Since his career as a journalist began more than 30 years ago, Alan Weisman has covered burning rainforests, the hole in the ozone layer, and Chernobyl. He is the award-winning author of five books, the latest being The World Without Us, a non-fiction account of what the experts think would happen to the planet if humans suddenly vanished. Plenty caught up with Weisman to discuss what would happen to infrastructure, ecosystems, and the lasting effects of mankind.
Why did you decide to write a book about a world without humans?
An editor from Discover
magazine called me a few years ago and asked me to write a story about what the world would be like without people. The more I thought about it, I realized this is very interesting. If you just theoretically wipe human beings off the planet, it gives us a much clearer view of what else is here. When we take away all the stuff that we do on a daily basis, eliminate that pressure, how would everything flourish without us?
What did you find that surprised you the most?
I’d say the biggest surprise is how resilient life is. Whatever we throw at it, nature comes back. Here in New York, Jerry Del Tufo, who’s been in charge of several of the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, says that every time he turns around, some seed has lodged between two, thick plates of steel and a tree is blooming out of it because there’s a little bit of bird dung there. Or you look at the High Line here in Manhattan—it’s an old, abandoned railway. I stood above it, looking down on a summer day a couple years ago and saw wildflowers blooming. There’s no soil up there. There were cinders along those tracks. That’s airborne, urban soot that collected on those cinders and seeds took hold. Nature is incredible.
What would happen first if we weren’t around?
Moss and lichens will start establishing themselves on our buildings. Just the pollution from the cars is enough to keep that from happening now. Within seven days, there are going to be some problems at all of our nuclear plants. Most of them will shut down immediately when nobody’s there maintaining them. Sidewalks will start to sprout quickly. I’d say within two seasons in much of the agricultural land throughout Mexico and Central America there will be no pesticides being sprayed and trees will start to sprout. Within a couple of years, plants will be growing along the gutters right out of the litter. The atmosphere will take a while to lose its carbon. The first thousand years should clear up to 80 percent of it, some people believe.
Have humans done anything nature can’t reverse?
We’ve created a lot of nuclear waste, and the half life on that stuff is like 4.5 billion years. I have a whole chapter on plastics. There’s nothing out there that knows how to break them down yet. There will be traces of plastic or plastic intact for millions of years, but the plastics experts assure me that microbes are very opportunistic and they’ll realize this is a feast waiting to be had. They’ll adapt to eat Barbie.
What can we learn from your book about our impact on earth?
Because we do have a rightful place on this planet, eventually the book winds toward looking at not just the more disturbing things that we’ve done, but also some of the more beautiful things—our artwork, our expressions of spirit. At the end of the book I touch off a little firecracker in suggesting that it’s not so much what we do, but it’s the number of us that do it. We’ve just become way too numerous. All we have to do is be fewer and then we can be here and nature can do all that wonderful stuff and we’re not going to be in danger.
Is there a part of you that thinks the world would be better without humans?
I think without us the world would lose something wonderful and I hope we stick around. Listen to Beethoven—there’s no animal out there that sounds like that.
Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.
Copyright Environ Press 2007
Not a soul in sight
Author Alan Weisman gives the run-down on his book, The World Without Us.