04/24/2013 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Holy Holocene, It's the Anthropocene

The current geologic epoch, which began with the end of the last Ice Age, has long been called the Holocene, but a growing number of scientists want to rename it the Anthropocene (i.e. "the Age of Man") in recognition of the enormous impact that humanity now has on the planet's ecology.

I'm in favor of that change, so long as it is referred to as the "Age of Man," rather than the "Age of Women." While women cannot be entirely exonerated for climate change, the growing acidification of the oceans, deforestation, and other environmental problems, men have to shoulder most of the blame for what we are doing to the planet.

Indeed, if we want to save the planet, we would do well to put more women in charge. If women had their way, we would be better stewards of the Earth. Polls have long indicated that women in this country have a better handle on the science of climate change and are more inclined to support efforts aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Mothers, it appears, have a greater affinity for Mother Earth than fathers.

While a growing number of scientists favor adopting the term Anthropocene, there is a split of opinion as to when the "Age of Man" actually began. When the termed Anthropocene was first coined more than a decade ago, scientists were suggesting that humanity's disproportionate impact on the planet began with the Industrial Revolution and the attendant increase in fossil fuel consumption. In recent years, however, a growing number of scientists are suggesting that the Anthropocene dates back ten thousand years to the advent of agriculture and the corresponding increase in human population. The expansion of agriculture and human numbers, they argue, led to widespread deforestation long before we started burning coal to fuel our industrial plants.

The ongoing debate over the "Age of Man" is a healthy one, but I am more concerned about what we are actually doing to mitigate and cope with the Anthropocene. And, here again, I come back to the importance of empowering women.

World population is still growing. Every 12 to 13 years we are adding another billion people to the planet, and most of the growth is occurring in the least developed countries. Unless more is done to curb the consumption of fossil fuels and the depletion of scarce resources by the advanced and emerging economies, that population growth may prove to be unsustainable.

Food security is the greatest concern. Over the past eight years we have seen a dramatic increase in the prices of basic food commodities like wheat, corn, rice and cooking oils. Population growth and changing diets are dramatically increasing the demand for food, while climate change, water scarcity, shortages of arable land, loss of topsoil, and the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel are increasing the cost of food production. Making matters even more precarious, an increasing percentage of the world's poor -- those earning less than $2 a day -- are moving off the farms and into cities and towns where they will have to cope with high food prices.

Some of the world poorest and most food-dependent countries are on pace to double or even triple their population over the next half century. In many of these countries child marriage is still prevalent and the status of women is abysmally low. Girls and women are routinely denied their reproductive rights. They have little or no say in determining how many children they will have or when they will have them.

A recent study by scientist Paul Ehrlich and economist Partha Dasgupta looked at fertility rates in developing countries and reported that many nations are caught in a demographic trap that could have disastrous consequences. Gender inequality, child marriage, and deep-rooted cultural traditions are fostering unsustainable population growth. Unless more is done to educate girls, empower women, and increase access to modern methods of contraception, birth rates may not fall as fast as currently projected in these countries. If so, hopes of improving food security and eliminating severe poverty will soon fade.

In terms of mitigating humanity's impact on the planet, it is far more important to reduce unintended pregnancies in developed nations than in developing countries, but in terms of adapting to climate change, reducing local environmental impacts, eliminating severe poverty and enhancing food security, improving the status of girls and women in the development world is crucial.

We may be living in the "Age of Man," but the key to surviving it is investing more resources in women and their reproductive rights.