Jane Addams and Wangari Maathai: Nobel Laureates on Educating and Organizing Women for Local Food Security

By Cesar, Dana | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Jane Addams and Wangari Maathai: Nobel Laureates on Educating and Organizing Women for Local Food Security


Cesar, Dana, Vitae Scholasticae


President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, Peiro Sardo, wrote that during the "golden age of Homo sapiens," when people hunted and gathered, they fed on "at least 8,000 plant species." (1) Today, industrialized agriculture has whittled seven thousand varieties of apples to less than fourteen hundred. India's three hundred thousand rice varieties have dwindled to fewer than one hundred. (2) Microorganisms in the soil account for a "major portion" of biodiversity, yet fertilizers are killing the natural flora and fauna of the soil in which plants grow. (3) Nitrogen applications must double every twenty years just to maintain yield, creating what Tasch has referred to as peak soil--that point at which earth becomes increasingly sterile of nutrients. (4)

Further, analysts predict a continued decline in energy in the form of oil that is used in everything from dinnerware, to plastic grocery bags, to preservatives, and from planting to harvesting, canning, transporting, and refrigerating food. Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, has detailed the precarious fusion of food and fuel economies and reports a thirty-two percent drop in energy availability by 2020. (5) Many nations have already experienced peak oil--that point in oil production that reaches a pinnacle on a bell curve. "Among the post-peak countries was the United States, which peaked at 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970." Brown asserts, "The only world we have known is one where oil production is rising. In this new world, where oil production is no longer expanding, one country can get more oil only if another gets less." (6)

The correlation between energy, environmental depletion, hunger, and civil conflict has been widely documented. (7) Notwithstanding modern addictions for fuel from seed to table, soil sterilization, and the extinction of food species, hunger and food-related disease are not unique to the human experience. Yet the leadership and education of women by other women has played a pivotal role in reversing the momentum of starvation and food related pandemics. The Nobel Foundation illuminated the important role of women when it awarded the Peace Prize in 1931 to American Jane Addams and in 2004 to Kenyan Wangari Maathai, to honor their distinguished contributions to securing communal and international peace through food security. The education of women through women's organizations was central to their efforts.

The autobiographical accounts of Jane Addams and Wangari Maathai reflect common components important to educating women and girls for self-sufficiency in food production and are instructive of a contemporary response to the threats that peak oil, peak soil, and pollution present to the global food supply. Specifically, their lived experiences reveal broad implications for 1) the provision of rich, sensory, early-childhood experiences; 2) the preservation of cultural myths with an ultimate basis in science; 3) the importance of women's organizations to securing peace through food production; and 4) the importance of protecting the aboriginal links between land, food, language, culture, education, and national and personal identity. Educating women and girls with these common elements in mind may facilitate a strong, localized, and gendered response with the potential to interrupt the momentum of environmental degradation, hunger, malnutrition, pandemics, civil conflict, and war.

Early Childhood and the Roots of Social Activism

Bronfenbrenner, Erikson, Montessori, Piaget, and many others (8) have established the profound significance of early childhood education to human development. Yet early childhood biographies of world leaders are largely absent from educational and historical research. Jane Addams and Wangari Maathai, both of whom wrote memoirs, point to experiences in early childhood as the roots of their social activism in adulthood.

Addams began a chronicle of her social work in inner-city settlement housing with the speculation that people's "genuine impulses" could be traced to their childhood experiences. …

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