African philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ can help us fight climate crisis

Indigenous philosophy focuses on altruism; climate impact on developing world greater, so alternates to Western environmentalism needed

By Tanya Mittal
Published: Monday 27 March 2023
Ubuntu’s philosophical paradigm will help us focus on and rebuild our relationship with the natural world and prioritise interconnectedness. Photo: iStock

Climate change is not just one person’s battle and it surely doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. The need for individuals and societies to think about and act on climate change is stronger than ever. 

Climate disasters like storms, wildfires and floods in the last 10 years caused losses of around 0.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per year globally, reported Swiss Re, a global insurance firm.

Read more: Climate crisis: We are not individuals fighting a faceless system — we are the system that needs to change

Exposure to and costs from climate change is adverse but unequal, affecting the developing world more than the developed world. 

Countries in South Asia and Africa are likely to be hit the hardest, especially in narrow economic terms. For instance, recent studies note that the likely cost of two degrees Celsius of global warming is 5 per cent of GDP in India, 4 per cent in Africa, but only 0.5 per cent in the United States. 

These numbers bear on questions of distributive justice, even apart from the causes of climate change. In fact, despite minimal contribution to global warming over the past century, India is among the countries that face the highest risk of the impact, resulting in massive urban and rural displacement.

Ever wondered how philosophy, especially drawn from African customs, could help us tackle the macro-level repercussions of climate change? 

The African word Ubuntu, which means ‘humanity to others’, invokes a spirit of collective, global and regional inter-governmental action, as well as communal and individual efforts to resolve the complex climate crisis.

To explain Ubuntu, let’s look at a short story of an anthropological study conducted on the customs and habits of South African tribes. The children of this community were shown a basket of fruits which they could claim by winning a foot race and reaching the finish line. 

The anthropologist who was conducting this study decorated the basket and kept it by a tree which he marked as the finish line. He asked the children to run to the tree and the first one to get there could eat all the fruit. So, the children all lined up, waiting for a green signal. 

When the anthropologist shouted “run”, the children took each other by the hand and ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided the fruits amongst themselves and began eating. 

Read more: `Bioregionalism could become a global movement'

Much to the anthropologist’s surprise, who was expecting a single winner, the children helped clarify the true meaning of Ubuntu with a simple sentence, “How could any of us be happy if all the others were sad?”

This story is an eye-opener to look at climate change differently. 

A western approach to policymaking places advanced technology trends as the key solutions to the climate crisis at hand, but often at the expense of indigenous practices. Philosophy is the perfect starting point for this if our objective is to change the dominant way of thinking about the issue of climate change. 

Focusing purely on scientific solutions is not enough. We need interdisciplinary research with a stronger focus on qualitative approaches to produce new insights and unorthodox solutions.

The philosophical paradigm will help us focus on and rebuild our relationship with the natural world and prioritise interconnectedness. 

“Ubuntu might serve as a counterweight to the rampant individualism that’s all-so pervasive in today’s times,” said Kenyan scholar James Ogude. The statement holds water in a post-pandemic era. Transitioning into a greener world is inevitably going to cost a lot.

The recent Global Risks Report 2023 helps to answer this question by identifying the top three risks related to the macroeconomic problem of our changing climate: threatening global energy shortage, followed by the increasing cost of living, inflation, and dip in food supplies. 

Economies will be systematically impacted by these risks and have two-fold impacts, according to the report. 

  • Physical impacts include property damage and a rise in average temperatures and 
  • Transition risks result from the adjustment to a low-carbon economy, so it will be important to consider how different societies deploy resources, use technology, and roll out domestic regulations and policies. 

Decarbonisation will also require large sums of investment while presenting opportunities across many sectors. Hence, the financial sector is increasingly incorporating climate risk into prudential regulation. 

Read more: Three things historical literature can teach us about the climate crisis

This noble concept must be fully supported, both in principle and through changes in employment practices. Green and sustainable financing can promote viable economic growth that does not compromise our future. 

While we pride ourselves on the development concept, we forget that we need sustainable development! The issue needs to be addressed at the level of every human being. 

Ubuntu is crucial but, unfortunately, not adequately represented in academic discourses and global debates. This indigenous philosophy provides an alternative way of thinking to Western environmentalism, focusing on altruism. 

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.