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How we can sustain all life forms

- Wits University

Repairing Earth as a whole, together, is a precondition for human durability.

As part of Wits University’s focus on the intersection of climate change, sustainability and inequality, the first presentation in a seminar series was launched, with the internationally-acclaimed scholar Professor Achille Mbembe delivering his address: Notes on planetary habitability.

In opening the seminar, Professor Imraan Valodia, the new Pro-Vice Chancellor: Climate Change, Sustainability and Inequality, conveyed the importance of such an academic enquiry. “Society is at a precipice and the pathways we have chosen in the past two centuries have resulted in critical ecosystem losses and seemingly intractable levels of poverty and inequality. The question is, what can Wits do? Part of it is rigorous academic enquiry. We have leveraged the university’s intellectual capabilities and so present this series of lectures in partnership with the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WiSER) and Future Ecosystems for Africa.”

Professor Achille Mbembe

In his keynote address, Mbembe explained that the philosophical and existential questions posed about planetary habitability, are far from abstract, and cut across academic disciplines and Faculties. Scientists and humanists alike are grappling with the concept of habitability. “What conditions are favourable to life? How do these conditions come to be? Critically, how can they be harnessed, maintained and reproduce in such a way that sustains all life forms?”

He added that planetary equilibrium has been disrupted to such an extent that climate change is a political question, and one of social justice.

“We have, myopically, taken for granted our grounded existence on earth. We have assumed that the earth is entirely at our service and disposal. Hence, many crucial resources have been exhausted. Why did the earth become to be considered in such a narrow way,” asked Mbembe. 

He referred to the centrality of the natural world in African cosmology for example, and respect for the earth as ancient and working on “deep time,” which suggests the slow and considered evolution of life on earth.

“We have all finally come to the realisation that there needs to be a significant adjustment to how we conduct our lives and to acknowledge that parts of the world will be entirely inhospitable to humans,” said Mbembe. He said that every person needs to ask themselves how they can share the earth among themselves and other complex life forms. “We can’t waste time with the usual partitioning and divisions. Repairing it as a whole, together, is a precondition for human durability.”

Mbembe called this reconstitution of the earth an “opportunity for biosymbiosis.”

Professor Achille Mbembe delivers the first Climate Change and Sustainability lecture

Planet-centered thinking and Life Futures

There is a new field of enquiry emerging under the broad theme of “Life Futures” which, encouragingly, have brought academics together and out of siloed thinking.

“For a long time the human race has been concerned with how life emerges and the conditions of its evolution and resilience. We know from this that life has the ability to reproduce itself and in most instances is self-sustaining. Remarkably, there are abundant organisms that are able to survive in what would be incompatible to human life.”

Mbembe explained that we are living in a very specific moment in which relationships across species and systems are being reorganised. He said that histories are colliding, and that human and earth histories are now indivisible. “It’s a clash of temporalities. Terrestrial time and our time now fold into one another. They are entangled in rhythm and pace. Our bodies as well as the body of the earth are intermingled in ways we have never really analysed before,” he said.

Climate change is a major event calling for renewed intellectual investments and new research.  

“The core question must therefore be framed in terms of how complex life can be sustained and shared. Critically we move beyond asking how life emerges. The question is, how does it end?”