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  • MAR

Civilisational Change to Restore Meaning of Life

The state of our world today is a reflection of our deep footprint as a human race on Mother Earth.  Humanity has already breached six of the nine planetary boundaries scientists have been warning us not to breach.  

We have crossed the line on:

1)Freshwater change; 2) land-system change; 3) biosphere integrity; 4) climate change; 5) bio geological flows; 6) novel entities (polluting entities such as plastic).  Stratospheric Ozone, Atmospheric Aerosol loading, and Ocean acidification are the three remaining boundaries at risk of being breached.

Why are we as a human race so determined to knowingly undermine our very survival? Why, despite the warning of the UN SG, Antonio Guterres in 2020, that “fighting against nature is suicidal ….. the defining task of the 21st century is making peace with nature,” are we continuing on this self-destructive path?

Many wiser people have spoken on these questions. In 1984 Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome, called for a Human Revolution to address what he called the Human Gap – the gap between our capacity to act and our ability to understand the consequences of our actions.  He urged us to travel into our inner selves to awaken our consciousness of the essence of being human.  This process of self-liberation from fears, anxieties and desires for more, will enhance our self-confidence to close the gap between knowing and doing.

Club of Rome economist, Robert Costanza in his book: Addicted to Growth, urges humanity to follow the social therapy steps to help overcome this addiction: understanding the addiction; acknowledging it; active therapy; constant vigilance and support.  Limitless economic growth despite its documented damage to our planet, is an addiction that you as young people and leaders need to acknowledge and take steps to overcome. Like all forms of addictions, we the people have the power to overcome it if only we acknowledge it as an addiction. You are the generation with the opportunity and responsibility to call out this addiction and free yourself from it.

In my culture the values of Ubuntu put an emphasis on Being rather than on Having.  To be human in the Ubuntu value system is to be interconnected and interdependent with others within the web of life.  Wellbeing and sufficiency in this value system is derived from being in supportive loving relationships.  Material assets are means to an end, not ends in themselves. They are enablers for us  to live our lives in ways that bring out the best in each being, within  sustainable ecosystems that support the web of life. The hallmarks of an Ubuntu infused society are global equity and planetary health.

Modernity has unfortunately over the last three centuries elevated materialism over the essence of life. It has imposed norms and standards that have placed acquisition of material wealth above the sanctity of life. This has placed human and other life forms on Earth at great risk. This is the original sin that has brought us here.  Planetary emergencies have become part of our reality: inequalities and inequities have been normalised; climate change catastrophes are reported daily; conflicts and wars are raging across the world; biodiversity and land are being degraded every day.  We are indeed outside the safe operating space delineated by Planetary Boundaries confirmed by scientists.

Nothing short of civilisational change can affect the fundamental mindset shifts needed for humanity to come home to itself – home to the essence of being human.  Indigenous people who constitute only 6% of the world’s population, protect and nurture more than 80% of our critical ecosystems.  This high effectiveness of planetary guardianship is only possible because of their indigenous value systems that have continued to embed them in nature and enable them to seamlessly work in harmony with nature. 

Embracing the essence of our humanity as interconnected and interdependent beings within the web of life, is an essential step in coming home to who we are.  Notions of short-term, medium-term, and long term reflect our mindsets that conceive of time in linear terms.  In nature everything is connected to everything else, and time/space distinctions are illusions. 

The web of life is an entanglement of all living beings across time and space.  Our ancient ancestors understood that life does not start at birth. Birth is simply a moment in a cycle that comes from the beginnings of time.  Death is also a moment of transition to life in other forms within the complex web of life.  Human beings who understand this human essence, live meaningful lives unencumbered by undue material attachments.

The challenge to you as young people is how are you protecting yourselves against the addiction to accumulation of material possessions as a measure of success and wellbeing? How are you questioning the very norms of modernity that have put the very existence of the human race and all of life as we know it, at risk? How are you challenging the education and learning systems that perpetuate these addictive suicidal norms? How are you preparing yourself to lead self-liberated lives that challenge the status quo?

My generation of young student leaders in the late 1960s challenged the then status quo: colonial domination; apartheid; racism; sexism and all forms of domination. We did not have the education and skills you have today.  Neither did we have the digital connectivity you have at your fingertips today, nor the ease of travel across the world that many of you enjoy.  But what we had was a deep consciousness of the power we had to name and define ourselves and shape the future we desired. 

We reclaimed the power to embrace the wisdom of our ancestors and the values and norms that defined what it meant to be human.  The power to reimagine and shape the future we desired was palpable. We committed ourselves to either live to see true liberation of our society or die fighting for it.  We stepped up to leadership at the personal, professional and political liberation, at enormous cost. In so doing we changed the course of history, not only in South Africa, but in the world.

Your generation lacks for nothing.  You have the power of numbers – the largest proportion of the world population that is educated, skilled and have access to information and communications technologies that is unprecedented.  You are the generation that must now step up and lead at every level of society wherever you are.  Your leadership must leverage the power of your numbers to stop the extractive consumption and financialised economic system in its tracks.  This system is not broken.  It is designed to function as it does now – a wrecking ball of the sustainability of our planet.

Imagine if you could mobilise a critical mass of your peers and two generations above and below you to stop buying unnecessary status symbols such as: the latest fashion clothes, iPhones and other smart phones, being on X or Tik Tok financed by the purveyors of planned obsolescence in goods and services! You can very quickly change the business models of Apple, Huawei, and all these tech companies that thrive on planned obsolescence of expensive gadgets that pollute our ecosystems! Imagine not buying the fancy labels of cars, shoes, clothes etc. that are simply intended to get you addicted to consumption of meaninglessness!  Materialism thrives only because we enable it to get us addicted to what keeps the top 1% in the world getting richer by the billions every day!

It is in your hands as the collective generations of young people 18-50 years to step into your generational mission to lead.  Leadership starts with each of us leading ourselves as liberated humans who have embraced the values of our ancient ancestors. These values continue to be modelled by indigenous communities across the world. 

Are you ready to join indigenous people across the world by becoming indigenous again?  Stepping into leadership will enable you to become planetary guardians everywhere where you find yourself to protect, nurture and restore the world’s ecosystems that sustain life.  It is in your hands to return humanity to the safe operating system of our planet - Mother Earth. 

Are you ready?

Mamphela Ramphele

Honorary President of Club of Rome and Planetary Guardian










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