Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Kerry Bowman

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Kerry Bowman

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By: Yousef Manialawy

Dr. Kerry Bowman is a clinical ethicist at Mount Sinai Hospital and an assistant professor within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He is additionally affiliated with the School of the Environment and the Joint Centre for Bioethics, and has held a faculty position in the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) since 2010.  Dr. Bowman is a leader in in addressing complex bioethical questions regarding end-of-life decision-making, cross-cultural healthcare delivery, genetic engineering, and emerging medical technologies. He is also a renowned conservationist, whose passionate interest in environmental protection has led him to venture around the world and work with leading organizations, such as the United Nations Environmental Programme. He is additionally the founder of the Canadian Ape Alliance, an organisation dedicated to protecting gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The IMS Magazine sat down with Dr. Bowman to examine the driving forces behind his illustrious career and delve into his views on pressing ethical and environmental issues.

Before we launch into your work, could you explain how you came to be a part of the IMS?

I was originally a medical social worker at Toronto Western Hospital in the early 90s, where I became incredibly interested in bioethics, specifically, in the area of end-of-life decisions after spending a lot of time overseas. In the intensive care unit, I often witnessed profound differences in cultural reactions and choices to end-of-life decisions. This spurred the interest of my doctoral thesis, which I originally proposed to the Faculty of Social Work. Despite my degrees in social work, the Faculty felt that my proposed thesis was too medically-focused. Thus, I decided to pursue IMS, and I was grateful upon being accepted. I was initially nervous, but the structure, clarity, rigor and focus of a medical science degree helped me complete my PhD quickly and efficiently. After completing my doctoral thesis, I was recruited by IMS as a faculty member.

How has bioethics changed and what are some of the greatest bioethical challenges facing society today?

Bioethics and medicine have both changed enormously. The influences of emerging global perspectives and globalization have made bioethics far more complex and multi-faceted today than it was in the 90s. With regards to the greatest bioethical challenge, while trending topics of euthanasia and artificial intelligence are important, the biggest challenge is to ensure equal access to healthcare for all; it’s so profoundly irregular that it truly is a massive challenge and it must be addressed.

In addition to being a clinical bioethicist, you are also involved in several environmental initiatives, going so far as to establish a gorilla conservation organization–Canadian Ape Alliance. What led you to become so heavily involved in conservation efforts half a world away?

The original focus on conservation and the great apes began many years ago when I volunteered on a research project to collect data on wild orangutans in Sumatra. My very first experience involved working with wild orangutan orphans. Making eye contact with an orangutan, I realized that this was an intimate, two-way, human-like encounter; while I was trying to figure him out, he was trying to figure me out as well. It was a pivotal point for me when I realized how similar we were. This has stuck with me over the years.

Consistent with your environmental efforts, in recent years you have become a strong advocate for environmental ethics and its importance in establishing environmentally sustainable practices. Does it tie into bioethics and, if so, how?

Environmental ethics is a component of bioethics that we need to take into greater account. From the perspective of justice, living unsustainably has unjust implications for current and future generations. One of the issues from an ethical point of view is the destructive belief that human life is rightly elevated to all other forms of life, while non-human life is viewed as a commodity; this is a dangerous and irresponsible view. So, environmental ethics can ultimately be labelled as a social movement. People are beginning to think much more deeply about how they live and consider what their obligations are to non-human life, the environment, and to future generations.

You have travelled extensively as part of your research into environmental ethics. Some of your most notable visits include meetings with North Korean environmental researchers and indigenous groups deep within the Amazon. What did you hope to learn from these meetings, and what came of them?

I’ve met with North Korean environmentalists on three occasions. People often laugh to hear that North Korea is concerned about the environment, but they very much are. I had the opportunity to see the kinds of challenges they were facing and to share ideas and insights. From these meetings, it was evident that that North Koreans aren’t what the media portray them as, but in fact very intelligent, sophisticated people struggling with some of the same issues that we are. On the flipside, they could see that we weren’t what they had been told we were, either. I’m not a believer that the government should be the only group who should be responsible for these kinds of international contacts. It often doesn’t work and I think on smaller levels these bottom-up approaches can be more effective. Environmentalists meeting with environmentalists rather than massive governments deciding whether there’ll be any kind of communication between the two makes more sense to me.

As for the indigenous people of the Amazon, there are significant differences between indigenous peoples in South America compared to North America. There are still people in parts of Brazil and Peru that remain uncontacted and continue to live as they did 10,000 years ago. Nations sharing the rainforest have protected large swathes of land as indigenous territory. For example, one area in Brazil is the size of Austria. By protecting people in these large areas, you’re protecting the environment as well. As you would move deeper into protected indigenous territory, biodiversity levels would rise very quickly, and ecosystems were clearly intact. So, by protecting indigenous land, from a human rights point of view, you are also protecting people who have a right to live the way they choose to. But you’re also making a huge contribution to the world in terms of climate protection.

With the ever-increasing threat of climate change, many people are burdened with a sense of hopelessness regarding humanity’s ability to effectively address the issue. What do you say to these people?

I would say that individuals can do a lot, and that hopelessness is a very negative perspective that shouldn’t be adopted. Nature has tremendous resilience and will heal if given a chance. I’m also encouraged by the generational shift in which younger people are increasingly concerned about the environment. As solutions are emerging everywhere, I actually think there is quite a bit of hope.