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Seek morality

Paul Andersen
Aspen, CO Colorado

“Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do.”

Biologist and author E.O. Wilson says a moral foundation is essential for how we treat the natural world and, by extension, how we treat each other.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for her Green Belt Movement, learned first-hand of the need for such morality. She had observed tribal women struggling to provide for their families by gathering firewood. A scarcity of wood made meeting their basic needs a hardship.



In response, the Green Belt movement planted 30 million trees in Kenya. The positive impact of Maathai’s work revealed a broader benefit than firewood. Planting trees created a new consciousness, resulting in a political shift toward democracy.

“The participants discovered that they must be part of the solutions,” said Maathai in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “They realized their hidden potential and were empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They came to recognize that they are primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.”




The Green Belt Movement nurtured an ethic that gained global significance.

By correlating a healthy environment with human rights and democracy, the movement became an ideological force. The mechanics of the Green Belt movement are replicable. But that’s not enough. Maathai recognized that action without an ethic is insufficient to make the kind of change needed to stem the human assault on the global environment.

“Today, we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life support system,” Maathai said. “We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life.”

Maathai recognized the need for “a new level of consciousness,” as did another Nobel laureate, Al Gore. “Collective action,” said Gore, “means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.”

Gore describes the “hundredth monkey” shift in human awareness, a sweeping re-evaluation of our place in the biotic community that harks to Aldo Leopold, the father of modern ecology.

“Conservation,” wrote Leopold in 1958, “is a state of harmony between men and land. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”

E.O. Wilson describes that membership as “biophilia,” which he defines as a connection to the larger community through a personal ethic gained by direct contact with the living Earth. “To know this world is to gain a proprietary attachment to it,” he writes. “To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it.”

When we see children playing in a stream or observing a wild animal, they are getting to know this world. That same knowledge can be realized from hiking the wilderness, swimming in the ocean or even strolling through a city park. Thoreau defined physical intimacy with nature as “gross contact,” and he prescribed it as therapeutic for man’s failed relationship with the natural world.

Wangari Maathai found contact by planting trees. E.O. Wilson found it by studying insects. Aldo Leopold found it in the green glow emanating from the eyes of a dying wolf. Al Gore discovered it in an expansive world view.

How we connect individually with nature defines our sense of belonging to the greater community of life, and in that relationship lies the future of mankind. It’s not about science and technology, but an ethical way of being.