We often overlook a key indicator of our cultural values about Nature: how we treat each other. Wangari Maathai’s recognition of this came clearly to her when she battled a male-dominated governmental and societal structure in her home country of Kenya. Wangari had earned a doctoral degree in ecology and became the first woman elected to a high governmental office. At the time in Kenya, women were considered the property of men with few rights and often subjugated by violence and sexual abuse. At the same time the government had assaulted the landscape for resources, denuding the land of its aboriginal forests. WIthout trees, streams dried up and drought ravaged once fertile areas where women grew food for their families. Hunger became a big problem among common people. Wangari began a movement among women, The Green Belt Movement, in which women were taught how to raise tree seedlings and plant them. In return they received a small payment, enough to help them develop some economic freedom and personal empowerment.*Kinking an environmental problem and social problems through an economic incentive turned out to be a brilliant strategy for which she earned the Nobel Peace Prize. The Green Belt Movement has reestablished forests, recovered streams, and improved food security. Women are empowered to take restorative action. From the Green Belt Website:
“Shortly after beginning this work, Professor Maathai saw that behind the everyday hardships of the poor—environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment, work together for mutual benefit, and to do both selflessly and honestly.”
During the American feminist movement, Susan Griffin published Woman and Nature (Sierra Club Books, 1978). She provided the basis for women and environmental leaders to understand the relationship between the subjugation of women by Western political culture and the subjugation of land for resource use.
Over the last fifty years, many thinkers, activists and writers have drawn similar relationships that illuminate an important truth: the way we treat each other is the way we treat wildlife, land, and nature as a whole. Aldo Leopold, in his development of The Land Ethic (Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949, 1987) describes the evolution of an ecological conscience when culture extends rights from humans to the rights of animals and plants, to land, water and air – when humans are seen as one part of a whole of interdependent parts.
While advances in human rights have been achieved in the U.S. and around the world, there is still much work to be done. Locally in Pensacola we have arrested development in multicultural equanimity. None the less there are many people here who embrace the complexity of the relationship between human society and living communities we call nature.
For a an excellent example of this relationship, read Paul Giorno’s The Man Who Planted Trees. It is a wonderful short story illustrative of how people are linked to land and to each other, not in theory, but viscerally.