What makes us human: In each other’s shadow

This week, in our series in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson argues that our shared responsibility to each other and to future generations is what distinguishes us.

Photograph: Munem Wassif/Agence Vu

To me, what makes us human is best summed up in the African concept of Ubuntu, which Desmond Tutu explains as: “I am because you are.” Another way of saying it is the old Irish proverb: “Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.” This translates as: “It is in each other’s shadow that we flourish.”

My early interest in human rights stemmed from being the only girl wedged between four brothers, two older than me and two younger. I became profoundly influenced by the first sentence of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

I like to discuss with students why the word “dignity” comes before “rights”. What is this concept of human dignity? To me, it is the inner sense of self-worth, the spiritual and cultural factors that are imbued in an individual, which make each one of us distinctive. The true poverty of the homeless person, lying in a doorway, invisible to the passer-by, is the lack of any sense of that selfworth and dignity.

Human dignity evokes an empathy with the other, connects us one to the other. Empathy is extraordinarily important in family, in community, in country, at so many different levels. Now, in our interconnected world, that empathy must expand to tackling the gross inequalities that raise important issues of justice.

In recent years my sense of what makes us human has been affected by an awareness of how destructive our activities are becoming to the planet and the ecosystems of which we are part. We have not been good stewards in many ways over the centuries and our fossil fuel-led economic growth has had a toll on human health, biodiversity and the atmosphere. Very recently, for the first time in millions of years, we reached 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere.

This number is significant for at least three reasons: first, because a significant amount of the carbon was put there as a result of human activities; second, because we are leaving the realms of a safe climate and heading for a 3-4°C warmer world; and third, because the results of a warmer world are already being felt as seasons change, rainfall becomes more unpredictable, the sea level rises and extreme events such as floods and drought increase in frequency and severity.

Climate change arguably poses the 21st century’s starkest challenge to human rights – including the rights to life, shelter and an adequate standard of living. This is particularly the case for many people in the developing world who have contributed the least to causing climate change but are disproportionately suffering the impacts each and every day. The poorest people and parts of the world emit negligible amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, while the wealthiest places and people emit the most and have the capacity and resources to adapt and build resilience to climate impacts.

We know it is already tougher being a human being in some parts of the world than others because of inequalities related to power and poverty. The impact of climate change further undermines the human rights of the most vulnerable. As human beings, we should be moved to address this injustice; this is climate justice.

If human dignity evokes empathy and connects us to other people on the planet, then we have to care about climate change. Empathy – which is, I believe, what makes us human – must compel us to take responsibility for our actions and make a choice; a choice to change the way our societies operate to realise a safe world for all who inhabit it.

We must empathise with those who are most affected by climate change – we have to hear the voices of the most vulnerable and then we must demand the action needed to keep the world safe. We also have to consider the needs of future generations and have a sense of intergenerational justice; to think of what our grandchildren and their grandchildren will say if we fail to act when we have the information and capacity to do so. This imaginative ability to hear future voices accusing us of failure to protect them is also part of what makes us human. It keeps me awake at night.

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is now the chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation –Climate Justice

This article is the sixth in a series published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show