To the Root of it

With every perspective and experience there is a background story, an implicit context that we have constructed which often lies quietly in our consciousness. This context is not created upon birth, but woven with different strands gathered from our schooling and universities, our parents and friends, and inherited cultural systems of thought. It is this conception that provides us with a reference point in the universe and often dictates our course of action and our response to events. It is this conception which is at the heart of our relationship with what we see around us.

The deep ecologist Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009)

We owe acknowledgement to Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and deep ecologist, for shining light on this context and how it influences our relationship with the living world. It was he who noted that seeking guidance to solve the current environmental crisis from our cultural and religious systems was problematic, as they were part of the original cause of the crisis. It was also he who said that we should look at our educational systems and examine what relationship with the earth is implicit in our textbooks and lectures, and question who we think we are and our place in the cosmos.

With a life dedicated to study and understanding this question, Berry argued that our rational, industrial society along with its amazing scientific insight, has broken the primary law of the universe; that being of integrity, and that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member of the universe. Moreover, the value of the universe is expression shown by its various forms and members of that community, not just by one. While our self-awareness is significant in the context of the planet, as also noted by Teilhard de Chardin, it is our assumption of our primary position in the universe and as Berry phrases it, our “industrial coding” that arose in Western society that poses a threat to life on this planet and therefore, our own.

The Andromeda galaxy, one of the at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe

 We are losing 10 000 species a year (E. O. Wilson) and as Berry notes via rainforest specialist Norman Myers, this “impending extinction spasm” is likely to produce the “greatest single setback to life’s abundance and diversity since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago”. This is significant.

What is our relationship with other living things on this planet?

Berry suggests that we need to go beyond any transformation of our contemporary culture. He argues we should go back to our genetic imperative, the source of our culture. It is this genetic coding that gives our species their context and carries the deeper spontaneities of the development of our cultural codings. Here, our genes are considered to be more than a physical determination of our being, but rather “our richest psychic endowment, our guiding and inspiring force…”.  Our genes connect us with the Earth and the universe, with nature and all other species, and provides us with the “shamanic dimension of the psyche”. This paves the way for a non-rational experience of life and the re-enchantment of our perception of other living things, along with greater sensitivity. This enhanced connection with life is the vaccine for our current disease of complacency.

Wangari Maathai: A Green Vision within a Structure of Freedom

Wangari Maathai (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

With 7 billion humans on the planet it is easy to talk oneself into accepting one’s own perceived limitations along with the placing of governments, corporations and large institutions on a pedestal. However, some have seen the folly of this apathy and have come to realise themselves as agents of change. One such person, who died nearly 9 months ago, was Wangari Maathai.

A constant battle with President arap Moi. Moi was convicted of bribery in 2006

Born in a village in the highlands of Kenya in 1940, she studied well and ended up doing a masters in biology attained at the University of Pittsburgh which exposed her to the ideas of environmental restoration. Her education continued in anatomy in Germany and was completed at the University of Nairobi, where she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD. This was certainly an accomplishment in a male dominated culture, but there were further battles to be fought against President Daniel arap Moi when she campaigned for a parliamentary seat in 1982. She was denied her right to campaign on a technicality and ended up losing her university position and home.

Maathai and Senator Obama, Nairobi 2006. (Frederick Onyango)

This did not deter her, and she carried on working on her Green Belt Movement with a vision of greening Kenya as well as providing a source of employment for women. This was made possible through Norwegian funds from their Forestry Society and then eventually from UNEP, which allowed expansion beyond Kenya to form the Pan African Green Belt Network. Successful activism includes the prevention of a 60 story complex being built in Uhuru Park and the protection of Karura Forest, with further battles against Moi.

The movement, with its respect for the natural landscape and for individual freedoms, naturally progressed to a democratic movement which kept her continually in and out jail, along with hunger strikes and experiences of police brutality. She finally united the opposition to displace the corrupt government in 2002, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. This was one person’s vision and determination.

Tending seedlings at the Tumutumu Hills nursery (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

The Green Belt Movement now has 3,987  supported community tree nurseries across Kenya which take care of more than 8 million indigenous seedlings annually for planting in degraded forest lands, private and public lands, sites of cultural significance and protected reserves. It has planted 47 million trees around Kenya.

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” Wangari Maathai