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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

ISIS-SGR-TWN Discussion Paper

Towards a Convention on Knowledge

by Mae-Wan Ho, Eva Novotny,
Philip Webber, E. E. Daniels and others

This document was circulated to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). Originally drafted by Mae-Wan Ho, this paper now reflects contributions from many sources and individuals. The authors are asking people of all backgrounds and affiliations to express support for this draft Convention that also serves as a catalyst for linking up everyday lives and concerns with western science and indigenous knowledge. The authors hope that the draft Convention will continue to act as a touchstone for discussion, to promote a world culture in which knowledge and its fruits are available to all.

What does a “convention” imply?

“Convention” is to be taken in the most general sense of a “coming together.” It is the coming together both of civil society and on knowledge that will have major impacts on the agenda for global sustainability.

This “Convention” is intended solely as a civil society document, with no legal binding status. It expresses a commitment of civil society to develop and use knowledge for the good of all.

Why “knowledge?”

“Knowledge” is to read in the widest sense to include all knowledge systems that exist in the world today, to underscore the holistic nature of knowledge systems and their independent and equal status. Thus, “knowledge” in the West will include science and other ways of knowing, whereas for indigenous communities, “knowledge” might be synonymous with “indigenous science.”

Focusing on knowledge also stresses the important point that knowledge is not independent of technology, or the application of science. Knowledge inspires and guides and misguides technology. This is as true for western science as it is for holistic indigenous knowledge systems.

Why we need it

Developments since September 11 have brought biological weapons and nuclear weapons back on the global agenda, raising real prospects of the misuse of science and scientists to military ends.

At the same time, the US and UK governments are introducing “emergency” legislation and measures that pose further threats to the free exchange of scientific information and knowledge, already compromised by the rampant commercialization of science in recent years.

Almost no one is targeting the predominant, reductionist knowledge system of the West…

The commercialization of science and the increasingly intimate relationship between universities and industry have undermined public trust in science and scientists. More seriously, independent science and scientists working for the public good are becoming things of the past. This is coming at a time when technologies are getting more powerful and uncontrollable, both as weapons of mass destruction and in terms of destroying the social and moral fabric of human societies.

The new trade-related intellectual properties regime in industrialized nations is an unprecedented privatization of knowledge, which has also encouraged the biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and resources on a global scale. This regime is being imposed on the rest of the world through the World Trade Organization, as part of a relentless drive towards economic globalization.

Economic globalization is widely acknowledged to be the major cause of poverty, social disintegration and environmental degradation over the past decades. At the same time, it is obstructing any attempt to reverse the trends and to implement a global agenda for sustainability.

Fifty thousand gathered in Porto Alegre in February at the Second World Social Forum to voice unanimous opposition to economic globalization and to call for alternative models of world governance and finance.

Almost no one is targeting the predominant, reductionist knowledge system of the West that has provided the intellectual impetus for globalization as well as the instruments of destruction and oppression. It has also marginalized indigenous knowledge systems and driven countless species to extinction.

But western science itself is undergoing a profound paradigm change towards an organic perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems around the world. We have all the means to bring a truly sustainable and equitable world into being; only the political will is missing. We need a collective vision that could underpin a new model of world governance and finance. Towards that end, we have drafted some elements towards a “convention on knowledge” that could also serve as the focus of a concerted campaign to reclaim all knowledge systems to the service of public good.

Proposed elements for a “Convention on Knowledge”

“Knowledge” is to be understood in the most general sense that includes science and all other disciplines in the West, as well as holistic, indigenous knowledge of diverse communities around the world.

Knowledge must not be used for destructive, oppressive or aggressive military ends. Scientists must take moral responsibility for their own research, to desist from research that is harmful or that serves destructive, oppressive or aggressive military ends.

Knowledge belongs to the community and cannot be privately owned or controlled. We reject all privatization of knowledge, and enclosure of databases by private companies. We reject patents on living organisms and their parts, and patents based on plagiarism of knowledge belonging to indigenous communities. We reject monopolistic patents on essential medicines and other knowledge that generate excessive profits for corporations.

We reject patents on living organisms and their parts, and patents based on plagiarism of knowledge belonging to indigenous communities.

Knowledge is diverse, inclusive and pluralistic, and no one knowledge system should predominate over the others so long as they satisfy the other elements in this convention. Indigenous knowledge systems must be protected and allowed to thrive. Cross-fertilizations and partnerships between different knowledge systems and practices should be promoted towards improving sustainability and equity.

Knowledge should enable us to live sustainably with nature. It should be ecologically accountable. Its research and practice are fully in line with the precautionary principle.

Knowledge should be open and accessible to all. It must be truthful and reliable. Disagreements must be openly debated in terms that all people can understand. People must be consulted and participate in making decisions at every stage, from research and development to the introduction of new technologies into the community.

Knowledge should serve public interest, not the agenda of corporations. It must be independent of commercial interests and of government control.

Public funds should be allocated primarily to research that benefits society as a whole.

Knowledge should make the world equitable and life-enhancing for all its inhabitants. It should address people’s emotional and spiritual as well as physical needs. It gives meaning and value to their way of life, and in that sense is profoundly holistic. Its first aim is to do no harm, to human beings or to other species. It must respect basic human rights and dignity.

The way forward

We need to substantially alter the way knowledge is acquired and applied. In particular, we need to transform the way scientific research is conducted in the west as well as the areas funded.

Working science partnerships

Scientists should work much more closely, if not directly, with local communities, in order that people’s concerns and aspirations can help shape the research. More importantly, scientists could benefit greatly from local knowledge. Top priority must be given to revitalizing and protecting traditional agricultural and healthcare systems from biopiracy and globalization, and to developing sciences and technologies appropriate for the community.

We recognize that not all research could be done with or within local communities. But even for research that is largely laboratory-based, the scientists should maintain close touch with the community of which they are part, and be responsive and sensitive to people’s concerns.

Science and technologies that should be supported

There are many existing technologies that will make valuable contribution to sustainability. Rather than attempting to produce an exhaustive list of such technologies, we identify them in the context of two areas that desperately need to be funded.

Ecology and energy use in sustainable systems

Sustainable systems refer ultimately to entire ways of life, including agricultural and industrial production, transport, health and economic and social relationships. Of course, subsystems within the whole could also be studied in their own right. The need for energy efficient production and transport technologies is widely accepted. Not as well acknowledged are the following topics:

Science of the organism and holistic health

Many new research programs fall potentially within the general area of “science of the organism.” The emphasis is on non-linear complex dynamics, feedback and coherence, which are necessary for understanding complex systems in general. Especially important is the scientific underpinning of complementary and alternative medical practices, in view of the fact that homeopathy is entering mainstream medicine. The biological effects of mobile phones and other electrical installations in the environment, for example, also requires an appropriate biophysical understanding of the organism. We have identified the following topics:

Criteria of appropriate technologies

Although it is not possible to predict discovery and inventions, the above considerations do allow us to make certain judgements concerning which technologies are appropriate for society, not just at the stage at which the technology is ready for use, but especially at the research and development stage.

Apart from the obvious criteria that the technologies should not be harmful or toxic, there are other features to consider. They should respect human rights and ethical concerns of society. They should not compromise the conditions of life for future generations while benefiting the present. They should be affordable and genuinely improve the lives of all, and not just the rich. In the biomedical realm, for example, this would set a policy for minimum intervention technologies that are effective, that would also minimize the costs of patented procedures and products.

One criterion that is perhaps not so obvious is that the technology should not compromise people’s autonomy and choice, that is, people should not be coerced into using the technology. This is particularly relevant to genetic diagnostic tests targeted at “defective genes” that discriminate against individuals or the unborn, or DNA databases that compromise people’s rights to privacy. Other situations might involve nano-technological implants that cannot easily be removed by the user.

All of these criteria could be subject to debate. We suggest, however, there are existing technologies and research areas that could be targeted for outright bans or discontinuation.

1. Technologies that should be banned:

2. Technologies that should be phased out:

3. Technologies that should be subject to international peaceful control:

4. Research that should be discontinued:

The complete document is posted on the websites of ISIS [http://www.i-sis.org.uk ], SGR [http://www.sgr.org.uk] and TWN [http://www.twnside.org.sg ]. Please e-mail us to express your support, or sign on at the ISIS website. Detailed comments to: Patrick Nicholson, SGR, PO Box 473, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 1GS, UK; Email: PatrickN@sgr.org.uk

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR, U.K. Telephone: [44 20 8731 7714] [44 20 7383 3376] [44 20 7272 5636]. Enquiries email sam@i-sis.org.uk

[18 apr 03]

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