Category Archives: Human Rights

From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles: The Great Turning by David W. Orr

FrameWorld

We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

“Only connect” – E. M. Forster

Implications for education and the educated

Vicious Gyres

Fifteen-hundred miles west of Seattle, in the middle of the North Pacific, a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge is caught in ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. It is estimated to be the size of the lower 48 states at a depth of 100-1000 feet. But no one knows for certain how large or how deep, only that it is massive and growing. Some of the most amazing things humans have ever made float in what has been renamed the “North Pacific Garbage Gyre.” They are made primarily of oil extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth, which is another remarkable story. The impact on marine organisms and sea life is poorly documented but it is between disastrous and catastrophic. Some of the debris is ingested by birds and fish who mistake floating plastic doo-dads for food. Some of it breaks down into long-lived toxic compounds. Despite its size and ecological effects the North Pacific Garbage Gyre is distant enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

Another gyre of gases circulates around the Earth six miles above our heads, the result of our annual combustion of four cubic miles of primeval goo—ancient sunlight congealed in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, shale oil, and tar sands. The atmospheric residues, chiefly CO2 reached 400 ppm in May of 2013—the highest concentration in hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps several million years. The atmospheric CO2 gyre is changing the thermal balance of Earth in an instant of geologic time and locking us into a future of extreme heat, drought, larger storms, rising sea levels, and changing ecologies that will increasingly imperil economies, public health, and social and political stability, that is to say, civilization itself.

A third gyre of long-lived chemicals cycles through our bloodstream, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues. They are in our air, water, food, everyday products, and many toys. In the words of the President’s Cancer Panel babies are born “pre-polluted,” poisoned by toxic substances that pass through their mother’s umbilical cords. A typical sample of chemicals in the average body would include 200 or more that are suspected or known to cause cancer and cell mutations and disrupt the endocrine system. It is possible that, singly or in combination, invasive chemicals also cause behavioral abnormalities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects of chemicals one by one, we don’t know much about the possible combined effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed or the several hundred that we’ve ingested, absorbed, and inhaled.

We Knew Better

The three gyres have many things in common. They are vicious cycles or “wicked problems” that are complex, long-term, and non-linear—a fancy way to say they are unpredictable with lots of unknowns. They involve virtually every discipline listed in a college catalog and much outside the conventional curriculum as well. But they are not so much problems that can be solved with enough money and effort as they are dilemmas that could not and cannot be solved. With foresight, however, each could have been avoided.

The effects of each gyre will last for a long time. Toxic and radioactive trash will threaten human health and ecologies for centuries to come. The loss of biodiversity driven by climate change, pollution, and over-development is permanent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect climate for thousands of years, requiring a level of public and private vigilance for which we have no good historical precedents. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals last a lifetime in the human body, and some are passed on to our offspring.

The causes of each gyre were known a long time ago. It required no great prescience to see that our mountains of trash would someday rise up to haunt us. Similarly, the first warning of impending climate change was given to Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But a half-century later we still have no de jure climate policy and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever before. And the adverse health effects of the promiscuous use of chemicals were suspected at least from 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

The consequences of pollution gyres were not understood except in hindsight. In Wendell Berry’s words, “we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.” Even so, we knew better. And long ago we knew we had good alternatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, solar technology, and natural systems agriculture that have improved greatly in the years since. But widespread adoption was blocked by money, by political dysfunction, and often by the lack of imagination. As a result, it has been profitable for some to create a throwaway economy. It is highly profitable to extract, sell, and burn fossil fuels that are diminishing the human future by the day. It is profitable to pollute our air, food, and water and undermine human health. The three gyres, in other words, are neither accidents nor anomalies, but the logical results of a system of ideas and philosophy deeply embedded in our culture, politics, economy, technology, and educational system.

The causes of the three gyres were once thought to be evidence of prosperity measured as economic growth. But a large part of our wealth is fraudulent. We are simply offloading costs of pollution and environmental damages onto people living somewhere else or at some later time. We are beneficiaries of self-deception and conveniently bad bookkeeping.

By undermining ecological balance, climate stability, and our reproductive potential the three gyres are the primary causes of the “6th Great Extinction” now underway. This time, however, it is not about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but us. The approach path to oblivion, in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s words, is a “system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes . . . feeding on one another and growing in strength . . . [leading to] an age of unprecedented violence.” The stakes in other words, are total, but there are no effective legal sanctions for the destruction of oceans, ecosystems, climate stability, human health, or actions that risk civilization for a few more years of corporate profits. We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.” Neither do we acknowledge the right to life of our co-passengers on spaceship Earth. Our courts are blind to the plight of those who are suffering and many more who will assuredly suffer because of our dereliction. Indeed, there is no national or international legal regime commensurate with the depth of the human predicament or the requirements for ecological justice across generations.

Most important if one traces the causes of each gyre back far enough there are students in classrooms acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to work unperturbed in the extractive economy that drives each gyre. They are the dutiful acolytes of Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and all of those in our time who share the dream of total human mastery over nature. We educators have equipped our graduates with the tools and technology necessary “to affect all things possible” in Frances Bacon’s words, but not the wherewithal to understand the consequences of doing so. Accordingly, generations of students have learned how to dismantle the world and concoct all manner of things—but not why that was often a bad idea—or how to repair the damage. We taught them how to manipulate, make, conjure, communicate worldwide, and sell everything under the sun but not how to think about the effects of doing such things. They learn how to grow an economy beyond the limits of Earth but almost nothing about physical, ecological, and moral limits to the scale of the human estate or the concepts of enough and sufficiency.

The epitaph for Western culture could be an educational system in which students learn more than they can comprehend in ethical or ecological terms. Learning is a fast process but comprehending the limits and proper uses of knowledge, which is to say acquiring wisdom, takes much longer.

My point is that the gyres of disintegration are not the work of the uneducated but rather that of those certified with Ph.Ds, MBAs, LLBs, Master’s degrees, BA and BS degrees. In other words, the ecological and climate disorder we see around us reflects a prior disorder in how we think and what we think about. That makes it the business of all of us in the “education industry” who purport to improve thinking. But to improve thinking we must address problems of education not merely those in education and so transcend the industrial-technological model of learning. Tinkering at the margins won’t do.

The irony, of course, is that the same education, science, and technology that threatens life on Earth also gave us the capacity to discern the effects of our actions. We can measure our pollution down to parts per billion. We can chart the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with great precision. We understand in detail many of the biological effects of long-term exposure to toxic substances. And since we know what we are doing we can also decide to change our course and do much better.

Transformative Education 

In the long view of history, however, we do not know yet whether the Western model of formal education will prove—on balance—to be a positive force in the evolution of a humane and sustainable civilization, or simply a training ground for advanced cleverness serving ever more powerful and destructive domination of Earth. If education is to play a positive role in a “Great Turning” toward a sustainable global civilization, our goal must be to enable coming generations to connect learning with a reverence for life and equip them with the analytical, practical, and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere.

This is hard to do in the blizzard of euphoria about our technological prowess and “breakthroughs” in everything but those things that matter. It is harder to do when ideas and communication are being compressed into 140-character tweets that exist like flotsam in a flood of meaningless, de-contextualized information. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the rising generation spends on average nine hours a day in front of one kind of screen or another, in danger, as Hannah Arendt once said, of becoming “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible.”

The condition of our children has deep cultural roots including the pathology that Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Since the dawn of the age of television young people have increasingly lived indoors marinating in an entirely human-made world. The resulting damages are many: to the growth of intellect, to their sense of reality, to their basic affiliations, and to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the “psychic thread” that connects us to nature. Louv argues that “the re-naturing of everyday life can be an important component of strengthening physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness . . . and relations between parents, children, and grandparents.” Experience and mountains of data show that the emotional disposition to learn is enhanced by time spent out of doors and the acquisition of practical skills.

The deep challenge is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation—as best we are able—for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them to see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will need to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalisms of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us— a variant of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will need to rediscover old truths and forgotten knowledge. They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. We must educate them to be the designers of a another kind of gyre that turns vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that might someday transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, and technologies, as well as our hearts and minds. We need a generation that rises above despair or fantastical thinking and sees the world as systems, patterns, and possibilities that give hope an authentic foundation.

In other words, if education is to serve the interests of humankind and life in the long emergency ahead it must be transformed beginning with a transformation in our thinking about education and the purposes that ideas serve. Samuel Johnson once said that the assurance of the gallows in a fortnight could concentrate the mind wonderfully. Similarly, the prospect of a civilizational collapse ought to concentrate our thinking about the substance and process of education in what could otherwise be “our final hour.” We cannot continue to equip students for success in an economy that is driving civilization to the brink of collapse. Rather, we must enable students to help build bridges to something better than what is in prospect.

Critics, predictably, will argue that saving the Earth, or humans for that matter, is not the business of educators while refusing to say exactly whose business it is. Purists will argue that doing so involves making value judgments and education ought to be value free, which is itself a value and conveniently obeisant to the forces driving us toward oblivion. Pessimists will argue that transforming the academy is a good idea, but is not feasible and so should not be tried. Trustees will wish not to offend the powerful and wealthy and thereby risk one form of insolvency while presumably avoiding another. Incrementalists will recommend caution and piecemeal change and hope that it doesn’t come up a day late and a dollar short. Traditionalists, eyes to the rear, will want no change whatsoever.

But we no longer have the luxury of preserving the status quo whatever we might otherwise wish. The landscape of education, including that wrought by the avalanche of television and electronic media, is rapidly changing and with it the mindscape of our civilization.

Many questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “anthropocene”? What is the proper balance between intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in ways commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality?

There are also practical questions having to do with our responsibilities to the communities in which we exist. What do we know that could be put to good use in developing durable economies based on renewable energy and local farm and food systems. What do we know about nurturing decent and fair communities? How should we spend and invest institutional assets locally to promote sustainable development?

From such ongoing conversations many results are possible. I will suggest only the most obvious. The first is a requirement that no one should graduate from any college or university without a firm grasp of how the world works as physical system and why that is important for their lives. For comparison, we would be justifiably embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be even more so to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, and systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. They should also be taught the social, political, economic, and philosophical causes of our predicament and master the ethical, analytical, and practical tools necessary to build a durable, resilient, and decent world. In short, we should equip them with the capacity to integrate disparate subjects and disciplines into a coherent and ecologically grounded worldview.

And we should do these things in the spirit that Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now:”

There is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’ 

Connection and Affection – The Great Turning

E. M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” belies the fact that we are already connected. The greatest discoveries of the 20th century revealed that we are stitched together in more ways than we can possibly know.

  • Despite all of the things that divide us, we humans share 99.5% of our genes,
  • We share 98% of our genes with our nearest kin, the large apes and bonobos;
  • 90% of our dry body weight isn’t us but a rowdy congress of bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers living in and on our bodies;
  • Our minds evolved to mirror each other’s feelings and to empathize with each other;
  • Every breath we take includes molecules once breathed by Socrates, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, or Idi Amin for that matter;
  • We have an innate affinity for life, that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “Biophilia;”
  • All of us are made of stuff that was once in stars;
  • Plants are linked in networks, communicate by chemical signals, and help each other in ways that resemble altruism;
  • And we are now connected globally as never before by social media, emails and smart phones in a thickening web of communication and intelligence as predicted long-ago by theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

In short, we are connected over time as a small part of the vast enterprise of life that stretches back 3.8 billion years and as far forward as the Angels of our better nature, luck, and sunlight allow. The problem is not to connect, but to recognize and act on the reality of our connectedness.

Forster’s further observation—that our capacity to connect “all turns on affection” sounds quaintly irrelevant. Affection is the antithesis of the calculating mind that we associate with rational economic behavior, shrewd career decisions, and the self-referential narcissism that infects the teenage “I” generation. Affection is complicated and paradoxical. It thrives, however, at the crossroads where enlightened self-interest, altruism, and foresight meet. Affection is born in compassion, empathy, and an enlarged sense of self. It acknowledges that nothing and no one is an island complete in itself. Everything and everyone is connected to the mainland.

Affection changes what we think is important, what is trivial, and what is dangerous. It changes the substance and process of learning. Affection would help us acquire the patience to see learning as a lifelong process not to be confused with formal schooling. Informed by affection we would not so easily confuse information with knowledge or rationality with reasonableness. It would help us understand that thinking is often overrated and intuition under-appreciated and that true learning cannot be certified by grades and degrees. A dose of affection might even help us comprehend and mediate the evolutionary divisions between the right and left hemispheres of our own minds.

Affection deals in wholes, including the parts that are inexplicable and mysterious. It connects us to the creative, artistic, musical, humorous, intuitive, empathic sides of ourselves. Albert Einstein put it this way “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Affection, then, causes us to celebrate mystery and opens us to the sense of wonder. Beyond the facts, data, theories, and analysis that permeate education, the inexplicable remains. What we know is like a drop in an ocean. What we don’t know is the ocean. Deep knowledge is elusive, rather like “studying darkness with a flashlight.” The fact is that we are infinitely more ignorant than we are smart and always will be. And that is OK. D. H. Lawrence captured the essence of the matter by observing that “Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen but there is a third thing that makes it water, and no one knows what that is.” And no one ever will.

Affection permits us to be compassionate with our own imperfect selves and the imperfections of others. Affection isn’t reserved just for the easy times. In a world of paradox, irony, and tragedy, affection moderates pretensions and punctures illusions. It is kind and forgiving. Clear-eyed affection helps us acquire what Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno once called “the tragic sense of life” which is neither resigned nor gloomy. To the contrary, it is a realistic perspective that permits us to laugh at ourselves and each other. It is the quality by which we have triumphed over tragedy before and it has equipped us to do so again.

Finally, affection helps us to see what could be, without losing sight of how things are. Affection causes us to hope for improvement. And hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up rooted in daily practice as something we do, not just what we wish for. It is a discipline requiring skill, competence, steadiness, and courage. It is practical. It bonds us to each other, and to real places, animals, trees, waters, and landscapes. The hopeful are patient not passive. They are creators of the gyres of positive change that could, in time, redeem the human prospect. They are people who will know how to connect us to a better world struggling to be born.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is a well-known environmentalist and author. His many books include Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. He holds a B.A. from Westminster College, an M.A. from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Bioneers Award, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, a Lyndhurst Prize awarded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University for his work in Environmental Education. 

David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach? “I come from a long line of preachers,” he says laughing. “My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . .” For Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that “we are all meaning-seeking creatures—a small part of a much larger pattern.”

“It is no accident,” Orr states, “that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio.” Orr wrote “most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves.” He puts connectedness at the center of his philosophy. His vocation—our responsibility and relationship to the Earth we’ve inherited and the Earth we will bequeath—has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

It is no surprise that he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause—he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for education—if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.” Source: Oberlin’s Presidential Lecture, November 8, 2013.

Reprinted with permission.

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Book Review by Frosty Wooldridge

Book Review of Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom of the Elders edited by Marilyn Hempel 

In this book, extremely intelligent men and women who have spent their lives working for the betterment of civilization create a profound discussion on humanity’s fate. Their advice is at once profound and concrete. We best listen.

In 21st century America, citizens and leaders rush headlong and with great alacrity toward a doubling of our current 319 million population to 625 million by the end of the century. Growth is God, we are told.

The run-up to that exponential growth goal won’t be pretty—accelerating water shortages, unstable weather, resource depletion, and skyrocketing prices for food, water and energy.  Our cities grow more compacted, polluted and gridlocked. Our quality of life rushes desperately off a demographic cliff.  We force an unfortunate future upon our children.  We obliterate the Natural World in our contaminated and toxic wake.  We change our biosphere into a raging, chaotic tempest with no understanding of the outcome.

While Americans and their leaders cannot “see” that far, their children face enormous predicaments discussed by the “Elders” of this book.  For the most part, American don’t talk about the population explosion, rather, we assume it will vanish on its own. Reality check: it won’t. It will grow and become unmanageable. It already shows itself catastrophically to the Natural World.

The natural world offers balance and peace of mind.  Photo by Adam Jones

The natural world offers balance and peace of mind.  Photo by Adam Jones

The book starts with historical perspective. John Stuart Mill in the 1800s said, “There is room in the world, no doubt, for a great increase in population, supposing the arts of life go on improving, and capital to increase.  But even if innocuous, I confess I see very little reason for desiring it.  The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain all advantages both of cooperation and of social intercourse has been attained.

“A population may be too crowded, though all be amply provided with food and raiment.  It is not good for man to be kept at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal.  Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character.  Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature….” Mill speaks of the Natural World and our need for it.

To many Americans, the wilderness is little more than a retreat from the tensions of civilization. To others, it is a testing place—a vanishing frontier where man can rediscover basic values.  And to a few, the wilderness is nothing less than an almost holy source of self-renewal. But for every man, woman and child, the ultimate lesson that nature teaches is simply this: man’s fate is inextricably linked to that of the world at large, and to all of the other creatures that live upon it.

Mill said, “If the Earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.  It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for importing the “Art of Living” and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the “Art of Getting On.”

Mill spoke those words back in the 1800s.  Today, humans jam cities in excess of 36 million people—many of them impoverished souls all crammed together in cement wastelands.

We turned the natural world into 36 million-packed human mega-cities that create enormous pollution and loss of connection with the Natural World. Photo by www.urbanscape.blogspot.com

We turned the natural world into 36 million-packed human mega-cities that create enormous pollution and loss of connection with the Natural World. Photo by http://www.urbanscape.blogspot.com

Our addiction to growth makes no sense today. We must learn from our elders to make way for a viable and sustainable future—before Mother Nature takes us by the hand, rather brutally and teaches us lessons in sustainable living.

 

Book:  Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders by Marilyn Hempel

Publisher: Blue Planet United, Redlands, CA

ISBN # 9780692212271

Cost: $14.95 paperback

Available at www.Amazon.com

 

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. In 2012, he bicycled coast to coast across America. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it.”  www.frostywooldridge.com. His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715. For a motivational program: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World by Frosty Wooldridge, click: www.HowToLiveALifeOfAdventure.com

 

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Blue Planet United Publishes New Book on Population

Elders_cover_WEBBlue Planet United has just published a new book titled Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders edited by Marilyn Hempel.

This book is for all who have ever pondered the fate of humanity and the biosphere and asked, “What can I do?” Fifteen elders—giants in the field of human population and development—share their vision of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. Drawing from many decades of practical experience and deep knowledge, they trace the contours of rapid population growth, its socioeconomic and environmental challenges, and the lessons they have learned in dealing with these challenges. They go on to lay out concrete actions that can move our civilization forward to a future of wanted children, empowered women, and an economy that works within restored ecosystems.

Features chapters by Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Malcolm Potts, Donald A. Collins, David Poindexter, William N. Ryerson, Linn Duvall Harwell, Sarah G. Epstein, Robert Gillespie, Martha Campbell, Lester R. Brown, Lindsey Grant, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich.

Click here to order the book online.

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Climate Change: The Least We Can Do by Robert Walker, Population Institute

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

As the IPCC’s (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments—and the people they represent—are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world—countries that are already in a struggle for survival—could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do—for climate change—and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.

 

Robert Walker is the President of the Population Institute in Washington, DC. 

Prior to joining the Population Institute, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the Executive Director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to promote open, honest and accountable government.

He also served for three years as President of Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

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U.S. Immigration Policies: Uncomfortable Facts by Paul Krugman

(This article was written in 2006, and it’s still relevant today)

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I’m proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I’m instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1%.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration—especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8% more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.

That’s why it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should—and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country’s experience with immigration, ”We wanted a labor force, but human beings came.” Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn’t exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a “modest role” in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants. But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests—legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care—is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a ”guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I’d still be careful. Whatever the bill’s intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice—that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I’d rather see Congress fail to agree on anything than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.

 

Dr. Paul Krugman, American economist, bestselling author and respected professor, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. Krugman’s expertise is in international economics, including finance, trade theory and economic geography. Source: This essay was published by Paul Krugman in the New York Times on March 27, 2006. It is reprinted here verbatim and unedited. In follow-up remarks Krugman noted that although many readers will probably be unhappy with the essay, he stands by its main points, referencing economic studies which support those points. Interestingly, the NY Times quickly deleted the original article from its website.

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Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons by Herman Daly

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point in discussing it is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Some allow many legal immigrants. Other countries (China and Japan, for example) allow very few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database, “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.” 

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

Questions of how many immigrants are consistent with the welfare of the receiving community, and which prospective immigrants should get priority, are legitimate, and are answered differently in different countries. There are political arguments in every country for more or for less immigration, and for different selection criteria. There are also arguments about freedom to emigrate—what are the obligations of emigrants to the community that educated and invested in them (e.g. the brain drain)?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion. It seems that neither expectation is adequately fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works with today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require a metabolic flow of resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The U.S. is indeed a country of immigrants; but it is also a country of law. Within the rule of law there is a wide range of legitimate opinion about what limits and priorities best balance the interests of the sending and receiving communities, and of the individual migrants. In the US most population growth is due to net immigration, so population stabilization absolutely requires immigration limits. To advocate population stability while refusing to accept limits to immigration is self-contradictory. Some open-borders advocates argue that because population at a global level is the result only of birth and death rates (migration is irrelevant since the Earth does not receive people from other planets)—that therefore nations should not be concerned with immigration as a cause of their own population growth, but only with their own natural rate of increase. This is a non sequitur. With open borders, why would any country any longer try to limit its birth rate, if it is (a) possible to export its excess population, and, (b) impossible to limit its population, given unlimited immigration? Evading an issue by “globalizing” it is a cop-out.

In addition we have in the U.S. a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the U.S. is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. This class division is more important than racial issues, which nevertheless receive more attention because racial discrimination is rightly illegal, whereas class exploitation is often legal, protected by laws that need to be democratically changed—just have a look at the U.S. tax code, or the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has a large population of citizens whose recent ancestors were forcefully brought over as slaves (involuntary immigrants). Many Americans, including me, think that Black American heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races still living in poverty. Other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor—another way of saying lots of poor people! Nevertheless, I would favor temporary legal immigration at about half of the current level of one million per year, but diminishing gradually every year to a level consistent with population stability. Population stability means that births plus immigrants equal deaths plus emigrants.

What immigration policy would critics of U.S. immigration limits advocate for other countries? Say for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

Outside the rule of law there is of course illegal immigration that renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. Again, there are legitimate questions about how best to enforce immigration laws, making the punishment fit the crime, etc. But it is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago.

Some people propose quite a drastic change in immigration law. They advocate a policy of open borders, which at a stroke would do away with illegal immigration and enforcement problems. This is at least a more honest position than just refusing to enforce democratically enacted laws. It is attractive to anarchists, if there are any left, and to libertarians, their modern descendants. Libertarians are mainly found today among neoclassical economists, whose view is that of atomistic individualism. Only the individual is real. The community is just an aggregate of individuals, nothing more. Their focus is on individuals maximizing their own welfare. Since the community is not considered real they commonly neglect effects of mass immigration, both positive and negative, on both the sending and receiving community. They see the world as one big free market, which of course entails free mobility of labor, as well as goods and capital—a globally integrated economy all guided by a global invisible hand—deregulation taken to the limit! In developed countries they are especially interested in opening their borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap- retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even some environmentally-minded economists seem to favor open borders. They  have swallowed the basic atomistic individualism of neoclassical economics while opposing other aspects of the paradigm. Nevertheless, people are in fact not atomistic individuals but persons-in-community—both social and biophysical community. Our very identity as persons is constituted by internal relations in community—with family, friends, and place, including one’s ties to country, biome, customs, religion, language, and history. Community is real and important to the welfare of real persons—it is not just an aggregate of externally related, atomistic, interchangeable individuals—of “economic men” running all over the world in mass numbers seeking their own utility maximization.

Within limits individual freedom to migrate is certainly a value to be protected—including against its own self-defeating extreme of open borders. To make political progress toward consensus on immigration policy we should first clear the air with a “referendum” on the policy of open borders. If that policy is rejected then we can talk seriously about the total number of immigrants and the selection criteria that best balance the needs of all people. If the open-borders policy is adopted then one must forget about controlling the movement of people across national boundaries.

Indeed, open borders eliminates or at least diminishes control of the border crossings of goods and capital as well—something consistently advocated by neoclassical economists under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”. National boundaries are in effect erased, and without national boundaries there need be no border patrol, indeed no military to defend those former borders—just one big happy “world without borders” in the words of the song. After two world wars the abolition of the nation state admittedly has its appeal—but a “world without borders” is an expression of sentimentality, not reason. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move to one that doesn’t. That is the “world without borders” —and without community either!

Global community must be a “community of communities”, a federation of nations cooperating for a limited number of important global purposes. Erasure of national boundaries would mean that there are no communities left to federate. The invisible hand of the free global market (along with unrestrained global corporations) will unleash growth in global GDP (unhindered by national policies of cost internalization). The population of atomistic cosmopolitan individuals, free from national laws and constraints, will grow with renewed pace. External costs, if recognized at all, will presumably fall on the “non-existent” community, and to the extent that some fall on real individuals, they can be escaped by freely migrating somewhere else.

Realistically however, a policy of open borders obviously invites the tragedy of the open access commons. It is its own reductio ad absurdum, as indicated in the previous paragraph. Probably that is why, in the full world of today, no country practices it, and few people advocate it. Nevertheless, it should be fairly discussed, because some people certainly do advocate it. In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction right-wing economists. The politically correct reflexively label any limits on immigration as thinly disguised “racism”, apparently the only evil they can recognize. The libertarian neoclassicals label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion”, their single cardinal sin. Both consider themselves advanced cosmopolitans, morally superior to the national populists whose “provincial” concern is first for the poor in their own community. This surprising agreement between opposite political extremes in support of open borders is evidence that ideologues of both types have difficulty thinking clearly. Unfortunately, lack of clear thinking—aided by moralistic pretension, ethnic politics, and class interest—is often a political advantage.

 

Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Printed with permission.

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Book review: Life On The Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

If you look around the United States, even in the overcrowded, overpacked and gridlocked cities of America—you won’t hear conversations about overpopulation. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and more cities feature enormous brown clouds blanketing their cities with an airborne toxic soup that every citizen breathes with every breath. Brian Williams reports on the horrific traffic jams on the East Coast, but he won’t mention the overpopulation factor causing them. Same with Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelley, Robert Siegel and all the top anchors on all the media reports!

They convey that none of us should question unending growth. It’s like a 450 pound fat man on “Biggest Losers” TV show who can barely walk, knows he’s going to die of a heart attack—but he decides to follow the American mantra of “Sustainable Growth” and keeps shoving Big Macs with double cheese, French fries and a Big Gulp down his gullet until he reaches 550 pounds and beyond.

Both his path and the United States’ path can only end up in the same condition: human misery, suffering and ultimately collapse. But in the case of human overpopulation around the planet, we humans destroy millions of other creatures along the way to our own destruction.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Chapter 4, Martha Campbell asks, “Why the silence on overpopulation?”

“By 2050, human population is projected to reach as high as 10.5 billion,” said Campbell. “Uganda is projected to grow from 33.8 million to 91.3 million. Niger from 16 million to 58 million, and Afghanistan from 29 million to 73 million.”

That’s not all the growth! India adds 11 million net gain annually to its 1.2 billion (in 2012), while China adds another 8 million net gain annually. Both countries expect to explode to about 1.6 billion. If you have watched NBC lately, Brian Williams reported on the air pollution cover Shanghai and Beijing. He hasn’t covered the water pollution, but the Ganges and the Yangzi Rivers feature open sewer pipes that turn into 20,000 square mile dead zones at their mouths. How do I know? I sailed on both rivers and the water-plastic-debris-trash-human waste made me sick to my stomach.

"OverLoaded Train" in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy 'quality of life'.  In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures?  Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

“OverLoaded Train” in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy ‘quality of life’. In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures? Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

At 82 million, Egypt, a country that cannot feed itself in 2013 and relies on grain imports, expects to hit 150 million by mid century. Do we need to guess their fate?

“In 1900, Ethiopia had 5 million, in 1950 it had 18.4 million, in 2010 it had 85 million and is projected to reach 173 million by 2050,” said Campbell. “Their rapid population growth figures in the decimation of nearly all of Ethiopia’s forests and consequently climate change.”

On a personal note, I researched to find that Africa houses nearly 1 billion people in 2013, but expects to reach 3.1 billion within 90 years. Can you imagine every human scavenging every last creature on this beautiful continent for food? Nothing will be left of all those wonderful creatures. In 1900, Africa sported 12 million elephants. Today, 475,000 remain and their numbers are dwindling fast due to poachers.

Campbell calls the subject of population “delicate” because it involves sex, cultures, religions and serves inequities around the world. Such religions as Islam, the Catholic Church, and many others don’t take kindly to birth control.

Campbell discusses the six reasons for the population “Perfect Storm” facing all life on this planet, especially humans causing it.

  1. While birth rates fall, the sheer number of humans causes growth, due to ‘population momentum’.  Right now that momentum adds about 1 billion people every 12-13 years.
  2. Overconsumption of water, resources, animal life, arable land and resource exhaustion accelerate with the population momentum.
  3. Anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks have intentionally reduced attention to population growth.
  4. Many folks think that disease like AIDS have stopped population growth. Not so!
  5. Even after the Cairo population conference and the Rio debates, there is still not enough financing of family planning programs on a global level. Cultural and religious practices still dominate women in too many places.
  6. The dominant “endless growth” paradigms of countries like Canada, America, Australia and even Europe—maintain a death grip on any discussion of overpopulation.
"Garbage Family"  Despite China's rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country's wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items.  In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) -- is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife?  Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

“Garbage Family” Despite China’s rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country’s wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items. In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) — is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife? Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

Campbell said, “Use of family planning prevents death from unintended pregnancies and from induced abortions. Children from smaller families are more likely to enter and stay in school.”

This chapter brings home the enormity of the power of cultures and churches and corporations to squash the population discussion. It shows that cultures and beliefs trump and override reason, empirical evidence, common sense and logical action.

Thus, 10 million children and 8 million adults die of starvation and starvation related conditions every year around the globe. Another 18 million stand in the doorway of death in 2013. All life on the brink?  If we do nothing about overpopulation, iit’s only a matter of time.

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents—from the Arctic to the South Pole—as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it” at <www.frostywooldridge.com>.  His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715.

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Filed under Consumption, Environment, Family Planning, Growth, Human Rights, Population, Sustainability, Wildlife, Women's Rights