Climate Justice and Ubuntu: Durban Searches for Community-led Climate Solutions

by Chris Connolly, Sustainable Cities International

Imagine Durban, the long-term planning department of Durban’s eThekwini municipality, hosted a public discussion on climate justice recently as part of its efforts to stimulate public discussion on important sustainability issues. The subject was a topical one given all the local climate change hoopla taking place in the run-up to the COP17 climate negotiations1 in late November. Luckily, Imagine Durban made good on its promise of doing things differently within the municipality by inviting two speakers that could not have offered a more clear contrast: on the one hand, Dr. Timothy Adebayo Fasheun, who presented as a representative of the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs & Rural Development; on the other hand, Bobby Peek, who spoke in his capacity as Director of the South African grassroots environmental justice organization groundWork. The night began with Dr. Fasheun’s presentation, whose respectful allusion to the pair’s previous differences of opinion foreshadowed the animated and highly contested discussions that were to come. He then offered a presentation with a more-or-less conventional framing of climate change as an urgent technocratic challenge requiring pressing but incremental government investment in clean energy alternatives. Mr. Peek then took the podium and immediately challenged the audience to think critically about the often-ignored injustices around the production and distribution of energy, and to rediscover our sense of solidarity in combatting them.

The presentations underlined three really important contrasts in terms of how climate change and its proposed solutions should be framed. These touched on (1) our understanding of justice (and injustice); (2) the level at which proposed solutions should play out; and (3) the meaning of citizenship. These contrasts run deeper than climate change and energy policy; they are present in our understanding and approach to all social justice areas, whether that is the pursuit of affordable housing, adequate labour conditions, access to health care or gender equality.

On the first point, Mr. Peek pointed out how notions of justice generally do not factor into our discussions of climate change in a serious way. This does not mean that we don’t care about justice. What it does mean is that we tend to avoid using justice as an organizing principle for understanding climate change problems and their solutions. Rather, we tend to make vague rhetorical statements about protecting the planet and being responsible stewards for future generations, while perpetuating the idea that climate change is primarily a technological and economic problem with technological and economic solutions. He forcefully challenged the audience to recognize the unfair (even if unintended) consequences of government and corporate decision-making. He asks: who gains and who loses from existing energy policies? How is it that residents living next to South Africa’s coal-fired plants suffer the human and environmental consequences of energy production without themselves having access to the electricity it produces? Answering this question requires examining the moral and ethical implications of these allegedly expert decisions.

As I alluded to above, framing climate change as a technological issue also implies the appropriate kind of solutions that will overcome it. These are conventionally top-down and state-led, with the individual at best playing the role of implementer and consultant within existing decision-making processes (while large corporations exert disproportionate influence). When it comes to recommended interventions, we ask people to think about their individual energy consumption and, most of all, ask for their trust in our institutions to incrementally innovate our way out of polluting energy sources. The impetus for innovation, in the best case scenario, will be national and international pricing signals that (if we are very lucky) might apply pressure on markets to do things differently. While there is a seductive (and even partially accurate) logic to a belief in economies-of-scale harnessed by state-led interventions, Mr. Peek again challenges us to move past these exclusively top-down theories of change. He makes the assertion that climate change is a collective problem that demands local, decentralized, and democratic solutions. He uses the example of waste pickers in the South Durban basin to show how there is a space for equitable, citizen-led solutions to even complex problems like waste management—but that these solutions can only be found when citizens are seen as active players in policy decisions rather than passive implementers of pre-determined projects. As he points out, this action must be rooted in the Southern African philosophy of Ubuntu, which holds that our identity as human beings is fundamentally based on a mutual, interconnected community spirit.

Finally, making citizens active players in the solutions to climate change implies a pretty serious shift in the received wisdom of how democracy works. When top-down solutions are the name of the game, democracy is understood mostly in procedural terms, usually at the ballot box and in appropriately sanctioned public consultations. It tells citizens, “We got this. Problems like climate change are complex, but we’re working on it.” If they are unsatisfied with the progress being made, they can throw the rascals out in a few years’ time. Within this understanding, those who step up more seriously between elections are known as “activists”—as opposed to citizens. These are folks who rock the boat, who challenge assumptions, who take an active role in setting the government and community course through unseemly demands. The moderator for the evening, however, provided an eloquent defense of this role: “it is not about being anti-government or anti-anything; it’s about being pro-citizen—by pushing back when power tries to consolidate in the context of a political system that cannot be counted on as our moral compass.” This was not intended as an inflammatory comment, nor should it be understood as such. After all, the whole idea of elections is predicated on the notion that those in power are not angels—that often they will err and sometimes they will connive and deceive. When we accept this, I think it points to the need to take our responsibilities as citizens just a little more seriously. As the often-quoted assertion by Gandhi goes, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. But that was never intended to be an individual process; as the visionary thinker George Lakey reminds us, it represents a collective and cultural shift.

The purpose of any meaningful discussion should be to challenge our assumptions and question the received wisdom of our habits. In the context of climate change and energy policies, this evening challenged us to not only think about the particular injustices of particular policies, but also the pattern of actions that create the overall injustices of poverty, inequality and marginalization. It challenged us to think of the green economy as a plank in a decentralized, localized and democratized energy future built on a foundation of Ubuntu. It challenged us to rethink the proper terms of engagement through which our citizenry can be the change.

To most people, these ideals of environmental and social justice can sometimes seem radical—but I left the presentation reminded about how, at their core, they are the shared values we’ve always professed to have: justice for all, community spirit, and active citizenship. It left me thinking – maybe the climate solutions we’re looking for are not just about environmental protection. I think it’s more than that. Maybe it’s about us.

1 For those of you keeping score at home, COP17 stands for the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the first international environmental treaty on greenhouse gas emissions. This also features a second parallel conference known as CMP7 (or 7th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol), involving a second and smaller subset of signatories to Kyoto, whose first commitment period is about to end in 2012.

Chris Connolly is has been a media coordinator with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and is currently working as a Sustainable Cities International intern working with Imagine Durban, the municipality’s long-term sustainability planning department. He will be profiling the local organizing dynamics in Durban in the run-up to COP17.


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