Last night Wangari Maathai came to our neck of the woods to give a talk at Dartmouth for the Social Justice Lecture Series. Last year we’d asked Wangari to write the foreword to our 20th anniversary edition of the Man Who Planted Trees, so we were eager for a chance to finally meet her. The woman behind the African Greenbelt Movement did not disappoint. She spoke passionately about the need to empower people at the grassroots level to protect their own environment; to help people realize they are responsible stewards of their land, and that the government can’t be counted on for sustainable help. Wangari used the metaphor of a bus throughout her talk, explaining that somewhere along the way, farmers in Kenya had gotten on the wrong bus in terms of their land use and environmental strategy. Now the first step toward moving in the right direction was getting them to realize that they can make the bus stop and let them off. During the q&a session after her talk, Wangari added “by the way, Africans are not the only ones who are riding the wrong bus!”
Also during the q&a session, someone in the audience asked Wangari what she thought of Jeffrey Sach’s anti-malaria environmental campaign in Kenya. Wangari pulled no punches, saying that while it’s great that he’s buying so many people mosquito nets, you can’t solve a problem by giving people nets. If she had his money, Wangari explained that she’d start a campaign to stop the production of cheap plastics in Kenya, reducing the amount of plastics on roadways that are creating mosquito breeding grounds, and fighting malaria that way. The most impressive part of her response was the way it was delivered, as if she was just thinking this through for the first time. I’m not sure if that’s the way your average tree planter comes up with ideas–on a podium in front of hundreds of people–but it was pretty astounding.