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June 14, 2013

Not Just Another Father’s Day

CommitteeRon Weisen (third from left) and other members of the National Volunteer Committee for the Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Program stand with Kim Lovell (sixth from left), the program's director.

By Ron Weisen, National Volunteer Committee Chair, Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Program

This is my last Father’s Day as just a father.

My daughter is expecting her first child, and by next year, I’ll be Grandpa, too. It’s one of those moments that makes you take stock, think about the future. Think about what really matters.

Right now, I’m thinking about what kind of world we’re leaving my daughter, and her child. My daughter grew up blessed, as did I, to live in a country where we have access to clean water, health care, education. A country where more and more women are empowered to make their own choices about when to become parents, knowing that they’ll be able to raise healthy, happy children.

Not all women are so lucky. Several years ago, as part of my volunteer work with the Sierra Club, I visited a small village in Madagascar. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. The entire village turned out to meet us – men gathered under one tree, women sitting under another, as eager as we were to make new friends.

We were there to see a success story: the village had recently gained access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including family planning. But I learned that in this village with no electricity or running water, women walked miles each day to gather water from a dirty, fouled puddle, and miles more to pick up the family planning materials we were there to celebrate.

That village is one of thousands around the globe where women can’t take simple rights like clean water or family planning for granted. More than 220 million women around the world have unmet needs for modern family planning. That’s 220 million women who aren’t empowered to make the choice my daughter has, to have a child when she’s ready, and not before. And these aren’t just problems facing people on the other side of the planet. Nearly half the pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended, with implications for the health of both mother and child.

As parents, we all want healthy kids who grow up in healthy, safe communities. But we can’t have healthy communities without a healthy environment – without clean air, healthy forests, abundant fish and wildlife, we cannot have healthy cities and towns. In that village in Madagascar, the rates of dysentery were horrific, yet completely unsurprising after I saw their only source of drinking water: dark, muddy, and contaminated with cow manure.

Sometimes the links are that clear; sometimes you have to look harder. I have a “web of life” philosophy – I believe everything is connected. But those connections are increasingly strained. Increasing numbers of plants and animals are vanishing each year, permanently eliminating their unique contributions to that web. Given the vast acres of forests we’re cutting down each year, the rapid loss of natural habitats, the rising temperatures and seas of climate change, that rate of loss will continue to rise. How long before our own species is threatened?

My unborn grandchild’s future depends on the decisions we make now. We can choose to safeguard the natural treasures of our planet for this and future generations. We can choose to create a more sustainable world, one where empowered women like my daughter have children at the time that’s right for them. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last year during her speech at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, “to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights. Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children.”

Or we can choose to ignore the threats to ourselves and our planet, and hope someone else takes care of the problem.

Someday, I’d like to be able to tell my grandchild we made the right choice.

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