In celebration of Women's History Month, this blog will be featuring female innovators who have made incredible impacts for a happier, healthier and more equitable world thorough sustainability, environmental conservation and energy progress.
Born in the small village of Njau in Northern Gambia, Isatou Ceesay and four other Njau women founded a small initiative to educate their village on the importance of recycling to reduce the significant plastic waste that afflicts The Gambia.
Isatou and her small team grew their initiative into a full-blown recycling movement called One Plastic Bag. Using her knowledge from being a volunteer in the Peace Corps, Ceesay taught other women how to upcycle plastic waste into fashionable bags, purses, and rucksacks. With that, the N’jau Recycling and Income Generation Group was born. The movement continues to empower African women, providing many of them the opportunity to make positive environmental impacts while earning an income. One Plastic Bag has greatly improved the plastic waste problem in Ceesay’s community.
The project was recently recognised as an official community-based organisation in the Gambia, now referred to as the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG). Today, Ceesay works with more than 11,000 people and NRIGG is based in four separate communities across The Gambia.
Inspired by the innovation of Isatou and the other Gambian women, author Miranda Paul and illustrator Elizabeth Zunon published a children's book named after the One Plastic Bag movement to share this spirit of environmental stewardship with children across the world.
Read more about One Plastic Bag at OnePlasticBag.com
Purchase the One Plastic Bag children's book at Amazon
Born in 1935 in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, Sylvia Earle was named the very first Hero of the Planet by Time Magazine in 1998. Before this, Sylvia was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and before that, she was the first woman to tread on the ocean floor.
From a young age, Sylvia Earle felt she belonged in the Ocean. Her passion for aquatic ecosystems and wildlife led her to author over 150 publications on deep sea exploration and responsible ocean conservation, while her research and advocacy earned her dozens of awards and honors, including Conservationist of the Year, entry into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and the prestigious Rachel Carson Prize.
Also known as “Her Deepness,” or “The Sturgeon General,” Earle started her journey by obtaining a PhD in phycology (the study of algae) in 1966. A deep diving pioneer, she has tied the overall record for a solo dive depth in 1986 (the first woman to do so), and founded Deep Ocean Engineering, a business that aims to improve the technology of robotic and piloted subsea systems. She was awarded Time Magazine’s first Hero for the Planet designation in 1998, and has held the title of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence since then. As the first woman to serve as Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), she was also the chair of the Advisory Council for the Ocean for Google Earth. An expert on the impact of oil spills, she was a crucial resource in the Exxon Valdez, Mega Borg, and Deepwater Horizon disasters.
One of her greatest contributions to ocean preservation, Mission Blue, included a global coalition of over 200 organizations aims to preserve the world’s marine protected areas, deemed ‘Hope Spots.’ Sylvia Earle recognizes the power of science, and has harnessed it to capture the imaginations of the public.
Climate change is daunting, and it's easy to feel discouraged when considering the uphill battle we have ahead of us. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, believes that optimism and trust are key in taking on the challenges of climate change action.
During her tenure as Executive Secretary, she led the UN Climate Change Secretariat's delivery of six consecutive yearly global negotiation sessions, culminating in the historical Paris Agreement in December 2015. Her engagement and close collaboration with yearly rotating presidencies provided the necessary framework and continuity that allowed every annual negotiation to build incrementally solid ground of common purpose.
In her recent piece for TIME, Christiana Figueres, always the optimist, addresses the importance of a hopeful outlook and strengthening trust. She writes, "..What we have already achieved is remarkable and shows how ingeniously humans can come together to tackle what often seem like insurmountable goals. The current crisis of doubt, of disbelief in ourselves and our capacity to effect change is a dangerous burden that we can no longer afford to drag. Fortunately, the urgency of this moment of history is at last beginning to be met by the agency of disruption. So, as we enter this extraordinary transition, let’s welcome the messiness of change, but improve our accountability and disclosure mechanisms so that we can communicate our achievements and deepen trust in the progress we are making."
Twenty-five percent of petrochemical production in the US - as well as over 150 plants and refineries - can be found in along a short stretch of the Mississippi River. The residents of this region suffer from higher rates of health issues, especially asthma, birth defects, and cancer. For this reason, the 85-mile track of land has become known as "Cancer Alley". In
Born and Raised in the Old Diamond neighborhood of Norco, Louisiana, in the heart of Cancer Alley, Margie Richard and her "Concerned Citizens of Norco" coalition understood better than anyone the long-term effects of the toxic conditions caused by petro production.
Following a devastating Shell pipeline explosion in 1973, Margie dedicated herself to fighting enviornmental racism. In 1988, an industrial accident in Norco resulted in the deaths of 7 people and 159 million pounds of harmful toxins into the air.
Richard fought to hold Shell accountable for causing so many health issues in her community. In 1989 she founded ‘Concerned Citizens of Norco’, which demanded Shell provide the community with resettlement costs. For 13 years, Richard campaigned to seek justice by holding press conferences, collaborating with researchers, and holding workshops to empower her neighbors. In the year 2000, Shell agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% and pay for the relocation of residents who lived on the two streets closest to it. Richard and the ‘Concerned Citizens’ were not satisfied and continued to fight until they secured a $5 million community development fund and funds to relocate all four Old Diamond streets. After securing this, Richard continued to work with Shell to create an initiative that improved the environmental health and safety in Norco. However, Richard did not stop there - she also became an advisor for other communities fighting for justice against corporate pollution, and traveled abroad to speak at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. (Our City Forest)
Women have, for most of our history, been denied access to scientific endeavors. Marie Curie, born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw Poland (1867), did not have access to University education due to her gender.
Did she let that stop her? Hell no! Marie moved to Paris, attended University, met her husband Pierre, and earned her Ph.D.
Marie and Pierre significantly advanced our understanding of radioactivity and radioactive materials. It was Marie who discovered that radioactivity does not depend on the arrangement of atoms into molecules (as was previously believed) but that radioactivity is active within the atoms themselves (atomic heritage)
The deeply bonded duo were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The pair would go on to make groundbreaking discoveries of both radium and polonium.
After Pierre passed in 1906, Marie stepped into his position at the Sarbonne, becoming the first woman in France to achieve professorial rank. Five years later, Marie would go on to achieve her second Novel Prize in Chemistry for isolating pure radium.
Being a pioneer sometimes means facing unknown dangers. This is something Marie would come to learn later in life, as her early years of radiation study culminated in radiation-induced leukemia. She passed in 1934, and in 1995 became the first woman honored on her own merit to rest in the Pantheon, alongside Pierre.
The Lakota tribe, like many Native American tribes, have been brushed aside, traditions tread upon and sacred lands desecrated in the name of progress.
JoAnn Tall, of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota, has protected the Pine Ridge Reservation and the sacred Black Hills of North Dakota from unjust uranium mining, nuclear weapon testing and hazardous landfills.
She began her journey as an environmental warrior by using her Native American owned and operated radio station to raise awareness of the health effects of uranium mining and the plans to use the Black Hills as a Honeywell nuclear testing site.
JoAnn amassed a passionate following and established a camp at the proposed Honeywell site, leading to the abandonment of the testing site.
Reservations regularly receive complex offers for use of their land, but many are not equipped to fully understand the gravity of these proposals. Knowing this, JoAnn co-founded the Native Resource Coalition to educate the Lakota people on the issues of health, land and the environment, equipping them and other tribes to make informed decisions.
In 1993 JoAnn Tall was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Today, she serves as a spiritual guide, an elder, and an educator of environmental protection.
"We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one 'less traveled by'—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth." —Rachel Carson
There was no Earth Day or EPA in 1962 when marine biologist, author, and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Often credited as the book that launched the environmental movement, Spring was the first book to discuss environmental issues. In it, Carson examines the damages the fast-growing use of DDT to control insects had caused to birds, wildlife, and humans.
Even though Carson's book caused an initial stir after its release, it changed the way people thought about the natural world. The year after Silent Spring came out, President Kennedy asked his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson's claims. Carson's work was vindicated and chemical pesticide regulations were immediately strengthened after the investigation. On July 7, 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, which was one of its first tasks to ban the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides.
Carson's foresight and courage to speak out about human activities that destroy the environment and the necessity for us to act responsibly has led to tremendous progress in the environmental movement.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Rose M. Mutiso is a materials engineering specialist. She is the research director of the Energy for Growth Hub and co-founder and executive director of the Mawazo Institute, which supports the next generation of female academics and thought leaders in East Africa.
She is the current Next Einstein Forum Ambassador representing Kenya. Previously, Rose was a Senior Fellow in the Office of International Climate and Clean Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), where she led DOE’s engagement on technology and policy dimensions of energy access in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Prior to this, she served as an Energy and Innovation Policy Fellow in the office of U.S. Senator Christopher A. Coons, where she authored several pieces of legislation that were signed into law by President Barack Obama.
A materials engineer by training, Rose has technical experience in the fields of nanotechnology and polymer physics, including nano-electronics and next-generation energy technologies. She earned her BA and BE in Engineering Sciences with a concentration in Materials Science from Dartmouth College, and her Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.
Rose advocates the need to prioritize Africa's needs with what remains of the global carbon budget. She explains that this is a way to foster growth and equitably achieve a smaller global carbon footprint.
Her dream is for more African women to influence decision-making and public discourse on critical issues such as energy poverty.
Janice Lao - an acclaimed scientist, economist and author - works with companies that she believes can make the world a better place. As a scientist, Janice understands the scientific tendency to present ideas in complex ways and with lots of jargon, but she takes pride in communicating the importance of sustainability in accessible terms so that both companies and individuals can understand and take action.
Throughout her career, she has developed and worked on pioneering sustainability initiatives that have become global industry standards from carbon trading, biodiversity, responsible seafood sourcing, single-use plastics, textiles upcycling, refugee & minority hiring among many others.
Though Lao's parents and teachers urged her to pursue STEM, her peers sometimes questioned her decision. Despite the discouragement, Lao took her confidence and a "fake it 'til you make it" attitude and overcame stereotypes and discrimination. As a result, she learned to stand up for herself, speak out against prejudice, and, of course, let her work speak for itself. Thanks to her perseverence and immense acccomplishment in her field, Janice was featured as one of 25 women in STEM professions featured in the US-published "Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM careers" which aims to encourage other young women to pursue STEM fields.
In 2019, she became the first Asian and the youngest person to win the Edie Sustainability Leader of the Year Award, the Oscars of the international sustainability community. Janice is a graduate of The University of Oxford as a full scholar under the prestigious British Chevening program. Currently, she is also raising awareness on the corrosive impacts of inequality, her well-received distillation of existing research and data on the social and economic impacts of inequality.
"I believe we should strive for diversity, and to make the scientific community just, equitable and inclusive simply because that is the right thing to do." - Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is a leading researcher on how fire, erosion, climate change, and armed conflicts effect out environment, and, more specifically, how they affect our soil. In 2019, Asmeret was invited to present a TED talk (see below) on her life's research, and the result was a powerful, inspiring look at how the six feet or so of soil that covers our planet is the key to the long-term survival of life on earth.
Berhe argues that our rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions have long been bailed out by the natural ecosystems that sequester carbon from the air - but due to mismanagement and negligence, these ecosystems have begun to degrade, and we may not be able to rely on their help for much longer if things continue as they are.
Her research has concluded that there is overwhelmingly more carbon stored in the earth's soil - about twice as much - than in all of the plants and trees, the atmosphere and all other natural environments. As green plants photosynthesize, carbon is removed from the atmosphere and passed into the soil, where it can be banked for hundreds or even thousands of years.
However, this natural "storage bank" for harmful greenhouse gases is only as efficient as the quality of the soil. Healthy soil is constantly replenished by mature ecosystems that support all forms of flora and fauna - including us - and acts like a sponge for soaking up carbon, while also sharing important minerals and hydration with the habitat.
Soil has long been ignored as an important natural resource, and constant abuse from deforestation, overgrazing of live stock, excessive chemical and pesticide use and intense agricultural cultivation has led to the severe degredation of our soils. Alarmingly, half of the world's soil is now considered degraded.
But what does this mean for us? What changes when soil loses its integrity? Firstly, degraded soil is less able to support plant life, resulting in less essential nutrition for every kind of living thing on earth. This means a lower quality and quantity of food and less natural materials.
Second, degraded soil loses its ability to properly store carbon, and instead of storing carbon long-term, compromised soil releases up to 12 times more carbon into the atmosphere. Our greatest environmental ally has been pushed to its limits, and the floodgates have begun to open.
Asmeret believes that all hope is not lost. By addressing both soil degradation and climate change together - through responsible land management to nurture healthier soil - we can reverse the effects of both. A global effort called the "4 per 1000" or "4 per mil" is currently working towards a goal of increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil by 0.4% annually. If successful, this will effectively sequester a third of global emissions caused by fossil fuels.
To learn more about the actions and steps being taken to return vitality to our soil, check out Asmeret Berhe's 2019 TED talk here:
"We can’t eat money, or drink oil." - Autumn Peltier, 15 years old, in an address to the UN
Autumn Peltier, now 17, has been an advocate and activist for clean, accessible water and indigenous rights since she was 11. In 2018, at only 13, she addressed world leaders at the UN General Assembly on the issue of water protection.
"Many people don't think water is alive or has a spirit," the Anishinaabe girl from Wikwemikong First Nation told the diplomats gathered in New York City in her speech on World Water Day. "My people believe this to be true."
Living on a First Nation reserve in Ontario on the the shores of Lake Huron, Autumn has witnessed the negligence of water management first-hand, first raising her voice in protest of Prime Minister Trudeau's support of pipeline development in indigenous territories, where oil spills and runoff can cause tragic toxicity in the drinking water.
In 2019, Autumn was named chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation.This position was previously held by her great-aunt, Josephine Mandamin, who died in 2019.At the time of her selection, current Anishinabek Nation Ground Council Chief Glen Hare explained how it was quite a simple decision to make: “Autumn has extensive nibi giikendaaswin (water knowledge). She has been bringing global attention to the water issues in our country for a few years now.” In her role as Chief Water Commissioner, Peltier represents 39 First Nations in Ontario and is responsible for relaying community concerns to the Anishinabek Council. (source)
Today, Autumn has a large following on social platforms, where she continues to be outspoken on water protection and environmental racism against indigenous peoples. (Check out her profiles here)
"One thing that isn’t well-known is that the products and the packaging that we put on our body and sometimes the food we ingest are all sources of exposure to toxic chemicals. When we talk about packaging, for example, there are roughly 12,000 chemicals that are intentionally added to packaging to provide the functionality we need—for example, to make sure that it’s water repellent or moisture repellent, to give it stretchiness, or to provide a certain type of color or look. But lurking inside that packaging … chemicals that are directly added can pose a problem." - Boma Brown-West in an interview with Resources Radio (full interview available here)
Boma has over 15 years’ experience in product sustainability and degrees in engineering and technology policy from Yale University and MIT. She uses this extensive knowledge to influence retailers and brands to do their part in creating a safer and healthier experience for consumers, from the chemicals used in product packaging to the efficiency of supply routes to decrease carbon emittions.
As senior manager of consumer health at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), she works closely with the largest corporations, such as Walmart and McDonalds, to reduce the use of harmful chemicals through innovative approaches and sustainable materials. In addition to establishing EDFs Five Pillars for Safer Chemicals, Boma Brown-West has also launched Sustainabuy (link), a platform for promoting sustainable consumer brands and informing consumers on the chemicals found in common products from skincare to electronics.