How Universities Can Best Respond to the Climate Crisis and Other Global Problems

Philosophies 1 (1):1 (2021)
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The world is in a state of crisis. Global problems that threaten our future include: the climate crisis; the destruction of natural habitats, catastrophic loss of wild life, and mass extinction of species; lethal modern war; the spread of modern armaments; the menace of nuclear weapons; pollution of earth, sea and air; rapid rise in the human population; increasing antibiotic resistance; the degradation of democratic politics, brought about in part by the internet. It is not just that universities around the world have failed to help humanity solve these global problems; even worse, they have made the genesis of these problems possible. Modern science and technology, developed in universities, have made possible modern industry and agriculture, modern hygiene and medicine, modern power production and travel, modern armaments, which in turn make possible much that is good, all the great benefits of the modern world, but also all the global crises that now threaten our future. What has gone wrong? The fault lies with the whole conception of inquiry built into universities around the world. The basic idea is to help promote human welfare by, in the first instance, acquiring scientific knowledge and technological know-how. First, knowledge is to be acquired; once acquired, it can be applied to help solve social problems, and promote human welfare. But this basic idea is an intellectual disaster. Judged from the standpoint of promoting human welfare, it is profoundly and damagingly irrational, in a structural way. As a result of being restricted to the tasks of acquiring and applying knowledge, universities are prevented from doing what they most need to do to help humanity solve global problems, namely, engage actively with the public to promote action designed to solve global problems. We need urgently to bring about a revolution in universities around the world, wherever possible, so that their central task becomes to help humanity learn how to solve the climate crisis and other problems of living, local and global, so that we may make progress towards a good, civilized world. Almost every branch and aspect of the university needs to change.

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Nicholas Maxwell
University College London


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