One Simple Way to Create a Green, Sustainable Future

Green Belt Movement founder, Wangari Maathi

Most people agree that a sustainable future will require changing how we do things now. Too bad no one can agree what exactly to change.

David Owens, for example, critiques LEED building, solar panels, even the Sierra Club in his book The Green Metropolis, instead touting the benefits of population density in reducing carbon emissions.

But according to Maneka Gandhi, who in 2011 asked COP17 delegates to refocus their efforts on methane gas—a livestock industry byproduct that absorbs 25 times more radiation than an equivalent amount of CO2—carbon emissions aren’t even the problem.

Despite Gandhi’s call to “go veg,” nearly everyone at COP17 remained preoccupied by resource use and emissions—especially the water consumption, oil addiction and emissions represented by non-negotiating delegates from North America.

With every expert embracing a different magic bullet, is it really any wonder that so many of us feel confused, overwhelmed and paralyzed when it comes to climate change?

Fortunately environmental activist and biologist Wangari Maathi has a one-size-fits-all solution for addressing climate change—one that’s simple, free and guaranteed to succeed.

Maathi, who died last September at age 71, often told a story about a group of animals that lose their forest to fire. The animals all stand by watching their home go up in smoke—all except for the hummingbird, who collects water in his tiny beak and tries to extinguish the flames one drop at a time.

The moral of the story? Do what you can. Right now. Don’t wait.

Now you might expect the first Central African woman to receive a Ph.D., chair a department at the University of Nairobi and win a Nobel Peace Prize, to give, well, slightly more scientific advice. But, as she emphasized in her 2006 NPR interview, Maathi believed in using simple, immediate actions to mitigate complex problems.

Of course there’s a catch: Simple doesn’t mean easy. To do the best you can, you have to take ownership and elect yourself leader of a personal movement to make the world a better, greener place.

You also have to redefine success and failure.

Spoiler alert: the hummingbird story doesn’t end with what we would normally think of as success. None of the animals support the hummingbird. The elephant doesn’t suck up water in his great trunk and spray the fire out. The antelopes don’t stamp out the blaze with their hooves. We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing the animals band together to replant their demolished home.

That’s because, in this story, failure is not the entire forest burning to the ground.

Failure is watching the forest burn while waiting for “viable” solutions, global treaties, green governments or likeminded supporters before we take action.

Though Wangari Maathi is best known for planting 40 million trees through her Green Belt Movement, I believe her most important legacy is her wise instruction to honestly and sincerely, no matter the odds, “do the best you can.” Like the hummingbird.

Here’s an excerpt from Dirt! The Movie in which Wangari Maathi tells the hummingbird story. Photo by visionshare.

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