Author and former Tucsonan Alan Weisman has switched gears from “The World Without Us” to “The World with Fewer of Us.”
“The World Without Us” was his critically acclaimed, best-selling 2007 book that imagined how the planet would look and feel if all humans disappeared. “The World With Fewer of Us” is the title of one chapter of his new book, “Countdown,” but it sums up Weisman’s theme.
This time, the retired University of Arizona associate professor tells how humanity could coexist better with the natural world if there were a few billion fewer people running around. If we can’t push the total below the 7 billion who occupy this planet today, let’s at least keep it to no more than the 10 billion the United Nations predicts will be around by 2050, he says.
Fewer people would mean fewer carbon dioxide emissions, less air pollution, less open space gobbled up by homes, and so forth, says Weisman, a UA faculty member for a decade through this spring, and the commencement speaker for the UA’s 2009 graduate school graduating class.
To bring his views home, he tells stories. Weisman traveled to 21 countries to inspect how places as disparate as Israel, Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, Great Britain, the U.S. and China cope with a crush of people, and how many are trying — in some cases successfully — to rein in future growth with family planning.
Population control is the third rail of environmental politics. It seems almost a given that fewer people would mean fewer demands on the world’s finite resources. But very few environmental groups are willing to take it on, a notable exception being the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity’s 2011 condom distribution campaign to encourage family planning.
Most other groups shy away from the issue for fear of being dragged into controversy. Over the years, population control advocates have been linked by their critics to hot-button issues such as abortion, eugenics or immigration. They’ve been called no-growthers, or elitist and U.S.-centric, for asking others to limit their populations when our citizens consume far more resources per person than the average person worldwide.
Weisman takes on most of these issues in his book, saying, for instance, that he’s trying to tell the stories of how other nations controlled populations on their own and is not trying to tell others how to live.
He points out that, in many countries, family planning works best not through government dictates, but from women’s growing educational achievements and professional success. That typically leads them to have smaller families than their parents and grandparents did. “The best contraceptive we have,” he says, “is education.”
His tale also has plenty of implications for the state he lived in for 33 years, he says, although his book mentions Arizona only briefly.
Weisman moved from Tucson to western Massachusetts in 2007. He spoke to the Star while in town recently to promote his book.
Question: Why 21 countries?
Answer: Population and demographics — it can be very dry and statistical and not very exciting reading. I had to put a human face on all the different variables, and on the scenarios of population, of exploding population growth and growth being controlled ... and population management that is surprisingly effective.
Q. What was the most discouraging thing you learned?
A: Probably the most discouraging thing I saw was in Pakistan. Pakistan is out of control. It has 185 million people in a place the size of Texas. That’s nuts. There’s mayhem everywhere, even though I didn’t go everywhere because my visa restricted me to Karachi (the nation’s capital). Neighborhoods are run by warlords. Many young men are employed as bodyguards; the only thing they could get for work was protecting neighborhood warlords. There’s an awful lot of gunfire on the streets of Karachi now.
Q. What left you most optimistic?
A. It was also in Pakistan. There are five businessmen there who got together a decade ago, who felt the country was going to hell and the schools were so corrupt, with teachers only going there once a month to get their paychecks, that they decided to start private schools. Parents paid a pittance to go there — enough for them to feel they were making an investment in them. I went to both a primary and a secondary school, and every kid picked a profession and was paired with a professional mentor. Girls would see female doctors, nurses and flight attendants, and they want to be like them. They get the message that these women, in order to have this interesting and helpful profession, they only have a couple of children. It’s just a breath of fresh air.
I asked the businessmen, you’re in this country with extremist forces like the Taliban — aren’t they after you? They replied, ‘They threaten us all the time, but we tell them that for every school you blow up, we build five more.’ They have more than 400 now.
Q. Overall, are you now more or less encouraged about this issue?
A: I came out of my research for this book far more encouraged than when I went into it. I found there’s something easily affordable we can do and make a huge difference.
For about $8.1 billion a year, or less than what the U.S. was spending per month during the 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could provide contraception for anyone on Earth who wants it. That’s a hell of a lot cheaper than anything else I could think of right now to help the pressures on the world’s environment. We don’t have to upgrade solar energy, improve wind power or get rid of carbon all at once, although we should be working on all those things, too.
Q. You don’t come across as sympathetic to groups who would limit immigration to control population. How is immigration consistent with population control?
A. Wherever a poor person is on this planet, they’re having an impact. It doesn’t matter if they stay in Mexico or come up here. ... I have a chapter set in England, where there’s all this fearmongering going on about the Muslim immigration, and all these swarthy people coming in, multiplying like rabbits and pushing the country into theocracy. That’s not true. They may have had large families in Bangladesh, but if they come here or to Italy, they come to school, and I’ve interviewed Muslim girls who are excited to have an education, and they won’t have large families. Call me biased. I’m a son of an immigrant.
Q. How can we encourage more family planning?
A. We have to do a really good job of emphasizing education. We have teenage mothers, and other young people and ... we have to do a better job of showing them that life becomes difficult when they have too many children and that life will be better if they have fewer. I lived in Mexico in the 1970s and it had the highest birth rate on the planet then. But they started turning it around. One thing they did was through soap operas, they conveyed the message that smaller families are living well and bigger families are fraught with problems. Now, Mexico is close to the replacement rate for births.
Q. In Arizona, we stopped growing back in 2007 and 2008. The economy collapsed. Our birthrate dropped. Is your book relevant to us?
A. The birthrate decline here is a good thing. I don’t like the fact that it’s taken an economic calamity to make people here think rationally. But we can’t keep growing forever. Every time we add another subdivision, we’re eating up more desert and using more water. The Central Arizona Project canal has only bought us some time. The Colorado River is in shorter and shorter supply. Wouldn’t it be better to have two kids in the family rather than six kids when shortages are coming?
Q. Development and construction feed families. If we don’t resume growing, how are people going to make it here?
A. I talked to many, many economists from the World Bank, and people in policy think tanks in Japan and the U.S., and to economists in Switzerland and Sweden. They all say that there’s no reason why over the next few decades we can’t gradually transition to a smaller population and a steady state economy. When I was in Japan, I talked to a Japanese economist, Akihiko Matsutani, who told me that as the labor force gets smaller, a laborer gets more valued.
This is not a radical. This is a guy with a national reputation in Japan. He shows that the transition over a few decades will allow us to move into a different kind of prosperity, where demand for workers will be so great that wages will stay adequate, workers are more valuable, we have higher levels of education and fewer people so there’s more breathing room.