There’s little doubt that Earthlings are living in challenging times. Not only are we facing massive climate change turmoil, but we also have to deal with other disruptions. Two such recent disruptions are the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine. While these events seem unrelated, the truth is that everything on this planet is connected – it’s just not always that obvious. It is this idea of interconnectedness that encouraged me to read up on African knowledge systems to see what they have to say about relationality (systems of relationships) and whether they have something to contribute to Western sustainability science.

The colonisation of science that has been steadily taking place for about five centuries means that a whole body of work, in particular indigenous knowledge, has been omitted from the global knowledge library. This means that even though our global problems are diverse, the solutions being offered are mostly singular, viewed through a homogenisation lens that misrepresents reality. Some of these solutions are smart and useful, such as vaccines and renewable energy, yet they seem prone to the forces of corruption and create other problems in the process. This begs the question: Are we addressing the root causes of the problems we face?

While reading up on relationality in African indigenous knowledge systems, one thing has become quite clear: Nothing happens in isolation. Everything is interconnected and if the relationship between things in one place is disturbed, it is certain that the relationship between things in another place close by will be disturbed in due course, which then disturbs another, and so on.

This is the same type of theory that can be found in the knowledge that is being built up around the complexity found in social-ecological systems. The view that we can simply study things is increasingly shifting to the view that we need to study the relationship between these things to truly get to the heart of the problems before we attempt to create the solutions.

In African knowledge systems, relationality between humans and nature not only includes knowledge of the mind, but also embodied knowledge – it is experiential, personal and intimate. One way in which relationality is practically demonstrated is through ubuntu, which, as a concept, is becoming more familiar to the ear of the Western individual. It presents that instead of pursuing the ‘I in me’ to become fulfilled human beings, we can only discover this through the ‘I in we’. In this case, the ‘we’ is our human community and our non-human community – nature and the otherworld, such as our ancestors.

This perception of life can greatly contribute to Western sustainability science because through relationality, space is made for an infinite number of flexible solutions. For example, instead of offering a blanket solution to the energy crisis, renewable energy could rather be seen through the lens of ‘we’. If a wind farm is having an adverse effect on my ‘nature-self’ and ‘community-self’, it means the relationality between all the affected elements is fractured – and that this solution will eventually have an adverse effect on the ‘me’, if not as immediately obvious. If whatever makes up my ‘we’ is suffering, my ‘me’ will suffer.

How to implement such a change in mindset on a global scale, however, is another challenge. I discuss some examples of how this could be achieved in more detail in my MPhil thesis, which should be complete by the end of 2022. Perhaps, as a start, human individuals could simply make a small shift in focus from I to us.

Melanie Carstens is currently completing her MPhil in Sustainable Development