Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya in 1977 in order to, as the GBM website indicates, “respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.”

Since then, GBM communities have planted more than 50 million trees. Although Professor Maathai passed away in 2011, the work continues with more than 2,000 women setting up local nurseries which now produce an average of about 1.5 million seedlings a year.

And the organization has itself grown steadily, achieving international recognition when Professor Maathai was awarded the Nobel Prize for the Environment in 2004. Originally focused on individual rivers and lakes, GBM now operates on a watershed level, thereby uniting what were previously very separate communities around a common issue of environmental sustainability.

Her story is one of incredible success and we can’t all be Wangari Maathais. But we can learn from her when we are confronted with seemingly huge and implacable issues such as the climate crisis.

She told the fable of a terrible fire in a jungle forest threatening destruction of the animals’ homes and causing them to flee for their lives. The animals looked back on the fire as it consumed the forest, transfixed and feeling powerless. Except one; a tiny hummingbird. She dipped her beak into a nearby river and sped to the forest, putting a tiny drop of water on the fire. She then sped back to the river for another drop of water, and again to the forest, repeating this time after time.

The other animals, including an elephant that could carry a lot more water in its trunk, urged her to stop. “You are too small,” they said. “You can’t put out a huge fire and you will burn your wings.” The hummingbird, without stopping her flights back and forth from the river to the fire, responded, “I’m doing the best that I can.”

Professor Maathai offers this to us as her motivation for her work. She may be just one person and, in her words, “insignificant” in a big world constantly bombarded with problems, but the hummingbird in the story is “What all of us should be. I don’t want to be one of the animals that watch the planet go down the drain. I will be a hummingbird.”

I watch Professor Maathai recite this story often for inspiration to restore and replenish my own outlook and energy and I recommend it to others for that same purpose.

I also find it an important part of an answer to the question that I hear often that goes something like, “ The climate crisis is huge, it’s too big for me to do anything about, and hearing about it is just depressing.”

No argument from me on that one. But it raises one of the hardest issues I struggle with in writing these columns. I get a lot of positive feedback from readers when I focus on the rapid spread of renewables such as solar and wind, or the efforts of companies and countries to curb carbon emissions.

I also feel an obligation, however, to present information that I find alarming, such as the melting of sea ice in the Arctic, or similar melting of Siberian permafrost, but I worry when I do so that this information can be depressing and discourage people from taking action. Basically, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

When talking with a friend here in town about this, she offered advice from food writer Michael Pollan, who, when asked by an audience member what he could do to lessen the impact of meat reliant diets on the health of the planet replied, “Just do one thing.” His explanation was that people are overwhelmed, not just by the problem, but in figuring out how to respond.

In terms of the climate crisis, this translates into “Should I just change light bulbs and turn down the air conditioner, or do I have to buy an electric vehicle, put solar panels on my roof, stop flying on airplanes, and a whole long list of other things?”

I heard Michael Pollan on the radio repeating his advice and reciting an anecdote about one response he received from a guy pledging that for his “one thing” he would only put one kind of meat on his pizza. Perhaps he missed the point, but Pollan’s answer to the initial question rests on an assumption that people should not be deterred from doing something by feeling they have to do everything.

Another piece of advice I’ve found useful in absorbing negative information came from noted environmental thinker David Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College.

He drew a distinction between optimism and hope; with optimism implying an expectation of a positive outcome whereas hope carries no such expectation but is the motivation that gets us up in the morning and doing the best we can on the climate crisis, even if it is just one thing.

— John Mott-Smith is a longtime Davis resident; his column is published on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Reach him at

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online March 6, 2018
Printed March 07, 2018 edition page A7