Empowering Women: The Key to a Sustainable Planet

At 7 Billion and Growing, We Need to Find Ways to Balance Both our Population and Overconsumption

The big news right now is that world population has just crossed the 7 billion mark. Somewhat surprisingly, a recent poll reflected that Americans are more concerned about population than climate change. Yet these are not stand-alone issues. Climate change and population, along with sustainability, resource use, and overconsumption, have serious global implications.

But any conversation about overpopulation and finger-pointing toward the developing world should take into account the fact that it is the high consumption lifestyles of the global rich and middle classes, especially in the developed world (and US tops the list here), that are eating up most of our world’s resources.

Photo by McKay SavageAgents of change: Investing in women’s health and education can help bring down fertility rates and
positively impact family health, economics, and the environment.

Understandably, citizens in countries like India and other developing nations, which have rapidly growing populations, aspire for the comfortable lifestyles we have here. And the environment will face mounting pressure as more people across the world begin to have consumption levels similar to Americans. We would need 5 planets to support us if the world lived the average American’s high-consumption lifestyle, according to a 2008 New Economics Foundation study.

This is one of the biggest challenges the world faces. We have to find ways to overcome unsustainable and inequitable levels of consumption in the reality of dwindling natural resources.

Getting back to the subject of population growth, which is admittedly a huge problem in the developing world, I believe we can positively address it by empowering women, especially by investing in women’s health and education. In turn, this can have a huge effect on fertility rates, family health, economics, and the environment.

On a recent trip to India I witnessed successful grassroots efforts to build local initiatives linking women’s empowerment and environmental protection. I was part of a study tour to India with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. During our trip, we met with Indian citizens working to protect the environment and preserve resources for future generations by advancing global reproductive health and sustainable development initiatives. Much of their efforts focused on women and girls.

One Indian group at the forefront of making change is the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA, a trade union for poor, self-employed women. With a million members, this group is empowering women by encouraging them to be self-reliant.

I spent a day with a gathering of inspiring SEWA leaders in the city of Ahmedabad in western India. These women leaders were adamant that the poor, especially poor women, would not only be the ones on the front lines of climate change, but would also be the ones finding ways to mitigate the crisis. Women farmers, they told me, were already grappling with changing weather patterns, droughts, and delayed monsoons.

SEWA helps women deal with climate change by creating economic opportunities through green energy initiatives such as solar lamps and biogas plants – small structures that mix cattle dung and water to produce clean cooking gas and organic fertilizer as a byproduct. SEWA has also partnered with a technology company to develop a brick and cement stove that uses less firewood for cooking and it is now teaching women how to manufacture and promote these stoves. In addition, the group teaches women in impoverished areas about water conversation and shows them how to repair wells and set up roof rain harvesting tanks.

This is but one example of how grassroots women can help address pressing environmental concerns.

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club and Carmen Barroso of International Planned Parenthood recently wrote that “Prioritizing women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting the unprecedented challenges of the combined environmental, social and economic crises we face.”

As women – and men – have access to voluntary family planning programs, they see there are other alternatives to having large families. And families that have fewer children tend to provide each child with better health, education and other opportunities. When basic needs are met, people can focus more attention on the environment.

What I saw in India gives me hope. The country has a rich tradition of coping with challenging social and environmental issues through an active civil society. If India, and all countries, can successfully make the connections – that women’s empowerment leads to healthy communities and a sustainable environment – then we stand a good chance of stabilizing our population and transitioning to a more sustainable world.

Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies and writes the blog Taming the Tiger, which covers India, environment and human rights.

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