Professor Heather Widdows

Welcome to the first post of the Saving Humans blog. What Saving Humans aims to do is exactly what it says on the tin – save real human beings and improve the wellbeing and flourishing of actual humans. Clearly as academics we are not going to do this by practical intervention (or at least not in our day jobs), but this does not mean that the work we do does not have practical impact and effect in the real world. The Saving Humans theme is concerned to address the most important global threats to human survival and flourishing, we have identified these as:

  • Health threats, from infectious disease to technological development;
  • Environmental threats, from climate change to natural disasters;
  • Security threats, including, war, conflict and terrorism and its methods and means and consequences.

Lots of people and groups are good at identifying these threats – but solutions are harder. For instance, the World Health Organisation has highlighted the global threat of drug-resistant strains of disease. []. WHO states that, “Modern healthcare depends substantially on antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines to treat conditions that would previously have proved fatal. Today, there is more resistance – and there are fewer new antimicrobial medicines in the pipeline – than ever before.” [] This is not an idle threat but a very real risk and one which is affecting us already. Again to quote WHO:

“We must do everything in our power to preserve these drugs for future generations. Some of the greatest achievements of global health — treating tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, pneumonia, diarrhoea and other killer infectious diseases — are at risk as drug resistance rises. Without effective drugs, we cannot prevent death and disease,” []. A world where these diseases were once again killer diseases is almost too terrible to imagine.

The threats of climate change are no less pressing – as shown clearly by the report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change which came out last week and described the evidence for global warming as unequivocal. [].

Saving Humans comes from the conviction that these problems are not separate but connected, and solutions must also be connected if they are to have any chance of success. For instance, conflict breeds poverty, by destroying land, homes and income sources and creating refugees and migrants, who are not only poor themselves, but also who drain the resources of neighbouring countries. Professor Jackson’s blog this week will highlight the spread of violence from Somalia to Nigeria, demonstrated so gruesomely in Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last week. Conflict also adds to environmental degradation as the land is ransacked and in turn environmental degradation leads to conflict as migrants look for fertile land and resources become so scarce that people begin to fight over them. Likewise Climate change is not only likely to lead to sea level rises and lack of inhabitable land, but to increased health threats as infectious diseases spread as temperatures rise. Similarly health threats are exacerbated by poverty, as poor people – typically but by no means exclusively in the developing world – lack access to affordable courses of antibiotics, leading to the misuse of antibiotics, and contributing (along with other misuses) to the growth of drug-resistant strains of disease.

The interconnectedness of the global challenges is often ignored, as organisations focus on one threat at the exclusion of others. This of course is inevitable and understandable – a person or an organisation can’t do everything at one – and the size of the challenge can seem overwhelming. By emphasising interconnection we do not mean that separate interventions shouldn’t happen. They should and they must. Interventions on the ground must be targeted and one step at a time. But these separate interventions must always and also consider the combined challenges and the wider implications of their intervention. Most importantly, if we really want to address the threats of health, environment and security, we have to take seriously the globe as the scope within which we act. This is where Saving Humans comes in. While there are Birmingham academics who are already the established experts in their fields – fields contribute to Saving Humans – too often academics work separately in disciplinary silos. If we are really serious about addressing health threats – such as infectious disease, pandemics and the growth of anti-biotic resistance – or security threats – nuclear war and WMDs, terrorism and cyber attacks – or environmental threats – climate chaos and lack of access of scarce resources –  we have to have global and multidisciplinary approaches. Approaches which are single disciplinary or don’t engage with policy and practice just won’t cut it. My own discipline of Global Ethics is perfect for this.

Global ethics is a new and emerging field, but at its heart it is still doing what moral and political philosophy has always done:  attempting to answer Plato’s original philosophical question of ‘how ought we to live?’.  What global ethics does is it tries to answer this question in the context of globalisation – the increasing interdependence of global society economically, socially, culturally and politically. It recognises that there are global dilemmas which require global solutions. Global ethics has three key features:

1. It is multidisciplinary;

2. It links theory to practice;

3. It is global in scope.

All of these characteristics are core to the Saving Humans theme. It is the global scope requirement which recognises the interconnected nature of the challenges and also the need for direct action on specific issues. The global scope of global ethics requires that when any ethical dilemma is considered the needs of all must be recognised even if they cannot all be addressed in this particular action. Much ethics does not do this. For instance, many forms of professional ethics (say medical ethics) are primarily concerned with one a subset of ethics, and much ethics is ‘bounded’. In other words it concerns the relationships of individuals within one community (nation state, region or locality).

In global ethics, this is not good enough. The needs and perspectives of all global actors must count. This doesn’t mean that partial solutions and projects are not part of global ethics – they very much are – but the consequences for all must be considered.   In this way the global frame remains and the aim is that partial and piecemeal measures will gradually contribute to establishing truly global solutions. The global methodology, then, is practical and accepts that impartial and imperfect solutions as steps on the way. Yet, no matter what theory, policy or practice is ultimately recommended the global needs of all are factored into the analysis: the frame for ethical analysis is the globe. Because of this commitment, global ethics is also concerned with all global actors – with the rights, interests and duties of individuals, nations, institutions and associations.  It is only together that the challenges can be addressed.

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