Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

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