Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition, is on the front line of Michigan's clean energy front. This week he explains how starvation amongst the Maasai tribe in Africa shaped his work, and why we should stand up to funding cuts to low income and energy efficiency programs.
Life With the Maasai: Why Feeding the Starved Doesn't Work for Long
I thought it might be helpful to spend a little time explaining what's a driver for me personally and how that impacts and directs my work in the energy sector and with Clean Energy Coalition. It’s impossible to launch an organization like this and not have my personal and professional lives overlap! And lately, I’ve been struck by the debate in social and professional arenas around issues that are so important to me, so I thought I’d take the opportunity over the next couple posts to share some of my thoughts.
So, first off, what drives me? How do I look at the world around me? I had a highly transformative experience shortly before moving to Michigan in 1999. I spent a year living and working with the Maasai tribespeople in rural Tanzania. While there, I worked installing renewable energy systems for an indigenous, tribal community development organization called the Olkonerei Integrated Pastoralist Survival Program.
The Maasai tribespeople are not only some of the most beautiful, friendly people you will ever meet, but also one of the most traditional tribes on the African continent. They live as their ancestors have for thousands of years. Their culture is based upon their cattle, which they herd on common land, in semi-arid zones in Tanzania and Kenya. While I was living with the Maasai, a tremendous calamity befell them. The short rains failed to come during their typical season. This had the effect of creating a famine in which numerous Maasai died of starvation. The Maasai have survived for so long as a culture due to the sustainable methods of their lifestyle. Yet while I was in Tanzania, famine was striking Maasai, often with tragic results, with increasing frequency.
Like people the world over, the Maasai tribespeople live in a constant dynamic with various forces – both good and bad – which heavily impact their existence. The Tanzanian government was employing various methods to try to make the Maasai more sedentary, so that they could utilize the Maasai land for other purposes. This had the effect of denying the Maasai one of their critical survival mechanisms: their ability to move about the plains in search of water to feed their cattle. Instead, they were encouraged by their government to farm, and when the rains didn't come, they faced starvation.
In our society and many others, the tendency is to look at a situation like the plight of the Maasai from a purely localized and reactive level and offer up social services, such as handing out food donations. While I firmly believe that these types of services need to be available and applied to get people through crises, how does this help the predicament of people like the Maasai from a long-term perspective? While it may help some Maasai to make it through another year, who is to say that this same event will not happen next year? By understanding the larger forces that impact localized suffering, we gain the ability to make structural changes that can impact and possibly proactively rectify seemingly hopeless situations. I feel that if you want to be an effective agent for change, it's imperative to contextualize the issue and tie it to the greater political economy, class, and culture.
The starvation that I witnessed in Africa was a catalyst for the development of a proactive, macro, solutions-based approach that I try to take both with my work and in my personal life. I think this is why I have been thinking so much about the public debate around social support issues happening here in Michigan and across the US lately. In tandem with the collective societal memory loss of the challenge of living through the Great Depression, we have witnessed the steady erosion of the social support structure that arose to address the needs of a society in which more and more people both have fallen and continue to fall through the cracks. The slower rates of economic growth, government deficits, excessive unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates of the 1970s further questioned social support, and regardless of the political party in the White House since then, these programs have not been significantly revitalized.
As the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown wider, we have witnessed a crisis in the United States, with the development of three class-based, benefit systems: fiscal benefits that aid the corporate sector; occupational benefits that mostly aid people with good, full-time jobs; and general benefits that are aimed primarily at unemployed and underemployed workers. Although benefits for general society have had to constantly strive to prove their worth to larger society, increasingly all three benefit systems have come under attack. It is my firm opinion that all three segments of society are important and worthy of our societal support. All three segments need help to get through tough times and be encouraged to do the right thing. I refuse to believe that the "rising tide" does truly lift all boats. I equally refuse to sit in it and watch it steadily sink.