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Artwork by Ahmed Almheiri



Literature and the Environment: The Spiritual Values of the Green Belt Movement as Reflected in the eBook and Print Markets
By Nahla Elsubeihi




     This paper will dwell on the four core spiritual values of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement and associate them with the ideals of the eBook and print sectors. Wangari Maathai (2010) in her book Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World carves a niche for spirituality and environmentalism where ecologically conscious people can build a nurturing, protective, sacred, and symbiotic bond with our planet. The four major spiritual values of the Green Belt Movement are love for the environment, gratitude and respect for Earth's resources, self-empowerment and self-betterment, and the spirit of service and volunteerism. In this spiritual and environmental type book, Maathai draws to our attention the many issues that grow out of the wounds the Earth endures; hence, she helps us to ground our own practice of environmental justice and approach the ecosystem from a spiritual perspective. By referring to Maathai’s Replenishing the Earth, I will be tying the four spiritual values of the Green Belt Movement to the basic ideals of the electronics and publishing industries in our modern world.


Summary of Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathai

     Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010) by Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai is an extended articulation of the moral values that direct Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (GBM) in its aims for environmental justice and human, civic, and political rights. In her book Maathai delves deeply into “the Source”— a term she uses throughout her book to refer to the monotheistic deity of the Abrahamic religions—and mingles texts from the Bible with her own spiritual beliefs to help readers comprehend why it is noteworthy to become aware of the many environmental problems that have come before us and prevent them from continuing into the future. Maathai has her eyes wide open to the spiritual depravation that has created the circumstances whereby the Earth has come to be so wounded. She offers practical solutions to heal the wounds of the Earth and lead us to the light. She exploits the examples of her tribe, the Kikuyu, and other environmental activists to point out that the Green Belt Movement is not merely about planting trees but about planting a whole new way of life.


     In her book, Maathai starts off by reflecting on the motives behind launching the Green Belt Movement: “I wasn’t motivated by my faith or by religion in general. Instead, the motivation came from literally and practically about how to solve problems on the ground” (Maathai, 2010, p. 13). Maathai sought pragmatic methods to help the rural women of Kenya to acquire their basic needs like “clean drinking water, adequate and nutritious food, income and enough energy for cooking and heating” (p. 13). Planting trees to restore forests and natural habitats was one of the many ways that helped achieve these goals: “I could see that all the challenges the [women in Kenya] had were rooted in a degraded rural environment. Planting trees came to me as a concrete, doable response” (p. 31).


     Maathai strongly believes that the GBM’s efforts were not merely about planting trees, but also “about sowing seeds of different sort—the ones necessary to heal the wounds inflicted on communities” (p. 14). The GBM was about restoring self-assurance and self-knowledge to these communities. Moreover, it was not only about fixing materialistic needs but also about connecting to something spiritual within those that joined the movement. Apart from passion and vision, Maathai reflects upon a set of four spiritual values that drove the work of the Green Belt Movement: love for the environment, gratitude and respect for Earth's resources, self-empowerment and self-betterment, and the spirit of service and volunteerism (Maathai, 2010). Maathai strongly believes that without these non-materialistic values, the organization would not have survived and flourished. Embracing these universal values injected persistence and commitment into the members in the process of healing the myriad wounds that have been inflicted on both the planet and our wellbeing. Maathai further emphasizes that these intangible principles have no monetary value: “We cannot place a monetary value on them: in effect, they are priceless. They define our humanity” (p. 16).  


     Maathai claims that humanity will overtly feel Earth’s degradation: “In degrading the environment…we degrade ourselves and all humankind” (p. 17). However, Maathai asserts that the opposite is also true: “In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves” (p. 17).  The many things that sustain our existence like the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink are essential to life; therefore, to destroy this essentiality destroys life itself (Maathai, 2010). Basically, what Maathai is trying to point out here is that “the environment becomes something sacred,” and thus we cannot relinquish the natural connection we have with nature (p. 18). It is because of this sacred connection, Maathai claims, that “people who are religious should be [the] closest to the planet and in the forefront of recognizing that it needs healing” (p. 18).


    The fact that the GBM participants volunteered to work for the common good without expectation of personal gain was extensively slammed by naysayers: “Each assumed that we must have an ulterior motive, such as money, or power, or political advantage” (p. 33). As far as Maathai was concerned, there was no ulterior motive; she and many GBM members were merely addressing serious issues that were being neglected (Maathai, 2010).


      According to Maathai, the prevalent attitude of “craving” for more is what evidently leads to overconsumption of the Earth’s resources and thus the destruction of the environment. She argues that this yearning illustrates a “psychological desperation and spiritual weakness” (p. 45).  As long as the chief interest of the Earth’s inhabitants is economics and monetary value and the spiritual values are absent, the environment will continue to be demoralized: “If these spiritual values were part of discussions about the forests, everyone, from corporations to politicians to the local communities, would look at these resources very differently” (p. 48). All in all, these values will develop our appreciation for the services the environment provides for us (Maathai, 2010).


      Maathai stresses the importance of understanding the Earth’s system as it would help us create a connection to it and motivate a desire to do something for it. Therefore, in order for us to appreciate and care for the planet, environmental education must be given in schools that endorses “experiential learning, so children can touch soil and see the worm, or tend a garden and harvest and eat what they grow” (p. 91). Moreover, Maathai points out that after raising our consciousness about the love for the environment, we will be able to identify with the tree that is cut down, feel regret when landscapes are destroyed, and become outraged when we hear about species being occupied by human activities (Maathai, 2010).


     In her book, Maathai also reflects upon the Japanese term mottainai which literally translates to “don’t waste!” What this term encapsulates is the gratitude one must feel for what the Earth gives us. It also asks people to cultivate reverence for the resources they use, and it amplifies the regret we have over the waste we produce and time we waste on not doing anything. In order to project mottainai practically in our everyday lives, Maathai suggests walking or bicycling, reducing electricity usage, carrying a basket for shopping, advocating organic production, eating locally produced foods, and planting trees and shrubs (Maathai, 2010).  At the end of her book, Maathai explains that her foremost aim is to inspire others to use the principles of their cultures and traditions to make a difference and heal the Earth’s wounds (Maathai, 2010).


     Unfortunately, a thorough literature review which links the spiritual core values of the Green Belt Movement to the electronics and print industries is not yet available. Consequently, this is the first review paper that delves deeply into and overtly examines this premise. As Maathai continuously stresses throughout her book, strongly embracing the values of the GBM and using them as a flashlight throughout the murky tunnel of spiritual darkness will lead us to the light where replenishing our planet Earth can certainly take place (Maathai, 2010).


Environmentalism, Electronic, and Print Books

     Today the world of books has significantly developed. The medium of reading has dramatically transformed.  Probably the first eBook—prepared by Father Roberto Bus in the late 1940s—was the Index Thomisticus.  This eBook is an electronic lemmatization of the works of Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Then, by the early 1970s, the well-known Project Gutenberg, a visionary digital library launched by Michael Hart, surfaced. Soon after, the Kindle and iPad entered our world. The whole premise of the eBook is to create electronic versions of literary works that can be downloaded and disseminated worldwide. EBooks remain available for an indefinite period of time without ever going out of print. In a nutshell, what eBooks and tablet devices are doing to the publishing industry is what iTunes and the iPod did to music.


     The fact that the most consulted and popular books are now available to a much wider audience raises a lot of eyebrows concerning the motives behind the eBook projects. Did the inventors of the eBook do it for monetary and popularity reasons? Or did they do it for the sake of literacy and the common good? Or maybe they possessed a green spirit, since it seems better for the environment if we read eBooks?


     The sale of eBook devices and digital tablets has skyrocketed since the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 and Apple’s iPad in 2010. The trend toward digitization is unquestionable. A number of analysts even predicted that “print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files” (Moran, 2012).  The question of whether or not the eBook is eco-friendlier than the old-fashioned print book is highly debated to this very day. Many environmentalists contend that the resources required to recycle a digital device—like the Kindle or iPad—is in fact not as easy as recycling a book. In addition, the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own device whereas printed texts can be borrowed from a local library or be loaned from a friend or family member demonstrates the overconsumption of the electronics industry. On the other hand, proponents of the eReader may argue that these personal devices enable them to store and carry their entire libraries in one device, thus saving ink and paper. According to National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis, the “steady rise of eBooks should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits” (Moran, 2012).  Hence, the evident ecological spirit both the print and digital sectors express of not wasting the planet’s resources showcases their commitment to shrink their “ecological footprints” (Maathai, 2010, p. 113).


     We can link the ecological consciousness of the print and electronics industries to Maathai’s call for practicing mottainai and lessening our cravings. The electronics industry, which includes corporations like Apple, is committed to producing products that have the least amount of impact on the environment. On their official website Apple proudly celebrates a recycling program where they ask Apple users to send in their old devices so they can reuse and recycle the devices in an “environmentally responsible way” (“Apple and the Environment,” n.d.). This environmentally conscious practice of exercising the three R’s and mottainai and projecting a sense of care and respect for the environment is strongly connected to the second core value of “gratitude and respect for Earth’s resources” that the Green Belt Movement embodies: “mottainai encompasses an attitude of respect and … reverence for what one has been lucky enough to receive and the need to use it with care, without wasting” (Maathai, 2010, p. 106). In a word, in order to implement this spiritual value appropriately, it is essential that you utilize your eBook device till it is no longer usable and then recycle it responsibly.


     Apart from analyzing eBooks from an environmental point of view, it is important to explore the junction between Project Gutenberg, a digital library, to the GBM’s ideal of volunteerism. According to the mission statement of founder Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg, his digital library is wholly powered by volunteers. Hart writes, “[w]e offer as many freedoms to our volunteers as possible, in choices of what books to do, what formats to do them in, or any other ideas they may have concerning ‘the creation and distribution of eBooks’” (“Project Gutenberg Mission Statement by Michael Hart,” 2007). The fact that this project is solely based on volunteerism where people from all over the world make information, books, scriptures, and other material available to the general public for the sake of literacy vibrantly echoes the “spirit of service and volunteerism,” which is at the forefront of the Green Belt Movement. Most importantly, Hart stresses in his statement that Project Gutenberg is not “powered by financial or political power” (“Project Gutenberg Mission Statement by Michael Hart,” 2007). This statement immediately brings to mind Maathai’s emphasis on embracing the value of service and working for the common good—in this case literacy—and avoiding the struggle for money or political advantage: “We want people to be driven by the understanding of a nonmonetized value: to give their time, energy, and resources, with no expectation of material reward” (Maathai, 2010, p. 158).


     Consideration for the environment is observable in the print sector as well. According to an op-ed column in The New York Times, “How Green Is My iPad?,” “[m]ore and more books are being printed with soy-based inks, rather than petroleum-based ones, on paper that is recycled or sourced from well-managed forests” (Goleman & Norris, 2010). An example of an environmentally friendly print organization is EcoPrint. Launched in 1984, EcoPrint determinedly places sustainability into their agenda. Staying true to its environmental focus, Roger Telscho, founder of EcoPrint, says: “We [are] trying to do what others said was impossible: Create a company that was viable in a business sense, but also be [sic] a model environmentally and ethically for the industry and beyond” (Oller, 2003).  EcoPrint provides printed newsletters, publications, direct mail, promotional items and mailing services to nonprofit organizations and ecologically conscious businesses (Oller, 2003).  Therefore, the company’s growth depends on its ability to stay true to its environmental priority. As one of its eco-achievements, Roger Telschow explains, EcoPrint assisted ink manufacturers, paper mills and other suppliers in “creating…[their] own line of eco-friendly printing inks as a way to eliminate what it perceived as an environmental threat” (Oller, 2003). In addition to that, EcoPrint is conscientious about its use of energy; therefore, it favors nothing but renewable sources: “the [EcoPrinter is] 100% wind-powered” (Oller, 2003). This ecological passion and consciousness that EcoPrint projects and its tenacity to provide a place where members can really create a lot of change and take action in healing the Earth, is strongly reminiscent of the GBM’s value of self-empowerment. The people involved in this project, who embrace the idea of willing to work for something larger than themselves, are akin to the men and women at Maathai’s GBM seminars who during the seminars were “passive about environmental issues around them [but became] self-empowered and energized to take action” (Maathai, 2010, p. 28).


Environmentalism and Authors

     Many best-selling writers worldwide are well-known for their green loving spirit. Environmental groups have drawn many renowned authors including J.K. Rowling, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and many others to their campaign to promote greater use of forest-friendly paper (Kershaw, 2005). To this very day many environmental groups like National Wildlife Federation and Greenpeace are asking fans of widely popular books to purchase their texts from publishing companies that advocate recycled paper.  As a matter of fact, upon the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), a coalition of environmental organizations urged Harry Potter fans to boycott the environmentally unfriendly United States edition printed by Scholastic Inc. and purchase instead the recycled Canadian version (Kershaw, 2005). When Potter fans saw the value of gratitude and love for the environment being violated, it created a worldwide fervor (Maathai, 2010).  According to environmentalists, forest-friendly paper or recycled paper means that “books are printed with the maximum amount of recycled paper and that the pulp is not culled from the biologically diverse [North American] forests” (Kershaw, 2005).


     Moreover, many environmental groups are closely working with Church councils in order to examine the likelihood of publishing revised editions of the Bible on partially eco-friendly paper or paper that does not stem from ancient forests (Kershaw, 2005). This spiritual connection the many religious councils have with nature is a demonstration of religion being at the forefront of recognizing that the Earth needs healing as Maathai pointed out in her book (Maathai, 2010). This change in perspective of how religious groups view their planet and their determination to participate in the process of healing is what Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is about.


     The Green Press Initiative (GPI) is a non-commercial program that takes a collective approach with publishers, printers, authors and other book and newspaper industries to lessen negative environmental impact like those on endangered forests, on climate change, and on the livelihood of communities where paper fiber is sourced. GPI’s constant education and encouragement have also prompted the development of ecological paper policies of over 180 book publishers. These publishers include large book publishers like McGraw Hill, Pearson, Random House, Raincoast Books and many others. According to the program director of the Green Press Initiative, Tyson Miller, author of the renowned novel The Color Purple (1982) Alice Walker had worked with Random House to publish several books on recycled paper. A collection of poems, were inspired by the forces of nature and the strength of human spirit in Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2004), might perhaps explain her work with Random House. In a quotation Walker gave to the Green Press Initiative for its movement, she remarked: “I have always felt a kinship with trees. It is a torture to know that they have died for my words to live” (Kershaw, 2005). From Walker’s statement, we can comprehend her love and respect for the environment and its resources which evidently reflects the intangible values of Maathai’s GBM.


     Another author who has celebrated the GBM’s value of “not wasting” is English writer J.K. Rowling. When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, was about to be released, Rowling had persuaded the Canadian book publisher Raincoast Books to print millions of copies of the Canadian edition of Order of the Phoenix on “recycled chlorine-free paper” (Brown, 2003).  Moreover, in a message to the Potter fans on the introductory page of the Canadian edition, she writes:


Because the Canadian editions are printed on ancient-forest friendly paper, the Harry Potter books are helping to save magnificent forests in the muggle world, forests that are home of magical animals such as orangutans, wolves, and bears. It’s a good idea to respect ancient trees, especially if they have a temper like the whomping willow (Kershaw, 2005).


     It would be extremely shocking if Maathai, a hardcore environmentalist, had not printed her own books on eco-friendly paper. Maathai’s publisher, Doubleday Religion—a division of Random House—does not provide explicit information about whether or not recycled or virgin paper was used to print Replenishing the Earth. This silence on the subject suggests that it was not. However, in her memoir Unbowed (2006), Maathai explicitly writes at the end of her book: “This book is printed on 100 % recycled paper …This printing saved 27,234,000 BTUs of energy and preserved 385 mature trees” (Maathai, 2006). Furthermore, anyone who borrows or purchases her memoir can physically observe the eco-friendly material that Alfred A. Knopf, another subsidiary of Random House publisher, has used to print her memoir.


Environmentalism and Religion

     Many environmental groups are closely working with Church councils in order to examine the likelihood of publishing revised editions of the Bible on partially eco-friendly paper or paper that does not stem from ancient forests (Kershaw, 2005). This spiritual connection the many religious councils have with nature is a demonstration of religion being at the forefront of recognizing that the Earth needs healing as Maathai pointed out in her book (Maathai, 2010). This change in perspective of how religious groups view their planet and their determination to participate in the process of healing is what Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is about.


Environmentalism and Economic Efficicency

     Manufacturing printed products concurrently involves economic and environmental factors. However, the environmental performance of the pulp and paper industry varies between countries and between manufacturing facilities, as good environmental performance heavily relies on the utilization of the most efficient technology and the commitment to the sustainability of any given facility. A question pertaining to the economic aspect of printing that is constantly raised is the following: Is recycled paper more costly than the virgin paper? According to Boise Choices, an initiative that promotes proactive awareness and transparent communications about sustainability matters, answers this increasingly asked question: “Recycled paper has a much more complex supply chain and production process than virgin paper, and it’s those extra steps that account for the extra cost” (The Choices Team, 2011). Hence, with virgin paper, there are simply three steps from the forest to the laser printer: “logging, milling and distribution” (The Choices Team, 2011). However, recycled paper requires additional steps: used paper collection and gathering (which requires sorting prior to recycling), pulping, de-inking and milling (The Choices Team, 2011). These extra steps increase costs, thus making recycled paper much pricier than virgin paper. This most probably explains the reason why publishers and authors worldwide stick to conventionally produced virgin paper and avoid recycled paper.


     The rise of ecological consciousness in these environmental groups coincides with two values of the Green Belt Movement. They are the “love for the environment” and the “gratitude and respect for Earth’s resources” (Maathai, 2010).  Maathai constantly emphasizes in her book that in order to understand the value and power of trees and forests, as well as the love of nature, “read[ing] about the earth, and understanding its systems … helps create a connection to it, and a desire to want to do something for it” (p. 91). Therefore, our environmental education will motivate us to at least take part in campaigns, movements, initiatives, and activities that invite us to exercise our appreciation for the Earth in a tangible way (Maathai, 2010). Additionally, the fact that several publishing industries in affluent societies have pledged to change their polices and print books on recycled paper, manifests the practical applications of gratitude Maathai calls for: “Gratitude is the simple acknowledgement of the bounty with which you have been blessed, and a sense of responsibility for using it wisely” (p. 105).


     Today, many environmentalists, eBook markets, publishing sectors, writers, the vast book reading community, and bookworms worldwide are still embroiled in a controversy over the ecologically righteous ways to read a book. Should they look for ways to develop a greener way to publish books while they cut short the growth of eReaders? Or should the technological and developed worlds start considering a creation of greener eReading gadgets—or should a combination of both be implemented? To find the answer, both parties must allow Maathai’s values to become their trademark. Once these values are grasped, both groups can in their respective fields employ these intangible principles in the service of our Earth’s and soul’s replenishment. As Maathai perfectly puts it: “In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves” (p. 17).




Apple and the Environment (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2013, from Apple website:

Brown, P. (2003, October 3). Harry Potter Turns Green to Save Ancient Woodlands, The Guardian. Retrieved from

Goleman, D & Norris, G. (2010, April 4). How Green Is My iPad? , The New York Times. Retrieved from

Kershaw, S. (2005, July 7). A Bid for Harry Potter's Green Fans, The New York Times. Retrieved from

Maathai, W. (2006). Unbowed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maathai, W. (2010). Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. New York: Doubleday Religion.

Moran, N. (2012, May 1). Are eReaders Really Green?, The Millions. Retrieved from

Oller, S. (2003). The Green Printer. American Printer, 231(1), 46-53.

Project Gutenberg Mission Statement by Michael Hart. (2007). Retrieved May 01, 2013, from Project Gutenberg website:

The Choices Team. (2011, September 23). Re: The Price of Sustainability: Why Does Recycled Paper Cost More Than Virgin-Pulp Paper? [Blog post]. Retrieved from



Nahla Elsubeihi is a Libyan student at the American University of Sharjah in her sophomore year. Currently, she is majoring in English Language. Upon graduating, she plans to amplify her knowledge and expand her career options by pursuing higher degrees in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. She is committed to pursue a career in the world of academia and pedagogy. She is a voracious reader, a history buff, and her favorite catch phrase is “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

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