Unleashing nature’s terror

Sidewalks strangled by weeds; bloodsucking mosquitoes everywhere; the Mona Lisa turned to soggy pulp. Greens, take note: this is what the world would look like without the guiding hand of human rationality.

Josie Appleton

Topics Books

When children make a bad mistake, they sometimes revert to the plaintive cry: ‘Everybody would be better off without me! I wish I wasn’t born!’ Adults then sit them down and say, ‘It’s not so bad, you can sort it out’, and they talk it through, and show them that they don’t actually mean what they say.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

Environmentalism is a similarly plaintive cry: ‘We just mess everything up! The Earth would be better off without us!’ And here, too, there is a need for adult voices, to ask what these words really mean, and to show that the people who use them probably do not mean what they say, either.

The World Without Us is a good contribution here. At a time when it has become commonplace to say that the planet would be better off without humans, American journalist Alan Weisman carries out an intriguing thought experiment: so what would the planet be like without us? If humans suddenly disappeared – say through mass evacuation or a species-specific virus – how would the planet fare? What would natural Eden look like? He travelled the world and spoke to canal operators, nuclear power plant managers, zoologists, botanists, wildlife park officials, and asked them: ‘What would all this be like without us?’

When he started the project, he thought that humans disappearing would probably be a good idea. Apparently, four out of five people he spoke to thought the same thing (1). But as he started to flesh out the implications of this idea, he started to become more ambivalent. ‘Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?’ Once a dinner-party opinion is made the subject of a genuine thought experiment, things start to look more complicated.

If human history was once told as an upward march – one tool leading to another, one gain in art and culture leading to the next – now history is often told purely from the negative side, as a series of strikes on pristine nature. The invention of the spear is told as a tragedy for the woolly mammoth and giant sloth; the invention of agriculture as a sullying of virgin forest (one of Weisman’s interviewees, the botanist Oliver Rackman, ‘laments’ the arrival of agriculture to the British Isles some 6,500 years ago).

Today our salvation is supposed to lie in reducing ‘human impact’, allowing nature to ‘recover’. Weisman talks about the disappearance of humans as a kind of ‘decontamination’, a return to a ‘former equilibrium’. The noxious substances we have produced would be removed bit by bit, with the lowering of CO2 levels, the leaching of fertilisers from the soil, the disappearance of atmospheric toxins. Nature would come to life again, with the return of forests and elephants. One ecologist Weisman speaks to finds solace in the thought that ‘if the planet can recover from the Permian, it can recover from the human’.

‘Recover from the human’ – that is an easy thing to say, and it sounds very grand. Let’s see what it looks like.

When nature decides

Weisman starts with the home. ‘When the heat went off, pipes burst if you live where it freezes, and rain is blowing in where windows have cracked from bird collisions and the stress of sagging walls…. As the wood continues to rot, trusses start to collapse against each other.’ Squirrels, racoons and lizards root out nests in the house walls, and woodpeckers peck in from the outside. Brambles and grapevines are snaking around steel pipes. The walls start to fall in on each other and the roof collapses. All that remains unscathed is the bathroom tiles, though they now lie in ‘a pile mixed with leaf litter’.

Then he moves on to New York. ‘As pavement separates, weeds like mustard, shamrock and goosegrass blow in from Central Park and work their way down the new cracks, which widen further.’ The subways would fill up in the first storm. The New York skyline, which has risen bit by bit over the past two centuries, is brought back down surprisingly rapidly. ‘Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate.’ Natural processes go to work. ‘[R]oof fires leap among buildings, entering panelled offices filled with paper fuel…. Rain and snow blow in, and soon even poured concrete floors are freezing, thawing, and starting to buckle.’

When houses and skyscrapers fall apart in the wind and the rain, is it destruction or is it re-establishing balance? Were those human creations, or were they noxious ‘human impact’? Making melodramatic statements is one thing, but once you play out their consequences it is not so straightforward.

Nature now is often thought of as a wise force, with a master plan for the planet that we are messing up. ‘Nature knows best’, people say. ‘It’s what nature wants.’ But what is striking from Weisman’s account is the randomness of natural forces; we would see the die of evolution, wind and rain deciding what comes after us. The species that would benefit from our demise would be a motley bunch, including trees, elephants and mosquitoes. On the upside, headlice and cockroaches would perish without their human hosts; on the downside, so would millions of dogs and farm animals. Many bird species would not care either way, since they are relatively independent of homo sapiens sapiens. We would leave a gaping ecological niche for subsequent evolution, which could be a spur to baboons (would they make the same mistakes as us?) or new species of large mammals (would the mammoth return?).

The blind forces of decomposition would decide which human works survive and which perish. As the New York Metropolitan Museum falls apart, the ceramics and bronze would do fine, but the paintings and textiles would be consumed by mould and end up as a soggy pulp. The question of whether something lasts depends not on its interest or value, but on the stability of the atoms that make it up. Small pieces of plastic waste in the sea are very stable and would be a long-standing human legacy, but the Mona Lisa would go in a flash. The Statue of Liberty would survive (although covered in barnacles at the bottom of the sea) and – since radio waves are immune to microbial action – episodes of The Archers will continue emanating through space for all time.

People are often attracted to the idea of nature determining events. They think that things would be better decided by the time-tested mechanisms of natural selection, not the fickleness and vanity of rational selection. Nature’s unconscious necessity appears as indisputable and incorruptible. As one first-wave environmentalist author writes of nature: ‘Her innocence (in the etymological sense of “not noxious”) may derive from the fact that she acts not from choice but from inherent need.’ (2) The fact that we can choose how to change nature is seen as a license to choose wrongly, and it would be preferable if ‘nature decides’.

Yet look at how this plays out: it’s a complete mess! The toilet bowl in the Metropolitan Museum will last for longer than the artworks; interesting species will go extinct; managed national parks such as the Lake District in England will go to seed. Unmanned nuclear power plants will start overheating and exploding; fires will rage with nobody to put them out. There will be nobody to decide. We think that removing human decision means removing the ability to be wrong – but it also means removing the ability to be right.

Examining ‘human impact’

It is all very well lamenting ‘human impact’, but if we look at what was involved in those human activities then the picture again becomes more complicated. This world has taken a lot of work to build and maintain, and other people’s efforts cannot be written off so easily. Weisman interviews the men who struggle to keep the New York subway dry every time it rains, fighting a battle against the water in order that people can get home that night. He talks to the hydrologists who maintain the dams for the Panama canal, trying to ‘stay ahead of nature’ where dams overgrow rapidly and water levels must be managed with precision to stop them bursting through. The canal cost the lives of 22,000 French workers and, after the French gave up, the sweat of many American engineers; it would all go if there were no humans to maintain it.

Ecologists may say they regret that homo sapiens ever traversed the globe, killing large mammals and torching forests, but let us think about what it actually meant to do these things. Some 40,000 years ago, bands of people made the trip to Australia from the Asian mainland, in little more than simple canoes or rafts. By 1200AD, says the US biologist Jared Diamond, humans ‘had reached every habitable scrap of land in the vast watery triangle of ocean’ that is the Pacific, sailing against the wind and current in leaky canoes, carrying crops and animals with them (3). Imagine those who set sail into the horizon for the first time, not knowing if they would fall off the edge of the world or sail on forever, or get lost and drown.

Or, indeed, think of the leaps of imagination that went into modifying the spear shaft, so that a few puny human arms could bring down several tonnes of mammoth. After the development of agriculture, we no longer gathered fruits and grains like birds, but instead – in Weisman’s phrase – ‘choreographed their existence’.

Agriculture was like a lightning bolt through human consciousness. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade explains the significance of agriculture for man: ‘Plant life and the sacred forces of the plant world are no longer something outside him; he takes part by using and fostering them.’ (4) As well as laying the basis for cities and trade, agriculture meant that we could understand something of our own bodily reproduction. Eliade notes that only through generating plants did humans first understand that we ourselves were generated; before agriculture, people tended to think that children came from springs or vegetation.

Each major practical innovation sent a comparable bolt through our sense of who and what we are. We can be blasé about human development only if we represent it in caricature, and do not think about what events meant at the time, or how they are knitted into our lives today.

The consumerist romance with nature

If we trace the origins of today’s romanticisation of nature, we find that it is deeply embroiled with the modern consumerist economy. The lamenting of our impact on nature, and all the talk of natural balance, comes from the decadence and detachment of a modern consumerist society. This is the worldview of the consumer, who merely receives objects, and does not create.

The more a person lives through consumption, the more do they dismiss products and romanticise nature – hence all those Live Earth millionaires and billionaires. This is partly from dissatisfaction with a life of shopping; more substantially, it comes from not knowing what it took to get something on your plate. You press a switch and the light or the heating goes on, but you never see the work that went into making something happen. Not realising what it took to make something, or do something, people can toss the results aside as meaningless and shallow. So can the efforts of hunters, farmers and labourers be summed up as mere destruction of pristine balance.

When people look into the origins of products, they do so anxiously and obsessively, seeing not the process of creation but only a trail of destruction. Books with titles like ‘how the food ended up on your plate’ trace tropical fruit to noxious fertilisers and air-freighting; clothes, meanwhile, are traced to sweatshop labour and environmental degradation. That is not to say that making things is always pretty, or entirely rational, but it is always the result of creativity as well as damage. The obsessive calculating of every negative impact is a nightmare vision of production, founded on our sense of detachment from the product in our hands.

As an absolution for our impact, there is an attempt to live and shop in harmony with nature. In the green economy, people seem to want to eat their cake, but not to have eaten it really. The aim is to ensure that consumption choices have no impact, and therefore that we can be absolved of any consequences. The guarantees are laid on top of one another: this product is organic, low-carbon, carbon-offset, GM-free, fair trade, non-animal tested, from renewable forests, with recycled packaging, from local producers. This product came as if from nowhere, from nothing. It is clean, perhaps brought into the shop on the wind or the tide. (In reality, a lot of work goes into making things appear ‘natural’, which must be why organic seed mixes cost £4 for a small pot.)

The desire for a harmonious relationship with nature is a very old one, and this has involved rather more than taking ‘bags for life’ to the supermarket. Many societies had their version of the Garden of Eden myth, a past time when man was one with nature and life was without struggle. It was usually some act of human hubris or folly that destroyed the fragile balance – Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, or Adam eating the apple – after which life was a source of conflict and trial.

Yet there is something those old myths can tell us: the desire for Eden was at base a childish wish for a life without difficulty or mistakes. As humanity grew up, the Fall from Eden started to be told not as a terrible mistake, but as a necessary stage in human development. As Adam defies God and is expelled from the garden, we see him become a man. He becomes conscious of his own existence for the first time (‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’). Humans could now act from their own will, for better or for worse (God says: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.’)

How ironic that now, centuries later, some are scuttling back to Eden, this time from the comfort of their Toyota Prius. By looking at how nature without us actually plays out, The World Without Us provides a kind of reality check for a decadent consumerist society: a society estranged both from nature and the people who work on it.

Escaping the troubles of existence

The book is also something of a reality check for that other long-running escapist fantasy – of non-existence. Oh, many have cried, to be free of this world of trial and torment! To have never been born, or to die, or to have been born somewhere different or as someone different. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod laments his misfortune to have come to life among a race in decline: ‘If only then I did not have to live among the fifth men, but could have either died first or been born afterwards!’ (5)

The desire for oblivion has been a common response to misfortune or difficulty. Shelley got so dejected near Naples one time that he penned the lines: ‘I could lie down like a tired child, And weep away the life of care, Which I have borne, and Yet must bear, Till death like sleep might steal on me….’ (6) This is self-indulgence, but at least Shelley only implicated himself in it: how much more conceited to wax lyrical about the extinction of the whole human race.

The idea that the world would be better without us is not a fringe view promoted by sick and twisted eugenicists. The prospect of human non-existence can be discussed nonchalantly at dinner parties. It can be part of one’s opinions on life, sitting alongside your views on Tibet, say, or the death of Diana.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is a cheerful and respectable organisation, which produces t-shirts and stickers, and hosts tables at environmentalist conferences. Weisman speaks to its head, Les Knight, whom he pronounces ‘thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate, and quite serious’. Knight calls on people not to have children and so not contribute to the further suffering of the planet or humanity. This isn’t so much anti-human ranting as indifference to the human fate; a calm, resigned sense that we have messed up and there is nothing more we can do. We have ‘ravaged’ the planet and are responsible for the ‘callous exploitation and wholesale destruction of Earth’s ecology’ (7), so it is better that we bowed out.

There is also a sense that our problems are insoluble and just too much to bear. Knight tells Weisman that the final years of humanity would be the best ever: there would be no juvenile delinquency (‘by definition’), and wars and resource conflicts would end. The proposed answer to human tribulations appears as an end to humans.

Will anyone know we were here?

Perhaps that is why four out of five people Weisman spoke to thought humanity disappearing was not a bad idea. Yet when you spell it out, the prospect of humans not being around is absolutely terrifying. As The World Without Us progresses, Weisman seems to draw back a bit from his own experiment. He stops talking so much about what nature would make of us, and starts bringing in imagined intelligent beings who might one day come across the traces of our civilisations.

He wonders on the fate of an oil rig, and whether in millions of years ‘someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognise the signal of stainless steel’. He asks how a ‘future archaeologist’ will understand us; or whether there will be ‘visitors who arrive sometime in the next 35,000 years’ who will figure out the origin of atmospheric lead.

The judgement of micro-organisms would be an inadequate end to it all. Weisman seems to want for human efforts to be understood, rather than just broken down into their component elements – for somebody or something to act as a ‘witness to the fact that, once, we were here’. Will human life have left something meaningful behind, even after the sun expands and ‘roasts the Earth to a cinder’ (which, after all, is the solar system’s long-term master-plan for planet Earth)? Have we ‘left some faint, enduring mark on the universe; some lasting glow, or echo, of Earthly humanity…?’

Woodpeckers might eat our houses, but only another conscious being would be able to act as our ‘witness’, and recognise some ‘faint, enduing mark’ that we had left. This is a wish that other intelligent beings could understand us, or even learn from us and do things better than we were able to. So rather than Weisman’s thought experiment ending with nature taking over, he invokes an imaginary new race of human-like beings, as our companions, biographers, judges and heirs. A world really without us would be too damn lonely.

Weisman’s solution for the planet

Weisman does not have a thesis as such, and can see things from different sides. He is concerned about environmental damage, which is why he started writing the book in the first place. He also can admire and feel sympathy for human ingenuity and effort, for those who set sail, ploughed ground or sculpted tools. So he tells the closing of the Panama canal as both a loss and a gain, as the destruction of people’s works, but also the liberation of a river and the reuniting of a continent. And he tells the development of scientific agriculture as both a series of creative and persistent experiments, and also as the accumulation of toxic materials in the soil.

The dull note in the book comes when he tries to resolve his dilemmas in the conclusion. One suggestion in the Coda is that we limit each woman to bearing one child, and so reducing humanity to ‘far-more-manageable’ numbers. No doubt this seems like a good compromise, a way of limiting environmental damage while holding back from the final solution of human extinction. It is also a cop-out, a global version of the Chinese state’s one-child policy. There is no reason why 1.6billion people will act any wiser than the current 6.6billion – and indeed, more people could mean more creative solutions just as it could mean more damage. It would depend on the people.

Weisman’s final thought is that we could continue on in radio waves, which ‘don’t die – like light, they travel on’, and in the electromagnetic emanations from our brains. These could continue into space, and perhaps ‘eventually find their way back here’: ‘we, or our memories, might surf home aboard a cosmic electromagnetic wave…’. This is something like the hope of post-humanists, who believe that our salvation can only come in taking some other form. Perhaps Weisman’s idea is that consciousness, freed of our bodies that must consume nature to live, will no longer do any damage. The light and reason of humanity could continue, and nature could be left to flourish.

This is as vain a hope as the environmentalists’ ‘harmony with nature’ – well, vainer perhaps, and getting on for a bit cuckoo. Humans are both mind and body, thought and action, God and beast, and that leads to a tension at the heart of existence that has been a torment for philosophers and poets alike. But each aspect of us shorn of the other is nothing, reduced either to a lump of flesh or to an impotent idea. We are spiritual beings, but that spirit is realised in the fact that we make things happen. A legacy aboard a cosmic electromagnetic wave might seem safe from the possibility of environmental pollution, but it would be no less meaningless for that.

Still, the book’s somewhat dud ending does not spoil the journey. The main thing is that Weisman asks questions. Need we have evolved? Could it happen again? How would this corrode? How would that? Would art remain? And what would happen then? Questions and questions, sometimes whole paragraphs filled with questions that he does not always answer. This is refreshing, because so many books about the environment now are lists of opinions…opinions and opinions, which are never followed through or measured against experience. Weisman is 60; many greens are world-weary know-it-alls by their twenties and thirties.

Green fairytales and other stories

The problem is not that environmentalism is negative about human history: we couldn’t tell history as a trouble-free upward march, since that would be a myth, too. The problem is that green thinking is entirely detached from the dilemmas and realities of life. It is a fantasyland, with a whole set of assumptions about human existence and nature that do not relate to experience. It is a system of belief that – like myths of old, or like fairytales – is primarily a form of comfort and solace. The role of these ideas is to provide a consoling escape, rather than to help us understand our predicament.

It is for this reason that they can seem to exist almost in a parallel universe. Increasingly, we seem to live and think in different worlds: in one world, we have children and go to work and build lives, and in another world we talk about leaving nature to re-establish harmony. Somebody might well discuss harmony with nature from the tenth floor of a Manhattan apartment block; you can talk about human extinction and then pick your kids up from school. ‘Nature’ here is not a real thing, or a real relationship, but instead is a soothing balm – including things such as waterfalls, children playing in the waves, and an idea of some final resolution. In this place of nature all dilemmas are resolved, all conflicts suspended.

Environmentalism is not a form of knowledge, or even a form of political interests, but is primarily a form of escape. It is a way of joining up the dots and promising a resolution, only this time not in heaven but in the realm of nature. Like the Christians who geared their lives around the hereafter, so does this fantasy narrative blur our eyes, and ultimately prevent us from acting wisely in the here and now.

Which is why we could use more thought experiments such as Weisman’s. What would the world be like without us? It is a good question. The more questions we ask, the better our chance of growing beyond the self-imposed childishness of green thinking. And the better our chance of making more sense of our existence on this planet – and deciding what to do with it.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-humanist campaigning network. Email her at {encode=”” title=””}.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is published by Virgin Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA))

(1) After we are gone, Jerry Adler, Newsweek, 14 July 2007

(2) Rape of the Wild, Andree Collard, Women’s Press, 1988

(3) Collapse, Jared Diamond, Penguin, 2005: p87

(4) Patterns In Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade, Sheed and Ward, 1958: p331

(5) Hesiod – Theogany, Works and Days, Testimonia, Harvard University Press, 2006

(6) Stanzas written in dejection near Naples, PB Shelley

(7) See the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement website

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