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Bookmark and ShareProfessor Wangari Maathai is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder of the Green Belt Movement and author of The Challenge for Africa.

Members of the Green Belt Movement plant trees on an eroding hillside in Kenya.

In Other Worlds are Possible, the latest report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, the the coalition asks how the global economy should be reshaped to enable human development in a carbon constrained future. A post-carbon society and addressing climate change mean much more than constraining carbon usage. While Africa is rich in resources, her people are poor; to counter this poverty, Africa needs to develop. For development in Africa to be successful, we need to ensure the right conditions in society that facilitate respect, equity and sustainability.

Current economic models create wealth at the expense of the environment and so we need to rethink how we develop. The current model from the industrialised countries which develops through the use of fossil fuels as the driving source of energy cannot be sustained. We must find a balance to improving our quality of life while not undermining the environment, and therefore the capacity of our species and other forms of life to continue. This can be controlled by investing in renewable sources of energy low in carbon – solar, wind, hydropower; sources of energy that will help us to develop without sacrificing the environment.

I wrote The Challenge for Africa to encourage Africans and others to think beyond the current economic model which is dependent on resources from the rest of the planet. The fact that humanity’s current use of resources is outstripping the planet’s ecological capacity should give all of us a reason to pause. It is simply not sustainable for the rest of the world to mine, log, drill, build, dam, drain and pave in a rush to achieve the standards of living of the industrialised countries, which themselves depend on massive resource extraction in the global South. In so doing, they could encourage the growth of sustainable industries that provide good employment in well-managed cities and towns – not crowded filthy slums with virtually no infrastructure that blot too many African cities and too many African lives. Africans, like citizens in other regions of the world, can also work to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to harness renewable energy sources to industrialise in a way that provides work for the millions of Africans migrating to cities, and allows some of those currently practising subsistence agriculture to move off the land.

The challenges facing agricultural communities throughout Kenya are mirrored throughout Africa and many of the poor countries in the global South. In these regions, concern for environmental issues is treated as a luxury. But it is not: protecting and restoring ecosystems and slowing or reversing climate change are matters of life and death. The equation is simple: whatever we do, we have an impact on the environment; if we destroy it, we will undermine our own ways of life and ultimately destroy ourselves. This is why the environment needs to be at the centre of domestic and international policy and practice. If it is not, we don’t stand a chance of alleviating poverty in any significant way. Nor will we create for the African people a continent where security and progress can be realised.
For the many reasons that have been articulated, there is a real need to develop a funding mechanism that will not only help industrialised and developed countries to address climate change, but also developing ones.

As major polluters, the industrialised countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change at home, but also to assist Africa and the rest of the developing world to address climate change. They are in a position to share their technical know-how to reduce vulnerability and address adaptive capacities. Mechanisms ought to be established – quickly – to raise steady and reliable funds for the prime victims of the climate crisis, who will be poor and rural, very young, and, more often than not, female. And many of them will be African.

One way to ensure that African countries are more self-reliant and competitive is for industrialised nations to transfer technology – with a priority on green technologies – to those nations that are technologically less advanced. Industrialised countries should accept the moral duty to assist Africa and other poor regions to find alternative and renewable sources of energy – such as biomass, wind, hydropower, and solar – and enable the global south to participate in the carbon market so Africa can develop industries based on renewable energy sources. But African countries themselves should also invest in science and technology. Global investors have ploughed billions into new wind, solar, and other alternative energy initiatives. But those funds were almost wholly concentrated in the industrialised countries, along with some in China, India, and Brazil. Almost none of this investment is coming to Africa, despite the continent’s vast energy poverty and abundant sun and wind. Africa’s challenge lies in making herself a relevant beneficiary of these resources.

This is an edited extract from Wangari Maathai’s essay in Other Worlds are Possible, the sixth report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.