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. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
From John Muir to David Brower, from the creation of Yellowstone National Park to the Endangered Species Act, environmentalism in America has always had close to its core a preservationist ideal. Generations have been inspired by its ethosandmdash;to encircle nature with our protection, to keep it apart, pristine, walled against the march of human development. But we have to face the facts. Accelerating climate change, rapid urbanization, agricultural and industrial devastation, metastasizing fire regimes, and other quickening anthropogenic forces all attest to the same truth: the earth is now spinning through the age of humans. After Preservation
takes stock of the ways we have tried to both preserve and exploit nature to ask a direct but profound question: what is the role of preservationism in an era of seemingly unstoppable human development, in what some have called the Anthropocene?
Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne bring together a stunning consortium of voices comprised of renowned scientists, historians, philosophers, environmental writers, activists, policy makers, and land managers to negotiate the incredible challenges that environmentalism faces. Some call for a new, post-preservationist model, one that is far more pragmatic, interventionist, and human-centered. Others push forcefully back, arguing for a more chastened and restrained vision of human action on the earth. Some try to establish a middle ground, while others ruminate more deeply on the meaning and value of wilderness. Some write on species lost, others on species saved, and yet others discuss the enduring practical challenges of managing our land, water, and air.
From spirited optimism to careful prudence to critical skepticism, the resulting range of approaches offers an inspiring contribution to the landscape of modern environmentalism, one driven by serious, sustained engagements with the critical problems we must solve if weandmdash;and the wild garden we may now keepandmdash;are going to survive the era we have ushered in. and#160;
Contributors include: Chelsea K. Batavia, F. Stuart (Terry) Chapin III, Norman L. Christensen, Jamie Rappaport Clark, William Wallace Covington, Erle C. Ellis, Mark Fiege, Dave Foreman, Harry W. Greene, Emma Marris, Michelle Marvier, Bill McKibben, J. R. McNeill, Curt Meine, Ben A. Minteer, Michael Paul Nelson, Bryan Norton, Stephen J. Pyne, Andrew C. Revkin, Holmes Rolston III, Amy Seidl, Jack Ward Thomas, Diane J. Vosick, John A. Vucetich, Hazel Wong, and Donald Worster.and#160;
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book PrizeWinner of the Best Book Award from Population Institute
Finalist, Books for a Better Life Award
2014 Nautilus Award Gold Winner
"Urgent, eloquent, harrowing and yet hopeful. Everywhere, he finds the most fascinating person in a thousand miles, and makes a story out of what they tell us. Please read this book. You will weep and yet be cheered." -- Louise Erdrich, author of The Round House
"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)
"Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"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)
"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 and House of Rain
"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
"A frenzied barnstormer of a book.... Countdown is a chaotic stew of big stories, bold ideas and conflicted characters, punctuated by moments of quiet grace--just like our people-packed planet." -- Scientific American
"A hugely impressive piece of reportage, a cacophony of voices from across the world." -- Washington Post
"Rousing, urgent.... 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, non-humans, and ecosystems alike." -- The Oregonian
"Countdown is a gripping narrative by a fair-minded investigative journalist who interviewed dozens of scientists and experts in various fields in 21 countries. He also scoured the literature to deliver not so much a doomsday narrative but a warning followed by the practical solution employed by various countries to get control of their population." -- Wall Street Journal
"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's stories--from his travel to contemporary Israel and Palestine, where reproducing is a form of warfare, to histories of family planning in Asia and South America--are fascinating and often chilling." -- Slate
"Weisman reminds us that when the experts are worried, we should pay attention." -- Los Angeles Times
"Weisman's gift as a writer with a love of science is in drawing links for readers on how everything in our world is connected - in this case, population, consumption and the environment.... The pleasure in reading Countdown is in the interplay of interviews with experts and with everyday working people around the world, all trying to figure out the size of family they want." -- Toronto Star
"[Weisman] found vivid, real-world portraits of what overpopulation portends." -- Men's Journal
"Alan Weisman's Countdown is rich, subtle and elaborate. His magisterial work should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the relationship between population and the environment...It's a tightly argued, fast-paced adventure that crosses the plant in search of contrasts." -- Literary Review
"While it is very much an alarming assessment, it is not without some genuine hope...It's a must read for all those who are concerned about the human prospect." -- Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute
"Weisman's anecdotes and explanations...draw a clear picture.... Countdown asks the hard questions." -- Shelf Awareness
"Rousing." -- Ihsan Taylor, New York Times Book Review's "Paperback Row"
asks one of the big, hairy, audacious questions of the early twenty-first century: How should humans relate to Nature in the Anthropocene? Minteer and Pyne have assembled an impressive assortment of contributors to offer a wide-ranging set of answers in concise, poignant, and powerful essays. This is an important and timely contribution that should be read by people working to construct a thriving and sustainable future.andrdquo;and#160;
andldquo;Whether you like the label andlsquo;Anthropoceneandrsquo; or not, whether you find the prospect of what it signifies inevitable or appalling (or both), the time has come to address its implications, as these thoughtful, battle-tested authors attempt to do. The time has long since come.andrdquo;and#160;
andldquo;This is neither a predictable text on environmentalist refusals nor a whistle-in-the-dark expression of shallow optimism about humanityandrsquo;s great future as a planetary conquering force. This is a great swirl of debate at this critical crossroads in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. No holds here are barred. In prose sometimes pragmatic and sometimes anguished, some of the best minds in the businessandmdash;some of the wisest people around todayandmdash;argue about our place in nature, what it could be, what it should be, what it is, what it will be, and what we must not let it become. I regret that my own book deadline prevented me from contributing to this work. Feeling left out is my highest praise.andrdquo;
andldquo;A thought-provoking and highly readable comparison of two geographically large democracies addressing environmental challenges. This book will be invaluable worldwide as those environmental challenges press upon us.andrdquo;
andldquo;Although environmentalists have traditionally held onto a preservationist philosophy in fending off ecological harms, the omnipresence of human influence makes many now wonder if that approach is still feasible. In this collection of twenty-three spirited and thought-provoking essays, scientists, historians, and activists alike represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints, from conservation at all costs to balancing the natural worldandrsquo;s needs with those of civilization. . . . Everyone concerned with the ongoing debate over wildlife protection will want to study this vitally important contribution to the discussion.andrdquo;
andldquo;Inandnbsp;Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, twoandnbsp;renownedandnbsp;scientistsandnbsp;from opposite ends of the Earth, deadly serious even when being drolly funny,andnbsp;pull no punches about the fact that the most critical decisions on our planet are currentlyandnbsp;being made byandnbsp;peopleandnbsp;least qualified to do so: politicians who have scant understanding of the intricate interdependencies of global ecology (including human ecology) and who increasingly and blatantly do the bidding of an elite few. Scientists rarely are so frank about that in public, or in such detail, and itandrsquo;s high time that some took off the gloves because their deniers have no qualms about goingandnbsp;to great, expensive lengths to try to discredit them. Bradshaw and Ehrlichandrsquo;s clarity about that is refreshing, irresistibly readable, and long overdue.andrdquo;
andldquo;In this fascinating book, Bradshaw and Ehrlich compare the environmental and social factors that have led to the degradation of the environment on the opposite sides of the earthandmdash;both countries with an origin in the British Isles, but the United States with a much larger biocapacity and about fourteen times as many people.andnbsp; In lively and clear prose, the authors offer many cogent observations on the current plights of their respective countries and offer suggestions about how each could learn from the experiences of the other.andnbsp; Readers of this book will find both pleasure and enlightenment in following the intellectual and emotional journeys of its talented authors and will find much practical wisdom in their recommendations and conclusions.andrdquo;
andldquo;In this well-rounded and mostly accessible collection, Arizona State University professors Minteer (The Landscape of Reform) and Pyne (Burning Bush) pull together a range of perspectives on contemporary issues in environmental conservation from academics, ecologists, philosophers, and environmental activists. . . . By inviting a range of voices to the discussion, Minteer and Pyne reveal subjects of importance to both themselves and to their peers around the country.andrdquo;
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 4 1/2 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.
There are many similarities between Australia and the US. Both are vast, had similar origins, and are examples of super-consuming, over-developed rich, literate countries. There are also, of course, striking distinctions between Australia and the United States, perhaps most notable in the environmental arena. The floras and faunas are as different as koalas and grizzlies.and#160; But the use of the environments is even more distinct.and#160; Although comparable in size, the US is about ten times as densely populated as Australia, and two Americans consume the same amount of resources as three Australians.and#160; Australiaandrsquo;s more fragile environment, with high proportions of endemic species, has resulted in the highest number of recently extinct mammals compared to every other country in the world.and#160; And yet the pace of land use change in the US has been significantly higher over the last several decades.
The most fundamental of issues each of these countries is facing at present, and in the immediate future, is how to manage their environments in the face of climate change.and#160; Each country needs to extract resources, lower its energy footprint, and grapple with dynamic climate patterns that threaten even the most developed of countries.and#160; Ehrlich and Bradshaw, renowned ecologists, invite readers to join a conversation about the ways in which Australia and the US can benefit from modelling environmental decisions and actions on each otherandrsquo;s most successful policies, and learn from each countryandrsquo;s failures as well.and#160; They weave in these pages a comparative story of their two countries, and create a blueprint for what needs to change to avoid the worst environmental and political crises from invading the shores of each of these countries.
Though separated by thousands of miles, the United States and Australia have much in common. Geographically both countries are expansiveandmdash;the United States is the fourth largest in land mass and Australia the sixthandmdash;and both possess a vast amount of natural biodiversity. At the same time, both nations are on a crash course toward environmental destruction. Highly developed super consumers with enormous energy footprints and high rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, they are two of the biggest drivers of climate change per capita. As renowned ecologists Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Paul R. Ehrlich make clear in Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie
, both of these countries must confront the urgent question of how to stem this devastation and turn back from the brink.
In this book, Bradshaw and Ehrlich provide a spirited exploration of the ways in which the United States and Australia can learn from their shared problems and combine their most successful solutions in order to find and develop new resources, lower energy consumption and waste, and grapple with the dynamic effects of climate change. Peppering the book with humor, irreverence, and extensive scientific knowledge, the authors examine how residents of both countries have irrevocably altered their natural environments, detailing the most pressing ecological issues of our time, including the continuing resource depletion caused by overpopulation. They then turn their discussion to the politics behind the failures of environmental policies in both nations and offer a blueprint for what must be dramatically changed to prevent worsening the environmental crisis.
Although focused on two nations, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie clearly has global implicationsandmdash;the problems facing the United States and Australia are not theirs alone, and the solutions to come will benefit by being crafted in coalition. This book provides a vital opportunity to learn from both countriesandrsquo; leading environmental thinkers and to heed their call for a way forward together.
About the Author
Alan Weisman is the author of several books, including The World Without Us
: an international best-seller translated in 34 languages, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Wenjin Book Prize of the National Library of China. His work has been selected for many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing
. An award-winning journalist, his reports have appeared in Harper's
, The New York Times Magazine
, The Atlantic Monthly
, Vanity Fair
, Wilson Quarterly
, Mother Jones
, and Orion
, and on NPR. A former contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine
, he is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions. He lives in western Massachusetts.
Table of Contents
Writing on Stone, Writing in the Wind
Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne
Restoring the Nature of America
Andrew C. Revkin,
Nature Preservation and Political Power in the Anthropocene
J. R. McNeill
Too Big for Nature
Erle C. Ellis
After Preservation?and#160; Dynamic Nature in the Anthropocene
Holmes Rolston III
Humility in the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene and Ozymandias
The Higher Altruism
The Anthropocene: Disturbing Name, Limited Insight
John A. Vucetich, Michael Paul Nelson, and Chelsea K. Batavia
Ecology and the Human Future
A Letter to the Editors:and#160; In Defense of the Relative Wild
When Extinction Is a Virtue
Ben A. Minteer
Pleistocene Rewilding and the Future of Biodiversity
Harry W. Greene
The Democratic Promise of Nature Preservation
Green Fire Meets Red Fire
Stephen J. Pyne
Restoration, Preservation, and Conservation: An Example for Dry Forests of the West
William Wallace Covington and Diane J. Vosick
Preserving Nature on US Federal Lands: Managing Change in the Context of Change
Norman L. Christensen
After Preservationand#8212;the Case of the Northern Spotted Owl
Jack Ward Thomas
Celebrating and Shaping Nature: Conservation in a Rapidly Changing World
F. Stuart Chapin III
Move Over Grizzly Adamsand#8212;Conservation for the Rest of Us
Michelle Marvier and Hazel Wong
Endangered Species Conservation: Then and Now
Jamie Rappaport Clark
Resembling the Cosmic Rhythms: The Evolution of Nature and Stewardship in the Age of Humans