Author: Alan Weisman
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
I read it: October 2016 (re-read)
Certain images from this book stuck with me after I first read it in 2008. Parking garages collapsing as the walls shear off; the New York City subway system flooding within 36 hours; cats hunting from the windowless rooms of skyscrapers; and my own personal visions of green overtaking the cement of every Midwestern street. On my breaks at Trader Joe’s I recall the bronze statue in the pedestrian plaza, from which I learned that “excelsior” means “upward”—a fitting inscription considering that bronze is one of the few materials that may last a long, long time.
Alan Weisman’s premise is simple: “Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.” Not because of a supervirus or nukes or some other catastrophe which might in and of itself change the earth and other species, but just plain old disappearance. The ways in which the world changes without us depends can be glimpsed through how much we impact it now, and have impacted it in the past. One case study is the extinction of all the North and South American megafauna. Early humans crossed the land bridge into continents rules by various elephants, horses, large birds, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and the dreaded short-faced bear. As none of them evolved alongside primates, humans made relatively quick work of the beasts.
Aside from an ever-increasing wave of extinctions, what else will constitute the human legacy? Weisman alternately describes us as homo sapiens urbanus, homo sedentarian, homo sapiens petrolerus. Plastic, undoubtedly, is one giant signature that may last a while. Although plastic accounts for less than 20 percent by volume of buried wastes, with most landfills made up of far more construction debris and paper products (newspapers don’t biodegrade if they are buried far from air and water), plastics do end up in the ocean, in huge whirlpools such as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Weisman also covers other types of non-biodegradable and toxic wastes, as well as the massive petroleum refinery landscape that makes up Houston, Texas. Get this: “Houston itself is huge enough to hold Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Washington, D.C., with room to spare.” I’m not familiar with any of those cities personally, but I still had to read this sentence several times because it seemed so unbelievable.
Small experiments in what could fill the gaps that humans leave behind happen usually by historical accident. For example, there is a strip of land between the two Koreas called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where no humans have trespassed since 1953. These tiny natural preserves instantly gain biodiversity, which would happen worldwide starting the moment we are gone. Some architecture might remain for a while, but eventually “planet-wide piles of low bids come crashing down in a posthuman world, and do so even faster if the city is near a fault line.” Just as homeowners constantly do battle against nature to keep creatures, water, and other invaders from ruining houses, every manmade structure is subject to instant weathering and decay, unless buried far out of sight.
Of course, depending on our actual fate there could be evolved human survivors—or another species entirely—with enough intelligence to reflect on our one-time presence. This could happen in grand scenes, such as beholding Mount Rushmore, the granite of which erodes only one inch every 10,000 years: “Should some equally ingenious, confounding, lyrical, and conflicted species appear on Earth again in our aftermath, they may still find T.R.’s fierce, shrewd gaze fixed intently upon them.” Or, just as we dig up ceramic shards today, some of our tiny traces will still be evident:
Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? Or would they decompose first, expelling hydrocarbons that would seep out of a vast plastic Neptune’s graveyard for eons to come, leaving fossilized imprints of Barbie and Ken hardened in stone for eons beyond?
What if the future beings are not human enough to really know what they are looking at, but are still on a societal trajectory more or less like our own? I love Weisman’s speculation on this point:
The chromium alloys that give stainless steel its resilience will probably continue to do so for millennia, especially if the pots, pans, and carbon-tempered cutlery are buried out of the reach of atmospheric oxygen. One hundred thousand years hence, the intellectual development of whatever creature digs them up might be kicked abruptly to a higher evolutionary plane by the discovery of ready-made tools. Then again, lack of knowledge of how to duplicate them could be a demoralizing frustration—or an awe-arousing mystery that ignites religious consciousness.
We don’t know exactly what they will find, and we certainly have no way of knowing how it might all be interpreted. So barring the magical vanishing of the author’s premise, how do societies actually fail and fade? Weisman’s primary example is the Mayans, where it seems that greed led the way. “An unleashed lust for wealth and power turned them into aggressors, resulting in reprisals that required their cities to abandon vulnerable outlying fields and intensify production closer to home, eventually pushing land beyond its tolerance.” It all comes back to viable resources, and large, successful societies forget that fact at their absolute peril. Today, we have a world society that could rise or fall as one.
Regardless of the bleak possibilities, I find the idea of a posthuman world fascinating and wonderfully peaceful. One thing that blips out of existence is human suffering, which is of a quality that no other animal has seemed to endure. In an instant, there would also be no such thing as waste or weeds. There would be no pressing against nature or pulling away from it, no struggle to keep the vines trimmed back from our doorframes. I can only imagine the immense sigh of relief that a tired and annoyed world might finally emit were we to be whisked away. If only we could watch it unfold from afar.
Addendum: I read this book and conceived of the review before November 8, 2016, but now it seems even more possible that we are living on a precipice. Climate change is a done deal; there’s no going back on this one. According to this book, it will take about 100,000 years for the geologic cycle to get CO2 back to prehuman levels, and that’s just based on the imbalance as of 2007, let alone the carbon output from of the next century or so. Weisman hints that we were perhaps never up to the task: “We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed over eons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.”
In the shorter term, there will probably be a convulsion in population numbers based on our improper maintenance of food and water, the very real possibility of nuclear war, and the plain old tribal bloodshed that is already happening and may now rise even in first-world countries. If we don’t go extinct entirely, there will at least be a lot fewer of us at some point, which in and of itself will change the world in unforeseen ways. Weisman’s book mentions a movement about humans undergoing a voluntary extinction project, which seems quite attractive given the alternatives. The world without us: coming to a planet near you sooner rather than later.