I’ve had a thing for Wangari Maathai for a while now, but have never gotten a chance to sit down and read her memoir. Reading her and Arundhati Roy gave a fascinating perspective on the financial crisis that seems to be about confidence in the global financial system. How does confidence in a currency or a dam project or sapling cause people to act? What happens when that confidence is threatened? Roy describes how having confidence primarily in currency can have disastrous consequences, while Maathai illustrates how confidence in something other than money can be used as the building blocks of powerful social change.
Roy starts Power Politics by describing the power and responsibility that she as a writer has to create change. She chronicles how truth about big dams seems to fall on deaf ears of those in power, and how statements about her Supreme Court brought kneejerk defensive reactions. Why were millions of angry, displaced people of so little concern to those building the dam while a few words by a writer were of such drastic concern to the court? The answer seems to have something to do with the confidence in the western financial world that is recently on such shaky ground. The dam was something of a bet on the western economic system. Indian politicians were willing to go into massive debt and displace unknown numbers of people because they were confident that an economy built on a western infrastructure would benefit their country (maybe some bribes also helped.) Pursuing a massive project like the dam required blind confidence in the magic of western economics and infrastructure, confidence so blind that it never bothered to perform accurate displacement reports or even check what positive impact completed dams were having! This blind confidence is why protests seemed to go unseen by those with the power to make decisions.
Except for the case of the courts. In a democratic society, courts are sanctified as the one place where truth can be pursued fairly and backed with the full force of the law. Even if those making decisions about the dam couldn’t listen to reason the courts had to, and the courts were supposed to have the power to do something about it. They didn’t. Instead the court found itself exposed. Making a controversial decision on a highly public issue risked undermining confidence in the sanctity of the court, and therefore confidence in the ability of the democratic state to hear reason. Unlike the dam project, the court suddenly had to worry about the base of confidence on which it operated, so it lashed out. The lesson here reminds me of Noam Chomsky. Speak truth to power, but bring a video camera. Nine times out of ten power has already made up its mind and is uninterested in your opinion. But by speaking truth to power and catching it in the act of ignoring that truth one can undermine the confidence on which power depends and have the leverage to create change.
If Roy provided a model for undermining confidence in corrupt sytems, Maathai provided a powerful model for building confidence in new ones. Maathai was able to build a powerful movement with few fiscal resources by basing it on two things:
1) the ability of trees to positively impact Kenya’s ecosystems.
2) the ability of rural women to self-organize and nurture plants.
The Green Belt Movement was just a system connecting these social and natural mechanisms. The GBM constantly reconfigured its operations to more easily integrate into the lives of women on the ground and to focus saplings on the vital ecosystems where they were needed. People became confident in the movement because it displayed a track record of success and because it’s fundamental mechanisms- rural women and trees- were ones that local and international stakeholders had confidence in. The result was something rare and revolutionary: an institution with few on-the-book assets or employees that was widely regarded as stable and capable of effectively creating social change. The GBM, like the Sardar Sarovar dam, isa project designed to create prosperity, but unlike Sardar Sarovar the GBM is based primarily on natural and social capital and is therefore fundamentally accountable to the social and natural systems with which it interacts.
As the GBM became widely recognized and well regarded some interesting things started happening. Women and trees became more than a powerful way to create social change, they became symbols of positive change in which people had enormous confidence. This made them powerful tools to nonviolently undermine confidence in corrupt systems. If I am confident in the positive power of women planting trees then I am likely to side in a political controversy with women planting trees. So when Maathai organized against unjust land distribution she didn’t picket or firebomb because people do not have confidence in picketing or firebombing, she snuck in and planted trees. When political prisoners were being held unjustly she helped to organize their mothers in a vigil. She publicly exposed those in power attacking things that most people had fundamental confidence in, effectively leveraging the assets that she had built to help women and plant trees to push for democratic change in Kenya.
To me, the moral of the story is that just as currency works a lot like confidence, confidence works a lot like currency. Effective systems accrue confidence over time in much the same way that some of them accrue currency. In the hands of skilled organizers confidence can then be exchanged for goods and services, used to build the movement, and leveraged to create political power.