01/04/2011 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learning from Africa

Tracking a large male lion (which we never overtook) behind a Maasai warrior/wildlife biologist brought home to me just how thoroughly Africa has scrambled my categories. Sheep and goats are everything for the Maasai. Lions, and other predators, kill them. But unlike American ranchers, for whom predation has turned cougars and wolves and coyotes into despised "varmints" to be exterminated if possible, the Il Ngwesi Maasai see the lion as an essential feature of their landscape. To kill a lion that was killing a cow with a spear is a badge of courage and honor. To kill one with a gun may be necessary, but nothing to brag about. But to kill lions in an effort to eliminate them as a threat is unthinkable. Predator and pastoralist share the land, and must.

Seventy-two hours in Africa have left me spinning. The greenbelt that Wangari Maathai saved in her initial activist career (leading eventually to her winning first the Sierra Club's Chico Mendes Award, then the Goldman Environmental Prize, and finally the Nobel Peace prize) greets the visitor as you drive in from Kenyatta Airport. Huge parts of Nairobi remain remarkably green and livable, thanks to Wangari and Kenyans like her.

I always thought of the Greenbelt Movement's struggle as an environmental battle. Kenyans see it as part of their long effort to prevent the ruling elite from enriching itself by stealing public spaces and resources, a struggle that they hope their new constitution will advance. What seems to be about land protection is actually about ending a culture of impunity.

Kenyan churches overwhelmingly opposed the new constitution -- ostensibly because it continues this country's very modest access to abortion. But everyone I talked to viewed that as a sham -- the real issue was that the churches feel a new government might threaten the enormous land-holdings they have accumulated, often by dubious means. What seems to be about a social issue is actually about land. (That a highly religious country approved the constitution by more than 70 percent, though, tells you that people want change.)

Driving through the formerly White Highlands to Il Ngwesi, we passed miles of enormous greenhouses growing flowers for the European market. Many proudly pronounced their environmental virtues -- "integrated pest management" -- but later, downstream, we cross the Ngare River running completely dry for the first time ever -- just combine drought with organic but thirsty greenhouses.

During the height of the "era of impunity", the 1980s, Kenya lost half of its forest cover -- the regime would allow massive peasant encroachments just before an election. Here, it's the joining of corruption with democracy that devastates the environment.

When the drought came in 2009, the denuded watersheds meant that dams dried up. Kenya faced a major shortage of power from its hydro dams. Kenyans now understand the immediate results of deforestation better than anyone else. Forest protection keeps the lights on.

Drought also took most of the Il Ngwesi Maasai's cattle -- as well as virtually all of their region's population of Cape buffalo -- herds that will, over time, be rebuilt -- unless drought comes more often, as climate change means it will. Climate uncertainty hurts wildlife -- but it also devastates the livelihoods of the rural poor.

Nairobi traffic is choked by small minivans, "matatus," that provide transport for workers. The air is polluted, and the city's carbon footprint multiplied. So is the lack of good, clean public transit an environmental issue? Obviously. But an average urban worker in Nairobi also spends one-third of his or her salary on getting to work -- so the lack of transit is also one of the biggest drivers of urban poverty. Indeed, many of those who live in Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum, stay there because they can't afford to commute in matatus.

Rural Kenyans aren't kept poor by matatus -- in their case it's the cost of kerosene and firewood for light and cooking. Villagers lack access to electricity, gas, or even good wood stoves. Solar power and biogas would be, on a daily basis, much, much cheaper. But the poor lack any way to get affordable loans to pay for the upfront costs -- so once again up to a third of their income is squandered. All over Kenyan towns and villages, even in Kibera, those with some electricity run businesses recharging cell phones.

Solar as a climate-protection strategy -- or solar for poverty alleviation? Again Africa collapses my categories.

It's not easy to sort out what it means that predator and prey, corruption and social issues, environmental protection and governmental accountability, low-carbon transportation and slum improvement, are inextricably scrambled. (Confession -- I suspect the categories I rely on in America are equally flawed -- I just can't see it.)

But one thing stands out -- it is common resources, whether forests or greenbelts, public transport or access to electricity, wildlife or a stable climate -- that give societies resilience to bounce back from the setbacks they inevitably encounter.

And it's the desire of the acquisitive, particularly elites, to appropriate these common resources that is the biggest threat to all of us. Because if we diminish the common safety net, society becomes brittle and loses its resilience.

The plight of the elephant is an example. Kenya has been a leading opponent of legitimizing the ivory trade by culling elephant herds. Kenyans argue that culling destroys elephant social structures and the way in which young elephants learn, and makes them far more unpredictable and dangerous for humans who share the land with them. Poaching for ivory makes no sense to the Il Ngwesi Maasai. After all, killing elephants for their tusks reduces rather than increases the supply of ivory -- tusks continue to grow until an elephant dies. (The Russians are still harvesting huge supplies of ivory from the graves of long extinct mammoths.)

But a poacher privatizes what otherwise could be harvested by the community -- his gain is everyone else's loss.

A century ago, the Il Ngwesi Maasai tried to lord it over the rest of the Maasai. Their cousins united, overthrew their nascent empire, took their cows away, and forced them back into lives as hunter/gatherers. The name, Il Ngwesi, means "people dependent on wildlife." Over the decades Il Ngwesi traded forest products with their kin for goats and cattle, and now live the pastoral life that gives them pride and dignity.

But without the common resources of northern Kenya's forests, the Il Ngwesi would not have survived. So far, that's Africa's big lesson for me.

And if you want to experience wildlife, comfortably, but in a way that fits sustainably within their landscape, start your East African experience at the Il Ngwesi Lodge, as the guest of this remarkable people.

You might even catch up with your lion.

The big debate on climate is not really whether we are changing it. Instead it's really about how far-reaching the effects of climate destabilization will be. All the glib economic macroeconomic studies don't take into account the full costs of the Maasai losing their cattle herds -- or Kenya its wildlife.