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Mandela's Legacy for Climate Activists

Mandela's Legacy for Climate Activists

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Published by Alex Lenferna
While climate change was not the issue that defined Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, a reflection on Mandela’s philosophy and life reveals a profound overlap with the principles and commitments of the climate justice movement, and therein lies many important lessons not only for the climate community but for humanity as a whole to learn from.
While climate change was not the issue that defined Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, a reflection on Mandela’s philosophy and life reveals a profound overlap with the principles and commitments of the climate justice movement, and therein lies many important lessons not only for the climate community but for humanity as a whole to learn from.

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Published by: Alex Lenferna on Jul 12, 2013
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Mandela’s Legacy for Climate Activists
By Alex Lenferna - alexlenferna@gmail.com
As the life of one of the world’s great heroes draws to a close, many will hopefully use hi
s passing not tospeculate on the downfall of South Africa, nor to claim ownership of his legacy, but rather to reflect backon
Nelson Mandela’s
long and courageous life in order to draw inspiration
from one of the world’s
 moral stalwarts who weathered the storms of oppression, racism, injustice and inequality and not onlymanaged to come out of the other side a smiling, compassionate and forgiving leader, but in doing sonavigated a path through those storms which has helped to inspire generations of leaders to come.As I attempt to do just that, please join me as a proud South African, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, a great
admirer of Mandela’s life
and work, and a climate activist and philosopher deeply inspired by Mandela,as I reflect back on and celebrate the life of my hero and the hero of so many others and draw on thelessons he has to offer us in an attempt to find inspiration to help build the climate movement. In doingso I hope to
honour Tata Madiba’s memory the best way I know how, by building on it to create a better
world. Of course,
Mandela’s name is not one synonymous with climate change and so the
aim of this
article might seem strange. However, while climate change was not the issue that defined Mandela’s“Long Walk to Freedom”, a reflection on Mandela’s philosophy and
life reveals a profound overlap withthe principles and commitments of the climate justice movement, and therein lies many importantlessons not only for the climate community but for humanity as a whole to learn from.
Mandela’s Cosmopolitan Ubuntu
: A Foundation for Climate Ethics
“We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation,
suffering, gender, and other discrimination
We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace. We understand that 
there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as united people for reco
 for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all, let there be peace for all 
Nelson MandelaIt has often struck
me that the above excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural
address as president of South Africa should be used as the opening pledge of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, as well asany other United Nations meeting for that matter.
However, while the aims in Madiba’s speech are near
on universally aspired towards, they are underpinned by a deeply African philosophical commitment to
the interdependence and interconnectedness of people, the broader realization of which could helpbring together the global community to shape the sort of response needed to a global crisis like climatechange that connects all of humanity together into a collective destiny born of our shared atmosphere
and planet, our shared home…
 In Mandela
native isiXhosa tongue the saying ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’
is a maxim whichunderpins the philosophy of Ubuntu. Roughly translated, it means that a person is a person throughother people. T
hat a person’s identity, their personhood
and humanity, is inextricably tied into thepersonhood of others. What this means is that your well-being, your ability to thrive and live a fullhuman life is only possible through the thriving of your community. To paraphrase Mandela, trueenrichment is naturally aligned with the duty to act towards the growth and well-
being of one’s
Many have interpreted this as a narrow ethic confined to the limits of one’s own
tribe,regional community or nation, but for Madiba the scope of Ubuntu expanded to all of humanity, to thecommunity made up of each and every one of us.
One could call this Madiba’s Cosmopolitan Ubuntu,
and for Madiba it is tied into the recognition that every human being is inherently valuable and has aright to dignity and a decent life.
 Contrary to a strong individualism which permeates the Western world, the ethic of Ubuntu, whencombined w
ith Mandela’s cosmopolitan valuing
of all humanity, would allow us to see that theenrichment or development of one individual, one community or one nation is not truly enrichment if itis achieved at the expense of other individuals, other communities, other nations or future generations.Perhaps within this profound philosophy lies the kernel of a definition of sustainable development, one
based on becoming a positive part of one’s broader community
. If we accept such a philosophy thengiven our knowledge of anthropogenic climate change, our drive to enrich ourselves through the use of greenhouse gas intensive modes of development at the expense of our climate, our planet and the well-being of current and future generations, should not be seen as true development but something thatviolates Ubuntu, diminishes our humanity and makes us as individuals, nations, and as a globalcommunity, less than we could otherwise be.
Some have even gone so far as to connect the philosophy of Ubuntu not only to making all of humanity part of our community and identity, but also all living beings. This has deep resonance in much Eastern philosophy as wellas with an emerging strand of Western Environmental Philosophy.
Climate Justice & Ubuntu
Underlying Ubuntu for Mandela was the belief that
each person had a common ‘core of decency’
, withinwhich lay the potential to achieve the principles of Ubuntu.
However, teaching a lion to eat grass mightbe easier than convincing Shell and BP to live according to the principles of Ubuntu for we have createdsoulless institutions which are bereft of such a core. Thus relying on voluntary commitment to theprinciples of uBuntu to help us weather the
perfect moral storm of climate change
would indeed benaïve in the face of incredibly powerful institutions who have no such core.Mandela realized that Ubuntu was about more than defining
one’s own identity
through Ubuntu andthat a commitment to Ubuntu was also permeated by questions of justice, and that it is to the demandsof justice that we must hold both ourselves & our institutions accountable when we fall so drasticallyshort of the mark. Enforcing this point at the 2005 Make Poverty History fundraiser concert, Mandelatook the stage and gave a rallying cry to make poverty history. For Mandela,
like slavery and apartheid,poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human
being”. Thus, Mandela
, “o
vercoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life
Although Mandela might not of known it, the statement he made has particular pertinence for climatechange, for our continued emissions pathway coupled with our failure to act and act with urgency,especially the failure of those in positions of power, affluence and wealth, may very well halt and thenreverse the progress we have made on reducing poverty, leading to poverty the scale of which thisworld has never seen before. Indeed, a
s the Stern Report points out, “Climate change threatens the
basic elements of life for people around the world - access to water, food production, health, and use
of land and the environment”
(Stern, 2007, p. vi). And, according to the 2013 UN Human DevelopmentReport, climate change and other environmental disasters could put an additional 3.1 billion people intoextreme poverty by 2050 if no significant steps are taken.Thus, like poverty for Mandela, climate change and its detrimental effects are a manmade problem andnot a question of charity, rather a matter of justice, especially for the global poor and future generationsfor whom addressing climate change is about the protection of fundamental human rights, such as theright to dignity and a decent life, and often even the right to life itself.
Given this stark reality Mandela’s
Cf. Claire Oppenheim

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