So many environment books focus on doom and gloom, sacrifice and fear, and us versus them, and often that is what sells. As politicians and even religious leaders bicker endlessly over the true way to save the world, environmental pioneer Wangari Maathai got to work, organizing women and planting trees and, in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her new book is a deceptively simple call for integrating spirituality and environmentalism. In Replenishing the Earth, Maathai speaks of the commonality of spiritual traditions around the world, with special mention of the Kikuyu and Christian traditions with which she grew up. Maathai’s words point out the unity and interconnectedness from which true environmentalism springs.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which aims to reduce deforestation while supporting women with revenue by the simple act of planting trees. Seedlings become a source of income to poor rural women even as the air and biodiversity are improved and soil and water conservation enabled. Since its founding in 1977, the Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting some 40 million trees across Africa, while empowering women to stand up for the rights of themselves and their communities.
Maathai’s vision of unity extends beyond the human race to all living things: “When we reflect on the sacred groves and the spiritual and symbolic weight we have given to trees and forests, it seems self-evident that not only have trees been our constant companions, but we would quite literally not be human if we didn’t perhaps feel regret when a tree disappears from the landscape. For when it does, a fundamental concept from the Garden of Eden also disappears.”
“Don’t worry, there are millions of other trees….”
She writes: “I believe that we need to rediscover our common experience with other creatures on Earth, and recognize that we have gone through the evolutionary process with them.” She recounts her moment of realization while visiting a logging operation: “As I watched the tree fall, teared welled in my eyes. The timber company representative noticed that I had become emotional. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘There are millions of other trees out there in the forest.’” That simple statement embodied the short-sightedness and the blindness to waste that has plagued developed countries, which have so little forest left, and developing countries, whose forests are rapidly disappearing even as consumption has grown.
In this beautiful little video, Maathai tells the story of the hummingbird who saw a problem and tried to help.
Protecting the Environment, Fostering Peace
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Maathai summed up the indelible connections between social and environmental justice, between peace and valuing the earth’s resources:
“It is evident that many wars are fought over resources which are now becoming increasingly scarce. If we conserved our resources better, fighting over them would not then occur…so, protecting the global environment is directly related to securing peace…those of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.”
Like the hummingbird, Maathai has consistently and doggedly done her best. And her best is truly special.
Photo: Wangari Maathai in the trailer for the film Dirt! via Youtube.