Higher education’s moral responsibility to the environment

We in higher education have a moral responsibility to prepare the next generation to be global citizens. Yes, our students need to be educated in their field of preference, and we want them to become the next sports broadcasters, nurses, teachers and more.

But we also must ensure our students are ready to thrive in the countries and in the real world in which they will live. Part of our responsibility as educators in this area means requiring our students to recognize a shared future.

A shared future means all of us understand we are more than just Americans, Chinese, Germans and so on. The choices we make now, and will continue to make in the future, are certain to have an effect in many places. And when it comes to the environment — air, water and ground — our activities take on an even more obvious interconnectedness. Put simply, the Earth is mighty and it can recover from many things, but it must be treated as a most precious entity. Abuse the Earth too much and it will turn on us; and if it were to do that, we humans would be to blame.

Therefore, and as just one example, a shared future requires all of us challenge poor environmental decisions made by businesses or governments.

Take as just one example the recent announcement by the Japanese government that it will dump nuclear waste water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. However much leaders in Tokyo want us to believe that the planned treatment of the water will make it safe before it is disposed, there’s no way to ensure radioactive material will not be dumped. That polluted material will make its way up the food chain and eventually reach humankind.

The South Korean and Chinese governments have been most vocal in their criticisms of Japan’s plan. Their proximity to Japan explains why. But it disappointed me greatly to see many Western governments, including the U.S., offer support to Japan. To me, politics trumped reality in this situation: Because Japan is an ally, its decision was deemed acceptable. If you doubt me, please ask yourself if these same countries would have supported China had it been the nation planning to pollute the Pacific.

Sadly, the U.S. remains a dangerously polarized country. Topics that should be agreed upon by all, such as protecting the environment, are instead cast as liberal or conservative issues. The corrosive effect is that necessary national conversations are not held. And America’s failure to lead — both in policy and in action — sends an unfortunate message around the world. Yes, the change in presidents will usher in new thinking, but the Biden administration will be hamstrung if the population doesn’t speak up loudly for what is right.

When it comes to dumping nuclear waste water into the ocean, there is no right. We educators, regardless of the nation we call home or the discipline we teach, must be the vanguard in making this point clear. Ensuring our students also see this and that they possess the necessary skills to articulate a similar message is paramount to this idea of a shared future. This is our moral responsibility to the environment.

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