Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

October 10, 2013


Host: Ted Simons

Author Alan Weisman


  • Alan Weisman, author of the bestselling book “The World Without Us,” will talk about his latest book, “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth.” In his follow-up to “The World Without Us,” Weisman looks at how prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt. Weisman traveled to more than 20 countries to ask: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? He also examined what in different cultures’ beliefs might suggest that human growth may have to be limited. In his book, Weisman suggests the fastest, most acceptable, practical, and affordable way of returning our planet to balance. Weisman will talk about his book on Arizona Horizon.
Guests:
  • Alan Weisman - Author
Category: community   |   Keywords: earth, future,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling book "The World Without Us" recently released a follow-up of sorts, titled "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?" The book asks many questions trying to find the fastest, most acceptable, practical and affordable way of returning our plan to balance. Alan Weisman will appear at Changing Hands Bookstore this evening, he's here with us now. Good to have you here.

Alan Weisman: Great to be back.

Ted Simons: This is a follow hitch up of -- Talk to us about "The World Without Us" and how this correlates.

Alan Weisman: "The World Without Us" is actually a misnomer because I really wrote it because I wanted a world with us. In that book I theoretically wiped us off the planet so we could see how nature when relieved of the pressures we heap on it all the time, would restore itself with surprising swiftness. It would make surprisingly quick job of gradually eliminating our traces, burying our toxins, and things would flourish, empty niches would get refilled, and what I hoped people would do then is when they saw how beautiful nature could heal itself, wonder, isn't there a way we could add ourselves back to that picture, only in some kind of balance with the rest of nature and not in the mortal combat we seem to be locked in with it these days?

Ted Simons: Indeed, you concentrate a lot on population growth and how population growth may -- Are we nearing the brink of sustainability when it comes to population?

Alan Weisman: Well, this is what happened. At the end of "The World Without Us," thinking of how we could have a reasonable equilibrium with the rest of the planet, I ran into this difficult fact that every 4.5 days we add a million people to the planet. That didn't seem very sustainable. I left that hanging at the end of the book and I was surprised as I went on all my tours, people wanted to talk about that. They were concerned. So finally it's such a polarizing and explosive topic, population, because it's about us. We're not talking about populations of deer, and mountain lions that are keeping each other in balance. We're talking about our own species. So as a journalist, I decided I should try to find out A) can we determine what would be the number you're asking about, an optimal number of human beings that would not jeopardize our existence here on the planet? Second, how much nature do we need to preserve for our own survival? What species might be essential to us? Third, either everybody thinks of the one child policy of China, which they don't like very much, even the Chinese don't like it very much. So I needed to know, is there anything in the culture, the history, the liturgies of this broad swath of religions, nationals, cultural groups we have on earth that may accommodate the idea of so to speak refraining from embracing so much in times of need as Ecclesiastes tells us? That gives a clue that there's something in Judeo-Christian history that definitely talks about this. And the fourth is if we need to stop growing or even shrink down to a safer population, how do we design an economy that doesn't need constant growth to prosper?

Ted Simons: Let's go backwards to forwards. How do we design an economy that can also work in step with a sustainable population? How do you do that?

Alan Weisman: Well, I went to the one developed nation that is now dealing with the shrinking population. And that's Japan. Japan cut off its baby boom after World War II, unlike us, they lost the war, and their economy was just in total tatters. Their soldiers returned home to their wives and their population ballooned just like ours, but after four years they realized, they had terrible trouble. People were dying of hunger. So this is before birth control pills. They legalized abortion in an emergency measure and Japanese women partook of that, because they didn't want to watch more babies die. So now as that last overgrown generation of Japanese -- Remember, that's why they started World War II, to invade Manchuria to give them a place to move population, as that generation dies off, there's a much smaller baby boom taking their place. And economists in Japan, some of the many -- I found some fascinating ones there, are starting to see that they are in a gradual transition to a nongrowth economy. What they say is going to happen is that those crowded port cities with heavy industries are no longer going to be the base of their economics. People will start to spread out over the country more, there's a lot of land coming for sale for cheap because a lot of the farmers are dying off, and young people are moving there, there's going to be lighter industry, wages won't go down, because workers will be fewer and more valuable. But because demand will be down, they won't need to work as many hours. So there's going to be more leisure time. That's going to be a real different way of living life.

Ted Simons: No kidding. And it also is a real different way for the human psyche to adapt, which I think we agree, especially in the West I know you went around the world and got a lot of different voices here, but for us in the West, achieving, striving, going forward, making more, doing more, being more, are we ready to say, we got enough here, it's time to level off, it's time to sustain?

Alan Weisman: Well, we can do all those things. We can be very creative, and we can flourish. Remember, until about 200 years ago, the world's population didn't grow very much. Back in the days before the great medical achievements that eradicated diseases and gave us vaccinations, more babies died before their fifth birthday than survived. And yet the world was a very creative and flourishing place. It produced Mozart, Shakespeare, and certainly produced wealth, the wealth of Rome. So we -- Many economists I met are not frightened of this at all, because they know we can't keep growing an economy on a planet that doesn't grow.

Ted Simons: Let's get now to birth control and the religious, social, cultural aspects. What did you find out there around the world? Because it would seem to me that for most cultures, especially those in developing countries, more is better.

Alan Weisman: Well, I'll give you two examples. I started the book in Israel and Palestine, where you've got two peoples occupying the same land and they're each trying to outpopulate each other to be the majority in that land. That goes back to Biblical times. In the very beginning, the Israelites, just like Mormons later on, were polygamists because they were trying to fill the earth and multiply, mainly to build themselves a mighty nation so they wouldn't be outcompeted by some other nation like the Canaanites. But then you get down after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you get to Joseph who was very observant and realized we were entering a time of crisis or time of scarcity. He, unlike his forefathers, has only one wife and just two children, and he counsels the Israelites and the Egyptians that there's a time to conserve and there's a time to, again, refrain from embracing so much. And that saved them. The question I'm asking now is, well, given the way that our planet is being so stressed out, are we in another one of those times? The other example is going to surprise a lot of your viewers here, because it's in a country that is often times characterized as a charter member of the evil empire. Iran, after the Islamic revolution, was attacked by Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah asked every woman to get pregnant, to build a million man army. And they held Iran to a truce for -- Iraq -- To a stalemate for eight years. And then at the end they realized, they were going to have to employ all these kids in this big population bubble. And they knew their economy wasn't going to be able to take care of everybody, and they were going to have these under, unemployed, frustrated young men who would destabilize the country. That describes Pakistan which is another country I went to for this book. So what they decided to do, the Chinese one child policy was already going, and nobody liked it, in Iran either. So they started a campaign saying that one is good, two is enough, they told people, though, told people to have as many children as you want. The only compulsory thing was to attend premarital classes. Which is not a bad idea. The Quakers do it here. And in those classes people would learn how much does it cost to feed, clothe, educate a kid. And they got the message. The Ayatollah issued a list saying there's nothing in the QURAN that says you can't use birth control. Here's the most important thing. They encouraged women to stay in school. Because a woman who is studying tends to defer child bearing until she's done with her studies, then she has this interesting and useful thing to do with her life, she can make -- Help make a living for her family, and it's hard to do that with seven kids. They came down to replacement rate, meaning two parents, two children, a year faster than the Chinese one-child policy. Totally voluntary.

Ted Simons: Interesting. So we're talking about the ecosystem and how much the planet can hold. We're talking about population, how much the planet can hold. You've gone around the world, you've talked to so many people. We've got a couple minutes left. You ask a question in your subtitle -- What is the last best hope? What did you learn from this, what can you tell us?

Alan Weisman: Well, you know, we like to be, for example, producing all of our energy in such a way that we're not putting more carbon into the sky. But so far we don't have mature alternatives. One technology that we already have is contraception. It's fairly benign and in my book I talk about the good male contraceptives that are coming online right now. This is something we can already do, and it's inexpensive. For the same amount of money per year as the United States is spending per month in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could provide contraception to everybody on earth who wanted to use it. Let them choose whether they want to, and if we combine that with female education, chances are they're going to make a choice and we're going to come down, gradually over a couple of generations to a much more sustainable size and our economy will have an opportunity to adjust to a whole different paradigm.

Ted Simons: Last question -- Is this a book of hope?

Alan Weisman: I'm a journalist. I don't preach. I put out the facts, but I came out of this book out of researching this book much more hopeful than I went into it. Because I realize there's something I can do and there's already momentum for this. In many countries in the world, they're nearing or at replacement rate. Mexico, they are right about at replacement rate right now. You know, you have immigration pressures here in Arizona, because they used to have such a high birthrate. But in a generation or so that's coming back down to sustainability.

Ted Simons: I lied. This is the last question -- When you're talking about population growth, ecosystems, all of these things that we've looked at in the past, how do you measure in the moving goalposts of innovation and the way humanity can move in the future with a lighter footprint?

Alan Weisman: Well, human ingenuity has allowed us to stretch our limits. We had a green revolution, which created a lot more food stuff. But I went to the green revolution centers and they said that they're just about out of tricks. And in the next years if we keep growing the way we're growing, we're going to have to produce as much food as we produced -- As we consumed in all of human history. That's not going to happen. So now we have to take our ingenuity, this wonderful age of information that we have, and I think we have to kick it up to an age of wisdom and really apply ourselves to living in harmony with this planet so we can remain on it.

Ted Simons: A remarkable book. It's good to have you here. Thank you so much for joining us.

Alan Weisman: My pleasure.

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