If there’s one thing we humans are good at, it’s surviving. Look at us go: “Over the past two centuries,” writes environmental journalist Alan Weisman in Countdown, “we have become brilliant at beating back diseases or preemptively protecting ourselves from them. . . . Through much of the world, we’ve doubled average human lifespans from under 40 years to nearly 80.”
In fact, we’re so good at surviving that we’re about to self-destruct; our planet runneth over. “Saving more lives than anyone in history also means there are more lives, period,” he writes. The dilemma: “how to keep growing . . . in a space that does not grow.”
In 2007’s best-selling The World Without Us, Weisman envisioned an Earth free of people, describing in vivid detail the impressive speed with which it might recover. His new book looks at what we must do if we intend to have both a healthy planet and a thriving human race. The problem, in his view, is clear: There are simply too many of us. The solution is a whole lot murkier.
Talking about population control is a tricky business, balancing altruism and self-interest. Family planning is OK for “them,” out of the question for “us.” Nobody wants to starve, but nobody wants their line to die out, either; if only half your babies live, you tend to have lots of them, even if more means hungrier.
Weisman avoids us-vs.-them generalizations by getting down to a micro level. Shrinking resources are a global emergency, so he goes everywhere: Pakistan, Japan, Uganda, Iran, Costa Rica, Jerusalem, Beijing. In each place he talks with people about their families, how they feel about how many children they have and whether that’s changed since their parents’ generation. Some have managed successfully and happily to reduce their family size, while others believe that big families are their only chance to beat their rivals—a sort of genetic arms race.
The stories Weisman tells are equally fascinating and maddening. He knows what’s at stake, but he also understands how people feel. He finds no easy answers, but in most places he finds people willing to take the long view.