Overly full disclosure: In the Acknowledgments section of my recent book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, the first to be thanked is the Population Media Center, a co-producer of the book I’ve been asked to review here. During my research it was an invaluable source of facts, and also of welcome hope: its imaginative soap operas in dozens of languages have convinced millions of viewers that smaller families are healthier and happier – as is, consequently, the world.
And, its partner in this publishing endeavor, the Population Institute, kindly awarded Countdown its 2013 Global Media Award for best book, which came with a generous check.
So much for his objectivity, you’re probably thinking. But if you’re nevertheless still reading this, you’re apparently still curious about my take on their book. And so:
Quite unlike my own broad narrative, reported from 21 countries with a ¾”-thick bibliography, Over-Over-Over features a refreshingly spare text. There’s an introduction by the guiding founder of the Population Media Center, William Ryerson; a foreword by Musimbi Kanyoro, a veteran defender of family planning as a fundamental human right; and closing comments from Eileen Crist, an advocate for the myriad other species that our own overwhelming presence threatens to push off the planet. You should read their intelligent remarks, because it’s well worth the time – even though you’ll be tempted to go right to the pictures. And understandably so: The real star of this book is the photography.
It’s accompanied in the beginning, and later reprised, by a “parable” by Over-Over-Over’s editor, wilderness writer Tom Butler, whose sentences flow through the opening and ending pages as a stream of lyrical photo captions. The reason his words work so well is not just their graceful phrasing, but meticulous pairing with the images. Each of the 164 photographs in this book, exhaustively selected from sources worldwide, is itself arresting. But what really makes Over-Over-Over succeed, unlike so many illustrated tomes that become mere ballast for coffee tables, is its artwork’s dazzling orchestration.
The images for this book weren’t so much edited as curated. Although many are jarring, their taut sequencing drives you irresistibly forward. Should it end up on your own coffee table, prepare for guests to get very engrossed. It’s quite hard to put down.
The art director listed is Douglas Tompkins, president of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which is also the book’s publisher. Along with photo researcher Daniel Dancer, Tompkins also contributed some of the photography, revealing yet another facet of one of the environmental movement’s most versatile characters. Known to many as the founder of The North Face outdoor gear company and co-founder of the clothing firm Esprit, (where Over’s deft book designer, Roberto Carra, once created environmental product designs), Tompkins famously sold his share of the latter and used the proceeds to buy a sizeable chunk of southern Chile.
As a journalist, over the years I’ve seized every available chance to report from that part of the world, where Chile shatters into islands and peninsulas interlaced by craggy fjords that snake among snowy Andean peaks. (According to local legend, on the last day of creation God was so tired that He dropped the remaining pieces in the farthest corner of the Earth. Looking down, He said: “I like that! Let’s leave it that way.”) I well recall how Chileans raged when some rich gringo purchased an enormous piece of their patria – until they realized that he was doing what their own government wasn’t: protecting its gorgeous wilds from being logged, dammed, or otherwise defiled, by turning it into a pair of magnificent public parks – one of which he donated back to the nation in exchange for agreeing never to develop it.
You’d think that saving such an exalted portion of Earthly paradise would be plenty for someone. Except his foundation’s investment in this lavishly crafted book makes it clear that Tompkins feels that prospects for meaningful planetary preservation have become increasingly dubious after a century in which human population suddenly quadrupled.
Outside of occasional microbial blooms – there’s an appalling picture of one in Over – this breathtaking doubling and re-doubling of our species represents the most abnormal population spurt in the history of biology. Yet it’s difficult for us to perceive that, because we were all born in the midst of it – so all these crowds, traffic, and sprawl seem normal to us. They’re not.
Adding to this disconnect is the fact that the reasons why we became so many seemed at first like such obviously good ideas. The universal cultural imperative to be fruitful and multiply protected our ancestors from being usurped by more powerful competitors. Medical advances that, beginning in the 19th century, dramatically lowered infant mortality and nearly doubled average human life expectancy – who could object to those?
But by far the most powerful detonator of Homo sapiens’ volcanic explosion was our 20th-century discovery of how to grow more food on this planet than nature ever could. We did that by first learning how to suck unlimited amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere and spread it on topsoil, and then by re-jiggering cereal crops to produce many more grains per stalk. Since man-made plants evolved in laboratories, not nature, they need man-made protection, meaning an ever-widening variety of poisons. And since we now also routinely pump livestock and poultry full of hormones to literally beef up production, most food that humans eat today depends on chemicals whose endocrine-disrupting downsides we’re only just beginning to grasp.
In his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the “Green Revolution” that produced those prolific hybrid grains, warned that saving millions from death by famine also meant that they’d live to bear millions more, who in turn would need even more food, and so on until demographic disaster eventually engulfed us – unless we learned to manage our numbers. For the rest of his life, Borlaug crusaded against overpopulation, including as an advisor to The Population Institute, a co-producer of this book that, vividly and unforgettably, shows exactly what he feared.
At the present rate of a million more of us every 4¼ days, we’ll hit 11 billion by the end of this century, which is probably impossible. For one, it means that in just the next 50 years we’d need to produce more food than has been consumed in humanity’s entire history. Unfortunately, for every 1º C. increase in average global temperature, grain yields are expected to drop 10%. And, since we’re currently on track for a 4º C. increase by 2100, rising seas will swamp our most fertile lands – river deltas – and everywhere else that agriculture occurs near sea level (such as for much of the world’s most important foodstuff, rice).
What drives those temperatures ever upward is the exhaust from carbon-based fuels. Since we likely won’t replace them anytime soon with miraculous, mass infusions of clean energy, the fastest thing we can do right now is limit demand for them – and for chemically-forced food – by using technology we already have to limit the number of demanders. In one swift, sensible, and easily affordable stroke, the family planning methods this book’s collaborators espouse can reduce pressures on individual families and society, and simultaneously turn down the heat on the entire planet.
And so much more: After you’ve been tugged by its relentless, compelling images to the final pages of this book, you’ll come to a vision of how we can redeem our world and save ourselves. Visually and poetically, Over-Over-Over’s prayerful ending is beautiful. Especially, because it’s possible.
Copyright ©2014 by Alan Weisman