A new book is out: The World Without Us. This isn’t some left-wing or Islamo-fascist book about how much better the world would be without the United States. This is speculative science, and I don’t use the word “speculative” in a negative sense. The book asks the question: “What would happen to the Earth if suddenly, all people were removed?”
There is a serious side to this speculation, and that is the question of the extent of the impact of human activities on the environment. How long will toxic organic chemicals persist in groundwater? How long will it take for plastics to decompose? What will happen to the structures we build if we don’t maintain them?
This doesn’t seem to be a book of the hyper-environmentalist humans-are-a-disease genre. Some on the vocal fringes of the environmental movement view humans as a cancer that is destroying the pristine Earth, and that the planet would be better off without us. The book doesn’t seem to be advocating anything of the sort.
The July 2007 issue of Scientific American has a full-length article on this book, which includes an interview with the book’s author, Alan Weisman. Here are the first two paragraphs from the article:
It’s a common fantasy to imagine that you’re the last person left alive on earth. But what if all human beings were suddenly whisked off the planet? That premise is the starting point for The World without Us, a new book by science writer Alan Weisman, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. In this extended thought experiment, Weisman does not specify exactly what finishes off Homo sapiens; instead he simply assumes the abrupt disappearance of our species and projects the sequence of events that would most likely occur in the years, decades and centuries afterward.
According to Weisman, large parts of our physical infrastructure would begin to crumble almost immediately. Without street cleaners and road crews, our grand boulevards and superhighways would start to crack and buckle in a matter of months. Over the following decades many houses and office buildings would collapse, but some ordinary items would resist decay for an extraordinarily long time. Stainless-steel pots, for example, could last for millennia, especially if they were buried in the weed-covered mounds that used to be our kitchens. And certain common plastics might remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years; they would not break down until microbes evolved the ability to consume them.
Here’s a few items from Weisman’s timeline for Manhattan without Man:
- 2 days — New York City subways flood.
- 7 days — Nuclear power plants melt down or burn.
- 5 years — Much of New York burns.
- 100 years — The steel in skyscrapers corrodes to the point that buildings begin to topple.
- 300 years — New York’s suspension bridges collapse.
- 15,000 years — Last stone buildings fall.
- 10,000,000 years — Only human relics that have survived are bronze sculptures.
Even if you don’t read the Scientific American article, it is worth going to the site for the video and timeline.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)
All the great works of man will eventually turn to dust. Some of the stuff we want to last a long time doesn’t last; and some of the stuff we want to go away quickly is going to be with us for a long, long time.
Grace and Peace