Celebrating Wangari Maathai

On Saturday, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai passed on. I feel the loss — her mission was yet incomplete, and in the most recent appearances she exuded such youth that you would never expect the end was near. Take a look at this nice three-part CNN bio to get a feel for her character, her grit, and her vision.

Professor Maathai’s championing of environmental rights speaks to me in a special way. Growing up enjoying the forests, mountains, and open spaces of California, I have a deep respect and affinity for the wonders of the wild. But the degree to which our society is divorced from the land in its wild state has meant that the enjoyment of nature has nearly become thought of as a luxury activity (falsely, however — I can put you in the mountains for a week for $100), sought out mostly by upper middle class white Americans. By extension, conservation of the environment sometimes seems a preoccupation of the well-to-do. This perspective seems more obvious in poor countries, where the pressures of daily life make sentimental hang-ups about the view seem almost cruel.

Professor Maathai showed another way: there are more choices than preservation versus prosperity. Indeed, true and sustainable prosperity will only be enjoyed when it is accompanied by good stewardship of the earth. A thriving environment is a right, not a luxury — and one worth fighting for just as much as other basic rights. And she spoke these truths as someone who came from a community that uses land — gains sustenance from it directly, is born on it, lives with it, dies with it. She did not come from a community that builds subdivisions and malls on 95% (or most) of its territory, and rails off a tiny fraction to be saved. That made her message all the more profound.

Thank you, Professor Maathai.

*UPDATE: A reader notes that my 95% figure is a bit off: “the USA has 9.83 million km2 land mass and that the combined area of the National Forests, National Parks, and BLM land is 2.2 million km2 — or about 22% of the total land mass of the US.” Fair enough, and I’m glad the figure isn’t smaller. (The 95% was intended to be figurative, I’ve edited it above.) The point is that the American tendency is to be OK with trashing places that we develop, while maintaining the purity of a small fraction of the land that we have specifically protected. I think a better version of conservation would be one that is more integrated in our lives.

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