Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth
Pros: very compelling and engaging read; insightful
Cons: at times disturbing
As a kid at the beginning of the “Green Revolution” or around 1960, Alan Weisman found a stuffed passenger pigeon in his Minneapolis library museum, a bird wiped out by 1914, and later read that when only a million of the world’s once most numerous birds was living, they were considered functionally extinct because “the pattern that doomed their critical habitat and food supply was already set.” He then chillingly wondered if his own species might already be, well, the walking dead. That disturbing discovery was recalled as he wrote his latest book, 2013’s Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth?. His previous, critically and commercially successful book, The World Without Us, was a thought experiment that considered how resilient nature is if we give it a chance to recover from our abuse, but his latest is based on hard-hitting reality.
Every four and a half days another million babies are born, which is comparable to another New York City sprouting up on our planet. If you think that’s scary, our population growth would be doubled that if not for family planning programs over recent decades. The world’s population over the twentieth century has quintupled from less than two billion to about seven billion, with projections of ten billion or more by mid-century. The question is now whether we can continue to have a world with us and how do we go about determining the answers to four questions that many world experts regard as crucial:
How many people can the Earth hold without capsizing?
How robust must the Earth’s ecosystem be to ensure our continued existence?
Can we know which other species are essential to our survival?
How might we arrive at a stable, optimum population and design an economy to enjoy prosperity without endless growth?
I think most of us will agree that finding the answers to the first three questions is simply impossible without risking our lives – we can’t manage humans like we do wildlife, after all – but a few countries like Israel and Palestine are willing to try in spite of the misery it causes. That’s where Countdown begins as Weisman journeys to more than twenty countries around the globe that are struggling with too many people or, in Japan’s unique case, a dwindling population. The chapter about Japan, “Shrink and Prosper”, was especially fascinating because they are reluctantly leading the way for the rest of us from an economy based on growth to a steady-state one where the budget remains balanced.
They alone are really trying to answer the fourth two-part question and the world is watching them with great interest. Weisman met with, among other intriguing Japanese, a robot maker training it to be an elderly caregiver because his society has more old than young people.
Countdown is endlessly fascinating, not only because Weisman traveled to more than twenty countries like Libya, Niger, Nigeria, China, Iran, Thailand, Mexico, Costa Rica, England, Italy, Vatican City, the ones already mentioned and a few I’d never heard of, but I also learned so much about the world, its people, cultures, and history. Did you know the Philippines was once a U.S. colony and, I think, a quarter million of them were killed as they fought for independence in 1946? Puerto Rico still is our colony and in the 1930s or so our government tried out unperfected contraceptives on their poor women.
It’s also a compelling, five-part book because Weisman makes clear what our limited choices are if we wish to keep living on this Earth with its quickly-melting glaciers, rising, warming, and more acidic seas, depleting resources, and imminent ecological disasters. One solution will help prevent these changes and it’s making family planning programs available, affordable, and attractive to all girls and women, even men. It’s true that being less carbon-heavy users and wasteful will help to some degree, but as Weisman points out, we’re not going to willingly change our material ways and profit-driven economy, and so reducing our population is our best chance to ensure our future.
I sure don’t want to be one of the walking dead just waiting for my extinction. Do you? Read this insightful, sometimes disturbing book that was years in the making and become part of the solution.
Thanks for reading!