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Ten minutes with Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the honored guest for the 2007 College of Education's Distinguished Lecture Series in February. She received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Greenbelt Movement, a grass roots movement promoting environmental responsibility as a way to alleviate poverty and war. During her visit, Maathai sat down with Becky Straw '06 to discuss how environmental issues affect peace.

Why do you focus on the environment as a way of leading to world peace?

I was teaching at the University of Nairobi when I was introduced to these other issues. I guess it's because I'm a biologist, and I was listening to people from the areas where I grew up, talking about the basic needs that they should get from their environment, and they were not getting them because the environment is degraded. I started to think, 'Okay, what can we do about it?'

One very easy solution was, we can plant a tree. And that's actually what started me on the path of understanding more about the environment, and I guess it's the kind of thing that happens to all of us. You stumble on an idea and it leads in a certain direction. And this one took me in the direction of the environment.

And what direction would you like it to take from here?

I would very much like it to become a global issue, clearly recognized by governments, by companies, by individuals, so that we shift our thinking on peace and security, and [we] accept that by managing the resources responsibly and sharing the resources more equitably, deliberately, we're more likely to preempt causes for conflict. If we don't do that, it's very difficult for us to enjoy peace. If we accept that, it brings about a mental shift, a new way of thinking how we can promote peace.

And what would this mental shift be like? What would be this new way of thinking?

That, as a government, as individuals, we need to manage the resources we have on the planet responsibly; that we need to share these resources in a more equitable way, not an equal way, but a more equitable way. And that means we have to deliberately reduce poverty. If we are unfair, if we are economically unfair, unjust, those who feel that they are unjustly treated will seek justice. Sometimes in seeking justice, they cause conflict. Whether that conflict is a war or whether that conflict is insecurity within the country, it comes in many forms, but sometimes it precipitates into a war, sometimes local, sometimes individual, sometimes global. That is something that in the past we have not talked about.

We have not thought that we can precipitate a crisis because of being unjust, because of governing ourselves undemocratically, because of disrespecting the rule of law and human rights. But if we could understand that we can and that's one way of naturally causing conflict, then we would think differently, and we would act differently.

We would be able to reduce poverty and that promotes the deliberate efforts to be fair and just.

What can we do as students and alumni of the university to contribute to the cause?

People sometimes ask me, "What can I do?" I usually like to say that the most important thing is to arm yourself by informing yourself about these issues. And you can participate in small initiatives in your own communities, be involved. Don't just say it's not your concern, it's the concern of the government, because all of us can make a difference. But educate yourself on how the problems in your community come about.

What are the causes? Try to find out the causes of the problems in your communities. Sometimes you just look the other way when you don't want to be bothered, but the truth of the matter is that, sooner or later, it reaches us. All of these problems, even the problems that are really far away in other countries, eventually reach us even through the television. Eventually you look at the television, and you feel disturbed because the problem has come right into your living room, where you think you should not be bothered.

The other thing I tell students is that you can adopt a way of life consciously conserving our resources. In this country, for example, people drive all the time. You can decide that you're not going to drive, you're going to use public means. Now we are talking a lot about the climate change. You can decide not to do anything, to use resources endlessly ... that creates that problem. One of the resources that is very scarce today is water, and it's going to be worse in the future. Sometimes even when you are taking a shower or washing your hands, you can develop an awareness that you do not have to let the water flow.

Not that it's going to make a difference to you in particular because there is water everywhere, but at least you become aware that this is a resource that is very precious, that we cannot live without it. In many places, it has been polluted by, for example, the climate change. In my own country, we see the glaciers on the mountains melting. We see rains changing their patterns. We see crop failure. We see drought. These are all issues that most likely are connected to the climate change, even though there may be local causes like deforestation.

But once you become aware, we can do something about it. If you are not aware, it's difficult. So many of us are not aware, and we do nothing. And we don't even ask our leaders to do something about it.

One of the concepts I learned here in America, and which I know is practiced a lot, is the concept of reuse, recycle, and reduce. That's a very good concept and many of us practice this at home. This needs looking into, for the students especially. You don't have to wait until you can confront the big things, you can start with the little things in order to create awareness.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Inauguration 2007 issue


Photo courtesy of Jack Lerch

Posted on Monday, September 10, 2007

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