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Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth?

Jennifer Scarlott reviews Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman.

Book Details

Author: Alan Weisman

Published by: Little, Brown, New York, 2013,

Hardcover, 528 pages

Price: U.S. $ 28/-.

In this provocative, globe-trekking narrative exploring the conundrum of human population and a finite planet, author Alan Weisman quotes Dr. John Guillebaud, British professor, who fixed his eye on his audience during a debate on sustainable population and declared: “Unremitting growth, folks, is the doctrine of thecancer cell.

The cover of Weisman’s book indicates that he agrees with Guillebaud’s point. It depicts two possible futures for Earth. One half is green, and holds a smattering of people, as well as trees, birds, and wildlife. The other side is black, and contains nothing but humans packed together and overlapping like sardines in a very small can.

In this gripping sequel of sorts to his best-selling The World Without Us, Weisman asks how long planet Earth can sustain a species that increases its numbers by one million every four and a half days. Don’t be fooled, he says, by the truth that birth rates are dropping. Though that is good news, it is not good enough. The problem is population momentum, which almost guarantees that at least another two billion people will be added to the planet before the runaway train can be put into reverse.

In his previous work, Weisman had posed the spooky but irresistible question of how Earth would respond if humankind vanished from its surface, driving home the inescapable fact that it is the presence and activity of one species that is driving the planet to the breaking point.

In Countdown, Weisman travelled to 20 countries to pose and seek answers to his follow-up questions: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing?

How robust must the Earth’s ecosystems be to assure our continued existence? Can we know, or should we ask, which other species are essential to our survival? How might we arrive at a stable, optimum population, and design economies that allow genuine prosperity without endless growth?

Weisman launches his book with two intriguing quotes. The first is from the New Testament: “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number.” This allusion to Biblical reason, and harmony between humans and nature is followed by a flat injunction from the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1989: “When wisdom dictates that you do not need more children, a vasectomy is permissible.”

As he did in The World Without Us, Weisman takes us with him to deserts and forests, to high-tech offices where the next Green Revolution is being plotted, and to debates on optimum population in church crypts under the busy streets of London. In India, Italy, Japan, in Niger, Mexico, Uganda and Palestine, Weisman initiates candid conversations with religious leaders, public health experts, scientists, and people passionate about bird migration. Some people tell him that “we cannot hold back doomsday.” Others drive home the connections between family-planning, wildlife protection, and eco-tourism. Some point a finger at money addiction and capitalism as problems that must be solved to crack the population code, others say that human ingenuity and technological fixes will always save the day.

Weisman writes lucidly, his reportage a narrative that will sweep along readers usually indifferent to non-fiction.  Ultimately, having wrestled with the numbers and the stories, Weisman arrives at some core truths, among them, that not just slowing but reducing the global population is a pre-requisite for achieving a liveable and sustainable future. He analyses the methods for reducing our numbers, and without giving too much away, because I urge you to read this book, he concludes that access to education and family planning for women all over the world can achieve an equilibrium that we and the rest of life can live with. Technological innovation alone will never erase the havoc our species is wreaking upon the Earth, says Weisman. Our technological smarts must be harnessed to a deeper wisdom, of ourselves as an intrinsic part of nature, beholden to and dependent on it, if we are to secure our future and the future of our collective home.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014


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