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Of Hummingbirds And The Wrong Bus Syndrome: Reflecting On Prof. Wangari Mathai’s Moral Vision In Light Of Climate Change

On Saturday 20th February 2021, Catholics of African Descent in San Jose Diocese (CADSJD) hosted their second Mass to mark Black History Month. In his speech, the guest of honor for the event reminded us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s insight to the effect that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” However, he added an interesting comment that drew my attention. He added that the arc does not bend itself! Many times it calls for human agency to bend it.

It seems to me that Black History Month has been set up to recognize those who bend the arc towards racial justice and to inspire more to do the same.

It seems to me also that “bending the arc” is not only hard work, it is often risky work that often provokes unwarranted backlash, even lethal backlash, as was the case with Martin Luther King Junior himself and many others in the US context and globally.[1] Black History Month reminds us  to honor and appreciate the legacy of those who bravely faced the backlash, the legacy of which we are beneficiaries.

Now, while February is set aside to remember those who bend the arc towards racial justice, March has been set aside to remember, acknowledge, and appreciate those, particularly women , who individually and/ or collectively bend the arc towards gender justice. Theirs too is not only hard work but risky work which is nonetheless worthy of recognition and appreciation.

In this short essay and space, I take the opportunity to highlight the work of Prof. Wangari Maathai from Kenya who in 2004 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Interestingly, she won not as a champion of gender justice (which she was) but as a champion of environmental justice, specifically focusing on protecting trees. She gathered around her a group of women co-champions and organized them into the so called green belt movement whose goal is to replenished the earth by curbing deforestation… one tree at a time.

When she got the Nobel Peace Prize, some thought it was misplaced for her to get it for planting trees. She persuasively pointed out, however, that protecting the environment is foundational to peace and that in desecrating the environment, we are digging our own graves.

Needless to say, she faced backlash for pointing out what is now increasingly obvious to those who have eyes to see. Namely, that climate change is anthropogenic and is rooted in rampant abuse of the environment. This abuse, which includes reckless cutting of trees and reckless extraction of nature’s treasures, particularly oil, has backfired and continues to wreak lethal havoc around the world.

In efforts to examine root causes of humanity’s inclination to destroy the environment and looking specifically at Africa, Wangari observed that we destroy because we have abandoned values and attitudes that were in the past more conducive to human and other forms of flourishing. In thus abandoning such values, it is as if we, not only in Africa, but globally too, have boarded the wrong bus which will never take us to the destination we desire, namely flourishing! Instead, it is a bus leading to death and destruction. Wangari calls this is state of affairs “The Wrong Bus Syndrome.”[2]

This death and destruction however is not inevitable. On realizing that we are digging our own graves, human beings can and should stop digging! Humans have the agency and capacity to get off the wrong bus and get on the right one heading in the direction of environmental flourishing and, consequently, human flourishing. In the African context, her primary audience, this means recognizing the folly of abandoning the indigenous ethical thought and values which were condemned by colonial intruders. She argues that in accepting the thesis that Africa has no ethical capacities, Africans had in fact gotten into the wrong bus. She calls on Africa and indeed the world to replenish the earth by rediscovering and living the “[v]alues to heal ourselves and heal the earth.”[3]

Alas, due to the magnitude of the destruction and mayhem, there have emerged different sets of the problem. First, there is the tendency to deny reality and to continue business as usual, convincing ourselves that chaotic weather and consequently havoc are just natural disasters, These are inevitable and which will “naturally” come and go! With this attitude, some see no point in intervention. Others are intimidated by the magnitude of the problem and feel overwhelmed and conclude therefore that nothing can be done about the multiple, intersecting, rapid-fire disasters.

Wangari recognizes these issues but urges us not to give up. Instead she urges us to learn a lesson from a certain hummingbird. The story runs that one time there was a huge wild fire in the forest and all the animals were scared, overwhelmed and paralyzed. All except for one little hummingbird who kept going to the pond and drawing water with its beak and dropping the water on the fire drop by drop.

The other animals thought she was being ridiculous and her beak work futile and tried to dissuade her by ridiculing her. The hummingbird’s response was, “I am doing the best I can.”[4]

Wangari identifies herself with the hummingbird and invites all to adopt the hummingbird spirit and do something rather than nothing to put out the multiple fires threatening life all around us. Cumulatively the many small acts will make a difference.

I concur with Prof Maathai and salute her efforts to bend the arc of the moral universe towards gender and environmental justice.

This essay is respectfully submitted on the eve of March 3rd, Africa Environment Awareness Day which is also a day set aside as Wangari Maathai Day, to honor her legacy, to encourage us to get off the wrong bus and to ignite the hummingbird spirit in all of us. Our small hummingbird acts, wherever we are, will indeed make a difference. Her small act was to plant trees… Maybe we can, like her, plant a tree wherever we are. She hoped that we can at least plant a tree for every person living today. That would be some 7 billion of trees if it happened![5]

[1] Consider for example Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela whose actions for justices was met with violence and punishment.

[2] For her more detailed discussion of this concept, see Wangari Maathai, Challenge of Africa, (Anchor Books, 2010): 170-171.

[3]  She makes her case for a retrieval of life supporting values in her book entitled: Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves (Double Day, 2010).

[4] See link to the hummingbird story here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGMW6YWjMxw.

[5] See details of Wangari Maathai’s appeal for planting 7 billion trees here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uWVtP72LYc.