Book Review: Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?

(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)


COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Alan Weisman
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages

During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.

First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.

Countdown opens with the madness of the Israeli Hasidim and their determination to outbreed the Palestinians. It’s a real hair curler, and it launches the book with a bang. Weisman told me that writing Countdown almost killed him, and I believe it. He went to 21 countries in the course of reporting the book, and he always tries to show instead of telling. Sometimes, the scenes are terrible indeed. His chapter on the rash of rat-poison suicides sweeping the impoverished peasant farmers of the Indian Punjab is a chilling portrait of the tragedy and death of the poor and the powerless: The monsoons are weakening. The soils are growing saline. The wells must be dug deeper each year. The loan sharks are implacable, and so is the “miracle rice,” which must have its water.

Then comes the thud. Weisman quotes Dr. Kalkat, an agricultural expert, who tells us: “Our immediate concern is water. But unless we do something in the decade about population, we will have decided, en masse, to commit hydrological suicide.” I wanted to scream.

But I didn’t. The story was too grave. Weisman reports on indentured peasants like Prakash Singh, who “walked into their wheat field and opened a new can of Celphos,” just as perhaps 300,000 other Indian farmers have done since 1995. This is suicide as a cry against implacability, as big history sweeps down upon the little man. And it rings true. One is born. One marries. One has children. One strains to feed them. One falls into debt. One fails to escape the closing circle. One chooses death.

Grave indeed, but is any of this really a story of overpopulation?

For Weisman, it absolutely is. Population is his subject and he follows it around the world. The sheer length and detail of his tour makes it impossible for any honest reader to be dismissive. If your goal is to show that human population growth is an ineluctable aspect of the environmental crisis, then Countdown is your book. The case is closed, again and definitively. The problem is that, even so, questions remain.

First off, why are there so many of us? Finish Countdown and you’ll know the mechanisms vividly. The scenes in Niger and the Vatican are particularly indispensable. But you’ll not necessarily have a better idea of how, exactly, the dynamics of economic stratification conspire with the dynamics of patriarchal domination to yield a larger juggernaut than either could contrive alone. And this is true despite the pains that Weisman takes to emphasize the dynamics by which economic injustice and the subjugation of women multiply each other. For while Countdown makes injustice a part of the story of overpopulation, it remains a peripheral part, a subplot. You follow Weisman on his travels, and you encounter myriad situations in which human fecundity intertwines with human cruelty and corporate brutality and the endlessly multiplied desire that is the heart of capitalist culture. But it’s always the population thread that you follow.

Sometimes this is a mistake.

Consider “carrying capacity,” which is to say, food. It’s obviously critical, but Weisman does not always hold it in proper balance. He discusses the development of artificial fertilizers and the Green Revolution, but he omits to speak for other possibilities. He does not, for example, venture (as did Mark Bittman in The New York Times) to follow the ETC Group, which argues that industrial agriculture uses 70 percent of resources to feed 30 percent of the planet’s people. Nor does he dwell on the importance of the “peasant food web” that feeds the rest.

Also, Countdown isn’t great on consumption. It raises the issue, and notes its difficulty, and reports from some important hotspots (e.g. rising Chinese meat consumption), but at the end of the day, the discussion is unsatisfactory. Consider this passage:

“Yet the vexation of vegan crusaders who in one stroke would cut global warming in half and eliminate world hunger by feeding grain directly to people is that most people aren’t interested. Beef demand continues to rise even faster than population, because as more people move to cities, they seek the satisfactions of modern life, including the beef-laded Western diet. By a maddening, market-driven paradox, if rich nations did choose to eat less meat, the price of meat will fall and poor nations would probably eat even more.”

This identifies a key dynamic, but does not do it justice. While Weisman declares his independence from the cult of the market (“maddening, market-driven paradox”), he sure draws an odd conclusion. What, after all, is the problem when all those people wind up eating “even more” meat? What exactly does it demonstrate, save for the fact that the market as we know it does a terrible job of allocating either resources or luxuries.

If “money” (whatever that is) were distributed in a fairer manner, would not the dynamics of the situation be entirely different? Consider that, as things stand, even middle-class people are willing to spend far more on meat-that-they-want than poor people are able to spend on grain-that-they-need? Isn’t the bigger problem, always, the thousand ways by which the market prioritizes the desires of the rich over the needs of the poor?

Michael Tobis, the curator of the excellent Planet 3.0 website put this well:

“If I am a moderately wealthy person in a moderately wealthy society and you are a poor person in a poor society, the free market will conclude that my luxury is more important than your starvation.  It will effectively hide your tragedy from me, and will fail to offer me any mechanisms to help you.  The greater the income inequality, the sooner you will starve, no matter how much surplus capacity there is in food production.” 

To be fair, these questions are too large for a “population book.” They open into the whole, magnificently daunting subject of global economic justice, and take us far outside the territory that Weisman has set out to map. Also, his failure to explore this broader territory is hardly his alone. The sad fact is that many enviros still hesitate to grant the poisonous dynamics of inequality the absolute pride of place that they demand, and the only rap against Weisman is that, alas, he is one of them. He steps to the edge, but he does not take the plunge. And because he doesn’t, Countdown is only a good book, and not the great one that it could have been.

Fortunately, there’s a twist.  Countdown ends by arguing that the population problem is solvable. It’s not a bad move, especially because, having taken us around the world, Weisman can mount a vivid case for the solutions. Condoms, sure, but most important is the education and empowerment of women. This is the ticket, and while it won’t come easily in, say, Niger, it’s a crucial ticket nonetheless.

Is this old news? Perhaps. But Malthusianism is nothing if not pessimism, and pessimism pervades the green movement, and Weisman rejects it. The available solutions bear repetition, and he does his part to help. The problem is that, while Weisman grants the population problem its solutions, he then stops. In particular, he asserts that, for all his travels, he’s not found “a solution for overconsumption.” In consequence, it’s always “back to the idea of lowering the number of consumers.” He even quotes Ehrlich as saying that “there is no condom for consumption.”

And indeed there is not. A condom is by definition an easy solution – a “tech fix” – and when it comes to the problem of the human appetite for material goods, there is no analog. Nothing even close. If and when we find our way to sustainability, it will be – at least in part – because, somehow, our yearnings are no longer expressed as a constantly amplified mania for consumption. It will take a lot to get there, for the awful truth is that cultures of class and hierarchy are not and can never be cultures of sufficiency.

Weisman, in any case, is an honest man. He was brave enough to weather a trip that would have broken me. And he made that trip in the service of a hope he could believe in — a hope in which the education of women and widely-available birth-control combine together to buy us time. Who could disagree? The population debate is over. It’s time to get on to the harder problems.

— Tom Athanasiou