Ubuntu: Little Word, Big Idea

February 5, 2007 at 8:01 am 1 comment

This traditional African philosophy is difficult to translate in any concise way into English. While President Clinton’s translation of I am because you are probably captures the essence of Ubuntu, western culture clouds the deep implications of it. In America we fiercely pride ourselves on independence and this concept seems to contradict that underlying value which has fueled our economic system and prosperity for so long. The reality is that Ubuntu merely gives light to some underlying truths of capitalism, but in highlighting these truths, it also tugs at the humanity we all feel towards each other.

I am because you are. How does this explain the underpinnings capitalism? Adam Smith knew that selfish behavior would drive capitalism, but Ubuntu explains the intricate web of both prosperity and problems created by this behavior. Any person’s prosperity is through the actions and support of others. So Ubuntu raises the uncomfortable question: To the extent that you are responsible for my prosperity, how am I responsible for you? It seems to me that our response so far has been that we are not responsible, but maybe a closer look at this relationship may be more persuasive.

Consider the recent housing boom in America. It created a great amount of wealth but was in large part dependant on cheap labor from Mexico. If the American immigration system had been working and enforced, housing prices would have been higher because of a closed labor market that traditionally paid higher wages. The American hospitality industry continues to be propped up by the “affordable” labor from south of the American border. As another example, in a global marketplace our prosperity is also supported by a Chinese labor force that pumps out electronic and household “goodies” and makes our consumer dollars stretch further. This prosperity is also being supported at the cost of their environment.

If we take to heart the intricate web of support that Ubuntu suggests, we cannot see our prosperity as being isolated from others. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but in acknowledging these relationships I also feel a sense of responsibility — and, I think this is a normal human response. However, in today’s market dominated by corporate entities, it is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate this sense of responsibility. In fact the corporate structure is legally bound not to acknowledge this dependency in its pursuit to deliver a profit. Perhaps this is one of our relationships that I refer to as dysfunctional. On one level we feel responsibility toward others, but we have also constructed our world around institutions that say we should not behave in that way. Un-reconciled conflicts such as these create dysfunction and only our conscious choices will set us free from them. If we want to create a world that empowers humans, we certainly are not creating institutions to support that effort. In fact, government is charged with that oversight and it has deemed the consumption of our planet to be the most effective system and empowered corporations to be our engines of prosperity. If it actually was effective, I’d be all for it, but it is only effective for a certain percentage and only in a material sense. And more fundamentally, the system in place institutionally denies our humanity – our sense of Ubuntu.

Everyone has principals by which they live their lives. To the extent that there is a purpose to life, perhaps Ubuntu expresses it as well as any. It’s undeniable that no man is an island because in such a scenario there would be no life. So maybe this is about how we choose to get along on this big, blue, mud ball called Earth. And, in the wake of the latest UN report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global perspective of Ubuntu offers America quite a challenge. Having pioneered Global Warming through our industrial revolution, the only thing that will redeem America’s place in history can be its leadership in ending it.

I’m reminded again of the waves breaking on Descanso Beach, and realize that as countless are drops unto the ocean, so too are we unto God. Perhaps I recognized Ubuntu in the water — we each are intrinsic to the well being of everyone around us. For Humanity to acknowledge that truth will yield the best of what motivates us. And, I wonder, what great benefit do we gain by denying it? With that thought I toss yet another into the ocean of ideas that form the internet.

In The News

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Website

All You Need Is Ubuntu



Entry filed under: Economics, People, Philosophy.

Humanity: One Big Dysfunctional Family What’s the Big Hurry?

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