On the Universal Right to Breathe

By Achille Mbembe


There is no doubt our world is in turmoil. Many have been trying to describe the era in which we find ourselves, this insecure moment that promises nothing, this world dominated ever more by the specter of its own demise. We can disagree about many things, but it will be difficult not to agree about the fact that this is a time defined by an unequal redistribution of vulnerability as well as forms of violence simultaneously futuristic and archaic (Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr, eds; Politique des temps, Paris, Philippe Rey, 2019, 8-9). 

For most of us, especially those in parts of the world where health care systems have been devastated by years of organized neglect, crises such as Covid-19 are always a bit more than health crises. Catastrophes and disasters always seem to lurk around the corner. Today, with few hospital beds, few respirators, almost no mass testing, few masks, disinfectants or arrangements for placing those who are infected in quarantine, unfortunately, many are they who will not pass through the eye of the needle. 

The pandemic has revealed not just the complexity and fragility of the structure and content of human civilizations, but the vulnerability of life itself, in all its anarchy and diversity – from the bodies that house it and the breath that diffuses it, to the nourishment without which it would wither away. This fundamental vulnerability is the very essence of humanity. But it is shared, to varying degrees, by every creature on this planet – a planet that powerful forces threaten to render inhospitable, if not uninhabitable, to the majority of living things and beings. 



Indeed, since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the West, nearly 85% of the wetlands have been drained. As the destruction of habitats continues unabated, human populations with vulnerable health conditions are exposed to new pathogens daily. 

In Africa specifically, the greatest concern is the destruction of biodiversity, the depletion of fish stocks, the degradation of mangrove swamps, the increasing levels of nitrate pollution and the deterioration of coastal zones. It is also the sell-off of forests, the excessive use of agrochemicals, human encroachment onto natural land, the loss of rare species. Before colonization, the wild animals that harbor most pathogens were con-fined to places in which only isolated populations lived. That was the case in the Congo River basin, to cite the example of one of the Earth’s last forested eco-regions. 

Nowadays, the communities that lived and depended on natural re-sources in these areas have been expropriated. Driven away from their homes by tyrannical and corrupt regimes that sell off the land and grant giant concessions to agro-food consortiums, they are no longer able to maintain the forms of food and energy self-sufficiency that, for centuries, allowed them to live in balance with the biosphere. How far will the spread of bacteria from wild animals to humans go if, indeed, every twenty years nearly 250 million acres of tropical forest (the lungs of the earth) are slashed?


Covid-19 has also exposed the extent to which we humans are not the only inhabitants of the Earth, nor are we set above other beings. We are criss-crossed by fundamental interactions with microbes and viruses and all sorts of vegetal, mineral and organic forces. More accurately, we are partly composed of these other beings. But they also decompose and recompose us. They make and unmake us, starting with our bodies, our environments and our ways of living and dying. 

Before we go further, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the Covid-19’s ways of killing. The barrier of the victim’s pulmonary alveoli is breached, the virus infiltrates their bloodstream then attacks organs and other tissues, starting with the most vulnerable. Systemic inflammation ensues. Those who, prior to the attack, already had cardiovascular, neurological or metabolic problems, or were suffering from pollution-related pathologies, are the hardest hit. Breathless, and with no respirators, some slip away, all of a sudden. Immediately, their remains are buried or cremated. We get rid of them as quickly as possible. 

With the increasing emission of greenhouse gases, the atmospheric concentration of ultra-fine dust, toxic emissions, invisible substances, tiny granules and all sorts of particulate matter, soon there will be more carbon and nitrous dioxide in the atmosphere than oxygen. Now is the time to expand our freedoms by instituting a universal right to breathe.


We must answer here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our shared fate. Such is the injunction this pathogenic period addresses to humankind. It is pathogenic, but also the catabolic period par excellence, with the decomposition of bodies, the sorting and expulsion of all sorts of human waste – the «great separation» and great confinement caused by the stunning spread of the virus – and along with it, the widespread digitization of the world.

Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body. We tried to graft it onto other media, to turn it into an object-body, a machine-body, a digital body, an ontophanic body. Yet it always comes back to us as a horrifying, giant mandible, a vehicle for contamination, a vector for pollen, spores and mold. 

Knowing that we do not face this ordeal alone, or that many of us will not escape it, is of little comfort. For we have never learned to live with the living, have never really worried about the damage humans wreak on the lungs of the earth and on its body. Thus, we have never learned how to die. With the advent of the New World and, several centuries later, the appearance of the «industrialized races», we essentially chose to delegate our death to others.


All wars on life begin by taking away breath. Likewise, as it impedes breathing and blocks the resuscitation of human bodies and tissues, Covid-19 shares this same tendency. 

After all, what is the purpose of breathing if not the absorption of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide in a dynamic exchange between blood and tissues? But at the rate that life on Earth is going, and given what remains of the wealth of the planet, how far away are we really from the time when there will be more carbon dioxide than oxygen to breathe? 

Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation. If war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specific virus as against everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead as that which we hold in-common, that which, by definition, eludes all calculation, by which I mean, the universal right to breath.

If, indeed, Covid-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary impasse in which humanity finds itself today, then it is a matter of no less than reconstructing a habitable Earth to give all of us the breath of life. We must reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground. Humankind and biosphere are one. Alone, they have no future. Are we capable of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the question – the very last – before we draw our last dying breath.


Community – or rather the in-common – is not based solely on the possibility of saying goodbye, that is, of having a unique encounter with others and honoring this meeting time and again. The in-common is based also on the possibility of sharing unconditionally, each time drawing from it something absolutely intrinsic, a thing uncountable, incalculable, priceless.

To survive, we must return the right to breathe to all living things and beings, including the biosphere. As that which is both ungrounded and our common ground, the universal right to breath is unquantifiable and cannot be appropriated. From a universal perspective, not only is it the right of every member of humankind, but of all being. It must therefore be understood as a fundamental right to existence. Consequently, it cannot be confiscated and thereby eludes all sovereignty, symbolizing the sovereign principle itself. Moreover, it is an originary right to living on Earth, a right that belongs to the universal community of earthly inhabitants, human and other. 

Talking on Water – this year online

For the past two years, we have invited thinkers of the global south to the Lakeside Stage on Sunday afternoons. This year, there will be neither Lakeside Stage nor other venues on the Landiwiese. Nevertheless, we want to give a large platform to the post-colonial discourse yet again. On the first two weekends of the festival, we have invited important political voices from South Africa and Brazil to expose their theses in internationally accessible webinars. On 16 August, Achille Mbembe holds a lecture on «Sharing the Planet: For an Ethics of Repair and Care». On 22 August, the Brazilian artist Zahy Guajajara talks about the burning rainforests in Amazonia based on excerpts from her video project «A letter in defence of the guardians of the forest». You can participate via Zoom and ask your questions in the chat or follow the lectures via live stream (access here).

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe is one of Africa’s leading thinkers. Born 1957 in Cameroon, the historian and political scientist is currently a lecturer in Johannesburg. His «Critique of Black Reason» is a central work of post-colonial theory, his latest essay «Brutalisme» (Édition La Découverte) will be published this autumn. Together with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr - present in the 2019 lecture series «Talking on Water» - Mbembe regularly invites theorists to «Ateliers de la Pensée» in Dakar.