It is an open secret, a blaring announcement stretched to a whisper on the slowly-turning wheels of time: our world is edging towards environmental disaster. In a quest to prevent us from leaving an uninhabitable wasteland of a world behind, the communitarian African philosophy of Ubuntu has been proposed as an alternative ecological framework that ought to guide environmental policy. While these attempts to reframe the ecological debate are well-intentioned, in practice, the traditional Ubuntu ethic is insufficient (and even inconsistent) in a world where the dominant ideology is that of global capitalism. Nonetheless, the ethic, equipped with its radical egalitarian tenets, can inform an action plan that effectively tackles the crisis. This cannot be done without rethinking shallow interpretations of harmony and discord which lend themselves to a platitudinous status quo. In order to address the problem of environmental sustainability, a Revolutionary Ubuntu, reinforced by its Marxist elements, must be forged.
The case for Ubuntu is made by Dr. Edwin Etieyibo, a prominent voice on African philosophy (and my lecturer on the subject), in his paper The Ethical Dimension of Ubuntu and its Relationship to Environmental Sustainability. Etieyibo argues that Ubuntu, in its nature as a communitarian school of thought, equips us with an alternative approach that allows for sustainable use of the earth’s resources. This, he says, is in contrast to individualistic capitalist models which commoditise the global ecosystem and serve to exacerbate ecological disasters like global warming and climate change. These sentiments are by no means misguided. However, if Ubuntu is to become a credible alternative, it is necessary to locate it within the current socio-political, and global economic, context. While some tenets of Ubuntu, upon which Etieyibo places emphasis, are indeed necessary to achieve environmental sustainability, they are not sufficient. The classical Ubuntu ethic, for as long as it stubbornly clings to its distaste for confrontation, is incapable of indicting the perpetrators of ecological degradation. For the current, worsening state of the ecosphere was not an inevitable one – it did not simply happen. The degradation of nature is not a feature of nature. The scientific evidence is unambiguous, and damning. The current ecological disaster was caused. An opponent has been dancing around the ring unchallenged, winning round after round by default. If the proponents of the Ubuntu ethic wish to change this, we cannot continue to aimlessly shadowbox.
What sort of muscle, then, do we have to work with? The Ubuntu ethic is defined as an attitude which prioritises the ‘greater good’, through what Etyiebo calls ‘caring and sharing’. Within the Ubuntu ethic, the promotion of harmony, and reduction of discord, is paramount. Classically, mediation and conciliation are seen as superior to conflict and confrontation. This is crucial (and indeed, classical Ubuntu’s crucial caveat).
If we are to allow ourselves a little more analytic indulgence: ‘Caring’ is similar to the principle of autonomy in Kant’s categorical imperative and is defined as a form of solidarity, which encourages individuals to make the ends of others their own, to adopt one another’s struggles. In summary, I shall define it as a rallying cry: I struggle because you are struggling; I revolt because we are. ‘Sharing’ concerns an attitude towards resources – to share is to recognise that one’s resources may be needed more by others and to redistribute them in accordance with that need. If the definition of ‘caring’ is extended to include adopting the ends of the common good as one’s own (after all, within Ubuntu, I am because we are), then this tenet of the Ubuntu ethic is best summed up by the popular communist dictum, first used by Louis Blanc and later popularised by Marx – “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
Ubuntu’s explicit reverence for community is in stark contrast to the dominant ideology in the ‘developed’ world, which is one of neoliberal capitalism – built on the idea that if individuals pursue their selfish interests, it will result in economic growth which will better the lives of all. Adam Smith argued, in his work of the same name, that social and economic inequality is necessary to increase the Wealth of Nations. It is within this dispensation that our current ecological disaster locates itself. It is in opposition to this dispensation that our proposed solution must be defined.
The opponent is in his corner, the ring has been readied – now, finally, let’s step onto the canvas.
Lovably-obscene Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that problems of environmental sustainability are problems of the ‘commons’, where individuals and corporations are attempting to privatise the “foundation of our being”. This tendency has placed undue strain on the earth’s limited resources. Its endemic myopia is poisoning the planet. The commons, which, in tandem with the community, is foundational within Ubuntu, is being gravely neglected. Indeed, the capitalist order is not simply unhelpful in achieving the goal of environmental sustainability; in its free market manifestation, it directly opposes it.
In her relatively-recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein puts forward the argument that problems of climate change are “more grounded in capitalism than they are in carbon.” For example, Klein cites the apparent conundrum surrounding fossil fuels and argues that, if we simply disregard the free market gospel, by reigning in corporations, rebuilding local economies and bolstering working class representation, we can wean ourselves off unsustainable fossil fuels. In prioritising growth, and making the implicit assumption that growth can continue indefinitely, global capitalism is to blame for much of our impending ecological disaster. The problem is structural and hence, according to Klein, requires us to radically rethink the current economic system. This is where the departure from the classical Ubuntu ethic occurs, since what is necessary to apply it in a meaningful way is a confrontation with the cold gears of the global capitalist machine.
To believe that an approach grounded in Ubuntu will be adopted by the ruling classes voluntarily is to capitulate to excessive idealism. Changes in the dynamic between individuals will have no impact upon environmental sustainability if the dynamic between power and people remains unchanged. Interpersonal caring and sharing means little if a small group of individuals are allowed to act against the common interest, while the wealth of nations is not shared among the people of those nations. The adoption of the ethic of caring and sharing should not be supererogatory for the bourgeoisie, the class which owns and controls the means of production. Allowing the ideals of Ubuntu to guide environmental policy will require the creation of a dispensation where the ‘commons’ is prioritised. In order for a culture of the ‘public good’ to be created, structures which concentrate resources in the hands of a few individuals need to be dismantled.
Those allied with the current capitalist order will question whether it is truly necessary to radically reform, or dismantle it in order to achieve environmental sustainability. The response lies in the nature of the free market they defend. In a climate where success is gauged principally in terms of profit and economic growth, while no serious consideration is given to solidarity and the protection of the commons, there is no good market reason to promote environmental sustainability. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, argued against private property by pointing out that it has already been done away with for the vast majority of the population. For as long as the bourgeoisie, which is unaccountable to the community, is capable of destroying the commons through its use of the means of production, the global ecosystem is at the mercy of a minority. The current order needs to be radically restructured because it is unacceptable that the fate of the commons is dependent upon the whims of the bourgeoisie.
Real world problems require us to confront the structures and systems of the real world. To fail in this project is to fall prey to fallacies of detached abstraction and excessive idealism. What is argued for here is neither a new Maoist or Leninist Party, nor a repeat of the horrors of Stalinism, but rather a radical reaffirmation of the egalitarian principles which underlie both Marxism and Ubuntu. This can only work if the latter is isolated from its tendencies of non-confrontation and made to take a stand against the reckless capitalism that has been systematically degrading the environment. We cannot settle for an illusion of harmony within a system of normalised, deceptive discord.
With each passing round, our absence from the ring strengthens our opponent and weakens the ecosphere. The bell has been rung by the heavy hand of capital. For the sake of the commons, the people must reclaim the arena.