Friday, October 18, 2013

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth

Every possible aspect of human population undergoes scrutiny in the book "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth" by Alan Weisman, and the news is not good for the late 21st Century. According to the author, although previous dire warnings haven't gone as forecast (due to advances in agricultural science), there are still a million humans being added to Earth every four and a half days, and this is unsustainable. It is the equivalent of added four more Beijings every year. Already taxed by increased demand for energy and clean water, the Earth is losing species by the hundred as the human species replaces them. Trees are being cut, coral reefs are being decimated by increased acidity, and air pollution threatens to change the climate, flooding coastal areas (including cities such as Mumbai and Miami.) Populations on Earth were stable for millennia until the mid 1800s, when better food production began to lift the growth line toward the vertical. With more food, women have more babies, but the overuse and misuse of fertilizer has consequences on the environment. Likewise, the burning of coal for power, and the dwindling resources of cheap oil (along with the failure of sufficient cheap alternatives) have set the human race on a collision course with a cruel reality. "All the low hanging fruit has been plucked," says Weisman, "and what remains will be dirtier and more expense in every way." A solution, still unthinkable to most countries, would be to have a one child per family law, which, if it were adopted would "return the Earth to sustainability in less than a hundred years...the same amount of time it took to get us here." Even two children per couple would solve most of the problem. But consider the Niger, where all fertile women are pregnant nearly all of the time. Weisman talks to men there who boast of having 22 children, which are seen as the only assets they own. When he asks them to remember what their world looked like 22 years previously, they had to admit it was a lot greener. This is a chilling book, considering the implications of inevitable human misery in terms of famine, wars, and diminished standard of living. For the other animals we share the planet with, the forecast is even more grim. Demand for meat is increasing too, and the only way to meet this demand is to place animals in pens and feed them grain and hormones, resulting in sickly creatures which can easily host diseases. "We tend to think of people as holding jobs," says Weisman, "but only so many houses can be built and maintained, stocked with 'stuff' whose proliferation is somehow always seen as being positive. Growth has become our goal. We refuse to see any limit, which is why Florida planned for half a million more homes right after the mortgage collapse." He adds that the Earth itself will self-correct this delusion, "handing out pink slips to humans." Sound like Avatar? Maybe so. As he told those men in Niger, the future of cutting down trees for a living is coming to an end, while planting them is the only way to live in the future. Adam Grupper narrates.

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