What if tonight, say, at 11:59 p.m., the human race — poof! — just up and disappeared? What would the world look like with our mass extinction?
These are the sorts of questions known to fuel the realm of science fiction. But in The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95), award-winning journalist Alan Weisman turns the notion of humanity going bye-bye into a compelling, well-researched thought experiment. Bouncing between pristine forests in Poland to the bulldozed mountaintops of Appalachia, and all manner of points in between, Weisman details the impact that humans have wrought on the world: with plastics, with farming, with nuclear waste. He reveals that cockroaches, those seemingly invincible critters, would be toast once the heated homes we provide them with turned cold in our absence. Rats would fare no better, what with their food source — our trash — nowhere to be found. And Manhattan? It’d be a waterlogged shell of its past, once the water being pumped out of the subway system returned to fill the once porous ground.
But if this all seems too pessimistic to imagine, somehow, in Weisman’s hands, the disappearance of Homo sapiens allows for a beautifully penned treatise asking people to find ways to reconnect with the natural world. And readers seem to be responding to the call. Released last month, the book is already a New York Times bestseller. Speaking by phone from a hotel in San Francisco, Weisman talked of the birth of the book, along with engaging in a conversation that encompassed Intelligent Design, the deadly housecat, and coyotes in our front yards.
Before this book, had you ever wondered what the world would be like if people weren’t around?
Well, the genesis of this book came from a piece that I did for Harper’s in the mid-90s on Chernobyl, discussing the aftermath of the reactor fire about seven years later. I noted that the abandoned villages around the reactor were being overtaken by foliage. Nature was rushing in where humans no longer dared to live. In 2003, an editor from Discover Magazine called me and asked me if I would be interested doing a piece about the world without people in it. We kind of chatted a little about occurrences that could make that happen, such as a Rapture or a Homo sapiens-specific virus. She had gotten that idea from my Chernobyl article and when she’d first read it, she thought it was very depressing. Then over the years, it sort of flipped for her. It became one of the most hopeful stories in her memory, because it showed that no matter what awful things we do, nature will just come back in and keep trying.
Did you think the article about Chernobyl was depressing?
Back then I did. That area [Belarus] was the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union. A lot of people who are still living outside of the areas that were most contaminated are still dealing with a lot of radioactivity. So my article had an awful lot to do with the impact on human beings once we let that radioactive genie out of the bottle. But I was certainly struck by the wildlife. I remember standing with this computer systems analyst on a bridge over a river — it’s virtually right next to the plant — looking straight upstream. We had binoculars — both of us being sort of amateur birders — just checking off the list everything that we were seeing. It had turned into a wildlife sanctuary. Did these birds know they were soaring into radioactivity? Of course not. Would their life spans be shortened? Quite possibly. But I see how, even in very inhospitable situations, life comes in. There is something very comforting about that, because life is so resilient. And if you take a really long-term view of what we are doing to the planet right now, it’s very serious.
But the planet has been through worse before, hasn’t it?
It’s had intense sudden episodes of global warming, when we have had huge volcanic eruptions. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, which we now call the Permian extinction, was the most dramatic loss of life in the history of the planet. Over 90 percent of everything that was alive died. And after the Permian, we ended up getting the age of the dinosaurs, which was pretty impressive. So the long view shows me that the planet is probably just fine. It takes blows and it rolls with the punches and it just tries something else. I guess one way of looking at it is that nature is clearly The Creative Force. The selection and the variety of stuff that has happened on this planet, and oftentimes in response to some great environmental change, is just fabulous and breathtaking. If there were such a thing as Intelligent Design — and nobody really knows if there is or not; there is no way to prove that stuff — we are talking about a pretty creative mind out there.
Do you think we humans are a part of nature?
Of course. Absolutely. We’re mammals. We evolved to this point and, for virtually everything we do, there are some analogues out there. We build things like buildings. Well, beavers build dams, birds build nests, bees build hives. Sometimes we can be really brutal and turn on each other, get very territorial. Chimpanzees do that same thing.
I have a chapter in the book where I talk about birds, because they’re one of the most recognized kinds of wildlife, and I show all different examples of how human presence has impacted them. One is the housecat that we brought from Europe, which is related to a wild species in Europe, Asia, and Africa. This is a creature that has never really been domesticated and kind of takes advantage of every situation, including getting you to feed and shelter it. But when you let a cat go outside, the cat does not have to revert to a wild state. There’s no transition. It starts to hunt immediately. I’m sure you’ve seen cats stalking birds—
Well, I have a cat that just killed a bird two days ago.
There you go. I mean, the numbers are astronomical. Two Wisconsin wildlife biologists estimate that in their state alone 100 million birds a year are killed by cats. Cats hunt for the sheer pleasure of it. Which we do, too. That’s why there’s all these hunting licenses getting sold. So, yeah, we’re part of nature.
And not only that: I think that we are a beautiful part of nature. We do magnificent things sometimes. Our artwork, our music— I’m really amazed by some of what my fellow humans do. The problem is that we overreach. We’re now able to jet-propel ourselves because, rather than tapping into the amount of energy that nature is constantly circulating in its natural system, we’ve dug into the earth and found all these ancient fossil concentrations of energy. That concentrated energy lets us do things on a much faster scale than everything else in nature. So we can zip around the planet faster, we can absorb resources faster, we can grow food faster. [Originally, growing] food faster was going to solve hunger on the planet. But this created a much bigger population and we have many more hungry people than we’ve ever had before. So, this excess of humanity and human reach— it’s sort of too much of a good thing.
There’s one chapter in the book, called “Polymers are Forever,” that’s about too much of a bad thing, where you talk about the North Pacific Gyre (a vortex of ocean water with vast amounts of plastic waste captured in its swirl).
This is sort of an unintended consequence. We came up with this wonderful material at the beginning of the 20th Century that was cheap and lightweight and indestructible, virtually. We took awhile to gradually introduce it into use: telephones were made out of it, and some radios and in the 30s, nylon stockings. Then, after World War II, suddenly it explodes on society, because the stuff is easy to make and it has a gazillion uses, food packaging being the most prominent one. Nobody realized the fact that it being so durable was going to backfire on us.
One thing we know is that everything goes to the sea eventually. Entire mountain ranges get washed to the sea. It’s hard for us to picture that, because it’s so slow. But plastic’s pretty light — it’s not like you have to break down some heavy stone in order to wash it to the sea. And that’s where the majority of the stuff is floating. Once in the ocean, it’s subjected to the same physical forces that any other material is. The reason we have beaches is because wave action will break down rocks eventually into sand-size particles. Well, plastics don’t get destroyed, but they can fragment, break up into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces then become absorbed by or mistaken for food by a whole lot of creatures that just don’t know better. But, again, in the long-term view, just like the microbes that eventually evolved to break down ligament and cellulose, someday they’ll eventually learn to eat plastic. It won’t happen in our lifetime, but one day they’ll find pieces of our telephones and our computers and Barbie dolls embedded in stone.
Here in Seattle, there’ve been articles recently about black bears coming into the city and people waking up to coyotes in their front yard. So it seems like even though humans aren’t gone yet, nature is already coming into the places where Homo sapiens dwells.
That’s partly because Homo sapiens now are dwelling in more places. The population of the world increases by a million every four days. As we sprawl across the countryside, we are occupying spaces where black bears used to live. So it’s not like they are coming into our spaces. They are seeking out spaces that they have known for generations. Any time you’ve got wild creatures that are entering urban areas, they’re looking for food. So something’s depriving them or depriving their prey of some livelihood and they have to be more adventuresome. Coyotes are very opportunistic and they’re pretty fearless. They have now spread into all of the Lower 48 [states]. They can out compete dogs, they can out compete cats. But there’s no question that we are being invaded by wildlife because wildlife’s habitat is decreasing.
When I look around Seattle, we have a lot of development going on, with structures that seem like they’re being built in two or three months. They look permanent, but your book makes it seem they’re really not permanent at all.
If we make our buildings out of stone, chances are that they’re going to last longer because they’re already at their lowest energy level. You know, we started out living in caves and then we started making our own caves with stone walls, and, at this point, we don’t do it very often. The effort of going into a stone quarry is not as cost effective for builders as just bringing in a bunch of sand and cement and making their own stones on the spot. But they’re not really great stones, the way nature makes them, so they have to stick a steel reinforcing bar in the middle of them so they don’t crumble. But they have inherent weaknesses where the vertical walls and horizontal roof join. Eventually, water will seep in and when water seeps in, it’s going to reach that steel reinforcing bar and when the rebar starts to rust, the rust has to take up more space because that’s its physical nature. As that expands, it starts cracking the concrete. So, these things just have a shorter life span than something that is made out of just a block of stone.
I live in Massachusetts now, which has all these old abandoned granite quarries. Yet you can go down to a [local] materials yard and you can buy stone now that they’re quarrying in Poland. This means it’s cost-effective to somebody to use cheap Polish labor, to haul those stones to some shipyard, to stock it in a container, and use diesel power to float it across the ocean and deliver it to Massachusetts. Our global economy is a tremendous ecological problem.
Take a country like Mexico that’s only got 20 percent arable land. That means most of it is not good for farming. Yet its fields are, for the most part now, not being dedicated to feeding Mexicans. It’s being dedicated to export crops to us, so we can have summer vegetables in the winter. So what’s a campesino [farm worker] to do when he can no longer grow food for his family? He and his family have to go to the city, where everybody’s trying for a job. Is it any wonder that we have this incredible immigration issue right now? There are so many people who are being pushed off their land and a lot of it is about consumption.
This great global economy— when it comes to food, when it comes to almost anything, we pay a bad price for shipping stuff around the world. We would be much more sensible, we would be much healthier, we would be much more efficient, if we depended on stuff we produce regionally to the greatest possible extent.
At the beginning of this book, you mention this Polish forest whose name I cannot pronounce—
—and you talk about 500-year-old old-growth trees. That seems so amazing there’s still a place like that left.
This forest in Poland, in Belarus, had also been private land, dating back to the 14th Century. It was the domain of royalty. It’s like walking into a Grimm’s fairy tale. It was just amazing. It seemed right, like my body recognized it and said, “Oh yeah, this is home.”
I think one of the reasons why my book is having such an impact is that people do recognize within themselves something that [they miss] terribly: the world, when it was a much wilder and more natural place, instead of now being so changed by some structures that don’t even have a semblance of nature in them. And that’s where most of us live now.
I really sense that we do have a genetic memory of the way the world is supposed to be. The reason for writing this book was not because I hate human beings — I love human beings — but because I want human beings to see the world and take us out, and then figure out: How can we add us back in without trampling everything else to death?