Are People Still the Problem?

By Christina Birchfield | 12/5/2013

“It’s magical thinking that we can have our planet and eat it, too,” says author Alan Weisman.


Years ago, Paul Ehrlich warned us of population disaster in his book Population Bomb. China was both castigated and grudgingly praised for its one-child policy. Today, every four and one-half days, a million more babies join us here on earth.

“It’s magical thinking that we can have our planet and eat it, too,” says investigative reporter and author Alan Weisman. The author of The World Without Us, has now published Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth.

In The World Without Us, Weisman put forth the evidence that the world can do without people quite easily, thank you very much. For Countdown, Weisman explains why the world as we know it might well come to an end. Either we take steps “to gracefully reduce population or nature will do it to us,” Weisman says.

Weisman is not the last, nor Ehrlich the first, to warn us of the consequences of overpopulation. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower identified population growth “as a strategic security matter.”

We caught up with him in Tucson, where he praised the help he had received researching his book from the University of Arizona Institute for the Environment.

Weisman traveled to 21 countries over the course of two years to ask four questions that experts agreed were probably the most important on Earth.

First was how many people can the earth sustain without “capsizing the planet?”
Weisman says we are running a “demographic derby.” The author cites the fact that it took 200,000 years for human population to reach one billion around 1815. Seven billion is the current population number. Experts agreed that the point of no return is 10 billion, though we are actually on the way to 11 billion people by the end of the century.

Weisman says there are two ways global population is increasing: More infants live than die, and people live longer. It used to be common for women to have “seven or eight children but only two survived long enough to have children of their own,” Weisman says. Fewer people die young. “In 1800, life expectancy was 40 years; now in much of the world, it is nearly double.”

To give some perspective, Weisman traveled to Pakistan, a country the size of Texas, whose population in a generation will be larger than that of the United States. Currently, there are 185 million Pakistanis compared to 26 million Texans, Weisman says. He adds that Pakistan has a lot of angry unemployed young men and is a nuclear power.
Population is affecting our global resources. In India, Weisman learned the water table had dropped so precipitously that 50-foot deep wells had to be drilled to 500-feet deep in order to reach water.

Weisman visited the Philippines prior to Typhoon Haiyan. There he found a crisis already in the making from too many fisherman trying to feed large families from depleted seas whose rising seas encroached upon cropland. In Niger, he found the globe’s highest fertility rate; each woman still bears an average of seven or eight children.

The second question was how can everybody be convinced in an acceptable nonviolent way that keeping population below 10 billion is in the globe’s best interest? Readers will not be surprised that China was held up as an example, but may be very surprised to learn that Iran is another good example. In Iran all couples must attend pre-marital counseling where they are advised that one child is good; two is enough. Free contraception is available to everyone. Weisman speaks rather fervently, saying that the best form of contraception is for women to stay in school. In countries in which women are well educated, they have two or fewer children. He says that today 60 percent of Iranian university students are women, nearly all of whom choose to have just one or two children.

The third question was what kind of ecosystem is necessary to maintain human life? “In the next 50 years, we will need to produce enough food as has been consumed over our entire human history.” China, Weisman says is taking the lead on that, too, by spending $40 million planting trees. Weisman says, “that 40 percent of non-frozen terrestrial earth is devoted to feeding people.” Even now, the planet has one billion hungry people; 16,000 children starve to death daily, Weisman says.

For those who argue a warmer world will open up fertile earth for food production, Weisman says, not so fast. Harvest yields drop with temperature rise—10 percent by each one degree centigrade rise in temperature. Conifer-covered acidic soils in the far North, even if defrosted, could take 25 years before they would be suitable for agriculture.

And the forest can not all be cut down to feed the people. The globe needs agricultural balance. Weisman says crops nearer to forests are more fertile. Coffee plants, for example, yield 20 percent more near forests, he says.

And last, how do we design an economy for a shrinking population that is not dependent on constant growth? If you count the globe by consumption rather than merely number of people in a location, we in the United States “are the most over populated place on earth,” Weisman says. Other countries are racing to equal our standard of living. In the United States, Weisman says, each child adds “about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy.” Before 2025, India will surpass China as the world’s population leader.

In Japan, “where by 2040, there will be one Japanese centenarian for every new Japanese baby,” Weisman says, “production might drop proportionally, but wages won’t.” Fewer workers will be more valued. “With fewer consumers needing so many products, people will work shorter days and enjoy more leisure. They won’t all be crammed in overgrown cities, because lighter, more flexible industries will emerge in more affordable, smaller towns through Japan’s lovely countryside. This doesn’t sound like a grim prospect.”

For those unable to attend one of the Weisman’s talks, there is an excellent interview with him on Science Friday.


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