The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Thomas Dunne books, St Martin’s Press, 2007
While my standard operating protocol for book purchasing is to wait until a title has been out long enough in paperback to make it to the Amazon Bargain Books category, all of the advance press surrounding Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us” pushed me into the realm of reckless consumerism. I actually placed an advance order for this story of what the more misanthropic amongst us might consider “ultimate restoration”. When it arrived on a Friday in mid-July I dropped all the other half-read titles in my literature backlog and read it in its entirety over the weekend.
What attracted me to this manuscript was that Weisman has beaten me to the punch. He has successfully produced an entertaining and thought-provoking book about how the impacts of our civilization would fade, and ecological succession proceed, if our species vanished overnight. This type of Omega Man thinking has plagued me since I was a young lad in grammar school. I clearly recall that, round about the time of the first Earth Day; my third grade teacher instructed our class to provide ideas on how we could improve the environment. While most of the more socially adjusted children parroted the typical responses about not littering and recycling cans and bottles, I volunteered the paradigm-challenging concept of getting rid of all the people. The dumbfounded, ashen expression of disbelief on my teacher’s face should have warned me that this incident would be documented in my permanent record and eventually find its way into the database of the Office of Homeland Security. This is the type of deep thought experimentation that challenges the status quo and got trouble makers like Galileo put in prison.
Oblivious to the limitations that this style of thinking would eventually have upon my upward mobility in society, I found myself fascinated by deep time and how, ultimately, the feverish energy expended by our species in building fortunes and empires is wasted effort. The things we construct are indeed like castles in the sand. Weisman’s work is full of fascinating scenarios of how biotic and abiotic processes will conspire with Father Time to erase our physical legacy. Your house? Once you vanish and maintenance discontinues, water will wreck the place in 50 to 100 years. In 500 years, if you reside in a temperate climate, the turf grass temples of your suburban development will be replaced with a forest. Massive trees will dominate a woodland of a scale and geographic range not seen since the European invasion. Amongst the roots will lay artifacts of aluminum and stainless steel cookware; items that may last for millennia.
New York City? Weisman paints a vivid picture of water and fire destroying the infrastructure when maintenance is halted. Eventually wolves and bears prowl a forest of beech and ailanthus. St Paul’s Chapel ends up as one of the last standing structures. Constructed of native schist in 1766, the stone persists. Following future glaciations only a geologic record of the Big Apple will remain – a vein of reddish metal that had previously been wiring and plumbing.
As I read these well-researched scenarios, I was reminded of a story I once heard about an Australian Aborigine who was brought to the city. When asked about what he saw he responded he had seen a forest; a forest that was waiting under the city to grow. As those of us fortunate to work in ecological restoration know, there is a tremendous capacity in biotic systems for regenerating the landscape. Forget the stewardship model, as Henry Beston (The Outermost House) observed, these other species are like “separate nations” pursuing their own evolutionary destinies. If we step out of the way they will quickly fill the void.
Weisman, of course, realizes that while our physical artifacts will vanish relatively quickly on a geologic time scale, our impact upon the successional trajectories of biotic communities will ripple through time. Mixing biota that evolved in geographic isolation has unleashed a Pandora’s Box that can not be closed. While populations of human assisted invaders like the Norway Rat and German Cockroach will wither without the heated environs and garbage mounds of Homo sapiens, pathogens like Hemlock Wooly Adelgid will continue devastating eastern hemlocks and the Chytrid fungus killing native amphibian species. Kudzu will indeed eat the south.
Weisman does an effective job of covering the impacts that human activity has had upon the other inhabitants of this planet. From the Pleistocene Overkill to plastic polymers, fossil fuels and the Neolithic Revolution, he explores how, “The matter is more complicated than a killer instinct that never relents until another species is gone. It involves acquisitive instincts that also can’t tell when to stop, until something we never intended to harm is fatally deprived of something it needs.”
Where The World Without Us really excels is in describing the probable future destiny of some of the products of our manic economic activity. The Panama Canal? Dried up on the Pacific side in 20 years. Mount Rushmore? At an erosion rate of one inch per 10,000 years, these renderings should last 7.2 million years. All the weapons-grade plutonium-239? This will take 250,000 years to fall below natural background radiation levels. The Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977 and are headed out into deep space? Space dust will abrade them down to dust themselves over billions of years. Want to have your image last forever and travel the limits of the universe? Get on TV. Turns out radio waves and the electronic ghosts of our transmissions are going to be traveling and expanding forever. While gradually getting weaker as they expand, theoretically some intelligent entity capable of gathering these transmissions should be able to watch, as Weisman references, reruns of I Love Lucy at the end of time. Let’s just hope they don’t judge us too harshly from watching Fox News.
If I have a complaint about The World Without Us, (aside from the point that I had the basic premise composed when I was eight and never wrote the book) its that Weisman never steps deeper into the room whose door he has opened. Rooted in the physical manifestations of human activity, The World Without Us misses an opportunity to explore the basic philosophical and environmental ethics issues raised by this radical, non-anthropocentric vision. Postulating a future planet existing without humans challenges our egotistical sense of self-importance in the same manner as the heliocentric model of the solar system and Darwinian evolution. If all we do will crumble what is the point of feverishly spending our limited time pursuing the illusion of sustainable economic growth? What does it mean to be human and does our species have an ethical obligation to the other denizens of this planet? Should we continue to try and deny that our species is subject to the inherent constraints imposed by ecological carrying capacity? Mortality is a difficult concept for the individual never mind the species. Think about it – we will all disappear unless we get our own television broadcast. So please ignore the man with the camera as he follows me around. If you are lucky, I’ll give you a few lines in my next episode.