Sustainability means recognising our connection with nature
And new technologies such as blockchain, advanced authentication protocols, artificial intelligence and quantum computing will continue to become more complex, integrated and pervasive in order to deliver an increasing range of services.
The benefits of restructuring life, society and the economy around these new technologies is that they allow society to create new economic and social opportunities for growth. Computer technology has provided scientists with a powerful set of tools to model very complex systems that allow humanity to develop a wide range of new innovations to improve the planet’s quality of life.
In an age of intense globalisation, it has become increasingly difficult for any nation to isolate itself completely from the diffusion of these new scientific and technological developments. All else being equal, the greater the interconnectedness, the greater the interdependence, thereby helping to create a mutually reinforcing cycle of technology development.
In addition, most people and organisations in most societies have now structured their personal and work lives around these modern technologies. Think about how dependent the world has become on the internet and on wireless communication systems such as mobile phones and satellites.
Imagine how much life would change instantly if any of these electronic systems were to stop working, even for a few days. If that were to happen, a large part of the economy and our electronic way of life would instantly be impacted and it would have a ripple effect around the world.
This is why global intergovernmental organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others, are important – they provide a means to facilitate international cooperation among nations to promote peace, security and the common good.
This is also why, for example, global non-governmental organisations like the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and the International Association of Universities (for education) as well as CARE International, Mercy Corps and the Danish Refugee Council (for humanitarian relief) are important, because they address targeted social and cultural needs that regional and national governments may not be able to encompass fully.
One concrete example of the power of international cooperation is when the world took action for the global common good in 1987 when it decided to eliminate harmful ozone-depleting chemicals, thus demonstrating that humankind does have the capacity and the will to solve global problems.
But halting the use of ozone-depleting chemicals is only one small part of the solution to climate change. If humanity can show the same willingness to address bigger climate change issues, the world can avert a climate disaster.
Universities’ efforts to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are another example of overarching activity for the common good, with Western Sydney University, Arizona State University and Western University ranked as the top three universities in the world by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2022 for their impact when it comes to the SDGs.
Technology, or any type of knowledge for that matter, is not inherently virtuous. Technology is a tool, an enabler, a means to achieve an outcome and therefore is only as good as humans’ ability to use it for humane, constructive and beneficial purposes. This is why we must have just laws, policies, rules and norms to guide human behaviour.
For instance, nuclear power can be used to provide millions of people with a better quality of life (for electricity generation), but that same nuclear capability can also be used to kill millions of people instantly through nuclear weaponry. The same can be said for biological and chemical agents, among others. Virtually anything has the potential to be weaponised. Thus, security, as a human right, has now become just as important as the rights to life and liberty.
Human rights are rights afforded to all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture, nationality, sexuality, language, religion, beliefs or any other factor. In essence, a human right is a birthright of every person on the planet. For rights to have real meaning in a person’s life, they must not only be recognised, but they must also be protected by the rule of law. Human rights should be the cornerstone of any society.
Human rights are considered moral rights because they embody four qualities: rights are natural (their validity derived from ethical reasoning and principles), equal (everyone is entitled to be treated equally and equitably), inalienable (they cannot be denied or taken away), and universal (they are common to everyone regardless of nationality).
The contemporary age has brought about so many changes in society that the list of basic human rights that are now considered fundamental to all people continues to grow.
The fundamental core rights of life, liberty and security of person encompass the following rights, which are considered basic rights for all people around the world:
• Equal treatment under the law,
• The right to privacy,
• The right to work,
• The right to education,
• The right to assembly,
• The right to a healthy environment,
• The right to freedom of association,
• The right to freedom of thought,
• The right to freedom of opinion,
• The right to freedom of expression, and
• The right to freedom of movement.
These basic rights encompass the political, economic, social and cultural spheres.
Once again universities have a central role to play in promoting human rights. Institutions like Columbia University have a human rights institute to promote human rights around the world.
What are environmental rights?
For clarity, environmental rights are human rights extended to the natural environment. Environmental rights extend to the responsible, equitable and sustainable use of the environment and its resources by people and industry for consumption and production in a manner that positively impacts five critical dimensions of sustainable development, namely, people, prosperity, planet, partnership and peace or the 5Ps.
Undoubtedly, environmental rights were made a front burner issue by academics and activists – environmentalists, ecologists and climate scientists – who have been warning humanity to proactively integrate the sustainability goals into their consumption habits and production processes in order to protect the planet.
These rights are important to ecological stakeholders because other fundamental human rights depend on the environment. Without recognition of and compliance with these rights, it would be difficult for governments to provide safe, healthy and sustainable conditions for people.
In addition to the scientific and humanistic justification for environmental rights, these rights are also manifested in the beliefs of the major creeds and indigenous cultures, thereby also providing an ethical and anthropological basis for environmental rights.
In sum, humans depend on nature, and nature depends on humans in an interdependent relationship. In fact, every part of the planet, to one degree or another, depends on the other parts for its survival. Thus, causing harm to one part of the environment is tantamount to harming all of it.
This is recognised by the work of many higher education institutions, for example, the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability at Seattle University which promotes the right of all people to live and work in safe and healthy communities.
The environment is the natural space in which humans, animals and plants live symbiotically. Living in harmony with the environment comes with survival benefits, but environmental abuses and excesses come with short- and long-term costs.
The ripple effects of environmental abuse, recklessness and degradation include rising water levels, greenhouse gases, deforestation, species extinction, drought, famine and wildfires. It is therefore an obligation of all humans, communities and organisations to understand, respect and live within the scope of environmental rights.
Animals are also a key component in the life cycle of living organisms. The protection of wildlife is necessary to preserve the balance of their ecosystem. However, the current global situation has had a strong impact on the evolution of species and it has accelerated the extinction of some species despite the efforts of some government and non-government entities who work to protect the welfare of animals.
Compared to human and environmental rights, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gives scant mention to animal and wildlife protection, which some may see as a gap that needs addressing. Nonetheless, the 2030 Agenda does state that member states envision a world where “humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected”.
To address this gap, some organisations are lobbying the UN to adopt a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare.
Thus, the focus on animal welfare is a more recent phenomenon. What is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights? And how is animal welfare related to the Sustainable Development Goals?
Animal welfare includes norms and rules of law by which humanity is ethically and legally obligated to behave in a humane way towards animals. Different problems and issues raised by the question of animal welfare require a rigorous analysis of the political, economic, social, scientific and ethical dimensions.
Animal welfare is also a growing concern among universities. The mission of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University, for example, is to teach animal welfare so graduates can make socially responsible decisions concerning animals.
Academics are also at the forefront of debates about animals’ legal rights. Some constitutional laws aim to protect the flora and fauna for their own sake. Some laws aim to protect specific animals and other laws aim to protect animals through formulations such as the regulation of hunting and fishing and the prohibition of animal cruelty.
Regardless, there is a growing awareness among societies that both wild animals (which live in the wild) and domestic animals (which are used as human companions, livestock and working animals) are a critical part of all ecosystems and should be humanely managed and protected for the long-term survival and biodiversity of the planet.
Because the world has become so interconnected, events that start in one part of the world will likely have an immediate and major impact on other parts of the world. We can no longer afford to make decisions as if countries and ecosystems live in isolation of each other.
Nature, from the resources it delivers to the beauty it provides, must be protected and preserved and universities have a crucial role to play in revealing and communicating this interconnection. The idea of creating a full circular economy and circular society is now beginning to gain traction.
To this end, the shift towards teaching the importance of a circular mindset is a necessary step in human evolution if humanity is to create a more sustainable world for future generations. As the dominant species and stewards of the planet, humans have an ethical responsibility to sustain the planet for all generations.
Patrick Blessinger is adjunct associate professor at St John’s University, United States, and president of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association; Lukman Raimi is assistant professor at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam in the department of entrepreneurship; and Nour el houda Chaoui is professeur de l’enseignement supérieur at the Université Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, Fès, Morocco.