Michael Brune

Michael Brune has been executive director of the Sierra Club since 2010. During that time, the number of supporters has grown to more than 2 million, and its “Beyond Coal” campaign has been recognized as one of the most effective in environmental history. His book, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal (2010), details a plan for a new green economy that will create well-paying jobs, promote environmental justice, and bolster national security.

You might not see the connection between women’s reproductive rights, access to health care, and protecting our environment, but it’s there. Let me explain how my love of nature led me to make that connection.

When I was 13, my family took a road trip through the American West. It was the first time I’d been west of the Mississippi or seen a real mountain. The highlight, though, came in Arizona. I awoke in the back seat of our station wagon and walked to the rim of the Grand Canyon. I’d never seen anything like it, and I was blown away. The next day, we hiked to the bottom and my life was changed. Thus began my infatuation with the natural world — with love at first sight.

Whatever lofty environmental goals we have for the planet, we will find it impossible to achieve them unless many more millions of families have the tools they need to plan their lives — better, healthier, more productive lives.

As so often, though, youthful passion by itself wasn’t enough to build a long-term relationship. For that, you have to work a little harder. Around the same time, back home on the New Jersey Shore, I and many others were furious when beaches had to be closed because toxic chemicals and hospital waste, including hypodermic needles, were washing ashore — and giving swimmers like me a nasty rash.

So I signed a petition and got involved. I saw the power of community activists who organized their neighbors into a movement, demanded meetings, wrote letters, and pressured local decision makers. And it worked: The chemical factory was closed and hospital dumping was banned. That was my second big ah-hah moment. There’s more to loving nature than simply admiring or enjoying it. Love brings responsibility, too. Any relationship — including the one we have with the natural world — is more complicated than a child can comprehend. But as we grow to understand and accept these complications, our relationships become much richer.

Just wanting beautiful beaches and national parks, I realized, was not enough. If I truly loved these things, then I needed to learn everything I could about the factors affecting them (which turned out to be factors that affect environmental conditions everywhere). That was and is a tall order, and I’m a still a long way from achieving anything like the kind of knowledge I want. But that big-picture environmental thinking is what eventually led me to appreciate the central and crucial role that family planning and women’s reproductive health care play in environmental conservation.

Here are two key things I learned: Human population is still growing at unsustainable rates in the developing world, and 222 million women who want access to voluntary family planning and contraceptives still cannot get them. Given the global environmental stresses we face around the world because of climate disruption, those two facts are alarming enough. But here’s a compelling correlation: The places where environmental degradation is the worst are also the places where women’s rights and opportunities are most compromised.

And what happens when we take away those limitations? Societies that value women make it possible for them to stay in school and have access to basic and reproductive health care. As children, these women will learn how to responsibly manage crops, heat the home, and use water — skills they and their families will depend on. They also will learn to care for their own changing bodies and make choices about their reproductive destiny. Each additional year of education means they will earn more, take more interest in public life, and become more engaged in solving the problems facing their communities — including water pollution, toxic industrial waste, and the degradation of their land.

Whatever lofty environmental goals we have for the planet, we will find it impossible to achieve them unless many more millions of families have the tools they need to plan their lives — better, healthier, more productive lives.

That’s why, as executive director of the Sierra Club, I am proud of our work to connect women’s health and rights to the environment and sustainable development. Our Global Population and Environment Program has been working for more than 40 years to ensure that women have access to voluntary family planning, and the benefits for individuals, communities, and the planet have been far-reaching. Our staff and volunteers collaborate with local, national, and international groups such as Planned Parenthood, Population Action International, and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project. We all love this planet, and we all want to make it better. So working together not only makes sense — it’s essential.

I have two beautiful little girls, and every day I think about their future and what opportunities they will have. I want policymakers in every country to do the same for all the little girls of the world. That demands an appreciation not just for the world’s natural beauty but also for the deeper beauty of the complicated web of life that makes it possible.

I am not naïve. I know there will still be plenty of disagreement about how to achieve the best for our children and our planet. But I believe most people can recognize that family planning, public health, and environmental conditions are deeply intertwined. Despite forces that may polarize us, we can still come together to take action if we remember one important thing we all share — the drive to leave behind a better world for our children and their children.