"I didn't write the book because I want people to go away."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

It is a really cool thought experiment. The science writer Alan Weisman begins his environmental page turner, "The World Without Us," where other books end. Imagine the humans are all gone. Poof! It doesn't matter how to Weisman. Diabolic virus. Radioactive annihilation. The rapture. Now the interesting part: What happens to the Earth, and all our stuff?

-- William Booth

So I assume our pets are toast.

The creatures we have domesticated to the point of dependence would fall prey to predators. Chickens I'm not too confident about. Dogs will eventually lose to competition by coyotes, wolves, other canids. Our cats? You put a cat outside, they start to hunt. Very clever. The cat is here to stay.

You describe, quite chillingly for a homeowner, what happens to our beloved investments. Water intrusion. Unstoppable mold. Our roofs collapse in 50 years. The mortar turns to dust, the chimney folds, pipes burst, woodpeckers attack. In 500 years, Mayberry reverts to temperate forest dotted with fire hydrants.

While you're alive, you're constantly maintaining. If you stop, when something gets wet, then more wetness follows. Wet follows wet. The subtext is maintenance and the maintenance people. Civilization would crumble without these folks.

So the only thing left after a couple of centuries is the bathroom tile, which I've been meaning to replace.

Ceramics are very hardy substances. They'll outlast almost everything else that humans have made.

The wolf, the bear, the lion will roam Manhattan again, but the Earth will not return to a pristine, pre-human state, you write. Do we leave a trace?

Just as birds move seeds across the landscape, so we've become birds with our jet planes. Some native plants will out-compete species we've introduced. Others are here to stay. But it's much more important to have a functioning ecosystem. Long after this is all a wilderness again, there will be little signs that something was here before. I don't mind that. Nature has gone through worse stuff before.

Worse than us?

Take the Permian extinction, when 90 percent of all life forms on the planet disappeared. It was incredible, but what crawled out of the sea became the dinosaurs and a lush tropical paradise. Then an asteroid hit. And then the mammals take a turn, and that's where we are now.

You mentioned a review by the novelist Louise Erdrich, who called your book "the most harrowing and, oddly, comforting book on the environment that I've read in many years."

I don't want to minimize how much disruption we are causing. But I'm comforted by the fact that life is so resilient. I didn't write the book because I want people to go away. We've created so much beauty. My hope is that if people imagine the planet without us, then our longing would be to stick around and be a part of this and to find a better balance.

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