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Soon-Young during UN Paris Climate Accord meeting
Soon-Young in Korean village


Finding the Earth’s Balance

“Rejoicing in the wonder and beauty of the Earth we share a reverence for life and the sources of our being…" (Earth Charter)


The UN has declared a climate emergency – and it is real. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the earth’s temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius and prevent irreversible damage to our world’s ecosystems. How can we beat the earth’s clock? For years, the feminist and women’s movements have argued this truth: If you want to scale up and speed up progress on any development agenda, you have to unleash the power of women’s potential. When women can freely decide how many children they want, family sizes will adjust more quickly to available resources. Rural and indigenous women are particularly knowledgeable about protecting biodiversity and combatting climate change, because they practice seed selection, manage forests, and make decisions about household energy use. This isn’t just about human rights principles. It is applying these principals to get practical results and solve global problems.

The flip side to this argument is that gender discrimination puts the brakes on progress, particularly poverty reduction. Women are the main decision makers and workers related to water use but are poorly represented in water management. Women are critical in rebuilding communities after natural disasters, but more women than men die during those tragic times. Women produce the majority of the world’s food but own less than 11 percent of the land. Imagine the hurdles they have to face in post-conflict situations to rebuild their farms. All that adds up to this conclusion: gender inequality is bad economics and bad governance.

Women can leverage the power of global consensus documents. The women’s movement needs to make sure that the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) works side-by-side with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The BPfA acts as a policy guide, and CEDAW gives it teeth as a legally binding instrument. For example: The CEDAW Committee took a strong position.

“All stakeholders should ensure that climate change and disaster risk reduction measures are gender responsive, sensitive to indigenous knowledge systems and respect human rights. Women’s right to participate at all levels of decision-making must be guaranteed in climate change policies and programmes.”

Let’s make sure that governments put gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls front and center in climate policies. These are the accelerators we need to save our planet.

Mossi Women

Mossi Women in Burkina Faso 1983

In the late 1970s, the Yatenga plateau in Burkina Faso was afflicted with droughts. When the rains finally came, water quickly disappeared underground and out of reach. The Mossi people longed for their ancestral times when rich trade kingdoms flourished and proud warriors were celebrated in songs. However, due to prolonged agricultural crises, many Mossi villagers became “environmental refugees” – people surrendering their homes to a drought.

A grass-roots organization called the “Naam” groups, took matters into their own hands. Community organizers worked with youths, women, and men to create a network of community development councils until there was a Naam Federation extending over the entire region.

The Naam groups held meetings where everyone was supposed to join in the effort to save their communities. After many discussions, some women became exasperated, because there was little progress. As one woman told me, “The men were just complaining. They said there is nothing to eat. They talked about the dying cattle, deforestation, and how the young men were leaving. But no one had solutions.”

As the story goes, one woman, Minata from Somiaga, rose from her seat. In the midst of the passionate speeches, she said in a calm voice, “What you say is fine, but it is useless to talk about livestock and food when there is no water. The first problem is that we have no water. We women are going to find out how to get it.” When she sat down, everyone looked at each other. There was a long silence. They were amazed at how simple the solution really was.

Minata’s legend began from that time. She helped to organize the Naam women’s groups, which took the lead in solving the water problem. The women said that they would build huge traditional dams made of mud and rocks in order to catch rainwater. Then, they would plant trees around the dams, feed the cattle, and dig gardens. This project would take days of carrying earth in baskets on their heads and moving boulders. When the men hesitated to cooperate, the women threatened to leave their homes and return to their parents’ villages. This got the men’s attention, and they pitched in to help. Donors provided technical help and vehicles. Naam groups that had built these initial “mother dams” helped other villages build “daughter dams” until they covered the entire plateau.

The story of the Mossi women’s dams illustrates the potential of what can be done when women have a say in environmental management. Yet, few national programs have learned this lesson. Some governments have focused attention on women’s roles in safe drinking water and domestic water supply, but they often overlook women in other considerable issues like urban and rural infrastructure and climate change treaties.

Women’s empowerment has been highlighted in consultations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Post-2015 Development Agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire. UN Women and the World Bank reports advocate that gender equality should not be a side issue to environment planning. Instead, these UN bodies see it as the most strategic fix that governments can make to accelerate progress on food security, energy, sustainable cities and human settlements, land degradation, and drought.

From the micro-ecology of the home to the global ecological system, women’s participation in environment management and sustainable development is essential. Women’s groups can be the leaders to focus the world’s attention on the right priorities. Sometimes, this has happened at large UN conferences. On other occasions, it has taken place at small community meetings led by a lone woman’s voice.

It’s About My Body, Dummy

Rural Bangladeshi village women

My understanding of what constitutes a good population policy is simple. My right to sexual and reproductive health comes first; then, let’s talk population. Although many women throughout history stated that simple message loud and clear, it took a long time for governments and the UN to listen.

The first World Conference on Population held in Bucharest in 1974 made only a passing acknowledgement of women’s right to equal decision-making on population policies. It was argued that sometimes, you just have to take charge, make targets, and do everything possible to achieve them – all for the welfare of the majority of the people. Whatever human rights issues might be left pending were a small price to pay.

With the subsequent failures, such as forced sterilization efforts and the high drop-out rates from national family planning programs, governments rethought their strategies and became much more self-critical. India’s famous campaigns to lure, pay for, and often use force to reach its population goals were a lesson for the rest of the world. Guess what? People, particularly women, do not like governments to decide how many children they should have.

The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, which promised women more choices and freedoms than ever before, was a turning point. In 2014, the UN reinvigorated that conference plan of action, and the event was timely. Today, seven billion people inhabit the earth, and 1.8 billion are of reproductive age. This formidable challenge of balancing the carrying capacity of the earth with its human inhabitants is a feminist issue and one which we should address head on. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has helped keep our focus on how population trends can affect and are impacted by gender equality and women’s empowerment.

What are the core messages we need to emphasize?

Girls education is the key to a life-time of success. Girls’ education not only raises the age of marriage, but it also boosts self-esteem. Confidence and voice within the family are the magic ingredients that make adolescents assertive, better informed about health, and better able to access the benefits of new innovations in health.

A concerted world effort has helped improve the numbers of girls attending school. More girls are enrolled in primary schools today than ever before. However, the global averages don’t reflect the entrenched pockets of inequality that still affect marginalized groups, such as the disabled, pastoralists and fishing communities, ethnic minorities, indigenous girls and rural girls. For example, the illiteracy rate among indigenous women in Guatemala stands at 60 percent, more than twice the rate for men. Since these marginalized groups often manage fragile ecologies, a community’s survival depends on a balance between family size and the environment.

Also, we must give women the power to make decisions on their sexual and reproductive health, especially adolescents. A woman’s first “ecological responsibility” is her body — an emotional and intelligent organic system that she should keep in balance with her environment. To maintain a balanced mental and physical well-being, she must have the right to make decisions about her own body.

Also, we must give women the power to make decisions on their sexual and reproductive health, especially adolescents. A woman’s first “ecological responsibility” is her body — an emotional and intelligent organic system that she should keep in balance with her environment. To maintain a balanced mental and physical well-being, she must have the right to make decisions about her own body.

She must have the right to say “no” without threats to personal safety, to unsafe sex, and to population policies that violate their freedom to choose.

How can this be achieved in a short period of time? One strategic step would be to entrust men and boys with more responsibility to make it happen. This is not intellectual, wishful thinking. My grandfather broke all social convention by giving his girls university educations at a time when it was considered a privilege to boys. My father would not speak of my marriage until I had finished my PhD in my late 20s — an age which by traditional Korean standards put me on the pathway to becoming an old maid. As decision-makers in the home, men and boys can help to accelerate progress by encouraging mothers, daughters, and sisters to claim their rights and showing the way out of cultural conformity.

Although the topic of women’s sexual and reproductive rights may stir controversy and debates at the UN, that is no excuse to sidestep it. The valuable recommendations of previous UN conferences should go on record as bearing the weight of global consensus. They should be displayed under bright green lights for all to see and boldly put forth as the way women view population priorities.

Frogs, Freaks and the Precautionary Principle

Women in boat in Kashmir

In the US and Canada, there have been numerous reports of frogs with too many legs and unusual eyes. Scientists suspect environmental toxins were the cause due to the frogs’ soft and permeable skin, which allows chemicals to pass into their bodies. The water-land creatures are like the singing canaries miners once used to warn them of dangerous gases. If they are in trouble, people probably are too.

School children reported the unusual occurrence. No doubt it was part of their routine inspection of the day’s catch at the local pond. In children’s social circles, frogs can be traded for comic books and other useful treasures. A side benefit is that playing with frogs is a live science lesson.

They were helpless, but they failed to inspire a nurturing, motherly instinct. They instead appealed to my callous scientific curiosity, the kind that motivates kids to stick pins into worms to make them squirm. Occasionally, I would chase polliwogs around the jar with my index finger to feel them move. Polliwog skin has the cold sensation of plants, and I treated my captives more like weeds than amphibians.

After a few days, I had to change their water. This led to my first lesson in polliwog survival. Never put polliwogs in your own drinking water. It could kill them. The first time I put tap water into the jars, the polliwogs became listless. Then, their skins became a whitish glaze, and eventually, the poor things floated on the surface. The science class at school helped ease my conscience with a verdict of death from unknown causes. I could go to the pond and try again.

As an adult, I have pondered one question: If our household water was bad for the polliwogs, what was it doing to our health? Even without scientific proof, the logical course of action should be clear. If household water is causing polliwogs to die, then we should stay away from it. Unfortunately, as reasonable as that logic may seem, doing something about water safety is too often delayed for lack of scientific evidence.

In an era of great public confidence in scientific testimony, anything less seems unworthy. Yet, we may be paying a high price for putting off decisions that should be made now.

Many cancers, including breast cancer, are still shrouded in medical mystery and likely to remain so for many years. This has frustrated many women’s health activists, because governments won’t commit themselves to appropriate environmental policies until the final scientific word is in. To quote a friend of mine, “Just how much longer are we going to wait? Until a whole generation of cancer victims have died while under study?”

Another issue is the many problems in environmental science and health. We often don’t have proper epidemiological tools to predict the impact of pollutants on our health. Many emerging risks haven’t been adequately evaluated, like intensive agricultural practices, long-term chemical exposures on cancers, and electromagnetic exposures from new technologies. Hormone-mimicking pesticides, PCBs, and radiation often don’t show the full range of their damage to human health until several generations have passed. To be very accurate, scientific research would have to produce much better data on women’s lifestyles as well as their exposures to environmental hazards from birth to death – a feat that is almost impossible when research funds are limited.

Hard science is often slow to point us in the right direction. Vested interests in certain areas, such as tobacco, sometimes intentionally muddy the waters to cloud the truth. Shouldn’t we use common sense as well as scientific research in creating public health policies? If canaries stop singing and frogs are born with abnormalities, I’m for playing it safe and using the precautionary principle.

The Earth Charter Sings

Walking with lions in South Africa 2006

There is a document that all women should care about.

It reads like a ritual: “Rejoicing in the wonder and beauty of the Earth, we share a reverence for life and the sources of our being...Earth is our home. We are members of an interdependent community of life. Earth itself is alive.”

It is smart: “Peace is more than the absence of violence – it is the wholeness that comes with harmonious relationship with the self, other persons, other life forms and the Earth.”

Women can find their place: “The full participation of women at all levels of planning and management decision-making is fundamental to the achievements of equity and sustainability.”

Indigenous peoples are included: “The culture and interests of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to control their lands and natural resources, must be respected.”

These are passages from the Earth Charter that Chairman Maurice Strong of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and Mikhail Gorbachev introduced years ago. The Earth Charter has become the center of a global campaign among NGOs and women’s groups, who successfully lobbied for its adoption by the UN in 2000.

One reason it is hard to save the planet is that the values governing our decisions are wrong. A market-centric mentality is spreading like wildfire, even to the far corners of rural societies. There is a culture of profit without regard for sustainability, overconsumption, and just plain greed. Even the UN is on the wrong track when it states that “human beings should be at the center of development.” That anthropocentric view has led to the mistaken notion that nature can be exploited as long as human needs are fulfilled. However, our destiny is connected like a spider’s web to an entire community of life. Our responsibility is to maintain balance in the entire ecosystem of planet earth.

Beatrice Schultess, a dynamic leader in the indigenous people’s movement in Central America, once explained to me, “For us, the earth is a living being. More people see that now. Even a NASA scientist agreed with me that this was possible.”

If what Beatrice says is true,  the earth is like a breathing, growing body and the Charter is more than an international set of principles to help humanity. The Charter is intended to save all of life. It is Mother Earth’s Bill of Rights.

When Phoenix Meets Dragon

Be on the lookout for a Chinese lunch special known as Phoenix and Dragon. This is a culinary combination of land and sea delights, usually chicken and shrimp. Sometimes shrimp is replaced with squid on your plate to metaphorically represent dragons.

Symbols are partly what international politics is all about. Mind you, ingesting even symbolic dragons is no light matter. At ancient world gatherings, Chinese emperors displayed dragons on clothing, chairs, and crowns as testimony to their heavenly mandate to rule. The mere presence of the monstrous shape was supposed to attract attention – and it usually did. The phoenix was also a grand symbol of the empress. Side-by-side, the phoenix and the dragon were supposed to rule.  The phoenix’s magic came from a life energy that promised rebirth out of the ruins of her own ashes. She was the force of change that moved heaven and earth, and her reign created a balance of power.

On many public occasions, such as the High Level Political Forum or UN Security Council meetings, world leaders continue to uphold the ancient dragon tradition. They charge through waves of global despair, hoping to fire up attention to the environment crisis. Of course, most of this dragon stuff is symbolic, but it comes with the job. At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings, heads of state should represent more than ideas and cannot afford to be mere eloquent speakers. The global climate emergency requires that leaders inspire action for change.

So where is the phoenix? Where is the spirit of renewal we need for negotiations on the environment to be a success? These days, it is found lingering among indigenous peoples and other less stately folk, where it feels much more at home. Women’s organizations and civil society representatives help make up a global environment movement from the grassroots level and upward. This movement is our only chance for reviving a spirit of hope that could make governments bring international environment agreements back to life.

There is great wisdom in the ancient Chinese belief that positive influences arise from a balance between different kinds of power. We need both the spirit and agitation from local activists along with the approval and policies from governments. Women and NGOs will undoubtedly work long hours to lobby, exchange views, reach consensus, and draft amendments to the UN document. They will raise their voices in protest over the lack of equal representation on delegations and attempts to sideline their issues.

That kind of counter culture is just what is needed to balance the huffing and puffing that often surrounds inter-governmental debates. The environment and women’s movement must promote a synergy with governments that brings opposite together, like the phoenix and the dragon.

(And you thought I was just talking about lunch...)

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Any mother will tell you that when a child stops eating or has severe diarrhea, it is time to take worry. We can never be sure if the symptoms are signaling an onset of a cold, the flu, or possibly more serious diseases like malaria. However, the rules of common sense applies. Most parents use generic methods to ease the symptoms long before doctors intervene. By nature, we are survivors, and as a rule, we don’t like to take chances when it comes to our family’s health.

The same survival techniques should apply to climate change. Rather than draw upon principles of international law that require a direct causal link between the activity and damage shown, we need to put preventive measures in place more boldly. We are all aware that the long-term effects of global warming on our health, food supplies and human settlements may not be evident to the average citizen until it is too late, but the scientific evidence is clear that human activity contributes to global warming. There are side effects we may not anticipate which could imperil our ability to survive as a human species. We would need the strength of the Hindu goddess, Durga, with her many fingers on thousands of hot spots worldwide and over millions of years to undo the damage being done today.

At various international gatherings, women leaders have called for action on global warming. The Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), a blueprint for gender equality, states, “The continuing environmental degradation that affects all human lives has often a more direct impact on women. Women’s health and their livelihood are threatened by pollution and toxic wastes, large-scale deforestation, desertification, drought and depletion of the soil and of coastal and marine resources, with a rising incidence of environmentally related health problems and even death reported among women and girls.  Those most affected are rural and indigenous women, whose livelihood and daily subsistence depends directly on sustainable ecosystems.”

The BPfA also notes that women remain largely excluded from policy formulation on natural resources and environmental management. Women’s experience and skills are also often marginalized in policy-making and decision-making bodies. Yet, women can have a powerful role in influencing sustainable consumption patterns and environmental management at the local level.

The global consensus on solutions still stands true. Governments agreed in the BPfA to the incorporation of a global perspective in the design, approval, and execution of projects funded under the Global Environment Facility. Governments should also establish strategies and mechanisms to make sure more women become active decision-makers, environment professionals and scientist, especially those at the grassroots level. This isn’t just about modern science. The Platform also advocates that governments integrate rural women’s traditional knowledge and practices of sustainable resource use and management. The era of timid, cautious steps has passed. The earth’s temperature is already rising near the tipping point. Now is the moment for bold, preventive action. Time is running out.

Let’s Change Consumer Behavior. You First.

According to some experts, we are already consuming natural resources at levels that are 30 percent above renewable. Part of the solution to this is reducing wasteful, but for many people, that remains an ideal. The prevailing attitude seems to be “Let’s do it. You go first.” The problem here is how to get the majority of the world’s busy, working population to do its part. While I certainly support conservation efforts, I am pessimistic that changing mindsets or public campaigns are enough to change behavior. To succeed, we need to work from the other side of the equation. We need to rethink what is being produced as well as consumed.

As we search for new ideas, like withdrawing subsidies for fossil fuels and taxing air travel, we could pay more attention to old-fashioned, traditional practices that accomplish similar ends. This is particularly important in developing countries, where ecologically-appropriate products and livelihoods are rapidly being discarded, disposed, and replaced by consumer cultures. Women’s experiences, which are often intermingled with traditional technologies, are particularly relevant.

Take the simple example of women’s clothing. My Burmese sarong is two yards of cloth that can be wrapped and fitted at the waist whether I’ve overeaten or slimmed. My mother’s Korean skirt that she wore when she was 16 years old still fits more than 65 years later. We can add these items to a list of everlasting garments: the Indian saree, Senegalese robes, even a revived Roman toga for men. None of these are likely to be discarded, because they are designed to fit for a lifetime.

Consider knitting. In a French village, I learned that women knit endlessly for an economic reason. The beauty of wool twine is that it becomes a sweater, skirt, or pants for any child. Then, in the magical hands of the maker, it can be unraveled and remade into an adult’s shawl. Similarly, quilt-making uses odd pieces of cloth and recycles the leftover contents of closets into essential bed linens. In rural Bangladesh, blankets are often made entirely out of worn-out sarees carefully hand-stitched in layers for warmth.

Rural communities in many countries provide other excellent examples of recycling systems that help reduce consumption. Service providers repair broken appliances, computers, and farm tools, partly because they are forced to use their own ingenuity and partly because have spare parts. Most markets have special days for trading goods needed to repair radios, used furniture, and almost anything sold elsewhere in the stalls.

What if governments supported micro-enterprise loans in the service sector so that women could own businesses recycling products? If service charges rise, government subsidies could be applied to support the service sector, and consumers would find it cheaper to repair goods than throw them away. Women already have many of the skills needed to use traditional technology and products. They need a chance to combine these skills with the new. The “You first” attitude could become “Me first”, and that could make all the difference.

Priming the Pump in the Maldives

In the crystal-clear waters of Indian Ocean, the 1,200 islands of the Maldives sit like pristine stars in a constellation. Their white sands and coral reefs show off a natural ecological glow that attracts tourists from around the world. Although most citizens on these islands barely make a living, many consider their country as paradise on earth.

However, they also know they are in a fight of their lives to keep it pristine. A fragile ecological balance exists between the sea, plant life and thin freshwater lenses just below the islands’ surfaces. The capital, Male (pronounced “Mallee”), is an example of a future city Maldivians need. Nearly one-fourth of the country’s population has settled on barely 450 acres of land over a thin water table. The freshwater supply is disappearing as fast as cool coconut juice on a hot day.

The women’s unit of the Maldives government once applied for a women and water project to the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office in New Delhi. The proposal involved a national meeting of women’s groups to review progress since the last UN international conference on women and to discuss emerging issues like freshwater supply and health. The proposal was unusual, because its list of essential supplies didn’t include educational materials, water pumps, or medical supplies. Instead, its budget was a simple one-line item to pay for boats and fuel. My WHO colleague was skeptical and said, “I don’t understand this proposal. What do boats and fuel have to do with women’s health?” Nevertheless, some of us thought that it had merit, partly because women in the Maldives were known to be well-organized and effective.

“How much do they want?” I asked.

“About $10,000” a WHO advisor answered. She continued to object to the project, saying, “That is a small amount compared to some of our huge medical projects, but it still seems like a lot of money to burn up in gas.” Since I was soon to visit the Maldives, the Women and Health Advisory group decided that I should investigate.

When I arrived in the Maldives, I was surprised to see that many stereotypes about women in Muslim cultures didn’t apply. The local women took their religious values seriously, seizing on every possible occasion to evoke Allah’s good name and benevolence. None of the women I met believed that Mohammed taught discrimination against women. The divorce rate was high, and men could easily separate from their wives. However, women were also inclined to leave husbands whom they no longer found suitable and take up with another. Women were everywhere in public — selling in markets, teaching in schools, and running small cafes. They were the main workforce in small industries, like mat and rope making and handicrafts. They also held top ranking government posts in the Ministry of Health and Planning.

The women’s groups explained that their biggest problem with their water project was coordinating logistics. The Maldives’ farthest islands were days away by local Dhoani boat. Members could reduce costs for their national meeting by staying with cousins and other relatives, but the expensive speedboats and seaplanes used mostly for foreign tourists were out of the question. The women were willing to settle for slower, cheaper transport – if only the WHO would agree to pay.

When I returned to New Delhi, I briefed the Women and Development advisory group about the women’s dilemma and the importance of transportation between the islands. The Regional Director quickly approved funding the project from his special account. The grant launched a great success. The women leaders had their meeting, strengthened their networks, planned new projects, and carried out public health education activities immediately.

The lesson learned is simple. It is not enough to just give civil society and women’s groups a role in water development. The money sometimes has to go where the local leaders need it most, even if the requests seem highly unconventional. For the women of the Maldives, a small amount to provide fuel for their boats was just what they need to put a national mobilization for environmental health in motion.

Lessons from a Korean Village About Trees

One winter night in a remote Korean village, I learned how a sacred tree could bridge the divide between human beings and nature. Located deep in the woods and up a rocky pathway, a tall pine tree stood out in the full moon’s light. Its unwieldy roots had dug deep into the rocky soil, its soaring branches lifted like a skirt in the wind. It didn’t take much imagination to see the spirits floating around its trunk and into the forests.

This was no ordinary tree. During World War II, villagers took up arms to protect it from being cut down by Japanese soldiers. Villagers revered this tree, because the mountain spirit lived in it. If they pleased the tree spirit, they said that the whole village would prosper, and many children would come for generations. The local officials held an annual festival influenced by Confucianism, during which villagers made offerings with candles, incense, rice cakes, and fruits. Bundled up in their warmest clothing, the men carried heavy loads of foods and offerings to conduct the ceremonies before midnight.

My greatest disappointment was that I was not allowed to watch the ritual. According to the village headman, no woman had ever seen it, so I decided to follow tradition. Resigned to staying behind, I joined a group making rice cakes after dinner by candlelight. We had our own party with delicious food and warm drinks. When I asked if they felt that they were being discriminated against for not being able to join the men, the women laughed. One person explained, “It is so cold outside, and the men have to carry everything up the steep mountain trail. We are much more comfortable here.” Upon hearing this, I changed my gender analysis of the situation. These women had outsmarted the men and found a way getting the rituals done by someone else.

Since then, I have learned that many rural communities and indigenous peoples hold fast to such naturalistic beliefs. Although farmers may drive tractors and wear polyester jackets, their traditional spiritual lives often survive in their subconscious. In Burma, Indonesia, Senegal and Brazil, many villagers believe that the destiny of human beings is closely connected to a web of life that includes animals, trees, rivers and mountains. Yet these beliefs are often ridiculed, even persecuted, as superstitious and backward.

Delegates gathered at the UN climate change negotiations should take a second look at the contributions rural cultures have made to preserve the environment for centuries. Western civilization did not invent environmental ethics. Traditional cultures and indigenous peoples around the world have preserved the environment for centuries and are committed to values that can help save our planet.

Energy and the Law of Evolutionary Potential

Starting with pure nature

The Law of Evolutionary Potential is a theory that most serious anthropologists consider to be defunct, unscientific, and inaccurate. Yet, time and again, this Law seems to explain anomalies about how science and technology fit with development.

According to the late anthropologist Leslie White, the originator of this theory, societies that are considered less developed on the evolutionary ladder have the greatest potential to adapt successfully when new technologies are introduced. Of course, Wright was wrong to think of evolution as a unilinear, upward process. Nor is there some abstract law that decides the direction of development. It takes real people, smart politicians, and innovation to make progress towards sustainable development work.

However, when those things are in place, poor countries that seemed destined to remain decades behind race towards solar and other sustainable energy; they suddenly look like they might become front-runners. When you start from a clean slate, why shouldn’t all countries leap frog into the future?

An interesting example is the Grameen Telecom Village Phone initiative that has helped village women in Bangladesh use mobile technology. Women’s groups used microcredit from the Grameen Bank to buy digital GSM cellular phones, then sold the phone calls and services to others without having to leave their homes. Many have even begun to use solar charging stations. Thanks to cellular technology, Bangladesh’s maternal and child health mobile registration system can boast some of the world’s most comprehensive coverage.

The leapfrogging isn’t necessarily limited to science and technology. Social development can also be adapted on a wider scale with a speed unknown in industrialized countries. There are emerging democracies that have moved from bottom to near the top on the gender scale of indicators, despite relatively low per capita incomes and other political and economic challenges. For example, the South African constitution requires gender equity in political representation, a provision that is the envy of women in many European countries. The South African government is also a world leader in public health legislation. While some countries retreated from bans on tobacco advertisements, South Africa already has such laws in place.

Viewing the world from the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder may not be such a disadvantage after all. The trick seems to be making sure you study the mistakes of those who have gone before you. It takes financing research, strong support for education, and leaders willing to make the big leap forward. It would be romantic to believe that all poor countries might appear like Venus, full-grown as an energy superpower from the south. However, technological development starting from scratch can have its advantages, because you don’t have to disassemble old institutions or hardware. Poor countries, especially those with smart political leadership, may just show the world a few new tricks, and in one form or another, the Law of Evolutionary Potential is alive and well.

Uncommon Ground

One bright spring day in New Delhi, I looked down from my terrace to see the square patch of public land called “The Commons” transformed. In the past, these grounds were so barren that only retired cows visited them. However, there was a glorious garden of pink roses, white snapdragons, and marigolds. Throughout the day, visitors paced around its circular paths, endlessly inspecting the floral details. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old. If you could pull open its squeaky iron gate, a garden of Indian delights was yours.

This ecological wonder became a friendly meeting place of the neighbourhood. Maybe even a few romances bloomed that year. The contribution of this garden to our social life was so amazing that I became very curious about its history. Some neighbours said that a local politician personally paid for the project, so he could get his picture in the newspapers. Others suspected that the land had been illegally sold to a private developer who restored grounds to increase the value of his own nearby property. The truth was continually rewoven into an urban folklore that blamed local woes on the bureaucracy’s century-old corruption, so I never got a straight story.

The cynicism around how governments manage public projects sounded very familiar. I have spoken with women all over the world who have suffered from mismanaged public services. There is an endless list of these mismanaged services: water and sanitation programs that started well but deteriorated into a landscape of dry wells and broken water pumps, public hospitals with long waits and shortages of medical supplies, housing projects that collapsed due to mismanagement and corruption.

Women have long been among the primary advocates of a stronger role for government. The women’s movement was historically united in its protest against structural adjustment policies that led to the privatization of public works. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, women have demanded that governments withdraw from across-the-board giveaways to private enterprises, because they undercut support for families. In Eastern Europe, women have called for stronger government leadership to offset the decline in free daycare and subsidized housing.

Time and again, we are told that governments must retreat from public enterprises due to financial crises. However, I suspect that the origins of the problems go much deeper and certainly much farther back than a cash shortage. Many governments are acting like severely depressed patients who are unable to act – even with clear goals and ambitious plans. They are paralyzed by past failures and afraid to do any more damage, so they avoid taking risks and allow others to fail for them. As a result, the private sector gets the praise for any successes when they do occur, and this reinforces misgivings about government undertakings.

Public officials should be reminded that thousands of private-sector ventures fail daily. The equation is simple: Progress requires risk. Why not dismantle government and let the free market decide? The bare truth is that no pure market mechanism would ever have built New York City’s Central Park. Governments must resume their responsibility as guardians of national and global commons. Otherwise, we may lose precious ground to a wilderness of laissez-faire enterprises.