Environmental journalist Alan Weisman’s best seller The World Without Us has refreshed and rekindled ecological debates. Here he speaks with contributing editor Clark Strand about global warming, population control, and what the world might look like when we’re gone.
Alan Weisman is an award-winning environmental journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and Discover, and on National Public Radio; he teaches international journalism at the University of Arizona. His New York Times best seller The World Without Us, called by critics an “eco-thriller” and “one of the grandest thought experiments of our time,” considers the fate of the earth were human beings suddenly to disappear. In August, Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand spoke with Weisman about impermanence, human responsibility, and the initiation into a new way of global thinking.
The World Without Us begins with a brilliant example of what Buddhists call “skillful means.” You ask us to imagine that, for whatever reason, human beings have now become extinct. The problem in writing about the kinds of environmental issues I raise in the book is that they produce so much anxiety. Readers just can’t take them in. So I kill us all off right from the start and that anxiety is effectively gone. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, don’t worry. You can take your time and really look at all this stuff, because we’re already out of the picture now.”
I was reminded of certain classical Buddhist visualizations in which one imagines the death and decay of one’s own body. The result is much the same: You’re left with an awareness that, because it is no longer centered upon, the self is greatly expanded in the kinds of truths it can take in. How much of this did you know already? Certainly a lot of the more subversive, mind-boggling information in the book I discovered in the course of writing it. I mean, I seriously never understood how urgent and dangerous the situation with nuclear waste is. I’d been talking to antinuke people for years, but I never really got a sense of how much waste comes out of our reactors, or the fact that we really have no idea whatsoever what to do with it. So it’s just sitting out there in temporary storage.
And meanwhile we’re just making more and more of it by the minute. Absolutely. And we can’t get rid of it, we can’t hide it, and there’s no safe way to contain it.
But your eyes had been opened from so many years of reporting on events like the meltdown at Chernobyl. Yes. But the truth is, I’d gotten to the point in life where I was getting so jaded by all the environmental coverage I’d done that I sometimes couldn’t imagine going on with it.
But with this book you found a radically new way of thinking about the whole problem and of writing about it. People have described the experience of reading your book as a definitive moment in the development of a collective ecological awareness, like first encountering Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Yes. One interviewer compared it to the first Earth Day, which was inspired by photographs of Earth taken from outer space. For the first time, we got far enough from the Earth that we could turn around and take a photograph of it, and what we saw completely changed our way of looking at the planet. We were mesmerized by how beautiful and utterly unique it was. And that new way of seeing the planet in its totality yanked our consciousness to a whole new level of reverence and of concern. Immediately the environmental movement sprang to life. That same interviewer suggested that The World Without Us gives a similar kind of distance by extracting human beings from the equation, allowing us to think about the planet on its own terms, apart from the innumerable distractions and noise of human life. It’s a way of tearing down the walls that separate us from nature.
You write about tearing down those walls in the chapter “Unbuilding Our Home.” You quote a farmer who said that if you wanted to tear down a barn all you had to do was cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof, then stand back and watch. How’s that for impermanence! Yes. Well, it’s pretty much the same for everything else we have built. They begin to fall apart almost immediately once we’re gone.
You predict that within twenty years or so there would be a river flowing straight down Lexington Avenue through the middle of Manhattan because once the subways flooded, which would happen within a couple of days, it’s just a matter of time before the streets above them begin to cave in. New York City is in many ways the epitome of human civilization. But, again, it’s the same for almost everything else we’ve made.
And yet, life goes on. As I read your book I kept coming back to a modern Buddhist description of Buddha as life itself, or even the “life force” inherent in nature. Does this concept make sense from your point of view? It makes perfect sense. If I were asked to sum up what the book is about, I think I could bring it down to two ideas. The first is that there’s something wonderfully mysterious and comforting in how indomitable life seems to be. Because the very worst stuff can happen—for instance, the Permian extinction, which occurred roughly 250 million years ago, where you have a million years of volcanic eruption through the carboniferous layer of the planet, and possibly an asteroid to boot, and so the planet gets whacked down to where there’s almost nothing moving . . . and then life starts to crawl out of the sea again. Or there’s the most infertile space you could possibly imagine, be it a highly contaminated chemical weapons site or the place where two very cold pieces of steel come together to form the union in a bridge. And given the least opportunity, life springs right out of those cracks. Life does amazing things to fit changing circumstances and survive.
But surely it’s not indestructible. Eventually the sun will explode. Yes. But life may go on even after the earth has been reduced to a cinder, because despite our best attempts at perfect sterilization, microbes are attaching themselves to the crafts we send into outer space, and when those spacecrafts come back to earth they’re still there. And so there are probably some on the Voyager spacecraft we sent out back in the 1970s along with a record of our music and everything else. So, who knows?
So what’s the second idea? The other thing is that, even though the world will go on without us in the event of our extinction, we shouldn’t be too quick to give up on the human race. The whole book is really a way of getting people to imagine, first of all, how amazing the world would be without us, and second, how we might add ourselves back into this equation. We could still be a part of it. But then, there are a lot of things that we should do now in order to make sure that happens.
Like finding renewable, nonpolluting energy sources and putting a halt on the production of nuclear waste? Yes. But basically it’s more urgent than that at this point. We’re dealing with a numbers game here. Every single species out there whose population exceeds the limits of its resources eventually goes extinct, or at any rate finds its population scaled way, way back.
“It gets too big for its box.” That was the way you put it. Well, yes. In other words, we run up against a population crash. And so we have the choice of correcting that trend ourselves or letting nature do it for us—which isn’t going to be pretty, because nature is efficiently and magnificently brutal.