After the success of his previous bestseller, The World Without Us, which rigorously imagined a planet devoid of humanity, Alan Weisman conceived of the schema for his successor book. “My hope was that readers, seduced by the gorgeous prospect of a refreshed, healthy Earth, might then ask themselves how we could add Homo sapiens back into the picture — only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of Earthly life.  In other words, how we might have a world with us.”

With our species — our sheer numbers, our ineluctable and our optional demands, the “cumulative human presence” — at the center of the new book, Weisman charts both the history of our impact on the planet and the current burdens we impose in voluminous, fascinating detail, all before offering some redemptive and sustainable paths we might tread.  If you could combine the gravitas and depth of John McPhee‘s essays with the timeliness, brio of Ron Rosenbaum‘s reporting and the moral urgency of Bill McKibben‘s work, you might end up with something just as stirring, compelling and insightful as this book.

Weisman’s fluid, elegant reportage is marked by his personally indefatigable global travels and by his immersion as keen-eyed, objective observer in many cultures, all of which exhibit various manifestations of the overpopulation phenomenon.  A partial list of the places he visits to extract his insights would include Israel, Mexico, the UK, Italy, Uganda, Niger, China, Libya, the Philippines, Pakistan, Japan, India, Nepal, Singapore, and the USA. This book does not make the mistake of extrapolating broadly from a small idiosyncratic sample, but rather amalgamates many unique instances into a universal synthesis and diagnosis.

Weisman first defines and illustrates the various scientific realities associated with our “cumulative human presence.”  He speaks of the carrying capacity of the planet, humanity’s drawing down of dwindling resources such as fresh water and marine life, the mysteries of biodiversity, and the way in which we have barely escaped past catastrophes by such (non-extendable) techno-fixes as the Green Revolution in agriculture. One important thread connects the exigencies of capitalism and its need for a perpetual economic growth with trends in the developed world where population is actually falling. Another vital narrative concerns the positive effects of disseminating birth control technology of all sorts.

Weisman does not hesitate to label certain worldviews and policies as counterproductive for a safer, cleaner, healthier, less stressed world.  Whether it be religious or ideological or cultural blindness, such destructive weltanschauungs as the polygamous culture of Niger, which produces the highest fertility rate on the planet, receive their just disapprobation.  But Weisman is always the soul of understanding. Nothing human is alien to him.  He is never cruel or polemical, but the essence of a caring rationality motivated by the pursuit of a better condition for all mankind, as well as the salvation of other species.  For instance, although he credits the Chinese one-child policy with doing immense good, he realizes it does not provide a model that can be extended globally, however effective such a ukase might prove.

Blended with Weisman’s trenchant cultural analyses and sometimes frightening ecological observations are intimate portraits of both exemplary average folks and the experts who are fighting to put mankind’s numbers in line with the planet’s needs.  Chief among these is Paul R. Ehrlich, famed author of The Population Bomb. Too long in the forgotten shadows since the initial splash of that tome, Ehrlich is lovingly portrayed here as a prescient scientist who, in his eighties, still has much to offer. Likewise, ecologist Gretchen Daily, Ehrlich’s former student and protégée, emerges as the vibrant voice of a new generation concerned with these issues.

Weisman keeps converging on a seemingly impossible figure:  two billion people, the population of the planet circa the 1920s.  That seems the experts’ best guess for a sustainable number of humans.  How can we possibly get from today’s seven billion souls to that smaller number without mass carnage or coercion?  And what if we hit ten billion or more hungry mouths in the next few decades? Given the desirability of shrinking our numbers — as Sir David Attenborough says, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, and utterly impossible if there were more” — what steps can we take to reach our goals? Weisman concludes with several prescriptions, the first of which is acknowledgment of the realities and a general will to do something.  What alternative do we have? 

“I don’t want to cull anyone alive today.  I wish every human now on the planet a long, healthy life.  But either we take control ourselves, and humanely bring our numbers down by recruiting fewer new members of the human race to take our places, or nature is going to hand out a pile of pink slips. When you see survival of the fittest portrayed on the National Geographic Channel, it’s entertaining. When it happens to your own species, it’s not pretty.”