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Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?by Alan Weisman
We humans, despite our natural aptitude for mathematics, seem to have an arduous time making sense of concepts that involve very large numbers. Unfortunately, however, abstract notions have absolute consequences, whether anticipated or otherwise. Although it took until the early 1800s for global population to reach its first billion, it has doubled twice since the year 1900, giving us now some seven billion people worldwide. Around the year 2050, the United Nations estimates that there may well be 10 billion of us inhabiting this fragile pale blue dot we call home. As journalist Alan Weisman points out in his rousing, urgent new book, Countdown, every four and a half days, we add another million people to our population tally — without the corresponding increase in available resources.
Weisman's previous work, The World without Us, imagined our planet suddenly devoid of human presence in a thought experiment that sought to examine how quickly nature could restore itself to balance — sans homo sapiens. In Countdown, a more than ample follow-up, he considers overpopulation and the myriad threats that may come with exceeding our planet's carrying capacity. Visiting more than 20 countries around the globe, Weisman immersed himself in vastly disparate cultures, interviewing leaders, subject experts, and locals to learn how other societies and traditions deal (and have dealt) with the specifics of population control.
Country by country, Weisman encounters a wealth of efforts, strategies, attitudes, and mores that have proven on many occasions to halt or reverse the swelling of local or national populations, some of which, while perhaps morally questionable to Western sensibilities, have nonetheless fulfilled their charge. Methods employed include family planning, sex education, contraception (both male and female), abortion, adoption, infanticide, gender ultrasounds, economic incentives, birth spacing, and legislation limiting the number of children a couple may legally bear. The most efficacious actions, noted in a number of different countries, tend to be those that focus on raising education and equality standards for women, empowering them to make their own responsible reproductive decisions.
As more and more countries begin struggling with the effects of climate change, drought, rising temperatures, finite resources, overfishing, topsoil depletion, species decline, food scarcity, falling water tables, rising sea levels, and the like, the need to rein in burgeoning populations becomes ever more paramount. While Countdown draws a link between overpopulation and the impending effects of a warming planet, Weisman remains optimistic that curbing rampant population growth may be our best strategy to mitigate its worst repercussions.
Among the many tricks we will try to keep fitting ourselves onto this planet, there is one that we already know. The technology is cheaper than all the others by many orders of magnitude. It is reducing the numbers of bodies to feed by managing our reproduction, before nature steps in to do that for us.
Books warning of the looming climate catastrophe have proliferated for years, but Countdown, in focusing on the population-side factor of the equation, argues for wider adoption of solutions already in place and calls for injecting sense, wisdom, and prudence into the discussion. Weisman's plea is surely more effective than those that proffer a litany of worst-case scenarios designed to scare us into action. By exploring and integrating the lessons from cultures the world over, Weisman has been able to provide a blueprint that will ultimately benefit the planet as a whole. Countdown is a timely, essential, and hopeful work — one that suggests compassion in place of consumption and promises a return to an equilibrium that will prove a veritable windfall for humans, nonhumans, and ecosystems alike.
Synopses & Reviews
A powerful investigation into the chances for humanity's future from the author of the bestseller The World Without Us.
In his bestselling book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman considered how the Earth could heal and even refill empty niches if relieved of humanity's constant pressures. Behind that groundbreaking thought experiment was his hope that we would be inspired to find a way to add humans back to this vision of a restored, healthy planet — only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of nature.
But with a million more of us every four days on a planet that's not getting any bigger, and with our exhaust overheating the atmosphere and altering the chemistry of the oceans, prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt. For this long awaited follow-up book, Weisman traveled to more than 20 countries to ask what experts agreed were probably the most important questions on Earth — and also the hardest: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? How robust must the Earth's ecosystem be to assure our continued existence? Can we know which other species are essential to our survival? And, how might we actually arrive at a stable, optimum population, and design an economy to allow genuine prosperity without endless growth?
Weisman visits an extraordinary range of the world's cultures, religions, nationalities, tribes, and political systems to learn what in their beliefs, histories, liturgies, or current circumstances might suggest that sometimes it's in their own best interest to limit their growth. The result is a landmark work of reporting: devastating, urgent, and, ultimately, deeply hopeful.
By vividly detailing the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence, Countdown reveals what may be the fastest, most acceptable, practical, and affordable way of returning our planet and our presence on it to balance. Weisman again shows that he is one of the most provocative journalists at work today, with a book whose message is so compelling that it will change how we see our lives and our destiny.
"In this follow-up to The World Without Us, journalist Weisman visits more than 20 countries to explore four urgent questions. How many people can our planet hold? Is it in our own best interest to limit population growth? Which species are essential to our survival? And how can we design a prosperous economy that does not depend on endless growth and consumption? Weisman argues that this will be the century in which we must manage our population, 'or nature will do it for us in the form of famine, thirst... crashing ecosystems, and wars over dwindling resources.' To seek answers, he visits some of the planet's most overcrowded regions, including the Philippines, Niger, and India — with its 'archetypal new megalopolis,' Mumbai, swollen beyond comprehension at 21 million. He also visits countries that have slowed their population growth (Iran and Thailand), and those whose populations are dwindling, such as Japan. Weisman interviews Catholic clerics; Buddhist monks; biologists, including Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb); physicists, demographers; and others. He also analyzes the repercussions of China's one-child policy; the Haber-Bosch fertilization method that led to higher food yields; and the chronic malnourishment afflicting one billion people today. Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Unflinching and ready for anything, Weisman's Countdown tackles the biggest question facing not only us, but every other living thing on earth. How many people can there be on the earth? Written with extraordinary clarity, without all the arm-waving and doomsaying that seems to kill the conversation, his firsthand tour of the globe offers both worst case scenarios and the most hopeful futures we can imagine." Craig Childs, author of Apocalyptic Planet
"Weisman offers heart-rending portrayals of nations already suffering demographic collapse....A realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species." Kirkus (starred review)
"Spirited descriptions, a firm grasp of complex material, and a bomb defuser's steady precision make for a riveting read....Weisman's cogent and forthright global inquiry, a major work, delineates how education, women's equality, and family planning can curb poverty, thirst, hunger, and environmental destruction. Rigorous and provoking, Countdown will generate numerous media appearances for Weisman and spur many a debate." Booklist (starred review)
"He makes a strong case for slowing global population growth-and even for reducing overall population numbers-as a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable future....Weisman's book...offers hope....Weisman's emphasis on expanding access to contraception as the next-best strategy is both pragmatic and workable, as past efforts have shown. It is to be hoped that his message may be heeded sooner rather than later." Nature
"[Weisman] found vivid, real-world portraits of what overpopulation portends." Men's Journal
"Countdown converts globetrotting research into flowing journalism, highlighting a simple truth: there are, quite plainly, too many of us. A world that understands Weisman's words will understand the pressing need for change." Bill Streever, author of Cold and Heat
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