Wangari Maathai, the (late) Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, was fond of recounting a children’s story she’d been told on a visit to Japan.
A huge fire breaks out in the forest, runs the tale. All the animals are transfixed and overwhelmed by the conflagration. All but a hummingbird, that is, who resolves to do something about it. She flies to the nearest stream, dips her beak into it, and drops a bead of water onto the flames. The elephant, the lion, the giraffe and the other animals laugh at her, as she flies back and forth over and over again. ‘You’re just a tiny hummingbird,’ they jeer. ‘What difference do you think you can make?’ And the hummingbird replies: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’
For many who hear Wangari tell the story, the message of maximizing our abilities and passions for the greater good rather than descending into cynicism or despair was galvanizing. Wangari embraced this interpretation wholeheartedly. Yet we also knew that a more challenging, even provocative message lay within it. Personal virtue and effort aside, the parable of the hummingbird makes clear that the bird’s actions are futile without the assistance of the larger animals — such as the elephant, which could, of course, carry much more water — or concerted determination on the part of all the animals to do something.
In the world this week, the fire burns on multiple fronts:
The countdown is on for the most important federal election of our time.
An annual gathering of world leaders in Marrakech (COP22) will help determine the fate of humanity, as they figure out how to implement the Paris Agreement in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
And the hummingbirds at Standing Rock are making the fight for climate and human justice real for us all — indigenous people standing for fair treatment and the good of the whole planet in the face of the controlling grip of fossil fuel dinosaurs.
And while I’m in Paris (the site of last year’s global climate conference, COP21), on a 3-day layover to Marrakech, the beauty of this city is overshadowed for me by the mental and emotional preparation — and the world-changing implications — of such an event.
At such a turning point, I feel the heat of the raging firing and the enormity of the task at hand: Put out the flames, somehow, working in concert, as quickly as possible, consulting as many people as possible, in service of the greater good and all species.
I also feel your sighs of worry, anger, and despair. I feel how tempting it is to throw our hands up in the hair and tune it all out.
It is in these moments when the gravity of our reality weighs on our shoulders, I believe, more than ever, that hope-driven action is the best, most strategic, ethical and powerful choice available to us.
We have the power to shape our reality. The more of us who say so, the more it becomes so. Despondency is easy; courage in the face of it all takes a little more.
Don’t check out. Speak up. Participate. Vote with your dollar. VOTE for candidates who will take #ClimateAction.
The hum of a million hummingbirds might just become a roar.
Follow us over the next month for insights, inspiration and top ways that individuals can take action. The Idea Project team will be in Marrakech, Morocco at #COP22 interviewing some of the top environmental and civil leaders in the world.