on 23 October 2010
I'm not sure why they do that.
This is what Commander Eileen Collins, the first woman to lead a United States Shuttle mission, said when she looked back to the earth in 2005 and saw some of the deep wounds of the earth, in the man made environmental devastation of central Africa. But it is not only Africa that is affected. The problem is global.
Wangari Maathai tells the story in this spiritually inspiring book, written to share with the world the values of her Green Belt Movement, and the launch in Nairobi of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.
The Green Belt Movement has four core values; Love for the environment, Gratitude and respect for the earth's resources, Self empowerment and self betterment (or the power to change within us), and The Spirit of service and volunteerism (or the ability to behave selflessly for the common good).
In the first part of the book, and by way of introduction, she tells the story of the beginnings of the Green Belt Movement in 1997, based on simple tree planting in Kenya, and how it has grown from that modest start. In the second chapter she describes many of the horrendous wounds we inflict on our earth, starting with a visit she was invited to make into the forest of the Congo Basin, described as the world's second lung after the Amazon.
We need, she says, a new level of consciousness, so that we can see that the planet is hurting, and internalise our spiritual values to heal those wounds.
We crave over- consumption and the poor and needy crave equality. In the process we become less and less happy, with our materialistic values, and the indigenous tribes are harmed by Western values and diets.
We need, she tells us, not only a change in perspective, but also a sense of responsibility to each other and the planet, to between us heal its deep wounds.
So why do we do this? How long are we going to behave the way we do?
The second part of the book, in chapter three, urges us to look at the earth from three different perspectives; the first important vision is that from space, as seen graphically by Eileen Collins and other astronauts. These are highly trained scientists, who from their cosmic perspective are often moved to an awareness of a god, a creator, a sense of divinity, or simply a sense of "The Source" of all our creation. Then, she goes on to explain, we need to consider the earth through the ages of its existence, and how man occupies only a relatively tiny part of that time line. Finally she says we can view the local earth, our own particular part of the ecosystem in which we are inextricably involved. All are important to our understanding of the part man plays in this entire cosmos and puts that part into perspective. As James Lovelock has pointed out, if we continue to mess up the environment and the climate the earth will carry on quite well without us. It will find its own equilibrium again, and man will be the extinct being.
The next six chapters then go on to explore the relevance of the GBM's core values to our everyday actions wherever we are in the world. For this she draws not only upon the spiritual wisdom of her own Kikuya community and the value of the ancient practices and wisdoms that such indigenous tribes can teach us. She also looks at the Japanese concept of mottainai (don't waste) and the spiritual values of many of the great faiths, particularly as far as environmental issues are involved. Here she finds some of them historically wanting, particularly Christianity, which comes in for some knocks over its past colonialism, slave trading and missionaries. But things are changing, and more faiths, including Christianity, are now increasing their understanding of the errors of their past ways, and working hard to put things right, to preach respect for the health of the earth, and the healing of its wounds.
Throughout the book, Maathai's emphasis is on the fact that the ecological crisis is not only physical, but also spiritual, and she illustrates her point well with stories of her own and those from Biblical scripture, both Old and New Testament, incorporating the wisdom of the prophets and the healing touch and parables of Jesus Christ.
Finally she writes of how she has seen spirituality meet activism, in the history of conferences held by both governments and spiritual leaders. She writes of how over the past 30 years of her involvement she has seen hope in the increasing understanding shown by such gatherings of the spiritual values needed, how above simply monetary values we need to call on those of compassion and empathy, justice and equity. And she writes of those many who, sometimes at great personal risk, have fought for these values; of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa, and other campaigners such as Prince Charles, Thomas Berry, Satish Kumar and Vandana Shiva, to name a few.
It may not be easy to change. She understands this. But we should be encouraged by Christ's parables of the Mustard Seed, and the Sower. We may not always be receptive or hear the call to action, not everyone may hear our message, and it can take time for ideas to flourish even if they do fall on good ground. But tiny actions can have huge significance in the long term.
Do the best we can, she urges us, with tenacity, remembering E F Schumacher's vision that "Small is Beautiful."
And our reward will be happier and more fulfilled lives.
This book should be read by all those who are concerned for the future of our planet, those of any faith or indeed of no faith, if they are able to respond to ancient spiritual wisdom and feel in any small way the power of that spirit. From time to time Maathai includes some general practical ideas that we can all learn from. But mostly the book is spiritually inspirational, based not only on her own faith background but also with plenty of input from other faith disciplines. The book concludes appropriately with news of her own first grand child in 2009. Will she ask, Maathai wonders, when she grows up, along with the rest of today's youngsters: "Where did they think we were going to live?...What water did they imagine we'd be able to drink? What air to breathe? What food to eat? How did they calculate that we would be able to survive without the forests or the wetlands? Yet they slashed and burned and ignored all the signs. Why did they do these things?" Why indeed.