Is Demography Destiny?

Alan Weisman's new book, Countdown: Out Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, is a report from the frontlines of demographic change, both population increase and population decrease, and while it is very much an alarming assessment, it is not without some genuine hope.

His last book, The World Without Us, gave readers a fascinating look at how the world would fare if human beings suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth. [Spoiler alert: The world does quite well without us]. His latest book is more of a progress report on how the world and its dominant species (i.e. modern humans) are doing in the face of a continuing rise in human numbers. [Spoiler alert: not very well].

Weisman's overriding conclusion is neither novel nor surprising. He writes, "The Earth can't sustain our current numbers, and inevitably, one way or another, those numbers must come down." The book itself, however, is not about the numbers; it's about the people behind the numbers. In preparing to write the book, Weisman traveled to 21 countries. Most of the countries he visited -- like Niger and Uganda -- are struggling with the economic, environmental and social challenges that come with rapid population growth, but he also visited nations, like Iran and Thailand, that have largely succeeded in hitting the demographic brake. He even traveled to one country, Japan, where population is starting to decline.

Most of the stories are about the people who are struggling to survive in a world of resource scarcity, a changing climate, and environmental degradation. Some of them, despite their evident struggles, are intent on having large families; they see their children as an economic and social safety net. He talks to women who want to have a small family, but who will not because of male or religious opposition. He talks to Israelis and Palestinians who see rapid population growth as a means of securing their survival. He talks to Catholics on both sides of the birth control debate. He talks to the farmers in India who are being driven to suicide by falling water tables, and the animal welfare advocates who are losing the fight to preserve critical wildlife habitats.

Weisman talks to the scientists and experts who are concerned that we are on the road to demographic perdition, and he does not reject their conclusions. He sees the peril ahead. He reports that our emerging "monoculture" is "more vulnerable to opportunistic pandemic than ever." He warns that our species "will be subject to global water torture." Expressing concern about the global food picture and the human trajectory, he even questions whether the human species might already be "functionally extinct."

Weisman's book is not all gloom and doom. He cites the success that many countries have had in dramatically reducing fertility rates without resorting to any form of coercion. He notes that the world's project population growth is highly sensitive to changes in fertility rates: If every couple limited themselves to one child, human population would fall from 7.2 billion to 1.6 billion by the end of the century. He emphasizes that educating girls and empowering women, while crucial to do in their own right, could also dramatically reduce fertility rates, save the planet and give our posterity a fighting chance. He cites the very low cost of making contraceptives available to women who want to avoid a pregnancy, and he insists that if we "Keep everything in reasonable balance -- chemistry, variety, and numbers," that there is "hope for our children, and for the spawn of all the birds and butterflies."

Weisman's analysis, however, is not limited to the challenges posed by continued population growth; he also looks at the challenges and opportunities associated with demographic decline. He travels to a remote part of Japan where declining population is allowing communities to resume a slower, more satisfying, and more sustainable lifestyle. He talks to ecological economists who insist that we can create an alternative to the current economic growth model, one that will allow us preserve our happiness and well-being without sacrificing the planet or robbing from our children's natural inheritance.

But despite Weisman's insistence that all is not lost, he does not shrink from issuing his own demographic imperative. In his concluding chapter, he says: "I don't want to cull anyone alive today. I wish every human now on the planet a long, healthy life. But either we take control ourselves, and humanely bring our numbers down by recruiting fewer new members of the human race to take our places, or nature is going to hand out a pile of pink slips."

Like The World Without Us, which was an international bestseller, Weisman's latest book is sure to generate criticism, particularly from those who see population growth as a moral or economic imperative, but it's a must read for all those who are concerned about the human prospect.