Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

…It’s like understanding the area of a rectangle. To know how big a rectangle is, you have to multiply the width by the length. So, the width in this case is the amount of energy and resources that the human race demands. The length is the number of those who are doing the demanding. And you increase either one of those, and the rectangle gets bigger. In this case what the rectangle is, is our impact on the world…

The following is the transcript of an interview with Alan Weisman by Heiko Urbanzyk. Heiko has kindly given permission for this interview to be published on this site. Please take the time to read and share.

His thought experiment of a “World without us”, a world without human beings became a worldwide bestseller. The same titled article which marked the beginning for the book made him part of the anthology “Best American Science Writing“ in 2006. Since September 2013, Alan Weisman is back with his book “Countdown”. It’s an interesting and very detailed, but yet easy readable approach to make the public think about the problems of overpopulation. I met Alan Weisman in the middle of November in Berlin on his release tour.

It’s was not easy to start the interview as “Countdown“ is such an information overload like “The world without us“ was; so full of interesting aspects on overpopulation and demographic changes all around the world. And it’s breaking a lot of taboos, by speaking out facts, that we might feel personally offended by. Therefore, I simply began with the very first thoughts when I received the book and started reading it.

Alan, the topic of overpopulation is an absolute taboo – at least in Germany and Europe. That’s a fact. Neither the usual environmental organizations, nor any newspapers talk or write about overpopulation when telling about climate-change or consumption of resources. I guess, it’s simply not politically correct to tell other nations that they have too many people. And it’s not easy to tell people that their existence is a threat to mother earth. Especially if we notice, that the problem of overpopulation is a problem of Africa and Asia. It’s always like: “Oh, no, how can you say this about this poor people?!” You mention these facts in “Countdown”, too. The media has called you a “taboo breaker”? Were there any obstacles or prejudices against your book?

The book turned out so logical, just like another journalist told me. It makes so much sense, to say that the problem is not overpopulation, but overconsumption. It’s something that even a six year old child realizes. To ask: Who is doing the consuming? The more people consuming the more consumption we are going to have. It’s a huge problem. It’s also a problem, that exists as much here in Germany as it exists in the poorest countries in Africa, that I visited.

It’s like understanding the area of a rectangle. To know how big a rectangle is, you have to multiply the width by the length. So, the width in this case is the amount of energy and resources that the human race demands. The length is the number of those who are doing the demanding. And you increase either one of those, and the rectangle gets bigger. In this case what the rectangle is, is our impact on the world. But the world itself is not getting bigger and so as we get bigger our impact increases more and more. So population has to come down all over the world: In rich countries and in poor countries, if we’re willing to be sustainable.

You mentioned my previous book “The world without us”. I really wrote that book because I want to have a world with us. I wanted people to see if we remove ourselves, how quickly nature could recover if it was released of all our daily pressures. But in the epilogue when I talked about how we might have a world with us, I ran into a fact that I just could not get around, that every four or four and half days we are adding a million people to the planet. This is a totally unsustainable figure. It doesn’t matter where those people are. If they are in Africa they are still demanding land to grow food on, they are still requiring fuel, firewood, or as they move into cities electricity, more often. Or if the can’t survive there, they migrate and they come to live here.

These are problems that we cannot solve by ignoring. The only way we can solve them is by dealing with them. And right now we have to deal with these problems because there is more CO2 in the atmosphere than there has been in three million years. Three million years ago the seas were 60 to 100 feet higher and this is the future that we are starting to look at. Of feedback loops: they are going to thaw the arctic, release more methane, things are gonna keep getting warmer and the seas are gonna keep rising. Most of our economy in the world is settled on port cities. It’s going to be incredibly expensive to protect these port cities. And the economists who talk about constant growth as being healthy for our economy, they are ignoring this fact because they never had a deal with it. Until suddenly the CO2 became so prominent in the atmosphere that it is changing the very weather and the chemistry of the seas. All of life is dependent on what happens in the sea and if we change its chemistry and it becomes more and more acidic, we don’t know if life as we know it can continue on. This is a very big risk to be taken.

In Switzerland there is for example the “Ecopop Initiative” for the restriction of immigration. They say – simply spoken – “We are just a small country surrounded by all these mountains and we cannot take any population growth anymore. There’s just no room.” Of course, these people and their initiative are called right-winged, xenophobes or whatever. And maybe, that’s true for this or that organization. But the problems remain the same as well as the aim to stop overpopulation. This is the second different aspect about overpopulation: Rich countries with a birth rate of 1.5 children per woman, countries who had the ecological chance of a de-growth are now faced with immigration from overpopulated countries. You have met a lot of people in Britain or Japan who argue against immigration. You mention the discussions of the Optimum Population Trust or Albert Bartlett’s call to stop immigration to the USA. The facts are true and correct, but everybody feels uncomfortable to speak them out. What is your opinion about these immigration topics, especially in countries which had no overpopulation without immigration?

Immigration is a complicated issue. And one of the reasons that overpopulation becomes taboo is that people don’t like to talk about it, if it sounds like they’re being racist and that they want to exclude people who oftentimes have different skin colour, or different religions or different habits. They also oftentimes fear that these people are going to…..Well, they are coming from high population countries, so they have going to have a high population and they are gonna outnumber the traditional Swiss, or traditional German, or traditional Dane or traditional British. As it happens, that doesn’t occur. When immigrants come to Europe or to the United States, within a generation they are taking advantage of education and they are having fewer children for the same reason that educated women everywhere in the world have fewer children. Because they have something useful to do with their life that they can’t do if they have seven kids. They can have two or fewer children and they can still be an economic help to their family and have a very interesting life. It turns out that education is actually the best contraceptive of all!

But for Switzerland or any other country to restrict immigration, first of all: Germany’s robust economy right now is partly due the fact that you have immigrants in this country who are filling the labour force. So, this is a way of redistributing the wealth in the world between the poor countries and the wealthy countries. It’s too bad that the poor have to come to the wealthy countries to get the work and to earn the salaries, but that is one of the things that happen.

I go to the Philippines in “Countdown”. There are so many Philippinos working outside of the country that one of the ministries in the government is for the issue of Philippine External Workers that we find all over the Middle East and we find them here in Europe and we find them in the USA. You know, I’m from America. It’s a nation of immigrants. We don’t have the deep cultural roots that Europe has and which I think are very beautiful. But we have an economy that has been very thriving in the past and we have built it because of immigrants. The immigrants have enriched the country in some ways. My own father was an immigrant to the United States. I welcome the immigrants that come from the poor countries that unfortunately the United States has oftentimes exploited  very much. The United States is now becoming a Latin American country more and more because so many Latin Americans live there. It’s only going to be to the advantage of the United States and it’s only going to equal the distribution of wealth in the world a little more to do this.

So, I don’t think that these laws are ultimately going to do very much good because…. Switzerland can try to protect the Alps from being overrun by people. They can’t protect the Alps, the glaciers of the Alps from melting if there are so many people on this earth demanding so much energy, that we are continually putting more CO2 into the world. Despite all the good efforts here, for example in Germany, to use renewable energy, worldwide we increased global emissions of CO2 by 5 % . We grow most of our food now with artificial fertilizer. That’s like eating oil, because it takes fossil fuels to make it. Artificial fertilizer is made from fossil fuels and it takes the energy of fuels to make them. So, all the things that all of us are doing right now, are making it harder and harder to live on the planet. And Switzerland without snow and without ice would not be very hospitable to the Swiss.

On your journeys you talked to a lot of downshifters/dropouts. Honest people who do the contrary of that which is done in the society which surrounds them: Getting two children while others get seven; or getting five Children while others get none (Japan), ecological farming instead of industrial agriculture and so on. What impression did you have: Are these downshifters just exotic foreigners, avant-garde of a new society or already a part of a serious movement?

I think that they’re last two! In Japan it’s just become logical that – as the country shrinks, and it shrinks because Japan doesn’t allow immigration, and after WW II they had to cut off their baby-boom because people were starving to death. Pregnant mothers were throwing themselves in front of trains because they didn’t want to watch more babies die. So, they legalized abortion, this was before birth-control pills, so people could afford the children that they have. Therefore, today Japan is shrinking as a result and young people suddenly realize, that there is all this empty land and empty houses as the old overgrown generation dies off. It’s much cheaper to go and live there. And as they go live there industries starting to follow them. Japan, instead of being ringed by heavy export industries that use a lot of raw materials, they import it and then they produce goods and export it. They have all this nuclear energy along the coast line. People are moving inland and smaller industries are starting to follow them and because as there are fewer workers, they become more valuable. The industries are producing different kinds of products, probably just for local consumption. Eventually, this is turning into less work, but that means fewer working hours. But the wages are still good because fewer workers are in demand. The lifestyle suddenly is much more enjoyable. People are going back to doing things that human beings have always enjoyed doing: living on the land and living in comfortable communities, not in huge overgrown cities.

Imagine just a few thousand  people from big cities beginning a new life with their own farms or starting to shorten their working hours! In countries like Japan and even Germany or England, there wouldn’t hardly be enough land for them. Who would do their work, if they start working 20 hours per week instead of 40 hours? Could this life-style of downshifting become a mass-movement at all?

It will become a mass-movement, but it will take a couple of generations. It will take a few decades.   We don’t want the economic shift to be suddenly stop today and start something completely different tomorrow. It has to be gradual, so we can ease our way into it.

If at the same time we are reducing the population there are fewer of us, then the land will be more available, because we are fewer people. These are two things that will go hand in hand: re-adjusting our economy as we bring our population down to a healthy size.

At the end of “Countdown” I give an example. You have pro-growth economists, who are always saying that the measure of the health of the economy is whether it’s growing. There are a couple of things about that:

Pro-growth economists always like large populations, because that makes labour cheaper. They like it when poor people are competing against each other and they will work for less and less money. It’s a way of squeezing and exploiting poor people. In the future, they fear that when there are fewer people, wages are going to have to remain high, because of the demand for workers. It will be a better and fairer world. Right now we have a few rich people with most of the money in the world and that is destabilizing or world. So, this is going to be an advantage.

Another thing that the economists failed to tell us is that they really want it both ways: They want large populations so there is always more people to buy more products and to work more cheaply.

But at the same time if you own a corporation and your hire one of these pro-growth economists to be a consultant, the first thing they are gonna tell you is, that you’ve got to cut out the fat. You’ve gotta get “lean” to have a healthy corporation. So, they want you to fire a lot of people and bring your corporation down to a sustainable size. Now, if you’re a nice guy, instead of firing everybody all at once, you will, as workers retire or as they die off or move on, you will become more efficient, you will use better technology and will hire fewer workers to replace your work force – and you will come down gradually to a healthier size. Which is what we have to do with this planet. We have to recruit fewer people to take care of us. We have to recruit fewer people to take our place, because there are far more people on this planet than nature ever intended.

What nature does with every species is that the species find a balance. A balance between the number of those who die and those who are born. In the 19th century we began to change that balance. We created medicine that allowed fewer babies to die. It used to be that most babies did not live to their fifth birthday. Our great-great-grandmothers may have had seven or eight children, but only two or three survived – maximum! Suddenly, everybody was surviving and people are living longer, so, this is very unnatural. Then we created ways to create much more plant-life on the planet then has ever existed with artificial fertilizer; nearly doubling the amount of human beings that could be born. Our population quadrupled in the 20th century. That’s completely unnatural. For you and me it feels natural because we are born in the middle of that. But it isn’t and nature isn’t going to let it continue.

These economists who want this big bubble of population have seen enormous profits because  there were so many consumers. But they are not talking about reality, they are talking about something temporary that nature will not allow to continue.

Actually, a German is propagating a petition to the United Nations to consider passing a motion or contract which enforce a worldwide birth-rate of two children per family. On the one hand “Countdown” proves that each country or region in the world needs a special solution for itself, a decentralized solution to overpopulation….

Yes, a culturally acceptable solution! Most countries would not like the Chinese One-Child-Policy. Most Chinese do not like the One-Child-Policy.

On the other hand, how could we manage that each country really works on such a solution?  Doesn’t it need the control of a higher political stance?

The word “control” is a dangerous word. I think, what we have to do, is simply make the means available. Which is very cheap. Making enough contraception available so every woman in the world can choose to use it, would cost very little money. A little over 8 billion dollars a year. That’s less than the United States are spending per month in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not very much money. bbbI talked in “Countdown” about several different countries in this world that in different ways have brought their population birth-rate down to two children or fewer per family. Ways that were culturally acceptable to them.

In Mexico they did it with television programmes, soap-operas, so called Telenovelas. They showed that small families do better than larger families. In Thailand they did it with humor. They made it fun to use condoms. They made it economically sensible. This is an economist who started that programme, telling poor villages that they would always remain poor if they kept having too many children. But each family could be better off if it had fewer. The whole village could be better off if it had fewer. They told the sex-industry that no-one needs an industry that makes its clients sick. Use condoms! Everybody stays healthy. It worked perfectly.

In Iran, a Muslim country, they issued a religious opinion, a fatwa, saying, that there is nothing in the Koran that says you cannot use contraceptives, if wisdom tells you that you have the number of children which you can responsibly care for. They made contraception available for everyone and they encouraged women to study. Iran had only one third of their women who could read and write when this began. Today, 60 % of the university students are female in Iran. They came down to the replacement rate, two children per family, even faster than China.

So, there are ways to do this. Not by controlling or forcing the countries to do it, but by making the means available and making it attractive to every family to make these decisions.

Well, female education is a problem in some countries in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, in Pakistan, the Taliban blows up schools because they educate females. But I have a wonderful story in “Countdown” about these five businessmen in Karachi, Pakistan, who were so sick of the government and the government schools, that they started their own school-system in the poorest places in the country. They made it so cheap that everybody can afford to send their children to these schools. In the co-educational schools they insist on 50 % girls. When they get to be in secondary school every child picks a profession that he or she might like to perform, to do someday for a job. They pair them up with an adult who is doing that. So, the girls are paired with flight-attendants, nurses, female doctors, school teachers and they see that all these professional women only have two children. They never talk about family planning. But these girls understand immediately that they only can have two or fewer children if they want to do something with their education.

When I interviewed one of the founders I said: “Well, what about the Taliban?” And they answered: “It’s simple. We told them that we promise them for every school of us they blow up, that we will build five more”.  They now have over 420 schools. So, we can do this!

But this process which you describe above must be a worldwide approach and it has to begin now – all around the world. How do we make politicians, economists or rich spenders start this process? If you have a country where the “elites” have an interest in holding people down by poverty? If they don’t want educated women because of a certain cultural background? How can changes come in these situations?

Well, look, there’s a couple of things. First of all, my approach to the problem is writing a book, making it as readable as possible. So that people would think about these ideas and realize that it’s probably in their own self-interest to have fewer children. It’s much more affordable. Your children will be healthier if you only have two, not if you have six.

Second, my book spreads! It’s coming out now in 14 languages and I hope it will come out in more.  It’s only been out for a month. The best thing now about this is that it does not take governments to do it. The only role the government, and also private foundations, play is providing the money to make contraceptives available. The Unite States government is the biggest donor for contraception in the world. Germany also donates. There are private foundations that donate. We are not talking about a lot of money. 8 billion dollars per year is not a lot of money. This is affordable and people can make these decisions for themselves. They don’t have to wait for a government economist, or a government policy.

I show it in the chapter on the Philippines, where the government, because it’s one of the few governments where the Catholic church still has a lot of power – the government refuses to have a national family planning programme. They finally changed it after 40 years and it is now stuck at the Supreme Court. In the meantime all these fishing villages are taking the family planning into their own hands, because it’s logical. The fishermen suddenly realized that they cannot become so numerous that they overwhelm the fish stocks. They have seen over the past few decades, that it’s harder to catch fish because there are so many fishermen. So, now someone comes and offers them contraceptives and everybody wants to take them because if you only have two sons who will be fishermen that is much better than having nine of them. Actually the real figure with this, the families average between eight and nine and about half of them would be male. So now they are averaging two and half of them a male. So, one fisherman produces one son who’s a fisherman.  The fish stocks do not come under increasing pressure with a new generation because it’s now stable.

We can do this without waiting for the governments to do it for us.

What was your most awful experience while investigating for “Countdown”? Something which makes you stay awake at night because the situation is unacceptable and you cannot change it.

Well, I think that we can change it. But…. It being in Pakistan. Seeing a country that is so out of control. It’s crazy! By the middle of the century they may have many more people than the United States, nearly 400 Million people. But the country is only the size of Texas, which only has 26 Million. It’s totally out of control!

You know, I wanted to interview two guys who are trying to help save the environment – to save the mangrove forests – and they were found tortured and dead floating in the harbour. People who wanted to cut the mangrove forests killed them.

This is a country which is a nuclear power! And it’s filled with frustrated angry young men because they are unemployed or underemployed. Because the economy can’t possibly employ so many people. That is the worst possible case of overpopulation – and that’s what I don’t want the world to turn into.

What was you most beautiful experience?

I already mentioned the one in Pakistan about these people who, despite that problem I just described, realized that they can educate young women and that they’re courageous enough to stand up to the Taliban. To say, for every school you destroy we will build five more. That’s working!

To see in Iran how they turned around. Iran had the highest population growth in human history, when they were trying to build a 20 million men army to fight Iraq. They asked every Iranian woman, who could get pregnant, to get pregnant and do her patriotic duty. And then they turned it around so fast, when they realized that they would turn into Pakistan, too. This shows that we can do this! That’s a beautiful moment for me.

It’s also beautiful, as an American, just here in Europe, where there is so much suspicion about Muslims, to know that this happened in a Muslim country. It’s not about religion, this is about people! All people want the same thing: They want to have a good life and they want a good life for their children. And you can have that if you had only two or fewer children. But if you start having too many, it gets hard.

Will mankind finally cope with the demographic problems and overpopulation?

I don’t know! I came out of this book more hopeful than when I went into it, because I realized that we can do this. Over half of the countries in the world are already doing it, they are near or below replacement rate. So there’s a momentum for this. As more people live in cities they automatically have fewer children because, you know, on the farm you need to have a lot of children to help – but in the city, children are just expensive. They don’t contribute to the economy of the family. So, the momentum is going in the right direction.

But there are already so many of us on this planet and we are using so much energy, that we are seeing very, very serious things happening now. Fortunately, many more people understand this now then understood it only five years ago. This gives me hope, that maybe we put all these things together and do what we have to do.

Alan, I thank you very much for the interview.

The above Interview was conducted by Heiko Urbanzyk in Berlin, November 2013.

Alan Weisman was born in 1947 in Minneapolis, USA. He is Professor for International Journalism at the University of Arizona. As a journalist he contributes to The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine and some more. He is producer of the non-profit broadcast channel Homelands Production.

His book “Countdown“ was published in September 2013 by Little Brown. The website for this book is http://littlebrown.com/countdown.html. The website for his book “World Without Us” is http://www.worldwithoutus.com

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