Today is International Women’s Day, a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all across the globe. Since its inception, Planet Experts has had the honor of speaking with many of the inspiring women who are fighting for environmental justice. Each of them is working to improve humans’ relationship to the planet – from the depths of its oceans to the wide spectrum of its wildlife – as well as our relationships with each other, in the form of political equality, maternal health and product responsibility.
These five trailblazing women have made it their life’s work to leave the planet better than they found it. They are:
1) Dr. Sylvia Earle, Former Chief Scientist of NOAA
It’s impossible to overstate Dr. Sylvia Earle’s contributions to the field of ocean research. The former Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr. Earle is the founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Mission Blue, the Chair of the Advisory Council of the Harte Institute, leader of the NGS Sustainable Seas Expeditions and is a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. She’s led 100 expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater; has authored more than 200 scientific, technical and popular publications, including 13 books; and has become the de facto spokesperson for three-quarters of planet Earth (that would be the big blue part).
“We know what to do,” she said. “We must find alternatives to the burning of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels have gotten us to the point where we have transportation that is unprecedented, we have food that is unprecedented, we have communications that are unprecedented. But the greatest gift that we have from these assets is the knowledge that we have to change.”
2) May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org
As the Executive Director of 350.org, an international climate change campaign, May Boeve is one of the leading figures in the movement to eliminate fossil fuels from the planet’s energy portfolio. Boeve’s organization is fighting to bring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (which hit 400 parts per million in 2014, an unprecedented maximum in human history) down to a level low enough to reduce dangerous global warming.
In a recent interview with Planet Experts, Boeve said that 2015 was a significant year for climate action. However, despite ending in a major international pledge to curb carbon emissions, the fight is far from over.
“Ideally, it would have happened 15 or 20 years ago when we first learned about this problem,” she said. “So there’s no question that the pace of change has increased, but it has to actually get even faster.”
Boeve has also been very frank about the “structural sexism problem” in environmental groups, which she is drawing attention to in an effort to increase the female leadership of the green movement. “There is actually so much activity and participation among women in environmental issues,” she said. “But I think we would see more of it if more women saw environmentalism as an issue and a movement where they’re welcome and their leadership in particular is welcome.”
There are countless women leaders in the movement, said Boeve, but mainly among grassroots groups and not in the larger institutions. “There is awareness of it,” she said, “but I think these kinds of shifts are unfortunately slow to change.”
3) Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, CEO of Earth Friendly Products
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks is the CEO of Earth Friendly Products, a company that makes exactly what its name implies: Household products that aren’t loaded with chemicals that are hazardous to you and your family’s health. In addition to using natural ingredients in all its products, EFP’s facilities run on 100 percent renewable energy. In 2013, it became one of the first carbon neutral manufacturers in the United States. The company is also at the forefront of employee appreciation, raising its minimum wage to $17 per hour on Earth Day 2014.
Despite overseeing all of these shifts in her company (and quadrupling EFP sales over the last decade), Ms. Vlahakis-Hanks still credits her staff before herself.
“I have a great team,” she told Planet Experts last year, “and I think women oftentimes are really good at gathering and motivating their team to action, and really harnessing the power that each member brings to the equation. You can’t do these things alone. I feel very proud to be the leader, but I’m also really glad with the selection of people that are in my top camp. There are so many really talented women that lead alongside me. It’s a privilege.”
4) Dr. Laura Stachel, Co-founder of We Care Solar
In Nigeria, the health prospects of expecting mothers is extremely poor. The maternal morality ratio (MMR) can reach as high as 3,200 deaths, and the country accounts for 14 percent of all maternal deaths on the planet. These statistics became horrifyingly real for Dr. Laura Stachel, a board-certified obstetrician, when she visited Nigeria in 2008.
One of the key factors in the country’s high MMR is the lack of reliable electricity in its medical facilities. “I cannot do life-saving maneuvers if I can’t even see patients,” she told Planet Experts. “To be in an operating room when the lights go out, that was the scariest thing in the world to me, realizing that a body is open and there is no light to see what there is to do next. If I hadn’t had my flashlight, I don’t know how they would have finished the surgery.”
That’s why Dr. Stachel and her husband, a solar engineer, created the Solar Suitcase, a portable solar system that provides 14 amp-hours of medical-grade light, as well as a phone and battery charger and handheld ultrasound. With her organization, We Care Solar, Dr. Stachel is bringing Solar Suitcases to hundreds of health centers across West and East Africa.
“We’re trying now to light up entire regions,” said Stachel. “We would like to do country-wide initiatives, so women no longer have to bring a candle with them when they’re going into a health center.”
5) Dr. Jane Goodall, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute
How many primatologists can you name off the top of your head? If Dr. Jane Goodall isn’t the only one, she’s likely the very first on your list. Since 1960, Dr. Goodall has broken down barriers between humans and chimpanzees, expanding our knowledge of our closest and most endangered relatives. Through her Institute, Dr. Goodall has broadened her contribution to primate research by spearheading community conservation programs in Africa, including sustainable development projects, and supported youth programs in more than 130 countries.
I recently spoke to Dr. Lillian Pintea, Vice President of Conservation Science at the Jane Goodall Institute, and asked him what working with Dr. Goodall is like.
“Jane is speaking not only for the chimps but for all living things and increasingly lately about what’s happening to elephants and rhinos,” said Dr. Pintea. “I would also say that Jane is incredibly relevant in opening the doors to a variety of partners who are inspired. Basically, Jane inspires all of us to do the right thing, in terms of conservation.
“Often, you know, we have debates focused on charts or data… I’ve seen her so often being in meetings where people get so overworked over this technicality or that strategy or plan, and having Jane in the room to help all of us put this in perspective, and zoom out of our individual rooms and projects and think about humanity and what we’re doing on Earth, and then linking it back to our individual actions, has been extremely useful and powerful.”