The UN predicts that by 2050, there could be 9.6 billion people on the planet. Journalist Alan Weisman says unless we lower birth rates, life on earth will suffer
Even when you set a world record, it doesn’t mean the world will ever know your name. Consider what happened to one member of a Russian peasant couple from the 1700s.
The known half of the pair is Feodor Vassilyev, and between 1725 and 1765, his first wife gave birth to 69 children. That’s right: She had 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets. All but two of those children survived past childhood. None of the publications that detailed the case, including the science journal “Lancet,” named the mother. Even so, the Guinness Book of World Records crowned her the woman who’s given birth to the most children.
Today, women don’t have more than 60 kids in a lifetime. It’s a good thing, because as it stands, the world couldn’t handle the pressure. On Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. PST, the global population was 7.12 billion people, and our population keeps growing. Every four-and-a-half days, one million more children are born. UN officials predict that by 2100, there may be 10.9 billion of us. That would be world record.
Alan Weisman thinks it would be imprudent to hit that milepost. Indeed, Weisman, author of the international bestseller “The World Without Us,” believes that we should implement steps to reduce childbirth to preserve the planet — before it’s too late.
Not that he’s a doomsayer. Indeed, in Weisman’s new book, “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” (Little, Brown and Company, $28), you can sense his love of humanity. Yet he still believes we need a prescription to curb our propensity to procreate. To find answers, he traveled the globe, making stops in countries such as Niger, where women average between seven and eight children, the highest rate on Earth, and Japan, where the population has been dropping since 2006.
Weisman came to town on a book tour, and before his Oct. 21 reading at Town Hall, we met at the Hotel Monaco and sat in white vinyl chairs that had the regal air of thrones. But there was nothing imperial about Weisman. He leaned in close, huddled over a table with the fingers of his left hand pressed into his brow, as if he were studying a puzzle he couldn’t quite solve. Over the course of 40 minutes, he talked in a steady, low voice about Pakistan, the Vatican, polygamy and living through one of life’s tragedies.
At the beginning of your book you mention that in 1815, the world’s population was one billion. Now we’ve surpassed seven billion.
Yeah, that was fast.
Then you ask: “How the hell did that happen?” So how the hell did it happen?
Well, up until about 300 years ago, we were pretty much subject to the same laws of any other species: We existed, we procreated, we made copies of ourselves. We made extra copies of ourselves because we knew that, unfortunately, some of those kids died. In fact, most children did not make it to their fifth birthday, which, if we think about the pain of our ancestors, that’s pretty sobering. On the other hand, that was normal. So women would have six or seven children in the hopes that some would survive.
Our species, when we’d actually gotten to a billion, it meant that we had made it a little easier on ourselves. The Industrial Revolution was helpful: People lived in closer quarters, there was more access to doctors, even if the doctors weren’t very good. But doctors started getting real good in 1798, when Edward Jenner invented a vaccine for smallpox, our first vaccine, which was quickly followed by more vaccines and methods of eradicating insects that carried other diseases. We learned how to pasteurize milk; we learned how to wash our hands in hospitals. That alone was huge. Just the idea of using disinfectant in hospitals dropped the infant mortality rate: Ten times the number of kids started to survive. So as a result of medical technology, more children were surviving infancy and more people were living longer, so they were still hanging around when other people were born.
And then, in the 20th century, two other things happened. The first was we figured out how to pull nitrogen out of the air and chemically apply it to soils. Before, the amount of plant life on the planet was limited to relatively few plants that had roots that could fix nitrogen: beans, legumes. Artificial nitrogen fertilizer just blew the lid off what nature does. All this extra plant life suddenly could grow, and we used it to feed ourselves. And three relatively rare weeds in prehistory — wheat, corn, rice — were proliferating.
The next step was in the 1960s, with what we call the Green Revolution that was the result of crossbreeding plants: We weren’t inserting genes, but we were selecting plants for their genetic qualities. Among the qualities was shorter plants, so they’d be putting more energy into grain rather than long stalk. Dwarf wheat varieties suddenly changed the world, and it was rather opportune because by then, our population on the planet had risen to a little under half of what it is today. And even then, people were starting to get very, very nervous.
There’s a famous book that came out in 1968 written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich called “The Population Bomb.” In the preface, they said that we’ve reached the point that unless there’s an agricultural miracle, we’re going to have widespread famine in the 1970s. Well, lo and behold, there was this agricultural miracle. Today, a lot of economists like to say that the Green Revolution disproved the Ehrlichs and disproved the economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who coincidentally in 1798, the same year that Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine, postulated that because population grows exponentially [and] crop production grows arithmetically, population growth is going to always outstrip food production.
I go to the places where famine was averted: India and Pakistan. That means that people who would’ve otherwise died of famine lived to have more children, and those children then lived to have more children. Today India is about to surpass China as the most populous nation on the planet. And Pakistan has one of the fastest birth rates in the world, and it’s one of the places that scares me the most. They’ve got between 185 and 190 million people today, and they’re the size of Texas. By the end of the century, they’re going to have many more people than the United States has now, and they’re still going to be the size of Texas. [Pakistan’s] economy is nowhere capable of employing all these people. So everywhere you see all these frustrated, sullen, pissed off young men. In the cities, usually the best job they can get is being hired thugs for warlords, or in the north, it’s kind of a breeding territory for what we here refer to as terrorists. And this is a country that is a nuclear power. Kind of scary.
Before I get to some of your points, I want to ask: Now that we’re at seven-plus billion people, is there an optimal number of people?
There probably is, but there are a few ways to consider what that optimum would be.
First, I dismiss the opinions that we do not have a problem with the number of people. There are pro-growth economists who always talk about the more people, the better, partly because it’s more consumers, but what they’re really talking about is that supply of cheap labor. Then those poor people compete with each other for salaries that are oftentimes really depressed, if not just plain inhuman.
We’ve got another contingent that thinks we’re not anywhere near the optimal population, people who say that there’s plenty of food on this planet, and we could feed everybody if we just shared better. Well, first of all, we’re not going to do that. Most food today is grown, not for feeding people, but because it’s a commodity. It’s something that people sell for profit. They’re not going to give away their commodity for free. I wish it was the case, but they don’t. So the idea of being equitable and sharing has always been more ideal than reality. [Pause.] I’m sorry if you find that depressing.
It’s not that I find it depressing, but we always say how much we share.
That’s a fallacy. [He chuckles.] Yes, people donate to charities, but to really spread the wealth equitably? It’s not happening. It’s out of sight, out of mind. Look: If there were enough food to feed everyone on this planet, then why are one billion people severely malnourished? If we can do it, why aren’t we doing it?
The other consideration, and one reason I went to the Vatican, was Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical [a papal letter addressing Catholic doctrine], and he said there’s enough for everybody, if we got very creative. I went and asked a couple of questions. One was obvious: How could they still be denying that we have a population problem [and keep saying] contraception is a sin? They had lots of answers, and they also had answers for how we were going to feed everybody.
But one they could not answer because they hadn’t thought about it: When the pope says we have enough food to feed everybody, who’s he talking about? Is he talking about just human beings, or is he talking about the other animals, our companions on this planet, without whom we could not survive? We are part of an ecosystem, and our whole food supply and all kinds of other things all depend upon an ecosystem for pollination, for holding water in the soil, for seed spreading, for insect devouring. There’s a whole lot we get from an ecosystem. And it turns out that nobody had an answer for that one.
The same story is in both Judeo-Christian history and in the Quran. We start out on the planet, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” That’s “Genesis, Chapter 2.” By “Genesis, Chapter 5,” God is already is sick of us. Our excesses are beyond anything, and He’s going to flood the place and start over. But He strikes this deal with Noah: “OK, let’s save a couple of good people and start it over right.” But what does He tell Noah? “You can save your sons, and you can save their wives and you can save their children. But you also have to save all the animals. You cannot have a world without them.”
Later on I went to India. The Hindus are the same way. They’ve got this huge pantheon of different faces of God, and most of them are animals. They see God everywhere. Now we live this techno life, and we can spend our whole day without seeing any animals, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t use them or that we don’t depend on them.
How does spirituality tie into human population?
Every religion, just like every nation, starts out with this mandate to be fruitful and multiply. It’s a strategy: Have a bunch of kids, so you can be the biggest nation or tribe or religion around. So all religions start out as polygamous. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were polygamous; Muhammad was polygamous. Then they get very numerous, very fast, and the extremists in those religions don’t grow with the times.
This is the situation with the Catholics. They make kind of a funny mistake in the 19th century, and it’s now coming back to haunt them. They invented this concept called papal infallibility that didn’t exist before. So suddenly it’s not just the pope [speaking], it’s the word of God solicited through the pope. In the 20th century as birth control starts to arrive on the scene, the Church was against this. They want a lot of Catholics on this planet.
By the 60s, when birth control pills come out, most Catholics wanted to be able to use them. There was a commission to study the problem, and by a vote of 89-10, [Catholic bishops] voted to accept contraception under canon law. But then this Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, wrote an essay, which essentially said that if they allow this to happen, we’ll essentially be saying that for part of the century, we were wrong. So that’s a case where religion becomes problematic.
But I talked to a lot of different people from different religions, and it turns out that many religions have in their histories or their liturgies — it’s in the Quran, it’s in the Bible, it’s in the Buddhist literature — a mandate to take care of the Earth, and to take care of our children and be responsible to them. And a lot of rabbis, priests, evangelical Christians, imams, Buddhist monks don’t have a problem with contraception.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, they realized after encouraging huge population growth, they were basically going to be Pakistan: too many men and unable to employ them all. So they reversed course, including issuing a fatwa saying that if wisdom dictates you’ve hit the number of kids you can take care of, there’s nothing in the Quran that says you can’t use anything from condoms to a vasectomy or tubal ligation. And Iran, using the blessing of its high mullah of Islam, was able to turn around their population growth rather quickly. So as always, religion is a double-edged sword.
But I specifically talked to a lot of religions for this book because I don’t think the way to really deal with the problems we are facing is to have some world government tell people, “You have to stop doing what you were doing.” That’s not going to fly everywhere. But if I could discover a way where within their own belief systems, they had allowances in time of need? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they’re all polygamists, and then you get down to Joseph, one of 13 kids of Jacob’s: He is very observant, and he realizes the world is entering a time a scarcity. He only has one wife, two kids, and he counsels the Israelites and the Pharaoh of Egypt that this is a time to refrain from embracing so much. I think that might be relevant to the times we’re living in right now.
And for less than the amount of money we were spending per month in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could spend that money per year to buy contraception for everybody on the planet who wants it. It’s a little over $8 billion. That’s not a lot money these days.
You talk about one great form of birth control: educated women.
It’s the best contraception of all.
The educated woman, she tends to stay in school till her studies are done, before child bearing. Most educated women tend to have one or two kids.
It’s such an enormous benefit, because if population declines, we’re going to have fewer kids but this big bubble of old people. There’s going to be labor issues. Who’s going to do the work? Well, having all these educated women, we’re tapping into this wonderful resource we have. Here we are at 7.2 billion [people], heading toward 11 billion. We’re not going to make it. It’s going to get very, very problematic.
Why did you decide to find out about population growth and potential control?
I don’t know if you read my last book, “The World Without Us,” but I wrote that because I really want a world with us. I think what we really want to do is stick around. There’s an interview with someone from the Voluntary [Human] Extinction Movement.
His belief and his organization’s is that we’ve just gone too far, and the human presence on this planet is destroying everything. Not only are we destroying our own future, but other species’. So the main idea is to just stop procreating, and we can have the Garden of Eden restored on the planet.
Well, after I heard that, I thought it was interesting because on the one hand, it sounded like a bunch of crap, but on the other hand, it was describing what my book was. And I’m really not ready for humans to go extinct. I like Homo sapiens. I’m married to one.
So there were these astronomical numbers, and they’re just too hard to grasp. So I did some long division. And it turned out that every four-and-a-half days, we’re adding a million people to the planet. That got my attention, and that got a lot of readers’ attention. So I left that hanging at the end of “The World Without Us.” And I realized it’s pretty interesting. It’s such a loaded topic, people are very emotional about it. We talk about bears and wolves and balance in a national park: But this is about us. I wondered: Could we realistically do this? Which is why I went to so many countries. It was a much bigger project that I bargained for. I’m still alive, but there were times where I wondered if the book would finish me before I finished the book.
I hope this isn’t too personal of a question: How big is your family?
My wife and I had a daughter, and, unfortunately, she died in infancy.
It’s one of life’s tragedies. They hit us all. We had some pregnancies after that, but none of them lasted. In retrospect, I wish we would’ve pursued adoption. Adoption agencies don’t like the idea that I travel so much, and we thought about foreign adoption, but I’ve worked in a lot of countries where my colleagues are incensed that their countries have become baby farms to the U.S. It was hard for us to deal with that. Looking back now, I wish we’d done it anyway.
But that brings up something else. People who think that large families are beautiful can still have them. The one natural resource we’re not running out of is kids who need a home. So adoption is a wonderful thing.
You said earlier this might sound a little depressing. So do you consider yourself a pessimist?
No, I consider myself a realist and a journalist. Again, being a Homo sapiens myself, it’s hard not to react emotionally. But I’ve realized that my species is too much of a good thing, and we are overwhelming the system that supports us. That can’t go on forever. I think that we’re in a make or break century right now. Here in the 21st century, there’s no way we can continue on with what’s going on with the atmosphere and temperatures. There are only so many tricks to grow more food. Rice is probably the most important food on the planet, given the number of people who depend on it. A lot of people would be ruined if the seas rise. Do we have the money to put dikes all along Asia and the Philippine Islands?
It’s hard to grasp this, because you and I were born in the midst of the population explosion. This is what we think of as normal. But it’s very abnormal. And it’s creeping up ever so slightly.
Fortunately, contraception is the technology we have: It’s cheap, and there are wonderful side benefits. Educate a lot of women, and they become contributors to societies and economies.
We’re always talking about social inequity. It’s one of the fastest ways I can think of of spreading the wealth around.
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