In his previous book Alan Weisman presented the fascinating science and, so far, fiction, of The World Without Us; now he’s asking the less theoretical, “how might we have a world with us?” His Countdown (Little, Brown, $28) to catastrophe focuses on human population growth, unsustainable at its current rate; there will be seven to ten billion more people on the planet before today’s slowing numbers start to recede. Experts agree that Earth can reasonably accommodate two billion—the world population of 1930. Other statistics are equally stunning: the optimum population for China is 700 million, its 1964 number. And Pakistan, growing even faster than China, has some 185 million people in a space the size of Texas; Texas has 26 million. But Countdown isn’t about abstractions or statistics; rather, the heart of the book is real people in real places. It’s about the quality, not merely the quantity of life on the planet, for both humans and animals.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Sheri Fink tells the harrowing tale of a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina in Five Days at Memorial (Crown, $27). Drawing on meticulous research and six years of reporting, Fink explores the ethical and moral dilemmas caregivers faced during the hurricane, and she gets to the bottom of the criminal charges brought against the hospital’s staff for the deaths and euthanization of forty-five patients. From scenes of babies being airlifted to safety to health care professionals administering fatal injections, Fink’s account is a truly disturbing cautionary tale, one that opens a much-needed conversation about America’s large-scale disaster preparedness and how we can move forward.
The esteemed Oxford professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch follows his comprehensive Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years with a briefer but no less eloquent study of Silence: A Christian History (Viking, $27.95). When part of the devotional continuum taking a soul from active meditation (often aided by silent icons) to the purer state of contemplation, silence has been a virtue and a blessing. It’s also been a shield, used by 16th-century conversos who practiced Christianity but maintained an unspoken devotion to Judaism or Islam. But silence can hide what ought to be revealed, and in this it’s been a sin of both omission and commission, whether as the Catholic Index of banned books or the concealment of child abuse, or the wider Christian tacit approval of slavery, which isn’t explicitly condemned in the New Testament. And what about that term, New Testament, anyway? MacCulloch points out that it turned Hebrew scripture into “the Old Testament,” silencing its identity as the Tanakh and making it merely a prelude to the Christian gospels. Deeply researched, this book yields many such telling details; for instance, the silence most widely practiced now, the public moment in remembrance of the dead, started in 1912, after the Titanic disaster.