Tomorrow marks our annual celebration of Earth Day. Gaylord Nelson, a progressive Senator from Wisconsin, founded Earth Day in 1970 and it’s been a staple of the environmental movement ever since. As a kid, I remember planting trees and picking up trash on Earth Day. As an adult, I haven’t really been a consistent observer—it sneaks up on me each spring when I’m least expecting it.
This year, I was reminded about Earth Day at work, in a meeting about toxic chemicals last week. I don’t normally work on environmental issues, but a celebrity actress was coming in to help drum up support for legislation and thanks to a charitable coworker, I talked my way into the meeting. Our actress activist played her part of concerned citizen well and I was pretty sold on the bill. To close out her pitch, she used the word “Ubuntu” and defined it as “I am because we are.” We’re connected to each other through the environment, she said, and the only way to live healthy lives as individuals is to recognize our common connection. And ban all toxic chemicals.
If you’re new to Ubuntu, it’s a philosophy worth googling. For brevity’s sake, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition is nice:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
I am because we are. You can see how it works well for creating a more collective framework for environmental issues—a nice concept describing how we’re all interconnected and dependent. And yet, when my celebrity spokesperson threw out Ubuntu last week, all I could think was that we’re totally fucked.
Forgive the cuss, but it’s challenging to find a better turn of phrase after seven days of watching death and destruction through every news cycle. And it’s hard to think that people—my community, my country—are inherently good when two young men cause so much fear and heartache. With all of this violence unfolding in the background of that meeting, a good part of me wanted to scream, “Ubuntu? What’s the point when you can’t even watch a marathon without getting killed.”
But Ubuntu has actually been a helpful concept for me to process and grieve the ultimate failure of these two individuals in Boston, and challenge myself to sit with this extreme collapse in morals and judgment as part of our human story. What happened in Boston is totally inexplicable and heart wrenching and devastating, but it is part of the world we’ve created. I’m not saying I’d kill innocent people, only that we live in a world where this dark stuff is a product of decisions we collectively make and values we collectively hold. If there was no need for the Humane Society, it wouldn’t exist. Same with welfare. Same with sexual violence prevention organizations. I mean, hell, even the existence of law enforcement presumes we’re expecting some level of values breaching in our communities.
I’ve heard from friends that it’s been easier to focus on the heroes in Boston—the folks who ran into the smoke and saved lives and comforted victims. Maybe we see ourselves in them, and it’s a more pleasant part of our collective community to relate to. But Ubuntu instructs that we are all in it together, for both good and bad—I think for both the heroes and the bombers. Just as we can envision our interconnectedness via the environment, I also see our fates linked through our common humanity, even with those two young men in Boston. When some of us fail, it reflects on all of us—how we’ve decided to organize our families, our communities, even our systems of government. And it’s up to all of us to regroup, recommit, and move forward together.
The Pleasant Progressive