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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The World Without Us

Air Date: Week of

World Without Us (Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press)

Author and journalist Alan Weisman imagines what might happen to the world after human extinction. Host Steve Curwood talks to Weisman about his book, "The World Without Us."


CURWOOD: The human race has been wiped off the face of the Earth. Wild animals are occupying our homes. New York city is a forest, with rivers running where the streets used to be. No it's not a sci-fi movie. It's the premise of a new bestselling book by journalist Alan Weisman, called "The World Without Us." Alan Weisman joins me now. Hello, Alan.

WEISMAN: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, this is kind of a difficult premise to swallow, Alan, I meant that humans would just all at once be gone from the world, poof, leaving the rest of the world in place. Not so likely I would think.

WEISMAN: Not at all. The idea is rather far fetched, though it is theoretically possible. And there was a method to my madness for choosing this. You know, there’s so much important stuff being written about the environment. And yet a lot of people shy away from reading it because it’s daunting, it’s overwhelming, it’s depressing or sometimes it’s down right scary. And the bottom line is we’re scared, you know “are we all going to die?” So I pose this little fantasy that wipes us all out in the first couple pages of the book and yet we get to hang around and see well, what would happen next? And that turns out to be just irresistibly seductive to readers. It’s kind of fun. You’re not worried about death because it’s assumed this is a fait au complet. Up to that point it’s kind of science fictional but from then on some very deep research all over the world revealed to me many many surprising things. What would happen? How long would it take for nature to wipe out all of our traces or could it? Have we done some indestructible things? How would nature respond without our daily pressures? What have we set in motion that would take a long time to wind down?

CURWOOD: So, at the very beginning what would happen the day after humans are gone from the planet?

Author Alan Weisman
(Courtesy of Alan Weisman)

WEISMAN: Well, the day after humans are gone, all the best efforts to hold nature back so it doesn’t tear all of our stuff apart, it just gets underway. And I have a chapter called unbuilding your house in which suddenly no one is there in fighting off mold, keeping the insects out, keeping the mice out, keeping the woodpeckers out, keeping the water out. Pretty soon water will be just undermining all kinds of things: pipes will break if you live in an area that freezes. And after a while rust will penetrate even the waterproof goop. Pretty soon trusses will start to go and within a couple of decades your walls start to sag as the struts in the roof are splaying. And a roof will go, unattended within 50, a maximum of 100 years if you’re lucky. Once that goes in a little after a century only the chimney will be standing.

CURWOOD: A cellar hole and a chimney. What if we were to look say, a week out after humans disappear? What would our cities look like? What would it be like in New York City look for example?

WEISMAN: Well, I use the example of New York. It’s one thing for a wood framed house to disintegrate but we really think of our steel and concrete cities as pretty being indestructible. The weak spot I learned in New York City and in many other cities it turns out that the subway tunnels are below the water table. So the subway engineers have to contend with, even on a sunny day, about 13 million gallons of water that are rushing around trying to fill up the subways. They have 800 pumps under New York to send that water uphill and pump it into the sea. If they weren’t there or if no one were manning our power plants, the power would go off, the pumps would go off, the subways would fill with water just within the first week, within the first few days. And then the columns that are holding up the ceilings, which are essentially the streets, would begin to rust and within 15 to 20 years they would be decomposing enough that they would be buckling and the streets would start to cave in and eventually as they collapse we would have rivers on the surface once again. The 4,5,6 line underneath Lexington Avenue would basically restore a river that once ran there.

CURWOOD: The Lexington Avenue River, huh?

WEISMAN: Exactly, The Lexington. And birds would start dropping fish in it, or clams, and it would repopulate rather quickly.

CURWOOD: So, a thousand years out what would New York City look like?

WEISMAN: Well, a thousand years out I don’t think there’d be many buildings standing accept for some of the original ones that were made of stone. St. Paul’s Church, which is right near the World Trade Center, is the oldest currently standing building. It’s made out of Manhattan schist, which is pretty stable because that’s the stuff the island itself is made out of. It and some of the other stone buildings perhaps Grand Central will possibly still be there in some form or another. Some of our glass and steel buildings will really have fallen apart by then. Eventually, of course, all of New York will be scraped away by the next glacier that comes. Now we may have held off the next glacial age by packing our atmosphere with a lot more insulation these days but sooner or later we will have glaciation. And you know, New York 12,000 years ago had just been scraped clean and as that glacier receded Homo sapiens followed it in. The forest regrew there. I think that nature is very patient. And gradually it will restore things.

World Without Us (Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press)

CURWOOD: Alan, in your book you try to imagine what might have caused the sudden demise of the Mayan civilization in Central America. What happened there? What can we learn from them?

WEISMAN: Well, I inserted that in the book because at a certain point I think we needed a reality check. Is it possible that a civilization as huge and powerful as ours could possibly break down. And the Mayan civilization lasted a lot longer than ours. It lasted about 1800 years. I’m sure they felt as all-powerful as we feel. And yet a brilliant archeologist, Arthur Demeris from Vanderbilt has been studying it for over 20 years and he showed me how at a certain point the Mayan who lived more in harmony than probably any other civilization with the rainforest. They had crops that were interspersed with forest that they started getting top heavy. And eventually they started reaching farther and farther usurping some of their neighbors’ land and then they had to defend their own lands and then they had to grow their own crops within defensible perimeters which meant that land got used and reused and overused and abused and probably a combination of putting so much of their effort into defense and so much of their effort into using exhausted lands to produce foods for their populations just brought them down.

CURWOOD: Greed in other words.

WEISMAN: Yeah. The Mayans apparently, as they grew more and more powerful, more and more of that wealth was devoted to things like monuments celebrating the lives of rulers. And then the rulers had a lot of children cause they had a lot of wives and more and more of the energy of the society went into producing luxury goods rather than things they actually needed. And then finally they became so rich that they became attractive to their enemies and all hell broke loose. A lot of war broke loose.

CURWOOD: And the lesson for today then is?

WEISMAN: Well, I think that when we find more and more of our treasury being devoted to warfare, to defend ourselves and to reach farther and farther for resources that we depend on that eventually we spread ourselves too thin and our base is less stable and that top-heavy society collapses. And that kind of reminds me of a civilization that I happen to be part of right now.

CURWOOD: So Alan, the premise of your book is that all humans disappear from the planet but my guess is that there are a number of forces that could radically reduce the number of humans on the planet rather abruptly.

WEISMAN: Well there’s no question of that. But once a reader gets the sense that nature is resilient and could be as beautiful so quickly as it was before our industrial revolution. I want readers to think about well is there something we could do that would allow us to be part of this mix. So at the very end of the book I raise another question. Let’s put it this way, I pose another fantasy. My original fantasy is what if we all just went poof. And we were gone. And the second one is what if we don’t all go poof. But what if for some reason we were impelled as an entire species to try an experiment that the Chinese have tried. Which is, every one of us, every family only has one child. And I raise that with some demographers and we found something rather surprising. At the end of the 19th century there were 1.6 billion people on the planet. Today we have 6.6 billion people and by the middle of this century we’re headed to 9 billion people, according to the United Nations demographers. If every family, starting tomorrow, only had one child within the century we’d be back down to 1.6 billion. Now, I don’t suggest this to say that well, great we can start polluting again and we can have all the plastic we wanted and stuff like that because it would be a fewer than a third of us as there are today. We need to be doing everything we possibly can to stop pushing other species off the face of the earth. Some of whom not only are beautiful but we may depend on them. You know our pollinators for example may be at risk. But also, we don’t want to be poisoning ourselves. I discuss this in the book some of the contaminants that are going to be around here for a long time like PCBs. But this would buy us some time if we learn how to use less toxic materials. If we use far less plastic than we’re using now which is very easy. You just go back to what your grandmother did before World War II. You don’t need all those plastic bags.

CURWOOD: What would be the longest lasting impacts of human civilization on the planet for perhaps millions of years to come?

WEISMAN: I think that plastics will enter the fossil record so some trace of them will be there. I think that radioactive wastes, you know depleted uranium’s got a 4.6 billion year half-life. The earth probably has about 5 billion years to go before the sun enlarges and consumes it. So, that will be around. But there are some other things that actually are nicer to think about. One of the most exciting interviews that I had for this book was with John Lomberg an artist who was hired by Carl Sagan to compile some of the greatest artifacts of the sounds and images that humans have created, of many different cultures and from our own cultures in the West ranging from Chuck Berry to Mozart. And to append them on a golden disk to the sides of the Voyager Space Craft that are going off into outer space. They’ve left our solar system and they should last at least a billion years and sometimes longer. And there’s something comforting to know that Mozart’s out there. And even longer-lasting than those spacecraft will be our radio waves. I mean this conversation Steve, it’s emanating at the speed of light out into space. Perhaps some civilization way out at the edge of the universe that is advanced enough to perceive us will also be able to pick out our faint signal amidst all the back ground noise of the universe and get an echo that, well by the time they get it the sun may have consumed earth but at least get a sense that once we were here.

CURWOOD: Alan Weisman’s new book is called “The World Without Us.” Thank you so much Alan.

WEISMAN: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Air “Another Day” from ‘Talkie Walkie’ (Astralwerks – 2004)]



World Without Us


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