Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, was fond of recounting a children's story she'd been told on a visit to Japan. A huge fire breaks out in the forest, runs the tale. The animals are transfixed and overwhelmed by the conflagration. All of them but a hummingbird, who resolves to do something. She flies to the nearest stream, dips her beak into it, and drops a bead of water onto the flames. The elephant, the lion, the giraffe, and the other animals laugh at her, as she flies back and forth over and over again. "You're just a tiny hummingbird," they jeer. "What difference do you think you can make?" The hummingbird replies: "I'm doing the best I can."
For many who heard Wangari tell the story, the message of maximizing our abilities and passions for the greater good rather than descending into cynicism or despair was galvanizing. Wangari embraced this interpretation wholeheartedly. Yet it's clear that a more challenging, even provocative message lies within it. That message has more relevance than ever as hundreds of thousands of people, us among them, marched Sunday in the streets of New York demanding their leaders take urgent action to address climate change, and as heads of government, industry, and civil society gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented global-warming summit.
Through her work with the Green Belt Movement (GBM), the organization she founded in 1977 that has planted more than 50 million trees throughout Kenya, Wangari understood in her bones the commitment of the hummingbird. In her case, the bird represented the grassroots women's networks who nurtured the seedlings, tended the trees after they'd been transplanted, and reforested their own land and then critical watersheds--largely unsung and underfunded.
This work continues today, with GBM groups growing and planting four million new trees in Kenya each year. GBM is also a partner in the wPOWER initiative, launched in 2013 by the U.S. State Department. The initiative is empowering women in seven countries in Africa and Asia to play major roles in the renewable energy value chain by producing, using, and marketing more efficient cookstoves and solar lighting products. The aim is to enable communities (rural and urban) to preserve more trees, burn less kerosene, and reduce poisonous fumes inside their homes (from cooking and heating).
In so doing, fewer greenhouse gases are released, forests are protected, and indoor air quality is improved, along with health. Women earn their own income and as a result, they and their children have more opportunities to learn and thrive. The wPOWER "Hub" is housed at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi.
The women entrepreneurs of wPOWER, as with the women tree-planters of the GBM networks and millions of others like them, know all too well the consequences of very non-metaphorical forest fires: drought, desertification, hunger, and water and fuel-wood scarcity. They are feeling the "heat" of climate change right now. This heat wasn't of their own making, yet they are suffering disproportionately from it.
We may interpret the hummingbird story as a message for us to reduce, reuse, recycle; to cut down on our car travel, switch to green energy for our homes, or eat less meat and more vegetables as our contribution to dousing the planetary fire. These are all valid responses to the realities of global warming. But they won't be enough. Beyond extolling personal virtue and effort, the story of the hummingbird also suggests that the single bird's actions are futile without the assistance of the larger animals--such as the elephant, who could of course carry much more water--or the concerted effort of all the animals to do something.
But even then, whatever the animals do will likely only hold back the fire's range or reduce its ferocity, not douse it entirely. Similarly, climate change will not be mitigated, let alone stopped or reversed, unless all the countries of the world become serious about systemic, total, and orchestrated reorientations of their economies and societies' ways of living on the Earth. The historic emitters must take the lead, but the new "climate powers"--the large current greenhouse-gas producers--need to join them.
In this, we recognize one of Wangari's other messages about why we are despoiling our environment and entrenching poverty: a lack of good governance. For the thirty years that she was urging us to plant trees to stop soil erosion, retain water, and store carbon, Wangari was also insisting on the necessity of accountable political structures, which used resources (whether capital, natural, or human) equitably and responsibly.
That need for good governance isn't confined to Africa or the global South. As Wangari insisted, corruption, greed, and faith in short-term pay-offs knew no boundaries, weren't confined to certain industries or multinational corporations, and affected every stratum of society. Indeed, she reminded us often: political leadership and good policy matter, enormously. Of course this is the case with climate change as well.
The hummingbird challenges us to organize, to hold our political leaders and global industries accountable and demand that they, and we, accept the potential difficulties, even sacrifices, that we'll have to make to transition from a fossil fuel-based and extractive global system to one that's organized around genuine sustainability and responsibility.
The hummingbird challenges us to extinguish the fire that's been created in our own patch of forest--the Earth itself--no matter the perceived futility of the action or the passivity of those standing by who could do more through collective will, but choose only to stand and watch.