Alan Weisman on why our inability to stop reproducing could be humanity's greatest threat

Author Alan Weisman will be in town tonight.
Author Alan Weisman will be in town tonight.
Bill Steen

Nuclear warfare, biological warfare, meteor impact, global pandemic, global warming, supervolcano, alien invasion, zombie apocalypse... sharknado? All are theoretical ways that human civilization could meet its demise. And while all are gruesome, most would allow the human race to depart Earth with at least a strand of dignity still attached. So when author Alan Weisman suggests -- as he does in his latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? -- that the most eminent threat to humanity may not be war nor a large number of flying shark attacks, but rather our inability to reproduce at a modest rate, you have to wonder whether it's Kim Jong Un we should be worried about or the family from 19 Kids and Counting.

Find out when Weisman appears at the Tattered Cover in Lodo at 7:30 p.m. tonight to answer any questions you may have about the future of humanity. Prior to this engagement, we caught up with Weisman to find out how we can prevent death by overpopulation and why the act of limiting our offspring is such a sensitive subject.

See also: Author Michael Pollan on portion control, the future of food and fast food

Westword: Why is population control so taboo in America?

Alan Weisman: Well, I don't think it's necessarily just America. It's kind of an unnatural act if you think of it. Like any other organism, homo sapiens are designed to makes copies of themselves and even make extra copies of themselves in hopes that some of those copies will survive to keep the lineage going -- both our genetic lineage and our cultural lineage. Until about 200 years ago child mortality was huge. Most kids didn't make it to their fifth birthday and about half of them were dead before their first. So this is kind of ingrained biological behavior.

Obviously, when an organism of any species reaches the limits of its resource base, it suffers a population crash. We've worked out technological ways to postpone it and stretch our limits, but ultimately you can't stretch forever. It's very hard for us to wrap our minds around the fact that this is real serious and that we have to start living within our limits. In a national park it's very easy for us to understand that you have to keep prey and predator in balance with one another. It's real hard when you're looking at your own species. We're very subjective about ourselves. We're naturally protective because we're hard-wired to keep increasing, yet at a certain point nature's not gonna let us do that anymore.

What role does religion play in population control?

Religion and nationalism both always start with a goal of: Be fruitful and multiply. That goes almost across the board. And the reason, of course, is because you want to build your strength and build a mighty nation and dominant religion so you don't get overtaken by competitors. In the beginning of most religions, there is a mandate to have lots of babies so you can become numerous very quickly. We still see this today with the Catholic Church being against birth control because they want to be numerous.

Everyone thinks of the Mormons as being polygamists and at one point it was precisely a strategy to have many babies to build themselves a mighty nation so they wouldn't be wiped out by competitors. And this isn't just them, it's Christian history. Go back and read Genesis. The patriarchs were all polygamists having as many babies as they could. In interpretation of the first five books of the Bible, in times of famine you don't have children. I'm hoping we can all keep having children, just not as many as we used to.

Is the human species intelligent enough and willing enough to avoid suffering a population crash, or will it be too difficult, due to state boundaries, money and opposing political views, to get everyone to collectively reduce their reproductive rate?

This is the critical question. Intelligent enough? Yeah, we're intelligent enough, in the sense that we have come up with brilliant ways of accessing enormous amounts of information. We have information we need at our fingertips now and we're making it more and more widely accessible. Whether we're wise enough? I don't know. Wisdom requires vision, to look ahead at not just what's gonna get you through the day but what's gonna get you and your species through times to come.

That's why I wrote this book, to try and open up people's thinking to the fact that we are in a situation that's looking increasingly more critical because so many of the different indicators are pointing to the fact that we could be in for some very rough times if we keep overrunning our ecosystem. I wanted to know if there was a way that at least the world's wide variety of cultures and religions and nationalities might decide that this is in their self interest to do, that the best thing they could be doing right now both ecologically and economically is to not have so many mouths to feed and so many people to house.

When people think about managing population control, the first thing they think of is China's one-child policy and they don't like that. But I went to so many places for this book, 21 countries, to find out if there's anything in their cultural history or in their liturgy that might make this idea acceptable to them, so it's not like we'd be going around saying their belief system was wrong but that their belief system is right because it affirms this. And I was able to find that. There are examples in Christian history, there are examples in Muslim liturgy in the Koran, there's even examples in Mormon history.

 

Outside of laws limiting reproduction, what are the most realistic ways to control population?

I don't agree with laws limiting reproduction because people rebel against them. Nobody wants the government telling us what to do in our bedrooms or in our privates lives. Again, it's such a natural impulse to make copies of ourselves. Even if we know it's a good idea, something in all of us doesn't like the government telling us what to do.

So the best programs that I've found all over the world are voluntary programs. I cite examples in Iran and Thailand where contraception is simply made available to people. They're given the choice. In Iran they just did something brilliant. They asked couples before they got married to attend some premarital classes where you learn how much it costs to feed and clothe and educate a kid. Wherever you can couple that understanding with access to birth control and enhancing female education, you're winning the battle. Educated women, overwhelmingly throughout the world, have two children or fewer. It's really the best contraceptive of all.

I don't believe laws are the way to do it. I believe the role of government is to try to make contraception available to everybody. Let them know it's their choice, how many kids they want, but help them understand that life is probably gonna be better for them if they have fewer kids -- and there's lots of ways to do that. I mention in the book these soap operas that completely turned around Mexico's birthrate when Mexico had the highest birthrate in the world -- just soap operas showing that people with fewer kids live better.

Is it possible for the world to get to the point where there's literally no more land to occupy and every inch of the earth will be crammed with people like a New York City apartment complex? If not, what will prevent this from happening?

I don't think we can do that. Right now 40 percent of the nonfrozen land on this planet is devoted to feeding us. There's a certain amount of overlap, with some creatures being able to live on that land, but at a certain point we can't turn this whole planet into either an urban area or a farm occupied only by domesticated species that we like to eat. Our life on this planet and even the lives of our croplands and grazing lands depend on things that happen in the ecosystem. Even the exchanges between the land and the atmosphere and the sea. Some of those things are biophysical, like pollination and seed spreading, for example. Just think of what would happen if there's not enough habitat for birds. There would be huge ecosystem crashes in both Europe and Africa. We're pressing nature to the limits right now and we just can't keep doing it. But to answer your question, theoretically the whole human race could fit inside Texas. But where would the food come from? It's just not livable.

What's your prediction, given the research you've done and the data you've collected, about what will happen to the earth in the future in terms of population growth? In other words, are we doomed?

I'm a journalist. I do not make predictions. What I'm seeing right now, according to projections based on the amount of contraception that's being distributed throughout the world, is that we're heading to nearly 11 billion people by the end of this century, and that's dependent on our current rate of making contraception available. Had there been a different outcome in the last election, a huge portion of the world's funding for it would have disappeared because the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the Republicans are not in favor of extending birth control. This means our rate would increase to half a child more and would put us on pace to reach 16 billion. On the other hand, if we do a much better job of making contraception available, half a child fewer per woman would mean we'd be going towards six billion, which would put us back into a sustainable direction for this world.

Those are three scenarios and the top two I don't think we're gonna make because I don't think we can possibly support them. We can't produce enough food. We'll run out of technological tricks to keep stretching the food supply to keep up with population growth. I just don't think we're gonna make it unless we take control of this thing now and take ourselves to the third scenario, where we start recruiting fewer human beings to take our places. Then I think humanity can continue on, only in a much more balanced relationship with the planet we live on. Otherwise, we're gonna learn the hard way and it's not gonna be pretty.

Alan Weisman will be appearing at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, 1628 16th Street, tonight at 7:30 p.m. For more information visit the Tattered Cover website.



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