A war holier than any other

These unarmed fighters, crazily in love with nature, believe that sustainability is the biggest economic opportunity of our time, and that the innovation imperative will unlock the promise of a smarter, more collaborative and more meaningful way of delivering value.

By John Ambuya

Once upon a time, in a riverside village, a woman noticed a shocking sight: a drowning baby, crying its lungs out, was being washed downriver. She rushed to save it, and rescued the baby just before it went over the falls at the edge of the town.

The next day, there were two babies in the river. The day after, three, then four. With the help of her neighbours, the woman saved them, too. When babies kept washing downstream, the village banded together, setting up a 24-hour rescue watch. Still, the babies kept coming. So the community installed an elaborate alarm system and strung safety nets across the river, but was still overwhelmed with trying to save them.

Finally, they consulted the village wise man, who had the solution: “Let us go upstream and see who is throwing the babies in the river. If we stop them from being thrown in the river up there, we won’t have to rescue them down here.”

Let’s go upstream

Here, in the real world, there is no shortage of people who care about a clean environment and a just society, and are motivated to work for change. We recycle. We walk to work or ride our bikes. We ‘like’ on-line campaigns. We sign petitions. We participate in clean ups and walks organised by environmental groups, human rights groups and worker unions. We pass laws to make corporations reduce pollution, use safer chemicals and disclose impacts of their operations.

These are all worthwhile and commendable things to do. But they are the equivalent of saving drowning babies downriver. They are cosmetic solutions to the entrenched, complex and interconnected problems, which are trashing the planet, destroying our natural resources, harming our health and threatening our communities. We should not content ourselves with just slowing down the rate at which things are getting worse. We must look upstream for the real sources of our crises.

When growth is real growth

But looking upstream has proven difficult time and again, because the economic, social and political assumptions that define the way our world works have remained the same. As it is currently played, the object of the game is to get more people to spend more money on more things… on anything. That is what we call ‘growth’. That is how most economists and governments worldwide measure the health and progress of a society: Gross National Product, the total of all goods and services bought and paid for. Who is against that? Growth is good, right?

It depends on what is growing. Would you rather have growth in prisons or schools? Guns or health care? Technology to clean up oil spills or safe renewable energy?

GNP does not distinguish between the growth of things that make life better and the growth of those that make it worse. This is a problem, since it ends up by rewarding practices that trash people and the planet.

For example, there are more incentives to degrade land through entrenched government subsidies for conventional agriculture than incentives to preserve or restore land. And we still call that growth! This trend goes on and on because our markets continue to be indifferent to the many environmental and social benefits which are generated by restoration. Reforestation, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, air and water quality, sustainable organic agriculture… are not yet fully valued by the market.

Green kids and “1by22”

Eco Warriors Kenya is a Greyfos initiative that seeks to address systemic barriers that are trashing our planet, destroying our natural resources, harming our health and threatening our communities. We are doing this by nurturing a community of change-makers who have one goal: revisiting, revising and changing the rules of the game. But, first, we want to provide inspiration and knowledge to all sectors of the society, enticing them to get outside, explore nature, and, ultimately, become stewards of the environment and advocates for conservation.

Eco Warriors has several projects to this end: Go Green Kids Festival; “1by22”; Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Caravan.

The Go Green Kids Festival has already reached its third edition. So far it has trained over 2,000 children, aged between 6-14 years. Our last event, in 2016 at Karura Forest, had the theme: T is for Trees. The children learnt about the importance of trees and of the need to conserve them. We plan to extend this Festival to the youth and adults in the foreseeable future. This year’s Go Green Kids Festival is slated for Saturday March 17 at Nairobi Arboretum. It is focused on the SDGs.

The “1by22” project is a nationwide public service project that calls on all Kenyans to contribute to the goal of increasing Kenya’s forest cover by planting 1 billion trees over the next five years in the degraded deforested five water towers around the country: the Mau Forest Complex, the Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, the Cherangani Hills and Mt. Elgon. These had been listed by the Kenya Water Tower Agency (KWTA), in partnership with Kenya Forest Service, as the most crucial water towers that need monitoring. These five water towers are the backbone of the country’s economy which provides 75% of its renewable water resources. The Project aims, among other things, at reducing anthropogenic pressure on forests, promoting energy efficiency, enhancing carbon stocks through afforestation and reforestation, and empowering the restoration of goods and services of forests through promoting conservation enterprises.

Running for trees

Planting one billion trees is, indeed, a ‘stretch goal’, that is, a goal that cannot be achieved by incremental or small improvements, but require extending itself to the limit to be actualised. A bit crazy? Maybe, but possible. How? By getting every Kenyan to plant 10 trees per year. And they do not need to leave their offices or homes!

We are developing an application to plant and track growth of trees online. This is a ‘game-changer’, namely, a new factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way. This application helps to create jobs for young people who do the actual planting and nurturing of trees. Moreover, multiple tree-a-thons(short for ‘tree-planting-marathons’) by various members of the community will be organised annually.

So, rather than frantically trying to solve problems that result from the system at the downstream end, Eco Warriors Kenya will take us upstream and change the rules of the game. It will enable us go beyond transactional solutions (efforts that address some problem but do not change the underlying system that led to the problem) to transformational solutions, such as measuring national happiness instead of economic activity, by fundamentally changing all the parts of the system: the way companies do business, the way government sets policy and the way communities function.

The cool thing about transformational solutions is that, once achieved, many of the downstream problems just disappear. Don’t get me wrong! Some transactional solutions are major improvements (like doing away with plastic bags), but they do not change the rules of the game.

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