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Pre-2008 Posts

Wangeri Mathaai, the Billion Tree Campaign, The Personal As Political, and “Hills of Beans”

 Wangeri Maathai

“When planting your tree, think about how even small acts can have significant results and how each one of us can help bring peace into our troubled world…When we deplete our finite resources, we begin to fight for the few that are left.

“The planet does not belong to those in power. It is a gift to all of us, not only a source of profound beauty but the sustenance for all life.  And each one of us can help conserve and protect the Earth.”  — Wangari Maathai

Nobel peace laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai, feminist, first environmentalist Nobel Prize winner and first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the Green Belt Movement have announced the launching of the “Plant for the Planet:  The Billion Tree Campaign”, a worldwide campaign to plant one billion trees by the end of next year, in an effort to save the environment for the future.

The campaign encourages the planting of indigenous trees and those appropriate to the local environment, identifying four areas for planting: degraded natural forests, farms and rural landscapes, plantations and towns.

Maathai appealed to rich nations to cut their emissions of green house gasses to spare poor countries from drastic climate change effects, calling on them to donate funds to third world countries to enable them to address challenges posed by climate change.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement 30 years ago in Kenya by organizing women who were willing to plant trees to improve the environment and their livelihoods.   The  Green Belt Movement has now planted 30 million trees.  

Maathai, asked about the significance of a tree to the Green Belt Movement, once answered:

Trees help heal the land and help break the cycle of poverty and hunger. Trees also provide a source of fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade and aesthetic beauty. This is particularly important for women, who are expected to overcome resource deficits—for example, by walking further to find wood for cooking and heating and clean water—and growing or gathering new sources of food as old ones disappear. Trees, and intact forests, also keep soil healthy, stem erosion, protect rivers and streams (critical sources of clean water), and promote regular rainfall so droughts are avoided. The tree is also a wonderful symbol for peace. It is living and it gives hope. Trees are also actual places of peace. Many African communities—including my own, the Kikuyu—have special trees under which individual and community conflicts are resolved. In this, and in so many ways, the planting of trees lessens the potential for conflict and fosters peace. The Green Belt Movement has used trees as symbols of peace in Kenya. In the early 1990’s in an effort to diffuse clashes between ethnic clashes, the Green Belt Movement planted trees with both sides. We also planted trees in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to show our belief in democracy, even when we were living under a very oppressive government that seemed unlikely to change. When you look beyond the trees there is wonderful symbolism.

Compare and contrast the simple idea of women, planting trees, with this statement, which I had the misfortune to read today:

Willis, like Carol Hanisch, didn’t think politics was about changing your personal lifestyle, as if your little, lone acts of resistance would amount to a hill of beans. Instead, change came about through collective political action — which would require doing more than shopping your way, or even abstaining from shopping your way, to revolution.

To begin with, do people who say (and believe) this kind of thing ever think about the fact that collective political action almost always begins with these “little lone acts of resistance” which are being so disparaged?  Do they stop to consider, ever, that planting a tree, in a lone act of resistance, and caring for the tree you planted, is, indeed, about “changing your personal lifestyle” — for political reasons?  Does it occur to them that the Green Belt Movement, responsible for planting 30 million trees in Africa (the continent most threatened by global warming), which will now plant a billion trees in one year’s time, hopefully, began with Wangeri Mathaai, herself, planting trees, recognizing that planting trees is revolutionary work, and organizing women to plant trees? 

 Some “hill of beans.”

“The personal is political” means that what happens to women, what goes on in our lives, the ways we are subordinated, are political issues.  What is done to us is done for political reasons, to subordinate us.  It was never meant to be marching orders or a mandate, and no feminist, including radical feminist, I know views it that way.

Which has nothing to do with the fact that, disregarding all of the above and what Carol Hanisch meant or didn’t mean,  as feminist women, we can definitely engage in personal, “little, lone acts of resistance” which are not only political but which are, in fact, the work of political revolution.  People get bugs up their elbows over this phrase for one reason:  because they don’t like being called out on acts or views or beliefs which harm women.    Well, that’s understandable I guess; what isn’t is the lengths to which they will go to gut an incredibly meaningful statement with a rich feminist herstory of all meaning.  It would be funny if it was so not funny,  feminists working hard to persuade, prove to women that what we do in our personal lives means nothing.  If it doesn’t, then there’s no reason for us to be feminists or revolutionaries of any kind.  Might as well hang it up now. 

Planting trees as revolution wasn’t what Carolyn Hanisch had in mind when she said, “the personal is political.”  But individual women planting trees as revolution is entirely political as well as personal, and can, has, and will change the world.

Edited to add, I’ve blogged about the phrase “the personal is political,” here and here.





5 thoughts on “Wangeri Mathaai, the Billion Tree Campaign, The Personal As Political, and “Hills of Beans”

  1. Oh, I just saw Prof. Maathai on TV the other night. She just released her memoir:

    Posted by Melissa | November 10, 2006, 9:32 pm
  2. Thank you, thank you. That is the most incredibly shallow, defensive thing I’ve ever read about Hanisch or Willis. If they think individual action was irrelevant, they would not write, which is an individual act of resistance.

    Posted by Amanda Marcotte | November 11, 2006, 1:43 pm
  3. Not what you said is shallow or defensive. What you quoted. Ahem.

    Posted by Amanda Marcotte | November 11, 2006, 1:44 pm
  4. So true, re shallow, and especially defensive! Beyond which, how entirely self-serving and sleazy is it possible for Amp to be. Of course he appreciates and links to this kind of sentiment; it provides a handy justification for his own sellout, so he harnesses his own project of defending his indefensible behavior to some supposed honoring of a feminist woman who has died– a woman he probably never heard of and still knows nothing about if what he’s “learned” about her, he learned from Bitch|Lab, whose ongoing project also seems to be to defend the indefensible in the name of “nothing a woman does in her personal life matters.” Yeesh. How beyond depressing that would be if it were true! Using BL’s shopping example, if a woman decides, because of her feminist principles, that she isn’t going to, say, shop at Wal-Mart today, well, yeah, that’s not going to immediately impact Wal-Mart, labor, wages, capitalism, corporate greed, etc. But if she goes back home and blogs about her decision and other women bloggers read her and also start blogging about it, and then someone gets busy and organizes, ultimately, you have *collective action* and an impact begins to be made. Collective action starts with individual actions. That is not rocket science. The interest in obfuscating that supremely simple truth stuns. I can only wonder if BL or Amp or others who say things like this have ever actually participated in grass roots politics, grass roots organizing.
    Well, I’m just ranting and raving.

    Posted by womensspace | November 11, 2006, 5:41 pm
  5. Willis’ essay “Women and the Myth of Consumerism” is online here:

    There are different ways to read what she is saying, and it seems a little muddled to me, to be honest. In some places Willis seemed to be saying that women have agency in their consumerism, as when she wrote: “When a woman spends a lot of money and time decorating her home or herself, or hunting down the latest in vacuum cleaners, it is not idle self-indulgence (let alone the result of psychic manipulation) but a healthy attempt to find outlets for her creative energies within her circumscribed role.”

    But in other places she clearly says women lack agency, like when she says that people have no control over what commodities are produced, or over what male supremacy demands of women in terms of apppearance and behavior, or when she says it is a myth that a wife has control over her husband’s money.

    Willis is certainly correct when she said it is sexist to “assume all we need to make us happy is a new hat now and then,” but that statement is a little bit in tension with her earlier stament that “shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years.” So, she says it’s okay to admit shopping makes us happy, but that assuming shopping alone makes women happy is sexist, which makes a certain kind of sense, but then she also says, “For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work.” So do we want to shop, want more than shopping in our lives, or want to be relieved of the burden of shopping? There is just too much going on here!

    Willis also says that rejecting consumerism will not liberate us, but she doesn’t give much guidance about what she means when she touts “collectively fighting our own oppression and the ways in which we oppress others” as the true path toward liberation.

    At the end of the day I’m not sure what Willis’ thesis was. I think part of her message is that women shouldn’t judge each other too harshly for buying into consumerist aspects of the patriarchy, which I think is correct. But if she is also saying that our individual decisions don’t matter, I think she was wrong.

    I have a lot of respect for Willis even as I disagree with her on many issues, but I don’t think this essay was her finest work by a long stretch.

    Posted by Ann Bartow | November 11, 2006, 7:08 pm

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