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Women’s rights, while a noble virtue in itself, might not seem the likely extension of an argument concerning kilowatts and carbon dioxide . But in fact, one could argue that this unexpected key has greater potential for reducing greenhouse gases, preventing resource conflicts, shrinking energy consumption, and improving humanwell-beingthanallof thesolarcells,wind turbines, and hybrid cars that we could possibly churn out of our manufacturing plants. But is this right? Could empowering girls and women to control their livelihoods and bodies against the legislative, cultural, and economic barriers that still stand in front of them actually be a worthy environmental undertaking? We’ll come back to a rather contentious answer later in this chapter. But to begin, let’s take a look at why this question is itself so controversial. A subterranean rift is emerging between environmental advocates and women’s rights advocates . And though it hasn’t even touched the 10. Women’s Rights Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. –Helen Keller  political and media surface, the threat of its eruption is perhaps the greatest environmental risk that humanity faces. Here’s the issue. On one side of the rift, certain sectors of the environmental movement are characterizing human population growth as an unsustainable pandemic to blame for a host of environmental troubles. They are moving to embrace women’s health and contraception programs in an effort to slow population growth and reduce humankind’s impact on the planet. They indicate that such funding is presently inadequate and in some sectors falling . For instance, international women’s health programs have markedly decreased as a percentage of the total health aid budget from about 30 percent in 1994 to 12 percent in recent years.1 On the other side, human rights advocates argue that this approach treats women simply as wombs and is suspect for ethical reasons. Focusing on contraception, they say, obstructs the benefits of supporting a comprehensive women’s rights agenda, not to mention the benefits of a human rights project more broadly conceived. As the alleged carbon and ecological impacts of overpopulation gain attention within the power centers of the environmental movement, they fear we could witness a repeat of the dubious population control programs from the 1960s and ’70s. And they point out that while population programs are most commonly associated with the “global South,” indicators of women’s and girls’ well-being in the United States have fallen to among the most dreadful in the Western world. For instance, in 1950, the United States ranked fifth highest among the world’s countries in female life expectancy at birth. It now ranks forty-sixth.2 It’s true that women who are educated, economically engaged, and in control of their own bodies can enjoy the freedom of bearing children at their own pace, which happens to be a rate that is appropriate for the aggregate ecological endowment of our planet. But simply handing out condoms won’t foster these requisite preconditions. There’s much more to it than that. In the near future, we won’t be faced with deciding whether The Future of Environmentalism  the environmental movement will engage with population concerns (it’s already begun), but rather what form such engagement will take. It’s therefore helpful to address the issue of population first, with all of its complexities and unknowns. Then we might better understand why some frame contraception programs as a solution and why others consider a wide-ranging program for women’s rights to be superior. This is a knotty topic, to say the least. We don’t have to settle here what is poised to be a large discussion in coming years, but instead simply bring some perspective to what is at stake in these decisions. A Population Parable Hundreds of years ago, something mysterious occurred on Rapa Nui, a Polynesian island formed by three extinct volcanoes that we know more commonly as Easter Island. Today, great monuments peering over the beaches echo a formerly thriving society of roughly twenty thousand, with a centralized government that once inhabited the island, but then suddenly and inexplicably collapsed. Archaeologists have attempted to extract a history of the island’s enigmatic events by unearthing and analyzing the island’s waste heaps. Their findings have become a topic of great interest and contention, perhaps because they have proven a not-so-subtle hint to the challenges we could face. As author Jared Diamond chillingly...


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MARC Record
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