Population People

Posted December 1997

Gender and Sustainability: Re-assessing Linkages and Issues

by George Martine
FAO Advisor on Population, Development and Environment
UNFPA Country Support Team for Latin America and the Caribbean
Santiago, Chile
and Marcela Villarreal
Senior Population Officer, Sociocultural Research
FAO Women and Population Division
The information and viewpoints presented here are the sole responsibility of the authors. This document is presented here in three separate files. It is also available as a single document (83K)

Presentation [1]

This paper deals with the relationship between gender and sustainability. For present purposes, sustainability is defined as the ability of humankind to live within the limitations of the physical environment, now and indefinitely into the future [2]. The main question asked here is - how, and in what ways, do gender relations impact on sustainability?

Several plans of action and conventions aimed at the full, equal and beneficial integration of women in all development activities, as well as at the elimination of gender discrimination, have been adopted by the international community in recent years. It is widely considered, by international development agencies, by women's movements, and by the specialized literature, that effective implementation of these plans and conventions will be of major significance in improving gender relations. In turn, it is argued that the empowerment of women will greatly improve the effectiveness of sustainable development strategies.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a hiatus between the nature of critical environmental problems which confront humankind and the potential impacts of improved gender relations. This paper argues that:

The paper begins with a discussion of the different types of environmental problems facing humankind and their main determinants; the dominant development trends in the current end-of-century scenario, and their probable implications for sustainability are briefly discussed within this framework. The central section of the paper examines the part played by gender relations in the aggravation or alleviation of different types of environmental problems. In this context, several interconnected topics are broached: the evolution in women's movements and in the understanding of gender relations; the impact of environmental change on roles of men and women; the role of women as resource managers; the relation of gender, population growth and environment; the impact of empowerment on sustainability; and, the rural/traditional loci of gender/sustainability issues. The final section argues the need for a truly gendered approach to countering critical environmental problems.

1. Levels in the environmental agenda: critical and secondary issues [3]

There are a great variety of environmental problems which constitute threats of widely-differentiated significance to the survival of humankind on planet Earth. A basic weakness of the dominant literature is its tendency to lump all environmental problems into the same undifferentiated category, without attempting to discriminate serious and generalized problems from minor and localized ones, or short-term issues from long-term threats. This failure makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge the significance or the real contribution of different factors or social actors to environmental degradation, or to the improvement of environmental conditions.

The main contention of this section is that in order to establish how, when, and in what ways gender issues have an influence on sustainability, it is necessary to differentiate between types and levels of environmental problems. More specifically, the influence of gender issues on environmental problems has to be evaluated in terms of the latter's degree of intensity, gravity and reversibility. In order to illustrate the importance of such a distinction, a simple dichotomous classification can be made. One side lists critical and universal environmental problems; the other catalogues secondary and localized or temporary problems. An attempt is then made to identify how gender issues affect each of these sets of problems.

For present purposes, critical/universal environmental problems can be defined as those which adversely affect humankind's very ability to survive comfortably on Planet Earth and which can be expected to pervade, sooner or later, all (or the majority) of the planet's inhabited sub-regions, given current trends. In addition, there is no known antidote or technology which can safely and economically counteract the effect of the problems described here as critical/universal in the foreseeable future.

By contrast, secondary environmental problems are those which either do not endanger humankind's very survival or threaten only a limited temporal or spatial segment of it. This category also includes problems which could eventually threaten all or a majority of the world's population if left unchecked, but for which political and/or technological solutions already exist or are in the offing.

There is evidently no generalized consensus as to the exact order or contents of environmental problems affecting humankind. Nevertheless, it can be suggested that the great majority of scientists would acknowledge that the more critical problems endangering humankind's survival on planet Earth include, at least, the following: the depletion of the ozone layer, global climate changes, the accumulation of toxic chemical or radioactive wastes coupled with the exhaustion of sinks, the human over-appropriation of biomass, and the loss of biodiversity.

Secondary problems, by comparison, include a wide variety of environmental crises of variable gravity, durability, extension and reversibility. They are variously caused by the use of inappropriate technologies, maladministration of natural resources, population growth, consumption patterns, poverty or, more likely, a combination of these factors. However, they are less acute and/or are restricted to a given part of the Earth's surface. Moreover, they are subject to reversion, correction or prevention through development, political will, increased investment by the public or private sectors and/or foreseeable technological breakthroughs.

This latter category would include such problems as individual instances of nuclear accidents and other specific forms of radioactive contamination, acid rain, air and water pollution, desertification and other forms of land degradation, depletion of natural resources, and floods, inter alia. Each of these is undoubtedly serious in and of itself. Moreover, several of these may also contribute to the formation of global problems in the long run; however, their spatial or temporal restriction, as well as their susceptibility to control and reversion, place them in a less critical class - at least for the present.

Types and levels of environmental problems
Critical/ global Localized / secondary
Depletion of the ozone layer

Global climate changes

Accumulation of toxic chemical or radioactive wastes coupled with the exhaustion of sinks

Human overappropriation of biomass

Loss of biodiversity

Acid rain

Air and water pollution

Desertification and other forms of land degradation

Depletion of natural resources


Individual instances of nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination


Such a taxonomy helps us to clarify the role which gender issues play in environmental problems. Given the dimensions of energy consumption and of non-renewable resources, of the emission of carbon dioxide, CFCs as well as other gases, and of the production of toxic wastes in developed countries, it is correct to assert that, at the present time, at least three of the five critical/global problems - depletion of the ozone layer, climate changes and the accumulation of non-disposable toxic and industrial wastes - stem largely from industrial civilization as practiced by the developed countries (and, increasingly, though not nearly as importantly at this time, by industrializing countries). The over-appropriation of human biomass is probably divided fairly evenly between developed and developing areas. Hence, only the loss of biodiversity is clearly associated with under-development [4].

By contrast, secondary/local/temporary problems are found, though in varying manners and proportions, in both developing and developed countries. Some of these (e.g. nuclear contamination, acid rain) are more characteristically found in developed regions whereas deforestation, erosion and desertification are more common in poor countries. Still others, such as depletion of natural resources and floods, are found in both, although often linked to different causes.

The main point to be retained here is that most of the critical/global problems listed above presently derive from the production and consumption patterns associated with industrialization; hence, they are largely attributable to "development" in high-income countries and, to a much lesser but growing extent, to economic growth efforts of the less-developed world. The environmental problems of poor rural countries are grave and deplorable yet, by themselves, do not threaten humankind's survival on the planet.

In the context of the present paper, it is of considerable interest to note that the type of environmental issues which have been associated with women, either as victims or as effective resource managers, are mostly of a secondary and local nature. That is, the environmental impacts that increase the burdens of women, or that have negative health consequences for women are NOT the result of degradation which is irreversible or, per se, likely to threaten humankind as a whole. Deforestation, land degradation and desertification - which are generally stressed as affecting women and yet are amenable to being improved by women's action - are all serious environmental problems yet, with political will and financial resources, they could be arrested and/or reversed. Moreover, it is of considerable significance that those countries which have achieved the greatest reduction in their gender gaps (the industrialized or developed countries) are currently responsible for the major forms of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

In short, since development as we know it today is the major threat to the environment, efforts to understand how gender relations affect environmental outcomes inevitably require examination of where development itself is going. In turn, this brings up the question - what is the framework within which economic growth efforts are taking place now and in the foreseeable future?

2. The current development model and its environmental implications

Every country hopes to improve the quality of life of its citizens through "development". The view of development which dominates such efforts worldwide, as we reach the 21st century, is market-based economic growth. Deregulation, structural adjustment, reduced government intervention, heightened trade and increased competitiveness - which together conform "the miracle of the markets" - are the crux of the development formula in the foreseeable future.

The greater or lesser acceptance of this formula by a growing number of the world's countries is allowing capital to seek the most favorable conditions for investment and production anywhere in the world. The resulting free flow of resources for purposes of increasing profit and productivity is the essence of ongoing economic globalization. What impacts will the globalization of economic activities have?

The consequences of ongoing reforms are, in many countries, clearly favorable for economic growth. On a world scale, significant boosts in production and consumption can thus be expected. Nevertheless, such growth will not be equally spread. Breaking down trade barriers will not generate a level playing field. The overwhelming thrust of the prevalent growth model, based on the "miracle of the markets", favors neither equity nor redistribution. In fact, it tends to promote concentration, both between and within countries. Historically-accumulated advantages - in the areas of financial or human resources, entrepreneurial savoir-faire, technological know-how, and, to a lesser extent, the availability of natural resources - will not only continue to prevail, but will also tend to increase in the context of globalized competition. Technological developments in leading countries can make the production of other countries obsolete or unnecessary.

For our purposes, the main issue is that the prospects for environmental outcomes vary by level and type of development. In rich developed countries, environmental degradation can conceivably be controlled in the foreseeable future. There, a combination of heightened environmental awareness, political commitment, technological development, low population growth and changes in the economic base from industry to services (with migration of polluting activities and dumping of toxic wastes not to be overlooked) can stabilize or even reduce environmental degradation of different sorts. The key issue which will ultimately determine environmental well-being there is the level and intensity of environmental commitment and the tradeoff with economic growth concerns.

The situation differs in newly-industrialized countries and others which have realistic perspectives for economic growth in the foreseeable future. There, development will, in all probability, be associated with escalating degradation - much of which will likely contribute significantly to global/critical environmental problems. Developing countries often prolong the life of obsolete and inefficient equipment. At the same time, the intensification of consumption - of refrigerators, automobiles and other environmentally-unfriendly industrialized goods - is an essential cog in the model of growth which is being universally adopted. Moreover, in newly-industrialized countries, environmental concerns tend to pale on an everyday basis, in comparison with the imperious need for economic growth. Therein, sacrificing a "little" environmental degradation and resource depletion right now does not appear to be a large price to pay for economic growth which will improve the plight of immense populations. At the same time, the relative lack of competitive technological advances or of other comparative advantages may impel them to exploit natural resources and to pollute more in order to bridge the competitive gap.

Finally, a number of "poor and deprived countries" have a potential role in the global environmental picture which belies their reduced size and lack of economic weight. Poor countries with scant prospects for economic competition or growth in the standard mode will be tempted to use their lack of environmental awareness as a proxy for comparative advantages. Environmental considerations and precautions in such countries tend to be perceived as superfluous by comparison to the urgency of survival. Concern with pollution and degradation is largely seen as a prerogative of the rich.

Given the economic interest of firms from industrialized countries to externalize the costs of environmental quality by migrating to other countries or by dumping their solid and toxic wastes there, globalization can constitute a main obstacle to both the development of environmental technology and to the adoption of effective environmental control on a world-wide scale. Institutional fragility, as well as absence of environmental information and awareness, increases the probability that poor countries will accommodate polluting activities or toxic dumping, and/or overlook the deleterious health effects of certain types of economic activity.

The bottom line is that future environmental outcomes depend fundamentally on the manner in which economic growth is pursued and the extent to which it is attained during coming years. Without question, the overwhelming economic force in the end-of-century scenario is liberalization of trade and the consequent globalization of economic activity. It is spreading new forms of economic activity and resource exploitation to most parts of the world. In the process, traditional patterns of production and interaction with the natural atmosphere are being disrupted at an accelerated pace. Whether the intersection between private economic interests and the intense quest for growth by individual countries will somehow result in improved environmental conditions is a matter for speculation which transcends the limits of this paper.

For present purposes, two points need to be emphasized. First, that the evolution of critical/global environmental problems will depend on how the development process unfolds. Second, that the discussion of how gender relations affect critical environmental outcomes has to be framed within the context of the dominant processes of economic globalization.


1. An earlier and more elaborate version of this paper served as background document for the United Nations Workshop on Women, Population and Sustainability, held in Santo Domingo from November 18-22,1996. The authors wish to thank the participants in this Workshop who, along with Jacques du Guerny, Alain Marcoux, Belkys Mones, Virginia Ofusu-Amaah and Rodrigo Vera provided helpful comments.

2. We prefer to focus on sustainability as defined here rather than on "sustainable development" which is used in a wide variety of ways. Some of the definitions do not even consider the physical environment, referring to social or political aspirations such as equity, governance, justice, etc.. The aspiration to "broad-based sustainable development" (cf. Weaver, Rock and Kusterer 1996) is shared by the authors of this paper but it would be impractical to deal with all of these elements here.

3. This and the following section draw heavily on Martine, (1995 and 1996).

4. This occurs because only the Southern Hemisphere has any biodiversity left to speak of. Even then, efforts at modern agricultural growth through the adoption of Green Revolution technology in various countries of the Southern Hemisphere are probably much more instrumental than population growth or poverty in total biodiversity loss.

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