- The global lockdown is unprecedented and presents a window of a planet without people, indicating our impacts.
- Science writer Alan Weisman, author of ‘The World Without Us’, a 2007 book that projects events that follow after the sudden disappearance of humans from planet earth, discusses if he believes COVID-19 will bring about the kind of scenarios he imagined in his book, the other threats that confront humanity and the lessons we may learn from the pandemic.
- Weisman draws attention to another threat, that of climate change and the urgent need to control energy use and population growth.
- The virus has taught us that we are a part of nature and it is our responsibility, and in our interest, to live in peace with it, he says.
Science writer Alan Weisman’s morbidly fascinating The World Without Us (2007) projects events that follow after the sudden disappearance of humans from planet earth. First, the physical infrastructure collapses: skyscrapers crumble, tunnels flood, boulevards buckle; predictably the plastics remain — almost — forever. Then, nature begins to revive, dominate – vegetation creeps into the graveyard of cities slowly seeding mature forests; birds thrive, coyotes and bobcats reclaim Manhattan. On the other side of the globe, Africa reverts to a primeval state; as man ceases to hunt, elephant populations are restored, so are hyenas and lions who voraciously predate on cattle wiping them off.
But how do the humans vanish? The book has no clear answers but one probable cause is “a Homo sapiens specific virus – natural or diabolically nano-engineered – [that] picks us off but leaves everything else intact.” Thirteen years after its publication, humans have retreated into their shelters – at least the privileged among us – caged by a virus, affecting millions and destroying economies. Wild animals have not (yet) replaced people on streets, but the air is cleaner in pollution hotspots like Delhi NCR, and the water flows clearer in rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna.
The global lockdown is unprecedented and presents a window of a planet without people, indicating our impacts. Mongaybay-India spoke online with Weisman in his rural Massachusetts home to discuss if he believes COVID-19 will bring about the kind of scenarios he imagined in The World Without Us, the other threats that confront humanity and the lessons we may learn from the pandemic.
The World Without Us is a bold, fantastical premise, what got you started?
As a journalist, mostly writing on the environment, I have travelled to countries where rainforests were being cleared, in Antarctica where I saw the opening of the ozone hole, in the Arctic where signs of melting were glaringly evident. All of these are very dramatic events, and I was keen to write a book about this global environmental crisis. But I wanted a wider audience beyond those who already know, and care, about the environment. As I was grappling with this, Josie Glausiusz, the then editor at Discover magazine called proposing an article along the lines of what would happen to the earth if humanity were to suddenly disappear. The idea came from a 1994 Harper piece I had done on the revival of nature, and the return of wildlife in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site years after it was abandoned. Josie said that if the most contaminated place on earth can be restored to its natural state, maybe there is hope for the world.
At first, the idea seemed outlandish, but then I thought this was the way to do the book, to give a glimpse of the future, and deliver the message in a non-threatening, entertaining manner. Of what nature would do, if our relentless pressure were to stop. The fact that it – our disappearance – is a far-fetched idea is actually useful, as it doesn’t get people into a panic!
Your prophecy of a world – though not yet without us – is playing out in some manner, and due to a virus. Did you believe this would happen?
I am not a prophet, but a journalist, so my writing is based on hard research-reading an enormous amount, talking to many people. The epidemiologists I spoke to said that it was not a question of if we would have a pandemic caused by a human-specific virus, but when. They have happened before in history and will happen again. The likelihood of a pandemic wiping us all out is remote – though theoretically possible. For example, if the AIDS virus were to become airborne, we would be in major trouble.
Did I ever think I would see a world without us? Well, I never thought I would see a pandemic in my lifetime.
Human nature is such that while you might have the awareness – say about climate change – you don’t imagine it will occur, till things hit you in the head. Because we continue with business as usual. Now this coronavirus is making us acknowledge that a pandemic could be really serious. It has got us thinking about how this little virus emerges out of one market in China, and explodes into what we thought was our secure, stable world. The coronavirus is not even very lethal, compared to others like Ebola. Yet, New York is empty, people are dying, entire nations are under lockdown, there is great suffering everywhere, and chaos in many parts of the world.
Do you anticipate such threats in the future? How must we prepare for them, what is the way forward for a less fragile world?
Just as this virus is invisible and deadly, there is this other invisible existential – and deadlier – threat: climate change and the major extinction event that we are perpetrating. One main reason being that there are simply too many Homo sapiens. We add about 84 million people a year, that’s about a million more people every four days, to the planet. We are way beyond this planet’s carrying capacity.
We must do two things now: Use less energy and definitely, absolutely not burn carbon in the atmosphere, various models point out that we are just 10 years to limit the climate change catastrophe. Second, bring our numbers down. And the best way to bring birth rates down is to educate girls, empower them to take decisions, give them equal, fair opportunity, which is anyway incredibly important for a better, just and healthy society.
Unfortunately, economists push for population growth because of the demographic advantage: For economies to grow you need more consumers all the time; and more people mean cheap labour. This is the sad reality.
But aren’t you ignoring the elephant in the room here? It is not only population, but the consumption patterns that are the problem. The United States, for example, consumes far more natural resources than many densely populated countries.
You are absolutely right. The most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States, our consumption is ferocious. We may not be as numerous as China or as India, but our total impact is huge. Having said that, people all over the planet, including in poor and developing countries, have an impact. The more people there are, the more is the consumption. Paul R. Ehrlich the co-author of The Population Bomb once told me that no one has invented a condom for consumption. Everyone will want to consume more given the chance. Humans are entrepreneurial – we use our skills and abilities to better our lives.
The two most consumed products on earth are food and energy. I am aware that there are millions without energy access, including in India, and of course they must have energy. But burning coal, mined in Australia for India’s needs, will solve one problem and lead to another. It is going to remove forests, overheat cities, and lead to extreme weather events like floods in Mumbai or Kerala and elsewhere. We need to look at solutions like decentralised renewables to provide energy access, to not just who don’t have it, but all of us.
Food is the other big consumption. About half the earth not covered by ice or water is devoted to grow or graze for food for our species, and is a key reason for destroying natural habitats, perpetrating this sixth extinction. Biodiversity is critical to our survival, and we know now that we disrupt ecosystems at a great cost, including the easy spread of pandemics. That is how about 75 percent of new infectious diseases in this century emerged. As temperatures rise, deforestation increases, it will likely only become worse.
Do you believe we will learn any lessons from this pandemic, and will this help us redefine our relationship with nature?
I find that people are learning in an unexpected and beautiful way what they have missed. I have been inundated with pictures of clear skies over otherwise polluted cities like Los Angeles and Delhi and Beijing. There is news of wildlife in cities, like mountain lions in Denver (Colorado). With no boat traffic, waters in Venice are clear enough to see fish. People are also ‘seeing’ dolphins, which as we know is not true. The dolphin video is from the Mediterranean; but what is touching is how much people want to believe in those dolphins in the Venetian canals.
There is joy in this connection with nature, and it has set us thinking how beautiful it is to see what happens to nature when we are not pressurising it so much. We can have our world and nature too, basically a world with us more in harmony with nature and not in mortal combat as we seem to be doing now. As I wrote that book, I kept thinking of ways and solutions of how can nature thrive in a world with us.
So you do believe and want a world with us, even if your book title says otherwise!
The World Without Us is not a dystopian book. I wanted readers to see how well the world could heal and restore itself if we are removed from the equation, and then see how we can rebuild our relationship with nature.
Of course, I want a world with us, my best friends are Homo sapiens. Every species contributes to this beautiful place we live, including humans. We create beautiful music. How much poorer this world would be without ragas, or Beethoven. I would no sooner live in a world without poetry, art, music than I would live in a world without trees.
We have done beautiful things, and we should continue to but in order to do that we really have to find a way to exist with the planet, and right now it is not looking very good. The virus has taught us that we are a part of nature and it is our responsibility, and in our interest, to live in peace with it.
The interview was edited and condensed for clarity
Banner image: Alan Weisman. Photo by Jay Dickman.