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Next444: challenges for the future

On a wintry Wednesday evening, big issues were the topic of conversation at Grand Café de Burcht. Young Academy Leiden (YAL) was holding a round table: Next444. Now the 444th anniversary of Leiden University is over, it’s time to look once again to the future. What issues will we be facing over the next 444 years?

Assistant Professor of Law, Joris Larik, whose main preoccupation has been Brexit in recent years, began with jocular excuses for the ‘dry’ fare that he had in store for those present: ‘It will get more interesting after me, I promise.’ False modesty because what he had to say was definitely worth hearing.

Reflecting on the current status of international collaboration, Larik suggested that the ‘romantic era’ of progressive legal and political collaboration – in international organisations – appears to be over. Larik: ‘Organisations such as the UN Security Council are no longer functioning properly and several countries have left the International Criminal Court. That makes it difficult to tackle the big problems of our times.’

Human status for a river

Anthropologist Andrew Littlejohn explained how we tend to centre humans when it comes to sustainability, but that we stand to learn so much more if we take non-humans as the basis. He gave two examples: the first was the Ganges in India, which was awarded ‘human’ status in 2017. This means that polluting the river has to be seen as equivalent to mistreating a person. The second example was how demonstrators in the United States protected the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. For them, the crux of the matter was not the pollution and inconvenience to the local residents and indigenous peoples from the area but the water itself, which had the right to stay clean. It was like a family member to them.

How can we come up with a form of ethics in which humans are not the only end goal in the world, a form of ethics in which we do not appropriate nature for their own purposes? Littlejohn: ‘To create a sustainable world we have to move towards a different relationship between humans and nature.’

DNA dilemmas

The world of DNA is changing at a breathtaking pace. ‘While I was studying in 2005 it was announced that the human DNA code had been cracked,’ said Karin van der Tuin. ‘That project had taken 13 years and cost 3 billion dollars. Now, 15 years later, it takes within a week to test your DNA at the cost of less than 1,000 dollars.’

What is going to happen in this field over the coming decades? In her TEDx Talk liet Van der Tuin showed how easy it is to take someone’s DNA. Once you have the code you can, in principle, do whatever you want with it. But would you want your health insurer to have access to this information? And what about privacy in general? It is up to society to solve ethical dilemmas such as this.

From ethics to politics and back again

After the speakers’ introductions, moderator Judi Mesman (Dean of Leiden University College) opened the discussion. This was heated at times as people voiced their opinions on whether, for instance, the rules on using DNA should be stricter. That may also stifle good initiatives said one audience member, who works in healthcare. ‘For me, it’s actually really good that this has led different companies to work together and gain new insights.’ The ethical issues are what reverberated that evening at De Burcht.

Text: Daniëlle de Zwart
Photo: Eelkje Colmjon
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