Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?


By Alan Weisman

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A powerful investigation into the chances for humanity’s future from the author of the bestseller The World Without Us.

In his bestselling book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman considered how the Earth could heal and even refill empty niches if relieved of humanity’s constant pressures. Behind that groundbreaking thought experiment was his hope that we would be inspired to find a way to add humans back to this vision of a restored, healthy planet-only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of nature.

But with a million more of us every 4 1/2 days on a planet that’s not getting any bigger, and with our exhaust overheating the atmosphere and altering the chemistry of the oceans, prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt. For this long awaited follow-up book, Weisman traveled to more than 20 countries to ask what experts agreed were probably the most important questions on Earth — and also the hardest: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? How robust must the Earth’s ecosystem be to assure our continued existence? Can we know which other species are essential to our survival? And, how might we actually arrive at a stable, optimum population, and design an economy to allow genuine prosperity without endless growth?

Weisman visits an extraordinary range of the world’s cultures, religions, nationalities, tribes, and political systems to learn what in their beliefs, histories, liturgies, or current circumstances might suggest that sometimes it’s in their own best interest to limit their growth. The result is a landmark work of reporting: devastating, urgent, and, ultimately, deeply hopeful.

By vividly detailing the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence, Countdown reveals what may be the fastest, most acceptable, practical, and affordable way of returning our planet and our presence on it to balance. Weisman again shows that he is one of the most provocative journalists at work today, with a book whose message is so compelling that it will change how we see our lives and our destiny.


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Author's Note

Many readers may recall my last book, The World Without Us, as a thought experiment that imagined what would happen if people vanished from our planet.

The idea of theoretically wiping us off the face of the Earth was to show that, despite colossal damage we've wreaked, nature has remarkable resilience and healing powers. When relieved of the pressures we humans daily heap upon it, restoration and renewal commence with surprising swiftness. Eventually, even new plants, creatures, fungi, et al., evolve to fill empty niches.

My hope was that readers, seduced by the gorgeous prospect of a refreshed, healthy Earth, might then ask themselves how we could add Homo sapiens back into the picture—only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of Earthly life.

In other words, how might we continue to have a world with us?

Welcome to another thought experiment, on exactly that subject. Only this time, there's no imagining: the scenarios here are real. And in addition to the people I describe, locals and informed experts, there's everyone else—including you and me. As it turns out, we're all part of the response to what basically came down to four questions I went around the world asking—questions that several of the aforementioned experts called the most important on Earth.

"But probably," one of them added, "they're impossible to answer."

When he made that remark, we were lunching at one of the world's oldest, most hallowed institutions of higher learning, where he was distinguished faculty. In that moment, I was glad not to be an expert. Journalists rarely claim depth in any field: our job is to seek people who dedicate their careers to study—or who actually live—whatever it is we're investigating, and to ask them enough common-sense questions so the rest of us might understand.

If such questions are arguably the most important in the world, whether or not the experts deem their answers impossible is irrelevant: we'd damned well better find them. Or keep asking until we do.

So I did, in more than twenty countries over two years. Now, you get to ask them for yourselves, as you follow my travels and inquiry.

If by the end you think that we're onto the answers—well, I'm pretty sure you'll figure out what we ought to do next.




A Weary Land of Four Questions

i. Battle of the Babies

A cold January afternoon in Jerusalem, late Friday before the Jewish Sabbath. The winter sun, nearing the horizon, turns the gilded Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount to blood-orange. From the east, where the muezzin's afternoon call to Muslim prayer has just ended on the Mount of Olives, the golden Dome is suffused in a smudged pinkish corona of dust and traffic fumes.

At this hour, the Temple Mount itself, the holiest site in Judaism, is one of the quieter spots in this ancient city, empty but for a few scholars in overcoats, hurrying with their books across a chilly, cypress-shaded plaza. Once, King Solomon's original tabernacle stood here. It held the Ark of the Covenant, containing stone tablets on which Moses was believed to have incised the Ten Commandments. In 586 BCE, invading Babylonians destroyed it all and took the Jewish people captive. A half-century later, Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, liberated them to return and rebuild their temple.

Around 19 CE, the Temple Mount was renovated and fortified with a surrounding wall by King Herod, only to be demolished again by the Romans within ninety years. Although exile from the Holy Land occurred both before and after, this Roman destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple most famously symbolizes the Diaspora that scattered Jews across Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.

Today, a remaining fragment of the Second Temple's sixty-foot-high perimeter in Jerusalem's Old City, known as the Western (or "Wailing") Wall, is an obligatory pilgrimage for Jews visiting Israel. Yet, lest they inadvertently tread where the Holy of Holies once stood, an official rabbinical decree prohibits Jews from ascending to the Temple Mount itself. Although it is at times defied, and exceptions can be arranged, this explains why the Temple Mount is administered by Muslims, who also hold it sacred. From here, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have journeyed one night upon a winged steed all the way to Seventh Heaven and back. Only Mecca and Medina, Muhammad's birthplace and burial site, are considered holier. In a rare agreement between Israel and Islam, Muslims alone may pray on this hallowed ground, which they call al-Haram al-Sharif.

But not as many Muslims come here as they once did. Before September 2000, they flocked by the thousands, lining up at a fountain ringed by stone benches to perform purification ablutions before entering the crimson-carpeted, marbled al-Aqsa Mosque across the plaza from the Dome of the Rock. Especially, they came on Friday at noon for the imam's weekly sermon, a discourse on current events as well as the Qur'an.

One frequent topic back then, recalls Khalil Toufakji, people jokingly called "Yasser Arafat's biology bomb." Except it was no joke. As Toufakji, today a Palestinian demographer with Jerusalem's Arab Studies Society, remembers: "We were taught in the mosque, in school, and at home to have lots of children, for lots of reasons. In America or Europe, if there's a problem, you can call the police. In a place with no laws to safeguard you, you rely on your family."

He sighs, stroking his neat gray moustache; his own father was a policeman. "Here, you need a big family to feel protected." It's even worse in Gaza, he adds. One Hamas leader there had fourteen children and four wives. "Our mentality goes back to the Bedouins. If you have a big enough tribe, everyone's afraid of you."

Another reason for the large families, Toufakji agrees, is definitely no joke to Israelis. The Palestine Liberation Organization's best weapon, its leader Arafat liked to say, was the Palestinian womb.

During Ramadan, Toufakji and some of his own thirteen siblings would be among the half-million worshippers overflowing al-Aqsa Mosque, spilling onto al-Haram al-Sharif's stone plaza. That was before the day in September 2000 when former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon paid a visit to the Temple Mount, escorted by a thousand Israeli riot police. At the time, Sharon was a candidate for prime minister. He had once been found willfully negligent by an Israeli commission for not protecting more than a thousand Palestinian civilian refugees massacred by Christian Phalangists during Lebanon's 1982 civil war, while his occupying Israeli forces stood by. Sharon's trip to the Temple Mount, intended to assert Israelis' historical right to it, ignited demonstrations and rock throwing, which were met by tear gas and rubber bullets. When stones from the Temple Mount were hurled at Jews worshipping at the Western Wall below, the ammunition turned live.

The mayhem soon spiraled into hundreds of deaths in Jerusalem and beyond, in what became known as the Second Intifada. Eventually came suicide bombings—and then, especially after Sharon was elected prime minister, years of mutual retaliation for shootings, massacres, rocket attacks, and more suicide bombs, until Israel began walling itself in.

A barrier of towering concrete and wire more than two hundred kilometers long now nearly encircles the West Bank—except for where it thrusts deeply across the Green Line that delineates captured territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War with its surrounding Arab adversaries. In places it zigzags through cities like Bethlehem and Greater Jerusalem, curling back on itself to isolate individual neighborhoods, cutting Palestinians off not just from Israel but from each other and from their fields and orchards, and prompting charges that its purpose is to annex territory and seize wells as much as to guarantee security.

It also stops most Palestinians from reaching the al-Aqsa Mosque, except if they live in Israel or the parts of East Jerusalem within the security barrier. Yet of those, often only Palestinian men over age forty-five are allowed by Israeli police past the metal detectors at Temple Mount gates. Officially, this is to forestall any Arab youths tempted again to stone worshipping Jews—especially foreign Jewish tourists, as they tuck written prayers into crevices between the Western Wall's massive blocks of pale limestone rising above the adjacent plaza.

That custom is particularly popular as Sabbath begins, but in recent years, getting anywhere near the Western Wall on Friday at sundown has become a challenge even for Jews. Unless you're a haredi, and a male.

The Hebrew word haredi means, literally, "fear and trembling." In today's Israel, it refers to ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose dour dress and fervid quaking before God hearken to bygone centuries and distant lands where their ancestors lived during two millennia of Diaspora. To the alarm of non-haredi Jews, the Western Wall has been effectively usurped and converted into a haredi synagogue. On Shabbat, tens of thousands of bowing, trembling, rejoicing, chanting, praising, praying black-frocked men in broad-rimmed hats and ritual fringes engulf it, save for a small fenced section reserved for women—that is, for women who dare approach it. Females who insist on a Jewish woman's right to don prayer shawls and phylacteries—or the ultimate haredi horror: to actually touch and read from a Torah scroll—may be spat upon by haredi men, who have flung chairs at the brazen blasphemers, and be called whores by screaming rabbis who try to drown out their Sabbath songs.

Women, extremist haredim believe, should be home readying the Shabbat meal for their pious men and their burgeoning families. Although still a minority, Israel's haredim are relentlessly bent on changing that status. Their simple tactic: procreation. Haredi families average nearly seven children, and frequently hit double digits. Their multiplying offspring are considered both the solution to modern Jews, who defile their religion, and as the best defense against Palestinians, who threaten to outproliferate Jews in their historic homeland.

The Jerusalem daily Haaretz reports a haredi man who boasts 450 descendents. Their soaring numbers force Israeli politicians to include haredi parties in coalitions that rule Israeli governments. Such clout has won the ultra-Orthodox privileges that elicit howls from other Israelis: exemption from military service (supposedly, they defend Judaism by incessant study of Torah) and a government allowance for each Israeli child brought into the world. Until 2009, this subsidy actually rose for each new birth, until the cost of the escalating demographics shocked even conservative Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who modified it to a flat rate. Any dampening effect on haredi reproduction is not yet evident at the Western Wall, where thousands of young boys with black yarmulkes and bouncing sidelocks swirl around their dancing, bearded fathers.

A waxing moon, yellow as Jerusalem limestone, climbs high above the walled Old City, and haredim begin to stream homeward—on foot; no motorized conveyance allowed on Shabbat—to their pregnant wives and their daughters. Most head into Mea She'arim, one of Jerusalem's biggest neighborhoods, which is visibly deteriorating under the pressure of so many people. Torah scholarship pays little or nothing; haredi wives mostly work at whatever jobs they can sandwich between child-rearing, and more than one-third of the families are below the poverty line. Vestibules and staircases of shabby high-rises are jammed with baby strollers. The air whiffs of overflowing garbage, overstressed sewers, and—surprising for a place where no vehicles can circulate on Shabbat—diesel exhaust. Because many haredim insist that the Israel Electric Corporation's nonstop coal-fired plants commit a sacrilege by working through Sabbath, before sundown they crank up hundreds of portable generators in Mea She'arim basements to keep the lights on. The traditional z'mirot heard around Sabbath tables are sung over their dull roar.

Four kilometers north of Mea She'arim, the land rises into limestone ridges. A hill just across the Green Line, Ramat Shlomo, is the site of an ancient quarry that provided the nearly thirty-foot foundation slabs Herod used to build the Second Temple's wall. In 1970, not long after the area was captured, Israel planted a forest there. Unlike the early Jewish National Fund forests—regimental rows of Australian eucalyptus or monocultured Aleppo pines, financed with coins saved by Jewish children worldwide in blue JNF collection tins—this was a mixed woodland that included some native oaks, conifers, and terebinths. The young forest was declared a nature preserve, a designation that Palestinians protested, claiming the real intention was to prevent a nearby Arab village, Shuafat, from growing. Their suspicion was confirmed when, in 1990, the forest was bulldozed to make way for a new haredi Jerusalem neighborhood—or new West Bank settlement, depending on who's describing it.

"Shaved the whole hill," admits Ramat Shlomo settler and Hasidic rabbi Dudi Zilbershlag. A founder of Haredim for the Environment, a nonprofit organization whose name also translates as Fear for the Environment, he regrets that. "But then," he adds, brightening, "we replanted."

In his living room, Zilbershlag sips rose hips tea, surrounded by glass-fronted hardwood bookshelves that hold rows of leather-bound Kabbalah and Talmudic literature. One case is devoted to silver menorahs, Shabbat candlesticks, and kiddush cups. A robust man in his fifties with a wide smile, thick gray payos curling out from either side of his black skullcap, and a gray beard reaching the black vest he wears over his white shirt and ritual fringes, he is also the founder of Israel's largest charity: Meir Panim, a soup kitchen network. His ultra-Orthodox environmental group mainly focuses on urban issues: noise, air pollution, congested roads, open burning of trash, and ubiquitous junk food wrappers strewn through packed haredi neighborhoods. But his own interest goes beyond, to the preservation of nature.

"According to Gematria," he explains—Kabbalist numerology—"the words God and nature are equivalents. So nature is the same as God."

You don't need miracles, he says, to know that God exists. "I see God in nature's details: trees, valleys, sky, and sun." Yet in a mystery that perhaps only a Kabbalist can resolve, he notes that Jewish survival has depended on miracles involving God's dominion over, and even suspension of, natural law. "A classic example is when Israel left Egypt, He made the seas part."

That act was preceded by other unnatural miracles: water turning to blood, swarms of frogs in the desert, night that lasted for three days, hail that selectively battered Egyptian crops, and death that slaughtered only Egyptian livestock and Egyptian firstborn children. All these divine interventions are commemorated in the Passover seder, which begins with Jewish children asking four traditional questions about the evening's symbolism. The answers, given over the course of the meal, recount Israel's miraculous deliverance from slavery.

In each corner of Dudi Zilbershlag's home is a reminder—a stroller, a playpen, a crib—of children who have asked these questions: he and his wife, Rivka, had eleven themselves, and they expect to be grandparents many times over. Yet nothing is ever certain in this mythic land, where tension between two peoples who claim it crackles the atmosphere. As pressures and stakes rise daily—and sheer numbers, with each trying to outpopulate the other—so does a reality that has begun to dawn on Jews and Arabs alike, spanning both sides' political and religious spectra:

In historic Palestine—that is, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in the disputed lands of Israel and Palestine, a distance of barely fifty miles—there are now nearly 12 million people.

In the aftermath of World War I, the British, who governed Palestine under an international mandate, believed that this land, much of it desert, could sustain 2.5 million at most. During the 1930s, to persuade a doubtful Crown that it should be a homeland for Jews, Zionist David Ben-Gurion argued that Jewish determination and ingenuity to transform what the British considered a backwater should not be discounted.

"No square inch of land shall we neglect; not one source of water shall we fail to tap; not a swamp that we shall not drain; not a sand dune that we shall not fructify; not a barren hill that we shall not cover with trees; nothing shall we leave untouched," wrote Israel's future first prime minister. Ben-Gurion was referring to the carrying capacity of Palestine's soil and water resources to support human beings—both Jew and Arab, who in early writings he imagined coexisting.

He was convinced that the land could support 6 million people. Later, as prime minister, Ben-Gurion would offer prizes to Israeli "heroines" who had ten or more children (an offer eventually discontinued because so many winners were Arab women). Today, Israel's haredi population doubles every seventeen years. At the same time, with half of all Palestinians just entering or nearing their reproductive years, the Arab population of historic Palestine—Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip—could surpass that of Israeli Jews by 2016.

At that point, projections of which side will win this demographic derby—or lose, depending on point of view—get hazy. Historically, much of Israel's growth has depended on immigration of Jews from elsewhere. More than a million Russians arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the trend of Jews making aliyah to Israel has slowed dramatically. Far more Jews now move from Israel to the United States than vice versa. Nevertheless, as the birthrate of haredim increases exponentially, Jews may retake the majority in the 2020s. At least for a while.

Even more important than who's leading is something neither Jewish nor Arab demographers deny: If things continue as they're headed, by the middle of this century the number of humans jammed between the sea and the Jordan will nearly double, to at least 21 million.

Even Jesus's miracle with loaves and fishes might not come close to slaking their needs. Such relentless arithmetic begs a new set of four questions:

The First Question

How many people can their land really hold? For that matter, since the influence of this Holy Land extends far beyond its disputed borders, how many people can our planet hold?

It is a question that, anywhere on Earth, requires panoramic knowledge, expertise, and imagination to attempt an answer. Which people? What do they eat? How do they shelter themselves, and move about? Where do they get their water—and how much water is there for them to get? And their fuel: how much is available, and how dangerous is its exhaust? And—getting back to food—do they grow it themselves? If so, how much can they harvest, meaning: how much does it rain, how many rivers flow through the land, how good and plentiful are the soils, how much fertilizer and other forms of chemistry are involved, and what's the downside of using them?

The list continues: What kinds of houses, and how big? And made from what? If of local material, how much is on hand? (Although half of Israel is a desert, it is already worried about running out of construction-grade sand—let alone water to mix cement.) How about suitable building sites—and all the roads, sewer pipes, gas lines, and power lines that must connect to them? And the infrastructure for all the schools, hospitals, and businesses to serve and employ… how many people??

Any complete answers to such questions demand input from ecologists, geographers, hydrologists, and agronomists, not just engineers and economists. But in Israel and Palestine—like everywhere else—most decisions are made by none of them. Politics, which includes military strategy along with business and culture, has been the ultimate arbiter here since civilization began, and still is.

A business-savvy and politically astute nonprofit director, for a Hasidic rabbi Dudi Zilbershlag is also a cultural realist, at least to a point. He accepts that Israel needs secular as well as religious Jews—who else will support all the Talmudists?—and even, he adds, that ultimately his children and Arabs will have to live together. "We must find a common language and let peace prevail."

What he cannot do, however, is ever imagine restricting the numbers of children his people bring into the world.

"God brings children into the world. He'll find a place for them," says haredi environmental educator Rachel Ladani.

If the phrase population control evokes Malthusian shudders or nightmares of Chinese totalitarian rule for some, to Hasidic Jews like Ladani and Dudi Zilbershlag, it's plain unthinkable. Ladani lives in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, Israel's most densely populated city, just inland from coastal Tel Aviv. She finds no conflict between teaching environmental awareness and being the mother of eight. Her family's Hasidic lifestyle means walking to stores, school, and the synagogue, rarely venturing beyond their neighborhood. None, including Rachel, has ever been on an airplane. "My two daughters and six sons produce less carbon dioxide in one year," she enjoys saying, "than someone from America visiting Israel does in one flight."

Perhaps: But they all eat food and need shelter, which in turn require building materials and all the connecting infrastructure—as will their own myriad offspring. And despite the proximity of services—within two blocks are grocers, kosher butchers, falafel outlets, and many shops selling baby goods and wigs (acceptably modest head covering for Orthodox women; Rachel's is auburn, cut in a pageboy)—it's clear that austere haredim aren't immune to modern, energy-hungry temptations. In Bnei Brak, parked cars are everywhere: on road dividers, wheels halfway up sidewalks. Motorcycles swarm through streets crammed with houses encrusted with satellite dish antennae.

This is the thickest concentration of humans in Israel's northern, nondesert half, which, at 740 people per square kilometer, has higher population density than any country in the Western world. (Holland, Europe's densest, has 403 people per square kilometer.) So what does Rachel Ladani think will happen when her country's population doubles by 2050? Or to our world, which, according to the United Nations, by mid-century may host nearly 10 billion of us?

"I don't have to think about it. God made the problem, and He will solve it."

There was once a pine forest nearby, where Rachel's Russian immigrant mother taught her the names of flowers and birds. When she was only ten, she met a female landscape architect—a double revelation: she had known neither that anything like landscape architecture existed, nor that women worked. When she married at nineteen, she didn't tell the rebbe who officiated that she was also enrolling in Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. It took her five years to get her degree, as during that time she also had three children.

She and her husband, Eliezer, principal of a school for learning disabilities, managed to have five more even as Rachel worked to keep their bursting city beautiful. When she was forty, she discovered Israel's premier environmental think tank, the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv. Like Technion, it wasn't Orthodox, but it opened her eyes and changed her life without changing her faith.

"The environment is like Torah. It's a part of you," she tells the girls she teaches in religious schools. In a country where schoolchildren once sang patriotic songs about Zionists transforming the land by covering it in concrete, she teaches them to open their own eyes by watching seeds sprout, and by gazing at nature until they begin to really see. She quotes an ancient midrash, a rabbinical commentary on the Torah, in which God shows Adam the trees of Eden, saying "See my works, how lovely they are. All I have created I have created for you."

Yet as Heschel Center founder Jeremy Benstein noted in a 2006 book, The Way Into Judaism and the Environment, in the same midrash God goes on to warn Adam: "Take care not to corrupt and destroy My world, because if you ruin it there is no one to come after you to put it right."

When he cited that, Benstein was replying to the theological optimism of the deeply devout that somehow God will not let us down if we're doing the right things in His eyes. "We are bidden," he reminded in his book, "not to depend on miracles to solve our problems. God makes it clear that there will be no one to clean up after us."

Benstein grew up in Ohio and attended Harvard before coming to Israel. He earned a doctorate in environmental anthropology from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. With other emigrants from America, he founded Heschel and taught at the Arava Institute, a sustainability research center at a southern Israeli kibbutz. The Intifadas made two things about population clear to him: it had a huge impact on the joint Israeli-Palestinian environment, but discussing it was nearly taboo.

"Because, we're still recovering from the massacre of a third of the world's Jews," he says, straddling a chair in the Heschel Center's library. The Holocaust, which led the United Nations to cleave Palestine in two to create a Jewish homeland, is eternally fresh here. "The meaning of six billion," he wrote in his 2006 book, "should rightfully take a backseat to the six million." Especially, he adds, since a million of the slaughtered Jews were children.

"There are fewer Jews in the world now than in 1939. We see ourselves like any indigenous population decimated by Western culture. We have the right to replenish ourselves."

Yet Benstein, himself the father of twins, knows it took only twelve years for the world to go from 6 to 7 billion. Researching Torah and biblical tractates for environmental guidance, such as the edict in Exodus 23:11 to let the land lie fallow every seventh year, he has also looked for clues to what exactly God meant when He directed humans to be fruitful and multiply.


  • "Spirited descriptions, a firm grasp of complex material, and a bomb defuser's steady precision make for a riveting read... Weisman's cogent and forthright global inquiry, a major work, delineates how education, women's equality, and family planning can curb poverty, thirst, hunger, and environmental destruction. Rigorous and provoking, Countdown will generate numerous media appearances for Weisman and spur many a debate."-- Booklist (starred review)
  • "Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Weisman offers heart-rending portrayals of nations already suffering demographic collapse... A realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species." -- Kirkus (starred review)
  • "Rousing." -- Ihsan Taylor, New York Times Book Review's "Paperback Row"
  • "Unflinching and ready for anything, Weisman's Countdown tackles the biggest question facing not only us, but every other living thing on earth. How many people can there be on the earth? Written with extraordinary clarity, without all the arm-waving and doomsaying that seems to kill the conversation, his firsthand tour of the globe offers both worst case scenarios and the most hopeful futures we can imagine." -- Craig Childs, author of Apocalyptic Planet and House of Rain
  • "Countdown converts globetrotting research into flowing journalism, highlighting a simple truth: there are, quite plainly, too many of us. A world that understands Weisman's words will understand the pressing need for change." -- Bill Streever, author of Cold and Heat
  • "A frenzied barnstormer of a book.... Countdown is a chaotic stew of big stories, bold ideas and conflicted characters, punctuated by moments of quiet grace--just like our people-packed planet." -- Scientific American
  • "A hugely impressive piece of reportage, a cacophony of voices from across the world." -- Washington Post
  • "Rousing, urgent.... By exploring and integrating the lessons from cultures the world over, Weisman has been able to provide a blueprint that will ultimately benefit the planet as a whole. "Countdown" is a timely, essential, and hopeful work - one that suggests compassion in place of consumption and promises a return to an equilibrium that will prove a veritable windfall for humans, non-humans, and ecosystems alike." -- The Oregonian
  • "Countdownis a gripping narrative by a fair-minded investigative journalist who interviewed dozens of scientists and experts in various fields in 21 countries. He also scoured the literature to deliver not so much a doomsday narrative but a warning followed by the practical solution employed by various countries to get control of their population." -- Wall Street Journal
  • "He makes a strong case for slowing global population growth-and even for reducing overall population numbers-as a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable future...Weisman's book...offers hope... Weisman's emphasis on expanding access to contraception as the next-best strategy is both pragmatic and workable, as past efforts have shown. It is to be hoped that his message may be heeded sooner rather than later." -- Nature
  • "Weisman's stories--from his travel to contemporary Israel and Palestine, where reproducing is a form of warfare, to histories of family planning in Asia and South America--are fascinating and often chilling." -- Slate
  • "Weisman reminds us that when the experts are worried, we should pay attention." -- Los Angeles Times
  • "Weisman's gift as a writer with a love of science is in drawing links for readers on how everything in our world is connected - in this case, population, consumption and the environment.... The pleasure in reading Countdown is in the interplay of interviews with experts and with everyday working people around the world, all trying to figure out the size of family they want." -- Toronto Star
  • "[Weisman] found vivid, real-world portraits of what overpopulation portends." -- Men's Journal
  • "Alan Weisman's Countdown is rich, subtle and elaborate. His magisterial work should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the relationship between population and the environment...It's a tightly argued, fast-paced adventure that crosses the plant in search of contrasts." -- Literary Review
  • "While it is very much an alarming assessment, it is not without some genuine hope...It's a must read for all those who are concerned about the human prospect." -- Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute
  • "Weisman's anecdotes and explanations...draw a clear picture.... Countdown asks the hard questions." -- Shelf Awareness

On Sale
Sep 24, 2013
Page Count
528 pages

Alan Weisman

About the Author

Alan Weisman is the author of several books, including The World Without Us, which is a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, winner of the Wenjin Book Prize of the National Library of China, and an international bestseller translated in 34 languages.

His work has been selected for many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing. An award-winning journalist, his reports have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Vanity Fair, Wilson Quarterly, Mother Jones, and Orion, and on NPR.

A former contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Weisman is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author