Sunday, October 20, 2013

1172. Book Review: Countdown

By Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times, October 11, 2013

If we wanted to bring about the extinction of the human race as quickly as possible, how might we proceed? We could begin by destroying the planet’s atmosphere, making it incapable of supporting human life. We could invent bombs capable of obliterating the entire planet, and place them in the hands of those desperate enough to detonate them. We could bioengineer our main food sources — rice, wheat and corn — in such a way that a single disease could bring about catastrophic famine. But the most effective measure, counterintuitive as it may be, would be to increase our numbers. Population is what economists call a multiplier. The more people, the greater the likelihood of ecological collapse, nuclear war, plague.

As Alan Weisman’s “Countdown” amply demonstrates, we are well on our way. Some seven billion people are alive today; the United Nations estimates that by the end of the century we could number as many as 15.8 billion. Biologists have calculated that an ideal population — the number at which everyone could live at a first-world level of consumption, without ruining the planet irretrievably — would be 1.5 billion.
Weisman’s jeremiad amounts to a world tour of our overpopulation misery. He begins in Jerusalem, where he learns that construction firms worry about running out of sand, despite the fact that half of Israel is a desert. Water is in short supply, too. Because of agricultural irrigation, the Jordan River is now a “fetid ditch”; pilgrims who attempt to bathe at the spot where Jesus is said to have been baptized will develop a rash and, if they swallow the water, will most likely vomit.
Niger has the world’s highest fertility rate (about seven births per woman), maintained in part by the persistence of human slavery. The Philippines have a glut of fishermen, but are running out of fish. Pakistan is set to become the world’s fourth-most-populous nation by 2050. “We’re praying that Pakistan only doubles,” the director of a Pakistani health organization says. “We are a crowded, underdeveloped nation — more a crowd than a nation. So we’ll have more illiterates, more youths without productive jobs and more chaos.”
The question mark that ends the book’s subtitle is as significant as what precedes it. If we dramatically reduce the planet’s human population, we might have a future here. Then again, it might already be too late. Weisman raises the example of the passenger pigeon. During the 19th century it was one of the most abundant birds on earth, with as many as five billion in America alone. The passenger pigeon went extinct in 1914, but it was doomed long before then, even as it still numbered in the millions, since its habitat and food supply had already dwindled beyond sustenance level. “Was it possible,” Weisman writes, “that my own species might also already be the living dead?”
“Countdown” is a bleak sequel to “The World Without Us,” Weisman’s elegant account of what would happen to the planet should human beings suddenly vanish. That book drew its subtle and visceral power from Edenic descriptions of an Earth reclaimed by its forests and oceans, healing from the wounds inflicted by civilization. With its imaginative force and vivid storytelling, it had the power of the best speculative fiction; but in “Countdown,” “there’s no imagining.”
Perhaps motivated by the urgency of his theme, or frustration over the intransigence of the problem, Weisman abandons subtlety in favor of making his message — we need to slow our rate of procreation, if we want to survive — explicitly and didactically in every chapter. His dire warnings, and the warnings of the scientists and government officials he interviews, are unrelenting, with variations of the following sentence appearing at regular intervals: “In the entire history of biology, every species that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash — a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species.”
Weisman visits more than 20 countries and interviews countless local scientists, families and policy directors, but the problem is always the same: There are too many people. The culprits are modern medicine, which has caused life expectancy in the last two centuries to nearly double; innovations in agronomy, which have dramatically increased global food production; and a failure to provide contraception to women.
From Thomas Malthus to Paul and Anne Ehrlich, authors of “The Population Bomb” (1968), population doomsayers have endured ridicule and vilification, largely because their predictions of imminent doom fail to materialize on schedule. In our own time, there are a few mitigating indicators. Much of the current population growth comes in the developing world, where carbon consumption remains low, so the environmental effect is relatively muted. The next thousand Americans will do more than twice as much damage as the next hundred thousand Nigeriens, though that is hardly a cause for celebration.
Perhaps more significantly, the global fertility rate has declined every year since 1965, from nearly five births per woman to 2.4. The problem is that anything above 2.33 — the rate at which births equal deaths, when child mortality is ­factored in — will yield a population expansion. Even when fertility drops below the ­replacement rate, it will take decades for the population to begin to decline. At today’s rate, world population would stabilize at 10 billion by 2100. But that will most likely never happen, Weisman writes, because seven billion people “are already turning the atmosphere into something ­unlivable.”
The grim prophecies are illustrated with statistics. Each year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt; by 2040, China will have more than 100 million 80-year-olds. We add another million people every four and a half days. But statistics fail to tell the entire story. Weisman’s problem — and the problem of all those who warn about overpopulation or, for that matter, the correlative dangers of ecological devastation — is a problem of imagination. Not Weisman’s imagination. Ours. As one scholar says in “Countdown,” “most people’s minds go blank after 100,000.” Large numbers are difficult to visualize. Numbers are even more difficult to feel.
Metaphors bring us closer. Over the course of the book, man is likened to a cancer; to “a voracious monoculture” that sucks “resources in at the cost of the rest of life on the planet”; and to the mule deer of Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, an example of a species once “doomed to ­overpopulate.”
But the book’s most indelible image comes from Weisman’s visit to Japan, where the fertility rate is so low — 1.4 children per female — that the population has been declining since 2006. This might make Japan something of a best-case situation, but an aging population means there are too many senior citizens, and not enough young people to take care of them. Already Japan has a shortage of geriatric nurses. Weisman visits Nagoya Science Park, where Japan’s oldest scientific firm has built RIBA II, a robotic white bear designed to carry elderly people around the house. It has large, widely-spaced black eyes, cute little ears and a painted smile.
“I will do my best,” says the bear, as it approaches a man who is lying on a hospital bed. “I will carry you as though you were a princess.”
RIBA II slides one paw under the patient’s knees, the other beneath his back. The robot cradles the man in its arms. It carries the man across the room, and lowers him tenderly into a wheelchair.
“I’m finished,” announces RIBA II, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the robot speaks for us all.

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