"The imaginative power of 'The World Without Us' is compulsive and nearly hypnotic - make sure you have time to be kidnapped into Alan Weisman's alternative world before you sit down with the book because you will not soon return. This is a text that has a chance to change people, and so make a real difference for the planet," wrote award-winning author Charles Wohlforth in a review of the New York Times bestseller 'The World Without Us' by Alan Weisman.
Alan Weisman, the journalist, author of six books, and a professor of journalism, recently visited Bangladesh.
Although not 'kidnapped,' we were indeed captivated by the writer's lifetime of experience and wisdom when Weisman sat down in an interview with The Business Standard.
We managed 'to return' to produce an abridged version of the interview with Weisman.
What brought you to Bangladesh?
I am working on a book with kind of a vast topic, which is what are humanity's best and most realistic hopes for getting through this very difficult century that we have.
I am looking at energy issues, food production, and how to preserve nature in the teeth of a major extinction event.
I am particularly looking at individuals who, despite the long odds and despite what they know about the change in climate, or other problems - problems with their governments or political problems - are still determined to find us a way to the future.
I have been doing this in several different countries. I started my research in Colombia and I was in Honduras, in Mexico along the Mesoamerican reef which is the longest coral reef in the world outside of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
I was looking at the reef system; I was with scientists and local coastal managers looking at how to protect the coast from climate change by using reefs and dunes and mangroves - things like that.
I have also been to Spain, I have been to the Netherlands. I went to the latter because New York City was talking to Dutch consultants on how to protect the city from rising sea levels using barriers. The same thing is happening in Miami, in New Orleans, in Jakarta and Manila, [and] places all over the world including Bangladesh.
And that was interesting to me because like Bangladesh, the Netherlands is kind of the drain of Europe- the two major rivers the Meuse and the Rhine enter the sea there. The Netherlands, for 800 years, have devised water policies to keep from drowning but how would that translate to a country four times bigger with much more powerful rivers - the Brahmaputra and the Padma and the Meghna? Could Bangladesh afford it? How would it work?
But other things had also occurred to me about Bangladesh that were very important for my book. One was biodiversity in the Sundarbans - the most important mangrove forest in the world and one of the most important tiger reserves in the world.
I had also done some research for my book on jaguars in the Americas so looking at tigers was like a very nice compliment. And then the decision to build a coal-fired plant in Rampal, right at the edge of the Sundarbans!
So those were the three reasons that I wanted to come to Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, the Sundarbans, and to see why coal is still being burnt here while the rest of the world is turning away from it or at least was before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Is this new book a sequel to your last book, 'Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on earth?'
Some people have said that. 'Countdown' was about how our species would suddenly quadruple in a single century, which never happened before for any large species, and what position that would leave us in.
Many people have asked me if I think that overpopulation is the biggest environmental problem and my reply is, well, if there were not so many people would we even have environmental problems?
Then in my previous book 'The world without us', which was kind of a backward way of looking at the environment, I tricked people into reading an environmental book because people are always scared that oh these books are so grim and scary and they say well we are all gonna die anyway, so I just killed everybody right off in the beginning and they (readers) did not have to worry about that anymore and everybody loves to look at the future, so that is what the book was about- a future without us.
My hope was, and I think it worked, that people were just fascinated by how quickly nature would recover things and how quickly it would break down our infrastructure.
What I really hoped was that readers would say oh, that is such a beautiful world now! Is there some way we could still have that world and also keep human beings as part of it so we could live in harmony with nature instead of in what I call Mortal Kombat with nature?
Someone I had an interview with thought that we should just stop having babies and let the human race die off in 100 years because now we are making such a mess of things that if we just let ourselves gradually vanish over a century then at least we would not be bringing all these other species down with us.
So, knowing that I wrote the book because I do want a world with us and not without us, I had to find out how many babies we are producing now; and then I found out that the numbers are astonishing - we add about one million people every four days and that is clearly not sustainable.
But that caused me to write 'Countdown'. And so many people have said that the current book I am working on - which is going to be called 'Hope dies last' - is kind of the last one of a trilogy.
When anyone talks about family planning in the context of population control, the first thing that may come to their mind is eugenics. This kind of discourses have been used to oppress working class and low caste women all around the world. So is there a way to do population control without it being used to justify eugenics and oppression of women?
First of all, the phrase population control has turned out to be a very uncomfortable phrase because this sounds like controlling women and women do not want it. The very first big applied eugenics was not an experiment, it was a programme done by the United States on the island of Puerto Rico.
It was in the 1930s when the population was starting to explode. The United States has shamefully treated Puerto Rico like a colony. There, women would go into the clinic sometimes because they were sick, they had the flu, [and] they would come out with a tubal ligation. They had no idea this was gonna happen. It was a shameful process.
The next big one was in India during the 1970s. About seven to eight million women were forcibly sterilised there. About the same number of men were also forcibly vasectomised.
It was terrible and it happened at the same time that the feminist movement was growing in the world so anything having to do with population control became a way of men controlling women's bodies and they were violently opposed to it.
Then in 1980, China's one child policy came in and there was more forced sterilisation and forced abortion there. And I wrote about this in 'Countdown' and it was a very surprising chapter to particularly readers in my country: the solution, to answer to your question, came from a Muslim country.
During the Iraq-Iran war, NATO was supplying armaments and even the raw materials for nerve gas to the Iraqis. All Iran had were (dead) bodies, so Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa asking every fertile woman in Iran to do her patriotic duty and get pregnant to produce a 20 million person army to fight the invaders. And so the fertility rate in Iran was at one point probably the highest in human history.
But at the end of the war, the economist who was the head of the budget went to the Ayatollah and said all these children who were born during the war, they are gonna grow up in the next 10 to 15 years and they were not going to be able to employ all of them.
(The new) Ayatollah issued a fatwa saying there is nothing in the Quran that prohibits having a tubal ligation or a vasectomy if you have the number of children you believe you can responsibly care for.
They left the decision to everybody but the only thing that was obligatory was premarital classes where if you are getting married, you have to go to either the mosque or a clinic and learn, among other things, how much it costs to raise, feed, and clothe a child.
A lot of people got the message that way. They also made contraception - everything from condoms to operations - free and accessible throughout the country. And they did not call it population control, they called it family planning.
Leaving the decision to women is empowering, that is not eugenics. Giving women reproductive rights, that is the way to go.
Is the solution you envision for climate change compatible with capitalism, that is, with the relentless pursuit for profit that animates multinational corporations and monopolies?
Two things got us into the trouble that we are at. One is overpopulation, which happened for two main reasons: 1. modern medicine reduced infant mortality and 2. the average lifespan of human beings is almost double of what it was before the smallpox vaccine started all these medical improvements.
But much more important than that was we learned how to produce much more food than nature ever could by force feeding cultivation with chemical and nitrate synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
This fertiliser also produces a lot of problems: greenhouse gases when it is made because it is very energy intensive, and then when it breaks down it produces nitrous oxide, which, after methane, is the third most powerful greenhouse gas.
Secondly, big population has been a boon to capitalism because it meant more consumers, and companies got richer. The other reason that capitalism thrives on big populations is that the more people there are the cheaper labour is.
This is why we hear economists say that it is dangerous to have family planning programmes. One of the excesses of capitalism is now the very top one-tenth of 1% has most of the money in the world and that is wrong.
Businesses got us into this trouble, partly, along with the population, and now we need businesses' help to get us out of this trouble. It is really important that businesses become convinced that they can make money doing things to help the climate.
Reading your book, 'Countdown' feels like having a world tour. You surely travelled dozens of countries before writing that one. How long does it take for you to write a book?
Yes, I visited 21 countries. I started the research for 'Countdown' in 2009 and the book came out in 2013. I was so exhausted after that. This one was supposed to come out in 2022, but because of the pandemic it will come out in 2024. I am probably seeing nine countries and several places in the US for this book. I wish I could see the whole world.
I started working intensely on 'The World Without Us' at the end of 2004, and it came out in 2007. I brought into it some reporting I had done before. So, sometimes I think that the research for these books has taken all my career because everything that I have learned I bring into them.
What have you seen in Bangladesh apart from the Sundarbans?
I went to Kutubdia Island, which was damaged terribly during the 1991 cyclone. Then I went to a climate refugee camp on the mainland where thousands of people were taken. It is arguably the first climate refugee camp on earth and it is here in Bangladesh.
I went to one of the Rohingya refugee camps. There I spoke to a solar energy company, which is an interest of mine coupled with the coal fired power plants.
Bangladesh at one point was the fastest growing solar development in the world, but things have shifted. There are solar panels everywhere, you see them in Dhaka but they are not connected to the grid in most cases. They are there because there is some building code that requires solar panels (on the roof).
My country does really stupid things all the time so I am not singling Bangladesh out as being stupid. You have got the infrastructure in place; please connect up those panels to the grid right now. It will ease a lot of this load sharing, if not all of it, and the smell and noise from diesel will cease.
You surely have been reading Bangladeshi newspapers. As a journalist, do you have any observations on the country's media industry?
Yes, I have been reading the English language newspapers. I think you guys have been very careful to report well without *[upsetting] the government. Every country that self-sensors, for instance the Israelis, are famous for this: they find ways to insert the truth.
When you are reading, it has got double meaning: you know you are reading this but an astute reader will really know that oh, so this is what is going on.
I am sorry that you have to be careful with your government. But now that journalism is under stress, we need journalists more than ever.
So what is our 'last best hope for a future on earth'?
As I said, the future is uncertain. The climate- it is already warmer, there is already more carbon dioxide than there has been in the atmosphere since over three million years ago.
But there are great minds everywhere in the world. Use those minds and if we do our best and our smartest then maybe humanity can find a way to coexist with the warmer world that we are certain to have.
The most important thing we can do now is to stop accelerating that warming. Turn this around before this really gets out of control.