With a million more of us every 4½ days on a planet that's not getting any bigger, prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt. For this long awaited follow-up book, Alan Weisman traveled to more than 20 countries to ask what experts agreed were the probably the most important questions on Earth-and also the hardest: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? How robust must the Earth's ecosystem be to assure our continued existence? Can we know which other species are essential to our survival? And, how might we actually arrive at a stable, optimum population, and design an economy to allow genuine prosperity without endless growth?
The result is a landmark work of reporting: devastating, urgent, and, ultimately, deeply hopeful. By vividly detailing the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence, Countdown by Alan Weisman reveals what may be the fastest, most acceptable, practical, and affordable way of returning our planet and our presence on it to balance.
"Please read this book. Take your time. You will weep and yet be cheered. As Alan said when he was here in Minneapolis, "there are saints out there" so let's support what they are doing and gain a little grace, each one of us."
“Alan Weisman’s Countdown is rich, subtle and elaborate. His magisterial work should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the relationship between population and the environment…It’s a tightly argued, fast-paced adventure that crosses the plant in search of contrasts.”
“His gift as a writer with a love of science is in drawing links for readers on how everything in our world is connected — in this case, population, consumption and the environment…The pleasure in reading Countdown is in the interplay of interviews with experts and with everyday working people around the world, all trying to figure out the size of family they want. Even the experts reveal themselves as a humane and committed lot.”
“Countdown is a gripping narrative by a fair-minded investigative journalist who interviewed dozens of scientists and experts in various fields in 21 countries. “
“Weisman makes a powerful case that the best way to manage the global population is by empowering women, through both education and access to contraception—so that they can make more informed choices about family size and the kind of lives they want for themselves and their children.”
"He makes a strong case for slowing global population growth-and even for reducing overall population numbers-as a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable future...Weisman's book...offers hope... Weisman's emphasis on expanding access to contraception as the next-best strategy is both pragmatic and workable, as past efforts have shown. It is to be hoped that his message may be heeded sooner rather than later."
“If, as Weisman posits, population growth is inextricably linked in today's world with national security, what's the solution? One answer on offer is through family planning development initiatives and women's empowerment.”
Countdown is "a must read for all those who are concerned about the human prospect."
“Spirited descriptions, a firm grasp of complex material, and a bomb defuser’s steady precision make for a riveting read….Weisman’s cogent and forthright global inquiry, a major work, delineates how education, women’s equality, and family planning can curb poverty, thirst, hunger, and environmental destruction. Rigorous and provoking.”
“This is not a jeremiad but a realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species.”
“Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future.”
“Unflinching and ready for anything, Weisman’s Countdown tackles the biggest question facing not only us, but every other living thing on earth. How many people can there be on the earth? Written with extraordinary clarity, without all the arm-waving and doomsaying that seem to kill the conversation, his firsthand tour of the globe offers both worst-case scenarios and the most hopeful futures we can imagine.”
“Countdown converts globetrotting research into flowing journalism, highlighting a simple truth: there are, quite plainly, too many of us. A world that understands Weisman’s words will understand the pressing need for change.”
Alan Weisman is the author of several books, including The World Without Us: an international best-seller translated in 34 languages, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Wenjin Book Prize of the National Library of China. His work has been selected for many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing. An award-winning journalist, his reports have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Vanity Fair, Wilson Quarterly, Mother Jones, and Orion, and on NPR. A former contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions. He lives in western Massachusetts.
Watch Alan Weisman’s appearance at the Texas Book Festival
"What Does The Earth Ask of Us? Absolutely Nothing." What does Earth ask of us?, Center for Humans & Nature, Oct 30, 2013
“An Anthropocenic Creation Tale,” Earth Island Journal, Spring 2013
A Q&A with the Arizona Daily Star
Alan Weisman in the Los Angeles Times: “Overpopulation: Why ingenuity alone won't save us : We are running out of tricks to squeeze more from a planet already bursting its seams.”
A conversation with Alan Weisman from Salon.com
A Q&A with Alan Weisman from KQED’s Quest
Mother Jones Podcast
Quirks and Quarks Podcast
An interview by Denver Westword
Listen to Alan Weisman’s appearance on NPR’s Science Friday
New York Times Book Review Podcast
Alan Weisman's Op-Ed for CNN.com
New Yorker article featuring COUNTDOWN
7:00 PM ET
Live, In Person Lecture
2801 Sharon Turnpike
Millbrook, NY 12545
The Population Institute Global Media Awards
Washington, DC [time/place TBA]
Iowa State University
219 Ross Hall
Ames, IA 50011
Tucson Festival of Books
6:30 PM MT
Bud Werner Memorial Library
Talk and signing
Bud Werner Memorial Library
Steamboat Springs, CO 80487
Dear Mr. Weisman,
This morning, my husband read to me from your article entitled, "We don't need another billion people" from CNN. I was most particularly struck by the following statement
"An educated woman has an interesting and useful contribution to make to her family and her society. Since she can’t easily do that with seven children hanging on her skirts, most women who get through secondary school want two children or fewer. Providing access to contraception and educating women may be the fastest path to giving our planet a break. …"
I will share only three comments on this statement.
1. Your article pins woman as the cause of what you perceive to be a problem. Behind every child who could potentially be conceived there is a man and a woman and both are equally responsible.
2. You wrote that an educated woman can't easily make a useful contribution to society and her family if she has several children. The reality is that making a contribution is never easy--but that a good woman who raises a large family is making a much bigger and more useful contribution to society than she might otherwise make. She is raising the doctors, teachers business people, friends and neighbors who are going to make your world a better place than it is currently. There are many well-educated women who are willing to make the unpopular sacrifice to take time out of their careers to raise a family. The dividends are rich and the influence for good is immeasurable. An employee may easily be replaced--but no one can replace a mother.
3. The most concerning threat to the world is not the increasing population but the decreasing moral fiber of society. The greatest woes facing our world would dwindle away if we would strengthen families. We need to re-enthrone selflessness over selfishness
The best course of action is for us to strengthen families so that our country and our world can be great.
Dear Katie Maudsley,
Thanks for your good letter. I apologize that it's taken a while to respond; I've been on a nonstop book tour for the past six weeks, and finally get to go home for a week -- before I go again.
I thoroughly concur that it takes two to conceive a child -- both literally, and in terms of who's responsible. My recently released book, Countdown, which inspired CNN to run this op-ed, makes that eminently clear. In a space-constrained opinion column such as the short piece you read, the editors assume that some things are obvious to readers, and don't need to be stated.
Raising a family is one of the highest callings on this planet: again, incontestably true. But the reality in most places on Earth -- I researched Countdown in 21 countries, beginning in Israel and Palestine, ending in Iran -- is that many women have no choice but to work in order to help feed, clothe, and educate her children. It's also true that our world has all too often overlooked one of the best human resources we have: untapped female minds. An educated women is immensely valuable to her family and to her society. I would like to see every girl on Earth have the chance to study, so that she may decide for herself how she wants to use her education: either by performing a job that interests her, or by raising literate, curious children -- or both.
Your last point, about the decline of morality and the cult of selfishness, is of course correct. But I fear that, as always, morality is the hardest thing of all to impose, particularly in an age where advertising relentlessly assures people that self-gratification is desirable and in easy reach -- and will be yet again tomorrow, when even more irresistible products appear. My book Countdown tries not to eradicate self-interest (I fear the world will be long trashed before we eliminate it) but to reorient it. Among other things, it's in the self-interest of every family to have the number of children they can responsibly care for. I've seen far too many large families in my travels where resources are stretched far too thin for children to have their healthy share of food and medical care, let alone opportunity. Although I know of many exceptions, and your own family may be one, most families with fewer children are strengthened by having enough to go around. And in a world where nearly half the land is devoted to feeding just our species, fewer children may mean we're all healthier in the long run.
Thanks again for writing. It's helpful to hear your perspective. I suspect you have some very lucky children.
Thank you for your email! I was impressed that you took the time to respond and to help me better understand your point of view. I agree with you on the importance of education for women, not because I hope that it will slow the increasing world population, but because of how it will improve the quality of life for women and their families (which I am sure is also a motivating factor for you). There is much work to be done, but I believe that the Perpetual Education Fund and Micro-Finance endeavors are making a difference for good.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer my email!
Would love to read your recent book electronically, but not at the over-pricing your publisher has established for the eBook. So, as I only read electronically these days (better for my old eyes), and as important as I feel your work is, guess I'll have to forgo reading it. Boycotting Hachette and the other price-fixing publishers anyway...
Lost Causes, NM
I'm sorry you feel this way, but to be frank, I don't think the e-book isn't overpriced. The research for this book required a substantial investment by my publisher, which staked me to travel to 21 countries on several continents, where I had to hire fixers, translators, and drivers, and find lodging, etc. Besides those costs, I also lived off my advance for three years during the research and writing. The sale price of ebooks is lower than hardcover, so my earnings and the publisher's are lower accordingly.
The book is available for free for anyone who feels priced out of the market, of course, through public libraries, several of which now also loan e-books. I hope you can find one. But please consider before you accuse publishers of price-fixing that without their financial support, we writers simply could not afford to do the extensive field research to thoroughly cover crucial topics and bring them to our readers.
I just read a Salon interview with you where you mentioned 2 children or less. Surely you are aware of the reason/math for one or none.
Hi Matt --
I'm certainly aware of the math -- I discuss it in my book. But I'm also aware of reality: Most people are appalled by China's one-child policy -- including in China, one of the 21 countries where I researched my book. However, if they have the option of having two, they don't feel coerced -- and most Chinese, when given the choice (a third of them fall under exemptions to the policy) end up choosing to have just one anyway, because more than half live in cities now, where kids aren't needed to tend the farm, and where raising and educating kids is expensive.
Two children replace two parents, so at least the population doesn't grow. For population to shrink, of course, more couples must have one or none. In many countries where I traveled, that's what people are choosing: even Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, and Costa Rica are well below replacement rate -- and Muslim countries like Tunisia and Iran -- and several more Latin American countries soon will be as well.
But you're right: population won't come down as quickly if some couples have two. However, convincing everybody that they must have one or none simply isn't realistic: it's not just about math, but about human emotions, which are too powerful to ignore. For the idea of bringing population down to a safer, more sustainable number to become widely acceptable, people need to believe they can have two without feeling guilty -- and then, chances are very good that many will only have one, anyhow. It'll be more gradual, but it has a far better chance of happening -- and in terms of the huge shift to a no-growth economy that population reduction necessarily means, a more gradual decline would give us more time to adjust.
Thanks for writing,
If you think it is hard getting people to change the way they think about population, try getting them to change the way they think about their God.
I will order your book.
Many thanks, David. I needed to interview many religious figures for this book -- Buddhist monks, Hasidic rabbis, imams in countries from Niger to Pakistan to Iran, two prelates in the Vatican, and evangelical Christians and Mormons. My idea wasn't to change their minds, but to see what in their faiths or histories might embrace both the preservation of nature and the idea that in times of crisis, sometimes it's wise to literally refrain from embracing so much -- such as Joseph in the Old Testament, one of the patriarch Jacob's 13 children, who contents himself with just one wife and two children, and teaches the Egyptians to survive a famine by conserving resources.
I hope you're encouraged by what I found.
All the best ,
From Vanessa Lum, a reader in Hawaii
Alan, I would appreciate your thoughts concerning the recent events at Fukushima, in light of what you wrote in your last book, The World Without Us, concerning nuclear reactors. With the melted cores contaminating the ground waters underneath the plants and flowing into the open ocean, it is reasonable to assume that its effects will be felt far beyond the shores of Japan.
Yes, Fukushima is horrible, especially given the latest, unfortunately predictable admission by Tokyo Electric Power Company of increased contaminated water releases. How far those effects will be felt is uncertain, however, as it's a very big ocean, and radioactive water will be greatly diluted by the time it washes up on Oahu's shores -- if ever. (You may recall that at the end of TWWU I describe the radioactive bombing and waste-dumping at Johnston Atoll in the northwest Hawaiian islands. To my knowledge, water-borne radioactivity never spread detectably to the rest of the archipelago.)
That doesn't mean that some contaminated junk might not float across the Pacific -- some Fukushima flotsam made it all the way to Oregon, though I don't believe it was irradiated. A greater worry is airborne contamination, which is still possible, especially as they now want to move fuel rods to someplace safer: that means that the current situation is unstable, and the very act of moving them will be risky -- either could result in a radioactive fire.
The main concern about Fukushima is what it shows about the chances we take to slake our energy addiction. I was in Japan not long after the disaster to research my new book, Countdown, and at one point -- I describe this in the book's epilogue -- I was asked by a business magazine if I thought that Japanese people were being hysterical to demand an end to nuclear power in the wake of the tragedy.
“I wouldn’t call it hysteria,” I answered, “given that all your nuclear plants are in seismic zones or on seacoasts, exposed to typhoons and tsunamis.”
“But people will suffer even more if productivity drops. Isn’t it hysterical not to take that into account?” the interviewer countered. Over the next half-hour, he kept rephrasing his question, hoping for a more satisfying response—until, during his fourth try, the coffee shop where we sat shook as a tremor struck central Tokyo, rendering my reply unnecessary.
Fukushima will be dangerously hot for a long time -- possibly for longer than the country called Japan lasts. On top of all the losses on the day the tsunami struck, this was the nation's most fertile fruit basket, so generations of food production and much scarce arable and livable land has been lost as well. I sometimes wonder if we'll ever learn -- but I haven't stopped trying to help fix that, and neither should you.
All the best,