The World Without Us

August 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm 2 comments

I’m reading a book called The World Without Us. It’s “speculative non-fiction” by a writer named Alan Weisman, who poses the scenario of the elimination, in the blink of an eye, of all human life from the planet. Poof. We are gone, and the buildings, animals, plantlife, air and water start to revert to their natural state, decaying or growing as the case may be, without human intervention.

He details what will happen in 100 years; in 1,000 years; in 10,000 years: as seasons change, as the oceans rise and lakes and rivers reassert their natural pathways, and as trees, vines, plants and animals retake their habitats until the next ice age–which we’ve pushed back through the climate change already wrought–scours the slate clean again. In a best-case scenario he presents, it will take a minimum of 1,000 years for the earth’s oceans to cleanse the air of the carbon we’ve dug from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Age in about 1750. Eventually, there will be no trace left of us except, perhaps, for some stainless steel pots that will befuddle the next lifeforms to evolve or arrive on Earth; and the Statue of Liberty, cast in bronze, barnacled and buried under a mile of silt in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weisman is saying that it will take a tremendously long time but left to its own devices, the earth will replenish itself. This, evidently, is supposed to be good news–a message of hope that, despite our current predicament, if humans finally drive ourselves to extinction before doing too much more damage to the earth, air, water and other species, things will rectify themselves.

Well, ok … but the problem I’m having (and granted, I’m only on p. 51) is the implausibility of that scenario actually transpiring. Weisman overtly says that the premise is not to speculate on what ends humanity, only that it ends quickly and completely–all at once, everywhere.

But, but … it won’t happen that way, will it? Even a massive asteroid hit, a broadscale nuclear war, biological warfare or the outbreak of a world-wide plague will have human life petering out slowly, unevenly, inconsistently. There will be no quiet overtaking of our cities by kudzu, birch and aspen. Instead, as human beings slowly–slowly and agonizingly–die off, those small bands of survivors who’re left will not go gently into that good night. As resources dwindle, as infrastructure fails, as hope fades … human nature and, never mind that, our basic will to survive, will remain intact. And the will to survive is an individual, not collective, one. Individuals will fight for the basic resources to survive: food, water, shelter. Maybe, maybe, parents will share those resources with their own children. Maybe, maybe, small bands or communities will form, if they are more powerful together than alone. But civilization, government, order and what we in the coddled, so-called developed world construe as morality and humanity, will cease in any meaningful, effective way.

It won’t be pretty.

Perhaps I am a pessimist about human nature, informed by my study of social psychology, and more recently, my reading of The Road and Blindness, which foretell gruesome, cruel and barbaric acts perpetrated by humans on humans in the face of just such doomsday scenarios. There has never been a situation, in the lab or in the real world, throughout history, where–especially in the face of annihilation–those with power and resources have not wielded them to their own advantage, to the extent of overtaking and enslaving those without.

So. I struggle with the premise, and before humans are wiped from the face of the earth, I wonder how much more damage we will do, not just to each other but to our home planet.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Perhaps the lingering, cruel destruction of humanity–the “every man for himself” phase–is just a blip on the timeline, as brief as the 15 or 20 minutes of twilight marking the transition from day to night.

We are on an inevitable path, though, to this twilight. By 2100, if we do nothing to curb it, the earth’s atmosphere is projected to contain 900 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2), up from 380 ppm today, which is up from 280 ppm in the pre-industrial age. In other words, in less than 100 years, we will triple our CO2 emissions, which have taken 250 years to rise by slightly more than one-third. This is just one measure of the escalating destruction of our planet. Another is the exponential increase in the number of species we have eradicated in the last 100 years by deforestation–and the proportion of species that will be made extinct by climate change in the next 45-50 (between 15 to 37% by 2050, according to a January 2004 Nature article).

Mr. Weisman–as much as I appreciate your long-term view, I can’t buy it. We will not get to your 1,000 year recovery scenario. We have less than 50 years to dramatically and unequivocally turn back the clock on climate change, on the destruction of habitat, on greenhouse gas emissions and on species extinction. If not, there will not be much left to recover.

I leave you with a poem. In the end, I can’t process this kind of information with scientific facts, journal articles or non-fiction treatises. I need poetry and literature to fully grasp the beauty of what we are destroying, and to galvanize me into the action required to save it.

We Have A Beautiful Mother

Alice Walker, Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete

We have a beautiful


Her hills

are buffaloes

Her buffaloes


We have a beautiful


Her oceans

are wombs

Her wombs


We have a beautiful


Her teeth

the white stones

at the edge

of the water

the summer


her plentiful


We have a beautiful


Her green lap


Her brown embrace


Her blue body


we know.


Entry filed under: Books, Environmental Issues, Poetry. Tags: , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. barryweber  |  August 19, 2008 at 7:36 am

    You mirror much of what I have come to feel, think about, and believe. Not that belief is equal to truth, but I cannot stop seeing the Perfect Storm brewing on political, economic, environmental, and cultural horizons.

    I wonder what to do so much of the time as it seems to be a battle we are destined to lose, given the desires of so many to maintain at all cost, the status quo and the desires of so many more to have more and more. Our separatist worldviews are imploding. Oil is god, and love is a word we say on the way to church.

    It leads, for me, to a strange depressive hopefulness that I try to define, but can’t. So I talk about it (ad nauseum perhaps) in the hope that some seeds take root and grow. There is still much to record, quantify, and metaphorically sing about “her brown embrace..and blue body.”

  • 2. zennifer516  |  August 19, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Hi, Barry. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I share your “depressive hopefulness.”

    Maybe it’s my existential leaning but every day I wake up and know that I can–in fact, must–make choices in how I live my life and what impact I make on the planet.

    I can choose a bike or an SUV; I can choose factory-farmed, genetically modified foods or organic. I can choose to recycle, use energy efficient light bulbs, and put my money–and my votes–where my mouth is. Or not. I don’t always make the right choices, but at least I’m conscious of what they are.

    In the end, maybe none of it will matter. But even in the face of that, I can choose despair and apathy, or I can choose hope and activism.

    “Oil is god, and love is a word we say on the way to church.” That’s a great line.

    Stop by often! I’m a big proponent of planting seeds and talking ad nauseum. 🙂


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