NOT TO BE MISSED
"Réparons la terre", an essay by Wangari MAATHAI
Translated into French by Pascale Haas. Original title: "Replenishing the Earth" .
Paris: Héloïse d'Ormesson, 2012. (192p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Replenishing the earth by Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is an impassioned plea for the environment and the reinstatement of values located outside materialism and monetary pursuits. Her engagement with the "Green Belt Movement" testifies to the power of grass-roots organisations in changing people's attitude towards sustainability and self-determination. Created in the late 1970s in Kenya, Wangari Maathai's association led to practical and sustainable solutions to issues confronting women hard hit by deforestation, pollution and food depletion. This book expounds four principles that drove the author's activism, transcend economic, religious and cultural idiosyncrasies and embody universal values, such as "justice, equity, responsibility and accountability" (p.16).
The integration of spiritual and secular preoccupations is at the heart of Maathai Wangari's worldview. It puts equal emphasis on the duties people have vis-à-vis each other, and on the "vast and complex webs of ecosystems, weather patterns, ocean currents [...] biomes that are full of micro-organisms, bacteria, insects, plants and other forms of life [...] on which the birds [...] and more consumptive species such as ours depend" (pp.67-68). Life has to be respected in its many forms; so too people's freedom, customs, knowledge, rights and aspirations. Therefore, she says, it is not possible to repair the earth without "healing the wounds inflicted on communities that robbed them of their self-confidence and self-knowledge" (p.14). Hence the articulation of some fundamental principles that gave a spiritual anchor to ecological acctivism.
Acting responsibly, Wangari Maathai suggests, begins with loving the environment. This entails espousing a lifestyle "that shows appreciation in a tangible way for the earth and the immediate environment" (p.15 ). It also means admitting that man is not at the centre of the world and that the real value of things is not redeemable for cash. For example, in her view, the real value of the huge centenarian sapele tree felled by loggers before her eyes in the heart of the Congolese rainforest, is not the money made by the timber company and its contractors in truncating it and selling their spoils. The true value of the tree lies in the contribution it makes to the wellbeing of other species around it, absorbing CO2, giving us oxygen, regulating the climate, etc.. Its felling testifies to the folly of confering more value to matter when it is dead than when it is alive. Society has succumbed to the promises of a predatory economic "wisdom", arguing that everything has a price, thus deeming it more profitable to fell a sapele in good health than to keep it alive. Lost in the sea of greenery that constitutes "the world's second lung" (p.37) that is to say two million km2 of rainforest in the Congo's Basin this sapele and many other species have lost their ecological function. In monetising everything, new theories of "value" developed by modern economics lead the world on a dangerous path. And to get out of this cul-de-sac, no one needs a GPS, just good sense.
Respecting life in its many forms, monitoring one's footprint, and showing gratitude and respect for Earth's resources this is the second fundamental principle enunciated by Wangari Maathai is essential to get us out of the ecological quagmire in which we find ourselves. We have to avail ourselves of natural assets wisely and sparingly. Like our ancestors who knew that the sapeles, the sacred groves and the life swarming in and around timberlands would fullfil their needs, generation after generation, we have to remember that the place of a tree is in the realm of the living; that all that was given to man has to be treated with respect. This wisdom has been shared by many in different times and at different places. The author states for example that during one of her visits to Japan, a reporter alerted her to the fact that the Japanese also had a concept similar the one she was describing. "Mottainai", he said, "encapsulates the gratitude we ought to feel for what the earth gives us. In addition mottainai encompasses an attitude of respect and even reverence for what one has been lucky enough to receive and the need to use it with care, without wasting" (p.106).
Times when wastage gave people the horrors is still close to the homo economicus, wherever one lives. Many examples could be given from around the world and the mantra "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" (p.105) on which today's environmental movement relies has nothing revolutionary. It merely expresses forgotten wisdom that could easily be restored to its former position of influence. The large number of trees felled to manufacture twentyfour billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks discarded each year in Japan (p.108), the millions of barrels of oil used to make billions of plastic bags in the countries which did not join the "bag-ban list", as well as the mountain of rubbish and noxious waste that buries the world can only be reduced if everyone takes responsibility and applies the "three R's."
Self-empowerment and self-betterment is the third principle proposed by Wangari Maathai. "This is the desire to improve one's life [...] through the spirit of self reliance [without] waiting for someone else to do it for us. [...] It encompasses the understanding that the power to change is within us" (p.15). Unfortunately, this call on people's inner energy often goes against the demands of religious dogmas that put much emphasis on God's will and the Hereafter. People's immortal soul needs to be cherished and nurtured, they say, while earthly contingences and one's perishable body are only trammels of life that have to be endured enroute to heaven. In this area too, death holds more promise than life. Therefore, "why would it be necessary to plant a tree or protect a forest or reduce one's environmental footprint, if, [as Jim Reeve's song This world is not my home suggests] a better place awaits that is full of treasure and is a more suitable home? If one's oikia the ancient Greek word for 'home,' from which we derive the prefix 'eco' is no longer the place where one feels one belongs?" (pp.123-124).
Rather than belittling people and their environment in their exaltation of eternal life, the author says, "how refreshing and empowering it would be to enter a church, a mosque or any other place of worship and hear about those who have been inspired to change the conditions under which they labour [...] by making sure that natural resources are used accountably, responsibly, and equitably" (p.148). But, unfortunately, "burdened with an historical legacy of being bulwarks against change (p.148), the vast majority of Churches as well as the political powers within which they often work hand in hand have contributed to people's disenfranchisement and spiritual bondage. Yet, the author adds, what the institution failed to deliver, "servant-leadership" (p.157) often does at every level of the hierarchy owing to men and women of character who offer their flocks a vision of life and death that encourages respect for the world, for its vital energy and marvelous complexity; leaders who do not demand new converts to burn their roots, but who revive ancient wisdoms that have been expressed in a thousand ways throughout the ages and around the world. An approach to spirituality that neither condones the burning of heretics and witches, nor the sacred fig tree that bothered a pastor of the Assemblies of God church (p.96), nor the Girima's sacred groves (p.96) burned by the British in 1914, nor the remains of the sapele felled in front of the author in the heart of Congo and reduced to ashes.
Therefore, Wangari Maathai says: "As the remains of the once living, vibrant tree were turned into burnt, dead matter, the smoke, combined with the red glare of the embers in the kiln, seemed to me a more-than-adequate definition of hell and not just because smoke, soot, and red flame are the standard motifs the Christian tradition has assigned to it. It was hell because of the environmental destruction, poverty, and desperate scrambling around the resources that goes along with the burning of charcoal. It was hell because of the dehumanisation that occurs when people search for riches in the mud and diseased pits and mines and mercury-tainted rivers. It was hell because the burning of wood for charcoal is a method for acquiring energy that only increases the chances of more desperation and degradation later on as wood becomes scarcer, the climat dries out, desertification intensifies, and the athmosphere and water sources are polluted or dessicated, and eventually disappear" (p.42).
It is up to everyone to take responsibility and to get involved, the author said, even if what one is able to achieve may seem insignificant in the whole scheme of things. Avoiding to add a pair of chopsticks, a plastic bag, or an aluminum can to the mountain of trash that chokes the world may seem as trivial as opposing the slaughtering of a whale in the Antartic, the felling of a sapele in Congo, or the logging of a venerable redwood tree in California (p.99), but many small streams make one big river and, as another maxim attributed to Chinese Taoist master Lao Tzu says: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (p.176).
It is up to everyone to take that first step, Wangari Maathai said, but one is not alone in accomplishing the journey that follows as there are many travellers on the road. And there is safety in numbers when people value sharing and mutual assistance. The fourth principle enunciated by the author thus underlines a "spirit of service, volunteerism and giving of self" (p.15) that allow each and everyone "doing one's part to achieve the common good: both for those who are near and dear and for strangers who may be in far away places [including] nonhumans with whom we share life and the planet" (p.15).
Wangari Maathai's activism earned its first successes in Kenya where she was born, but the survival of the environment not only depends on local initiatives complemented by a principled and coherent approach, outweighing gregarious interests, national prerogatives and religious dogmas. This does not mean a top-down approach, but rather a common commitment to Replenishing the earth; one that feeds on examples from around the world: on Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement that won the Nobel Prize; but also on the Chipko Movement which protected forests in a rural region of the Indian Himalayas in the early 1970s (p.98); on the Navdanya organisation which fights to save biodiversity, organic farming, the livelihoods and the seed-stocks of farmers (p.97); on the young woman who squatted at the top of a giant redwood to save its life (p.99); and less spectacular, but of no lesser importance, on the consumer who replaces an old incandescent bulb with an LED lamp; and on the shopper who shuns plastic bags in a department store.
Countless individuals, affiliated or not with an environmental movement are fighting for the survival of the world and, Wangari Maathai argues, it is up to everyone to find the best way to act: "We all live in different environments, with their own challenges and opportunities to create meaningful change. Our cultures and religious backgrounds may be different and you may cherish different values. My aim is not to dictate how you should react to your circumstances, but to inspire you to use your own traditions, principles and culture to make a difference and heal Earth's wounds" (p.191). In Kenya, for example, where, "as in many African churches on Sundays, the pews are full" (p.131), it is important to convince the supporters of the Green Belt Movement that the latter is in agreement with the Bible; to emphasise that it is a Christian duty to respect the work of the Creator; to show that countless passages of Scripture verify their claim. But the author also shows that Christianity is only one set of beliefs among others; one whose message has been distorted over time, like the sayings of umpteen Sages, Prophets and Holy men who inspired many faiths around the world and have been "distorted or modified to suit the customs of people who embraced them. As a result, over time the followers have become distant from what was initially conveyed by the founders" (p.18).
Whatever their religious beliefs, what people do on this earth is important. And as Brazilian Leonardo Boff, argues "social injustice leads to ecological injustice and vice versa" (p.167). Dark clouds are gathering over the horizon; people's agency is violated, and the destructive nature of unfair trade is everywhere to see, yet, Wangari Maathai emphasises, now is not the time to give up the fight for the earth; rather, it is urgent and imperative to save whatever we have left. Of course, nobody knows what the future holds, but for better or for worse, one will have no reason for regrets if one is able to say: "I have done the best I could".
Upon her return from a mission into space in 2005, Commander Eileen Collins told reporters that while she passed over Africa, three hundred thousand kilometers above the earth, she could see the effects of deforestation, erosion and large clouds of sand mixed with ash and smoke from the fires set by farmers manufacturing charcoal and practising slash-and-burn agriculture. "I am not sure why they do this?" (p.58) she added, rightly concerned. Wangari Maathai certainly shared the concerns of the American astronaut and, like her, she would have liked to see "people take good care of the earth and replace the resources that have been used" (p.57). But in her eyes, answering the question "why" is inextricably tied to the pronoun "they". To Eileen Collins, does "they" designate Africans burning their continent as she seems to suggest? Multinational corporations which impose their monocultures, kill subsistence farming and despoil the continent? Supermaket customers demanding fruit and vegetables at bargain prices, oblivious to environmental issues?
As a matter of fact, it is human society as a whole thas is the root of the issue, thus "When Commander Collins said, 'I am not sure why they do this?'", Wangari Maathai says, "she could have asked that question not only of Africans, but of every citizen of the planet. For her question applies to all of us: Why are we doing this? And I might add, for how long are we going to continue?" (p.58).
It is up to everyone to give an answer. A must read.
Green Belt Movement (GBM)'s website: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/ (Sighted 15 April 2013)
To date (1 May 2013), four books by Wangari Maathai have been translated into French.
This review is based on the French translation of the essay but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by Doubleday in 2010.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities