Saturday, June 25, 2011

Replenishing the Earth:Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World

Book Review: Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World  by Wangari Maathai  (Doubleday 2010)

This is an awesome book by 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Wangari Maathai. She is a woman from Kenya who pioneered a tree-planting movement in Kenya called the Green Belt Movement that has helped to stem soil erosion, river silting, and desertification in her native country. It has also helped to inspire other movements and empower poor indigenous peoples to improve their environment. She presents a sensible and scholarly analysis of human’s relationship to their environment and of people-inspired and people-powered environmental movements.

The focus of the book is on the – Four Core Values of the Green Belt Movement
These are: 1) Love for the Environment – this is a motivating factor, 2) Gratitude and Respect for Earth’s resources – this encourages us to reduce waste, 3) Self-empowerment and self-betterment – this implies developing self-reliance and changing bad habits and, 4) The spirit of service and volunteerism – which is simply taking the time and putting energy into improving the environment without expecting compensation. Much of the book is an expansion on these values along with anecdotes and examples of how they have been applied successfully and can be applied successfully in the future.

There is a current throughout the book of cultivating gratitude and respect for the environment and all that it provides for our life conditions and our ways of life. Also the idea of spiritual and cultural precedents for cultivating environmental balance and restoration is examined. Much is from her Christian perspective but also a significant amount is from ideas stemming from many religions and some cultures as well as her own knowledge and affiliation with the traditional Kikuyu people of Kenya. She does a good job of examining the impact of religious ideas on environmental relations including some negative effects due to religion, culture, and imperialism.

In the introductory material she talks a little about the development of environmental thought – Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis which sees the Earth as a self-sustaining organism, the development of the ideas of global warming and climate change, and particularly the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of the various environments of the world in terms of things like weather patterns, resource extraction, deforestation, etc. There is a range from small local ecosystems to regional and global ecosystems.

At the grassroots level Maathai’s Green Belt Movement began in 1977 as a few volunteer citizens planting trees to protect their future environment. Through education about their environment and the effects of their actions – people became empowered to prevent and repair problems. Planting trees, terracing fields to decrease soil erosion, collecting rainwater, utilizing better food growing and management techniques ,and building and maintaining simple sand dams for backup water in dry seasons are some of the practices that began then. Tree planting happened to be a positive factor for a lot of these environmental problems in Kenya. Maathai is quite aware of environmental challenges particular to Africa. She gives a story of being affected by the logging of giant 200-year old sapele trees in the Central African Congo region – not so much by the timber company’s management policies – but by the fact that only 35% of the large tree was used for wood. The other 65% was used to make charcoal used for brick-making. Certainly trees with less of an impact on the ecosystem could be used to make charcoal, she contemplates. She cites a lack of foresight – as she says construction workers could have used the remaining part of the timber to build their homes rather than in making heat to make bricks which are shipped to other parts of Africa. Here she, of course, speaks for the practicality and frugality of buying and using local products in reducing the overall ecological footprint. She cites some stories from the Hebrew Bible about the consequences of disregarding versus nurturing the land that is God’s creation. Resource management is a big issue right now, especially in less-developed countries as agreements need to be reached between governments, industries, populations, and indigenous populations as to how the resources are to be used, in what amounts, and how they are to be extracted.

She mentions some ideas of – thrift – embedded in people through – rituals of gratitude for bounty – among the Kikuyu people. One cool one is offering a small portion of the first harvest at the crossroads to be devoured by wild animals or the very poor and disabled. This was called ‘the granary of God.’ Actually, the idea of offering the first fruits of harvest is a practice of many cultures and we have done it at home as well.

On a more negative note she mentions that rural people in Kenya, including the Kikuyu used to eat less meat – maybe once a week with special sacrificial ceremonies. In modern times “carnivore restaurants” arose and meat-eating is daily among many folk. There is also an appetite for “bush meats” where wild animals are routinely poached – often illegally, to feed the demand. She notes these ideas of over-harvesting and frugality in the context of the problem of craving in a materialistic sense. She says we need both a shift in consciousness and a change in perspective - to reflect more on our responsibilities to the world and one another and to heal the wounds we have created.

Dust, ash, and smoke from slash and burn agriculture in Africa and deforestation in Madagascar can be seen from space. Part of the dust is from soil erosion due to deforestation. Maathai notes that much of our environmentalism is a reaction to symptoms rather than a development of preventative strategies. She emphasizes a balanced need to see the big and the small, the macro and the micro, the local effects and the global effects. She tells many stories of environmental disasters in Kenya – from small scale to big scale. Most are associated with droughts but also with deforestation and overuse of resources such as water. She notes a story of water being drawn down so much in a lake by the flower industry (many of the famous ‘Dutch’ bulbs are shipped and grown in Kenya then shipped back) that two Hippos got stuck in the mud and starved to death. Indigenous plants have been replaced with massive coffee and tea plantations – although coffee does come from a region fairly near to Kenya so it can be said to be nearly indigenous.

She covers the biblical concept of ‘dominion’ – where God tells Adam to “have dominion over the earth and subdue it.” In the same section he is also told to “serve and protect the garden.” Apparently this reference to ‘dominion’ does inform the Hebrew and particularly the Christian environmental perspective – as once when I was a representative in a panel discussion regarding religion and sustainability – the woman representing Christianity brought up this idea of dominion as a religious prerogative. Maathai and several other theologians think that the word dominion may have been misleading or perhaps mis-translated and a better word might be ‘stewardship’ or ‘custodianship.’ Thus the idea of a license from God to control nature without need to consider the consequences may not even be an accurate idea. In older religions – the relationship to the environment was often one of reciprocity where drawing from the natural world had consequences and rite around it rather than a divine decree to take without giving in return. On the other hand our excesses have led to technological advances and discoveries that help many things – but perhaps the aeon of dominion over nature is past and a new time of responsibility and accountability is upon us.

One thing I like about this book is that she acknowledges our limitations and failures and those of prevailing institutions:

“It’s clear that we still have a great deal to learn about the earth’s extraordinarily complex set of interconnected regions. Climatologists recognize that the predictive models of the effects of global warming they are developing – while a great deal more accurate and using more data than were available in previous years – nevertheless can only speak in terms of trends and patterns, risks and likelihoods, rather than in specificities.”

In a chapter called – The Power of the Tree – she covers tree lore from around the world. She notes the Kikuyu practice when cutting trees to leave one big tree or several big trees to keep the tree spirits in the forest. One would either plant another tree in the spot or place a stick on the tree and ritually transfer the spirit of the tree to another tree not to be cut. There was also the custom of the indigenous fig trees there being sacred and where sacrifices were performed. Logs and twigs from the fig were not to be used as firewood. She notes that this may have had an ecological basis in that those fig trees develop a deep and extensive root system that prevents slope erosion and landslides and allows water to rise to the surface from deeper reservoirs. She goes through quite a bit of tree lore – of the major religions and also of the sacred trees in various parts of the world. She notes that the nature of the universe can be compared to a tree in many mythologies, that sacred groves and forests are utilized for rites, pacts, and treaties, that relationships to trees figure in the lives of sages such as Buddha, and that temples are often built from specific trees. She also goes through some data regarding the conservation and renewal of forests – how planting trees where harvested may actually be a mains to save significant amounts of money by protecting soil. She notes the disastrous effects of shrimp farming Vietnam which generate income but result in loss of income due to the clearing of the coastal mangrove trees. She also notes the great successes they have had in Kenya of restoring the greenery, the soil, and the forests merely by planting trees. Another admission of the failures of institutions that she notes are those of the destruction of sacred areas venerated by earlier cults overtaken by new ones – particularly Christianity. She notes the destruction of the sacred groves of the Druids and other European pagans, and much earlier the destruction of the asherim, or the sacred poles of the Canaanite Goddess Asherah, by the Hebrew Israelites. She notes the effects of imperialism and conversion to Christianity on Africans such as the Kenyan Kikuyus – so that they could no longer worship outdoors, but in a specifically built building and under the authority of a non-local priest. She mentions the Chipko Movement in India which was inspired by an event in the 18th century when 300 people were killed trying to protect khjeri tress from being cut down by aggressive loggers in the Himalayan region. Today they follow Gandhi’s satyagraha, or truth-power, method of non-violent resistance. The famed Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva has been a part of the group which began as a means to protect a large swath of forest to be cut down to build a dam – so that the local people could keep small scale economic opportunities in tree-felling and providing local resources rather than having everything hauled away by non-local industries and government projects. She also mentions the 1997 story of Julia Butterfly who climbed a giant redwood in California slated to be cut down and lived in it on a tiny platform for over two years.

She devotes some pages to the idea of thrift, or frugality – of reducing waste, reuse, and recycling – the three R’s. She praises a notion in Japanese culture called mottainai, which means “don’t waste.” This arose from a Buddhist notion of mindful gratitude but was later associated with hard times of forced frugality and so fell out of favor as better times came. Now it is being revived as a noble choice rather than a forced habit. She examines greed, competition, and materialism in the context of the developed world versus the less-
developed world:

“ The very countries that from the 16th to the 21st centuries were instrumental in conquering and destroying civilizations, enslaving and undermining the self-confidence of peoples, and benefiting from the pillaging of the natural resources of other communities are those whose citizens are most informed about what is happening to the planet, and who have most wholly embraced the environmental agenda.”

She notes some of the Hebrew customs like the seventh day as a day of rest, the seventh year as a fallow field year, and the re-distribution of land improperly acquired and cancelling of debts every 50 years of the Jubilee – are ways of re-balancing both the environment and the poverty/wealth continuum of the tribe. Among a few more modern Jews comes the idea of “eco-kosher” – noting that preferred food can be that which is produced sustainably and ethically. In this chapter about gratitude and respect she makes an interesting comment about the Catholic Saints:

“The church partly invented the concept of sainthood to express gratitude to often wealthy or noble people who had served the poor and the sick. The designation of sainthood indicated to other faithful that these men and women were heroes and heroines to be thanked, respected and emulated.”

She also mentions an interesting Japanese custom of gratitude called furoshiki, where the furoshiki is a brightly decorated piece of cloth used to wrap gifts. When a visitor presents a gift to the visited the furoshiki is returned to the giver – much more eco-minded than our customs of disposable wrapping paper – and also the furoshiki becomes an empowered ritual item associated with generosity and joy. Returning the wrapping can also be seen as an act of reciprocity towards the giver which balances things. The Kikuyu have a tradition of offering gourds full of beer where the receiver polishes the gourd with castor oil before returning it to the giver.

“These gestures of giving capture both the spiritual and the practical elements of gratitude and respect for resources. Our connections to the planet and one another are reinforced simultaneously.

She notes her appearances in Kenyan churches to promote planting of trees during the Easter holiday. Sounds as if she is trying to create a positive tradition and empower people in a celebratory way to embrace their environment and also to link it with spiritual practice. She also promotes the idea of pride in one’s self and actions rather than pride in one’s material status.

She exhorts people to acknowledge their own environmental destructiveness as a precursor to healing. I have been working with this myself for a number of years now as I work in a resource extraction industry.

She is critical of the notion in Kenya that the poor people who attend church are expected to contribute money even though they have given up needed work for the day and walked sometimes several hours to get there.

She suggests we cultivate our “Commitment to Service” as a cheerful discipline without hope for monetary gain. This is also the attitude encouraged in the Indian practice of seva, or selfless service, to those in need. She speaks a bit about “Liberation Theology” which inspired people power movements in South and Central America that involved activism against greed and exploitation. She notes a hint of a trend of environmental Christianity from the ideas of St. Francis of Assisi and Clare Assisi and more recently the ideas of Thomas Berry who noted, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” She notes the idea of Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who said that, “social injustice leads to ecological injustice and vice versa.” She examines the movements in ‘environmental justice’ and ‘climate justice.’ Though I like the idea I think we have to be careful there in determining exactly who is really to blame and how much and who decides that. Demands need to be well-thought and well-researched. But I do think the justice movements serve a purpose particularly in bringing issues to the forefront and forcing more responsibility and accountability. This has happened recently in the Oil and Gas Industry in the eastern US and has repercussions for the industry and other industries around the world.

Interestingly she talks about her experiences at the recent (2009) UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Here, even a group of religious leaders from many traditions met to discuss environmental issues. She notes something here I think is very important – that these types of gatherings where people from different perspectives come together to solve problems related to responsible and accountable management of resources and developing strategies to protect and restore eco-systems. Here she notes the continuing value of dialogue and continuing dialogue in really solving problems.

She expresses gratitude to her mother and to the Irish Catholic nuns who educated her and helped her develop values and for things like inter-faith dialogue. She also mentions several environmental orgs, and some newer ones associated with religious groups. She also mentions thing like socially-engaged Buddhism and other environmental movements  associated with spirituality. She seems to recount and appreciate these differing perspectives, those of Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa, Hindu activist Vandana Shiva, Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jain monk Satish Kumar, and Christian theologian Thomas Berry. She mentions the German theologian and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer called who was a strong advocate of reverence for life. She says the Green Belt Movement participated in the Earth Charter at the Hague in 2000 – which is a document of environmental principles adopted by its adherents.

At the end she gives some advice for those called into service as environmentalists. She notes the value of anger as an initial motivation but any tendency to violence as a detriment to all.

“In addition to being honest about our motivations as agents of change, we have to recognize that in serving others and attempting to replenish the natural world, we cannot let our minds be shrouded by romantic notions of what it means to live sustainably.”

“We all live in different environments, with their own challenges and opportunities to create meaningful change.”

This is a smart book by a smart person that is very well worth reading.

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