One of the early pioneers of the global environmental conservation movement was British Baha’i, Richard St. Barbe Baker. Often referred to as St. Barbe, much of our understanding of environmental conservation, and many of the practices used today, can be directly attributed to his efforts, and so I was excited to discover a new book about St. Barbe’s life called Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist written by Paul Hanley.
It’s been a delight to touch base with author Paul Hanley once again since we last interviewed him about his fascinating book called Eleven. With issues around climate change and the environment making headlines daily, I was eager to hear about Paul’s wonderful biography about Richard St. Barbe Baker.
Baha’i Blog: Hi Paul! Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Well, for starters, there are actually two books to talk about. Both tell the story of a truly one-of-a-kind man, a pioneer of the environmental movement, who traveled the world incessantly trying to convince people to plant trees—billions of trees—to save the planet, and civilization.
The first, ‘Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist’, is a full biography. Later, I was approached to write a version for children: ‘Richard St. Barbe Baker: Child of the Trees’ is a shorter, illustrated biography aimed at the middle school or junior youth age group.
I find it remarkable that Baker was raising the alarm about climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification, environmental refugees—really all the big environmental issues that preoccupy us today—100 years ago. He was a true visionary. Baker spent the 1920s in Africa as a conservator of forests, where he saw the devastating impacts of ecological collapse. He realized, quite rightly, that what was already happening in northern Africa would eventually affect the whole world.
In 1922, Baker started the Men of the Trees, arguably the first international environmental NGO, which at one time had members in 100 countries. (It is still active today, with a more inclusive name, the International Tree Foundation.) Still, he was something of a “prophet crying in the wilderness.” He was so far ahead of his time that it was difficult to convince governments to protect ecosystems.
Some of his ideas were way out there. In the 1950s, for instance, Baker decided to drive across the Sahara desert—at great risk to himself and his ecological survey team—to prove that it used to be forested. And could be reforested. In the middle of the desert, he found the desiccated remnants of old forests. In two books—Sahara Challenge and Sahara Conquest—he proposed that the world’s standing armies, 20 million strong, be redeployed as tree planters who would “attack” the desert in a military-style tree- planting campaign. The campaign would begin by planting a “Great Green Wall” of trees, 7000 kilometers long, on the southern flank of the desert to block its expansion. He managed to convince several top generals to back his idea. Then he circumnavigated the region, twice, trying to convince African leaders to take up the cause. Pretty far out there? Maybe, but today, a 7000 kilometer Great Green Wall is actually being planted to hold back the Sahara. On a single day in July 2019, Ethiopians purportedly planted a record 350 million trees. And in 2018, China reportedly sent 60,000 troops to plant trees to stop its own deserts from expanding. Is the world catching up with Baker?
Baha’i Blog: Why was this an important book for you to write personally?
Baker was British, but he spent several years as a pioneer homesteader in Saskatchewan, where I lived. He said that he began to form his ecological worldview by listening to First Nations people in the area. Though he left Canada to go to forestry school at Cambridge, he returned to Saskatchewan often, and I met him on a couple of occasions. He was charismatic, a great storyteller who would have an audience spellbound. I was also fascinated that he was a fellow Baha’i, an early member, who worked closely with the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, to expand public discourse on conservation issues. I thought it was time someone tells his incredible and unusual life story. It turns out it was timely, and Jane Goodall and Prince Charles—who were both inspired by Baker—got behind the book, providing the introduction and foreword.
Baha’i Blog: I’m sure there are many things, but could you share something which really touched you or that you discovered about Richard St. Barbe Baker when working on the book?
Baker was a deeply religious person, a devoted member of the Church of England, a lay minister who rode to rural parishes in Saskatchewan on horseback to lead Sunday services. But he was open-minded about religion. He listened to the Indigenous friends he made in Canada and later the Kikuyu elders in Kenya. I was impressed that this British colonial type could be so flexible in his attitudes.
Although he worked for the colonial service, and initially believed in the mission of Empire, he gradually changed his views and became an ally of his African friends. Once, when a British officer attacked an African worker with his riding crop, Baker jumped in the way. The blow broke his collarbone. His willingness to stand up to racism endeared him to the Africans. He eventually developed a “decolonized” view of African development and pioneered concepts like fairtrade, ecotourism, and agroecology, practices that are now gaining wide acceptance.
It was when he was presenting a paper on African religious beliefs at a conference on the religions of the British Empire, in 1922, that he was introduced to the Baha’i Faith. He studied carefully and embraced it, forming a long friendship with the Guardian, who wrote Baker dozens of encouraging letters. He met the Guardian in 1929, an event he considered the highlight of his life. The Guardian became the first life member of the Men of the Trees. Baker frequently stated that whenever he contributed in some way to the Baha’i Faith, his conservation efforts would flourish.
Baha’i Blog: What do you think we can all learn from Richard St. Barbe Baker’s example?
Never give up.
While Baker was this seemingly indefatigable figure, who, true to his upbringing, kept a “stiff upper lip”, he suffered a lot. His dedication to the conservation movement impacted his family life. He was often penniless. But from the late 1920s until he died in 1982, he traveled almost non-stop, visiting every continent and most countries to promote tree planting. He had five near-death experiences along the way. As I mentioned, in some ways he had limited success due to being ahead of his time, but now, some 40 years since he died, we can see the ripple effect of his life’s work. It is instructive that it is sometimes the small efforts one makes that have a lasting effect. For example, Baker gave countless lectures and interviews. In the books, I share a number of stories of now well-known figures in the environmental movement who heard a talk by Baker or read one of his 30 books, and were inspired to become activists. A number of these people have themselves done incredible things. Take Felix Finkbeiner, for instance. He was a fourth-grade student in Bavaria in 2007 when his teacher assigned a classroom presentation on climate change. His research brought him to the stories of Richard St. Barbe Baker and another tree planter, Wangari Maathai. Taking a leaf from their books, Felix challenged his classmates—and ultimately, children throughout the world—to plant a million trees in each country, an idea that grew into an international youth organization called “Plant-for-the-Planet.” Its initiatives were so effective that in 2011, the United Nations turned its Billion Tree Campaign over to the organization Felix started. Plant-for-the-Planet now has 67,000 Ambassadors for Climate Justice between the ages of 9 to 12 training other children to share the sylvan vision with people of all ages and to plant trees everywhere. Already, billions of trees have been planted in 130 countries. Plant-for-the-Planet now aims to plant one trillion trees, enough to capture twenty-five percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions every year. Felix is just one of the people Baker inspired who are making a major impact today.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope readers will walk away with after they’ve read the book?
Hope is in short supply these days. So hope.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of St. Barbe Baker is his story. We are learning more about the importance of storytelling in the transformative process. As Felix Finkbeiner put it: “To save our future, we children and youth need inspiring stories like the one of Richard St. Barbe Baker. Every tree helps us to combat the climate crisis. Every touching story makes us change the way we live. Let’s plant a better future!”
I find it interesting that there are a number of Baha’is who were groundbreaking activists in their day. In fact, my children’s book about Baker is the third in the Change Makers series from Bellwood Press. The series highlights Baha’is who have made a major difference in their fields. Their stories give us hope that we too can make a difference.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you, Paul, for sharing this with us, and congratulations on these two new books about St. Barbe!