The Science of Sustainability

The World with Us: Can the Earth Support Eleven Billion?

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A grandfather in India enjoys the company of his grandson.

A grandfather in India with his grandson. India is the second most populous country in the world and is projected to surpass China as the most populous country by 2050. Photo: Dibyendu Dey Choudhury, courtesy of Photoshare.

An Expert Opinion: Alan Weisman

On a cobblestone street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, journalist and professor Alan Weisman stepped into a cafe to meet me for an interview. His book The World Without Us had just hit Latin American book stands and as pedestrians navigated the Bohemian neighborhood outside, we discussed what a world without humans would look like. That was back in 2008. It’s five years later and I was just as anxious to discuss the sequel, Countdown, which hits shelves today. His latest book suggests limiting population growth in a world that now harbors seven billion people. From his home in Western Massachusetts, he talked about women’s rights, culture, a global population that may reach 11 billion by 2100 and what he sees as a reasonable path forward.

Alan Weisman examines a tree in Golestan National Park in Iran. Ecology is a central feature of his book Countdown, which asks which species do we need to keep around to ensure our survival? Photo: Beckie Kravetz

Alan Weisman examines a tree in Golestan National Park in Iran. Ecology is a central feature of his book Countdown, which asks which species are crucial to our survival? Photo: Beckie Kravetz

Q: In The World Without Us, at the end you say, “every four days there are a million more people on this planet.” And you ask, “is there some way that we can have a restored earth and be part of it?” Can you talk more about this?

I didn’t want to write The World Without Us because I want [a world without people]. I wanted us to see how beautiful the world is and [consider] if we could add ourselves back in the picture in a more harmonious way.

You might recall from The World Without Us, an interview I did with a guy from the Volunteer Human Extinction Movement, and the best thing he said we could do is stop procreating. That we’re pushing so many species off the planet and we’re going to push something off [that we rely on] and we won’t realize it until it’s too late.

So to prevent against this, why don’t we stop procreating and we’ll become fewer and fewer and the last remaining humans will essentially see the Garden of Eden. I wanted to know, is there a happy medium between what he said and what’s realistic?

At book signings everyone would ask me about the population thing and I really didn’t want to write about population but then I thought, what the heck, I’ll write it out. When I got into it, I had no idea how complicated it was, my fifty page proposal was so naïve. I knew so little about this. Five years and 21 countries later I had this book [Countdown].

Q: A recent article cited a global trend of lower population growth, where the author said,I find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media.” So how concerned should we really be?

A lot of experts would say, really there’s no problem, our growth rate is way down. On the one hand, those people are right. However, there are so many of us on the planet right now, and an average of 2.6 children per female still means we’re growing.

And even at a lower rate, the question is, are we still putting too much stress on the environment?

I wanted to know, is there a way to convince a huge panorama of cultures that it might be in their best interest to encourage people, in some culturally acceptable way, to keep their reproduction on a sustainable level?

So I had to go visit a whole wide variety of cultures to understand. So many of us immediately think of the one child policy and most people don’t like it because it’s so Draconian. But for all its imperfections it has functioned. It wouldn’t work in other cultures, so what are other alternatives?

Image courtesy: Benjamin Hennig

Image courtesy: Benjamin Hennig

Q: With a few exceptions, we are not good at planning for the future and by the future I mean for 250 years down the road. You ask, “might we benefit right now by bringing population down?”

To be fair, we should cut ourselves some slack. The idea of having to manage our species because we’re running out of room is something we’ve never had to do before.

On the one hand, the benefits will come long term. Even if we did a policy like China’s it will take two generations to get back to levels in the 1900s, but the levels would come down in the first 50 years.

That’s what is happening now in Japan. They legalized abortion after WWII because they had too many people. The result of cutting off their baby boom, 60 years later, is that they are seeing their population begin to drop.

Q: In a lot of ways, your book is ultimately about education and women’s rights.

I’m convinced; it’s the most hopeful thing in the world. Make access to contraception universal for women and it will solve enormous problems on this planet. It will bring down birthrates to a sustainable and manageable level.

If we can educate all the women in the world, think of all the brilliant thinking and human ingenuity that will be added.

Q. When we talked in 2008, after A World Without Us came out, you were hopeful about the future. Are you still hopeful?

I don’t think my species is facing imminent extinction, though frankly we’ve really rolled the dice with the atmosphere and the ocean in terms of climate, and none of us know how that will go.

We’re an incredibly adaptable species; we’ve figured out how to live from the poles to the equator. We’ll probably be moving to higher ground this century. That will require an adjustment. We’re going to lose food producing areas because of flooding or salt water intrusion. It’s going to be a challenge.

Maybe it’s just my hope speaking but I expect my species to survive. This century is going to be a century of decisions for us in many ways.

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Category: Biodiversity, Blog, Environment

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Lindsey Hoshaw

About the Author ()

Lindsey Hoshaw is a coordinating producer for QUEST Northern California where she creates digital videos, online interactives and web articles. Before joining KQED, Lindsey was a science correspondent for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Scientific American. She was recently awarded the Frank Allen Field Reporting Award and is especially interested in ocean science, the future of sustainable seafood and the great pacific garbage patch. She can be found on Twitter as @thegarbagegirl
  • hupdiggs

    1 million people every 4 days? wow. just wow. great q&a

    • Lindsey Hoshaw

      Thanks David! I know, that stat shocked me too.

  • Andrew James Hammack

    n the early 1990's you could fit every person in the world into the city limits of just one US city. Jacksonville, FL. We do not have an overpopulation problem, we have a resource mismanagement problem. i.e. using corn for proven non-environmentally friendly ethanol, instead of using that food to feed people. Just a few years ago, we were going to run out of oil in about 100 yrs then just recently we found new sources of oil in the US alone that is more rich than present known sources in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Oil Minister warned Arab nations they need to not rely on oil alone for money.

    • Richard

      Andrew, how can you believe that we don't have an overpopulation problem?
      Have you ever seen the photos of the ten largest cities in the world taken from the air?
      What will they be like fifty years from now?
      When you drive the freeways in our major cities or go to our major airports to catch a plane, or shop in the malls all over America, can you still believe that we are not already overpopulated?
      And America is way down the list of population in other countries.
      Please consider this: There is just so much of anything, and more needs more.
      I rest my case.

  • Stephanie

    I think there is room for a lot of hope if social media could be used for educattion as well as communication. It has made the world "smaller", hopefully it will make us smarter.

  • Eloise Daniel

    Always pictures of brown people in any article about overpopulation.

  • Human being

    Population control is primarily concerned with controlling peoples of color. Fertility services are for who? Primarily people of european ancestry.