How many people can reasonably live on the earth is perhaps the most urgent question of our time. But the relationship between overcrowding, degradation of the environment, and consumption of resources has proved complex. The prevailing notion used to be that if the industrialized nations provided poorer countries with development aid and birth control services, birthrates would drop. Now that idea seems both high-handed and inadequate, an imposition of Western values on countries whose inhabitants consume far less than us anyway.

So how do we address this pressing problem? The most radical solution may be to reframe the question. A consensus is emerging that rather than asking what we can do to make women have fewer babies, we need to ask what we can do to improve women’s lives, how we can give everyone an equal stake in the planet’s future. This newfound attention to the status of women is exciting–but it will be short-lived if it is perceived as failing to address the underlying population concern.

To defuse that danger, we must comprehend the problem broadly–it is about long-term sustainability for us all. And to understand women’s role in the solution, we must first listen to their stories, which are complex, often even contradictory.

Mother Jones launched the following project, “In Her Hands,” in collaboration with project directors Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. They sent a team of photographers and interviewers around the globe to talk with women about their lives and their hopes for their children; we excerpt the interviews here. The complete project will be published by Sierra Club Books next fall.

  • WOMEN’S WORK by Vivienne Walt With their new credibility, can global women leaders bring grassroots change?
  • NINE LIVES: PORTRAITS OF WOMEN Photos and interviews with women on their work, their families, and their hopes.
  • WHAT IT WILL TAKE by Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Gretchen C. Daily Improving women’s lives–a starting point for population control–is good for all.

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