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.

Next page: Is population really the problem… or are consumption levels the real issue?

Image credits: Pensiero via photopin cc; Official Countdown site

  1. S Al

    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!

    1. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

      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. Justin Van Kleeck

    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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