Women as Natural Capital


by Julia James

When Stanford visiting scholar Li Cong thinks back to her recent stint surveying villagers in the Anhui province of China, one interviewee in particular springs to mind. He was a middle-aged man, not too rich, who was so desperate to finally wed that he’d spent years pouring everything he had into building a house for a widow, on the understanding that she’d marry him. But when the house was built and his money gone, the woman took it all and left her benefactor in the cold. Scorned by villagers, Li Cong recounts, the man spent his time in a dark room, surrounded by bottles of beer and wine, just watching television and smoking.

“If a girl would just agree to be my daughter in law,” his mother told Li Cong, weeping, “I could give her everything.”

Women haven’t always been so valued in China. In the 33 years since the government instituted a one-child policy there, the country has witnessed horrifically high rates of female infanticide—the brutal expression of a cultural preference for males. (An official ban on the practice is poorly enforced.)

“Killed, aborted or neglected, at least 100 million girls have disappeared— and the number is rising,” a 2010 Economist article reported. Baby boys grow up to be capable of hard physical labor; they can inherit land; and they tend to stay close to family after marriage, the article’s author notes; females, on the other hand, don’t promise the same form of familial security.

Attaching these sorts of values to gender (or race or age, for that matter) is highly controversial, of course. Females should be protected because they carry the same intrinsic human worth as males, many would argue, and not because they provide any particular service to society.

But Li Shuzhuo, an academic advisor to Li Cong (not related) and a researcher affiliated with the Morrison Institute for Population Studies at Stanford University, has a slightly different take. Characterizing and quantifying the roles females play in promoting China’s national security—even if that includes valuing the ways they promote male well-being—could lead to stronger policies for their protection, Li believes.

Li Shuzhuo, center, with graduate students, photo by Julia James

Li’s latest research highlights not the extent or brutality of “gendercide” itself, but one if its flip sides: forced bachelorhood.  Nearly 1.2 million mostly rural men, or 10 percent of the China’s adult male population, will be unwilling singles by the year 2013, he estimates. Because men now outnumber women in China by more than 38 million, there simply aren’t wives enough to go around.

Li has been studying the wide-ranging implications of China’s one-child policy for more than 20 years. In his most recent initiative, he and his collaborators enrolled freshman and sophomore college students from rural backgrounds to act as investigators of their native villages. The students fanned out across the country over summer break and returned to school with 364 data sets from the western, central and eastern regions of China.

Most villagers, the researchers found, still have a strong preference for sons, and that means the male-to-female ratio at birth is especially high in the rural areas of Western China (131 compared to a national average closer to 120). As a result of so many females being subject to abortion, infanticide and abandonment, one quarter of adult men in that region now consider finding a wife to be “very difficult.”

Given the nation’s culture of universal marriage, bachelorhood is likely to entail substantial personal anguish, Li says. Unmarried men and their relatives can face intense discrimination and social stigma, and that means families in villages with a high number of unmarried men pay dearly to secure a bride – as much as 20 times the annual family income – or to hire a matchmaker. Some resort to buying trafficked brides from poorer provinces or countries. And some – like the unfortunate man Li Cong remembers meeting in Anhui – fall victim to fraudulent arrangements themselves.

Unmarried men face consequences that extend beyond the psychological.  They are in general less healthy, less likely to fuel the economy with liberal spending and less able to support the country’s aging population, researchers have documented. And they’re more likely to engage in risky commercial sex and more violent behaviors.

In fact, Lena Edlund of Columbia University found [PDF], the growing number of single men accounts for about one-seventh of the overall rise in property theft and violent crime in China, observed as the country has industrialized over the past two decades.

Li’s work—trying to understand the value that women, considered as a resource, provide to other members of their societal ecosystem—is essentially an expansion of the natural capital concept, which has so far been owned by ecologists and environmental economists. That concept, developed in part by Gretchen Daily and Hal Mooney at Stanford, essentially puts a price on the services provided by nature, so that the value the outdoors can be factored into decisions around land management. If putting a price on an old-growth stand is more likely to keep it rooted than simply waxing poetic or philosophical about its beauty, his reasoning goes, why not extend that kind of valuation to social problems?

“I am trying to build a bridge between natural science and social science,” Li says.

China has dramatically outpaced other nations in its embrace of ecosystems services as a framework for conservation. After the country suffered severe droughts in 1997 and massive flooding in 1998, the government launched several national forestry and conservation initiatives that will cost an estimated $100 billion over the next ten years and cover up to 25 percent of the nation’s land, Daily of Stanford’s Natural Capital Project says. The money – which will initially go to cutting soil loss, improving water retention, reducing desertification and generally protecting biodiversity and ecosystems in the west of the country – is intended to eventually generate a large return on investment through flood control, hydropower production efficiency, irrigation supply, more productive agriculture and ecotourism.

In addition, the government will shuffle money from coastal regions, which benefit from the ecosystems services, to the inland areas where they originate.  That’s thanks to Li, who observed that, at least initially, the nation’s ecological protection policies were asking big sacrifices from certain populations, and little from others.

“I had an idea that everything that the government does should not just protect the environment, but should also be beneficial to local people,” Li says, not only on a moral basis, but because the ultimate success of environmental protection programs often depends on how they affect humans’ quality of life. With Daily, he is considering the formation of a human development team, which would retool the Natural Capital Project’s InVEST software to consider social capital as well.

Fighting female infanticide and sex-selected abortion and abandonment with the tools of the ecologist or economist might seem backward. But Mara Hvistendahl, a correspondent with Science magazine and author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, says the approach has merit.

“It would be great if government officials moved to stop sex selective abortion on the basis of gender discrimination alone. But unfortunately that hasn’t happened, in China or elsewhere,” Hvistendahl says. “Politicians and government officials around the world tend to look at the short term, and crime rates and slowing economic growth are issues that can convince them to act.”

Li, she says, has been instrumental in convincing the Chinese government that sex selection is a real problem.

Indeed, if that nation’s adoption of environmental policies is any indication, his cold-headed logic might be the quickest way to the bureaucratic heart.

Piece originally published at PLOS Blogs |