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04/19/2013

NUBC: Undergraduate Students Take on Environmental Ethics

Jennifer Chevinsky, B.S.

A recent study led by a University of Washington research team has found that air pollution is among the top five threats to the health of people living in China.  According to the World Health Organization, Mongolia has the highest level of outdoor pollution internationally, a value which correlates with three times the amount of pollution found in China and approximately fifteen times the amount in the United States.  It is not by luck however, that U.S. air pollution statistics are on the lower end of the spectrum.  Over the past 50 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted an Environmental Protection Agency as well as multiple Clean Air Acts, leading to large drops in emissions. The problem with jurisdictional solutions is that air ignores international boundaries and bad air conditions in one nation can severely affect the air quality of others that are nearby or even halfway around the world. Thus, air quality remains a global problem requiring global solutions.

Admittedly, the U.S. has shown progress in reducing the production of air pollutants locally, however we must not ignore the role the U.S. plays in increasing global levels of pollution.  For instance, by shipping large quantities of coal to other countries, companies within the U.S. are complicit in the international increases of pollutants in the air and environment.  The only way to ensure these issues will continue to be raised in the future in America as well as internationally is through engaging current students in public activism, open dialogue, and research.

This month, I was fortunate to participate as a speaker and judge for the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference hosted at Georgetown University.  This year’s conference focused on the intersections of Global Health and Environmental Policy.  Featured speakers, panel members, and faculty facilitators from around the country, including Daniel Wikler—an ethicist at the Harvard School of Public Health—and Madison Powers—a philosopher at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics at Georgetown University — were invited to shed light on the current status of international health and environmental ethics issues.   The conference organizers put much thought into how to provide the best experience for the undergraduate students, giving them an opportunity to consider the theoretical constructs behind issues in environmental ethics as well as a platform to start planning practical policy solutions.  Students from a multitude of undergraduate institutions participated in impressive poster presentations, policy writing, and of course, the bioethics bowl debate competition (congratulations to the Georgetown team for coming in first place!).

Over the course of the conference, the students were asked to consider what the most ethical course of action would be in a number of circumstances.  They were encouraged to analyze arguments and provide a deeper understanding of why an action should or should not be taken.  Does ethics or morality require all individuals to adopt children rather than birthing their own?  What level of responsibility do pharmaceutical companies have for negative effects of their drugs on research participants?  Which geographic regions should bear the responsibility of housing hazardous waste?  Do the needs of a community trump the wants of an individual?  Students were empowered to join the conversation and think critically about solutions.

The students were passionate about continuing the work they put into drafting resolutions as well as the research that they had been conducting on international health and environmental issues.  I look forward to seeing the impact these student leaders will have on the continued environmental policy dialogue.  I encourage all undergraduate students interested in bioethics to consider attending the next national undergraduate bioethics conference and all enthusiastic mentors and professors to consider volunteering for the event, helping guide the next generation of bioethics leaders.  As echoed in many of the students’ sentiments, whether referring to the environment or as a principle of life, it is the choices we make now that will affect the future.

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