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Published on Friday, April 22, 2005 by the
Fourth 'R' for Earth Day - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ... Repair
by Wangari Maathai
In 2004, the Norwegian Nobel committee made a revolutionary decision. In
awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an environmentalist for the first time,
the committee broadened the concept of peace. The message the committee
sent was this: If we want a peaceful world, we have to manage our
environment responsibly and sustainably. We also have to share natural
resources equitably at local, national, and global levels.
Since winning that prize, I have traveled to many parts of the world
sharing the groundbreaking message of the Nobel committee. Friday, the
35th celebration of Earth Day provides us the opportunity to rededicate
ourselves to doing all we can in our daily lives to protect and nurture
the Earth. There can be no better time. The recently released Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment Report shows that nature provides so many "services"
that the decline of ecosystems worldwide has measurable deleterious
effects on human well-being. The 1,300 scientists compiling the report
found that 60 percent of nature's vital services that make all life
possible - including fresh water and the flood protection and
climate-stabilizing capacities of forests - are already degraded or in danger.
Nature is not an amenity to be drawn upon. It is a fundamental component
of our ability to survive - and a central pillar in expanding the
possibilities for peace.
Nearly 30 years ago, I planted seven trees that led to the creation of the
Green Belt Movement. Since then, women (and some men) have planted more
than 30 million trees across Kenya, and we have shared our approach with
many other countries in Africa.
Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of communities, largely poor
and rural, have been able to transcend ignorance and fear and take
positive action for the earth. In the process, they have also secured
their own livelihoods, as the trees provide them with fuel, fodder,
protection against soil erosion, and even a small income.
One of the most important lessons we learned is that citizens need to be
empowered. They need to feel that the life they want for themselves and
their children can be achieved only when they participate in protecting
and restoring their environment and expanding what I like to call
"democratic space." They can't wait for others to do it for them; they
need to take action themselves. Otherwise, the best theories about how to
preserve ecosystems for use by humans and other species will remain just
On a recent visit to Japan, I learned the concept of mottainai. One
meaning in Japanese is "what a waste." But it also captures in one term
the "Three Rs" that environmentalists have been campaigning on for a
number of years: reduce, reuse, and recycle. I am seeking to make
mottainai a global campaign, adding one more "R" suggested by Klaus
Töpfer, the head of the UN Environment Program: "repair" resources where
We can practice mottainai in rich countries where overconsumption is
rampant, and we can do it in regions where environmental devastation is
causing the poor to get poorer and the ecosystems on which they depend to
be degraded, some beyond repair.
In my case, mottainai means continuing to plant trees, particularly now
that the long rains have come to Kenya. I have also called on my
parliamentary colleagues to ensure that government offices use both sides
of each sheet so we can halve the amount of paper we consume.
I am urging the public (and manufacturers) not to use plastic bags that
are so thin they tear almost immediately, or are used once and then thrown
away. These bags clog waste dumps and blight the landscape in Kenya and
other countries. They also provide good breeding grounds for
If we did not use these bags, and instead carried our shopping in more
long-lasting and environmentally friendly containers, we could revitalize
traditional industries like basket and cloth weaving.
This could become a global trend. If Kenya began exporting millions of
baskets woven by women from sustainably harvested sisal plants to
developed countries at a fair price, that would be an important
contribution to the protection of the earth, to rural livelihoods, and to
fair trade. This is just one example. I am sure you can think of others
relevant to your life, your community, and your country.
Also in Japan, I heard the story of a hummingbird from a professor I met.
When the forest where the hummingbird lived went up in flames, the other
animals ran out to save themselves. But the hummingbird stayed, flying to
and from a nearby river with drops of water in its beak to pour on the fire.
From a distance, the other animals laughed and mocked it. "What do you
think you are doing?" they shouted. "This fire is overwhelming. You can't
Finally, the hummingbird turned to them and said, "I'm doing what I can."
So this Earth Day, and every day, let us dedicate ourselves to making
mottainai a reality, not just a slogan. We can all be like the
hummingbird, doing whatever we can.
Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is Kenya's deputy
minister for environment, a member of parliament for the Tetu
constituency, and founder of the Green Belt Movement.
© 2005 Christian Science Monitor
Joseph Van Rossum
UW-Extension - Solid & Hazardous Waste Education Center