Consilience is Key

This year in January Amina J. Mohammed the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations noted the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War; in March the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; In September Chileans marked the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of their democratically elected government, in October over 1000 civilians in Israel were killed by Hamas and in November Israel, slaughtered more that 14,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

Meanwhile, on December 10 people around the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly of the United Nations, a document that according to Eleanor Roosevelt was meant to “serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations” and point the way toward creating an international order that would eliminate the threat of a war in which weapons many times more powerful than Fat Man and Little Boy, the atom bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would bring about Armageddon.

Unfortunately, however. that threat is so great today that it has led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its doomsday clock to 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.  Why?  Because Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons in the war he is waging in Ukraine and the U.S. is threatening to defend Taiwan against any attempt by China to take control of that island nation.  Furthermore, according to Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, when it comes to nuclear weapons states (i.e. the U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, the United Kingdom and France) “that could end up in a nuclear clash against each other, India and Pakistan have for years been considered the most likely.”

Hence the key question we should be asking ourselves and others as we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10 this year is: “how do we move the hands of the doomsday clock back to a time before nuclear weapons threatened our species and other life on our planet with extinction?”  How, in other words, do we create a just and hence peaceful world order free of weapons of mass destruction so we can focus on working together to deal with climate change, artificial intelligence and other threats to our existence and well-being?  Or again, in the realpolitik world in which we live, how do we ensure that the rights specified in the UDHR are realized by everyone everywhere?

That question, most importantly, is one we should be posing to students in classrooms around the world.  Why?  Because if the question has an answer, they are the ones most likely to come up with it.  Just recall that it is in those classrooms inspired by great teachers that young people acquired the knowledge that enabled them to provide us with footprints on the moon, computers, mobile phones, and longer lifespans.  Now we need to motivate them to come up with the rules and enforcement mechanisms that will enable everyone to realize the rights specified in the UDRH.   And in order to do that teachers in every discipline need to realize that consilience is key.

Consilience refers to the linkage of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities and all other academic disciplines in addressing the most pressing problems we are faced with.   In other words it refers to the fact that from game theory in mathematics to social welfare functions in economics to, in Richard Pierre Claude’s words, “the many intersection points between human rights and science” [1]we need to realize that there is hardly an academic discipline that can’t contribute to providing students everywhere with the tools they need to create a just and peaceful world.


1. Richard Pierre Claude, Science in the Service of Human Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, p. 6.