Weisman asks the question “What would happen to the earth if people just disappeared?” To answer the question he consults architects, paleobiologists, petrochemists, ornithologists, marine biologists, and Zen Buddhists (along with many others). The short answer to his question is that in most cases the earth would be just fine, until it was eventually consumed by the sun about 5 billion years from now.
Some places would be very troubled for a long time: Parts of Texas would end up a poisonous hell-hole as the holding tanks and pipelines of the petrochemical plants disintegrated and released their toxins into the ground and the air. Ditto for the sites of the world’s 441 nuclear reactors.
But other parts of the world would quickly turn into paradise for the remaining inhabitants, whose populations would rebound quickly. Weisman uses as an example the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no-man’s land 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide which is now home to “wildlife that might otherwise have disappeared. Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, an endangered mountain goat….If everything north and south of Korea’s DMZ were suddenly to become a world without humans as well, they might have a chance to spread, multiply, reclaim their former realm, and flourish.”
Weisman examines earlier mass die-offs like the Permian Extinction, where 95% of all species perished, and more recent ones like the disappearance of the Mayan civilization. He visits places that people have abandoned for political reasons (Varosha, in Cyprus) and environmental reasons (the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) to see first hand what happens to towns that have no people.
A lot of the information in this book is depressing. Here’s one sobering fact: every bit of plastic that has ever been manufactured still exists. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade (okay, I knew that) it just gets ground up into smaller and smaller bits that eventually clog the digestive systems of animals like sea otters and marine birds. It fouls vast areas of the ocean and beaches. In the few days since I read this I have been trying hard to limit how much plastic I discard and I applaud my cafeteria at Grainger Hall at the University of Wisconsin for its move to biodegradable food packaging (made from what? Potato starch? Corn? I forget.)
Despite the pessimistic tone of a lot of this book, Weisman seems philosophical. He quotes extinction expert Doug Erwin, and so will I:
“Humans are going extinct eventually. Everything has, so far. It’s like death: there’s no reason to think we’re any different. But life will continue. It may be microbial life at first. Or centipedes running around. Then life will get better and go on, whether we’re here or not. I figure it’s interesting to be here now,” he says. “I’m not going to get all upset about it.”
Added later: Someone just steered me to this link: www.fakeplasticfish.com which provides tons of suggestions for reducing your plastic consumption.
(Book 4, 2009)