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S. Fukai: Women for Sustainable Development

Address to the International Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea - February 9-13, 2014

It is my pleasure to be here to share my ideas about the role of women in the developed countries in changing the course of economic development towards a fair and sustainable future.

These days, everywhere, including Japan, women’s empowerment is a hot topic. That is good. But, empowerment for what? Right now, it is for economic growth as usual.

Unfair and unsustainable global economic system

However, if you take a longer-term view, you will see the current path of economic growth is unsustainable. Environmental degradation and resource depletion have been accelerated. Also, inequality has been expanding,[1] rather than narrowing, both globally and in each nation, while the world economy has grown, led by China, India and other emerging economies.

To take a closer view, you will find that armed conflicts have frequently erupted in the poorer countries, trapped in the vicious-circle of poverty and environmental degradation. The root causes of many brutal conflicts and terrorism lie in this unfair and unsustainable nature of the current global economic system. This system lacks legitimacy.[2] To achieve world peace, it is essential to change this system.

Sustainability on the global political agenda

In 1987, Our Common Future,[3] the epoch-making report of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, reminded us that the earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb pollution are finite (limited). The report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation, without damaging the earth’s ability to meet the needs of future generations.”

The report documented unsustainable features of the current course of the global economy, and called upon world leaders to work together to change the course. The report identified inequality and environmental degradation as the two principal structural problems, and the vicious circle of poverty and environment in poorer countries as the priority issue to tackle.

Following this report, three world summits on sustainability were held.[4]

At these summits, world leaders and citizens have recognized these problems, and agreed upon the need for a fundamental paradigm shift.[5]

Who should take the initiative and pay the costs of change?

At the summits, the leaders of the developed countries have acknowledged that their industrial development and over-consumption are the major causes of environmental and resource issues. Since technological and financial capability reside with industrialized countries, they pledged to take actions and pay the price for restoring ecological balance and social equity.

Despite these pledges, however, both the environment and inequality has been worsening.[6] It is because developed countries’ policies have not fundamentally changed.

Why so little change?

The answer is simple. Developed countries’ leaders are themselves at the apex of entrenched vested interests in the current global economic system. And their citizens are, more or less, benefiting from this system and lack incentives to change the status quo. It is of little surprise that their pledge was no more than a lip service to pacify the angry and frustrated developing countries.

The role of women in the developed countries

However, it is encouraging to see that some sincere efforts and improvement at the grassroots have been made by various non-profit citizen groups, and these actions were often led by women in both developed and developing countries. The Women’s Federation for World Peace is an example.

In my view, women in the developed countries hold a key to directing developed countries’ policy towards sustainable development. The reasons are:

First, women have been disadvantaged in the status quo in most developed countries and are freer from the vested interests. Recent OECD studies show that, with a few exceptions, the gender gap is pervasive in most OECD countries.[7] Women’ values and interests have not been sufficiently reflected in the current developed countries’ policies.

Second, because women usually decide what to buy for the family, women, as consumers, can play a key role in changing the wasteful consumption patterns and life-style, prevailing in the developed countries. This change, in turn, would influence corporate decisions and production patterns to change towards a sustainable direction.

Third, women, as voters, can exert powerful political pressure to promote what may be called female values and interests that are intrinsically supportive of sustainability.

Men and women

We know that there are significant differences between men and women in dispositions, preferences and world views.

There are exceptions, but generally speaking, men tend to be more aggressive and competitive. In comparison, women tend to be more receptive to the views of others and more cooperative.[8]

Another important difference concerns approaches to the world and nature. Men tend to have a mechanistic and instrumental view of the world and nature.[9] Men tend to view the world as if it were a large complex machine that can be dissected into parts, and nature as resources for human exploitation, control and domination. In contrast, women generally value intuition, emotion, tacit knowledge,[10] and have a holistic view of the world as an organic whole, and nature as a nurturing mother.

Both viewpoints are important, but what we need today is a holistic perspective to see the connectedness of various global issues ranging from environmental degradation, poverty and inequality, to terrorism, nuclear proliferation and regional conflicts. All these problems are connected at the roots and threatening our human survival.

This perspective leads us to a critical question for paradigm change: if the biological and social foundations of our existence are destroyed, what value or significance could national interest have? Clearly, priority should be given to address these sustainability issues rather than fighting over short-sighted national interests.[11]


In conclusion, developed countries must change, and women have the potential power to change both their government policies and the wasteful lifestyle. It is essential to promote women’s awareness of the nature of global crisis, and to activate their potential to lead the paradigm shift towards a sustainable world.[12]

[1] The imbalance in the distribution of global wealth is staggering. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. The bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.

[2] Legitimacy is defined in political science as the popular feeling that the government is rightly entitled to exercising the power. It is a key for the citizens to accept as binding the decisions made by the government.The stability and sustainability of a political system depends on: 1) the monopoly of coercive power, or the apparatus of violence: military, police, and tax power; and 2) legitimacy.

[3] It defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation(all the people living today), without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” and reminded us that the earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb pollution are finite (limited). Wiki defines sustainable development as “an organizing principle for human life on a finite planet. It posits a desirable future state for human societies in which living conditions and resource-use meet human needs without undermining the sustainability of natural systems and the environment, so that future generations may also have their needs met.”

[4] In 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (UNCED), in 2002 in Johannesburg (WSSD), and in 2012 again in Rio de Janeiro (UNCED).

[5] Paradigm shift means change in the dominant values and ideas in the society; or assumptions that have been regarded as common sense. It influences our values, beliefs and behavior. Shigeko Fukai, chikyu seijiron 06 (Global Politics): p. 132.

[6] Frustration has fueled social unrest and political instability in many developing and emerging nations. Pope Francis, in his first Apostolic Exhortation (November 2013), criticized unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny" and urged global leaders to "attack the structural causes of inequality." He also criticized the "worship of money" underlying and driving the current global economy. 


[8] Also, because of their nurturing role, women are more sensitive to the threats to peace and prefer peaceful means rather than the use of force in settling disputes. Probably you may have noticed rather conspicuous differences between baby boys and baby girls: when they quarreled, boys take sticks or some other quasi-weapons to fight while girls argue verbally. Also about toys, boys prefer mechanical things like cars and airplanes and toy weapons like guns and tanks, while girls choose dolls and kitchen things. Also, women are more sensitive to environmental changes and have a stronger sense of reverence toward nature.

[9] The mechanistic philosophical worldview of the world was first articulated by early scientists such as Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton during the “Age of Reason,” in 1600’s to 1700’s. John Ikerd, “The ecology of sustainability.”

[10] Tacit knowledge: Unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalized. It was first articulated by Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) in his 1966 book 'The Tacit Dimension.' Also called informal knowledge.

[11] As Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye have noted, national interests are mainly decided by the powerful vested interest groups in each nation and often ignore general public’s interests.

[12] Women’s empowerment must aim at fostering critical thinking so that they will see the structural defects of the current global political-economic system.