Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Empowering Women, Global Warming, and Markets

In a very thoughtful series of posts Lisa Hymas presents her case for being child-free and highlights the effects on the environment of the availability of contraception to women with the following arithmetic:
Each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a metric ton, while achieving that same reduction with the leading low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32.
These numbers tell us that in the fight against global warming, making contraception available to women can be important step. But Hymas also writes that many women already demand, but do not have access to such technology. This may be an important reason, and it seems like there is some work being done to provide free condoms and educate women about contraception. However, I'm not sure I'm convinced that this is a whole story. If there were indeed a market for contraception, since contraception is perfectly legal in so many countries, someone would have sold it and made a profit.

I suspect that the real reason for the slow uptake of contraception is a lack of information in the marketplace for women. Two things come to mind: first, women may not know about the opportunities available to them should they choose to stop having children and work, and second: there are very few role-models for that life of the woman who, amongst other things, uses contraception and goes to work. In an excellent study on the effects of cable television on the status of women in India, Oster and Jensen show that as women in rural India gained access to cable television they stopped to have as many babies, sent their children to school, and became more independent in making decisions about their health (more accessible version here). As rural women saw on television how women in urban settings drive cars, have jobs, and send their children to school, they start to engage in the same activities. Maybe we don't even need campaigns to distribute condoms; if only we can persuade cable providers to connect a few more villages, we'll have done a lot of good.

But we can also see that this isn't a result that we expected from the introduction of television. The government of India spent millions of dollars trying to stop women from having children. Then some cable-wallah decided that he could make money by adding one more village to his network, a villager decided to buy access to cable-television, and his wife stopped having as many children. This wasn't what any of the participants in these activities intended or expected. A wave of modernity triggered by access to the globalized world unintentionally changed the outcome for the better. And this isn't the only case where access to modernity has propelled social change for the better. Consider this excerpt from The Economist on how the sex-ratio in South Korea stabilized in the 1990s
In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.
The influence of modernity had a profound impact on attitudes towards son-preference in South Korea in the 1990s, just as it is empowering women in India today.

This may raise difficult questions for some environmentalists who associate much of modernity with plastic, waste, and pollution. Televisions, when being disposed may be hazardous. Television commercials are full of advertisements for goods made out of plastic and other environmentally toxic material, and viewers will buy that stuff. But we'll have to trust the rationality of these consumers so that when they learn about dangers of plastic, they will decided to use it carefully, just as they decided, after learning that women could lead lives that weren't completely about bearing and raising children and being homemakers, to empower themselves. Markets often work just fine when participants have good information about the decisions that they are making. In this case, consumers can be made aware of issues relating to global warming over television or by NGOs on the ground. But we must realize that while empowered women may well stop global warming, we should think harder about how effective our traditional means of empowering them are, and be less confident about what route they'll take to save the world.

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