We could save ourselves if we wanted
IF you can get through the first 300 pages, the rest is smooth sailing. In his sequel, of sorts, to The World Without Us (Time’s No. 1 in non-fiction for 2007), American journalist Alan Weisman breathes new life into the argument that overpopulation is the root of the existential crisis of our time.
Unsustainable growth in human numbers and footprints is stretching the planet beyond its carrying capacity, Weisman explains in Countdown.
Abrupt climate change, deteriorating ecosystems, dwindling supplies of fresh water and other natural necessities are the thin edge of the wedge of too many people demanding too much from one planet.
The result is we’re in a countdown to a crash that could end civilization as we know it. That’s the bad part. Weisman shows how easy and affordable saving ourselves could be. If only we could overcome the political and psychological impediments to shrinking the base of that wedge: exponential population growth.
How exponential? Since the early 19th century, when Malthus famously hit the panic button, the age-old prescription to be fruitful and multiply, amplified by advances in living long and prospering, has propelled our numbers from one billion to over seven. We could more than double that number by the end of the century, Weisman warns.
Unfortunately, the first 350 or so pages of Countdown have their own overpopulation problem. Although Weisman begins to solve it in Part 4, it’s not until Part 5, with just 56 pages to go, that he finally succeeds.
The problem may be that Weisman has spent two years criss-crossing the planet to research his opus.
He has a lot to report — more, one suspects, than even 1,000 pages could comfortably accommodate. Countdown reads like he’s tried to shoehorn it into 350 pages.
For most of those pages, Countdown is a dense monoculture of detail-heavy dispatches from the field. These vignettes, styled like feature articles, strain the book’s carrying capacity.
Even lead sentences — intended to invite readers into a new story — often suffer from this information pile-on. And so much content is TMI.
Do we really need a detailed description of every character’s wardrobe, right down to the accessories? For readers seeking insight into the biggest challenge of our time, this is a needless strain on their carrying capacity.
Still, those who make it through will find themselves steeped in how the struggle for sustainability is, and has been played out in so many different ways across so many cultures and continents. It’s a complex story. For example, by adopting papal infallibility as dogma, Vatican I locked the Catholic Church into upholding the prohibition of artificial birth control by infallible popes. Yet that hasn’t prevented two of the world’s most homogeneously Catholic countries — Italy and Spain — from developing two of the world’s lowest birth rates.
Meanwhile, in Muslim Niger, the highest fertility rate in the world is crashing up against a chronic drought attributed to climate change. Blame it on Islam? Not so fast. Weisman interviews a Nigerian imam who proclaims: “What Allah wants is for us to have bigger families, not to bend to any pressure to reduce their size.”
But just a few blocks down the road, another imam is an outspoken advocate for artificial contraception. And the two are brothers. Suffice it to say that Countdown is a crash course in how the causes of overpopulation and the cures are a web of interrelated religious, cultural, economic and other factors.
By Parts 4 and 5, as Weisman switches hats from reporter to professor, we’re starving for a lecture. We learn much about the big picture, mostly that getting our numbers down to “some optimum number of humans who can harvest and recycle resources at a replenishable pace” comes with its own web of eminently doable possibilities and daunting probabilities.
Countdown is a true cliffhanger. It’s up to us to write a happy ending for it.