A Writing Sample


This is a research paper entitled “Carbon, Population and Gender Equality: It’s Up to Us.” I wrote it for a UC Extension class called Writing Skills Workshop. I highly recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, which was an inspiration for this paper.


Carbon, Population and Gender Equality: It’s Up to Us

Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did (Kolbert 235).

I recently read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History. On the back flap of the book, the Seattle Times predicted that my “. . .view of the world would be fundamentally changed. . .” and they were right. As I flipped through the book’s pages, it was impossible not to gasp, or exclaim. My son wanted to know what the book was about. I read pieces of it to him, and summarized the rest. Kolbert’s thorough look at how the presence of humans has affected other species on this planet throughout time lays down a clear case for our destructive power. The rapid increase of that destructive power since the industrial revolution is reflected in the accelerated loss of species we are experiencing now. One species, taking up too much space and too many resources, might just do us all in. It was a lot for a 9-year-old to wrap his head around, but he had a simple solution. “Mama,” said my only child, “why don’t people just have one baby?”

It was a great idea, but one with a complicated answer. While advocating for all women to limit themselves to having just one child may seem sound, the issue when considered on a global scale is far from simple. For many of the world’s women, such self-limiting is virtually impossible, due to the oppressive lack of gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights in much of the developing world. And for those women who live in the developed world, the challenge now centers more on our consumeristic and highly polluting lifestyles.

Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999 and a professor at Williams College, writes on environmentalism, and other topics. Her intelligent clarity and engaging journalism have earned her many awards, including a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for The Sixth Extinction. It is with a characteristic devotion to detail that she lays out the case against carbon pollution:

Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned through enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year, we throw up another nine billion tons or so, an amount that’s been increasing by as much as six percent annually. As a result of all this, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today—a little over four hundred parts per million—is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years. Quite probably it is higher than at any point in the last several million years. If current trends continue, CO2 concentrations will top five hundred parts per million, roughly double the levels they were in preindustrial days, by 2050. It is expected that such an increase will produce an eventual average global temperature rise of between three and a half and seven degrees Fahrenheit, and this will, in turn, trigger a variety of world-altering events, including the inundation of low-lying island and coastal cities, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. But this is only half the story (113).

The other half of the story paints just as grim a picture for our oceans, as they are increasingly acidified thanks to the carbon that is transferred into the water from the air. Projections show enormous loss of species diversity as ocean acidification increases. Some of these threatened species—like Emiliania huxleyi, a single-celled phytoplankton—are a key food chain element, and their loss would engender subsequent losses up the chain (118). These estimates of future loss of biodiversity follow a staggering curve downward from statistics on what we have already lost. This 2016 report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) charts populations that are falling at an unprecedented rate:

The Living Planet Index, which measures biodiversity abundance levels based on 14,152 monitored populations of 3,706 vertebrate species, shows a persistent downward trend. On average, monitored species population abundance declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012 (6).

The decline of abundance levels in other populations is just as alarming. Most shockingly, freshwater populations (including frog populations) are down 81% since 1970 (6). These losses are just one part of the ecological package that has caused many scientists to pronounce that we are now living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, characterized by human impact on the planet.

Conversely, the species that is crowding out the leatherback turtle, the Sumatran elephant, Hector’s dolphin, the North Atlantic Right whale and the Bornean Orangutan, among so many others, continues to flourish (WWF Species 1). According to the U.S. and World Population Clock, provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 7.5 billion humans alive on planet Earth (1).

Clearly we humans have to figure out how to control our numbers.

The United Nations has been trying to do just that. In September of 2015, at the General Assembly gathering, the U.N. adopted a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The importance of this agreement cannot be overstated. According to the Guttmacher Institute, its unprecedented approach to sustainable development emphasizes “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1). At the heart of this exciting agreement is a long-overdue focus on women’s empowerment as a key component of sustainability. Of the 17 development goals, “three of these targets are particularly relevant for promoting Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), one each under the health, gender equality and education goals” (1).

The agenda, considered to be a victory by women’s rights activists, has “the promise of being truly transformative for women and girls around the world,” says the International Women’s Health Coalition (1).

This agenda is incredibly important for the lives of impoverished and oppressed women, both in prioritizing our right to make our own reproductive decisions, and in enabling women access to sexual education and reproductive services. But the Sustainable Development Goals are just as important for our efforts to salvage what we can of the species left on this planet. Providing women who have an unmet need for access to and education about birth control with the means to get them is one of the key solutions to reducing human population, and thereby reducing carbon emissions.

In order to understand the correlation between sexual and reproductive rights and climate change a little better, I spoke with Dana Rogers, Director of Development in the Western Hemisphere Region of International Planned Parenthood Federation. Rogers has spent her entire career working on these issues. Her job can take her from a tiny, ill-equipped clinic in the deep jungle of Brazil to a donor meeting at Melinda Gates’ offices in Seattle within days. Perched as it is at the forefront of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and in the crosshairs of political groups that would like to rescind these rights, Planned Parenthood remains one of our most valuable (and probably endangered) national resources. In our conversation, Rogers spoke at length about the Sustainable Development Goals, the giant step forward that they represent, and for whom.

Her perspective on women who don’t have the kind of advantages we have here in the U.S. goes beyond gender, to where gender and other factors intersect:

There are huge pockets of women in developing nations, in emerging economies, still living with stifling gender inequalities. The women who need family planning the most are poor women and minorities. It could be that at the surface level, there’s a lack of access to birth control, or a lack of access to education about birth control. But there’s an intersection of other forms that prohibit that type of access, related to economic justice, racial justice, ethnic justice. Advancing women’s rights addresses all of these things. It addresses every single dimension that leaves women without access (Rogers).

To look beyond the surface level of what keeps women from using birth control services is to look at a world where women may be forbidden to have any education at all, much less education about preventing pregnancy. It is to look at a world in which women may be forced to marry very young, raped by a family member regularly, or raped by their own husband. Although women in developed countries suffer from sexual violence (a woman is raped in the U.S. every 2 minutes), the legal and social advances that have made it possible for some women to seek legal punishment of their rapist don’t exist for many women in the world. They lack both the economic ability to leave their situation and the legal means of stopping their rapist from doing it again. In a culture that doesn’t allow women economic freedom, sexual and reproductive freedom is nearly impossible.

It is somewhat pitiful irony that the deterioration of our climate may provide us with an unavoidable crisis that actually leads to greater rights for women. Not that climate change and the decline of other species are good for women. In fact, stressors to food, water and energy supplies always play out more heavily against women, minorities, and the poor. But with our recent understanding of the central role that gender equality has in the ongoing struggle to bring down carbon emissions, one might reasonably expect that populations, governments and world leaders must realign their priorities concerning women. Sarah Fisher of Rewire, a nonprofit independent media publication, addresses this irony quite succinctly in a 2011 article on people, population, and climate change:

While the importance of family planning for women and children’s health and women’s rights alone should be more than sufficient to generate the necessary investment to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, sadly this has not been the case. Climate change however, offers yet another reason why ensuring all women have access to family planning makes sense, and one that might just yield more of the attention it deserves (1).

It is a thin kind of hope that lies in the fact that gender equality has become too important to ignore. But who would we be, to turn up our noses at this hopeful logic, if the resulting actions could be of so much benefit?

To be clear, the advances that women in the developed world have made for our sexual and reproductive rights have had a real and meaningful impact on fertility rates. According to G. Nargund of the National Institute of Health, the Total Fertility Rates (TFR) of industrialized nations are currently slightly below replacement value of 2.1 children per family (1). (In fact, many countries are faced with long-term concerns over the state of social care for the elderly, as the young workforce decreases.) This significant decrease in birth rates, the result of increases in women’s education and rights, is something to be proud of.

However, it is not our role to tell other women how many children to have, or how to live their lives. Melinda Gates, of the Gates Foundation, has worked since 2012 to get birth control to women with need. She believes strongly in educating women, and then letting them decide how many children they want to have. In a conversation earlier this month with Celia W. Dugger of the New York Times, she emphasized this aspect of her work: “It has to be grass-roots, ground-up. We can’t do the top-down planning that happened in the world in the 1970s, where we told women what to do. It was about population control, it was about coercion” (1). By giving women access to information so that they can make their own decisions, we empower them in a variety of ways that go beyond reproductive choice.

The role women, and men, in the developed world have to play is not to push women of the developing world to have fewer babies, but to continue to push for policies that get at the root of inequalities. This is an important role, one that the U.S. and many other developed nations have embraced. Our involvement in this effort can have a significant effect on sustainability in the developing world. But it is important to turn any conversation about climate change to the very real differences in carbon output that developed and developing nations produce.

According to a Union of Concerned Scientists report, “developed nations typically have high carbon dioxide emissions per capita” (1). Compare the U.S. 2011 per capita emissions of 17.62 metric tons to that of Brazil (2.41), Indonesia (1.73) or India (1.45) (UCS 1). Our dropping fertility rates, the hard-earned byproduct of women’s liberation, are effectively negated by our consumeristic lifestyles. We’ve embraced the cost-effective rationality of higher education/smaller families, and we’re spending the earnings/savings on big-screen televisions and Lego Star Wars models.

The ways in which women of the developed world can contribute to stemming the tide of extinction are the same for men. First, we have to conquer our addiction to consumption. One third of our carbon dioxide emissions are now associated with the generation of electricity, and the total emissions from global livestock are close to 15 percent of the total (USEIA 1). Reducing waste, conserving resources and cleaning up our agricultural practices won’t be easy. Whether this effort will emerge voluntarily, or be mandated government regulations and policies, remains to be seen, but it must be made.

And second, we can push for gender equality around the world, working for causes and organizations that support women’s rights, and supporting politicians and parties that will keep the Sustainable Development Goals in the forefront of our countries’ agenda. In my conversation with Rogers, it became clear that maintaining that focus is imperative in this race against the carbon clock. As developing nations achieve the industrial advantages that we have, their per capita use of carbon will grow, so the sooner we, in the developed world, create new techniques and habits, the better. It’s really a package deal; finding strategies and ingenuities for reducing per capita carbon emissions goes hand in hand with enabling women the world over to choose to reduce family size.

Rogers made these eventualities seem like a done deal. She wound up a hopeful sentence or two about the possibility of our country having our first female president soon, and the inspiration and empowerment women might draw from that. Even in the U.S., the American Association of University Women reports that studies on the gender pay gap show women earning 80 percent of what their male counterparts make (1). The advent of a woman in the White House could mark the beginning of a new era for women, as young girls’ first role models change face from Barbie to Madame President.

However, her hopefulness was tempered with the kind of realism that comes from her long career at International Planned Parenthood Federation, one spent fighting for gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights in a world seemingly at war against these things:

What’s really cool, is that when you put women’s rights front and center, so many of the world’s problems resolve themselves. It’s crazy. And it’s also scary, because it means that that’s the extent to which women’s rights have not been fully valued and enforced, over the entire existence of humankind (Rogers).

Although the Elizabeth Kolbert quote preceding this paper was not meant as an indictment of men in particular, but rather of humankind, I couldn’t help but make the leap. For it is as essential that men allow women equality as it is that mankind allows other species equal rights to survive on this planet.

Both these goals are unprecedented, so much so as to be almost unimaginable. Can men and women work together to control our carbon emissions and global population growth? Can we prioritize the welfare of future generations over our own? It would be nice to imagine that there will come a time when men, women and nature live in harmony. Whether or not we can achieve it, now, with Donald Trump as our president, is in doubt. But now, more than ever, it’s up to us to try.


Works Cited

Dugger, Celia W. “For Melinda Gates, Birth Control Is Women’s Way Out of Poverty.” The New York Times, 1 Nov. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/health/melinda-gates-birth-control-poverty.html

“Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions.” Union of Concerned Scientists, Science for a healthy planet and safer world, 18 Nov. 2014, http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html#.WCJ4CBIrJTY

Fisher, Sarah. “People, Population, and Climate Change: Opportunities for Advancing Climate Resilience and Reproductive Rights.” Rewire, 27 Oct. 2011, https://rewire.news/article/2011/10/27/population-and-climate-change-opportunities-for-advancing-climate-resilience-and-reproductive-rights/

Galati, Alanna J. “Onward to 2030: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Context of the Sustainable Development Goals.” Guttmacher Institute, Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2015, Vol. 18, No. 4, 21 Oct. 2015. https://www.guttmacher.org/about/gpr/2015/10/onward-2030-sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-rights-context-sustainable

“How much of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation?” U.S. Energy Information Administration, Independent Study and Analysis, 1 Apr. 2016, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=77&t=11

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History. Picador, 2015.

Miller, Kevin. “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap (Fall 2016).” American Association of University Women, http://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

Nargund, G. “Declining birth rate in Developed Countries: A radical policy re-think is required.” US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4255510/

Rogers, Dana. Personal interview, 1 Nov. 2016.

“Species Directory.” World Wildlife Fund, 2016, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/directory?direction=desc&sort=extinction_status

“U.S. and World Population Clock.” United States Census Bureau, 19 Nov. 2016, https://www.census.gov/popclock/

“Women’s Groups Applaud UN Sustainable Development Goals.” International Women’s Health Coalition, Sept. 2015, https://iwhc.org/press-releases/womens-groups-applaud-un-sustainable-development-goals/

“WWF Living Planet Report, 2016.” WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Oct. 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2016-10/LPR_2016_full%20report_spread%20low%20res.pdf?_ga=1.23797562.1875175102.1477576193