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Want a healthy planet? Unleash women.

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By Jeremy Bentham

· 10 min read


Through my professional experience, I am usually very comfortable writing about energy transitions, decarbonisation, strategy and scenarios and, particularly, the under-realised economic potential of being an early-mover. You can find some of my past articles here.

In contrast, I am nervous about writing this short essay as I’m not quite following my familiar approaches. Instead, I am going to outline how and why I became a committed advocate for women’s empowerment and why I believe you should be too if you care about both people and the planet.

I’ll consider energy transitions through the lens of women’s empowerment and particularly through proper representation in positions of power, through strengthening health and educational opportunities and through forging resilient pathways to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

I ask forgiveness in advance for any slips I make in grappling with this topic and particularly if it turns out that I am “mansplaining” anything here which is already obvious to women readers. I also seek some forbearance because this is inevitably a very personal account without the kind of emotional distancing found in conventional serious essays.

A personal journey

For me, a few threads started coming together about a decade ago.

A key theme in my longstanding scenario work is that we are already in an era of volatility and transitions which, of course, stresses societies. So, I was toying with the question of whether familiar personal stress responses – fight, flight or freeze – could be seen in societies at large and whether this analogy could be helpful in communicating insights. I was at a gathering where seasoned leaders coach younger folks and chatting with an impressive woman named Lois Quam who was a CEO in the healthcare sector, and she alerted me to an additional, recently researched, stress response – “tend and befriend”. This is a response to bond with others and group together in the face of a threat, and the specific biochemical pathways for this response are now becoming clearer.  

So this gave me at least an analogy for a more constructive societal response to our challenges.

Just as significantly, Lois mentioned that there was some sexual differentiation in this response, with women somewhat more likely than men to respond biochemically to stress in this way (even though, of course, successful bonding may not always be the final result). Nevertheless, this sowed the seed in my mind that we strongly need more women leaders in our societies because we strongly need more non-traditional transformative collaborations to be championed.  

Shortly after this, therefore, Lois and I sponsored an excellent 2-day scenario workshop on Women’s Empowerment, with input from all angles including eye-opening feminist perspectives on the hidden, as well as the overt, patriarchal biases and oppressions in all societies. It became clear that even the most progressive journeys to fair empowerment would continue to experience waves of reversal as well as advance thanks to basic male vested interests and power dynamics, just as we’ve actually seen throughout history. Without deliberate and successful efforts to boost women’s representation at the tables of power and influence in all parts of society, such backtracking becomes almost inevitable. 

We also explored energy and climate issues, and it was no surprise that women are most vulnerable to environmental degradation as they are most vulnerable to almost all challenges, particularly in poorer economies where they will have to work even harder to gather food and fuel and to care for the increasing number of sick. Just see what has happened, for example, after the floods in Pakistan or the global impact of Covid and lockdowns on the social position of women.  

But the huge surprise for me was learning what the impact could be of significantly improving girls’ education and general access to modern contraception, thereby increasing women’s economic opportunities, delaying parenthood, and reducing the rate of unintended or undesired pregnancy.  Played out over time, this could make the difference by the year 2100 between a global population approaching 11 billion and one just over 7 billion. Just by itself, this could reduce human pressure on the environment by almost 40% and make net-zero emissions much more achievable. 

This was such a surprise and challenge to my assumptions on the relatively pre-determined nature of the demographic outlook that I had to rush away and read peer-reviewed publications on this topic.  

The numbers actually add up! My mental model had to change.

An emotional journey

At a more emotional level, three more threads also came together. First, I was introduced to the NGO and artists’ collective Blank Noise in India which is dedicated to exposing and reducing ingrained sexual violence and harassment in society. Secondly, I attended a lecture on women artists in the Baroque period, when it was almost impossible for a woman to get trained or be taken seriously as an artist (as has remained the case until relatively recently). I learned, for example, about the powerfully expressive painter Artemesia Gentileschi, who, when still a teenager, was raped by a male artist meant to be encouraging her. Her father eventually pressed charges, but for the damage to his honour more than the assault on Artemisia, and it was only Artemisia who was subjected to physical torture as the court tested whether her testimony was true!

As a matter of course, it seemed that almost all the female artists mentioned had suffered sexual assault at some point and this, of course, resonates with the “Me Too” movement today as we learn of the toxic male power dynamic still facing female actors and other female artists, and women in general.  In sexual politics, times don’t seem to have changed much over the centuries.

I also read the science-fiction novels The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, in which an expedition to a distant planet finds two fully sentient and intelligent species, with one essentially farming the other, exhibiting both oppression and what they perceived to be care. It seemed to me, that this was actually an account very relevant to human male and female relations.  

Shockingly, I realised that, despite believing previously that I was a progressive and supportive modern man and leader, I had been fairly blind to much that was happening in the world, with a multitude of both subtle and overt obstacles to women living a decent and freely-chosen life not just in poor countries and particular cultures, but everywhere.  

Indeed, I recognised with embarrassment and shame, not only my own role in perpetuating patriarchal attitudes by not being aware that they were all around me but also I had absorbed and exhibited many of these attitudes growing up as a teenager and young man in the West in the late 60s and 70s. These included the hard-wiring of the “male breadwinner” economic model and the incoherent longing for both the sexual availability of women in general and also the sexual chastity of eventual partners.  Under the shiny surface, I was also a toxic male.  

So I became a much more explicit advocate for women’s empowerment in general, women’s representation in the seats of power throughout society, the exposure of toxic masculinity, and the dismantling of the patriarchy in its different forms in different parts of the world. My wife tells me that this intellectual awareness is finally percolating into my personal behaviours and attitudes, albeit slowly and rather late in life.

Reaching for a brighter future

For me, this has not only become a matter of basic morality and ethics but also a foundation for global sustainability, for the future of both men and women.

In fact, from convincing accounts by economists and economic historians like Victoria Bateman, I’ve recently understood additional insights into the crucial benefits of women’s empowerment for all people. She argues that to understand what allowed the West to become rich and why so many countries are still poor, we need to delve into the home, into the family and the ‘private’ world beyond politics and the marketplace.

For example, there emerged a period in Britain as the industrial revolution was nascent when fully a third of the labour force were women. While still often unfairly rewarded compared to men, the relatively significant economic opportunities for young women at this time, combined with the social norms of the “nuclear” family, meant that marriage and pregnancy were delayed until young adults could be financially independent.

This led to smaller families on average compared to elsewhere in the world, and scarcities in the workforce, bringing a relatively high-wage economy and strong business incentives for widespread mechanisation, which also spurred engineering and scientific innovation. These developments drove the industrial revolution and the acceleration in economic development associated with that period. In this sense, women’s relative empowerment made the West rich.

Of course, as mentioned previously, waves of reversal seem to follow advances in empowerment.  Partly because of the muscular demands of handling heavy machinery in its early days, female employment actually fell in Britain over the course of the industrial revolution, and labour market disparities between men and women increased.  The toxic “male breadwinner” model was consolidated for the industrial age, with men cast in the “socially superior” role of wage-earners and women as “socially inferior” caregivers. Often now considered a “natural” or “historical” ordering of society, this sharp differentiation within most families actually only emerged in an extreme form in the nineteenth century.

So, the ability of women to have authority over their bodies, and particularly their fertility, is both a moral issue at the individual level and also a matter of societal significance for the sustainability of our environment and the material quality of our lives. Poverty and inequality are closely tied to societies and cultures restricting access to birth control, restricting female educational opportunities, enforcing or encouraging early fertility, and assuming that caregiving is primarily a female role.

From an energy transformation perspective, therefore, I now believe that one of the most powerful levers that could be pulled with significance over the long term would be to significantly enhance the empowerment of women across the spectrum from the poor to the privileged. Project Drawdown, a coalition of scientists and scholars, has ranked 80 separate approaches to addressing global warming, with family planning and girls’ education in the top 10 even ahead of solar farms and wind turbines.

Grappling with some basics

The magnitude of this challenge is, however, huge.

Just consider fertility again. Many of you may be familiar with these figures but their magnitude was a surprise to me.

According to UN statistics and other reliable sources, almost 50% of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended – or around 120 million pregnancies per year. This high percentage is as true in rich economies like the US as in other parts of the world. In fact, there are 260 million women in the world who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using safe, modern methods of contraception.

In addition, where survey data is available, nearly a quarter of women are not able to say “no” to sex and, indeed, only about half the world’s women can make their own decisions on sexual consent and health care.

Almost one-quarter of girls are married off as children and an estimated 21 million adolescent girls become pregnant every year. Every year, 4 million teenage girls in sub-Saharan Africa drop out of school or are excluded due to pregnancy. 

30% of all pregnancies and 60% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, but 45% of abortions are unsafe, leading to a high proportion of maternal deaths.

The numbers are staggering.  

Closing remarks

So there you have it. I think it is pretty clear that empowering women thoroughly, educating girls well, and ensuring women have choices over their fertility can and should be major components in building better lives with a healthy planet for everybody. Please reflect on this from both an ethical and practical perspective. Consider supporting the work of NGOs like Pathfinder International that catalyse hundreds of projects ranging from contraception to adolescent education to abortion care to addressing gender-based violence, HIV and women-led climate resilience.

If we want a future with a healthy planet, then half the world’s population – women – must be unleashed from the many different constraints they continue to face in all societies.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Jeremy B. Bentham is the Co-Chair (scenarios) of the World Energy Council and Senior Fellow with Mission Possible Partnership. He led the internationally-renowned Shell Scenarios team for over fifteen years, advising company leadership and senior external policy-makers on energy transitions and strategic direction. He has deep experience in framing, and making, investment and policy choices in the face of radical uncertainties.

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