LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Kevin Behrens

November 15th, 2023

Ubuntu’s focus on shame and reintegration could help solve climate change

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Kevin Behrens

November 15th, 2023

Ubuntu’s focus on shame and reintegration could help solve climate change

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ubuntu’s emphasis on re-integrative shaming may offer hope of a solution to the intractable commons problem of Global Climate Change, writes Kevin G. Behrens.

Given how well the global community has responded to challenges like Covid-19, natural disasters and other serious threats to the well-being of large numbers of people, it is strange how ineffective the global response to climate change has been. When it comes to this massive threat to humanity, even though the global community knows that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or find ways to sequestrate carbon dioxide, we have been woefully incapable of coming up with a global agreement with sufficient teeth to ensure the co-operation between nations that is required to avert a fast-unfolding crisis.

How can we make sense of this failure? In his influential article “A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption” Stephen Gardiner provides cogent reasons for our failure to do the right thing in the face of climate change. He describes climate change as a “tragedy of the commons”. Gardiner draws an analogy between farmers who share a piece of grazing land (a commons) and the climate change crisis. For the commons to be used sustainably, there has to be an agreement stipulating the number of animals each farmer can have on the commons so that it does not become overgrazed.

Although every farmer knows that it is in their common interest not to “cheat” and add extra animals, it is in their individual interest to graze as many animals as possible on the land. Unfortunately, if too many farmers do this, the commons will eventually be unable to provide sustenance to any animals. The same problem applies to the global agreements that have been made to try to reduce atmospheric carbon. There is a significant temptation for some countries to fail to meet their targets, because their short-term interests may seem more important to them than the long-term interests of the whole global community.

Commons problems are notoriously difficult to solve. As Gardiner explains, the only way to ensure that parties all co-operate is to change the incentive structure, so that it becomes more rational to co-operate than not to. Typically, this can only happen where sanctions can be applied to parties who do not co-operate. The inability of the global community to apply such sanctions explains why the commons problem of climate change is so difficult to solve. The prospects for solving this problem seem bleak, yet solving this seemingly intractable problem might just be the single most important challenge facing contemporary society.

There is a potential that Ubuntu has the resources to help solve this difficult problem. Intuitively, it seems that a communitarian ethic, like Ubuntu, might be more promising in this regard than the more individualistic moral theories typical in so-called Western societies.

As a consequence of its preference for reconciliation over retribution, Ubuntu calls for something along the lines of what Braithwaite calls “re-integrative shaming”. That is, when a party has acted in such a way as to cause harm to others in the community, the community has a responsibility to confront that party with evidence of the harm they have done, with the purpose of getting them to acknowledge their wrongdoing and to seek re-integration into the community.

The global community has found it difficult to impose enforceable sanctions on countries that do not adhere to their climate change targets, or who seek to avoid taking responsibility at all. Ubuntu suggests that what could make the difference is for the global community to shame these uncooperative countries, not in a stigmatising way, but in a way that encourages them to acknowledge the harm they have done and to seek to be re-integrated into the global community by committing to co-operate in the future.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu first became known to a global audience in the final years of Apartheid in South Africa. Popularised by prominent anti-Apartheid activists like archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world began to hear about an Africa moral philosophy that sought not just to defeat the oppressive regime, but also to free the oppressor from being an oppressor. At its core Ubuntu was about radical reconciliation. The aim was to win over those who had perpetrated so much harm and acted so inhumanly, not just to see them punished, but to integrate them into the new reality. Ubuntu would prefer to see offenders acknowledge the wrongness of their actions and seek to make right with those they had harmed, than shun them.

This thinking was embodied in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission prioritised the need to hear the full truth of the atrocities committed by the Apartheid system. Victims and their families were able to confront their abusers directly, shaming them by making them hear what pain they had caused. But, throughout, the intention was that, where possible, reconciliation should be sought before retribution. While perpetrators would be shamed by hearing testimony of the harm they had done, the hope was always that there would be confession, remorse, apology and a re-integration into the community.

The role of shame

While Ubuntu prioritises seeking reconciliation between parties when one has harmed another, it does not ask for cheap forgiveness. It also insists that the perpetrator hear the testimony of those who have been harmed, and come face-to-face with their accusers. This is what Braithwaite calls re-integrative shaming”. Shaming is one of the means communities have always used to discourage antisocial behaviour. In African ethical thought, shaming may be used with the intention of restoring disrupted relationships, but it should be used in a way that does not become a barrier to the reintegration of the offender into the community. It is quite distinct from Braithwaite’s notion of “disintegrative shaming”, which is characterised by stigmatising and exclusion.

The global community might be a long way from a climate change agreement that can be enforced. However, citizens of the world, activists, community organisations, the media and social media can shame those actors who refuse to take responsibility for preventing climate change. They can tell their stories of how they and their descendants are being harmed. They can confront offenders with truth, in a way that encourages them to make amends and to commit to co-operating to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. They can deprive these offenders of excuses for inaction by showing how harmful their neglect is.

This is by no means a fully fleshed-out idea yet, but perhaps Ubuntu can offer hope for a solution to the intractable commons problem that is climate change. Perhaps integrative shaming, on a large enough scale, could succeed where international agreements have so far failed.


Photo credit: NASA used with permission CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

About the author

Kevin-Behrens

Kevin Behrens

Kevin Behrens holds a doctorate in Public Philosophy and Ethics. He is Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research interests lie in applied ethics - in particular, bioethics and environmental ethics. A major emphasis in his work is on applying African moral philosophical notions to ethical questions.

Posted In: Environment | Philosophy | Ubuntu

Leave a Reply

Bad Behavior has blocked 10992 access attempts in the last 7 days.