How Do You Make Ethics Sexy?

Ethics. Don't know about you, but I hear that word and I see overly-serious, thin-lipped, pasty-white people wielding heavy legal texts and getting all judgmental on me. Heavy word, that one! In the professional dance of life, if your nametag reads "ethics", you can end up as a terminal wallflower, or worse, on the patrol committee: everyone else is doing the fun stuff while you're over there being Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes. Yikes.

So when I got myself elected to an ethics task force, then an ethics committee, while leading an effort here at Earthwatch to make ethics more prominent in how we define "success," I realized my cool persona was in danger of being compromised if I didn't come up with a plan to make ethics way more enticing. You know, more the party headliner, the rockin' group we all want to dance to.It all started in mid-May, another late night in our office in Maynard (west of Boston!) while I was pondering how to structure an international session on a Code of Ethics, developed to guide relationships between researchers and communities. I was hoping people would help me use this Code to build a how-to "toolkit" for anyone interested in ethical fieldwork, including our Earthwatch scientists and volunteers. But I was wracking my brain, folks. How could I get people to sign up for this session? How do I make ethics sexy?

Oh, and did I mention that this session was scheduled for a Friday night? At the end of a looooonng field trip day? And at a venue mere moments away from the hottest clubbing in Cuzco? Of course it had to be engaging (or at least non-threatening) so that the participants included more than just me, a pile of photocopied copies of that blessed Code, and an assistant over in the corner. Yes, Gentle Readers, at that very moment, I sank my head into my hands and despaired.

Just how did I manage to turn the ethical wallflower into a hot party chick? Well. I'm going to spare you the interim pain of how I cajoled, enticed, prodded and begged people to show up, and fast-forward to that Friday night, several hot-pink-and-neon-green jazzed up emailed invites later. It's June 27th and we have 40+ ethnobiologist-types (we study the connections between all things biological and all things cultural) in a teeny shop in San Blas run by my friend Christo, drinking coca tea (mate de coca), eating coca cookies and coca brownies, and passing around slices of coca pizza.

The fact that we were holding our Code of Ethics session in The Coca Shop — a place devoted to promoting coca-coca-coca (!!) made terrific sense. Coca (Erythroxylum coca) is a native Andean shrub, a sacred plant, and a wonderfully useful plant. It has high nutritional and medicinal value (takes care of altitude sickness and stomach complaints), and ancient cultural and historical roots. Virtually every hotel and hostel lobby in Cuzco had a bowl of fresh coca leaves and a thermos of hot water to make mate de coca. Coca is an ethnobiologist's dream plant — a plant with deep, holistic meaning for hundreds of Andean societies, featuring all sorts of properties begging to be researched.

But Christo's promotion of coca in The Coca Shop has another significance that meshed beautifully with the focus of this Code of Ethics. Some ten years in the making by hundreds of ethnobiologists spanning the globe, this Code covers principles and practices promoting ethical and equitable relationships between researchers and local/indigenous/traditional peoples. It speaks of mutual respect, of human and cultural rights, of benefit sharing, of protecting bio-cultural diversity.

Christo speaks of "green" coca versus "white" coca. Green coca is good; it's healthy, legal, and culturally and economically important. White coca stinks and corrupts everything it touches. Our Code of Ethics is like green coca — we were trying to get back to the fundamental, healthy roots of doing good on the planet. And we were trying to avoid the bad stuff: distrust, mistrust, broken relationships, conflicts, intellectual property lawsuits, human rights abuses and all the stinky stuff that happens when we don't pay attention to ethics.

There we sat, crammed onto sofa, benches, stools, stair steps, and the wooden floor of The Coca Shop, passing around slices of coca pizza for almost three hours. We were scientists, students, indigenous representatives, professors, practitioners, activists, writers, filmmakers, funders (The Christensen Fund, who sponsored the whole pow-wow, hurrah for them!), conference organizers, and at least one lawyer. Fourteen nations were represented that night, including four First Nations. Closer, more meaningful collaborations between communities and scientists was an ongoing theme throughout our International Ethnobiology Congress, and that Friday night involved a lively discussion of how we could do that, and do it more ethically.

We broke into 17 small groups, each taking one of the Code's principles and coming up with examples of positive ways these principles had been, or could be, enacted. We also had questions and concerns about the issues raised by each of the principles. For example, Principles 5 (Active Participation) and 13 (Supporting Indigenous Research), are pretty obvious — the peoples where you do your fieldwork need to be consulted and included in every phase of the research, and it's a good idea to respect each other's viewpoints, expertise, and different ways of doing things. But Principle 15 (Remedial Action) is a lot harder to figure out. What do you do if something goes really, terribly wrong? How do you make things better? Yep, the discussion was really hot!

By the time our special guests — the Andean musical group Kuntur Taki — were strumming on their guitars and blowing into their pan pipes (we danced so hard the floor boards were shaking!), the enormity of what this "Toolkit" was setting out to do hit me with a thump-thump-thump in the chest. We were trying to change how our worlds worked. We were starting a global movement. We were also fumbling in the dark, trying to apply a nifty list of ideals to a very messy world. We were gonna need a whole lotta help

So here's where you fit in, Earthies: if you want to be more active in creating a more "just and sustainable world", then get on board with the way hip network forum of Wiser Earth http://www.wiserearth.org. Then follow this link to the "Ethics Toolkit" on the WiserEarth website, and help us figure it out. And once again, stay tuned. The adventure continues

Image credit::Jeanine Pfeiffer

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