Friday, 7 October 2011


A great captain of industry, someone who transformed the landscape, died recently, too young, of cancer.

I’m speaking, of course, of Wangari Maathai.

The mainstream media offered little coverage of the death of the Catholic, ecologist and leader in her native Kenya, who passed away last week. In a land that human use and climate change are slowly turning to desert, her Green Belt Movement trained women – 30,000 according to web sites – to plant and nurture trees, like a green wall against the storm. It taught women to earn money by gardening, bee-keeping and other crafts. According to a eulogy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the movement has now planted more than 40 million trees.

Opposed by central African governments, she led hunger strikes and was forced into hiding, but eventually was elected to office working with the people who had persecuted her. She won the Right Livelihood Award more than a quarter-century ago, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Of course the eulogies do fill the local headlines, the television news and my internet inboxes today, but not one has been for Maathai – all of them, rather, are for former Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs . Social media sites, talk shows, radio DJs and internet forums compare Jobs to Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison, a genius who touched all our lives and transformed the world.

Bless people for mourning the dead, and no disrespect to Mr. Jobs. It must be asked though: did you know him? Was he worthy of such hagiography?

Perhaps he gave billions to charity, as his rival Bill Gates did – although my brief Google search indicates the opposite. When I ask, acquaintances of mine retort that he had every right to keep his own money, and they are right -- but that does not make him more worthy of mourning than the estimated 150,000 children, parents, grandparents and others who died yesterday.

Even if Jobs did give billions away, though … he had billions to give. Jesus told parables about rich men giving away armfuls of gold and poor widows giving their last penny – but his point was not that we should admire the rich person more.

As a separate issue, was he a genius who changed the world, or did he head one of the companies left standing after the computer-company rivalries of the late 20th century? Did Steve Jobs create all these devices, or was it the people who worked for him? If Apple hadn't invented iTunes or the MacIntosh, wouldn't come other company's similar product have been just as successful, and we would be mourning someone else's death – say, the former CEO of Coleco?

The next time you listen to the mainstream media, consider how often they present every business, country, war or movement as though it were an individual with the apparent powers of a superhero. Business articles praise celebrity CEOs for “building a company from scratch,” not the temps or factory workers. A few years back the US president was said to be at war with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as though individuals can wage war.

Even the most iconic examples of genius turn out to be people, not cartoons. In science, most people think of Albert Einstein as the textbook-example genius, often without understanding why. It is no insult to that intelligent and conscientious man, though, to point out that the world accepted relativity because the world was ready -- previous theories had become out-dated, and scientists had found the technology needed to soon prove the theories. Any other combination of events, any other time and place, and Einstein would have remained a very nice clerk, and some now-forgotten technician would have statues in his name.

Pop-culture histories show Churchill winning the war against the Nazis, and museum exhibits describe how the pharaohs built the Pyramids – as though they did physical labour, or placed themselves in the line of fire. Even when the individuals themselves seemed to be admirable, like Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi, histories ignore the legions of forgotten people who did most of the actual work.

When one of these alleged superheroes dies, people mourn more than they would for a family member, hailing their bravery, their brilliance, and their hard work. Certainly many people are treating the death of Steve Jobs that way, as others did all the celebrities before him.

So take a moment to remember Ms. Maathai, and try to keep in mind how our culture ignores people like you in favour of the occasional hero. Notice, for example, that I’ve just done the same thing to Wangari Maathai.

Thirty thousand women.

Photo of Green Belt project, used under Creative Commons by skasuga.


Ann said...

Thanks for this post. Some people give and some take, I guess. Not a criticism, just an observation.

Kelli said...

I couldn't agree more re the Matthai/Jobs contrast. Steve Jobs was a cultural icon, Wagari Matthai a hero. It's interesting who our culture holds up for adulation.