Book review: ‘Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?’
March 13, 2014
The debate seems to be waning regarding the validity of climate change.
The mounting evidence, when carefully examined, is increasingly unavoidable and indisputable: The Earth is becoming a progressively more unstable home for its many inhabitants. Though some would suggest we are not on the brink of imminent destruction — the hypothetical aftereffects of which are discussed in Alan Weisman's thought-provoking first book, "The World Without Us" — mankind's stability is nonetheless being shaken with each new baby being born and every drop of water being consumed.
In his new book, "Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?" Weisman addresses the concept of the future of the Earth with us still here — plus a few billion more people. From the opening pages, he dives into the very controversial and uncomfortable topic of overpopulation and how it threatens our survival on our stressed and overworked planet.
Ever since the 18th century, when Thomas Malthus raised the contentious and unpopular topic of population control, there has been an ongoing debate in both the scientific and religious communities about how many people the planet can hold. To prepare for his book, Weisman took that very question around the world to 21 countries. Through talking to political and spiritual leaders, a diverse array of scientists and a variety of people simply trying to survive the modern world, he has assembled a very concise, comprehensive and sobering treatise that should serve to empower all of humanity to participate in the global effort that will be needed to correct course.
Allowing the grave statistics to speak for him, Weisman assembles the data in his familiarly vivid and engaging style. Beginning in the volatile and densely populated lands of Israel and the Palestinian territories, Weisman introduces the elements that will profoundly impact how the human species and the planet itself move forward. These elements return throughout the book as overarching global problems, regardless of the geography or the culture in question.
Foremost, of course, is the planet's "population momentum" issue, wherein even if babies across the globe were suddenly being born at or below the replacement rate, our numbers would continue to increase. With this inevitable and exponential growth come the other universal complications, which he addresses at length. Availability of water, clean or otherwise, is directly related to the number of people inhabiting the planet, as is the surging need for food and resources. With these problems comes the flip side. The more resources our species consumes, the more significant the consequences are to those millions of other species on Earth.
Weisman reiterates, through examples from his travels, the absolute necessity of ecological biodiversity to our survival. The current rates of extinction are so high that scientists have moved beyond hoping to save every endangered species to scrambling to focus on those whose demise would most impact our lives. As he aptly points out, in most cases, the value of each species is not known until it is gone, when it is already too late.
A number of these universal problems, too, seem to be linked to education — or lack thereof — specifically for women. Across the board, when literacy rates go up for women, the birth rate goes down. Also, when women are given more say in their family planning, the number of births decreases. Weisman points out, too, how regions that tend to be overpopulated and where across-the-board education is lacking, more violent conflicts arise, which will increase as the climate continues to be volatile and resources dwindle.
By giving in-depth examples from China, with its two-child rule, as well as Pakistan and India and parts of Africa, which are already beyond population capacity for their imperiled ecosystems, Weisman shows just how complex and interwoven the problem is. He also presents examples of countries where the populations are declining and how unique obstacles arise from that scenario, as well. In Japan, there is real concern that there will be so few young people to care for the larger and long-living elderly population that robots are being designed to serve as caretakers, in lieu of younger family members.
Weisman adamantly points out that finding a way to slow our growth is only a part of the solution. Modern economies are reliant on the assumption that the only way forward is through continual growth and infinitely ballooning consumerism, both of which rely on an expanding labor market.
He argues a shift in this thinking may be necessary to control our use and abuse of the planet's space and resources before it is too late to turn back the clock.
Repeatedly, Weisman acknowledges "the notion of husbanding the human race as though we were game or livestock horrifies on multiple levels — moral, religious and philosophical, not to mention legal." Whether one agrees with Weisman's findings or not, his book does what this sort of book should do. He engages the reader from Page 1, and he makes one think about the future we will leave our children, whether they number in the single digits or the dozens.