Today, September 26th, Wangari Maathai died of cancer. Who she was may be a mystery to many Americans. What she did though may stand as the answer too many of the problems we face today. Another thing happened today, something that was most likely noticed by a much larger number of Americans, the price of gasoline fell to a national average $3.54. That is a drop of 12 cents in a matter of two weeks. What caused the drop? Increased domestic production combined with new oil reserves in Canada have North America poised to out pace Saudi and even possibly Russian reserves. In the process the White house and the EPA have pushed back against the coal industry while simultaneously opening the door to whole new series of environmental questions which have come to the forefront with the approval of a new oil pipeline stretching 1,700 miles from Alberta to Texas.
What the president has done is made a painfully difficult choice in the face of a looming economic recession; One that comes with a certain amount of environmental blowback, but also a great number of economic opportunities. Many have protested the pipeline, including NASA scientists, creating the illusion that stopping its construction would some how limit America’s consumption of Oil. Once again individuals from both sides of the political divide are holding the government responsible for a problem created not by government but by individuals.
This is where Maathai comes in. Maathai was the first African women to win the Nobel peace prize. She was award the prize for the simple act of planting a tree. Well that and leading millions of impoverished women across Africa and the world in planting over 20 million trees. The tree became for her an act of democratic defiance. In planting trees women provided them selves with a renewable resource that stopped the spread of desertification, provide clean water, firewood, and through Maathai’s foundation a form of much needed household income. Many said she was just planting trees. But when 20 million people plant a tree the world can find it self-turning in a whole new direction.
In my part of the world we have witnessed the rise of a new conservative movement, the tea party. A group of individuals who are calling for the dismantling of large portions of the federal government in order to reduce federal deficits and free Americans from the burden of federal taxation. They call for an end to government ‘handouts’ such as welfare and food stamps. According to the White House budget calculator eliminating food stamps would save me $19.08, it would also lead to malnutrition and the reemergence of diseases mostly unseen since the 20’s. What’s the hidden cost to society? I would suspect much higher then the savings, and the same could be said of many other programs from the $11.66 I could save on housing assistance or the $4.24 that I could keep if only we eliminated federal aid to students. Getting rid of that might even have saved you from having to read this blog.
What would Maathai have suggested in the face of such crippling problems such as the deficit and job loss her in America? Perhaps she would tell us to planet a tree. Then maybe drive a little less. Buy a smaller car. Volunteer. What ever she might recommend she would tell us to act as individuals. Not blame is a mostly unobtrusive government for problems that are caused by the overconsumption of individuals.
Some how the tea party, conservative pundits, network news hosts, and many a blogger have drawn a mysterious link between government spending an the end of the world. In the view presented to most Americans raising government debt and a growing federal government are leading the world to some apocalyptic end. They come to this conclusion completely outside the context of History. Take for example Joshua S. Goldstein’s article on Salon.com. At the beginning of 1900’s through WWI and II we say tens of millions die in wars that destroyed whole continents. Then with the cold war regional conflicts and the impending fear of atomic Armageddon brought about the deaths of millions. And:
Now, in the early twenty-first century, the worst wars, such as those in Iraq and Sudan, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically.
This is the actual trend; less people are dying, in fewer wars. But because of whatever number of factors you wish to list, from the 24-hour news cycle to the hyperbole of right or left wing political factions, most people live in a constant state of fear. Maathai would tell them to take a deep breath and go plant a tree. I would tell them to remember Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was the great Republican president who warned us about the growth of the Military-Industrial complex. The tea party and its congressional representatives who wish to cut all forms of government spending short of defense would do well to remember his words…
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that came with this spring of 1953.
What comes with the fall of 2011? No matter what jobs bill congress passes. No matter how large the deficit becomes. No matter how scared the average American may be. Change will continue to sweep the Middle East. Companies will continue to mine coal and refine oil. Corporation will hire more or less workers. And politicians will continue to do whatever it is they do. But individuals like you and I will be faced with a choice. The same one Wangari Maathai was faced with. Whether to stay in our homes entrenched in our own ethnic and ideological fears of what lies outside, or step out into the world and plant a tree.
Maybe we won’t all plant trees. Maybe some of us will just go to work or keep searching for that new job. Maybe you’ll volunteer. Maybe you’ll eat junk food and watch TV. Maybe you’ll create the next great must have Christmas gift. Play music or get drunk. Whatever it is you do, from voting to buying a new car, it will have greater effect on the world then all the screaming and chest beating the tea party or any political movement could ever have. And for that looming deficit that’s going to crush the average American, last year it only cost me $39.22. So I say lets do as Eisenhower and build a few new roads. Trade in a couple old guns in for a few new schools. And turn away from the politics of finger pointing and towards the actions of individuals. Let’s go plant a tree with Maathai. And maybe we’ll all get a Nobel Prize like hers and the President’s