Alan Weisman — The World Without Us

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you—just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.

While reading Alan Weisman’s fascinating book “The World Without Us,” that scene from The Graduate kept playing in my head. Plastics. It turns out that there is a great, or at the very least, long future for all one billion tons of it as it never really breaks down—pieces just become smaller and smaller and by doing so can be swallowed by organisms at the very bottom of the food chain. Which is bad.

It was frightening to read how quickly plastics have permeated every aspect of our lives (they’ve only been around since the end of World War II), and just how badly we manage what happens to them when we’re done using them. Weisman describes in detail the great wastes of floating plastic that circle the center of each of the world’s oceans.

There was something about growing up in the waning years of the Cold War that left an indelible mark on the collective imagination of my fellow Gen Xers and myself. We are suckers for stories of our own destruction. Maybe it was the sight of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes, or just the constant fear of nuclear destruction, but as kids, I think most of us had spent some time thinking about what would happen to the world once all of us were gone.

That is the chief conceit of Weisman’s book as he looks at all of the things that may benefit from our demise (almost all other species except those that have been domesticated), and all of the things that will simply go to hell without us here to manage them (it turns out that nuclear reactors, refineries, and power plants don’t really run themselves for very long).

As we all learned in science class and/or the Discovery Channel, water is the one unstoppable force on Earth. You can try to dam it, pump it, or redirect it, but whatever you choose to try and force it to do, you’ve created yourself a full time job. Without us around to maintain the infrastructure, it will just be a matter of time before rivers undermine and retake the streets of New York, the delta washes away Houston, and, well we’ve already seen what could happen to New Orleans.

Weisman’s book isn’t all doom and gloom, there are very interesting scientific tidbits scattered throughout that I have not encountered anywhere else. His glimpses of the last remaining piece of the primeval forest that once covered Europe made we want to book a flight to the border of Poland and Belarus.

The human narrative emerging from the Eastern African Rift Valley really points up how we are all really the same, like it or not. For those that will never wrap their minds around that fact, there is the cold comfort that war is actually beneficial for some species, if only by reducing the number of people degrading the environment. The amazing return of several endangered animals to the Korean peninsula’s DMZ echoes an idea by environmentalists from The Rewilding Institute who are committed to developing naturalized corridors crossing each of the continents where wildlife could live, migrate, and hopefully, thrive.

As for humankind, well … we had better get our house in order. To paraphrase Weisman, we choose not to see the biggest elephant in the planet-sized room, although it’s harder and harder to ignore it. Perhaps the last great hope for us is to reduce current population trends before we experience total environmental collapse. It wouldn’t be the first time the Earth has pushed the reset button—and it won’t be the last—it’s just that we are supposed to be the smart ones.

Every four days, the population of our small planet rises by one million people. If things continue at the current rate of projection, we should reach a mind-blowing total of nine billion people by the middle of this century. According to Dr. Sergei Scherbov from the Vienna Institute of Demography/Austrian Academy of Sciences and the World Population Program, if families were limited to having only one child, we would be back down to 19th century levels by 2100.

Seriously, when I see those people on the news who have 16 kids and are just as happy as clams that God has blessed them with yet another, I want to fly out to Buttmunch, Arkansas and punch them in the fucking head. But I digress …

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