Visionary Thinking

Women Shape the Environmental Movement’s Theoretical Base

Women’s contributions to the environmental movement have and continue to take many forms. Women serve as frontline leaders at grassroots actions around the world. They hold management positions at the largest-and the smallest-environmental groups and foundations. They contribute amply to the thinking that guides the movement’s agenda. Modern environmentalism rests on a philosophical base that women have had a firm hand in shaping.

One such movement mentor is British-born futurist Hazel Henderson, who’s spent 30 years pointing a way towards a more sustainable economic model. Since co-founding New York’s Citizens for Clean Air in 1964, Henderson, through her writing, lecturing and constant activism, has worked to reform world financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The World Bank, helped build support for the United Nations, and argued for corporate social responsibility and a tax policy that recognizes environmental factors as part of the real cost of doing business. Henderson’s latest book is Building a Win-Win World: Life Beyond Global Economic Warfare (Berrett Koehler).

“Environmentalists have finally begun to realize that we have to go global,” Henderson said in a recent interview. “It’s a matter of looking at the global commons and all the commercial uses that we make of it. Our environmental impact is not really included in the cost of doing business or calculating the gross national product. Social and environmental costs have traditionally been externalized, which is why the industrial economies have gone so far off course. Nineteenth century economic textbooks are not going to get us to 21st century economies. Fortunately, now almost everyone in the economics profession agrees on the need for full-cost accounting.”

Henderson brings a healthy skepticism to the study of economics. Unlike most males in her profession, she’s not held in thrall by the sheer magnitude of the international financial flow, referring to it instead as “the global casino.” Governments-and economists-tend to get overwhelmed, she says, by “that $1.3 trillion in currencies that sloshes around the planet every 24 hours.” Henderson also holds considerable misgivings about international trade treaties such as The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which she says “are very narrowly conceived, and tend to hold ecological cooperation hostage.”

But Henderson does have a few kind words for The World Bank and its Wealth Index, which considers environmental factors in its development decisions. “They’re finally going in the right direction,” she says. “It takes a lot of pushing to get these big institutions turned around.”

Turning around big institutions is something Dr. Theo Colburn knows about. The co-author of the bestselling Our Stolen Future (which is based on her research into chemical fertility-threatening “endocrine disruptors”), faced considerable hostility from industry.

A role as a modern-day Rachel Carson is hardly something Colburn’s previous life had prepared her for. The former Colorado resident had been a pharmacist, sheep rancher and grandmother until, at age 50, she went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in zoology.

Colburn’s involvement in the environment began with local Colorado issues, specifically water quality, which was threatened by mining development. “I got involved in starting the Western Slope Energy Research Center, which fought against air and water pollution,” Colburn says. “And I began to realize that even though I may have known more about water than many of the people in the opposition, I didn’t have the credentials.”

After earning her degree, Colburn-who had seen the harmful effects of chemicals like the pregnancy drug DES (which caused sterility in many women) during her work as a pharmacist-began the research that led to Our Stolen Future. She is now at work on research papers-to be published in scientific journals-that describe how endocrine disruptors affect the developing human brain, and alter sexual reproduction in fish.

Colburn, who is a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., was surprised to learn how many environmental groups are headed by women (see main story). “Maybe we have a better feel for systems,” she says. “We look at things more holistically. The literature claims women have more intuition than men, which broadens our scope of thinking and leaves us with more open minds. Women have more feeling for how things interrelate than men.”

Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian physician who’s probably done more than anyone else to alert the world to the dangers of nuclear war, sees women-particularly American women-as a great, unorganized force. In her new autobiography, A Desperate Passion (Norton), she describes how her group Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) developed the motto “200 women in Congress by the year 2000.” She writes, “Although women number 53 percent of the American population, they comprise only two percent of the congressional delegation. This has to change.”

Women, Caldicott said in an interview, “are a tremendous force-if you empower them. They’re as difficult to organize as doctors, but once you get them going they’re unstoppable. Women are much more open with their feelings and the truth, and they’re one of the golden keys to the salvation of this planet.”

Like Caldicott, Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows deserves credit for alerting the American people to looming environmental disaster. Her 1972 book The Limits of Growth was a wakeup call, based on computer projections, about the consequences of continued development and population growth. In the 1992 Beyond the Limits, she concluded that the point of sustainability had been passed. “All through The Limits to Growth, we assumed the limits were up ahead somewhere,” she says. “Now we believe they’re behind us.” And like many of the women who lead the environmental movement, she can personalize what to some is an abstract concept. “I’ve heard many people talk about trying to take their grandchildren to places they loved as children, and they’re gone, or the water is polluted or the trees have been cut down,” she says.