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A Big Answer to the Planet's Peril: It's All About the Girl

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Through the din of Copenhagen, and beneath the glitz of Christmas and the tinny horns of the New Year, there is a small voice speaking of hope and truth, in a tiny video playing tirelessly on YouTube. In a parched voice, over the images of so many wind-strewn faces, a girl speaks:

I dare you to look at me
and see only a statistic.
Someone you'll never meet --

a tragedy, a commodity

A child bride.

I dare you to look at me
Without pity, fatigue, dismissal.

I dare you to look at me
as more than a poster for your cause
A promise you won't keep.

I dare you to rethink
what it means to look at a girl --
Not a burden, not an object

But the answer.

How audacious, this claim written by Jessica Vacek for the Nike Foundation's campaign to empower girls. The girls of the planet are the answer to the most critical dimension of the world's humanitarian crises, with direct effect on the climate crisis. That dimension is galloping human birth rates.

Nike's claims go on:

A girl with 7 years education marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. Her region's HIV rate goes down and malnutrition decreases 43 percent. When 10 percent more girls go to secondary school the country's economy grows three percent. When an educated girl earns an income she reinvests 90% of it in her family, compared to 35 percent for a boy. Yet, over 99 percent of international aid is not directed to her.

To be clear, the people coming to earth through the galloping birthrates do not lead in greenhouse gas emissions as they use the least fossil fuels per person. But they do amplify the crisis by adding to fossil fuel demand as well as by being too politically weak to fight the most polluting methods of fossil fuel extraction near their homes. They have their own direct use and abuse of the earth's resources, and in the end, they are the vulnerable masses who will migrate away from climate-ravaged areas.

And their numbers matter, as Boulder's own Professor Al Bartlett has put it most famously: "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

But we see the math every summer in the humble morning glory. As surely as the rim of the morning glory spreads sumptuously and suddenly beyond its narrow bud, so too population growth can be the sudden multiplier of climate change and the depletion of the earth's bounty.

The problem boils down to girls not knowing what they can do with their lives apart from tending hearth and giving birth, with many family members enforcing that ignorance by preventing them from getting education. Journalist Michelle Goldberg has observed that "conservatives of all religions see women's equality as a threat to established order while in one society after another, we see the absence of women's rights creating existential dangers." Those dangers spill to environment, public health and even political stability, as noted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the seminal work Half the Sky, about the catastrophe felt by females around the globe, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn commend the effects of micro finance, business planning, literacy and health care for women, concluding that uneducated girls are an untapped gold mine of economic potential and political stability.

Colorado having so many forms of wealth including affluence, let's consider charities which empower women. Here are a few of the many:

Based in Louisville, the Colorado Haiti Project supports a center in Haiti's Petit Trou de Nippes with a K-6 school, comprehensive education for reproductive health, and a center teaching women trade and business skills.

Based in Arkansas, a leader in empowering women for 60 years, Heifer International has been giving the gift of livestock to impoverished people. With a focus on gender equality Heifer trains women in sustainable farming, who in turn train others with the gift of their animals' offspring.

No less than the fight against extremism is the aim behind Greg Mortenson's campaign to educate teens, particularly girls, through the Central Asia Institute. Conceived during his outsized mountain adventure described in Three Cups of Tea, the Institute's approach is to develop projects that are community based and initiated through consensus.

At this time of the year and in this point in history, let's refocus when seeing that idealized view of the family, depicted so poignantly in the Christmas nativity scene. Right now, the promise for the earth is not about the wise men, and it's not about the baby. It's about the girl.