Feminism is all about human rights and equality, right? It’s not about the environment or social conflict or economic and political stability.
Feminism has far more wide-ranging effects than most of us realize. It influences our society and economy like rainfall affects flowers. Like oxygen affects our survival.
And that’s crucial because we are living on a planet that is veering out of control in terms of its population growth, consumption of Earth’s finite resources, and environmental impacts.
According to the United Nations, Africa’s population could quadruple by 2100. South Asia and parts of the Middle East are also on rapid population-growth trajectories, as are many other developing nations. We could have 10 or 11 billion people by the of this century and still have more coming, because the global population has not yet stabilized.
We’re Far from Feminism
Feminism means different things to different people and cultures, but it’s unified by a view that women deserve equal opportunities for education, employment, financial benefits, and human rights.
Globally, we’re a heck of long way from achieving gender equality, and the disparities vary a lot among cultures and societies.
In broad terms, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia rank lowest in gender equality, Western Europe is the highest, and other regions are in between.
In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women have only recently been granted the right to drive a car. In parts of Africa, women are still being circumcised. Some ultra-extremist Muslim groups have kidnapped and even murdered young women trying to get an education. The list goes on...
Feminism is the Key
Many folks don't realize just how crucial the empowerment of women and girls is for the world. The most urgent goal is "Let Girls Learn" — allow girls and young women an opportunity to gain an education.
In demographic terms, this consistently raises the age at which women have their first child — because instead of bearing children they’re studying and commencing a career first.
For instance, in a developing nation, an uneducated girl might have her first child in her teens, whereas a young woman who had some educational and career opportunities might wait until her early 20s.
And that one change is magical — it makes all the difference in the world.
Population growth slows dramatically because women who start their families later almost always have fewer children. At the same time, the generation time (the interval between birth and reproduction) increases.
We can illustrate this using a simple online tool:
Let’s imagine two Earths, each of which have 1 billion people. On Unstable Earth, girls begin their families at age 16 and have 6 children each. After one century, how many people would that Earth have?
About 73 billion — an incredible increase.
But on Stable Earth, girls begin their families later, at age 23, and have just 3 children each. After one century, how many people would it have?
Half a billion. About 150 times less.
We can make this ultra-simple example more realistic by including the fact that, in smaller families, a larger fraction of the children will survive — as they’ll be better-off financially, with better food and health care.
If we assume child survival increases from 70 percent in large families to 90 percent in smaller families, then Unstable Earth will have 8.6 billion people after a century, whereas Stable Earth will have one-third of a billion people — still about 25 times less. Amazing.
The point is to demonstrate the incredibly powerful effect of allowing girls and young women to get an education. It’s a complete world-changer. Doing so slams the brakes on runaway population growth. And it works fast — we start seeing the benefits almost immediately.
But Wait — There’s More!
As if that weren’t enough, allowing a young woman to get an education and choose when she starts her family has a bunch of other positive effects:
· It increases the health and education of her children
· It reduces the likelihood that she will be divorced
· It increases the likelihood that her children will get jobs later in life, in turn making them less likely to commit crimes or be socially disenfranchised
· And societies with lower population growth (which therefore are not drowning in young people) have less crime and violent conflict — and are less vulnerable to having their young people radicalized by extremist groups
Why Aren’t We Doing More?
Given the astonishing and immediate benefits of educating young women, why aren’t we pushing this harder?
Why aren’t Western Europeans investing every spare penny in Africa and the Middle East — to reduce the social conflicts, wars, and intense immigration pressures Europe is having to endure each year? Why wait until there are four times as many Africans as today?
And why aren’t North Americans doing the same thing for rapidly growing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean?
And Australians for burgeoning nations in the Asia-Pacific?
Bottom line: We should all be pushing hard to promote education and equality of young women because it’s the right thing to do.
And just as importantly — for our societies, economies, environment, and planetary stress — it’s the smart thing to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William “Bill” Laurance is director of the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT) and Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. He also holds the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at Utrecht University, Netherlands. Bill is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is also a former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. A leading scientist and advocate for environmental sustainability, he has received many professional honors, including the Heineken Environment Prize, the BBVA Frontiers in Ecology and Conservation Biology Award, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology. In 2015 he received the Royal Zoological Society of London's Outstanding Achievements in Conservation Award. He is the author of eight books and more than 600 scientific and popular articles, and is a four-time winner of Australia's Best Science Writing Award.