Modern civilization faces many intractable and seemingly unsolvable problems. We can be beguiled by simplistic, flashy, one-off moves like building walls or issuing Executive Orders to keep so-called “undesirables” out. But humans have proven again and again that clear thinking, creativity, and cooperation can work wonders. How else could we have landed a man on the moon? Or invented the iPhone? Or stopped spewing ozone-depleting chemicals into the air?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of intention. I’m not talking about films like “The Secret” and “What the Bleep Do We Know,” although I confess to being fascinated by the idea that this whole thing we call life is a game that we are literally making up moment by moment as we play. Today’s stories will not require a mystical acceptance of alternative realities. (You can find explorations of those in other posts here, here, and here.)
The first example is taken from Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank You for Being Late. It’s full of stories from the Age of Accelerations, his name for the rapid advancement of globalization, technology, and climate change that synergistically affect social, economic, and political systems worldwide. Friedman is an unapologetic technologist. The early part of the book has some frustratingly rosy stories about sensors and algorithms that are replacing slow, clunky human intelligence. I may tackle that in a later post, but today is for rosy stories of clever, elegant human intelligence outwitting technology.
In truth, other than shovels and human hands, there isn’t even much technology in these stories.
As Friedman reminds us, the global spread of chaos and disorder is accelerating with technology, globalization and climate change. With climate change pouring on the heat (and drought) in Africa, the Sahel—a dynamic threshold between the desert and the temperate climates of West Africa—is literally on the move. As the Sahara rolls over long-established villages, people are displaced. And they migrate to survive, many of them getting as far as the Mediterranean and Europe.
It’s easy to assume that desertification is an inevitable, unstoppable process. And, with climate change increasing the length and severity of droughts worldwide, deserts are on the increase. But what if we don’t have to give up on ruined places? What if we have more power than we realize to restore them? Here is where the power of human intelligence and intention comes in.
“There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.” ~ Wendell Berry, from “How To Be a Poet”
In Chapter 11, Friedman argues in favor of creating and amplifying “islands of decency” in struggling countries through a variety of means, including western-style higher education and promoting and enhancing self-sufficiency in the poorest countries. He shares the work of Monique Barbut, director of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification. She observes that it costs $100 to $300 to restore a hectare of degraded land, while a day in a refugee camp for one refugee in Italy costs the government $42. Not only is it humane to help people stay in their homes, it’s also far more practical and economical.
Her agency is working with thirteen countries to fund a Green Corps of one person per village in each country. They are given basic training and seedlings and paid a small stipend. This is the Great Green Wall initiative. Since 2007, they already have many on-the-ground successes in Ethiopia, Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Friedman reports: “It makes a lot more sense than building expensive, leaky walls around Europe that will never hold, if millions of Africans have to migrate.” This is the power of human intention to focus on inter-related solutions that better people’s lives.
“ ‘Today, people are putting walls all over the place,’ said Barbut. ‘And, me, I also dream of a wall. A wall that we have called, The Great Green Wall. We have to stop the desert’s coming down from the Sahara. We are going to need to replant enough vegetation so that we stop the desert advancing, and we restore the fertility of our land and the storage of our water. It will bring hundreds of millions back to work. It will feed the people, and you could store up CO2 emissions. So it will help with the climate change.’”
The godmother of this idea is the great Noble Prize winner, Wangaari Mathai. When she started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in her native Kenya, she was deemed subversive and a threat to the government, jailed and beaten. Despite that, she and over 900,000 women went on to plant over 47 million trees worldwide, including re-foresting Kenya.
Wangaari Mathai understood that the hardships suffered by the poor were interconnected not only with deforestation and food insecurity, but also disempowerment and the loss of traditional values. Her organization taught people ecology and civics, and empowered women by paying them a small stipend to grow seedlings and plant trees. She was up to far more than planting trees, however. She understood that the kind of environmental restoration she envisioned relied on massive coordinated efforts, and the focused intention of many thousands of people.
“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, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.” ~ Wangaari Mathai
Planting trees, building community and empowering women are such down-to-earth solutions that you can practically smell the soil. And it’s not only happening in Africa. Closer to home, Joel Glanzburg and the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute have 30 years of living proof that it’s possible to retain water and grow food in the high desert climate of northern New Mexico. They start with listening, observing patterns, and paying attention to how things actually work as part of natural systems.
This approach accepts that humans are part of those systems and can experiment and learn by doing. How can water best be retained and conserved? How can shade be increased to reduce surface temperatures so that more plants can grow? This film is an inspiring look at how these and other questions produced a veritable oasis in the desert.
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” ~ Wangaari Mathai
It’s been said that the opposite of fear is love. These examples of the power of human intention all stem from love rather than fear. Solutions coming from fear may carry the temporary satisfaction of big, flashy projects that make us feel like Big Daddy is taking care of us. In the end, though, they are small-minded, shortsighted, and often far more expensive and less effective than solutions that come from on-the-ground, small scale actions fueled by love.