I recently finished reading Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us, an extended thought experiment about what would happen on Earth if humans were suddenly to vanish tomorrow, and I am unsettled. My emotional mind and my academic mind are in conflict, battling one another over what to take away from the book. It’s like a series of dominance displays in my brain.
Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. But I am having difficulty settling on a perspective.
On the one hand, each of Weisman’s chapters emphasizes a way in which humans, through our industrial and technological innovations, will leave a legacy of environmental degradation (or at least change) that can be expected to last thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years. By imposing our will on the natural world, we not only have carved out a niche for ourselves; we have simultaneously altered the habitats of other organisms in ways most people don’t even realize. How many people, when they take their groceries home in plastic bags, stop to think about the fact that these bags may end up in one of the floating garbage patches that are slowly expanding across oceans and affecting marine wildlife? Do you or anyone you know ever consider, as you laugh at Homer Simpson’s antics in the nuclear power plant, the problems inherent in storing tons of radioactive waste or how that waste would affect surrounding soils if its containers began to erode? Out of every 10 cell phone calls you make, after how many do you pause to reflect on the millions of birds that are killed each year by communication towers?
My emotional mind weeps at these thoughts. It mourns the species we are rapidly driving to extinction, and it worries about how humans’ continually increasing population size and demand for resources will affect our own future. Reading this book, the magnitude of our impact on our surroundings frequently left the conservationist in me feeling panicked and hopeless.
And yet, on the other hand, Weisman reminds us that the earth’s habitats and organisms have weathered disaster before, and that given enough time, even Homo sapiens’ most durable creations and byproducts will eventually be diluted and recycled by natural processes. We may leave the planet in an altered state — with higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, more radioactive soils, and widely distributed toxic dioxins — but we are unlikely to leave it barren. Life, via evolution, will ultimately find a way. This too shall pass.
My academic mind, playing the role of the optimist, wants to focus on this long-term perspective. After all, as an anthropologist I am used to talking about vast swaths of time: Homo sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago, humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor approximately 6 to 8 million years ago, primates first appear in the fossil record close to 60 million years ago, etc. Even if the planet takes hundreds of millions of years to “recover” from our activities, isn’t that just a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.5 billion years it has already been around? Put another way, if in the past 250 million years biodiversity was able to rebound from the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out around 95% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, will the impact of humans’ actions on the environment really be that significant?
As cliched as it sounds, only time will tell. In the meantime, given the unlikelihood of our species simply disappearing, I would be interested to know how Weisman and his collaborators picture a future in which the human species continues to grow (Weisman’s suggestion that we try to scale back our imprint by voluntarily adopting a ‘one child per woman’ policy, though coldly logical, is highly unlikely) and play out its existence through more realistic, possibly even radical, means.
And what about you? What’s your perspective?