Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, by Alan Weisman (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013, ISBN 978-0-316-09775-8) 528 pp. Hardcover, $28.00.
Front-page, New York Times, January 6, 2014: “Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States.” Washington Post editorial, same day: “A Cloudy Forecast: A New Report on Climate Change Shows There’s No Time to Waste.” If those headlines don’t get your attention, Alan Weisman’s new book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, will. But first, let’s fast backward a bit.
In 1954, Harrison Brown, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, published The Challenge of Man’s Future , a major study of the global overpopulation problem. Shortly after reading it, I was a guest on an Indianapolis radio talk-show to discuss the subject, along with the head of Indiana’s Planned Parenthood and a local minister. We agreed with Brown about the seriousness of the problem but never uttered the words contraception or birth control. The next day, a front-page newspaper headline screamed “Population Bomb Backfires” and smeared us for daring to discuss such matters in public. Since then, my interest in the matter has never flagged.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb hit the best-seller lists, stirring public interest at a time when world population was half what it is today. In 1974, President Richard Nixon ordered the study “Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.” On November 26, 1974, the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200 report was finished and endorsed by President Gerald Ford, but it was immediately, mysteriously, “classified” and buried until July, 1989. Population scientist Stephen Mumford of the Center for Research on Population and Security managed to get a copy of it from a member of Congress after seeing a reference in a 1991 issue of the National Catholic Register. Mumford published the report and distributed copies of it at the United Nations population conference in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994. Curiously, the NSSM 200 report got virtually no publicity in the United States. I was one of the few writers to review it—in the Americans for Religious Liberty journal Voice of Reason, in my column in a humanist magazine, and in an article in USA Today magazine.
The NSSM 200 report carefully spelled out the dire consequences of unchecked population growth, not only for our whole planet but also for every individual on it, and recommended that two-child families be the world norm by the year 2000. While insisting that family planning be totally voluntary, the report advocated universal access to family planning and the decriminalization of abortion.
Fast forward to 2014. World population, now over seven billion and still growing, is three times what it was when Harrison Brown was writing.
Weisman’s astonishingly comprehensive and wide-ranging book not only brings us up to date on the complex intricacies of population growth—he visited twenty-one countries on five continents in writing it—but it also links to a broad survey of what this growth in numbers is doing to the environment that sustains human and all other life. Bluntly put, we are seeing what our increasing numbers are doing to our world: climate change and global warming, rising sea levels, resource depletion, topsoil erosion, waste accumulation, deforestation, desertification, freshwater shortages, food crop disturbances, droughts, biodiversity shrinkage, overcrowding, increased pollution, and a rise in sociopolitical disorganization and violence. Increasing numbers of people on a planet that is being abused is a formula for disaster. Population will be reined in, either humanely and intelligently by us or harshly and murderously by nature.
Weisman makes all this eminently comprehensible. He leaves no stone unturned. He writes: “Except for volcanic eruptions, every emergency on Earth is now related to or aggravated by the presence of more people than conditions can bear.” He does not spare the religious leaders who have stood in the way of allowing sensible solutions to the overpopulation problem. He also notes that without over forty million abortions per year (about half performed in areas where they are illegal and unsafe), world population today would exceed ten billion. Clearly, allowing women to control their fertility is essential to working our way through these problems. Weisman also shows that equalizing educational opportunity for women is not only key to reducing family size but also to freeing women from the patriarchalism and misogyny that have bedeviled us for untold eons.
Countdown is not only a great read; it is the most important book you will see this year.