Last Friday, I had the privilege to speak at a conference on “Transformation Towards Social Justice”. This conference was organized by Akiba Uhaki Foundation, Catholic University of Eastern Africa and other partners to commemorate the World Day of Social Justice.
The organizers asked to give my reflections on the imperatives of a sustainable planet. I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity and remarkable sense of leadership on the part of the organizers. Sustainability and justice are seldom muttered in the same breadth. When we think of sustainability what often comes to our minds is a band of soil loving and tree hugging people, environmental activism. What social justice conjures in our minds are rights and liberties, justice and democratic governance.
Evidently, we are on a collision course with our planet, our only home. Our addiction to fossil fuels has touched off a climate crisis. The impacts global warming and its attendant feedback effects are playing out with especially painful outcomes in the lives of young and old, rich and poor. In the voracious quest for food, fiber shelter, mobility, and forage, we have destabilized the meticulous balance of nature. Our civilization, especially in the last 50 years has presided over the most brutal annihilation of essential biodiversity. Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen has called ours the Athropocene, the epoch of unbridled dominance of mankind.
Our planet is in peril not only because we have decimated fishes and forests or belched out greenhouse gases and triggered global warming. The constriction of civil liberties and the proliferation of conflict are a threat to sustainability. The march of civil liberties and fundamental rights has been excruciatingly slow for the vast majority. The collapse of multilateral consensus mechanisms and the decline of global leadership have allowed conflict and violence to fester and spread.
Nearly two decades after the US invasion Iraq is far from peaceful. Afghanistan is in turmoil. The world has mostly watched helpless as Syria hurtled down the path of sovereign ruin. Somalia is unstitched half a decade after Kenyan troops invaded it neighbor with a mission to inflict trauma and damage” on Al-Shabab. Today East Africans watch helplessly as Burundi stares on the edge of an ethnic Armageddon, which could spill over into neighboring Rwanda. The plunder of natural resources in the DR Congo is in many ways linked to governance failure.
The virulent Ebola epidemic would have been avoided cared about a bat’s eye view of the landscape. Forests are a critical habitat of the fruit bat, Ebola’s reservoir host. It is likely that the near ecological collapse of Lake Victoria is linked to the combined effects of the introduction of the Nile Perch and eutrophication owing to excessive sediment and nutrient loading for unsound land management. Jared Diamond in his seminal book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, illustrates based on historical and archeological evidence demonstrates the link between resource depletion and collapse of societies.
Increasingly, politicians and scholars are suggesting that drought which, exacerbated hunger, unemployment drove farmers into the cities and help escalate civil unrest in Syria. Prior to the eruption of the civil war, Syria experienced its worst drought on record causing over 1.5 million people for migrates from farms to cities.
Something else, which is truly unprecedented, is strongly linked to sustainability. Here in East Africa, our demographic structure, especially the fact that over 80 percent of the population is below the age of 35 has huge implications on the sustainability of our society. East Africa’s youth are the best educated of any generation, with 60-80 percent having attained post primary education. College enrollment is on the rise.
Today, over 440,000 undergraduate students are enrolled in Kenya’s private universities. Many analysts have characterized the unprecedented youth bulge as a blessing and a curse. A recent study by the East African Institute provides cause for hope and an imperative to expand opportunity and provide positive role models for our youth.
Our success as a species is inextricably linked with planetary stewardship and our capacity to advance the fundamental liberties and peaceful co-existence within societies and among nations. We must advance shared prosperity and equality by removing barriers to health, education and opportunity, especially for women, youth and minorities Moreover, we must deal definitively with the climate crisis. Our generation must pioneer a green energy revolution and halt global warming.