We are all part of Nature. When the world suffers, we suffer. We can medicate ourselves with drugs, material possessions and all the marvelous distractions of culture. Still, every day brings proof that industrial civilization is burning the world down, poisoning it and turning it to desert. No wonder so many people are depressed and anxious! No wonder our leaders do such crazy things. It’s time to devote ourselves to healing.
Kenyan environmental leader Wangari Maathai wrote, “If we live in wounded environments — where water is polluted, air is filled with soot and fumes, food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust, it hurts us, creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, we degrade ourselves and all humankind.”
But this connection works both ways. “In the process of helping earth to heal, we help ourselves. If we see the earth bleeding from the loss of topsoil, biodiversity, or drought and desertification and if we help reclaim or save what is lost, through regeneration of degraded forests, the planet will help us in our self-healing and indeed survival.”
There is no other way. We can’t heal ourselves without healing our wounded Earth and our relationship with it. This can be done, as Professor Maathai’s life proves.
In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which plants trees and empowers women throughout Kenya and other African countries. In 2004, she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her book Replenishing the Earth explores how people can heal societies and environment together. GBM starts with planting trees to help local communities and employ women, but planting is only what she called “our entry point.” Trees can start big changes.
She describes returning to some hillsides where GBM had planted and cared for trees a decade earlier, and being shown how new streams were coming out of the ground. She went down into the valley and saw how the streams came together to form a clear-running river, where formerly there had been only a muddy wash. Farms were producing more food; people weren’t going hungry, wild animals were returning. People were cooperating with each other. Healing Nature helped everyone thrive.
Ignoring Nature leads to war and death
Maathai envisioned the movement she started as a template for a global transformation, political and spiritual. At the time she wrote her book, the neighboring countries of Sudan and Chad were in a state of low-level war over the border province of Darfur, trying to overthrow each other’s governments. There were constant battles between the Arab Muslim population in the North and the Christians in the South.
Meanwhile, as Maathai writes, the Sahara desert was spreading over Darfur, leaving the land they were fighting for unlivable. “I visited Chad during the rainy season. Although there was flooding everywhere, fields remained parched and the crops were failing. I saw hardly any efforts to harvest rainwater, plant trees or ground cover, or create terraces in fields to stop soil erosion. Now, wisdom would say, ‘Stop fighting. Combine all your resources to stop desertification and reclaim the land.’ Yet, the leaders and people continue to fight and destroy what little they have.”
As she describes it, the Darfur war was terribly senseless, but it was also a typical resource war. How is Darfur different from the wars the United States engages in month after month? Were Chad and Sudan any madder than US/NATO bombing and overthrowing governments in places like Libya and Syria? Why kill to control more oil reserves, when burning that oil causes global warming and pollution, killing you, too?
Water conservation expert Brad Lancaster put it this way: “We squander the vast resources that we already have, then spend vast amounts trying to replace what we squandered by taking it from other people in other places, worsening scarcity for everyone.”
Even those wars may be no worse than what corporations do on a daily basis. Companies massively pollute the natural world for profit: through chemicals, industrial farming, and mining. Disconnection from Nature — the one and only source of all life and all wealth — leaves people adrift and liable to do horribly destructive things. Do we think society’s single-minded focus on material wealth is making us healthy or happy? Or sane? We can and must focus on life instead.
How environmental restoration can heal
Maathai’s book lays out how people can heal themselves while restoring Nature. GBM has four key values: Love for the Earth, Respect and Gratitude for the gifts it gives us, Self-empowerment and Self-improvement, and a Spirit of Service and Volunteerism.
Start with gratitude. The gifts of Nature include water, air, food, shelter, clothing, pretty much everything we need and use. Human ingenuity can make things more useful, but they all come from Nature originally. We can’t live without it, whatever Jeff Bezos thinks.
When we realize the gifts we are given, we should pay them back. I think that every action we take should be guided by asking “Is this good for Earth, animals, and plants? If not, is this really good for me?
There’s nothing in the core values about revolution. Maathai understood power and stood up to it, going to jail at least twice for opposing her government and winning 98% of the vote when she ran for Parliament. She accepted government’s power and tried to empower people to influence it. She didn’t think she could overthrow it.Instead, she tried to change values and hoped they would spread.
Professor Maathai believed the values the Green Belt Movement employs in the service of the earth serve people too. “We can love ourselves by loving the earth, feel grateful for what we are given, as we are grateful for the earth’s bounty, better ourselves even as we use that self-improvement to improve the earth, offer service to ourselves as we practice volunteerism for the earth.”
We are part of Nature, so healing Nature and healing ourselves are the same process. This is what indigenous people have always known, according to Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD in Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer’s people, like Maathai, believe environment is sacred, because to destroy what is essential for life is to destroy life itself.
A movement to heal the Earth
Modern society addresses social problems through politics of various sorts, and you may have noticed that politics tends to drive people apart. Political beliefs can separate people before they even begin trying to work something out. What if, instead, we recognized the far greater danger we face from environmental destruction, and agree to work together to heal it on every level :from planting gardens to pulling plastic from the ocean to vastly reducing use of cars and planes, to repurposing militaries to restore forests, swamps, and grasslands?
This work is spiritual, social, and scientific at the same time. It’s driven by compassion for ourselves and all suffering creatures. If our rulers see the possibilities and provide resources, millions of people will come out to do the work. Refugees are already coming back to countries like Senegal to participate in the reforestation project called the Great Green Wall, which will stop the spreading Sahara desert with trees. Projects like that could happen everywhere.
I’m saying believe in Mother Earth, believe in Nature. We are part of it. Our individualistic, materialist selves are just advertising gimmicks to make someone else money. Inside, we are parts of families, communities, a species, and Nature as a whole. It feels good to remember that.
Professor Maathai said, “If we were able to achieve this consciousness, we’d see that the planet is hurting, and internalize the spiritual values that can help us move to address the wounds. We’d recognize that it should be in our nature to be custodians of the planet and do what’s right for the earth and, in the process, for ourselves.”
If we embrace this sense of connection, we can make a beautiful world. If we keep going as we are, we might as well join Elon Musk on his spaceship to nowhere.
Maathai, Wangari, Replenishing The Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the Earth
Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants.
A wonderful, short inspiring video about Professor Matthai’s life and work
Wangari talking about her work
The Great Green Wall “When people see what we are doing with the green wall, they will stop the dangerous migrations by sea. It’s better to stay here and work the land.”
Brad Lancaster on harvesting water to green cities. Practical ways to conserve water in dry environments.
— — — — — —