What is Ubuntu and could the philosophy help us address climate change?

Many practical changes are needed to tackle climate change and other environmental problems, but as we also need changes in our own lives, it helps to have motivation and inspiration. Common motivations are a sense of responsibility, pure pragmatism, fear of the future, being a good citizen, etc. But if you’re looking for a different, perhaps more beautiful motivation to do something about global problems like climate change, Ubuntu could be for you.

What is Ubuntu?

I was introduced to it at a conference about 10 years ago where Archbishop Desmond Tutu passionately talked about it. Ubuntu comes from South Africa (in Tanzania it’s called Ujamaa) and simply means: I am because we are.

It has a few properties:

Ubuntu recognizes that your personal wellbeing is dependent on that of the greater whole, including that of other people and nature. For example, we are fully dependent on well functioning ecosystems around us. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the climate, it’s all dependent on the wellbeing of other life: From plants and trees to animals and insects and even the bacteria in our soil.

When it comes to people the principle still applies. In area’s where there is a lot of poverty and inequality, crime rates tend to be higher and even wealthy people are less happy compared to areas where there is less extreme inequality and poverty. When poverty and extreme inequality decrease it generally leads to a drop in crime and the happiness of everyone in the area improves.

Ubuntu does not preach or scare you to display moral behavior, but it’s a descriptive principle. Its natural result is behavior that is concerned with the greater good. It uses our drive for growth and expands its focus to include other people and nature. Because if you realize that your wellbeing is dependent on that of other people and nature, you naturally care more for their wellbeing.

Ubuntu is pro humanity. Some more extreme environmental movements seem to have gone in that direction where they see humanity like a plague that is damaging the earth. While from a certain perspective that is true, it doesn’t take into account the value of human beings. Ubuntu does take this into account.

How Ubuntu applies to climate change

Climate change, plastic soup, biodiversity loss and many more crisises are almost forcing us to think of our impact on the planet in our daily lives. Because our actions, big and small, from individuals, companies and governments, all have an impact that determines the future quality of our lives. This was never before the case: we had to be concerned about ourselves, our family, our community and perhaps our country, but never about the planet as a whole. So it requires some mental and emotional gymnastics, especially because there is also a time delay between our actions (emitting carbon) and the effects of them that we experience (climate crisis).

Ubuntu could help us with these gymnastics. The Ubuntu makes it clear with a short sentence that we are factually interconnected and that the fruits of our actions regarding nature and those around us will come back to us and the people we care about. This sense of connection can serve as a beautiful non-cynical source of motivation to make the required changes in our lives, organizations and governments.

For some this all might sound a bit lofty: Are facts and figures not enough motivation? But there are people who need something more than that. And if you’re one of them, it might help to remind yourself of Ubuntu every now and then.

Criticisms: individual freedom and game theory

Some critics of Ubuntu have said that if you interpret it as a strict rule, it leads to situations where the interests of the group are always seen as more important than individual freedom. But Ubuntu doesn’t require such an interpretation and can also simply be used as a cultural guiding principle for individuals with freedom, rather than a dictating law.

Another criticism is coming from game theory. It says that if individuals, companies and governments do too much for the common good, they become less competitive and lose their position and wealth to others that are more ruthless. A fair criticism, but it makes a few false assumptions:

First of all, Ubuntu doesn’t mean you completely forget about your own position and wealth. It is in the common interest as well that individuals, companies and governments that do good don’t lose their position or all their wealth so that they can continue to do good. Nelson Mandela, a proponent of Ubuntu also said it like this: “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. But are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”.

Secondly, there are many things we can do regarding climate change that can be profitable and don’t worsen our position and wealth. For instance if you put solar panels on your roof, you are less affected by rising gas prices. A diet without meat can save you money (depending on what you buy as a replacement). Taking that 20 min ride by bike is free and keeps you healthy. And for companies that need to do environmental investments that cost a lot of capital, like only using recycled materials, there are often subsidies available. Or the investments can be used to promote their products as environmentally friendly and increase revenue that way.

The next step towards a sustainable life

If you feel like putting Ubuntu to practice this might be for you: By letting us plant trees for you in Tanzania to offset your carbon footprint you also get access to the program ‘In harmony with earth’ where you learn more and more about how to make most environmentally friendly choices to make in life. So order your trees now:

Share with your friends


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *