Is Population Killing Us? Alan Weisman’s Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth [Book Review]

crowd in manhattan new york city

In case you missed it, there are a lot of us humans on planet Earth. A LOT. We hit the seven billion mark in 2011, which constituted a roughly seven-fold multiplication of homo sapiens in a little over two hundred years. And we are projected to add a few more billion by mid-century, and more on top of that by 2100.

Just sit with that for a moment.

This swelling tide of humanity and how to avoid an impending catastrophic collapse in its wake form the subject of Alan Weisman’s latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Weisman’s last book, The World Without Us, explored the idea of a world in which humans simply disappear, and how nature would change (or recover) in a humanless world. One prevailing lesson from this thought experiment was that nature is mightily resilient, even after centuries of massive imposition and alternation—at gunpoint…

In Countdown, Weisman takes a step back from that world without us and looks at what is, albeit arguably for some, possibly the main thing that may make that world happen: the breakneck growth of human population.

Four Questions

Weisman builds his argument not through an academic-style compilation of facts and figures (though those show up). Instead, he creates what is at once an anthology of stories from travels around the world and a presentation of successful strategies for actually curbing population growth. His stories touch upon four essential questions that he asked during his travels:

  1. How many people can our planet hold?
  2. Is there anything in a culture that embraces the unnatural idea of limiting ourselves?
  3. How much ecosystem is required to maintain us, and what can we not live without?
  4. How do we design an economy, and a civilization, that is stable and does not depend on constant growth?

While I was initially surprised by this narrative approach to the population question, I was quickly drawn in to conversations about a subject that can be both overwhelming and uncomfortable to discuss (even in friendly company). Countdown makes the population problem (for it is a problem, everywhere) real and personal, not academic and abstract…which is just what the world needs right now.

As we read about family planning education, birth control programs, and changing mores between generations in places like Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, and the United States, a few crucial themes and strategies emerge:

Education for women: When women are granted access to education, they make use of it with ever greater frequency; and higher female education rates directly correlate to lower(ing) birth rates.

Access to birth control: Much like education, birth control programs are often desperately wanted by women who seek some way to avoid getting pregnant (with or without their husband’s knowledge and consent). A striking example of this was in Iran where, coupled with improved female education, a program to make any kind of birth control available for free to Iranians brought the birth rate down from 7.7 children per woman in 1956 to 1.7 children per woman in 2012.

Problems with Population Control

Weisman argues from the premise that 7 billion (and more) humans are far, far, far too many. Yet along with this obvious premise, Weisman also allows the voices of concern to speak about problems with the prospect of a shrinking populace.

One momentous problem with the idea of population control is how resistant most people are to it. Shaikh Tanveer Ahmed, director of a NGO in Pakistan, speaks to the issue this way: “…you can’t say ‘family planning.’ You must say ‘birth spacing.’ If it’s about health, they accept. Numbers, they resist” (263). And this is true no matter where you travel or whom you ask: the prospect of forced limitations on reproduction strikes humans as an affront to nature and their individual rights.

cover of alan weisman's countdownAs a result, coercive or forced population control programs are problematic at best. Most of us know about the one-child limitation used for decades in China, which seems to many a draconian infringement of basic human rights and the epitome of government gone crazy. As Weisman puts it, “The thought of a one-child edict is appalling, even to most Chinese, who’ve tried it. No one wants to be told what to do about something so private and natural” (415). On top of appalling, the implementation of such programs is extremely difficult and often have unintended consequences, such as disproportionate ratios of males to females.

Another intriguing problem with population control, as necessary as it is, is that a shrinking population means trouble for an economy fueled by growth. A deeply engrossing section of Countdown is Weisman’s conversation in Japan with Akihiko Matsutani, author of Shrinking-Population Economics: Lessons from Japan. He has done creative, critical thinking about the question “Can we have prosperity without growth?” He (and Weisman elsewhere) points out that a shrinking population inevitably leads to difficulty maintaining an infrastructure and economy dependent on huge numbers of people (307). It is also a scary prospect for an aging population: fewer young people mean fewer caretakers for an older population.

long line of people

Numbers Game?

One rejoinder to these and other discussions of population (and especially population control) is that consumption, not population per se, is the real problem plaguing the planet; moreover, to target birth rates is in effect to “unfairly blame poor women for the world’s environmental ills” (404). Weisman does not give much attention to these arguments, taking for granted that “all environmental issues quickly lead to the fact that there are more humans than the system can comfortably hold” (132).

This decision reflects Weisman’s assurance that numbers are the big issue—which, though certainly true, is a little too simplistic. Arguments about unfair burdens and blame in population control programs deserve a great deal more consideration, especially in light of the vast disparities between “first” and “third” world environmental impacts. For example, according to a 2008 article in Mother Jones, the average American child generates as much carbon dioxide as 106 children in Haiti. According to Worldwatch Institute, “The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.” Given these great differences of the impact that one person has depending on where he or she lives, the consumption factor is worth more attention than Weisman gives it.

Despite these problems with broaching and acting on the subject, Weisman’s collection of voices (including his own) makes very clear that overall the population is growing, consumption overall is growing as well, and the world cannot take any of it—and all of us—much longer.

Resonating throughout the collection of voices in Countdown is the subject of “optimal population,” based on the idea that the problem is not human presence but human overabundance. Weisman makes it clear that we will reach optimal population one way or another—by choice or by catastrophe. In easily the most gripping moment of the book for me, Weisman describes the calculations of Gretchen Daily and Paul and Anne Ehrlich (authors of The Population Bomb): based on their number crunching of power consumption and population in 1993, they figured that the total number of people the Earth could hold was…2 billion. There were 2 billion humans on Earth in 1927…

As complicated as the problem of too many humans is in actuality, in theory, solving it is breathtakingly simple: “Let’s suppose … that the entire world adopted a one-child policy tomorrow. By the end of this century, we would be back to 1.6 billion, our population in 1900” (415).

Where Do We Go from Here?

What impressed me most in Countdown was seeing how many people are cutting through tradition, culture, and family pressure to take control of their reproductive systems and have fewer, or no, children. This is happening by choice in very different places…because people are recognizing that there are far too many of us.

Yet, even with birth rates falling below replacement rate (a little over two children per couple) in some countries, that one-child scenario Weisman pitches seems utopian at best and naïve at worst. The weight of Countdown’s moral argument falls especially on those of us in consumption-happy developed countries, where lifespans of the now-existing are only getting longer. The unlikeliness of a global one-child policy means that we who know better, have the resources to do so, and would leave the biggest footprints, must choose not to reproduce.

Weisman’s arguments in Countdown—the stories he brings together and the data he bolsters them with—make obvious the harms that humanity has done to the Earth, and the serious consequences that we will face in this century. Given the future world we have already largely created, is it justifiable to create more human children who will inherit such a mess?

Beyond the inevitable environmental impacts that come with a new human—wherever they live, and no matter their lifestyle—there also is such a desperate need to care for those who are already here: nearly 18 million children by one estimate, living in orphanages or on the street, are here with us now and could have their lives changed through adoption. Adoption can and should be seen as a viable option for building a family and caring for a child, though Weisman does not explore this component of family planning.

So is human reproduction warranted, let alone justifiable? Weisman certainly thinks the answer is no, even if he also feels that curtailing our fecundity has to happen on a voluntary basis to be successful (and ethical). Each person, and each couple, will thus have to answer this question for themselves…but Weisman’s diligent work makes clear that the burden of justification lies on those who, knowing the math and the trajectory we are on, choose to add another human child to a deeply troubled world.

Image credits: Pensiero via photopin cc; Official Countdown siteLeonrw via photopin cc

3 Comments

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  1. Is population killing us..? – van Kleeck
    “Weisman’s last book, The World Without Us, explored the idea of a world in which humans simply disappear, and how nature would change (or recover) in a humanless world.”
    Nature doesn’t ‘recover’ – it is what it is – with or without humans – or regardless of the impacts of the guano on the bottom of the bat cave. If it NEVER ‘recovered’ so it was again habitable by humans and other mammals – that would be the NEW recovered.

    The universe does NOT revolve around us!

    • In fairness, Justin didn’t write the title; I did. But I don’t think there’s anything in the review to suggest the idea that the universe does revolve around us: if anything, the line of thinking in Weisman’s book and Justin’s review suggests remembering that we’re just one part of a larger natural order.

  2. The “recover” idea is slightly figurative. But if you consider that humans have thrown a monkey wrench in a number of natural processes (from carbon sequestration to genetic coding) that, without us, would likely go back to what they were or close to what they were, I do not think saying “recover” is totally inaccurate.

    This has not a single thing to do with the world or the universe revolving around us. If anything, it is the opposite: we have overstepped our bounds as a species and will have to deal with the consequences. It is cause and effect, simple as that.

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