By Carol Pierson Holding
In May, the Society for Women Geographers (SWG) held its Triennial conference in Boulder. Formed in 1925 after the Explorer's Club refused to admit women, SWG originally required all members to be American female geographers or explorers whose discoveries had been published. Members included world-changers from Amelia Earhart to Jane Goodall, Margaret Mead, Mary Leakey and Helen Thayer.
As the organization grew, it expanded to include women outside the U.S. and added more fields of study, including anthropologists, geologists, journalists, biologists, archaeologists, oceanographers, geographers, diplomats, ecologists and at least one economist that I know of – a fellow alum from Smith College, Alice LeBlanc.
Regardless of age or discipline, SWG members are intrepid.
Being a corporate economist, Alice is unique among SWG’s membership. But it’s in the very act of expanding its group that SWG is making itself even more vital, relevant and able to attract young members.
This year, SWG’s triennial conference linked its concerns to the biggest issues of our day, and themed its conference “Local and Global Sustainability.” Alice was asked to give the opening keynote overview. Alice is an environmental economist, formerly with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Chicago Climate Exchange, and most recently Director of AIG's Office of the Environment and Climate Change. A powerful advocate for addressing climate change, she has spoken all over the world.
Alice has spent her career looking at climate change issues and asking the question, how do we find market-based solutions to environmental problems? But to open this conference, she focused not on solutions, but on the severity of environmental problems. Her slides were terrifying: Hockey stick shaped graphs showed exponential growth in population, energy demands, emissions, and CO2 concentrations. Charts detailed declines in forests, fresh water, and oceans. Entire ecosystems damaged and biodiversity itself at risk.
Most frightening was Alice’s statement that we might be in the 6th great extinction (the dinosaurs were the 5th).
But Alice’s grim overview ended on a positive note: awareness of our plight is growing, so we're one step closer to attitude shifts and changed behaviors. And there are substantial efforts to improve the situation at the local and regional level. She ended her talk with the question, “Can governments and citizens implement sustainability?”
This is just what sustainability experts like Alice should be doing: Venturing outside the UN conferences and Sustainable Future meetings to challenge new audiences. And what a perfect audience for this message – many are already activists in their fields who might easily help with local efforts, where most successes are happening.
For example, 2011 SWG Gold Medal winner Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist, is best known for diving into the Gulf of Mexico oil slick last year. Founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine and Gulf EcoTox, Susan also serves on the U.S. Department of Interior's team of 14 scientists charged with developing an assessment of the oil spill and recommending policy actions.
WSG members are influential in multiple circles and well connected through their roles in science, government and activism. Most of all, they are cross-sector organizers. Alice’s message will surely energize this amazing well of knowledge and leadership. Stay tuned.
Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.