Empower Women, Empower the Earth

Last year, during the lockdown, I had the privilege to join a completely self-organized and female volunteers-ran charity (UKCWC: UK Chinese Women Connect) as a committee member. Early on, in order to bring Chinese women closer during lockdown, we wanted to plan a serious of online webinars hoping to combat the loneliness that lots of Chinese women in the UK were experiencing back then. Therefore, we surveyed our audience which topics would they like to explore more. To my suprise, sustainability/climate change was listed as one of the most wanted topics.

With the support from other volunteers, we pulled together three online webinars discussing various challenges and solutions related to climate change, ranging from polar expedition, technology, to new business model. Most of the women who joined were actually non-sustainability professionals - they were moms who bought their children, nature lovers who cares for the environment etc.

In the wake of the pandem, people are more concerned about addressing environmental challenges and are more committed to changing their own behavior to advance sustainability. From the discussion with them, I saw the drive and passion from them to make a difference in every single way in their life. It came to me so clearly that empower women is necessary to empower the earth.

“Women mean business”

Women are now driving market decisions. Eight out of ten purchasing decisions in the US are made by women. This doesn’t just include groceries, clothes and cosmetics; it includes cars, financial services, housing and electronics.

Even in Japan, where women are less empowered in the workplace, women are responsible for either influencing or deciding their household choice of car. Wittenberg-Cox (the author of Why Women Mean Business, see below interview) tells the story of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, who found that women are responsible for two-thirds of car purchases in Japan.

Since women make up half the world and more decisions in our daily life, their role in achieving sustainability objectives cannot be over-emphasized. It’s even more of a case in some developing countries where many women still live on the brink of extreme poverty with few rights. So how?

Proposition 1:Through equal access to education and work, female empowerment could mitigate the growth of a country’s ecological footprint.

In the early 19th century, Thomas Malthus published“An Essay on the Principle of Population”, where he pointed out that our population increasing in geometric progression (so as to double every 25 years) while the food production increased in an arithmetic progression. This means, unless birth rates decreased, it would lead to famine and lower wages. Malthus struck a nerve; debates about overpopulation control have inflamed cultural, political, and social passions ever since. While it’s still controversial whether Malthus is a successful or failed prophet, it’s undeniable that the exponentially growing population would one day exceed the planet’s carrying capacity.

Not only just the sheer amount of population (quantity), people also suffer from poor living conditions(quality). Coming from a developing country and spending most of my childhood under the poverty line, I am acutely aware even nowadays, many women in some developing countries are still stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, high fertility, poor health, environmental degradation, and lack of opportunities for education and career.

How does woman empowerment could be a solution of combatting climate change? There has been clear research data showing with access to education, family planning, and birth control, women have the ability to choose how many children to have and when they have them. Furthermore, with this access, women have fewer children and have them later in life — by their own choice. Slower population growth relieves stress on ecosystems, allowing resources to recover from overuse without compromising local food access.

To be clear, this doesn’t imply that there is an optimal rate of population growth, or enforce population control. These are about women’s freedom of choice. According to Drawdown explains (highly recommend Katharine Wilkinson’s TED Talk below),

When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects.

Proposition 2: Because of the primary responsibility of providing for their families, women are more careful stewards of natural resources and the environment. Therefore, empowered women have a greater influence on stewardship practices within their families, their communities, and in wider spheres.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, started the Greenbelt Movement — a grassroots movement aimed at countering deforestation by planting millions of trees. In order to reverse deforestation in their countries and set a course towards healthier and more productive lives, she encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically. The Green belt Movement spread to many African countries and contributed to the planting of over thirty million trees.

Maathai’s mobilization of African women was not limited in its vision to work for sustainable development; she saw tree-planting in a broader perspective which included democracy, women’s rights, and international solidarity. In the words of the Nobel Committee: “She thinks globally and acts locally.

In many developing countries, women have the primary responsibility for the growing, collecting, processing, and storage of food. In farming, women are often especially mindful of scarcity, the safety of these resources and, in many instances, know how best to preserve them.

For example, Peru is home to an almost unbelievable number of varieties of potato — nearly 4,000, as in Andean communities, women have a vital role in the cultivation of potato varieties and steward the biodiversity of nature. Unlike men who are more likely to take on the responsibilities of producing commercial crops, and are thus inclined to overlook the value of a great variety of species in favour of a few that are most in demand in the marketplace, the Andean women have learned the value of variety — for a diversity of maturation times, resistance to frost and pests, soil condition preferences, taste, nutritional value and other qualities. It is women who select the potatoes that will be used as seeds for future crops, a task that is essential to ensuring the continued diversity of potato varieties. They also participate in the actual planting, and in managing the stocks of harvested and stored potatoes.

Closing thoughts

While we are all navigating unchartered waters, one thing is for certain: to build back better, we must build back more gender-inclusive. I suddenly realised that my passion about sustainability (as my day job), gender equality and diversity & inclusion (as a volunteer) are very much interconnected, and each strengthens and reinforces the other two. This is a truly inspiring position to be and I am grateful to be there with so many like-minded fellows.

Jie @ Cambridge, UK

August 16th 2021

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Jie Zhou

Current student of MSt Sustainability Leadership@ Cambridge University (2020–2022)