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'Countdown' Explores the Effects of Our Overpopulated Planet


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. According to the population institute, it took only 14 years, from 1999 to today, for the global population to increase by one billion people, just 14 years. Every four and a half days we add another million people. That's adding a city the size of Dallas. Is this sustainable? Can the population of the Earth continue to grow and still supply the people on it with the raw essentials they need, like food, housing, shelter?

Joining me now to talk about all of this is author Alan Weisman. In his last book, "The World Without Us," remember he imagined what the world would look like if we humans were completely wiped off of it. Well, in his new book, "Countdown: Our Last Best Hope For A Future On Earth," he has gone in the opposite direction, but this time it is not an imagined scenario. It is happening right now.

He travelled all over the world to see the effects of overcrowding on different ecosystems and human populations to find out what we can do about it. If you'd like to talk about it our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can Tweet us @scifri or go to our website at sciencefriday.com. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALAN WEISMAN: Well, thanks. It's great to be back.

FLATOW: Good to be back. You wiped out the entire population in your last book. What made you want to go the other direction?

WEISMAN: Well, you and I talked about my last book and, you know, it was kind of a red herring. I really wrote it because I wanted a world with us, but by theoretically wiping everybody out and showing how nature, relieved of our daily pressure would restore itself and renew itself, and fill some of the empty niches that we had extinguished the species that had lived there before, people, I was hoping, would see wow that's so beautiful. There's got to be a way we can add ourselves back to that picture, only in some balanced, harmonious relationships with it, not in the constant combat what we seem to find ourselves in.

So at the end of that book I raised this question in the epilogue and sort of left it hanging, you know. What is the sustainable carrying capacity for the human race given that, as you say, every four and a half days there's a million more of us on the planet?

And turns out that everybody who read that book ultimately wanted to talk about that. I didn't get the blowback that I expected. It really, really interested people, so finally I decided to look at it as a journalist and see can we determine it and can we do something realistically about it.

FLATOW: You know, and you mention this in your book, Paul Ehrlich in 1968 wrote the bestselling book "The Population Bomb."

WEISMAN: He did.

FLATOW: Which predicted catastrophic consequences and he went all over the place. He used to go on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and talk about it many times, but the dire predictions he made, which he said would happen in the 1970s, never did really happen, did they?

WEISMAN: Well, not exactly. They - when I say they it's because his wife Anne was the co-author of that book, but the...

FLATOW: Silent partner in that one.

WEISMAN: Yeah, the publisher only wanted one name on the cover, I guess. In the preface of that book, they said unless an agricultural miracle takes place there would be widespread famines, and lo and behold one did. It was the Green Revolution. And today people who try to debunk what the Ehrlichs said and Malthus before them into this prediction that overpopulation would constantly run ahead of food production. They forget that the founder of the Green Revolution who won the Nobel Peace Prize, Normal Borlaug, when he accepted that prize he didn't gloat and say we've triumphed. What he said was that we've bought ourselves a generation of time. He said unless the forces of enhanced food production and the forces for population control join together, we're never going to be able to manage this on our planet.

And until he died, which was only about four years ago, he was on the board of population groups.

FLATOW: So what are the forces of population control then and how are they doing?

WEISMAN: Well, when everybody thinks of population control, the first thing that jumps into everybody's mind is the Chinese with their one child policy and nearly everybody is appalled by that, including most of the Chinese. I spent a month in China for this book and that was one of the 21 countries that I went to. On the one hand, there's some success there. There would be 400 million more Chinese if that program hadn't taken place, but now there's some question of whether it's necessary anymore because there's sort of a cultural understanding that they can't keep exceeding their numbers.

I mean, China right now is spending $40 billion to put back all the trees that all the farmers in their previous population explosion cut down. But in my book, knowing that this is not acceptable to so many people, I went around the world looking to see are there other examples of places that have done something that wasn't coercive, that was voluntary. And also, is there anything in the histories of the liturgies of all of the world's cultures, and I sampled quite a few of them, that might accommodate for, in a time of need, so to speak, refraining from embracing so much. And I found a lot of that as well.

FLATOW: Give us an idea of some of those.

WEISMAN: Well, let's go to our own Judeo-Christian heritage. In Genesis, you have all these begats and begats and begats, and then we get into Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs, and they are polygamists for the very same reason that the Mormons became polygamists much later. It's a strategy to have a lot of children and build a mighty nation as fast as you can so you are the dominant force on the landscape.

But then one of Jacob's 13 children, Joseph, who may have been one of our first ecologists, because he was very observant. He could see that there was a time of scarcity coming, so he only has one wife and only two children and he counsels the pharaoh of Egypt that this is a time to conserve, not a time to just keep expanding. And according to Talmudic scholars who I talked to in Israel, this is sort of imbued in the understanding in the Talmud that during a time of famine you stop having children.

Well, I hope that we're not entering a time of famine right now, but clearly we don't have the means for feeding everybody and we're about to add two and a half billion by the middle of this century, so...

FLATOW: On the other hand, there are some people in Israel that have 15, 16 children.

WEISMAN: Well, I met those people. I start this book in Israel and Palestine and that's sort of jumping right into the middle of the fire, and I did it intentionally because unless you were born in the very Far East, you're probably a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew and the Holy Land is a place that we feel deeply, deeply, emotionally connected to.

And to understand that you've got two populations, the extreme Jews who are having these double-digit families that you mentioned, and Palestinians who Yasser Arafat used to call the Palestinian womb, the best weapon in the arsenal, the biology bomb. There are two groups that are trying to out populate each other to be the majority in the land, large portions of which is basically a sandbox and is running out of water.

And I spent a lot of time also with Israeli and Palestinian ecologists who are trying to do something about this. Fortunately, the younger generations now are starting to get the picture. I met young religious Jews and Yeshivas who were starting to realize that their neighborhoods are bursting at the seams and they simply can't keep up with garbage disposal. Young Palestinian women, I met several in the company of their mothers who all had eight kids who said there's no way we can do that anymore now. We're living in cramped quarters. Of course, you know, the West Bank has kind of shrunk on them, and the only way to get ahead is to educate your kids. And you can't afford to do that if you've got seven, but with two you can, or fewer.

FLATOW: Why are there some countries like Italy that are basically zero population growth? What are they doing?

WEISMAN: Well, you know, I go to the Vatican for this book and I had some interesting conversations in the Vatican as to why the Catholic Church continues to encourage people to procreate as much as they can and why they oppose birth control, particularly since a couple of their commissions in the last 30 years have been appointed to study it and they've all said it's unconscionable to keep reproducing at a rate of more than two-point-something kids per family, you know, given the sustainability problems.

But the Catholic Church doesn't really have a lot of control over what most of the Catholics do in the world. In the United States, 98 percent of Catholic women either are using or have used birth control and in Italy - well, Italy is a great example of what is the best contraception of all, which is educating women. Italy has one of the highest percentages of female Ph.D.s and females who have graduate degrees anywhere on earth and the Italian women simply know that in order to do something with that education - they want to have kids, of course, but one or two is all they can have and also have the career that they've prepared themselves for, which also is financially important for their families.

So that's sort of what's happened in that country that's surrounds those 110 acres where a thousand guys, mainly guys, live in Vatican City.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a quick phone call in from Charlie(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Charlie.


FLATOW: Go ahead.

CHARLIE: So what year do you really think that our population will over-populate our ecosystem?

FLATOW: When are we going to run out of room, he's asking?

WEISMAN: Well, you know, the numbers have now changed on us. There was an assumption for the past few years that we were going to level off at about 9.2 billion by the middle of this century, but the U.N. population division and other demographic institutes have now revised that. They say we're going to keep going, we're going to be near 11 billion by the end of the century and there's no peak yet in sight.

But the question that I raise in this book "Countdown" is not just is that going to be too many, but are we too many already. You know, at 7.2 billion the world does seem to be bursting at its seams right now. Our atmosphere is overloaded with the gases that we expel in the processes that keep our civilization going. It's getting warmer out there, we're having more erratic weather patterns, we're pushing the extremes of weather.

And the atmosphere doesn't stop up there in the air. The ocean absorbs it, so seas are getting warmer, they're expanding and they're rising and they're getting acidic. This is not good.

FLATOW: All right, Alan. Hang on, we're going to come back, take your calls. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, talking with Alan Weisman, author of "Countdown." We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with author Alan Weisman in his new book "The World Without Us." That was his old book. His new book is "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future On Earth?" Our number 1-800-989-8255. Alan, besides legislation, our people, you know, they don't like laws telling them what to do. Are there any incentives that we can come up with to limit world population?

Or should we wait for another technology fix, saying, some people will say, you know, there's plenty of food in the world, it just never gets distributed to the hungry.

WEISMAN: Well, you know, the technology fix is, I go to the centers of the Green Revolution 'cause the Vatican said that they're going to save us all over again and keep producing enough food for everybody, and what they told me is that the only trick right now that they can - they're really trying hard to develop is to jet propel photosynthesis, maybe kick it up 50 percent, produce even more food per plant or even get it to - give it enough energy to fix it's own nitrogen so it wouldn't need as much fertilizer.

But they told me this stuff is all 20 to 30 years off in the future and by then we're going to add billions more people. So I don't see that this is going to happen. In terms of distributing our food better, you know, unfortunately most of the food is raised on this planet for profit. It's a commodity and distribution out there to sell to everybody or to nourish everybody, it just isn't the prime motivation.

And also who do we mean by everybody? Are we just talking about homo sapiens or are we talking about all the other species on this planet that we share it with who form an ecosystem that we depend on. We can't have a world without animals. God told that to Noah when he made him save them all, and this is, you know, a critical part of trying to determine how many people can fit on this planet.

But as for your question about, you know, government intervention; I have some great examples in this book about how government didn't intervene and did provide, not so much incentives, but just made it very attractive to people to have fewer children for the good of the country and the good of themselves.

FLATOW: For example...

WEISMAN: Well, you know, one that's going to surprise a lot of my readers is Iran, and our country sort of portrays it as being a charter member of the evil empire. After the revolution in 1979, Iran was attacked immediately by Saddam Hussein. He wanted this oil-rich province that was on the border and figured this new country was just organizing itself, it was easy pickings. Well, the Ayatollah asked every fertile Iranian woman who could possibly get pregnant to please get pregnant to help build a 20-million man army to fight off Saddam Hussein who had sophisticated weapons that were being provided by NATO.

They held him to a stalemate for eight years and at the end of that time Iran's government realized they had a problem because this new, huge generation that they just spawned was going to grow up and within a decade they were going to have to provide them jobs and their economy would be nowhere near developed enough to do so. So they, you know, realizing that they did not want a nation filled with underemployed, frustrated, angry young men, which would be very unstable - which kind of describes Pakistan, another country where I went to.

They instituted a four-point family planning program. First of all, it was totally voluntary, but they did make all the means for contraception available to people, from condoms up to tubal ligations, and even issued a fatwa saying there was nothing in the Quran against doing whatever you want if wisdom dictates that you have the number of children that you can take care of.

Second, I guess this was the one obligatory thing. Anyone who's getting married in Iran had to attend pre-marital classes either in a mosque or in a health center. It's not a bad idea. The Quakers do it here in the United States, and the idea was also to learn in those classes what it cost to raise and feed and clothe and educate a child.

And the last thing that they did that was so critical, they encouraged women to stay in school because a woman in school postpones her childbearing until her studies are over and then, as I said before, has something important to do for her family that you can't do when you have so many kids hanging on you. Today, 60 percent of Iranian women - of university students are female and they brought their population growth-rate down to replacement, meaning two people have two kids, a year faster than China did with its coercive one-child policy.

FLATOW: And yet the U.S. is below population replacement rate, but we are one of the largest consumers. I mean, isn't lowering consumption the other end of the side here, just as important as lowering population? You know, we're consuming all those resources.

WEISMAN: Ira, have you ever found a condom for consumption? You're absolutely right. In order to understand our impact on this world, you have to multiply our numbers by our amount of consumption and if you do that we're the most overpopulated country on this planet, which means that everybody - us, Western Europe, and the poorest countries all together need to start recruiting fewer people to take our places if we're going to have a sustainable population.

I absolutely commend all efforts to get people to consume less, but it's really hard. We're all born into addiction to, you know, electricity, we use it constantly. You and I are using it right this minute, and it's going to be very hard to cut back until we have really mature renewable energy systems that can replace fossil fuels, which seems to be a long way off and it's been shown now that even if we know how to build them all on a massive scale, they will be very carbon intensive for the first few decades because of mining the materials to build them and their construction.

So it's going to take a while before we stop contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. So the best thing I can think of that we could do that will have an effect much sooner is to reduce the number of people who are emitting those greenhouse gases.

FLATOW: When you study populations, you study ecology or biology, you learn that there gets to be a self-limiting number in populations where you run out of food, you run out of resources. If you put too many bacteria in one place they're going to compete, right, and something's going to survive and something's going to die. Could that not happen to the human population on earth?

WEISMAN: You know, every organism in the history of biology, when it exceeds its resource space, it suffers a population crash. Now we've managed to stretch ours a bit with some really shrewd technology, but all that technology ends up causing more problems. I have the history in this book of how we synthesized artificial nitrogen fertilizer; probably the most important invention over in history if you think of it this way: 40 percent of us wouldn't be here. It literally created more plant life than nature was capable of creating.

But we know the downside of nitrogen-based fertilizers. You know, they fowl our rivers, they leave chunks the size of New Jersey dead at the mouths of our oceans, and they contribute large amounts of greenhouse gas. So we can stretch our limits but at a certain point everything's going to break. And I don't think we're going to make it to 11 billion, frankly.

FLATOW: Really? What's going to happen, do you think?

WEISMAN: Well, I'm not sure. You know, I'm not a soothsayer but I do know that we can't keep stretching it forever. I interviewed so many scientists around the world and nobody felt that we were going to really be able to do this without suffering some severe losses. And, you know, one way or another I think our population is coming down. Either we're going to manage it gracefully and simply bring fewer people into the world and get smarter so they can do the same amount of work, so we can keep our technology and our civilization going, or nature's going to do it for us.

And, you know, as I say in the book, when you see "Survival of the Fittest" on the National Geographic channel, that's entertaining, but when it happens to your own species, it's not so pretty.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's a good way to end, Alan. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

It's great to be with you.

Good luck with the book.

Alan Weisman, author of "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future On Earth?"

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