In 2004, the Norwegian Nobel committee made a revolutionary decision. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an environmentalist for the first time, the committee broadened the concept of peace. The message the committee sent was this: If we want a peaceful world, we have to manage our environment responsibly and sustainably. We also have to share natural resources equitably at local, national, and global levels.
Since winning that prize, I have traveled to many parts of the world sharing the groundbreaking message of the Nobel committee. Friday, the 35th celebration of Earth Day provides us the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to doing all we can in our daily lives to protect and nurture the Earth. There can be no better time. The recently released Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report shows that nature provides so many “services” that the decline of ecosystems worldwide has measurable deleterious effects on human well-being. The 1,300 scientists compiling the report found that 60 percent of nature’s vital services that make all life possible – including fresh water and the flood protection and climate-stabilizing capacities of forests – are already degraded or in danger.
Nature is not an amenity to be drawn upon. It is a fundamental component of our ability to survive – and a central pillar in expanding the possibilities for peace.
Nearly 30 years ago, I planted seven trees that led to the creation of the Green Belt Movement. Since then, women (and some men) have planted more than 30 million trees across Kenya, and we have shared our approach with many other countries in Africa.
Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of communities, largely poor and rural, have been able to transcend ignorance and fear and take positive action for the earth. In the process, they have also secured their own livelihoods, as the trees provide them with fuel, fodder, protection against soil erosion, and even a small income.
One of the most important lessons we learned is that citizens need to be empowered. They need to feel that the life they want for themselves and their children can be achieved only when they participate in protecting and restoring their environment and expanding what I like to call “democratic space.” They can’t wait for others to do it for them; they need to take action themselves. Otherwise, the best theories about how to preserve ecosystems for use by humans and other species will remain just that: theories.
On a recent visit to Japan, I learned the concept of mottainai. One meaning in Japanese is “what a waste.” But it also captures in one term the “Three Rs” that environmentalists have been campaigning on for a number of years: reduce, reuse, and recycle. I am seeking to make mottainai a global campaign, adding one more “R” suggested by Klaus Töpfer, the head of the UN Environment Program: “repair” resources where necessary.
We can practice mottainai in rich countries where overconsumption is rampant, and we can do it in regions where environmental devastation is causing the poor to get poorer and the ecosystems on which they depend to be degraded, some beyond repair.
In my case, mottainai means continuing to plant trees, particularly now that the long rains have come to Kenya. I have also called on my parliamentary colleagues to ensure that government offices use both sides of each sheet so we can halve the amount of paper we consume.
I am urging the public (and manufacturers) not to use plastic bags that are so thin they tear almost immediately, or are used once and then thrown away. These bags clog waste dumps and blight the landscape in Kenya and other countries. They also provide good breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
If we did not use these bags, and instead carried our shopping in more long-lasting and environmentally friendly containers, we could revitalize traditional industries like basket and cloth weaving.
This could become a global trend. If Kenya began exporting millions of baskets woven by women from sustainably harvested sisal plants to developed countries at a fair price, that would be an important contribution to the protection of the earth, to rural livelihoods, and to fair trade. This is just one example. I am sure you can think of others relevant to your life, your community, and your country.
Also in Japan, I heard the story of a hummingbird from a professor I met. When the forest where the hummingbird lived went up in flames, the other animals ran out to save themselves. But the hummingbird stayed, flying to and from a nearby river with drops of water in its beak to pour on the fire.
From a distance, the other animals laughed and mocked it. “What do you think you are doing?” they shouted. “This fire is overwhelming. You can’t do anything.”
Finally, the hummingbird turned to them and said, “I’m doing what I can.”
So this Earth Day, and every day, let us dedicate ourselves to making mottainai a reality, not just a slogan. We can all be like the hummingbird, doing whatever we can.
Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is Kenya’s deputy minister for environment, a member of parliament for the Tetu constituency, and founder of the Green Belt Movement.
© 2005 Christian Science Monitor