… picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.
Unlikely perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible. Say a Homo sapiens-specific virus – natural or diabolically nano-engineered – picks us off but leaves everything else intact. Or some misanthropic evil wizard somehow targets that unique 3.9 percent of DNA that makes us human beings and not chimpanzees, or perfects a way to sterilize our sperm. Or say that Jesus… or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy.
Look around you, at today’s world. Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavement underneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what’s left. How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines?
How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the way it must have gleamed and smelled the day before Adam, or Homo habilis, appeared? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural that they’re indestructible?
…Since we’re imagining, why not also dream of a way for nature to prosper that doesn’t depend on our demise? We are, after all, mammals ourselves. Every life-form adds to this vast pageant. With our passing, might some lost contribution of ours leave the planet a bit more impoverished?Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?
–The World Without Usby Alan Weisman, pages 5-6
This is the premise for The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman puts the question “What if ?” to the reader, then thoroughly, intelligently and scientifically systematically answers the question: How long and by what process would it take for nature to reclaim the world if humans were to suddenly disappear?
In many ways, animals and plants would thrive and take off. Several places in the world have been negatively impacted greatly because of what man has done, Chernobyl, Johnson Island, and a large number of coral reefs to name a few. However, to say that the world would go back to pre-human conditions without us is naive and a romantic fantasy.
Without human mechanics and equipment operators, our 141 nuclear reactors would meltdown, spreading radioactive waste on clouds that would spread globally, as well as leech into the soil and ground water, eventually finding their way to lakes, rivers and oceans. Also in need of these human beings care and service are the vast number of petroleum refineries, which would also suffer catastrophic failure in our absence and spread heavy metal and carcinogenic particle laden smoke along trade winds, reaching ground in other parts of the world in the rainfall. No, the world without us would NOT be a better, cleaner Edenic place.
It is unmistakeable that mankind has forever irrevocably altered the Earth. We have introduced gender-bending chemicals, which show no signs of EVER degrading, into water sources. The plastics that we produce for our disposable convenience only break down into smaller and smaller particles that are then eaten by birds and fish, many of which later suffer agonizing deaths from constipation as the pieces do not digest. And in case there was a slight chance nothing of us would last, we’ll throw in the uranium and plutonium, both “depleted” and “weapons grade,” some of which have a half-life longer than the estimated time of the demise of our solar system!
The World Without Usby Alan Weisman is a sobering book. I had to take a step or two back and look at what I, myself, do that contributes to the destruction of our ecosystem. When Weisman talks about how some of those tiny pieces of plastic ending up in the oceans come from some of the body washes and other beauty care products, I ran to my shower to check the label of my shower gel (I was happy to find no plastic beads, only natural exfolients). Second, I’ve always looked at “recycling” as some hippy-dippy commune-escaped concept and haven’t ever really done it (I looked at that toter as just an extra trash can). After reading what the effects of my plastic water bottle and plastic bag usages does to the world, I know I have to change at least MY little contribution.
One poignant thought from this book is: The Earth is like a super-organism, the soil, atmosphere and oceans its circulatory system regulated by its resident flora and fauna. As such, this living planet may be suffering a high fever with humans the virus. A sobering thought.
As a scientifically and intelligible answer to a simple question with an extremely complex answer, I give The World Without Us by Alan Weisman 5 out of 5 stars. I recommend everyone with a stake in the Earth’s future to read it.
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