often men against women. People couldn’t even agree on what the argument was about. Was the basic question whether or not Kavanaugh had committed a sexual assault 36 years ago? Or was it about whether his overwrought, hysterical claim that “leftists” had conspired against him revealed a glaringly unjudicial temperament?

What we are left with now is a Supreme Court that reflects the views of only a minority of Americans. Many of the justices’ decisions will be questioned because by people who believe their views have not been heard and their wishes have not been respected. In part this is because in recent years gerrymandering and voter suppression in the states have kept many people’s votes from being heard. But far more tragically, many people did not vote because they just did not bother. Demonstrating against Congressional actions that seem unfair may make people feel good, but voting is far more effective for changing the country.

Women especially, whose voting rights were earned with so much pain and bitterness, should feel particularly guilty if they don’t vote regularly. It is hard to believe that only 43% of women who were eligible to vote in the 2014 Midterm elections cast a ballot. We can do better than that.

Now that the 2018 Midterms are only a few weeks away, how are women going to respond? There are more female candidates running for office than ever before, but they need the support of women who may never run for office, but who can surely vote and ensure they are represented by people who reflect their views.

When we look back at the history of women’s voting, there is a lot to inspire us. Susan B. Anthony and a group of women went to the polls in Rochester, N.Y. in 1872 and voted,Susan Anthony voting claiming that they had the constitutional right to do so. Local authorities did not agree and arrested the women. The judge at Anthony’s trial did not allow the jurors to discuss the case, but directed them to find Anthony guilty. He fined her $100, which she refused to pay, hoping to move the case to the Supreme Court, but the judge successfully blocked that path by refusing to send her to jail. Nonetheless, the trial generated a lot of publicity and advanced the prospect of women’s suffrage.

We’ve come a long way since those days, but now that we have the vote, it is up to us to use it. Unless women are active participants in elections, they will not be treated as equal to the powerful men who run the country. Now is the time to register and vote!

 

 

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The U.S. vs. Mother Nature

As yet another hurricane brings torrents of rain and flooding to another part of the

flood Hawaii

Flood in Hawaii 2018

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 American Eden01students 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 climate change smokestackbrought 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.

 

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Speaking Truth to Power

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

Ruth_Bader_Ginsberg1

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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

Dianne Feinstein

Senator Dianne Feinstein

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

Kamela Harris

Senator Kamela Harris

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.

 

 

 

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What’s the weather like?

Here in northern California we have been preoccupied by the wildfires that are threatening homes and property in many parts of the state. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the vague smell of smoke hovers over us and on weather_Wildfiressome days the sky in the morning has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue. City dwellers are sometimes thought to be immune to changes in the natural world, but nature has intruded on us this year and we have become preoccupied by it.

The wildfires in so many western states—made much worse by the hot, dry weather that has prevailed—are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and the disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. And the hurricane season has only started. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Last year when I visited London, I bought a book called Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies. The author, Alexandra Harris, traces the history of the way writers and artists have been influenced by English weather over the centuries. The ever-changing British weather has encouraged a deep interested in tracking the vagaries of

weather_georgian-interior

Georgian drawing room

 

changes in the weather. Even architecture has been impacted. The warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s, as reported by Harris, have been suggested as an incentive to introduce the neoclassical style buildings in cities like Bath. Although as she explains the “high ceilings and open colonnades were considerably less appealing” when the average chilly English climate reappeared in later years.

The 19th century was one that brought dampness and rain to much of England. Byron wrote “Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,/And men forgot their passions in the dread…” As the century went on and cities grew in size and density, rain and fog became a part of the plot as in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House  in which rain falls throughout the first twelve chapters and weather seems to become an integral character in the story.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the influence of people on the weather was recognized as being as important as the influence of weather on people. The use of fossil fuels and the growth

weather_smog1952

Smog 1952

of manufacturing led to increasing episodes of smog both in England and America. The culmination, for London, was the great smog of  December 1952 which killed several thousand people. At last the general public began to pay attention and the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.

Now we are again to be in an era when mankind is impacting weather so strongly that once again people throughout the world are in danger. Climate change is causing rising temperatures for oceans and land. Unprecedented storms are increasing in numbers and violence. Deserts are expanding in Africa and coastlines are receding as the oceans rise. Although our national government has become reluctant to act on the clear danger, if enough people push hard enough, we will be able to stop the reckless policies of our so-called leaders and insist on regulations to limit the worst effects of these changes.

Reading Wonderland won’t give you a background in climate science, but it is a great reminder of how important weather has always been in the life of human beings.

 

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