Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.
As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).
Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.
She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.
So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches.
We often want to compartmentalise the world and then solve it, piece by piece. Nature and environmentalism sit over here in this box and conflict and war sits over here in this box, while gender issues can be put here; bigotry, racism and homophobia can go over here, and economic issues belong in their own box here. Even our newspapers separate culture from politics and finance, as if these were separate strands braided together to make the rope of reality. But this denies the messiness and disorganisation of life, and the fact that these are not separate issues which are linked together, but facets of the same issues.
With the example of women’s empowerment needs in the 1970s, it would be all too easy to separate the livelihoods from the needs for fuel and for peace. Instead of one initiative to get women and girls into school so they could go on to earn livelihoods, and a separate initiative to distribute fuel more effectively to rural communities, and then countless other initiatives to manage resources and preserve peace, with still other resolutions to save the natural world, planting traditional trees could contribute to all of these. The trees gave shade for coolness in summer; the fruits could be sold at market as well as eaten by the family; wood could be used to light fires for cooking and cleaning, readily available near the home, with excess wood again made available for sale. Meanwhile, landslides and flooding could be reduced, thus helping the family’s agriculture provide better. And, perhaps unbeknownst to most people at the time, trees also help lock carbon from the air, improving air quality and helping reduce the effects of carbon in the atmosphere whilst improving soil quality.
And whilst there is some dispute over how much conflict globally stems from limited resources, it rings true to me that the mindset that puts production and consumption (or ‘progress’) in the backseat while responsible custodianship of the planet drives is likely to be a mindset that promotes cooperation and peace.
Occam’s razor is a well-known principle that states the simplest explanation is often the right one, as it doesn’t require elaborate patches to address holes in the theory. Complications are symptoms of gaps in the theory that needed to be addressed. A simple explanation that doesn’t require lots of patches remains simple, and therefore is more likely to be correct.
The same can be said for solutions. A complicated solution to a problem suggests that the initial solution doesn’t address the problem fully, or begets many of its own consequences that need to be plugged, so you end up with a monstrosity of a solution that no one understands. The simple, elegant solution cuts through this like Occam’s razor.
I see this frequently in my personal and professional life.
Solutions in the workplace can become convoluted, confusing, and hard to maintain, particularly as staff come and go and projects change hands. So many people can become involved in delivering a solution that ownership and autonomy are lost, and suddenly everyone is looking to someone else to explain what’s happening when the solution inevitably fails or becomes outdated. When this happens a lot, we label it ‘collaboration’ to feel better about it.
Personally, the symptoms of this is busyness and overwhelm. It’s the feeling of having too much to do, far too much going on to hold in one person’s brain. We plug the gaps with technology, increased reliance on goods and services, and getting our dopamine fixes from ticking off to do lists and garnering likes on social media.
We want to be healthier, so we pay good money to join a gym and buy meal kits full of organic ingredients and recipe cards. We want time with our kids, so we work flexibly, which ends up looking a lot like telling our children we’re watching them do the monkey bars at the park despite our eyes clearly cast downwards reading work emails on our phone. It’s pressure to have date nights and bikini waxes and expensive holidays to recover from burnout and reconnect with the people who matter most to us, and having to work more to earn the money to pay for the expensive holiday. It’s a relentless trawling through various shopping sites to find that thing we’ve decided this month will make life more manageable – that handbag, that laptop, that shoe, that gadget.
When actually, there’s a version of planting more fig trees for all of our problems. What the equivalent is for you and for me may be different, but I’m certain the solution is not to complicate life further with more and more.
I don’t fault us for thinking that it is. We’ve been trained as good capitalists to see more as better, and to believe consumption is a solution itself. Businesses that don’t grow enough are struggling, and those that stand still based on the needs of their customers are failing. And all technology, all progress, is the result of solving a problem. We developed mathematics to be able to know how many cattle we had when we moved to agriculture instead of hunting and gathering. Cars were the answer to the growing problem of too many horses befouling our streets.
Solutions begetting more problems to solve work well in a way, as that means there is more to buy and consume. We are sold antibiotics we don’t necessarily need, which destroys are gut flora, so we buy probiotics to help rebalance. We buy the hamburger and the gym membership to combat the weight gain.
But as we know, humans are not particularly good at recognising wider, unintended consequences, or keeping perspective beyond the very short span of a human life. Having our blinders on when looking at this problem means we find a solution to this problem, often creating another problem over there beyond our tunnel vision. Our brains have evolved to have laser-like focus when faced with perceived scarcity (note that it doesn’t have to be true, merely perceived), and we resolve that problem. Lack of water? We cannot think of solutions beyond getting more water. And that makes sense. We wouldn’t want to be dying of thirst and using our limited reserves to clean the house. We need to use what energy we have left to find water! But this also means that when we run out of water, we don’t think of solutions that might have longer lasting and wider benefits.
As Tony Juniper writes in How Nature Helps Britain, we respond to flooding with further flood defences, without seeing how trees root systems and bogs and unimproved grasses all help the soil retain more water during heavy rainfall, slowly releasing to rivers and reducing the rapid flow that results in huge flood damage. Attempts to tame nature tend to kick the can downstream, creating issues elsewhere, and require revisiting periodically (often at great expense) when our man-made defences inevitably weaken under the steady onslaught of rivers trying to reunite with their floodplains. As I write this, attempts to divert water from the breaking Whaley Bridge Dam at Toddbrook Reservoir is putting other smaller communities on the river Goyt at risk.
Or as Clive Faulkner, Trust Manager at Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, said to Juniper as they discussed restoration of wildlife in Pumlumon at the source of the Severn:
‘The more we looked at it, the more we discovered a whole range of problems – socio-economic, political, environmental – and it was at this point we had a choice. We either ran away with our hands in the air, or we sat down and thought it through. We did sit down are realised they were all expressions of the same issue.’
What is the issue expressing itself to you in your life? Are there several expressions of the same issue?
Or yet another way of looking at it is Gretchen Rubin (of the Happiness Project and Happier podcast) and her rule of thumb, ‘Identify the problem’.
When you understand the root issue, you can find the elegant solution.
Suggested journal prompts
List the things that are troubling you right now in your life. Look at them calmly for a moment, take a few deep breaths, and then work this prompt:
The root issue that is expressing itself to me now is…
Right now, what love requires of me is…
I can start planting a sacred fig tree today by…
And if you feel discouraged, just remember that Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement started by planting seven trees in downtown Nairobi. Two survived. But the movement went on to plant thirty million trees.