by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D.
Program Director MA Program Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights
On March 9, 2020, the IHR published my blog entitled ‘A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us.’ On that date, there were 717 reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US and 26 reported deaths. Today, about 3 months later, on June 6, 2020, while I am finishing writing this new blog, there are 1.94 million reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US, with 111 thousand reported deaths. These numbers take one’s breath away; they invite retreating into a state of silence – to a state of being ‘comfortably numb’ (3), and to leave it all to others, whomever they might be, to deal with this shocking reality. But I cannot afford to become a passive bystander to this, no-one can. Not when so many scientists and practitioners are speaking up and calling for action on the urgent human rights aspects of the pandemic, not when so many health-care workers are putting their own health and well-being on the line for the care and comfort of COVID-19 patients, and not when so many of those most affected by and at risk for COVID-19 are out in the streets protesting against the human rights violations of police brutality and murder, and for the equal justice to which they have an inherent right and that is so long overdue.
On March 6, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, M.D, urged policy makers and governments “to take great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically” while devising and implementing measures to curtail the virus outbreak. She also wrote that “human dignity and rights need to be front and center in that effort, not an afterthought,” and added that “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus.”
Here in the US, the “COVID-19 test of our society” that Bachelet referred to, once again highlights the glaring inequalities and deep-rooted racism that continues to severely harm and disadvantage people of color, in particular African-Americans, and that in all its ugliness diminishes life for us all. In a statement released on June 3, 2020, Bachelet commented that “structural racism and police violence are of course found across the world,” and that “the anger we have seen in the US, erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing.” She added “in addition, there must be a profound examination of a wide range of issues, including socio-economic factors and deep-seated discrimination. To move forward, communities must be able to participate in shaping decisions that affect them and be able to air their grievances.”
What role does science have to play in bringing about solutions for what plagues our society? What can scientists do to make things better? Taking my cues from conservation science and from my own work in the behavioral science of peace I propose two things: (a) taking our science to the streets-metaphorically, and (b) taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to the crises that we face. My inspiration for the former comes from an article that was released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which documents the mass extinction and biodiversity loss caused by human activity and how it threatens our mere survival. It is one of the most urgent calls for “humanizing conservation” that I have come across in the last 10+ plus years.
I’ll let the authors, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven, speak for themselves:
“In view of the current extinction crisis and the lack of widespread actions to halt it, it is very important that scientists should metaphorically take to the streets (my italics). We have, for example, started a new global initiative we called “Stop Extinctions,” to address and publicize the extent of the extinction crisis and its impacts on the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being, aspects still rather ignored by most people. There is time, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There is no doubt, for example, that there will be more pandemics if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for human consumption as food and traditional medicines. It is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization. What is at stake is the fate of humanity and most living species. Future generations deserve better from us.”
The major crises of the present time, the corona-virus pandemic, systemic racism, and the ecocide of climate change, mass extinctions and biodiversity loss are not disjointed separate crises, but, rather, interlinked existential crises that are impacting the entire world population. Attempts to solve one of them without considering the others are folly and doomed to failure. Attempts to solve one of them in one part of the world without considering the rest of the world are equally foolish and doomed to failure. What this implies for policy is that “we the people” need political leadership and governance informed by the science that shows how and why these crises are interlinked and why they constitute existential crises.
This also implies that across natural and social disciplines scientists need to develop and publicly share comprehensive solutions in ways that both clearly inform and can drive policy. I think that the times of coasting through a scientific career from tenure track to tenure on strictly basic research with no immediate applied value for society are over. Every science career should involve interlinked basic and applied work, and tenure and promotion reviews as well as grant reviews should be updated so as to properly assess achievements in each of these interlinked domains. The crises facing us are too formidable not to enlist all available good minds in both properly delineating the relevant component parts of the crises that we face as well as developing solutions to them.
While I have confidence in science in the part it can and must play in dealing with the crises that we face, my confidence in politics and governance here in the US in its present form is at an all-time low. In my opinion, the kind of informed and enlightened leadership that draws on science to map out the immense problems that we face to find the appropriate solutions, is, with few notable exceptions, missing in action here in the US, whether we look for it to the left or right of the political spectrum or right down the center aisle. As a consequence, the global leadership that is needed to guide international partnership efforts to combat global crises, leadership for which the US as the main democratic superpower is uniquely qualified, is equally lacking at present. Global partnerships developed and spearheaded by the US and built on mutual trust and respect that accomplished so much good for so many in the past, from defeating fascism and bringing down the iron curtain to establishing a universal human rights framework and systems to deal with global health responses, are, to put it bluntly, pretty much in shambles right now. Looking in solely on the status quo of the political side of things here in the US and their global effects, the future for humankind appears to look grim, indeed.
In his Gettysburg Address President Lincoln, exhorted Americans to resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. I think that President Lincoln’s call to preserve the essence of what and who we are as a nation has rarely been more urgent than now. I also think that the thousands of lawful nonviolent protesters that are out in the streets right now, are heeding President Lincoln’s call for action magnificently, showing America’s inherent greatness in doing so. I am deeply moved when I see the people most affected by the corona-virus pandemic and most at risk, risking their well-being by taking their rightful call for justice and equity, so long overdue, to the streets. I say to you, your lives matter tremendously, to all of us, and to the future of this country! And I say to you, take it beyond the streets! Run for office and practice to become the informed and enlightened leaders and policy makers that we so desperately need right now! I have my vote and science at the ready to share with you!
And to return to the call by the eminent conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues, yes, we must take our scientific knowledge “to the street,” as scientific knowledge is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We must step down from our ivory towers and speak up publicly and clearly about what the facts tell us and what we see as solutions to the crises that we face. Yes, we need those peer reviewed publications to keep our work valid and meaningful, but we should work with our institutions and granting agencies to provide free access to these journal articles to all. The existence of large for-profit publishing houses dominating the journal article universe becomes untenable in the face of the role that science has to play in combating the existential crises that threaten us all.
We must overcome any distrust and tribalism that hampers collaboration between natural and social science. We need good minds in both major areas of science to work together on the interrelated crises of the corona-virus pandemic and ecocide. For those of us working in the behavioral science of peace we must call a spade a spade when it comes to human rights violations right here at home. Attacks on human dignity, whichever form they may take, and irrespective of where they take place, or who commits them, from teargassing lawful and peaceful demonstrators during a respiratory disease pandemic to publicly insulting and disparaging individuals and groups holding a different opinion than one’s own, are attacks on human dignity and thus constitute human rights violations and should be properly labelled as such (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see Articles 1,3,5,12,19,20).
As peace scientists, we must also speak up about the solid evidence that our biological inheritance includes a capacity for peace through our ability for empathy and for taking the perspective of others, and through our natural preference for reciprocity and justice (1). We can point anyone who has any doubts about the content validity of our comparative findings to the international news feed showing peaceful demonstrations from Asia to Europe to Africa and the Middle East in solidarity with the protests against police brutality and murder and systemic racism that are going on throughout much of the US. Politicians of all stripes should be made aware of the fact that people in vastly different cultures across the globe all demonstrate a shared disposition to not take kindly to injustice. And we can point anyone who expresses doubts in how science and government can effectively work together to deal with crises as monumental as the corona virus pandemic to New Zealand, where the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the country has officially eradicated COVID-19 and will return to normal after the last-known infected person recovered.
News reports show that many of the protesters who have taken their grievances to the streets of America following the murder of George Floyd are young. As US scientists let’s take to the streets – at least metaphorically – to offer our support and to help make a difference toward a just society and a sustainable future for all – in sum, toward a sustainable peace. As Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues propose, “future generations deserve better from us.”
(1) Verbeek, P. (2018). Natural peace. In P. Verbeek & B.A. Peters (Eds.), Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers