Saturday, October 8, 2011

With guilt comes motivation

The Green Belt Movement, started by the recently departed Wangari Maathai (the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner), gets people to be in charge of their environment, their trees, their cooking fuel. Their goal is to "mobilize community consciousness- using tree planting as an entry point- for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation." The movement was started in the face of large-scale deforestation and soil erosion, conspicuous corruption in the Kenyan government, and consequently great oppression to the local Kenyan people.

The problems facing rural Kenyans was of course massive, and it isn't difficult to imagine that many people can feel helpless in such situations. In an interview in 2004, Dick Gordon (who was at the time hosting a show called The Connection out of WBUR in Boston) asked Maathai how she motivated people to do something about the situation they are in. She said that she told people that to a certain extent, "the problems people face are of their own making." I started thinking about this statement, and wondered why it worked.

Granted that I am not a psychologist, I believe it works because it does two things. Firstly, it gives people agency over their own lives. In saying that "your behaviour/actions may be part of the problem," you tell people that while culture and society affects your life, you yourself are essential in your determination. Unless we are imprisoned (physically or emotionally), we all make choices for ourselves. We have to make choices for ourselves, whether to stay, whether to leave, whether to fight oppression and ecological degradation, or whether not to.

Secondly, the statement goes straight to the heart of what makes us human--that in the exposure of guilt, we seek to better ourselves. We can be motivated by someone telling us that we need to do more, that what we are doing isn't enough, that we can do better, especially if it comes from someone we respect. (Maathai was indeed highly respected and admired.) If the person we respect truly cares for us, we feel a genuineness about their assessments. (Maathai spoke genuinely.) We change behaviour then for many reasons. We may change our behaviour to seek approval, or to feel better about ourselves. Maybe changing is the "right" thing to do.

Lasting, meaningful change cannot come from coddling and fawning over how "amazing" we are. "You are doing great! Just change your lightbulbs." Rather it comes from pointing out the key questions and problems, and our willingness to accept those challenges.


  1. I think in relation to the environment, the statement "the problems people face are of their own making" makes sense. However, it can be dangerous when applied in a social sense, i.e. "people are poor because they did not work hard enough to get ahead". Of course sometimes it is true that people don't have money/jobs because they won't do the work to get what they need, but in many cases it is because the system us working against them (i.e. racism, globalization leading to outsourcing, etc). This is an important distinction to make.

  2. Yes, I qualified it by saying "to a certain extent."

    But I don't like making the distinction between "environment" and "race," etc. In the end, the issues people face, whether they are "social," or "economic," or "environmental" all stem from the same root causes. I have written about this a few times:

  3. It's true - a lot of our situation is directly of our own making - but a lot of it is thrust upon is as well, a product of our ancestors. However, even that which is thrust upon us can be changed when enough people come together to change it, by being a force greater than that of a single individual. What a twisty, complicated world we live in.