Healing the Earth, Inch by Inch

Here’s a wonderful story by Eric Bailey in today’s LATimes about a group of true activists from around the country working to heal scars left on the California desert by trashers and motorcyclists. They labor long days in hot sun east of Barstow, putting just about all of us to shame with their cheerfulness. They’reContinue reading “Healing the Earth, Inch by Inch”

“My Life is My Message”

Went to Santa Barbara last night to hear Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, speak. She is the first environmentalist given the award, and said more than once that she believed she was given the award because the prize committee wanted to awake people to the connection between peace and sustainability.

Maathai, a sturdy woman with an beaming, unlined faced, spoke simply but powerfully about the importance of "embracing our problems."

She focused on how we must help people look at issues directly, and returned again and again to a favorite phrase: "The bottom is heavy." She helped launch the Green Belt movement that has planted thirty million trees in Kenya and other nations in Africa, but insists that her greatest achievement is not planting the trees, but making sure they survive, and for that, she says, we need to provide motivation, understanding, and incentives to local people, most of whom are poor and uneducated.

When the movement first began, they would go into a community and organize three-day seminars. On the first day they would ask people: "What are the problems in your community?"

And people would list problems.

On the second day, they would ask people: "Where do these problems come from?"

And the people would say: "It is the government." But the Green Belt people would continue to ask questions, such as, why is the water dirty? Because it rains very hard. Yes, but it always rains very hard; why is it the river dirty now? Because people live too close to the river. Why do people live too close to the river? Because they need the water. They cannot cultivate further away from the river, because the soil has washed away? Why has the soil washed away? Because the trees are not there to protect it. Why aren’t the trees there to protect it? Because they have been cut down. Why have they been cut down? And so on…until the solution became plain: They must plant trees.

The seminars were an exercise in "breaking the inertia" and motivating people to plant trees, and grow crops using furrows and terraces, Maathai said. When it came time to plant trees, she succeeded in motivating women (but not men, who refused to work on this new project). She went to train them with Kenyan foresters, but discovered something:

"A lot of professional people can be very complicated."

So she found ways to teach women how to plant trees without using technical terms and jargon. "And what do you know, when the trees grow up? They look just like the other trees!"

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to fully report on the speech, but here are some other wonderful quotes from Maathai, whose appearance was well-attended…even Oprah Winfrey was in the crowd!

"You know, when people are really rich, you sometimes don’t know what to tell them."

(As my wife Val pointed out, a notable hush fell over the Santa Barbara crowd at that moment.)

She talked about visiting Japan, and helping the Environmental Minister there rediscover an ancient Japanese concept–Mot Tai Nai–which is roughly comparable, she says, to the American concept of Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.

She mentioned a discussion about the Kyoto Protocols while in Japan, and said that "millions of Americans are living by the spirit of the Kyoto Protocols, so never mind what is happening in Washington, D.C."

My personal favorite? She talked about the dangers of consumerism, which she pithily pointed out can result in making purchases and coming home and discovering that: "You have not what you really need, but what you want."

Below the fold is a version of the speech she gave after winning the Nobel Prize (just one of her many, many honors).

I asked her if she thinks there’s a connection between our fast-paced Western style of life and the difficulty we have living in harmony with our planet, and our home. She wasn’t sure about that, but pointed out that in the Book of Genesis, God spends six days making our home, and all the other animals, and making sure their lives are good. Only then, at the last minute–"almost as an afterthought"–does he create Man. She added that the plants and the animals could survive very well without us, but we could not survive without them. Good point, Wangari!


The Cost of Prevention vs. The Cost of Cure

While on a long flight home (and thanks for all the comments when I was gone!), I read in its entirety Australian scientist Tim Flannery’s well-reviewed book on global warming, The Weather Makers. Despite a somewhat flat title, the book turns out to be a superb introduction to the subject. Flannery finds ways to enlivenContinue reading “The Cost of Prevention vs. The Cost of Cure”

The Sad Guardian of the Carrizo Plain

One of the many lies spread about environmentalists is that they want to save wild lands, endangered species, and natural beauty because they want it exclusively for themselves. In truth, environmentalists care about these irreplaceable gifts because they care about the world around them, perhaps more than themselves. A powerful example of this can beContinue reading “The Sad Guardian of the Carrizo Plain”