What if hu­man­ity van­ished in 2008?

Roy Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The World With­out Us By Alan Weisman Vir­gin Books, 324pp, $ 27.95

FOR a book that imag­ines the end of the hu­man species, The World With­out Us is a re­mark­ably en­joy­able read. US jour­nal­ist Alan Weisman serves up a lus­cious smor­gas­bord of facts and spec­u­la­tion about the Earth. The eco­log­i­cal mes­sage is deeply se­ri­ous, but Weisman’s tone is light and his prose is gor­geous.

He asks us to imag­ine ‘‘ a world from which we all sud­denly van­ished’’, but not as a re­sult of a plan­e­tary catas­tro­phe such as nu­clear holo­caust or an as­ter­oid col­li­sion. The Earth would be left just as it is to­day. The only dif­fer­ence is that hu­mans would no longer be here to ex­er­cise do­min­ion over it.

Such a dooms­day sce­nario may not be far­fetched. One pos­si­bil­ity is plague: as Weisman points out, if AIDs or a strain of the deadly Ebola virus be­came air­borne, peo­ple might well be de­fence­less.

Like­lier, how­ever, is that hubris and tech­nol­ogy could bring us down. There are sev­eral prece­dents. In the 8th cen­tury, the high Mayan civil­i­sa­tion of cen­tral Amer­ica van­ished sud­denly af­ter 1600 years of peace­ful and flour­ish­ing co­ex­is­tence, ‘‘ de­voured by their own greed’’, as he puts it. One ex­pert quoted by Weisman ob­serves: ‘‘ The bal­ance be­tween ecol­ogy and so­ci­ety is exquisitely del­i­cate. If some­thing throws that off, it can all end.’’

So, if it all ended in 2008, what would be the hu­man legacy? What would be our record?

On the cri­te­ria of de­struc­tive short- term in­flu­ence on the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, we would score highly. Once Homo sapi­ens ven­tured be­yond Africa and Asia about 50,000 years ago, ‘‘ all hell broke loose’’. The key turn­ing point may have been the in­ven­tion of agri­cul­ture, about 11,000 years ago in the Mid­dle East.

There are now but a few places on Earth that re­main en­tirely pris­tine. Weisman de­scribes the Gombe Stream in Tan­za­nia and the Cham­bura Gorge in Uganda, rem­nants of the re­gion from which our species first emerged. Oth­ers are King­man Reef near Christ­mas Is­land, and the Bialowieza Puszcza on the border of Poland and Be­larus, a sliver of the orig­i­nal for­est that once cov­ered the whole of Europe.

Th­ese glimpses into the past high­light the dire con­se­quences for flora and fauna of our short ter­res­trial reign. As re­cently as 6000 years ago, the Sa­hara Desert was ver­dant grass­land and the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent was home to many more species of megafauna ( ele­phants, hip­pos and the like) than Africa is to­day. Weisman pro­vides many other star­tling ex­am­ples of our hand­i­work.

Each year, we cause the death of many bil­lions of birds ( they fly into tow­ers, power lines, cars and glass win­dows) and 100 mil­lion sharks. Sharks kill about 15 peo­ple a year.

Per­haps most as­tound­ingly, hu­mans are re­spon­si­ble for a dense float­ing garbage patch in the north Pa­cific ocean cov­er­ing 26 mil­lion sq km: a ghastly gyre of ‘‘ cups, bot­tle caps, tan­gles of fish net­ting and monofil­a­ment line, bits of polystyrene pack­ag­ing, six- pack rings, spent bal­loons, filmy scraps of sand­wich wrap, and limp plas­tic bags that ( defy) count­ing’’. There are six oth­ers not much smaller.

Our im­pact, then, has been con­sid­er­able. How long af­ter our demise would it take for na­ture to fight back?

In many re­spects, Weisman sug­gests, not long at all. Within weeks, he says, our towns and cities would be­gin slowly to dis­in­te­grate as rains fall, fires burn and veg­e­ta­tion sprouts from ev­ery cranny. Within decades, most tun­nels and sub­ways would be flooded and roads over­grown; some bridges and build­ings would crum­ble and col­lapse. The Panama Canal — in Weisman’s opin­ion, ‘‘ the most stun­ning en­gi­neer­ing feat in hu­man his­tory’’ — would close within 20 years, re­unit­ing the Amer­i­cas.

Nat­u­ral ecosys­tems would re­gen­er­ate. As Weisman shows, there are small- scale mod­ern prece­dents: the de­mil­i­tarised zone on the border of North and South Korea, un­in­hab­ited since 1953, and the Varosha re­sort area in Cyprus, aban­doned to civil war in 1974, have been re­claimed by na­ture with amaz­ing ra­pid­ity.

Some of our nas­tier by- prod­ucts would en­dure, how­ever: bil­lions of rub­ber car tyres, feral cats, open- cut coalmines, trans­planted Aus­tralian eu­ca­lypt trees and plas­tic prod­ucts of all kinds, with which ‘‘ or­gan­isms will be deal­ing in­def­i­nitely’’. We would also be­queath huge quan­ti­ties of lead and car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere and the soil.

Ac­cord­ing to Weisman, per­haps the two gravest en­vi­ron­men­tal dan­gers would be those posed by un­manned petro­chem­i­cal plants in the Mid­dle East and Texas, and by the 441 nu­clear power sta­tions dot­ted across the globe. Left un­tended, the for­mer will erupt one day in colos­sal firestorms; the lat­ter house large amounts of toxic waste that is stored in wa­ter tanks. Even­tu­ally those deadly sub­stances will be ex­posed to the air and the ra­dioac­tiv­ity that is re­leased will ‘‘ last into ge­o­log­i­cal time’’.

The­o­log­i­cal ques­tions aside, will hu­mans leave any worth­while lega­cies? Things that will sur­vive the rav­ages of time and na­ture and that, in the far dis­tant fu­ture, may be of in­ter­est to other sen­tient be­ings?

Weisman sug­gests a few: ce­ramic art and bronze sculp­ture; the pres­i­den­tial stat­ues carved in gran­ite on Mt Rush­more in South Dakota; cer­tain un­der­ground and un­der­sea struc­tures, such as the Moscow and Ankara sub­ways and the $ 21 bil­lion Folkestone to Calais ‘‘ Chun­nel’’, which may last mil­lions of years. But we will leave only one im­mor­tal sign, the ra­dio mes­sages that have been beamed into outer space. Roy Wil­liams is a Syd­ney writer. His first book, God, Ac­tu­ally, was pub­lished this month.

Hu­man hot spot: In 6000 years the Sa­hara has been trans­formed from ver­dant grass­land into desert

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