No Preach, No Screech

Imagine a world without humans. We don’t die out in stages, with heroic efforts to stop our plunge towards oblivion—one day we are simply not there. What would happen on our planet?

This is the premise of Alan Weisman’s fascinating book, The World Without Us. And a lot of people think the idea is pretty peachy—just to pick a date in late September, The World Without Us was #40 on Amazon, and #1 of all books of its kind, including science, ecology, and other categories. It even provoked a sonnet:

When we’re long gone, our little reign extinct,
And Earth reverts, a natural precinct
No longer tyrannized by humankind
(The only kind misnamed, to nature blind),
Then plants and animals, all unconstrained
By mind and plan, will thrive again unstained.
We were a brave experiment gone bad,
Intelligent and promising but mad,
Who learned in time to wonder and surmise,
Yet never got the hang of being wise.
An eon on no evidence of us
Will keep, and Earth will be oblivious,
For what we proudly called our history
Will be an unconsidered mystery. —Alan Nordstrom

Moving from flooded New York City subways to oil refineries in Houston, from the Korean DMZ, which now flourishes with rare cranes and other wildlife absent from the rest of Korea to the island of Cyprus, where the division between Turkish and Greek ownership stranded a resort hotel now masquerading as a wildlife preserve, Weisman takes us on a tour through a future without people. He considers an enormous number of topics in a breezy but fact-filled style: the fate of domesticated animals (cats do well, dogs less so), wildlife in different regions, buildings, our energy industries (his analysis of what would happen with nuclear reactors is terrifying), and an amazing panoply of other speculations.

Part of the story is ours: he discusses what the world was like before us, and how we evolved to be who we are. There are some surprises here, one being that you’re likely to wind up liking us more rather than less.

In fact, the book is oddly hopeful: Weisman documents how parts of the world would recover from our presence quickly. Even areas that have become deserts may flourish again once pressure on water supplies lifts and dams erode. And when fertilizers stop flowing into deltas, dead areas caused by nitrogen overload can begin to live again.

Couldn’t—shouldn’t—we reverse the gears of destruction while we’re still around? Weisman wisely does not scold or dictate, and he makes only one suggestion. He writes dispassionately about a passionate subject, with humor and thoughtfulness, and the impact is stronger for his equanimity. I spoke with Weisman by telephone on an afternoon in early September.

Congratulations on writing a book about the environment that people actually want to read.

There are so many things written about the environment, and they’re incredibly important and so well written. But I didn’t want to write another book that only is read by people who already know this stuff. If we don’t reach a much more massive audience, there’s no way we’re going to fix things. It’s the mass of humanity that adds up to the environmental problems, so it’s the mass we need to reach for things to change.

During my travels around the world, I realized that everyone and everything were connected, and that our problems are also connected and systemic. And I could see the urgency. So I searched for a way to turn that urgency and connectedness into a page-turner without oversimplifying or trivializing it.

You saved your discussion of how likely this scenario is to the end.

I only make one suggestion in this book, and I make it at the end, because otherwise everyone would have dashed. That is one woman, one child. The Chinese lowered their birthrate, and it was a terrific test case that showed up all the cultural pitfalls. The Chinese have not given this thing up. If it starts to spread around the world, and if we can avoid little girl babies being the unintended victims, we can lower our population to be in proper proportion.

When I started doing this book, I didn’t know it was going to be a forum for me to spring what had to be sprung because it had disappeared from the conversation. Fifteen years ago there were lots of discussions about zero population growth. But during the Reagan era much of that talk disappeared. At the first world population conference in Mexico City, then the biggest city on earth, our representative was James Buckley, William Buckley’s brother. He is an erudite man of conviction, and he made two arguments against controlling population. One was the expected anti-abortion argument, but the other was staggering to me. He said that the US supports population growth, not control, because the more people there are, the more consumers there are for our products.

Growth goes beyond greed. A lot of organisms are acquisitive—until they eat themselves out of resources and until their civilization collapses. So all that stuff has been on my mind for a long time. I was thinking about three different scenarios when I made the book proposal:

1) we go down gradually, dragging a lot more species with us

2) what if we’d never evolved at all

3) and the least likely scenario of what if we all disappeared tomorrow.

Very early on, I realized the least likely was the most effective. It defused the fear factor of environmental writing. Environmental writing is scary. By killing people off in the beginning, we don’t have to worry about what happens to us. Readers have a reason to move into the book and a curiosity. First I take people into the Forest Primeval. It’s not exotic; in fact, it’s strangely familiar. Our bodies and cells remember this. The Grimm Bros. did the same thing, invoking a theme that humans innately remember. They took us out of civilization and put us back in the forest and scared the bejesus out of us, so we gratefully come crawling back to civilization.

In that way, I gave everyone a vacation from fear and guilt. The facts are so rich. I was so engrossed and thoroughly entertained by the research process. I wrote a letter to everyone, explaining the idea. It opened up my sources’ imaginations, and it works for my readers. As writers, we’re constantly complaining all the time about the intense competition from the entertainment world. People would rather watch a comedy than listen to this important truth we have. But the entertainment world is showing us wonderful techniques of getting people’s attention.

Once I interviewed Cheech Marin about his film Born in East LA. He wanted to do a really important film about immigration, about racism, about the INS. But he knew these subjects were so deadly serious. He said, “I made a big fluffy pillow that everyone would want to bounce around on, and inside is the important nugget.”

The book is #2 on Amazon (September 11). This means that it isn’t just environmentalists reading it. It’s going to be coming out in all these different languages—all the Western European countries and Arabic and Hebrew and others.

In order to predict what might happen, you end up starting with the mysteries of the past, such as mass extinctions and the disappearance of the Mayans.

When you’re speaking of the environment, there is no control group because you can’t isolate anything. The best scientists can do is try to determine a baseline of what was in place before something else affected the situation. The baseline I needed for this book was what the world looked like before there were human beings. What I didn’t realize I was going to do was to examine not just how we happened to evolve but why did we evolve? Nobody really knows for sure, but we may not have had any choice. We may have been outcompeted by other animals in the forests, by those who evolved into chimpanzees and bonobos. Our ancestors may have gotten kicked out into the grasslands, and those who didn’t get eaten by lions evolved into you and me. It’s a plausible theory, and it really gets people thinking about our presence.

So the book starts with this construct, and then at the end it raises another one. OK, there are humans on earth. Now what? What if we controlled our impulses and raised one child per woman? It’s the quickest and most viable way we have to get us back into coalition with nature. As hard as it would be to control our births, I don’t know how much harder it would be than anything else we’re trying.

What is the audience like at the readings and lectures?

There’s a real diversity in ages and classes. I have been on radio programs on thirty states. A whole lot of them have been AM stations that host right-wing talk shows. They have all gone well. They haven’t been hostile, but they have been confrontational. There’s nothing people love more than a great wrestling match—it makes great radio. But there is stuff in this book that the right-wing absolutely loves. I don’t interview any politicians or policy people. They turn out to be not very important in making things run. Who is important is the AM radio audience, the working stiffs. If it weren’t for those people, the whole thing would just collapse. A lot of them realize the world has been trashed. They don’t like the fact that one more faceless suburb has taken over the area where they played as kids. They know we’re all being suckered. Plus they also love seeing New York getting dismantled—the funny part is that New Yorkers do too.

This stuff really intrigues people. Their denial about global warming is understandable—it’s so frightening. I’m surprised by how few attacks I’ve had. The fact that I don’t preach and don’t screech goes a long way. Journalists are not supposed to be activists.

If you could eliminate one invention—plastic, nuclear fission, the automobile—which would it be?

I’d say the internal combustion engine. It pollutes heavily, and it’s very inefficient. I would like to replace it with something, though. Fuel cells have limitations. How can we produce enough hydrogen cleanly? There are a lot of problems with alternative energy; we believe we’re farther along than we really are.

When people ask me what can we do right now, I say you can do what your grandmother did every day: She did without plastic. She carried a bag to the grocery store. I am pushing in all my talks that everybody goes home and writes to every politician that they will not vote for them unless they promise to introduce a bill making it a criminal act to give out free bags in stores. If they charge for the bag, people would bring it from home. Plastic food packaging is something I would like to see eliminated. It could be done very quickly.

What would happen when, without refrigeration, nuclear reactors around the world melt down?

It would poison much of the earth. Really, we have no idea what it would mean. The cloud of Chernobyl wound around the earth. Multiply that by 440. I just let the facts lie there and let people think about it. Would life be able to deal with it? I have a feeling a lot of life would really get scrambled. Chernobyl is wonderful now; it’s one of the best wildlife refuges in all of Europe. But if you look closely, you can see that something is amiss with these organisms. Would life gradually accommodate higher levels of radiation, or would the effects accumulate over generations so you’d get more problems? We just don’t know. And only one of Chernobyl’s six reactors burned and melted down. So 440 is low. Some nuclear plants have multiple reactors. Chernobyl didn’t have a containment dome, but they go eventually, and they leak.

Is there a recurring misconception about the book?

That I’m a people-hater. I confess I happen to like people a lot. I enjoy being one, I’m married to one, most of my best friends are people. I believe we absolutely deserve to be on this planet, but because of our technological prowess, our existence is all out of proportion to the rest of nature, and that’s going to do us in. We have to control ourselves, or the laws of biology and physics are going to control us for us. There’s going to be a big population crash. Or global warming will turn us into Venus. It will be suicidal on a scale no one has ever seen.

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