|Author sees happy ending without humans |
In his new book Alan Weisman imagines the Earth after polluters, proselytizers and the rest of us disappear
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
July 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
Somewhere we got the crazy idea that it was all about us. You can even see it in the word we use to describe the world we're bent on ruining: the environment – the stuff that surrounds the mammal with the outsized brain who almost by definition (our definition, of course) is at the centre of things.
We're not the norm, though, whatever we pretend. Our presence has been brief, almost non-existent when measured against the planet's 4.5 billion years. And our long-term prospects are doubtful, even if we take advantage of global warming to resist the next ice age for a few measly millennia while managing to evade the killer asteroids, tectonic jolts and toxic habitats that did in our predecessors.
Still, believing we're at the centre of it all, we find it hard, if not logically impossible, to contemplate a world without us: Some of us deny our special genius for self-destruction, some of us wallow in fear – and some of us persist in thinking that salvation, when and if it comes, will be our achievement as well. Anthropocentric to the last, we can't conceive of a happy ending that doesn't include us as both the agent and the beneficiary, the giver and the taker.
But there could be a different solution, or at least another twist in the plot that would make the Earth's story much less self-serving and predictable. What if, Alan Weisman asks in his startling new book, The World Without Us, we all just disappeared? Annihilation has happened before (think dinosaurs) and it will happen again (probably long before the sun calls it a day). So why not now, while nature still has a chance to reclaim what was hers before we moved in?
Mr. Weisman, an author, radio producer and professor of international journalism at the University of Arizona, has decided to usurp the role that once belonged to deities impatient with the follies of the human race. He instantly eradicates the species with breathtaking detachment, which not only saves us from environmental death throes but also immediately puts the focus back where it belongs: on the awesome powers of nature to reclaim the Earth despite the human detritus of highways, skyscrapers, nuclear reactors and billions of pesky plastic bags.
It's a crafty paradox, and an oddly satisfying way of soothing the anxieties that the save-the-planet crowd necessarily trade in: We can appreciate the wonders of the natural world much more when we're not in the picture.
“The underlying message of the environmental movement,” Mr. Weisman says from his Seattle hotel room, fresh from talking to a group of Colorado Young Democrats who couldn't accept that the manufacturing of plastic bags should be made a criminal offence, “is that if we don't fix this thing, we're all going to die. That scares the hell out of people, unfortunately. They find it depressing and downright scary. If you preach that in a book, they're going to toss it out, turn on the TV, light up a joint – or do anything rather than read this stuff.”
And so the reassuring Mr. Weisman came up with a strategy to take the worry out of environmental catastrophe and shift our attention (for once) away from ourselves. “Let's assume just for fun that we're already gone. Aliens took us to some zoo in Andromeda or Jesus took us to heaven – being nice, he took everyone – or some disease just picked us off and left everything else. So we're all gone, but we get to see what happens next, as all our stuff is dismantled rather efficiently by nature.”
In The World Without Us, he describes in loving detail how human stuff will decompose and decay as nature rushes back in. The New York subway, no longer able to resist Manhattan's 40 buried streams, will be flooded in no time as pumps stop working and the roads above begin to heave, starting the slow, steady process that turns the city into a picturesque ruin populated by raptors in the upper reaches and whatever sea creatures gravitate to the waterlogged high-rent avenues.
Meanwhile, far away from the former centre of things, the world's 441 nuclear reactors are all melting down or burning up once their cooling systems have ceased to function. “An exquisitely machined technological array,” as Mr. Weisman calls these towering creations of the human intellect, quickly devolves into overheated metallic blobs, leaving behind wisps of poisonous radioactivity to damage living things for thousands of years to come.
It is a picture of human insignificance as much as it is a rebalancing of the relationship between once-dominant man and apparently submissive nature. Arrogance is a human characteristic, even a survival skill, but every generation needs a way to temper that aggression so that it doesn't become self-destructive.
Medieval potentates were once advised to keep a memento mori figurine by their side – a stripped-down skull or something equally morbid – to remind them of what came next. Remembering that you would die, and come face to face with a divine judge, was supposed to provide perspective on this life and its transient values.
The prospect of the Last Judgment is less compelling now. As fewer people fit their lives to God's judgment, some other kind of warning has to be devised to remind more earthbound consciences of where all our human vanities are leading. In getting rid of humans, Mr. Weisman says, his real aim is to make people think “how wonderful nature could be if only we didn't mess it up so much, and is there some way we could still be a part of it.”
But for now, we're gone, leaving behind just the traces of our dubious legacy. Mr. Weisman is a connoisseur of the ironies that human accomplishments provide, and his book is as much about the souvenirs of our brief stay that will linger on after we're gone.
For example, plastic products, which have been a part of our lives for just 50 years, are likely to outlive almost every other human creation – even as they're broken down into powder-like particles that will find their way into the gullets and genetic material of every living creature. And even though plastics “haven't been around long enough for us to know how long they'll last or what happens to them,” they're treated so casually that exfoliant creams and abrasive toothpastes contain grains of plastics intended to go down the drain and into the mouths of waiting sea creatures.
The elements of environmental doom and gloom are here, in other words, and rightly so. But without humans and their limited world view to concern him, Mr. Weisman allows himself to see the bigger picture, to find the kind of consolation nature can provide given enough time and opportunity. Microbes evolved to feed on trees and so, too, will they learn to break down plastic.
“They're very smart and very patient,” Mr. Weisman says admiringly. “They were around before everything else and they'll be there when everything else is gone – they live in a different time scale.”
Nature is adaptable over the long haul, provided there is a long haul: Ninety-five per cent of the Earth's living things mysteriously disappeared 250 million years ago, leaving behind not much more than snails and clams. “It was actually a thoroughly good idea,” paleobiologist Doug Erwin tells Mr. Weisman, taking the big-picture view that, after 400 million years of the Paleozoic era, it was time for something new.
Out of this low-impact emptiness came dinosaurs, which, after 150 million years and a timely asteroid, gave way to mammals. There's something miraculous going on here, once we forget about our self-declared primacy for a moment and start to appreciate the much, much bigger picture.
“The wonderful thing about being human,” Mr. Weisman says, letting us back into the frame for a moment, “is that we're capable simultaneously of sustaining concepts which seem to be in contradiction. On the one hand, I'm scared by what's going on in the environment, but on the other hand I'm comforted by understanding how resilient life is – we've been through worse things before, we'll get through this one too.
“I don't like the idea of a world covered with plastics and I'm hugely distressed that this took only 50 years to happen. But I'm also comforted by the fact that it hasn't been all that long and maybe if we started un-creating this mess now, we could turn things around.”
Though he didn't set out to write a feel-good book, Mr. Weisman can't help but cheer us up with nature's indomitability, which persists in the least likely places. One of his most oddly optimistic passages depicts the teeming wildlife reserve better known as the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
Where humans can't go – a booby-trapped dead zone designed to separate two enemies and prevent deadly confrontations – the beauty of life has returned in abundance, even if much of the poetic contemplation is carried out through gun sights and a sentry's binoculars.
“It's hard to find a metaphor that will top that one,” Mr. Weisman says. “You have two hostile armies facing down each other, and then suddenly these beautiful white birds, as pure as innocence itself, alight on the ground, don't touch any land mines and just sit there being fabulous.”
As an author whose point of departure is the eradication of Homo sapiens, Mr. Weisman might be taken for a misanthrope. But he insists he's on our side – some of his best friends are humans, after all, and even if he's inclined to call our civilization “an interregnum in the ice cycle,” he still marvels at built-to-last bridges and the works of Beethoven with the same fervour he brings to DMZ birdlife.
“I think we're worth saving. But right now we're just wreaking too much havoc that affects everything else.”
And that is his point in taking us out of the mix, to show what the world could look like if we weren't determined to get in the way with quite so much blind enthusiasm.
“Nature is a beautiful system,” he says, happy to be accused of idealizing his subject. “It works in such a nice balance, constantly converting mass to energy and back again in this wonderfully slow pageant.”
Catastrophes happen, crashing in from outer space or welling up from the centre of the Earth or just driving SUVs en masse along the freeway. “But when the dust settles, life is still there – sometimes just a few shards of it, but enough to regroup and do it all over again even more interestingly this time.”
And maybe that's the hardest thing for Homo sapiens to contemplate – not that our time here has been brief and our influence increasingly malign, but that in the greater scheme of things, by the enduring standards of the natural world, we're just not very interesting.
John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer and frequent Focus contributor.