Despite enduring a lifetime of oppression, Nelson Mandela transformed his nation by seeking reconciliation with his oppressors rather than retribution. In this week’s edition of The Moral Is, Fresno State Biology Professor Madhusudan Katti wonders whether the power of reconciliation as a moral principle might save us all from the damage humanity is inflicting on our planet and ourselves.
With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.
While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars Mandela chose the path of reconciliation over retribution, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. He found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.
Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their own countries.
While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we now imagine the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?
Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature has been marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.
Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when our actions result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and be good stewards of the land for future generations?
Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to our own planet, to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just as he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks conscience. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed our own guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done.
Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela celebrated his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and transform our relationship with Nature?
That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.
Follow Madhusudan Katti on Twitter @leafwarbler