April 22 marks Earth Day, and hundreds of Jacksonville, Fl. citizens celebrated by uniting downtown for The March for Science, a series of rallies being held in more than 600 U.S. cities to call for enforcement of environmental protection programs and to protest budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health and other federal science programs.
Dr. Spring Behrouz, a neuroscientist and TED talk speaker, took to the main stage to call for Trump to end plans for a 20 percent budget cut to the NIH, saying “How do you ‘Make America Great Again’ when no one is trying to cure heart disease, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes? Because that’s how much a $5.8 billion budget cut to the NIH means — all of those programs combined. How can you make America great when you’re keeping scientists from making life-saving medicines?”
She asked locals to call on politicians to reject the 20 percent NIH budget cut, and instead pursue an increase.
The NIH budget cuts hold special importance to the Jacksonville community, as it currently funds eight different research programs at Mayo Clinic, as well as the hospital’s biobank, which doctors hope will take us a step closer to a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Attendees echoed Behrouz’s statements, carrying signs that read “Science Has No Agenda,” “Invest In Science – Invest In Progress,” and “Save the EPA” as they marched from the Jacksonville Landing stage to cross the
Acosta Bridge, ending gathered in front of Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History for live music and science experiments.
Behrouz took care to emphasize the crucial role that science education plays in keeping a society truly free: “Science means even the smallest discomfort can be alleviated with a tiny ibuprofen. But this comfort has turned into an ugly complacency where we forget how quickly everything can change. Where we don’t remember what happens when governments censor and politicize their science for their own gains. Complacency is not remembering that alternative facts and alternate science are what fueled the eugenic storms of the fascist governments.”
People rejecting apathy
Dr. Scott Sowel, a local science teacher at Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts, spoke onstage to express concerns that people are being distracted from what matters, saying “Whether we talk about climate change, or vaccines, or whether we deepen the St. John’s river by dredging, or what are we going to do about lionfish on the coastlines — those conversations need to have much more priority than a sports team.”
This sentiment echoes the growing rejection by people in the U.S. of an apathetic approach to the environmental issues threatening us, most recently spurred on by the sudden and immense hostility of the Trump administration towards institutions such as the EPA and National Park Service. Such blatant disdain by Trump for a society based on science, progress, and sustainability is exactly the reason why this series of marches around the nation was organized, and why thousands took to the streets to show that they are ready and willing to resist the destruction of their planet.
This sense of urgency was even more so felt by a group of three local scientists that did not hold back when it came to discussing the disastrous future we face if those in power do not change course: Gabriel Licina of Scihouse, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing college-level science education to the Jacksonville community through a makerspace, told Liberation: “We can’t just go to neutral emissions, we have to go into the negative. We have so much carbon that’s in the air that should be in the ground, or in the bottom of the ocean. And that’s just not happening. We’re creating way more garbage than we’re breaking down.”
He warned that carbon emissions are quickly going to become a matter of life and death. “Heat is not the problem. The ocean is moved by the temperature difference between the poles and the equator, and as that temperature changes, you get less movement, and less movement means less oxygen, and less oxygen means less things that breathe oxygen. It also means an increase in anaerobic bacteria that give off gases that we don’t need to breathe” Licina explained.
His colleague Justin Atkin agreed, adding “We will basically all choke to death on hydrogen sulfide.”
The threat of profit-driven policies
There is no longer the possibility of ignoring what unsustainable capitalist production is doing to humanity and the environment. The increasingly wasteful, short-sighted nature of the Trump administration’s greed-driven policies poses an extreme threat to us all.
Radha Pyati, a professor of chemistry at the University of North Florida, explained onstage, “Decisions often forgo a vigilant defense of human health in order to accommodate profit for corporations, and short-term cost savings — like in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water system. We all have a right to clean air and clean water, and we have a right to not be unknowingly poisoned.”
When asked about what we could do in Jacksonville to make a difference, Licina suggested pushing for legislation to improve public transportation is vital. He also talked about their nonprofit, Scihouse, and their work recycling discarded pallets around Jacksonville into a vertical garden outside of their makerspace, which will allow them to open up agricultural studies to the
public, from traditional farming methods to modifying the plants themselves. They heavily emphasized community involvement in the environment and science.
“No one’s ever going to fix it for you; it’s always in your own hands. The main point of the space here is we want to give something to the community.”
They discussed plans to bioremediate a local creek, which they hope will allow them to eventually apply their research to the entire St. John’s River.
People want to learn about science
Science education seemed to be the connecting thread among the marchers. Over and over, marchers said that if they could accomplish one thing with the protest, it would be improving and expanding science education.
One volunteer remarked “I think it starts with education, and I think that’s my focal point. I want to make sure my daughter gets the education she deserves, rather than what someone else thinks is good enough.”
And where did the marchers propose to get that funding for education? “I would divest from all of the wars and issues we are causing,” one attendee offered.
Many seemed to agree. Divest UNF (a University of North Florida organization focused on pressuring the campus to stop investing in the fossil fuel and war industries) was present and reaching out to marchers. Another marcher aligned with this cause carried a sign reading: “Books, Not Bombs.”
National tension has begun to noticeably affect local Jacksonville progressive activist efforts. Women’s March Jacksonville held several peacekeeper trainings in the wake of the arrest of six anti-war protesters in Jacksonville’s Hemming Park. The Peacekeepers were trained in de-escalation tactics and how to respond to potential counter-protesters. Volunteers lined the streets in full force, some of them trained just one night before during an emergency training session.
The Facebook page for the event was riddled with several documents outlining how protesters should behave to prevent any violence, such as “Do’s and Don’ts for Bystander Intervention” and “Demonstration Health and Safety.”
Despite this atmosphere of caution, the march was an inspiring moment of unity for hundreds of Jacksonville residents. Parents were quite excited to bring their children to an event where they could learn about science, community, and activism firsthand. When asked by Liberation if they thought there would be more rallies like this in the future, Licina answered “Most definitely. This is only going to increase.”
Atkin added, “I think as people are more affected, the scale of agitation is going to get worse. Everyone here is still pretty congenial, but when people start getting sick, when people start to die, this is something that’s going to really start to make people angry.”
It’s an ominous message, but one Behrouz reflected in her opening remarks. “There is no such thing as being stagnant. We are either moving forward, or we are falling behind. And we are falling behind.”
By following the example set by the passionate Jacksonville community this Earth Day, we can ensure that this most definitely will not be the case for long.
Local scientists using their skills to directly improve the community, along with the overwhelmingly popular demand for better science education both epitomize how people have rejected the illusion that help will come from the existing political establishment, or some technocratic science elite. By beginning the process of taking matters into their own hands, the
Jacksonville community proved that it will not give up on building a society that values
science, progressivism, and creating a promising future for all people.