A person could skim the news of Wangari Maathai’s death last week and come away with the impression that she was a quirky, tree-planting tree-hugger who somehow managed to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Typical lead, from the AP: “Kenya’s former president called her a mad woman. Seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, Wangari Maathai was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, a natural wonder Maathai believed could reduce poverty and conflict.”
Typical Maathai quote, from NPR: “That’s the way I do things when I want to celebrate, I always plant a tree. And so I got an indigenous tree, called Nandi flame, it has this beautiful red flowers. When it is in flower it is like it is in flame.”
Yes, and Rosa Parks was just a seamstress whose feet hurt.
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The deeper obituaries explain that Maathai’s tree-planting campaign in Kenya began not as a sentimental protest against deforestation but as a direct challenge to the country’s ruling despot, Daniel arap Moi, and his parceling out of parkland for private development by political cronies.
For this she was clubbed, arrested and officially scorned, but it is testament to her political skill and preparation that she didn’t suffer far worse. Many of arap Moi’s challengers were locked away or simply disappeared.
And the success of her Green Belt Movement is testament to her vision of environmental restoration as something much larger than planting trees, even millions of trees.
From the beginning, Maathai’s focus was also on felling trees — making sure there would be enough forestland in Kenya to provide its poor with fuel for cooking and heating.
More important, she conceived of reforestation as a powerful economic engine — a source of employment for poor people, especially women. Thirty million new trees is a significant statistic of Green Belt’s accomplishment; so is the 900,000 women who earned income by planting them.
Maybe this is the most important teaching that her life can offer to Americans, and especially American environmentalists, despite the ocean of wealth that separates us from Kenya both economically and environmentally:
The case for preserving or restoring natural resources must never be detached from the need to use them, too.
Too often, still, the case against protecting natural places — forestland in particular — is argued as a choice between jobs and beauty, especially short-run jobs, which of course are the ones that unemployed people want. I am thinking now of the move to strip mine for copper, nickel and other minerals at the edge of northern Minnesota’s most treasured wilderness, but many other examples would do as well.
Too often, still, the case for protection places the value of natural places above and beyond all others — not in conflict with them, nececessarily, but certainly detached.
I know environmentalists who will say they are more than happy to protect America’s wild lands from the ravages of extraction industries by importing the raw materials and exporting environmental harm to some other country, usually a poor country. They say this privately, not publicly, but the message comes across anyway.
This is not wise, and it certainly is not necessary. Environmental stewardship requires a strong economy, especially in the short run, and a strong economy depends, in the long run, on environmental stewardship. In two sectors, especially — environmental restoration and building renewables-based energy systems — heavy investment could produce plentiful jobs tomorrow.
Some of America’s largest labor unions understand this quite well, which is why they’ve joined with environmental groups and businesses in the Apollo Alliance. And I think most Americans, too, understand that the jobs vs. environment choice has always been a false one — that we can have both.
This is easy to forget when times are hard, even in a country as wealthy as ours. So we need reminding, we need examples, and we need leaders with the wisdom of Wangari Maathai.
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Speaking of obituaries, I want to add a belated footnote to those that marked the passing of Robert J. White.
I never worked for Bob. I was in the Star Tribune newsroom during the period he ran the opinion side, and by the time I made the leap, somewhat blindly, onto the edit pages he had stepped into a columnist’s role.
But he was kind to me in the brief time we worked alongside each other, and not because he needed to be. More important by far, he was encouraging as I tried to find my voice. When I scribbled something that impressed or amused him, he went out of his way to let me know.
And he set a good example. I admired his quiet way of speaking, his intense approach to listening, his incisive thinking, and his bottomless civility.
One comment I remember above all, though some details of its context have faded. We were having the morning editorial meeting, discussing the presentation some passionate advocate had given us the day before, and into a little lull Bob cleared his throat and said:
“Anybody that sure of his opinions can’t possibly be right.”