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Sunday October 13, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 13, 2013 MYT 8:22:03 AM
By ABBY WONG
A provocative journalist and wonderful writer gives us a book with a message so compelling that it will change the way we see the future.
WHAT if we suddenly vanish? How would nature cope with a lack of human beings?
Insects would take over our houses, which would rot beyond use, snow would pile up high or sheets of ice will form, as if we were back in an Ice Age....These frightening predictions are explained in great detail in A World Without Us, a bestselling book written by Alan Weisman, a journalist whose face is weathered by his fears for Mother Earth.
But that is the author’s old introspect. His new theory, as presented in his latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth, is the other side of the coin but equally haunting.
Travelling to more than 20 countries in over two years, Weisman sought answers to one question: What would the world be like if there are too many of us and too little of everything else – water, air, food?
The answers he discovers conjure up frightening scenarios that demand immediate attention, input and solutions from ecologists, hydrologists, geographers, and agronomists, not just the usual cast of engineers, economists and politicians. And now we, as laymen, can very well answer that question ourselves by following Weisman on his eye-opening journey.
The first stop, interestingly enough, is the holy land of Jerusalem. Immediately, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish procreative tactic of “outbirthing” the Palestinians becomes anything but inspiring. Though Palestinians hope to boast double-digit population growth like their Israeli counterparts, they can’t. Their dwellings are walled and they are squished and squashed, making mobility an impossibility. What a sad chapter to begin this book with – yet I was hooked, nevertheless.
That chapter unveils a weary Earth and a first glimpse into Weisman’s thorn: population. Weisman believes either we manage the duplication of ourselves voluntarily or nature will do it for us brutally in the form of famine, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic diseases, and wars over dwindling resources.
This meta crisis, whose urgency trumps all economic, political, cultural and religious differences, is frighteningly real. Weisman trudged down into the valleys only to see dried up orchards and cracked river beds; into the forests where the existence of even the most trivial species, butterflies, is important to human existence; and into the slums of Mumbai – a microscopic version of a world reaching 10 billion in population. And what he saw is a world bursting at its seams. Hunger, deprivation, pollution, destitution, prostitution, abuse ... the list of woes goes on. Name anything that portends disaster, and you’ll find it here in this book, and the culprits are you and I, us, humankind.
Wait. This book is good not because of the endless problems it forces our eyes to confront. As the mega crisis tramps across borders and gyrates around religions, politics, economics, science and culture, it is necessary that we understand all of these factors to help answer the question Weisman asks.
Although journalists rarely claim depth in any field, as they are trained to ask common sense questions and translate answers for laymen to understand, Weisman is an extraordinary journalist in his presentation of these various ruinous aspects of a ruined world.
Without sounding at all polemic, he maps the intricacies between these aspects. Whether it is liturgies, histories, feminism, nationalities, tribes, beliefs and finance, Weisman sheds light like a storyteller armed with boundless knowledge and blessed with a voice profoundly enlightening and moving. He makes Ponzi finance, for example, as easy as ABC, and his recounting of Iran’s convoluted history, from Shah to Ahmadinejad, is awe-inspiring.
The book is designed to be readable despite its rather haunting subject. Like the catchy lyrics of a chart-topping pop song that linger in your head incessantly, Weisman’s words resound in your ear, making his book nearly impossible to put down.
Wielding simple yet stylish prose, Weisman is a master of description. He describes, for instance, on one page that Yoshio Takeya, a young Japanese man who opts for a reclusive life far away from the city, has bowl-cut hair plastered on his forehead. Just as quickly as the image of Takeya is conjured up, a picture of him appears on the next page. The two images are confluent to near perfection.
And how poignantly beautiful Iran becomes when seen through Weisman’s eyes and described by his words, and how melancholically alluring is Dharavi, the world’s biggest slum in India, when it is not stereotyped as a dumpsite, as most writers would describe it.
Weisman’s charisma emanates from the pages, intoxicating and engaging.
Never mind that the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence is wreaking havoc on our precious planet. We are still blessed with a provocative journalist and wonderful writer of a marvellous book whose message is so compelling that it will change the way we see our existence and our future.
“What future will be there for our kids?” I ask myself.
“A bleak one,” I answer.
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Lifestyle, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth, Alan Weisman, book, review
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