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World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium by Michael Tobias

October 1998: Book Review by Mia MacDonald

Five hundred thousand leaves, hand cut and hand-painted, a stuffed gorilla, and slowly shifting video images of elephants and human beings muted in the background: a portion of the Central African Rainforest within the American Museum of Natural History's engaging new Halls of Biodiversity. Still, if Michael Tobias' prescient and powerfully-argued book, World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, is right--and the author gives ample and compelling evidence that he is--these painted leaves and video screens, well-intentioned as they are, may be the only "rainforests" left at some uncertain, but not far off point in the 21st century. The ersatz will have to serve as the real, if the behemoth of industrial development, profit-at-all-costs, gluttonous and willy-nilly destruction of habitat and outsize human propagation continue on their current course.

Tobias' book is shattering: there is no way around that. And yet, despite the facts and conversations and impressions he relates (intense, even for this reader, not unfamiliar with dire news about humanity's toll on the Earth's life systems), Tobias argues for hope and action. The World War III of his title is both the persistent and ruthless war we as a species are waging against the planet and all other species, as well as the war of reconciliation we must undertake to save what's left and reduce--drastically--the damage we have done.

* Human beings, now six billion in number, will number between 10.8 and 12 billion by the late 21st century. Higher projections put the number at 15 billion.

* The burning of Brazil's rainforest is at an all-time high.

* Seventy-six countries now possess no region biologically described as wilderness. Twenty-one have no protected wildlife areas.

* Over 80 percent of all living birds are threatened with extinction or are in serious danger.

The necessary war of immediate remediation must take place on a range of fronts: morality, economics, biology, reproductive health. In the policy realm, Tobias argues for vastly increased funding for family planning programs throughout the world (noting that Americans spend more money each year on Halloween costumes than on international family planning assistance). He calls for much more money to protect habitat and species ("ecological bilateral aid") and a rethinking of political boundaries, often arbitrary and destructive, into ecological ones. He writes that there should be a reformulation of the all-important GNP (gross national product of nations) into ENP (ecological net profits), so that destruction of environmental resources (U.S. wetlands or Indonesian rainforest) is accounted for in the balance books of profits and loss. And at the personal level, Tobias calls for (and provides blueprints) for a renewed partnership with the planet, an active reverence, an "ethical renaissance," for which he cites several models among indigenous peoples and the Jains of India.

World War III is an extraordinary book--an enormous assembly of interdisciplinary facts with sensitive analysis, reportage, and some truly terrific writing. It is often lyrical and always interesting--a rare combination within recent writing on ecology. Like the needed war, the book marshals its weight on several fronts. Tobias, a filmmaker and writer, visits China, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Mali, relating measures of ecological devastation and demographics alongside conversations with family planners, environmentalists, government officials and members of various communities. He reviews the biological underpinnings of natural systems. He gets the most recent data on population from the United Nations Populations Fund and describes the impact of various scenarios of demographic increase. He also "tours" the developed world (in the chapter "The Price of Development") and shows the remarkable devastation being wreaked on the planet by rampant consumption in the First World (you don't need to chop down the tree in the rainforest to be complicit in its destruction.) Our footsteps are too heavy and our priorities dangerously, apocalyptically, out of whack:

But all of these battlefields [in the Balkans] combined do not begin to match the level of destruction, the mega-tonnage of harm meted out by the more silent, gun-free wars of "progress" and "development." These two words sail through our consciousness, breezy, proactive, full of promise and supposed comfort. We speak of "underdeveloped" fetuses, capacities, ideas, intellects, and nations, with a mixture of cold detachment, disdain, and caution, whereas we rarely begrudge, or even acknowledge, that which is overdeveloped, except in certain medical cases pertaining to the thyroid or hydrocephaly. Yet it is precisely overdevelopment that has distorted everything good and potentially humane about our species.

Overdevelopment

"Overdevelopment" is a new term, but one that we in the "developed" countries will quickly have to come to terms with if the ecological crisis is to be stanched. That crisis is more apparent in each heat wave in Texas, flood in the Yangtze Valley, inexorable desertification of sub-Saharan Africa (nearly half of Tanzania will be desert in two years, Tobias reports), or even the dearth of swordfish off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The fact is, development and consequently, the overdeveloped plane within which we First World peoples live, is desired by billions of people around the world and their governments. It has been marketed to them aggressively, and they have signed on. The ecological--and moral--consequences of billions more humans (at least 11 billion people by the middle of the next century) signing on for a lifetime of cars, big houses and meat-heavy diets are almost beyond comprehension. As Tobias writes: "Because the number of people is so huge, and the instruments of its progress so potent, every new condominium complex, golf course or air conditioner conceals even a far more devastating pain upon the world than a trigger finger in Bosnia."

What makes World War III so good is that Tobias pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Each time a criticism began forming in my mind, the author disabused me in a subsequent chapter or section. His focus on population as the driving force for planetary destruction can be seen as anti-poor, or even anti-woman. However, the author shows his nuanced understanding of the complexities of the issue. When he argues for a massive influx of money for family planning, he also calls for the essential elements of equality, "freedom" and rights for women. Among these, Tobias includes access to maternal health care, substantially decreased rates of maternal and child mortality, education, work, money, inheritance and control of women's lives and bodies. When Tobias laments the devastation of Indian nature (a truly extraordinary chapter), he argues forcefully for the uplift of India's millions of downcast, forgotten, rural poor through sustainable, sensitive economic systems.

Similarly, when Tobias describes the high rates of population growth in most of sub-Saharan Africa (West Africa, currently home to 275 million people will grow to include 925 million in 2050 and 1.46 billion in 2150) and the accelerating declines in biodiversity and species, he contextualizes the numbers by talking with women and men about their fertility choices. He shows the options open to these people, the economic and political systems in which they live, and how they see their visions of the future: "I walked with one Masai herder and two of his children one day beneath Mount Kali and we discussed family planning. He said, 'Maybe when the Masai add another million or so, then we'll start talking about family planning.' His primary concern was that a man must have children because, as he stated, emphatically, "When you're dead you're dead.' " Kenya's Masai Mara national reserve is the only area left in all of Africa that still contains a "sizable constituency of [nonhuman] mammals." Those 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebra, 500,000 gazelles and several thousand predators nearly match the human population of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

A Holistic Vision

World War III is categorically holistic. Tobias catalogues wanton cruelty to animals, including to India's sacred cow and in the expanding Indian slaughterhouse industry [ Michael W. Fox’s India’s Sacred Cow: Her Plight and Future]. Much of what he says is new, or newly contextualized. For example, some facts Tobias presents about the heavy (ponderously so) toll on resources and animals of the rapid increase in meat-eating, are frankly amazing. Noting the biologically-defined needs for space of "other carnivores," Tobias shows why there are so few left in India, and why their numbers are rapidly falling in parts of Africa, Indonesia and China. Again, he pulls no punches in laying out his thesis:

Forgetting for a moment, the technology of human carnage, which has completely eclipsed the evolutionary rules on the killing fields of Africa, there is simply no way to incorporate the nearly 70 million human carnivores of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in just those three biodiverse, politically defined regions. Mass starvation, habitat destruction, and extinction of other life forms are inevitable. Now add the fires of deforestation, the greatly shortened fallow periods, the poacher's machine gun, and the full scope of the ecological holocaust emerges.

In some parts of World War III Tobias over-argues, making his point several times in a series of electric, visual sentences. He also dips his pen into the well of purple prose, mostly when describing a landscape. However, these tendencies are for the most part contained and neither reduce the essential utility and force of this highly engaging tract. The words at times shimmer on the page, even when Tobias is painting a woefully dark portrait of humanity on this planet. Tobias riffs on and with Maneka Gandhi, India's former environment minister and animal rights activist. The Minister of Welfare in India's new government, Gandhi says baldly that she has no hope for India's overall environment ("None"), but believes in and works toward small victories. He has tea, in another fascinating chapter on China, with the architect of the one child per couple policy.

In the book's final chapter, I would have liked a stronger vision for political and policy change but, again, Tobias moves beyond the many in his field who often settle for rhetoric not practicalities. He doesn't soft-pedal, although he does soften up a bit. He assures the reader that turning the tide will cost money--lots and lots of it--and will take incredible amounts of political will, good faith, justice, optimism, self-examination, truth and the capacity to express love. Tobias is neither saccharine nor sanctimonious; he is a practical visionary, daunted by what he has seen, heard, been told and experienced. His spirit is dampened by the fact that the genie may be far too far out of the bottle, most starkly in demographic terms. And yet, he retains an ideal of what could be. It is outsize perhaps, wantonly idealistic, a brightly colored banner of American optimism. But it is ultimately no less compelling:

As never before, the gift of our individual humanity must inform the collective. This challenge must engender personal missions of utmost conviction and urgency, focused upon extraordinary levels of decisiveness based upon empathy. There is no economic nirvana to which we can escape from the population explosion. We can only serve the world through honesty, directly and responsibly; by opening our eyes to the troubles all around us, and working toward change. A democracy provides no assurance of such change. Only individuals can do that.

Mia MacDonald holds a master's degree in public policy with a concentration in international development from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and has a strong interest in the impacts on animals, the environment, people's livelihoods, and public health of the globalization of factory farming. She has worked as a consultant for United Nations agencies, foundations, and international non-profit organizations, including the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the Ford Foundation, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth.

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