A world without humans

Alan Weisman always planned to be a scientist. Fortuitously, his inability to choose between scientific curiosities led him to a field more befitting one with an interdisciplinary appetite: journalism. In his latest book, “The World Without Us,” Weisman weaves together a patchwork of imaginative journalism, diverse areas of scientific thought, and existential inquiry.The story begins with an invitation to envision a world abruptly bereaved of humans. How would ecosystems attempt to reclaim the equilibrium we disrupted? What can this tell us about our ecological and immemorial sense of place? These questions guide us through Poland’s old growth forests, the underground cities of ancient Cappadocia, and great barrier reefs of the Pacific in an effort to understand the legacy of our ecological footprint.”The World Without Us” is comforting in its sober assessment of the 800-pound gorilla sitting in many environmentalists’ living room – the looming threat of human extinction. Far from a doomsday scenario, his perspective imbues a sense of ease. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, Earth endured the Permian extinction where “95 percent of everything alive on the planet was wiped out. It was actually a good idea. The Paleozoic had been around for nearly 400 million years. It was fine, but it was time to try something new.” Weisman portrays a post-human existence in which nature’s attitude toward us is analogous to that of a child’s solace in the passing of an embittered elderly parent. We will be missed, never forgotten, but with an Earth-sized sigh of relief.Much of the book is devoted to informing the reader of current scientific consensus in evolutionary biology and paleoclimatology. Weisman maintains that fundamental to imagining a posthuman landscape is retracing the steps of our cultural evolution. This experiment in thought lends itself to a holistic approach which Weisman embraces. He hypothesizes that the perpetuity of our culture will be evidenced in the durability of our art forms as well as our consumer waste. Plastic debris, according to one scientific source, “is now the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans.” Weisman, while teetering between conjecture and sound inquiry, offers lasting interstellar proof of our existence in the form of radio waves emanating from Earth and expanding with the universe. “To the limits of our universe and our knowledge, they are immortal, and broadcast images of our world and our times and memory are there with them.”His pages, which read like a traveler’s journal, abound with ostensibly outrageous claims that become increasingly astute the deeper they settle. At times his style is irreconcilable with those of stricter empirical inclinations, but his reporting is thorough and his unorthodox approach is fruitful and worthwhile. While the paper on which his words are written may not survive on a geologic time scale, he makes clear that vestiges of our existence will last “long enough for evolution to provide another audience.”