We could save our­selves if we wanted

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - LIFE -

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.

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