“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds, and in the process, heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.” (Wangari Maathai)
In 1977, Wangari Maathai, a zoology professor based in Nairobi, Kenya, founded the Green Belt Movement. For over forty years, the Green Belt Movement has engaged women in rural Kenya to plant trees and combat deforestation. Since its founding, this initiative has been praised for its understanding of the relationship between deforestation and the social and economic challenges facing women. In 2004, Wangari Maathai’s work earned her the Nobel Peace Prize — an award which has historically honored advances in the distinctly human projects of democracy and peace.
The activities of the Green Belt Movement continue to illustrate the fact that forests and social life are deeply connected to one another. In addition to providing foods that we consume and medicines we rely on, forests often provide the source for cultural products such as furniture, clothing and musical instruments. Additionally, they play an absolutely essential role in regulating global climate patterns and stabilizing the ecosystems within which we live. They are the source, the scaffolding and the buttress for much of human life, be it urban or rural, “North” or “South.”
However, despite this, a startlingly high percentage of people, particularly in urban areas, regard forests as essentially separate from human life. Forests and the “public sphere” are seen as opposed, neither similar to nor even related to each other.
Public discourse around forests, especially in urban environments, tends to reinforce this separation. We often receive messages that forests are spaces for excursions and retreats. The goings-on within them are only relevant to us when we are planning a trip to see them first-hand. The representations of forests that we receive often imply that forest research, science and policy are not as relevant to us as the more “social” challenges of our daily lives. Yet this is far from true.
For centuries, scientists have been warning the public about the effects of deforestation. Alexander von Humboldt, for instance, critiqued the deforestation of South America by the Spanish after visiting the Americas in the earliest years of the nineteenth century. He described the phenomenon, and his writings were distributed among the salons of Europe and Latin America. These publications began to build a bridge between the concerns of forests and public life, and ended up inspiring generations of scientists and conservationists. The landscape of communication today may be dramatically different from what it was in the nineteenth century, but today’s forest researchers face the same challenge of educating diverse audiences in the importance of conservation, and the impact of exploitation.
Recently, political events in Brazil, the United States and other countries have revealed a new frontier in our ecological crisis. It is now clearer than ever that our politicians do not feel proper responsibility for the socio-ecological systems within and outside their borders.
Sustainability is, therefore, a project which demands the support and engagement of the general public. If our leaders refuse to set a good example, then we must transform public space, such that it supports local and global environmentalism. Forest science may be a professional domain, but forest awareness and activism is the domain of all.
In my opinion, the crisis of public space which we currently face consists of two components. The first is that for the most part, the environment, and forests in particular, are not considered de facto participants in so-called “public space.” Historically, public space has been considered a sphere populated entirely by human beings. In its most idealistic expressions, the public sphere has served as a forum where humans can deliberate about issues pertaining to social life. Social justice, human rights, economic justice, political accountability — all of these have been important and relevant themes in the public sphere. It goes without saying, of course, that they are important themes for environmentalists as well.
However, to this list of social concerns we need to add another: the absence of the environment and of the ecological realities we face, as a participant in these forums. This may sound a bit odd to some people, but we must ask, where are the voices of forests in civil society? Where are their concerns, their needs, the full extent of their health and potential? Do the people who are able to convey these voices — ecologists, for instance — possess sufficient public platforms to do so?
In Puerto Rico, public awareness of forest health is woefully lacking. Weekend trips to El Yunque often end with colossal amounts of discarded trash — sad reminders not only of the need for greater environmental education, but also of the consumerist lifestyles which are so popular on the island. This brings me to the second component of our crisis of public space, from an environmental perspective. Within the public sphere, we behave more as consumers than as members of a biosphere that deserves our curiosity and respect.
Therefore, one of the ways we might conceptualize our environmental crisis is as follows — the codes by which we occupy public space are flawed, detrimental to the environment, and must change.
To understand how to effect this change, it is important for us to understand several historical factors. These include capitalism, colonialism, and, crucially, the firm divide between “Nature” and “Society” which we have inherited from the European Enlightenment. In some ways, this divide is a hallmark of all societies which seek to dominate or domesticate their environments. All of these forces have encouraged in us a belief that social space is the realm of man, that ecosystems such as forests are the realm of nature, and that the former is destined to triumph over the latter. Ecologists know that such a statement makes no sense whatsoever — yet to the general public, this way of thinking forms the foundation for much of daily life. Many subscribe to an attitude which is not rational, but is widely adopted in any case: that removing oneself from non-human environments somehow confers social power.
At certain moments in world history, however, the public space haspositively transformed in the face of new ethical imperatives. The movement for the abolition of slavery, for instance, was formed in part in the public spaces of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London. There, the public sphere expanded to include the experiences of enslaved people. Those who had previously been considered only as agents of economic growth and decline were now regarded for who they were: human beings who had long been exploited to service the narrow needs of those in power. The Abolition Movement was defined by a new sense of responsibility to defend the rights of people who had previously not had a voice in the British public sphere. In this regard, the environmental movements of today are no different.
A revolution of public space is necessary in Puerto Rico, to bring forests into the frame. This can take place through the sorts of educational programs that are already being implemented, under the auspices of the Servicio Forestal, local environmental nonprofits, and chapters of international conservation initiatives.
Artistic and cultural initiatives also have an important role to play in this revolution. Music, for instance, can serve as a conduit for environmental awareness; at the same time, it can provide a common ground through which people can connect over what are essentially shared concerns. Music related to forests can help people to realize that the division between human life and the world of nature is tenuous and counter-productive. It can remind the public that if we continue to think this way, we will lose many of our cultural artifacts — not to mention the sustainability of the planet as a whole.
One global initiative which has made significant achievements in this regard is the International Wood Culture Society. The International Wood Culture Society is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing the value and ways we use wood in our society.” Among its range of activities is a series of concerts and demonstrations of wood-derived musical instruments from around the world. They partner with forest research organizations for many of their activities. In so doing, the International Wood Culture Society draws public awareness to the indispensable role that forests play in some of the most treasured practices of human life. In my opinion, it is through such connections that the public sphere can be transformed from a rather unhelpful space to a site for spirited consciousness-raising.
In conclusion, both history and contemporary initiatives provide heartening examples of creative action and positive change within the public sphere. Through past, present and future efforts, forests can continue to enter into the frame, and become added to the roster of concerns which bring us together as citizens, to deliberate over a more enlightened future.