What was the most important invention in human history? The printing press? Antibiotics? Nope, says Alan Weisman in this talk from TEDxSitka. And he has a couple of simple ideas for how to undo its damage.

Weisman on RT

In speeches and media appearances, Alan Weisman argues that humane and effective ways exist to bring Earth’s human population in line with the planet’s carrying capacity.

Homelands co-founder Alan Weisman’s “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” was awarded the 2013 LA Times Book Prize in the science and technology category. “Countdown” was also named the best general nonfiction book of 2013 at the Paris Book Fair and won the 2014 Population Institute Global Media Award for best book.

The novelist Louise Erdrich has written a glowing review of Alan Weisman’s Countdown for her blog, Birchbark. She calls the book “urgent, eloquent, harrowing yet hopeful.”

Please read this book. Take your time. You will weep and yet be cheered.

The founder and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Erdrich is a reader’s reader (she’s a writer’s reader, too!), and a passionate advocate for independent bookstores. Her latest novel, The Round House, won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction.


We’re thrilled to announce the publication of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, by Homelands senior producer and co-founder Alan Weisman. You should be able to find it in bookshops today, and if you pre-ordered it from an online seller, it should be on its way.

Manila street

Every four and a half days, the world population goes up by another million. Photo by Sam Eaton.

Published by Little, Brown and Co., Countdown is Alan’s sixth book and a fitting sequel to his international bestseller, The World Without Us. In the earlier book, he looked at how the natural world might heal if freed from human pressure. In Countdown, he asks how we can bend our population curve to avoid a collision with the planet’s resource base.

If The World Without Us was a grand thought experiment, Countdown is an urgent – and practical – call to action.

Check out the book’s trailer (yes, it has a trailer!) here. Read an excerpt in Salon here. And see what the reviewers are saying here. Then go out and get a copy!

We can’t wait for Homelands co-founder and senior producer Alan Weisman‘s latest book to hit the shelves on September 24. It’s called Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? and it’s been getting terrific reviews.

“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.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“In Countdown, Alan Weisman, a journalist probing whether a sustainable balance between nature and the human population can be achieved, offers a key message to guide future action.” —Nature

“This is not a jeremiad but a realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Countdown is [Weisman’s] bold, troubling, and often inspiring search for ways to save ourselves.” —Men’s Journal

Here’s the press release from the publisher, Little, Brown and Company:

Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman’s previous book, “The World Without Us,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has been translated into 34 languages.

In his internationally bestselling book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman considered how the world 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 approximately 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 our oceans, prospects for a sustainable future seem ever more in doubt. In Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, Alan Weisman’s long awaited follow-up book, he traveled to 21 countries to ask four questions that experts agreed were probably the most important on Earth—and also the hardest.

How many people can the Earth sustain?

If, in order to ensure our survival, we need to stop our growth before we hit 10 billion—or even reduce our numbers from our current 7 billion—is there an acceptable, nonviolent way to convince all of the world’s cultures, religions, nationalities, tribes, and political systems that it’s in their best interest to do so?

What kind of ecosystem is necessary to maintain human life, and what species or ecological processes are essential to our survival?

If a sustainable population on Earth is less than our current growth projection, or even less than our current number, how do we design an economy for a shrinking population, and then for a stable one—that is, for an economy not dependent on constant growth?

Truly a journalistic tour de force, Countdown is a riveting piece of narrative nonfiction that is impossible to put down, as compellingly entertaining to read as its message is urgent.

Weisman takes readers around the world to such diverse locales as Pakistan, a land the size of Texas whose numbers by midcentury will surpass today’s United States; the Philippines, where too many fishermen struggle to feed large families from increasingly depleted seas whose rising waters encroach on cropland; to Niger, with the world’s highest fertility rate, where each woman bears an average of seven to eight children; to Italy and Japan, where population has actually fallen below replacement rate: two children per two adults.

Weisman shares alarming projections about our ability to keep feeding growing multitudes, but he also reveals some startling successes, such as in Iran, where a voluntary family planning program dropped the highest rate of population growth in history to replacement level a year faster than China’s compulsory one-child policy.

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

We wanted to catch you up on the “Food for 9 Billion” project, which has been taking most of our attention lately. As loyal readers will know, Ff9B asks what has to happen for the world to be able to feed itself sustainably and equitably over the next three decades. It’s a collaboration among Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), American Public Media’s Marketplace and PBS NewsHour.

So far we’ve produced nine radio features, six video features and three features especially for the web. Our reporting has taken us to Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Brazil, India, Ghana, Japan, Niger and Vietnam. Upcoming stories are from Senegal, China, Lesotho, Zambia, Greece, Brazil and the United States.

“Food for 9 Billion” doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but we have tried to be more or less systematic in our choice of stories. Topics include the role of science, the politics of famine and food prices, population growth and family planning, climate change, land transfers, rural development, the right to food, water scarcity, soil fertility, aging farmers, desertification and fish farming. Stories in the pipeline will look at waste, the spread of supermarkets, meat consumption, obesity, pesticide use and energy. We’re also working on a full-length television documentary, and on educational materials for high school students.

We’re particularly proud of the web features – an interactive world food map and world food timeline (both produced in partnership with the Transnational Learning group at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and, most recently, an animated video about the impact of excessive beef consumption on the environment and human health. If you like ’em, please share ’em!

You can listen to the radio stories, watch the TV stories, and fiddle around with the web features at the project’s home page on the CIR website. And if that’s not enough links for you, please also check out the “Food for 9 Billion” blog and follow the project on Twitter.

It was great to see National Catholic Reporter blogger Jamie Manson‘s thoughtful response to Sam Eaton’s PBS NewsHour story about food and family planning in the Philippines. It’s worth taking a look at the comments, too, full of passion and information.

Like the Manson essay, many of the comments on Sam’s radio piece on the Marketplace website focus on the role of the Catholic church in blocking access to free or low-cost contraceptives. Which makes sense, since the Church is clearly the main impediment to publicly funded family planning services in the Philippines. But Church opposition is not the only thing keeping poor people in the Philippines from limiting the size of their families, nor is it the main cause for stubbornly high population growth in poor countries worldwide.

Poverty, insecurity, lack of education (especially for girls), gender inequality, lack of social safety nets, inadequate public health systems, and a host of other factors conspire to keep parents from stopping at the “replacement level” of two kids (actually 2.1 or 2.3, depending on the place). At the same time, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and nutrition have allowed more children to survive to child-bearing age. There’s a lag time as the birth rate adjusts to the death rate, and that imbalance leads to some pretty serious growth. If you want to see how radically different the last 50 years have been from the rest of human history, take a look at the little graph on any of the population entries on the “Food for 9 Billion” project’s World Food Timeline.

It’s interesting to look at the role of food in all this. We often hear how the dramatic increase in food production since the 1960s has allowed the world to stay a step ahead of mass starvation. The late Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning wheat breeder and father of the Green Revolution, is widely credited with saving more lives than anyone in human history. But some people argue that the surge in agricultural output has actually contributed to the surge in population, in line with the basic ecological principle that the population of any species will rise to meet the food supply. The argument only goes so far, as the most food-secure countries tend to be the ones with the lowest birth rates. But certainly starvation and malnutrition take fewer lives today than they did 50 years ago, and that translates into many more mouths to feed.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that world population growth has been slowing impressively in the last decade or two, and not just because people in wealthy countries have stopped reproducing. According to the UN and other bodies, the global population should level off by about 2100. Unfortunately, this has led many of us to think that “the population problem” will take care of itself. But the projections are very inexact, and the markedly different birth rates in different countries show that public policy can be every bit as important as parents’ “natural” inclination to have fewer children as their living standards improve.

As Sam Eaton reported, one more child per family today can mean billions more people 100 years from now. As it is, the global population is growing by about 200,000 per day. Anything that can be done to reduce that number is likely to bring major benefits to children, families, nations, and the planet. And given the way the math works, the sooner we act, the better.