Women in rural Zimbabwe are coming up with solutions to water shortages aggavated by climate change. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS .
By Peter Makwanya
Putting one’s self in the shoes of other people and feeling for them is an attribute that a leader or somebody in authority should possess. Many environmental authorities have failed in executing or planning successful climate action programmes as a result of failing to place themselves in the shoes or practical situations of those affected by the impact of climate change. Climate-related empathy is an attribute that those, who are entrusted with policy formulations or climate change-related positions should demonstrate.
As many nations continue to grapple with adverse effects of climate change-related disasters, questions that climate victims or those under threat can ask themselves are; what would our leaders do if they were in our situations? Have our leaders ever experienced the same scenarios like ours in their lifetimes? Then, if not, how then will they be able to understand our problems, let alone solving them? Of course, if they cannot understand our problems, how then will they be able to solve them? Furthermore, one cannot expect somebody, who has never experienced suffering, to understand what suffering is.
What stops those tasked with solving our problems, is not a question of failing to do so, but may be due to them lacking the will or empathy to do so. Of course they have never imagined themselves suffering, that is why they cannot understand the people’s problems.
Empathy is an attribute grounded in the philosophy of humanism/Ubuntu, which defines the African way of thinking or interpreting the world view. This is deeply rooted in the African philosophy, which always considers the heart as a critical component of human living. According to Nigerian novelist, Gabriel Okara, somebody, who doesn’t have empathy, does not have a heart, while somebody who cannot think properly does not have a head.
According to early Egyptian philosophy, the heart was conceived as the seat of thoughts and emotions. Of course one cannot talk of the African philosophy of humanism/Ubuntu/hunhu, without mentioning Kenyan writer, John Mbiti, who in 1969 said some sort of philosophy underlines the thought and practice of all people, one would say, humanism is the gateway to the African heart and mind. What all this means is that, in the African spirit, it is the heart which “thinks”, feels the pain and loves. Therefore, if one cannot think of others, put themselves in their shoes, doesn’t understand the suffering and problems of other people and cannot love or feel pain, then he/she has no empathy, no heart and no head at all.
To be proper stewards of our environment and guardians of nature, as well as engaging in necessary climate action and protection, empathy — derived from the heart — is the regulating factor. It is in the heart that the social character of the African ethics and culture are situated. In this regard, the centrality of humanity and the role of the heart need to be exercised and practised by the authorities tasked to solve our environmental problems. It is the same principle of humanism/Ubuntu, which defines our character and world view, environmental protection included. One cannot talk of Ubuntu without being well-versed in aspects of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS), also known as traditional knowledge, local knowledge, folk knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge. As such, the development of a better and holistic understanding of human needs and local environmental challenges by our leaders and environmental authorities helps in coming up with people-friendly climate interventions. It also helps them to understand and have full knowledge of the people they represent.
Although local ecological knowledge is already within the local communities, these communities, in return, expect their representatives and environmental authorities to be conversant with environmental challenges, which adversely impact on their livelihoods. The reason being that they will be able to plan ahead in order to manage unpredictable natural disasters like floods, hailstorms, violent winds and heavy rains, among others. In most cases and situations, the way the authorities struggle to manage the aftermath of natural disasters, leave them totally exposed and humiliated to say the least.
When the authorities use terms such as people or environmentally friendly, they need to have adequate and exhaustive knowledge of the local landscapes and the people so that they won’t be left exposed in the event disasters striking. When disaster strikes, be it floods or otherwise, the victims will be quick to point out that their leadership lacks empathy, hence, they have no heart. If these authorities have the people in mind then these circumstances should not come as a surprise to them. And they shouldn’t also start looking for friends and rescue efforts from unlikely locations. Of course, those would be acts of desperation that would have overwhelmed them. To be empathetic in the eyes of the local people, one needs to think, act and live like them as well as being inclusive in their scope of thinking.
There is no problem with the political leadership or environmental authorities, living away from the people they represent, but coming after the whole community would have been washed away by floods, the people will not understand or appreciate their efforts no matter how the authorities would try to conceal their planning inadequacies and failures. The people will have no choice but to withdraw their trust, brand the authorities non-empathetic, non-sympathetic, without a heart or without a head.
Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his own capacity and can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org