Today I am thrilled to talk with Alan Weisman. He is an author who’s worked on seven continents and more than 50 countries. He’s written six books and the book that I talked to him most about is The World Without Us. It’s a book he published about a decade ago. It began as a thought experiment about what would happen if humanity disappeared from the planet. How long would it take for nature to rejuvenate, or would it at all? He’s a journalist, who wanted to be a scientist as a kid and had so many passions and curiosities that he decided he would write about them all. That inquiry, that spirit of discovery has taken him around the globe and caused him to talk to some really, really interesting people. I hope that what you take away from this interview, and if you read his books, is a greater understanding and appreciation of the beauty and the delicate nature of the planet that we’re all a part of.
00:02:40 – What is life about?
00:03:50 – Alan’s background.
00:13:23 – Concerns about the planet.
00:17:58 – One million people every four days.
00:22:19 – Public and critical response to the book’s release.
00:43:31 – Optimistic, pessimistic, or something else?
00:50:14 – Individual differences that can be made.
00:59:43- Lightning round.
01:07:46 – Two tips for completing a book.
Bryan: 00:01:03 Today I am thrilled to talk with Alan Weisman. He is an author who’s worked on seven continents and more than 50 countries. He’s written six books and the book that I talked to him most about is a book called The World Without Us. It’s a book he published about a decade ago. It began as a thought experiment. Is what would happen if humanity disappeared from the planet? How long would it take for life, for nature to rejuvenate, to heal, or would it at all? In this conversation you might hear a bit of background noise. Very appropriate is we’re talking about nature because Alan, who’s in western Massachusetts as we record, has a little rain falling. You might hear that in the background. In this interview he goes deep. He’s a journalist, want wanted to be a scientist as a kid, had so many passions and curiosities, he decided he would write about them all. That inquiry, that spirit of discovery has taken him around the globe and caused him to talk to some really, really interesting people. He talks about somebody who’s credited with saving more lives than anyone in history and the warning that that person gave for our future. He also talks about the human driven changes that are out of control and what you can do in your daily life to make a difference on this earth. I hope that what you take away from this interview and if you read his books, is a greater understanding and appreciation of the beauty and the delicate nature of the planet that we’re all a part of. Without further ado, my conversation with Alan Weisman. Allen, welcome to the school for good living podcast.
Alan: 00:02:39 Thanks very much.
Bryan: 00:02:40 Alan. I want to start with a question. I like to ask all my guests right at the outset. No warmup, no softballs other than what I just said. What’s life about?
Alan: 00:02:51 You know, these days, I think life is about getting through. It’s about waking up each day realizing that we’re still awake and uh, we want to make the best of it.
Bryan: 00:03:08 You know, Alan, I have been reading your book the world without us. I’m about 60 pages from being done and I will absolutely finish this book. I feel like I’ve been around the world just reading the book. I feel like a little bit of the fascination I had when I was younger watching Mr Rogers, you know, just taking in so much information. Things I’d never even thought to think about before. And I know you wrote this book about a decade ago and you’ve written a lot since then. But I’m wondering if you’d be willing to share with me a little bit about, about this book, who you wrote it for and what you hope the book would do for that audience.
Alan: 00:03:50 Sure. I have been a journalist all my life. I’ve been a freelance journalist, uh, which has basically allowed me to write about subjects that interest me. And one of the reasons people become journalists is that the world is such an interesting place. Yeah kinda can’t decide what you wanna do with your life. Uh, when I was a kid I thought about being a scientist. I thought about being all sorts of different things and a journalism kind of lets you poke your nose into everything out there and, uh, accompany some of these people who are doing very specific things and get to experience it alongside them. Uh, I’ve been fortunate enough to write about all kinds of different things in my life. But I’d say over the last decade and a half, two decades, more and more I’ve been writing about the environment because it turns out that all stories are bay are an environmental story. Uh, the environment is the basis for everything. You destroy the environment and all those other things that interest us like political science and fine arts and economics, they just don’t have a planet to stand on. A, the environmental beat has taken me to some of the most beautiful places on earth and also to some of the most frightening places on earth. And oftentimes they turn out to be the same places. Even in the past couple of decades I’ve found myself in Antarctica staring up at an invisible hole in the sky. Uh, in the Arctic, uh, looking at, um, melting ice. Places like Chernobyl in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster there. And, uh, this was a place that is surrounded by incredibly rich farmland saying my father was from Ukraine and he was born on one of those farms not terribly far away from Chernobyl. And in some of those places, everything looks just gorgeous till you turn on a geiger counter. And I’ve been in more rain forests that are burning or been mowed down than I care to mention. Uh, at any rate, at a certain point, I started realizing that all of these disasters were not discrete events, but they are connected. And the connection is my species behavior on this planet. So I started realizing that because of the privilege that I’ve had to see so much in the world and to understand how these things are connected, that I should write about those connections. And something like an article wouldn’t serve, wouldn’t suffice because a global environmental crisis is pretty complex. It would have to be a book. That raised a problem. Environmental books generally are read mainly by people who already know about this stuff. They’re already concerned about it. And as a journalist, our job description is to try to write, to reach a, uh, as, as wide an audience as possible. But the fact is, the reason why environmental groups, excuse me, why environmental books are not read by everybody, is that they’re usually just so grim or depressing or frightening. That who wants to spend your precious, um, leisure time, you know, reading about a book that basically says, bottom line, if things don’t improve, know we may all die. And I struggled with that for a few years, trying to figure out how to write this book until finally a chance comment by a magazine editor, um, made me realize well, maybe what I do is just kill everybody off. Right in the very beginning and then we don’t have to worry about that anymore. But then through the magic of literature, you get to hang on to see what’s, what’s next. Uh, and so in The World Without Us, I basically wipe out the human race, uh, in a paragraph in the beginning of the book. It, a poses a very imaginary but plausible scenario. And it had to be somewhat plausible because, um, a lot of people won’t read science fiction either. A, the plausible scenario is that something happens that eliminates our species rather fast from the planet, say within a year. Let’s say, for example, that the AIDS virus, which is fatal, uh, in his past through fluids suddenly mutated and became airborne. And we all got it. Now that’s a very remote possibility. And in the book, I covered that by talking to epidemiologists, but it’s just possible enough that, you know, this could happen. So what, what happened next if suddenly we disappeared from the planet?Uh, how would nature respond to our absence? How would it deal with suddenly being relieved of all the pressures that we heap on a daily? Uh, what, what happened to the stuff we left behind? Some of those pressures would keep igniting for awhile such as the carbon dioxide that we’ve pumped into the atmosphere or some of the chemical plants or nuclear plants that we operate on the surface. That eventually they would decay and release their toxins or poisons in, into the, uh, into the ecosystem. Um, you know, how long would it take nature to wipe out all our traces? And could it heal from all the scars that we have created on the planet, on the planet. And uh, it turned out that this was an actually, I was incredibly fortunate to come up with is gambit because it was extremely successful. I mean, what I’ve just described basically is if we left today, what we leave behind would be the sum total of our environmental impact. But for most people, the phrase environmental impact is already off putting, but I never have to say that in the book. People were just fascinated to see how quickly we could disappear and all of our traces. And then what would happen next and as a result I’m fortunate to say the book is now out in 35 languages. It’s been an international bestseller.
Bryan: 00:11:09 Amazing. What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
Alan: 00:11:16 Um, well, there are a lot of contenders, but I would say most surprising of all is; how powerful and resilient life is. Uh, I remember at one point there’s a, there’s a chapter early on in the book where I talk about how long, um, our stuff would survive in our absence. And I start with something that everyone could relate to our own houses if we weren’t around maintaining them. I mean, every homeowner knows that you know, your and a constant battle against nature. Uh, how long would they last? And then I expanded that to how long, would are cities last? And it turns out that a nature would take over even a place as seemingly artificial, as the concrete shell that we know of as Manhattan. Um, would in surprisingly short amount of time, you know what I mean, you know, 500 years or so would start to really look like a forest again. And I recall a traveling around Manhattan with one of the, uh, engineers who’s in charge of three of the biggest bridges that connect Manhattan to the mainland. And he was telling me, he says, look, here’s, here’s what happens. A bird will fly over and it will crap out a seed that will then get lodged between two, two inch thick steel plates in a bridge. And the next thing we know is that an ailanthus tree has taken root. That seed has been fertilized by the bird poop and it’s roots are tearing apart the George Washington Bridge. And he said, we are in a constant battle against nature that we know that someday we will ultimately lose. He says, my goal in life is that it doesn’t happen on my watch.
Bryan: 00:13:22 That’s a pretty big task.
Alan: 00:13:23 Yeah. Well, that, that kind of resilience turns out to be, well, let’s put it this way. I started doing this book because I was really concerned about my planet. And by the end of doing it, I learned that I really don’t have to be worried about the earth at all. I mean, the earth has gone through some incredible disasters. There had been five enormous extinctions tied to, you know, all kinds of events. Um, the biggest one being the permian extinction 252 million years ago. Which began with a volcanic eruption in what today is Siberia. Uh, that lasted about a million years. It came right up to the carboniferous layers. So, I mean, talk about global warming. Uh, and then it was exacerbated in the middle of it, uh, by an asteroid that hit what is today is Antarctica. And by the time the dust settled from that, over 90 percent of all species on this planet, we’re gone. And in about the only vertebrate left was a little tooth worm. Our ancestor, which you know, then crawls out of the sea and out to the land. And meanwhile on the land, there were only a few weeds left. But eventually, you know, they died and decayed and they’d put down organic material. That over of years turned into soil again. And then more plants came up and more animals crawling out of the sea. And it took hundreds of millions of years. But, uh, the earth was again just covered with gorgeous growth. You know, beautiful, beautiful, bountiful nature in all directions. And these enormous reptiles evolved who lived on the Earth for 125 million years. Until another asteroid hit what is today around the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Offing 65 percent of all species on life and including getting rid of all those big reptiles. But as the age of dinosaurs, uh, disappeared, that left a big empty niche that a rather minor, a creature back then known as mammals, a family of creatures, um, crawled into that empty niche. And here we are today. I mean, you know, nature is so resilient. Life is so resilient that even the incredible geologic scale extinction that our species is now inflicting on this planet, uh, nature and the earth will survive this too, and it will go on. But the big question for you and me is; will it come back in a way that allows our species to survive? That’s an open question at the moment.
Bryan: 00:16:32 Yeah, that’s, that’s a massive question, isn’t it?
Alan: 00:16:36 Well, it is. It’s, it’s basically, it’s, it’s the existential question that we all face. We’re, we are living in the make or break century. Whether humanity gets out of the 21st century, uh, alive is frankly up for grabs at the moment.
Bryan: 00:16:54 You know, so many of the things that I read in your book, they shocked me. You know, it was, it was really amazing. And I like to think of myself as a pretty aware person. A self-aware, socially conscious, you know, environmentally aware. Generally I like to think that. But things like, you know, there was um, there was this, this, this fact that every day, if I understood right net of death, a million people are added to this planet, every four. I’m sorry, not everyday, every four days. Every four days a million people arrive on earth. And I think if I understood right, that’s again net of death. So we have a million new people on the planet every four days. Is that, is that right?
Alan: 00:17:34 Yeah, it’s about every four point two days. But actually the, the, the rate is, it’s about every four point two days.
Bryan: 00:17:44 That’s amazing. And then, and then when I read that, not only is the population increasing, the rate of consumption of our natural resources has increased. Not, not in a linear way, not four times, but 17 times.
Speaker 3: 00:17:58 Yeah, it’s pretty exponential. In 1972, a brilliant book, uh, was published called The Limits Of Growth. Uh, it was done by computer modelers who looked at everything that goes on on the planet that they could possibly graph. Including population growth, agricultural production, consumption of every resource that we use in order to fuel civilization. And they determined that these graphs, were going to intersect in a rather explosive way over the next few decades. And The Limits Of Growth was hailed as one of the most important environmental books ever written. Because it finally showed us that, you know, our expansiveness of our species, of any species, basically, you know, every species, you know, tries to be fruitful and multiply to keep itself going. But we basically run out of space to do that on this planet and we’ve run out of space to dump our wastes. And those wastes were starting to become problematic. Such as all the waste that our, uh, in our combustion puts into the atmosphere is now starting to overheat the planet and to acidify our oceans. Environmentalists in the seventies, that book came out in 1972 really believed that this was the wake up call that we finally needed. Proof that we had to learn to live within our limits. But what happened instead was that the purveyors of the products that keep our economy’s humming, that depend on those resources, their interpretation of that book was; whoa, well, if we’re running out of resources, then maybe we’d better go get them while the getting is good. What happened then was just this incredible run on resources, which is still going on right now. Uh, and through advanced technology we learned to go farther, dig deeper, mine more, uh, get it to market faster, process it faster. And uh, in the 1980s the concept of the global marketplace, uh, made every single, I mean, you know, I’ve worked in a lot of countries, on nearly 60. Nearly everywhere you go, even in a poor country in their capital city, you just go into these stores and there’s all this stuff. It’s just so bountiful. And the idea of seasonal fruit went out the window. I mean, we can get blueberries all year round because they are being up from South America here to North America. And it just, everybody just kinda breathed this sigh of relief in the 1980s. Oh, I guess things aren’t so bad after all, you know, look how good life is. Well yeah, life is good. But uh, unfortunately we’re still racing towards those limits.
Bryan: 00:21:09 Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think it’s pretty easy to see that there’s a lot about the world that’s not working today. Even though life is pretty good and especially good if you live in certain regions or zip codes or whatever. Um, you know, some, a friend of mine, Lynn Twist introduced me to this idea of kind of a willful ignorance, right? Where in the developed world where life is good, especially good if you, if you have money and access to resources that it’s easy to forget. It’s convenient to forget that there are people without access to sanitation or healthcare. Or you know, that people are cutting down rainforests to make room for cattle. You know, this kind of thing. And, and one of the things that I love about this book, The World Without Us, is that it helps paint a bigger picture of the planet that we’re all living on. But what I’m curious is, what has the reaction to the book been? What have, what have you heard from readers or what has come back to you from other journalists or in the media? What, what kind of responses has this had?
Alan: 00:22:19 Well, like I said, the book has been a sensational bestseller. Forgive my immodesty. But that’s just sort of facts. I mean, this book has sold millions of copies, you know, all over the world. I have given talks about it in many different countries. And um, interestingly, it’s had great reception from all sides of, of, um, traditional issues, shall we say. The book was very well received in the business press. With the exception of the Wall Street Journal, which referred to it in an editorial as a book that was “irritatingly climbing the bestseller lists”. Which then of course became fabulous publicity for it. But I was, you know, some places like Bloomberg News and the Business Week, many of them praise the book because I did not approach it as an environmentalist. I am not one. I am a journalist. I simply report facts and, and I remember being, I was on a lot of, um, of uh, religious and um, and a right wing radio talk shows a call in shows. And I remember one of those talk shows and it goes out of Indiana. The host was saying to his listeners, he says, you know, you got to read this book because it’s so interesting. This guy, you know, he’s not out there hugging trees is not preaching to you or making you feel guilty. He just presents an awful lot of facts. And he says, he lets you decide for yourself. He says, but then he said to me, he says, but you know, if I would have known about that last fact that you talked about at the end of the book, he says, I would have never read your damn book. He says, but the way that you got to it, he said it was so logical, said you absolutely have to had to bring it up. And what he was talking about was the thing that you mentioned earlier, Bryan. The fact that, um, at the end of the book. Let me explain it this way. You know, my idea for writing this book is not because I want a world without us. What I was hoping was that people were going to see how beautifully nature can heal and how swiftly. From even some of the worst things that we’ve done on this planet. And then I hoped ask themselves, wow, that’s so beautiful now isn’t there some way that we can, uh, add ourselves back to this picture? So we can have restored, you know, nature, uh, and still stay on this planet. Only this time in harmony rather than mortal combat with the rest of the earth. And I had planned in the epilogue to talk about ways that we could do it. But then an interview that I did right at the very end, I was just sort of trying to cover all my remaining basis, and I interviewed someone who actually wanted humans to disappear. Uh, somebody who was the director of something called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Uh, and his idea, I mean he was, he turned out to be a serious guy, is actually a teacher. But his concern is that we have now become so numerous and so powerful that we’re pushing all these other species off the planet. And sooner or later we’re going to push something off the planet until we won’t realize until too late. OOPS, we should’ve kept that. And not only will we bring that species to extinction, but that will ensure our own extinction. So he thinks that the only ethical thing left to do is for us to just stop procreating completely. And that way, within 100 years or so, we will die out. And then we’ll leave a planet that it’s at least as intact as the planet is at the moment to everything else. So we won’t have their blood on our hands as well as our own. And he said to me, he says, know, just think of it, you know, every decade as the world becomes a wilder and wilder as more and more people die off and we’re not replacing them with more people. You know, the world will become more and more beautiful and the very last humans will see the garden of Eden restored. And then, you know, our turn will be over. And when he said that, I mean I realized I really was writing this because I wanted a world with us. But I understood what he was saying. So I decided to see, well, is there a happy medium? Because between what he suggesting, no more babies and what we’re doing now. And that’s when I went to the United Nations Population Fund and they give you this huge figure of 85 million more people every year. Which is pretty hard to grasp until you divide by 365 and then you come up with that. Wow, every four days or so we’re adding a million more people. Which is clearly not sustainable. So at the end of the book, I raise another thought experiment. Which is setting aside all the social implications, what would happen if starting tomorrow, the world all participated in the Chinese, one child policy? Uh, yes as highly controversial. But I just wanted to know what would happen? And it turns out that, uh, we keep growing for a while because so many people have been born. Even if they’re only producing one child, uh, we’d sort of have population momentum. But then by the middle of the century, population would peak and then drop off remarkably fast. And by the end of the population we would be down to about a little over a billion and a half people. Now that’s an interesting figure. That would give us a lot more breathing room and we would give other species a lot more room too. The problem is, of course, nobody likes the one child policy. Chinese didn’t like it either, you know, it’s, it’s draconian. Uh, it was very, very cruel. But I left that question hanging at the end of the book. As to, you know, should we do something about that? And uh, that became one of the biggest things that people wanted to talk about. And so many readers will say to me, says, yeah, I don’t want some government coming in and my bedroom and telling me what to do. But on the other hand, we can’t keep growing on a planet that doesn’t grow. So finally, I decided to examine that in my most recent book, Countdown. Which is about how many people can fit on this planet without capsizing it. And, uh, you know, for that book I asked four questions, you know exactly that one, how many people can fit on this planet safely? How much nature do we have to preserve to guarantee our own survival? And can we even know which species are essential to us? Uh, the third one, which is really significant, you know, is there an alternative to something as brutal as China’s policy? And if so, is it, is there something that would be acceptable to the wide swath of the world’s cultures and religions and belief systems? Uh, something within, in their own liturgies that would accept the idea of a, in a time of crisis, as Ecclesiastes says, refraining from embracing so much. And fourth, really important, since our economy, you know, you hear it all the time, how do you define the health of an economy? It’s growth. But you know, can we come up with an economy that would prosper that doesn’t depend on constant growth? Because when an economy is always growing, you’re using more resources and you need more people. You need more consumers and you need more people in the labor pool. So that became the big picture for me. Because it’s not just about us privileged people in the first world, being able to, uh, consume 66 times more than some person who’s living in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s about the fact that the two biggest products of consumption out there are consumed by everybody in the world because we can’t get along without them. One of them is food and the other one is energy. Even if we’re just burning cow patties or cutting firewood we’re still contributing more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And in the case of cutting those trees, we’re reducing our ability to be able to absorb carbon dioxide. And food well, maybe we, why don’t we talk about this in a further question. Because it turns out that food is one of the most significant contributors to both biodiversity loss and climate change.
Bryan: 00:32:17 Yeah, that’s right. I just interviewed somebody named Matthew Prescott who wrote a book called Food Is The Solution. And he opened my eyes to a lot of these things about, you know, deforestation and about methane and you know, also about water consumption and, and this kind of thing. In any one of those four questions that you ask in Countdown, any one of those four you explore, could’ve been its own book. Right? I mean, these are big, big questions and I’ve heard that the disposal of food, like food waste is actually with its own methane contribution in landfills is another significant source. So there’s. So there’s all these things when it, when it comes to food. And I’ve never thought of it that way you just framed it about food and energy. Right? And immediately I was thinking water has got to be one of these huge concerns up there as well. But when it, when it comes to this topic of food, I mean, is there, I’m sure there’s probably not a simple solution, but what solutions exist? What have you discovered?
Alan: 00:33:18 Well, um, first of all, this is something that Prescott may not have covered in your interview with him. We are now so numerous on the planet that about 48 percent, nearly half of the non frozen terrestrial planet is devoted to raising or, or grazing food to support one species, our own. And that’s the principle reason why we are pushing so many other species off the edge of the planet right now. I mean, we have taken over all the habitat and that is creating an incredibly dangerous situation. It’s also, since you mentioned water, using most of the water. I used to live in the state of Arizona. Arizona is of course a desert state, but it has agriculture. It grows cotton and it grows grains. And 80 percent of Arizona’s water goes to agriculture and that’s pretty much the same every place, unless it’s very, very rainy. I mean agriculture is the most, is far more than our cities, far more than you know, how long we leave the shower on or how, whether we have a low flush toilet. Agriculture is our main human use of, of water. So the first way that we can start addressing this problem frankly, is to have fewer children. And fortunately in Countdown, the answer to the third question turned out to be a resounding yes. In, you know, I, I went to 21 countries for that, a cultural question to see if there would be something acceptable or something within the tenants of the religion to embrace the idea of embracing less, uh, so to speak. And it turns out that yes, there was, and I found I was in Catholic countries, Muslim countries, Buddhist countries, all kinds of different countries that have successfully brought their population growth rate down below what we call replacement rate. It takes two people to create two children. So if the average number is, per family, is two per less population is actually going down. And that’s actually happening in half the countries on earth right now. And we have to encourage that. I can give you some examples. I mean, here’s, here’s, here’s a real quick example. Everybody thinks of the Catholic church isn’t going to allow that to happen and they may be right. I had some interesting interviews for that book in the Vatican. Um, but you know, Vatican City is the smallest country on Earth. It’s populated by a thousand people, 998 of them who are gray haired men. Uh, it is surrounded by another Catholic country called Italy. And Italy has one of the lowest birth rates on the planet because Italy also has one of the highest, if not the highest rate, of female education in the planet. I think per capita, there are more females pursuing PhDs in Italy than anywhere else. And it turns out that the best contraception of all that I just covered is female education. Uh, because, for very simple reason. When a girl is studying, she usually, if not invariably will postpone her pregnancies until her studies are done. And then once she’s done, she’s got this interesting and useful thing to do with their life. It can be economically helpful to her family. But you can’t hold down a job if you’ve got seven kids very easily. So overwhelmingly rich country, poor country, conservative, Buddhist method, a Muslim, whatever, all over the world. You get a girl through secondary school and on the average she’s going to have two children are fewer. And that’s the single fastest way that we can start curbing the amount of carbon dioxide that humanity is expelling up into the atmosphere to have reproducing fewer people, expelling it. Um, another possible solution, something that I’m researching right now, is it has to do with the way that we became more populous. Uh, basically until 200 years ago, homo sapiens were sort of like any other species on the planet. Uh, we had a lot of babies because we died off almost as fast as we, um, as we were born. For example, diseases like smallpox used to eliminate millions of us every year. But at the beginning of the 19th century, a vaccine for smallpox appeared and that was followed by all kinds of evolutionary health, um, technologies such as pasteurization of milk, discovery of antiseptics, more vaccines. And suddenly infant mortality, which use to wipe out, you know, nearly half the babies before they could have babies themselves was way down and people were living a lot longer. Now that seems like a good thing and frankly I think it is a good thing. Um, you know, life expectancy used to be an average of 40 and I’m over 40, so yeah, great. Uh, but our population started to creep up and we hit a billion and a half by 1900. But then what really exploded our population happened. Uh, two events in the 20th century. The first and the most significant of all was the discovery of a way to artificially pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere and spread it chemically and unlimited quantities on the soil. Because nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. Until we discovered how to make artificial nitrogen fertilizer, the amount of plant life on the planet was limited by the contribution of that essential nutrients, of, of relatively few number of plants like legumes and beans that can, that can host nitrogen fixing bacteria and their roots. Nitrogen fertilizers just blew the lid off of what nature could do. And suddenly we were producing much more grain and much more grain and populations started to really explode. Until it was exploding the 1960s even beyond fertilizers ability to, to keep up. And there were fears, uh, that Asia and Africa we’re going to descend into huge famines. But then the next agricultural miracle, which was what we call the Green Revolution. The discovery of how to breed cereal crops, grains like rice bean and corn to have shorter stocks. And they put more energy into producing more grains per stock. That multiplied, um, harvest enormously. And, uh, where it was tried out first Asia, like India and Pakistan, they were saved from entering what looked like certain famine. But the founder of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, when the plant breeder, when he received the Nobel peace prize, because he’s credited for saving more lives than any human in history. Uh, when he accepted his prize, he warned us that we had not solved hunger on the planet as he kept reading, uh, we had done. He said, we basically bought ourselves generation of time. Because unless we combine enhanced food production with population control, uh, what will happen is that more people will not die of famine and they will survive to give birth to more people who will continually need more food. And unfortunately, that part of his message was forgotten. And that’s why in the last century, human population suddenly quadrupled. Which is the most extraordinary, unprecedented population boom in the history of biology for any creature is bigger than an insect or a microbe. And that’s why we’re in the problem that we’re in right now.
Bryan: 00:42:31 It’s amazing. And for me to hear, I mean, I, I feel like I’m a pretty well read person. I paid attention in history and geography and biology. But to hear you put things so simply like in, I mean big things in a context that helps me understand it. Um, where, where I then go is to myself as an individual and other people you know, who are alive today. And this sense that, okay, so I might know some of the things you’re talking about and I’m definitely living in the reality, you know, that we’ve created as a species in our global economy and global society. But what I wonder is, first of all, I’m really curious about this. Given all you’ve learned everywhere you’ve been, everyone you’ve talked to in all that you’ve written about; what’s your fundamental orientation toward the future of humanity? Do you consider yourself optimistic or a pessimistic or something else?
Speaker 3: 00:43:31 I’m gonna say something else. I mean, it’s, optimism is a tough call. It requires some rose colored glasses these days because we are faced with incredible problems. Uh, the predictions of those computer modelers who wrote The Limits To Growth, turned out to be correct. I mean, we’re seeing so much come together right now. Uh, you know, we’re seeing so much social unrest as a result. For example, uh, because of climate change and deforestation, which is exacerbating it because of population growth. We get something like a 12 year drought in a place like Syria. Which then collapses into a social disorder because so many farmers pull up roots and their rootless kids end up growing in an unfamiliar city and they become fodder for terrorist groups. And then we have a terrible humanitarian crisis. And then we get all these refugees. Then these refugees pour into Europe. And suddenly we have, you know, fascism raising its head in Europe again. Because all of these ultra right wing parties are scared of these hordes of refugees that are going to come, you know, and uh, and overwhelm them. And of course, the United States is right now convulsed with the same kinds of fears. You know, all this stuff, these are all graphs that are mutually supporting one another and connecting. And uh, you know, I’m sure you’ve covered climate change in your, in your podcasts, as we lose ice at the Poles. There’s more dark water that’s exposed, that warms up things even more. The permafrost starts to thaw. I’ve, I’ve watched it myself in the Arctic. And as it does, it expands it expels methane and methane is a horrendously powerful greenhouse gas. Um, by the way, all that nitrogen that I was mentioning before, um, nitrogen not only is derived from fossil fuels, but it requires so much energy to produce it. That it’s responsible for about three percent of our energy demands in this world. And then when it breaks down, it breaks down into nitrous oxide that after methane is the third worst greenhouse gas. So anyhow, a lot of stuff is happening on the planet. And then yet I look out my window. I’m in western Massachusetts, I’m looking at a forest. It’s still beautiful. They’re still birds out there. The earth has been damaged, but the, there’s a lot of the baseline that’s still intact. And as I said before, you know, there have been worse extinctions in the one that we’re currently perpetrating and the earth will bounce back. Um, and as for us, you know, am I optimistic? No, that would be a stretch. But I am inspired because I meet inspiring people all the time who are trying to do amazing things. Uh, despite how hopeless or impossible it might seem to others. And one of them that I’m currently researching right now is the effort to come up with ways of fertilizing our crops without using artificial nitrogen. Ways of getting our crops to do what things like lentils and beans or acacia trees do. Actually fix nitrogen themselves by being hospitable to nitrogen fixing bacteria at their roots. This is incredibly significant research that’s happening. That if we could get rid of nitrogen right now, I mean, the nitrogen cycle is one of the human driven changes on this planet that is completely out of control. Scientists have estimated that we are adding about four times as much nitrogen every year to the atmosphere than the earth can possibly absorb. That would really buy us some time to keep working on some of these other things like bringing our population down. I mean, if everybody had between one or two kids and I say two kids, because population doesn’t grow with two kids. And that takes the onus off something is horrible, uh, in, in repellent as a one child policy. Um, you know, we can within a century, a century and a half, bring our population down to a sustainable level and we can have a chance on this planet to, to keep going.
Bryan: 00:48:44 Then this comes down to the individual question, right? What I think many people in, and it’s my theory by the way for what it’s worth, that a lot of what we’re experiencing in our country today, the, you know, whether it’s depression or addiction or suicide or just kind of a general kind of fear. Um, it’s maybe reflected most acutely in our politics. Is, is that my theory about that is it in some way like we’re very aware that things aren’t going so well for the planet, you know, for our relationship with nature, for maybe our relationship with ourselves and each other. And I think that creates this kind of existential like tension or fear. Right? And, and so a lot of us, although we, we know that in some ways we’re kind of screwed it in a lot of ways. We’re probably really screwed. It’s not totally hopeless of course, but what can we do as individuals or maybe what can we stop doing that will actually make a difference? You’ve talked of course about having fewer children is a huge one. You’ve talked about educating, you know, women as another one. But if I’m say, you know, 35 years old, I’m in the United States, I’ve got a job, a mortgage, you know, maybe already got my two kids. As a practical matter, I mean is this like wearing hemp fibers and shopping at whole foods? Remembering to take my paper, you know, my, my cloth bags? Like what, what’s really gonna make a difference for me in that situation?
Alan: 00:50:14 Well, first of all, every little bit counts. Living the best life you can. Living the healthiest life you can, both for yourself and for your surroundings. That all adds up. If we were doing that, it would make a big difference. Uh, you and I are talking to each other using electricity, using energy right now. I’m pleased to say that 98 percent of my energy, uh, here at my home is generated by the sun and I live in a northern climate in New England. And yet we’re capable of doing that sort of thing. We have to spread that as much as we can. We have to advocate for that. There’s a ballot question for the 2018 midterm elections in the state of Arizona where I used to live for renewable energy. It was very depressing that 62% of people seem to be against it. I mean, that’s really silly. But Arizona has a tradition of silliness. I remember when the Montreal Protocol was designed, the world’s most important and successful environmental, um, international treaty to restrict ozone destroying chemicals. The Arizona legislature passed a law, a bill to, uh, have Arizona succeed for the Montreal Protocol. Because we’re not going to let the United Nations of, uh, the New World Order tell us what to do with our ozone. Well, you know, in Arizona is famous for this sorta thing. But it’s also blessed with so much sunlight and private individuals I know in Arizona are putting up solar panels on their rooftops anyhow. And that stuff makes a difference. But you just said something that is really significant. Uh, everybody in this planet knows that there are problems. And the ones who deny it the most, the climate deniers etc. you know it’s sort of like protesting too much. At least on a subconscious level they know that we are in trouble right now. What has, what we have to do is twofold. First of all, those of us who understand this have to do the most that we possibly can. Reduce our waste. Pass laws that absolutely eliminate the use of plastic, single use plastic everywhere. Because it’s one of the biggest polluters in one of the biggest users of fossil fuels on this planet. But then for those other people, you know, trying to convince them, I mean, that’s a waste of energy so much. But trying to make them realize that it’s in their best interest and it’s profitable that they can save money with renewable energy. I mean, the state of Texas, you know, that’s the state that we most associated with oil in the United States. The State of Texas has our fastest growing renewable energy industry right now because of the wind blows down there and the sun shines down there. And sure, you’ve got people like Ted Cruz who, uh, who are basically whores. Did I say that? Yes, whores..
Bryan: 00:53:41 You can use that.
Alan: 00:53:41 For the oil industry. But you’ve got many more serious people down there who are investing because it’s making money for Texas to do something in a much healthier way. And that’s the kind of thing that we have to spread. I mean there is ample evidence out there that, uh, that the renewable economy now is cost effective. It’s viable, it’s profitable, it, uh, it creates jobs, but that list isn’t going to convince people. It’s when you show them. It’s when you go into their community and you start a business that starts manufacturing these, uh, these wind turbines or whatever, and starts employing people. That’s how we do it.
Bryan: 00:54:30 Right. It’s not more facts or more volume that convinces people. It’s like you’re saying.
Alan: 00:54:35 I hate to say that, you know, as a journalist, my job is to try to A, find the facts. Check those facts from a minimum of two corroborating supporting sources. And then couch those facts in the most cunning, seductive, entertaining words that we possibly can to spread them. But unfortunately there’s a limit. Particularly when people are really frightened, facts don’t communicate as much as emotions. So we have to hit people in their gut. And one way that you hit people in their gut is, um, you talk about their own personal economy. Um, in the whole population thing, you know, one of the countries that has been so successful in lowering its population rate growth rate below a replacement, uh, has been Mexico. And they did it through a series of telenovelas or soap operas. Which it’s kind of the national pastime in Mexico to watch the soap opera. There was a successful soap opera called, Ven Conmigo, come with me. Uh, that ran for 10 years once Mexico instituted a government family planning program. And it basically showed a big chaotic family with a macho husband who kept wanting to have more kids and they were constantly an economic strife. And then there was another family that only had a couple kids and they were prosperous and doing really well. And during the 10 years that that thing aired, and the viewership rose 30-40 percent, the fertility rate of Mexico dropped 35 percent. So
Bryan: 00:56:21 Amazing
Alan: 00:56:21 That’s how it can be done. And by the way, for anybody who’s listening to this, you know, who says, yeah, but you know, um, large families are so beautiful. You know, I’ve, I’ve given talks about this in places like mormon Utah, or, you know, in Catholic on Catholic radio programs, and I say yes, I agree. Large families are beautiful. Uh, my dad was an attorney and even though our family was Jewish, his partners were all Catholic. And I used to love spending Christmas with all their kids. And you know what, you can still have a large family. Uh, in the little town in western Massachusetts where I live, the happiest family I know has nine children, two of them biological, seven of them adopted. Because one resource that we are not running out of yet are children who need a home on this planet. So we can have it both ways if we think hard and creatively enough.
Bryan: 00:57:20 Yeah. Amazing. Well, Alan, I know we’re, we’re just about out of time. I’ve got just a couple final questions for you. Before I get to that one thing that I, I do want to let you know, is that as an expression of gratitude to you for sharing your wisdom and your experience with me and with, with everyone who’s listening. Um, I’ve gone on Kiva.org a site I really have loved over the years and I’ve made a $100 micro loan to an entrepreneur named Otilia Margoth in Ecuador. That she will use this money to help buy shoes for people in her community and to improve the quality of life for her and her family. So I wanted to let you know, I did that as a way of expressing my gratitude to you.
Alan: 00:58:03 Well, thanks for doing that. I, I had a book tour for Countdown in Ecuador and I spoke to a lot of people about the things that we’re talking about right now.
Bryan: 00:58:12 I saw that, I saw you were with the Sapara tribe. That’s pretty cool.
Alan: 00:58:15 Well that, that, that was for a reporting assignment. And I actually, I did that for NPR and then use that in the, the prologue to The World Without Us.
Bryan: 00:58:30 Wow. Amazing. Okay. If people want to learn more from you or connect with you, what should they do?
Alan: 00:58:38 Well, um, spell my last name right, which is W E I S M A N and my first name is Alan A L A N. And if you search it, it will immediately take you to a website or a page for me on a website called homelands.org. Homelands with an “S”, because otherwise you get that federal agency, .org and that is a nonprofit journalism collective that I’m a part of. And you’ll find a link to me with a lot of my writings and homelands.org does a lot of series for public radio. We’ve done a lot of stuff for NPR and the World and Marketplace and a PBS Newshour over the years. And um, all of our pieces are there for streaming and have at it.
Bryan: 00:59:34 Awesome. Okay. So the very last questions and these next two are designed to be answered briefly. So…
Alan: 00:59:41 We can try.
Bryan: 00:59:43 We can try. So here’s the first one. Using words other than a box of chocolates. Please complete the following sentence. Life is like a ____?
Alan: 00:59:52 I remember what just popped in my mind was the greats songwriters, satirist, Tom Lehrer. Who used to say life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it. I’ll go with that.
Bryan: 01:00:11 Okay. We’ll go with that. If you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a t-shirt with a slogan on it or a phrase or a saying or a quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Alan: 01:00:21 I never wear those things. Um, I’m sort of tempted again to quote somebody else and this is an old friend, the esteemed author, Edward Abbey. Who’s alleged gravestone, and we don’t know because other friends of mine buried him way out in the desert, supposedly they wrote on the stone above where he’s buried…”No comment”.
Bryan: 01:01:00 Okay. What book other than your own have you gifted or recommended most often?
Alan: 01:01:06 You know, I recently read something, it’s been out for a few years now, but it’s one of the most extraordinary reading experiences I’ve had in years. I should preface it by saying, people oftentimes ask me, you know, what other nonfiction writers do I read and I tell them that, you know, I mainly read fiction. Because the best way to get to my readers is by being a really good storyteller. So to me, reading fiction is like taking my narrative vitamins, you know. I learn how to not just quote people, but to develop them as real characters and to put them into vivid scenes and settings. So what I’m about to tell you about is an extraordinary work of fiction. And not only that, it’s, um, it’s a book that’s truly about our times, but it is cunningly disguised as a piece of historical fiction. Which is great because historical fiction is so popular these days and this is so extraordinarily well written. It is a, it’s a trilogy. And uh, people are thinking three books, oh God, that sounds too long. All I can tell you is you start reading it and you cannot stop. I know my wife is finishing it right now and she’s up till midnight every night till she falls asleep. Uh, it’s called the Ibis Trilogy, I, B, I, S, like the bird and the author is, he’s from India, Amitov, A M I T O V, Ghosh, G H O S H. It is an extraordinary set of books. Set at a time, a moment in history that all of us have heard of and few of us know much about it at all, the opium wars. And what you will learn is not so much rich history about what happened in the 19th century, but how that touched off everything that we are dealing with today.
Alan: 01:03:33 He also uses language in a way, I never knew the English language could be that vibrant, that exciting. Because he writes it in all these different dialects from Indian, Bengali english, to pigeon english, uh, in the area around what today is Hong Kong and Macau. And yet it’s all done so artfully that you don’t have to constantly run to a glossary to figure out what does this word mean? It’s so musical. It’s so mesmerizing. It’s so beautiful and it’s so wise. The Ibis Trilogy, excuse me, the Ibis Trilogy by Amitov Ghosh, G H O S H. Reddit. You’ll never regret it.
Bryan: 01:04:19 Yeah. How can I not after that. That’s awesome. Okay. And this one I hope is a relatively quick thing. You’ve been so many places, all seven continents, so many countries. What’s one travel hack something you do when you travel? Maybe something you take with you to make your travel more enjoyable or less painful?
Alan: 01:04:39 Okay, two things both related. As a journalist, uh, I arrive in a country I have to hit the ground running and I need everything with me. Which means I never put bags through. I only travel, carry on. I really learned that when I was, when I went to report at Chernobyl and there was also an ABC television crew and all their bags got lost when we transferred from Moscow to Kiev. For 10 days were out there reporting and they were appearing on, on air, doing stand ups everyday in the same clothes they were sleeping in.
Bryan: 01:05:24 Wow.
Alan: 01:05:24 Um, so I only travel with carry on. And for example, for Countdown I would be gone a month at a time. My last trip there was three countries. It was um, Japan, Thailand and Iran and I did it all with, carry on. Um, now one way to stretch that carry on, and do it legally, is I wear a travel vest. One of those vests that you can get um, in a sporting goods stores. Because fishermen use them or you can get them from travel companies. One of those goonie looking vest with all of these zippers. I remember on our honeymoon my wife said to me, in the room, “you’re wearing that?” And by the end of the trip she went out in ordered one for herself. Because you know, I’ve got, I’ve got a few of them and they have all these extra pockets in them and those pockets are useful because A: I have a designated pocket for everything. I always know where my wallet is, always know where my passport is. I was not where my microphone is or my recorder. But B: you can get so much in those things, it’s virtually an extra suitcase and because it, you just take it off with your jacket and you pass it through the x-ray. It doesn’t count as an extra suitcase.
Bryan: 01:06:53 That is really brilliant.
Alan: 01:06:53 You know, I have taught journalism classes and that’s one of the first things I always tell students. So thanks for asking that question and letting me pass on that tip.
Bryan: 01:07:05 No, that’s brilliant. Okay. So my very last question, and I know we’re really at time, is something I just want to ask about writing. I normally like to devote about as much time as we’ve talked to the exploration of the craft and obviously we don’t have that time now. But is there something as you understand, that the people listening to this, many of them have something they want to convey to others. They want to take their experience, maybe their passion and share it with others in a way that makes a difference. Many of them in the form of, of writing a book. What, what do you say to somebody who’s maybe at the beginning of that. Maybe they don’t have confidence in themselves, maybe they don’t know where to begin. What do you tell somebody in that situation as it relates to writing with a creative process?
Alan: 01:07:46 All right. Two quick things. First of all, a book feels overwhelming from the get go. Like, oh my God, that’s so big. How can I possibly do it? How can I wrap my mind around it? And the answer was given to us thousands of years ago by the Chinese scholar Lao Tzu who said that, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” You bite off a step, something that you can chew. Which in my case when I’m writing a book is a 1,000 words a day. Uh, some writers, it’s even less. I mean, James Michener who did all those incredible thick novels. 600 words a day was his limit. But that stuff adds up. You know, when I do a thousand words a day, at the end of three months, I’ve got a 90,000 word draft when most books are 90,000 words long. So just set yourself a goal and make that goal. And believe me, I know it’s not easy. Some days, 7:00 pm, I still haven’t gotten word one done. I’ve been staring at a blank screen. But I won’t go to bed till I get my 1,000 words done. The other thing is this, right now I’m looking at my computer screen. I’m looking at the draft of a book proposal that I’m doing for my next book and it’s draft number 30. And I won’t be ready to show this to my agent until I’m somewhere in the 40s. Writing is really a hard thing to do, but most people feel they wrote it and wow, that’s great. Then you got to rewrite it, rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it and then write it again and rewrite it and then read it out loud. Because your ear will hear things that you can’t see on the screen or on the page. And then rewrite it again and again and again. Every author I know who is great at doing this, oh yeah, it’s true, occasionally, you know, the Gods, the muses, uh, will be wonderful. And an entire paragraph comes out intact the very first time, but that’s so rare. You’ll have to be willing to do it over and over again until you get it right.
Bryan: 01:10:18 Beautiful
Alan: 01:10:18 You, you, you can think of it this way. Here’s what I tell students. Think of that argument you had recently with your significant other and an hour later you’re saying, “oh dammit, if only I would have said this.” And rewriting gives you the opportunity to go back and say this and to go back over and over again until you get it completely right. And if you’re gonna, if you really want to put all the energy into something as, as long and hard as writing a book, you really want to do it right. Why bother?
Bryan: 01:10:57 Yeah, and what I love about what you’re sharing is that this isn’t just some guy off the street saying this. This is somebody who’s writing his reached and touched tens of millions of people. And it’s, I mean, it’s really resonating with me. So I hope that it’s landing with those who are listening. Alan, thank you.
Alan: 01:11:15 You also had a lot of your people who are listening to this. They’re not working as a writer. I’ve been a freelance all my life. I’ve written for lots of magazines etc. But I’ve never had a job with any of them. It’s just me trying to put words together and if I do it over and over and over again, some editor finally takes notice. So, if I can do it, believe me. You can too.
Bryan: 01:11:37 That’s awesome. Alan, this conversation is so inspiring for, for me and I’m sure for people who are listening. I’ve learned so much from your books and from the little bit that I’ve had the privilege to talk to you. Again, thank you. I’m not sure when or where our paths will cross again, but I suspect, I suspect they will.