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Wishful Thinking

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

In Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Letting in the Jungle,” the wild boy Mowgli, incensed at the treatment meted out to his human mother by her superstitious villagers, decides to inflict a terrible punishment on them—abrupt and total dispossession. And Mowgli’s revenge extends further, to the village itself—a befouled lair of creatures who only care about eating, sleeping, and smoking.

His jungle friend tear up the huts and trample the fields, but the final punishment is slower and grander: Mowgli opens up what remains of the village to the surrounding jungle and simply…waits:

A month later the place was a dimpled mound, covered with soft, green young stuff; and by the end of the Rains there was the roaring jungle in full blast on the spot that had been under plough not six months before.

The story has darting wolves, stampeding water buffalo, rampaging elephants, and one very stylishly terrifying black panther, but the real terror for man is the one lurking at the edge of their well-tended fields. Anyone who’s ever seen the jungle ruins of Cambodia or Laos or Vietnam—vines clambering through palatial rooftops, trees erupting through grand palisades—knows the visceral truth of Kipling’s story. Closer to home, any suburbanite at war with his lawn’s dandelions knows something of the awful, bottomless patience with which the world waits to reclaim its own.It seems a hopeless patience, given the all-pervasive dominance of man over nature in the 21st century. No small patch of the globe is free from what Mowgli would call the taint of man. Polar bears are drowning in a suddenly watery north pole; a man-made hole in the ozone layer grows bigger every day; deforestation cuts greater and greater swaths into the Amazon rain forest, the oxygen pump of the planet; toxic waste is dumped by the thousands of gallons into virtually every water table in the world; species are dying off at a rate greater than any seen in the last forty million years. All the fault of mankind. All the result of modern mankind’s presence on the planet.

 
The more environmentally conscious have all had the thought, whether they admit it or not: what would the world be like if there were no humans here?

That question is at the heart of a wonderful, relevatory book by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us.

Weisman’s premise is simplicity itself: imagine what would happen to the world if humanity abruptly disappeared. He doesn’t spend more than a moment speculating as to the means of that disappearance—that’s left to a much darker book than this one, which is, despite its subject matter, inherently optimistic.

Weisman is a veteran freelance journalist, not a scientist, and this fact hugely aids his book: instead of flogging a pet theory, he exercises his considerable skills in getting all the right people to give the quotes of their lives.

What if humans vanished tomorrow? That’s the question he poses to all the experts he interviews—hydrologists, microbiologists, paleoecologists, conservationalists, archeologists, and dozens of others, and the answers he gets, and the pictures they paint, are stark, indelible, and eye-opening.

The book’s premise would seem to make it the perfect vessel for an extended tirade against mankind’s many environmental abuses. Early on he Weisman seems ready to set up such an approach:

In the 1960s, British atmospheric scientist, chemist, and marine biologist James Lovelock proposed his Gaia hypothesis, which describes the earth as behaving like a super-organism, its soil, atmosphere, and oceans composing a circulatory system regulated by its resident flora and fauna. He now fears that the living planet is suffering from a high fever, and that we are the virus.

But there’s no rancor in Weisman’s approach; he’s too busy with the facts to let rancor get in the way of a great story.

The story here is: if humankind were to miraculously disappear tomorrow, what specifically would happen to the rest of the world? The question itself is fanciful, admittedly: a catastrophe that would very quickly eliminate only humans is unbelievably unlikely—even a super-virus would invariably leave pockets of humanity still alive. Weisman’s hypothetical is in this sense overly neat, an exercise designed as much to extract real-world solutions as to play out imaginary scenarios. This book is in the best sense of the term a call to action rather than a doomsday scenario. This central attitude is present throughout the book: fully understanding the enormous hurts mankind is currently doing to the planet is the best way to stop or even reverse them.

So: what if humans suddenly up and vanished? In very specific terms, what would happen?

That’s where the fun begins (one of the greatest charms of Weisman’s book is its sense of fun), getting some of the world’s smartest people to speculate about a human-free tomorrow.

Turns out the changes would happen pretty much immediately. Needless to say, the many types of head and body lice who’ve specifically evolved to feast on the sloughed-off skin cells (you’ve got thousands of such microscopic creatures on your eyelashes right now) would be fatally discommoded. Two or three days later the subways of New York, most of which are kept dry by manual pumps, would flood. This would be the case for most of the world’s subways systems (although not, amazingly, the English Channel Tunnel, which was carved from a single geologic layer and so wouldn’t flood—although Weisman points out it would be pitch-dark 35-mile trek for any enterprising animal wanting to cross over; Weisman might be wrong about the pitch-black part, since some of the Chunnel’s iron-bracketed battery-run lighting fixture’s will stay lit for many years, even untended by humans). Likewise all the world’s dams would quickly silt up without manual pumping, spilling over or breaking, flooding back to the sea and on the way wiping out all human cities built on the floodplains in their path.

The pyramids of Giza, the Panama Canal, the Great Wall of China…within a dozen years all would start to disintegrate without constant human upkeep (oddly enough, Weisman maintains Mount Rushmore would be spared a similar fate, although in this one instance he might not have his facts entirely right: the Black Hills are as avid to resurrect as any other abused greenspace—in a few dozen years, Lincoln, Jefferson, et al would be overgrown beyond recognition, same as ordinary folks).

In a week, two at the outside, the fuel supply to the generators circulating cooling waters to the world’s nuclear reactors would be gone. What happens after that is a nightmare the world has already rehearsed, at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl—catastrophic nuclear despoliation of the surrounding environment:

If everyone on earth disappeared, 441 nuclear plants, several with multiple reactors, would briefly run on autopilot until, one by one, they overheated. As refueling schedules are usually staggered so that some reactors generate while others are down, possibly half would burn and the rest would melt. Either way, the spilling of radioactivity into the air and into nearby bodies of water would be formidable, and it would last, in the case of enriched uranium, into geologic time.

This is the high point of Weisman’s optimism, this very point: how localized, how survivable, would the meltdown of those 441 nuclear reactors be (in a forgivable civilian reflex, he forgets to tally in the 80 or 90 additional reactors constantly afloat in the world’s various nuclear warships and submarines)? Weisman implies these meltdowns would be relatively localized events, creating “hot” areas surrounding wildlife would learn to avoid until it was safe. He cites the speed with which wildlife returned to the neighborhood of Chernobyl, and it’s hard to argue with that. Nevertheless, it’s unsurprising that many of the experts he quotes think along gloomier lines. Groundwater contamination, soil contamination, and most of all irradiated air patterns—there are experts who take these things into account and reason from them that these 500 meltdowns might well spell the ultimate strangulation of the planet. Certainly this scenario has been the bread and butter of every writer of post apocalyptic science fiction in the nuclear age, but Weisman tries to smile on the dire. He prefers to listen to the songbirds of Chernobyl.

Of course, nuclear reactors aren’t the only dead man’s switches humans have created and maintained. Chemical plants and petroleum refineries work night and day under the explicit assumption that there will always be human hands to tend that work. Should that work cease, Weisman maintains, the results would be harsh but not catastrophic. But some of his experts, such as chemical plant inspector E.C., disagree:

But imagine a runaway reaction with burning plants throwing up clouds of stuff like hydrogen cyanide. There would be massive poisoning of the air in the Texas-Louisiana chemical alley. Follow the trade winds and see what happens.

Follow the trade winds and see what happens, yes, and this is the tenor of the more bloody-minded of Weisman’s interviewees: that petrochemical plants and nuclear reactors, run wild and fed by the wind and water-currents of the world, will poison the earth beyond all hope of any life whatsoever remaining.

Or perhaps “any complex life” would be more accurate. In one of the book’s more fascinating asides, Weisman talks with microbiologist Forest Rohwer about how his specialty—microbes—would fit into Weisman’s vision of a human-free world. Rohwer’s answer is ‘big picture’ in a delightfully disturbing way:

Microbes don’t really much care whether we—or anything else—are here or not. We’re just a semi-interesting niche for them. In fact, there’s been just a very brief period of time when there was anything but microbes on this planet. For billions of years, that’s all there was. And when the sun starts to expand, we’ll go, and it’ll be only microbes, for millions or billions of years to come.

Weisman gets equally interesting quotes from all his specialists, on subjects ranging from human evolution to the life cycle of the gigantic Argentinean ground sloth (which reached in the Pleistocene the mass of a mind-boggling 13,000 pounds), to the number of birds in flight killed every year by flying into clear-glass windows (the number is at least ten times what you’re thinking), to the question of whether or not Homo sapiens has been responsible for the extermination of late Pleistocene megafauna. In one eye-opening chapter, Weisman gives us a day-in-the-life portrait of North Korea’s DMZ, where, in the absence of humans, wildlife is flourishing, and he extrapolates from this:

If there were no agriculture trying to feed 20 million humans in Seoul, let alone North Korea, pumps that defy the very seasons would be stilled. Water would return, and wildlife with it. “For plants and animals, it would be such a relief,” says [wetlands ecologist] Kyung-Won, “a paradise.”

But despite such notes being struck by every single expert Weisman interviews, his book is not a condemnation—he uses his central conceit to highlight not the permanence of problems but their fixability. And even if these problems prove ultimately insuperable, Weisman is still cautiously optimistic about tired, wounded planet Earth. The final coda of his book comes along distinctly healing lines:

One day, perhaps, we will learn to control our appetites, or our duplication rates. But suppose that before we do, something implausible swoops in to do that for us. In just decades, with no new chlorine and bromide leaking skyward, the ozone layer would replenish and ultraviolet levels subside. Within a few centuries, as most of our excess industrial CO2 dissipated, the atmosphere and shallows would cool. Heavy metals and toxins would dilute and gradually flush from the system. After PCBs and plastic fibers recycled a few thousand or million times, anything truly intractable would end up buried, one day to be metamorphosed or subsumed into the planet’s mantle.

Long before that—in far less time than it took us to run out of codfish or passenger pigeons—every dam on Earth would silt up and spill over. Rivers would again carry nutrients to the sea, where most life would still be, as it was long before we vertebrates first crawled onto these shores.

Eventually, we’d try again. Our world would start over.

This scenario might well be cold comfort for present-day humanity, who would no doubt like to be there in person instead of being represented only by intractable plastic water bottles, but Weisman’s ultimate point is that mankind has the power to be very much nicer to the planet—for instance, nuclear reactors could be built with a time-sensitive dead-man’s switch, so that if they were left untended they would shutdown instead of meltdown. Weisman reserves his deepest doubts only for problems that seemingly defy even the best of human intentions—the insurmountable deluge of non bio-degradable garbage produced every day, for instance, or the sheer, unprecedented reproductive growth of the human species itself. He and his experts offer suggestions on some of these points (developing a bacteria that eats plastic, and enacting legislation to limit human reproduction, in the two cases above), but the book’s main purpose lies elsewhere, in the exploration of its central speculation (an exploration made considerably more enjoyable by Weisman’s clear, evocative prose style):

Ruins of high-rises echo the love songs of frogs breeding in Manhattan’s reconstituted streams, now stocked with alewives and mussels dropped by seagulls. Herring and shad have returned to the Hudson, though they spent some generations adapting to the radioactivity trickling out of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 35 miles north of Times Square, after its reinforced concrete succumbed. Missing, however, are nearly all the fauna adapted to us. The seemingly invincible cockroach, a tropical import, long ago froze in unheated apartment buildings. Without garbage, rats starved or became lunch for raptors nesting in burnt-out skyscrapers.

The idyllic nature of this scenario is meant stir our thoughts, not excite our fears, and that’s the main strength of Weisman’s entirely winning extended exercise. Certainly it’s too his credit that his hypotheticals lack the anger our jungle boy Mowgli felt at the close of “Letting in the Jungle,” when he invokes the flowering vine karela in painting a far more vengeful picture of the world without us:

I have untied against you the club-footed vines,
I have sent in the jungle to swamp out your lines.
The trees—the trees are on you!
The house-beams shall fall,
And the Karela, the bitter Karela, shall cover you all!

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A leading member of the United Irishmen, Steve Donoghue was forced into hiding in the wilderness of northern Donegal following the failed Rebellion of ‘98. From there he wrote a series of popular anti-British philippics under the pseudonym “Cato.” Sadly, these works have not survived; however, he now hosts the literary blog Stevereads.