Tag Archives: Al Gore

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


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. ★★★★★

Book: The Dance of Air & Sea

The Dance of Air & Sea
Only a book this good deserves Helvetica (probably the most beautiful font).

Beautiful. Thematically, like Nocturne for the oceans. Stylistically unparalleled.
288 pages, ★★★★★

It’s a pleasure to read, “we’re all super-interconnected” in a climatology book, especially when most other books are clinging to Al Gore’s domesday-and-guilt formula. Cool It! avoided that spin very successfully, but even that [four-star] book lacked the depth of this one. The Dance of Air & Sea excels in its field: not only is it rational and well-referenced, but it’s also interlaced with stories, history and wisdom. This book is full of stories that other people will be interested to hear.

The Dance of Air & Sea is far more knowledge-rich than its moon-based counterpart, Nocturne. This book’s author, Arnold H. Taylor, has been an oceanography professor for 30 years at Plymouth Marine Laboratory—arguably the best place in the world for ocean research—and is thus perfectly suited to write this book. He is a well-read, high-level academic, which makes every sentence interesting either culturally or scientifically. Reading this, I made a lot of notes.

Some interesting snippets from this book include:

Page 32: containers of floating, plastic toys were spilled into the ocean and tracked by satellite to monitor ocean currents

Page 58: trawler-fishing is a double-edged sword: predators are harmed more than prey, allowing the prey population (usually the stuff we eat) to grow stronger in the long-term.

Page 100: oceanic chlorophyll cools the oceans by up to 1°C. Lose the chlorophyll, and the ocean warms up!

Page 130: oceans are remarkably interconnected: when there’s high pressure in the Pacific Ocean or the Azores, for example, we can expect low pressure in the Indian Ocean or in Iceland at the same time—pressures behave rather like a giant, atmospheric see-saw.

And much more…

Readers who enjoy Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry will love this book: it goes much further academically, but retains the relaxed, knowledge-rich tone that both Bryson and Fry also possess. Definitely five stars for this book. Now, I want to find a book like this about Chemistry. ★★★★★