Countdown (Alan Weisman) - Little, Brown - 2013 - 513 pages

This is the most coherent book I have read about the most important issue facing mankind on Earth: overpopulation.  Although there are seven billion of us on the planet (and marching toward ten billion), our resources will only support about two billion for the long term.  Weisman relates several instances where responsible family-planning has been successful.  However, much more needs to happen to bring the population back to the 1930 level.  Weisman also includes a 55-page bibliography for further reading.  Rather than trying to summarize the lessons of this book, I offer the following quotations from it. [JAM 10/31/2013]

"If a sustainable population for the Earth turns out to be less than the 10+ billion we're headed to, or even less than the 7 billion we already number, how do we design an economy for a shrinking population, and then for a stable one - meaning, an economy that can prosper without depending on constant growth?"

"With wide eyes lined with blue eye shadow that complements her lavender hijab and purple wool coat, she glances over at her mother.  Ruwaidah Um-Said, bundled in a green velvet dress and a black wool head scarf against the January chill, leans on the arm of her white plastic chair and ticks off the ages of her children: 'Twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty, nineteen, sixteen, fourteen, thirteen and ten.'  Six boys, four girls.  Her youngest leans against her knee, bundled in a black zip-collared sweatshirt over a turtleneck and a fleece-lined nylon jacket over that.  The only heat in their home - three rooms on the ground floor of a five-story concrete box in Al-Amari, a refugee camp that's now a permanent neighborhood in the West Bank city of Ramallah - emanates from the bodies of the people living here, which are always plenty." 

"Two billion was the population of the Earth in 1930, when the Haber-Bosch process had just become commercially available worldwide.  Nearly everyone on Earth was still living off plants growing on sunlight, not fossil fuel.  At 2 billion, the world's population could be fed with little or no artificial fertilizer, relieving pressures on the soil, on downstream waters, and on the atmosphere: agricultural nitrogen is a major source of nitrous oxide, both a pollutant and the most potent greenhouse gas after CO2 and methane."

"Overconsumption is unquestionably deplorable, but taken alone, it also deflects from the obvious: that too many cars result from too many people.  That, in turn, results in the awkward spectacle of a kindly, intelligent man [Cardinal Turkson] who someday might be leader of the world's Christians - at least according to the Roman Catholic Church - pretending he doesn't know that sperm can live inside a woman for up to six days preceding ovulation, regularly foiling contraceptive methods based on mucus, temperature, or calendars."

"All the accolades that Iran's family-planning program received in forthcoming years cited one indispensable factor: female education.  Not just primary and secondary, but university.  In 1975, barely a third of Iranian women could read.  In 2012, more than 60 percent of Iranian university students were female.  The literacy rate for females twenty-six and under was 96 percent.  Giving women control over their wombs and their education made it increasingly hard to deny them the workplace.  As Dr. Shamshiri recalls her horseback missions [family planning], two taxis arrive at the Espinas Hotel driven by female cabbies, while just beyond, women police officers cruise Keshavarz Avenue."

"The last wild Oriental stork in Japan was seen in 1971.  In 1989, a stork hatchery at Toyooka, and hour from Kyoto in Hyogo Prefecture, successfully produced offspring using breeding pairs from Russia.  But the local rice fields, soaked annually with organo-mercury pesticides, proved too toxic for the fledgling birds to be released.  In 2004, a ten-year-old schoolgirl named Yuka Okada learned that storks like the caged birds in Toyooka's now crowded hatchery had once filled the skies and nested on every chimney.  After learning why they no longer did, she went to the mayor and demanded that Toyooka serve organic rice for school lunches.  To do that meant eliminating mercury, inviting back grasshoppers but also making the rice paddies safe for storks.  The mayor, hearing the simple truth from a ten-year-old, could only agree.  His city's slogan became 'An environment good for storks must be good for humans, too.'  The next plantings were pesticide-free.  A year later, the first stork was released, and today, wherever they nest, the rice is twice as valuable because the presence of storks guarantees its purity.  An economy that had bottomed was rejuvenated, and today tourists flock to Toyooka to watch hundreds of storks do the same."

"Can we have prosperity without growth?"