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Ubuntu and the Climate Crisis


Is Ubuntu the right philosophy for the relationships that we have among ourselves? Does it include the relationship that we have with nature around us? More importantly, will it help us tackle the climate crisis that we are facing now?

Ubuntu is about collective humanity. It says, 'I am because we are.' According to Ubuntu, a person is a person through other people. It is about confirming to actions and thoughts, which are collective. At its core, it is avoiding activities that harm other people, as it will ultimately harm you – I am because you are. Ubuntu says we are because you are and, since you are, definitely I am.

The highly respected South African figure, Reverend Desmond Tutu, explains Ubuntu like this:

"A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good. This is based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness, you can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – ubuntu – you are known of your generosity."

Ubuntu puts humanity as a mirror to itself. We are because you are. Since you are, I am. It does not mean that the right of the individual is sold to the collective. Individual uniqueness is also appreciated.

So how do we relate the tenets of Ubuntu to the environmental crisis that we are facing? I think my interpretation of this is that you cannot harm the fundamental thing that your society depends on, because harming society is hurting yourself. It contradicts with the Western individualistic and anthropocentric view, which implies that the basic purpose of being human is to serve oneself. Individualism does not place big value on being part of the community or the community as a mirror of the self. If you stretch this concept to include the whole of humanity, then there would not be colonialism or oppression of one nation by another or even racism. According to Ubuntu, racism and colonialism diminish the racist and the colonialist. There will be a sense of justice in the world. Climate justice will follow from that.

Western individualism, I feel, is one of the root causes of the environmental crisis that we are facing. Accumulation of wealth and rampant destruction of nature emanates from looking at life as the 'other.' This 'othering' is not Ubuntu. There is no 'other' in Ubuntu.We can extend the concept of Ubuntu to other beings in our environment. Harming the animals and plants around us is harming ourselves. That is why the philosophy of indigenous people, of which Ubuntu belongs, respects nature and sees nature as an extension. Restricting Ubuntu to only human beings, as the current interpretation of the concept goes, limits its applicability. It also does not do justice to the African view of nature as an extension of the human community, instead of something out there.

I remember once walking in the forest of Sheka, a district in the South West of Ethiopia, with the spiritual leader of the Ateso community, called Atestata. He is a tall man with a warm smile and an air of calmness surrounds him. He was reading the forest to me, describing every little stream and lake that we crossed and every big tree and forest patch that we passed. Walking a little bit in front of me as if to assert his authority, he was saying 'Do you see this stream, it is sacred. We used to sacrifice a lamb to make sure that it continues to flow.’ A few steps later, 'do you see that little lake, it is sacred, and we have a ritual every other year to honour it and to thank our ancestors for keeping our land safe?' He glances and points to a tall tree 'Do you see that tree? It is sacred, and we keep it in our prayers when we pray to our god.' When we reach a small hill, he points at a part of a forest, which looked thicker, 'do you see that forest, it is sacred, and nobody can even cut grass from it, except where they put their beehives.' Every stream, every pond and every patch of forest, every animal is sacred to him and the community. I think that is for me Ubuntu too.

Ubuntu can certainly serve as a basis for environmentalism, as a way of getting out of the climate crisis that we are facing. In this highly connected and highly interlinked digital age, Ubuntu applies to the global community. ‘I am because we are’ can be a mantra for global climate justice movement, because more than anything else, the climate agenda is truly global. What is happening in some parts of the world is raking problems in another part. Climate induced conflict and migration can be one example. Let us act as one because ‘we are because I am.’

Million Belay coordinates the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a network of major organisations in Africa. He is a founder of MELCA – Ethiopia, an indigenous NGO working on issues of agro-ecology, intergenerational learning, advocacy and livelihood improvement of local and indigenous peoples. Million has been working over two decades on the issues of intergenerational learning of bio-cultural diversity, sustainable agriculture, the right of local communities for seed and food sovereignty and forest issues. His main interest is now advocacy on food sovereignty, learning among generations, knowledge dialogues and the use of participatory mapping for social learning, identity building and mobilization of memory for resilience.


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