I’m about two-thirds of the way through Alan Weisman’s new book, “Countdown.”
His last foray, “The World Without Us,” perused the notion of humanity’s sudden disappearance from the planet and the time that the world would need to, well, recover from us. This time, he’s engaged in a worldwide investigation into population pressure, whether we can mitigate its effects, and whether we actually have enough time left to do so voluntarily. That is, before the planet does it for (to?) us.
Because I haven’t finished the book yet, I’m going to refrain from speculating on where it’s leading; in fact, I’ll also refrain from all conjecture. I plan on simply opening to dog-eared pages and reporting on some of what I’ve read so far. Next month, I’ll finish up, and we’ll see what Weisman’s conclusion is. Here are some excerpts from his travels.
Israel: Each pair of barn owls can eat about 5,000 rodents a year. Now, get rid of them, because there are no decent roosts left in modern buildings. Consider, instead, the effects of using 826 kinds of pesticides. Sperm counts, down 40 percent, cancer rates up by the same amount. Too many hormones and pesticides, even affecting human cognitive functioning. Solution: Schoolchildren building 2,000 nesting boxes and placing them in fields. It’s a start.
Mexico City: Twenty-four million people, so many that the weight of the city has made it sink so low that the sewage canals no longer flow out, and the city is drowning in you-know-what. Solution? How about the world’s longest sewer pipe, 23 feet wide and 37 miles long, to eventually drain into a valley.
The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab: Sapsuckers, as it turns out, need several things in order to exist. Willows, for food, aspen groves for shelter, and a heartwood fungus that rots aspen trunks, enabling them to peck nesting cavities. And an entire community of critters depends on these same sapsuckers for their own survival. And these kinds of interdependencies occur everywhere.
The First World Optimum Population Conference, Cambridge, England, 1993: At the time of the conference, about 5.5 billion people populated Earth. (Now we’re at about 7 billion.) In 1993, we were using 13 terawatts – that’s 13 trillion watts or 7 1/2 kilowatts per person. A “wild, wishful guess” on what we could get by on without laying waste to everything else? Maybe 9 terawatts, and allowing for a margin of error, reduce it to 6. Reduce average energy use per person to 3 kilowatts and do the math. Total number of people: 2 billion. Not a very comfortable standard of living, either, so give everyone a more manageable 3/4 kilowatts, and the number of people falls to 1.5 billion.
First Vatican Council, aka, Vatican I, in 1868: The declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Consequences? If one pope is right, then by extension all others are, too. Hence, the church’s stand on contraception. Still. Today. Solution? The Billings ovulation method, which allows women to recognize the onset of their fertile period. Problem? Sperm can live inside a woman for up to six days.
China, circa 1960, the Great Leap Forward: Chairman Mao declares war on tree sparrows; millions are killed. Locusts, held in check previously by sparrows, decimate the country’s rice crops. Thirty to 40 million people – no one knows for sure – starve to death.
Geez, I still have a dozen or so dog-ears left and I’m out of space. The planet, too, quite possibly. Part two, next month.