Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview: A Conversation with Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman has written several books and won numerous international awards for his work in journalism and literature, the most recent being the critically acclaimed The World Without Us, which describes a post-human scenario of the planet. His latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? was released in September 2013 by Little, Brown and Co. Countdown has been short listed for a Los Angeles Times science and technology book prize. Among his other works are Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (1998), winner of the Social Inventions Award from the Global Ideas Bank, An Echo In My Blood (1999), La Frontera: The United States Border With Mexico, and We, Immortals (1979). His reports from around the world have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Orion, Audubon, Mother Jones, Discover, Condé Nast Traveler, Resurgence, and several anthologies, including The Best American Science Writing 2006.


By Elizabeth A. Giorgi

In the weeks before the release of his latest book, author and journalist Alan Weisman was so worried about its reception that, he said, “I actually took out liability insurance.”

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth? which was released this past September, examines the environmental impact and causes of human overpopulation.

Given its potentially controversial subject matter, Weisman said he was prepared for anger, lawsuits, or worse.

“I expected it to be really serious,” he said. “There’s a wide variety of people that could take potshots at this book.”

But so far, he’s received relatively little blowback — a fact he attributes to the meticulousness of his research, but which may have as much to do with the seemingly inarguable nature of his claims.

Weisman was in Ames, Iowa recently to speak at this year’s Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness and the Environmental Imagination. Flyway caught up with him by phone last week to talk about his writing process, his projects, and the troubling implications of his research for Countdown.

Weisman’s name will no doubt be familiar to followers of science and environmental writing.

A senior reporter and editor for Homeland Productions, his work has appeared on NPR, Public Radio International and American Public Media, and in the New York Times MagazineAtlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, and others.

He’s the author of five non-fiction books, but is perhaps best-known for 2007’s bestselling The World Without Us, where he explores what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the planet.

With its focus on human overabundance, then, Countdown would seem in many ways to be World’s opposite.

But Weisman said that Countdown actually grew out of his research for World.

“Ideas just come from what you’re doing, they kind of connect you to other things,” he said. “In this case, I think [Countdown] really grew out of my last book, The World Without Us, but it wasn’t something that I had even thought about until the last couple weeks of writing.”

Trying to wrap up his research, he said, he asked himself, “What bases haven’t I covered?”

Which is how he ended up talking with the founder and director of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

“It turned out he was actually a serious guy,” Weisman said. “His premise was that the human race was a nice idea for a while, but clearly now we’re just destroying everything — ourselves. And the only ethical choice at this point, he believes, was that we should just stop procreating and die off. Because one way or another we’re killing ourselves, and at least that way we couldn’t drag all these other species with us.”

After that interview, Weisman said he started looking into population figures.

“I’d never really looked too much at population figures,” he said. “When you look at population figures, first you see the enormous numbers. It’s really hard for us to comprehend enormous numbers.”

But one figure did stick with him: Every four days, a million more people are added to the world’s population.

“That really hit me. That, I realized was not sustainable,” he said. “I decided to do this book not because I was fascinated by the subject, but because I was scared about the situation we were headed into.

“I call this an emergency,” he continued.

In addition to environmental degradation — 40 percent of the planet’s land mass is now devoted to feeding its human population, with what Weisman called “horrific repercussions” from the use of chemical fertilizers — overpopulation can also cause political instability, as young people in developing nations compete for scarce resources.

“The idea that [people are] not going to have an impact because they use compact fluorescent bulbs or drive a Prius, that’s just wishful thinking,” he said. “And it’s only getting worse. So this is something that the only way we’re going to deal with it or faze it out, is by limiting population growth.”

Weisman visited more than 20 countries researching the book, finding success stories in unlikely places, such as Iran, which went from having one of the world’s highest  to one of the world’s lowest fertility rates in about a decade thanks to progressive family planning policies.

And despite the challenges humans will face in the coming decades, Weisman said his research uncovered reasons for optimism.

The best way to limit population growth doesn’t lie in difficult and controversial measures like China’s one-child policy, he said, but in voluntary programs like Iran’s.

Time and again, he said, his data showed that the best way to encourage population control was to educate and empower women and to remove barriers to contraception and other forms of family planning.

When given the choice, many people voluntarily opt for smaller families.

“And there’s a win-win when you empower women,” he said. “Society just benefits in enormous ways.”