This last weekend the world lost a visionary leader, sustainability guru and an incredible woman. I have no doubt that the tributes to Wangari Maathai will be numerous, heartfelt and from far greater people than I. But still, I want to offer up my voice and my thanks to an astounding woman.
Since the end of last year, I have had the great fortune of assisting with the sustainability-related design elements of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi. The project is still in its earliest stages, but at the kick-off meeting I had the privilege of working through our approach to sustainability with Wangari herself.
The intent of the project is to institutionalise the work of Professor Maathai and the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in an experiential learning environment; allowing those with more conventional development training to engage with the on-the-ground reality of sustainable development. The effect the project has had on me is to bring a new perspective to design, born of the real-life impact of her work for the GBM. For those who are not familiar with the GBM, please go and read about it (and then support them any way you can); tackling conservation, gender empowerment, rural development and food security through as simple an action as planting trees is a work of inspired genius.
My standard (and now tired) joke when speaking in public is to stand up as if at an AA meeting and claim “My name is Richard, and I am an engineer”. A corny joke for sure, but I think there is a kernel of truth in there – our approach to engineering design (as explored in previous posts) is not unlike the behaviour of an addict; addicted to manipulating nature, addicted to cheap energy, addicted to building up our own egos through ever grander monuments to consumerism. And even from within the field of sustainable design, the pursuit of ego is seldom far from the surface and never more so than in the field of green building design.
But seeing the honesty and humility of the GBM first hand and the actual results of her legacy was a humbling experience for me. Her description of resource efficiency, peace and governance as the legs upon which sustainable development must stand, made my own opinions on sustainability seem trite and skin deep and engagement with her ideas changed my approach to design. It challenged me to address less tangible concepts such as peace and governance from a design perspective.
This project led me to engage seriously with questions of eco-feminism, permaculture and broader peace studies from the perspective of an engineer. My inspiration from her work was not so much to open my eyes to new design, but rather to open my ears to the much wider discourse that exists on the margins of sustainability. And through that, to see my own field as though in focus for the first time.
There are moments in life when one’s perspective shifts fundamentally. Something changes the terrain and things aren’t the same afterwards. In terms of my understanding of sustainability in the deeper sense of the word, being exposed to Wangari Maathai was one of those moments.
So my deepest condolences to her family and her country and my heartfelt thanks for the chance of a lifetime to work with such a woman.