Book review: Countdown, by Alan Weisman

Published in 2013, the book had been waiting on one of my shelves for a while (I do have quite a bit of a backlog), and now that I have finally had time to read it, I want to take a bit more time to, well, tell you to read it.

In Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, Alan Weisman, a journalist and nonfiction writer, addresses head on an issue that most people avoid: the ever growing human population, the environmental, ecological, and social burden it carries, and what it means for the future of not only all other living beings, but also our own species.

Reading the book almost feels like watching a TV documentary series. It reads effortlessly and agreeably, while being informative and thought-provoking. Each chapter takes us to a different country and introduces us to local scientists, families, and policy professionals, mixing hard facts and personal stories. The author tells us about the problems these countries and populations face or will soon face: from construction firms in Israel worrying about the coming shortage of sand (wait, isn’t Israel mostly sand ??), to fishermen in the Philippines confronted with dwindling fish harvests (with all that water around ??) or people in India worrying about high-yield grain varieties from the Green Revolution that helped avert a major famine in the 1970s but are now dangerously depleting water resources, and so on.

While each chapter takes us to a different part of the world, telling us not only about local issues but also helping us understand the cultural, religious, political and ideological context in which they take place, the narrative always takes us back to the main theme of the book: the fact that all of these problems are signs of a much more general issue – overpopulation. We are reminded of a simple biological fact: that when a species outgrows the resources it depends on, it suffers a population crash. From there, we have two possibilities: either let that crash happen on its own (let “nature” run its course, even though it might not be pretty), or try to reduce in a controlled manner the global human population to a size that would allow everyone to live a healthy and happy life without destroying our resource base.

Weisman is not the first person to talk about a population crash, and a common argument against such a catastrophe is that previous predictions of population crash have never come to pass, thanks mostly to new technologies. Countdown indeed addresses this topic, taking us back to Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb published in 1968 and the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s that prevented the Ehrliches’ predictions from coming true. However, the author also points out that such technological advances have their own drawbacks, not only in terms of environmental cost for example, but also in that they only postpone a catastrophic event rather than prevent it altogether.

Talking about population size is a highly loaded question. Yet it’s an important one. Its complexity should not prevent us from addressing it, if only because burying one’s head in the sand has never been a problem-solver. Alan Weisman does more than informing us about problems, though. He offers suggestions on how to tackle them. He tells us how countries as different as Thailand, Iran, or Japan have managed to reduce population growth by offering reliable access to contraception and family planning to women who want it. As the title of the book says, Weisman’s message is one of hope – provided we all pay attention to it.

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
Alan Weisman. Little, Brown 2013. ISBN: 9780316097758

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