One Year Into the Trump Administration, Where Do We Stand?
By John R. Platt
What a long, strange year it's been.
Saturday, Jan. 20 marks the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration officially taking office after a long and arduous election. It's a year that has seen seemingly unending attacks on science and the environment, along with a rise in hateful rhetoric and racially motivated policies. But it's almost been met by the continuing growth of the efforts to resist what the Trump administration has to offer.
So where do we stand, one year in?
Well, for one thing, we can say that the year has given the administration's actions a visible shape. "These are not isolated incidents at this point," said Jacob Carter, research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been tracking the administration's attacks against science—at least 65 since the president took office. "They're happening so often now that there is definitely a pattern starting to emerge. The administration really wants to undermine the role of science and science-based decision making. They're getting the expertise out of the way to further a political agenda."
Carter said these attempts to remove science from government decision-making—ranging from ending a study of the health effects of mountaintop-removal mining to eliminating the words "climate change" from all EPA grants—"have real consequences on peoples' lives. It's about our health and safety. If we don't listen to the best available science, then our lives are at risk."
But pushing science and scientists aside doesn't mean they go away forever. "Under this administration we know the scientific evidence isn't going to be able to speak for itself, so scientists really have to step up and speak for it," Carter said. And scientists have been doing that in record numbers, starting with last year's March for Science and continuing on multiple fronts ever since. "They're stepping up in an unprecedented number and saying science has got to be used in policy-making decisions." That's not slowing down; Carter recalls how he attended two big scientific conferences last year and "I had tons of scientists coming up and asking me how they can advocate, what they could do to make sure that science is being used and remains in a proper place."
That increased level of activism is not unique to scientists, as people from many walks of live have definitely become more politically engaged in the past year. "Trump's election was a wakeup call in a way," said Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of politics at Connecticut's Fairfield University, who studies elections, political participation and civic engagement. "Nation-wide, we've seen this huge influx of people wanting to know not only how to run for office, but how to get politically engaged."
Of course, people are rising up on both sides of the political aisle. In addition to the citizens opposing Trump's policies, Alberda said the people who see Trump as representing their ideals have also made their voices louder over the past year. "I think both sides are getting pushed in a way to really engage vastly differently than we have in the past," she said.
Unfortunately, the two sides aren't exactly talking to each other, and that's bad for the country. "We're losing the ability to engage in civil discourse in a way that's healthy for democracy," Alberda said.
Alberda said this has been building for a while, even before the election. "It's almost like you keep throwing firewood onto the fire and you don't realize how big it is until it blows up," she said. "You're like, 'whoa, that's a big fire.' Lots of little things have happened over the years and we're kind of seeing that all of a sudden in our face, because you have all of these questions about the state of democracy today." She said examples such as Trump's attacks on the free press, the Republican push to pass their legislative agenda, and the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the last election have only served to stoke this fire even further.
So where do we go as we enter the administration's second year? One avenue is to look toward groups that have experience fighting these kinds of regressive activities. "One of the strengths of the movement is solidarity," said Nadia Aziz, program manager of the Stop Hate Project run by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "There are a lot of organizations like ours that have been around for 50 years or more. We've been fighting to secure equal justice for racial and ethnic minorities for a very long time. I think we're very resilient organizations because of that," she said.
That resilience is important, she said, because right now we're at a critical point: "How do you make sure that this movement that we're all in, this resistance, is creating sustainable action and that we all don't get burned out?"
One way Aziz said she keeps herself strong is by seeing and experiencing what others are doing. "There are a lot of a lot of groups are doing such wonderful work," she said. "One of the most inspiring things about my job is being able to connect with people. I think that gives me resiliency, seeing how awesome the people are on the ground what the remarkable work they're doing."
That, in fact, may be one of the lasting legacies of this administration: Local community groups and national groups are connecting with each other, learning from each other, and collectively strengthening their voices. "I do think we're going to keep getting stronger and we're going to keep building out our movement," Aziz said.
As we enter year two of this administration, Alberda said she's looking toward local 2018 elections and the rise of candidates opposing Trump and his policies. "That is going to be really interesting," she said. "We've seen already that Republicans in safe Republican state legislative seats are getting challengers. I think that's indicative that we're going to see some interesting elections."
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>