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With People out of the Picture, Alan Weisman Gets Creative

"Let us try a creative experiment," Alan Weisman proposes on page three of The World without Us: If humans disappeared from earth, what would happen? To your home, for example — how long before water damage, the sun, or hungry critters start breaking it down? How long before the roof collapses? And what would happen to our cities, farms, and oceans? To the animals that remain? Or the billion tons of plastic we'd leave behind?

Alan Weisman Weisman takes readers from the edge of the universe to the middle of the ocean; from the alpine moors of Kenya — "giant heather rises 60 feet here, dripping curtains of lichen" — to an underground city in central Turkey, eighteen stories down, with room enough to house 30,000 people. Paleontologists tell the author about once-mighty ground sloths and armadillos the size of Volkswagens. Chemists project forward through ice ages, plotting the half-lives of our nuclear waste.

The book is rich with mind-boggling detail.

Any vehicles and machinery that worked [at Chernobyl] on the cleanup, such as the giant cranes towering over the sarcophagus, are too radioactive to leave [the 10-kilometer radius around ground zero]. Yet skylarks perch on their hot steel arms, singing.

To dig [the Panama Canal] required the labor of 6,000 men every day for seven years.

Les Knight, the founder of VHEMT — the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement — is thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate, and quite serious. Unlike more-strident proponents of human expulsion from an aggrieved planet — such as the Church of Euthanasia, with its four pillars of abortion, suicide, sodomy, and cannibalism, and a Web site guide to butchering a human carcass that includes a recipe for barbeque sauce — Knight takes no misanthropic joy in anyone's war, illness, or suffering.

A week after publication, Weisman discussed the view from our moon, Al Gore's environmental training, Manhattan's once and future rivers, and more.

Dave: The World without Us has been in stores for just a week, but already it's generating a lot of conversation.

Alan Weisman: I find myself being cautiously optimistic. I almost killed myself writing the damn thing.

This was a passion and obsession for me. I've written so much about the environment, and I've gone to so many places around the world to see what's happening, from Chernobyl to the ozone hole in Antarctica; I've written about the most biodiverse spots on earth in Colombia and how they're being ripped apart by guerrilla warfare and coca eradication and coca farming. You begin to realize that there's a connection among all these things. A common thread is the way human beings use and demand resources, and how our reach has extended farther and farther as we've become more technologically adept.

I have wanted for a long time not to just write about it piecemeal but to put everything together so readers can see the connections. But writing about the environment has become more and more difficult. It's overwhelming. It depresses people. It's scary. Some of our finest science and nature writers only get read by people who already agree with them. It's nice to get some affirmation for whatever it is you believe is true, even if it's quite sobering, but I wanted to write something that people would read, and read all the way through, without minimizing the significance of what's going on, nor trivializing it, nor oversimplifying it. I hoped that people would be entertained by it, or at least captivated.

We have to stand back from the planet the way we did when the first Earth Day took place. Someone pointed out to me the other day: We had to go to the moon and take a picture to realize, Oh. It gave us the distance to see how utterly lovely this planet is, and how unique, at least in our corner of the universe.

What I've tried to do is something like that, I suppose. It's hard to see the planet when we're surrounded by our own stuff — the very walls around us, all the distractions in our lives, the computers and TV screens constantly luring us away, everything.

Dave: So to strip away those distractions, you removed the people. We're not around to distract ourselves.

Weisman: Posing a fantasy in which humans suddenly disappear immediately accomplishes two things: One, it eliminates the fear factor. Instead of facing some sobering reality about this is what's going on and probably we're all going to die if it doesn't get any better, we don't worry about that because we're already dead; I've killed everybody off by the second page of the book. Also, people know that we're in a fantasy, so they get to sit back and see what happens next.

It gives us a chance to see what else is here, to see how nature would respond and react if it didn't have our daily pressures to deal with, how it might expand and grow, and how it would deal with stuff we have set in motion that would not immediately vanish after we did, such as the carbon loading of the atmosphere or the toxic stuff we have sealed up in containers. Nature would have a lot to contend with, but nature has shown us that it's resilient.

I found out very quickly that what really intrigued people was not just how nature would flourish but how it would go about occupying our spaces. How would it, or could it, dismantle everything we've created? Could it wipe out all our traces?

Early in the book, I start with our houses. We're already fighting that battle, trying to get rid of nature. We're trying to keep water out. We're trying to keep insects out, mice, and mold. The architects I interviewed for this really got into, How would nature undo everything I do? That raised all sorts of fascinating discussions about the materials we use now compared to the materials we used in the past.

Dave: And from our houses you expand to our cities.

Weisman: I chose the most recognizable city on earth, New York. Everyone has either been to Manhattan or seen it in the movies. They know how formidable it is, all these concrete spikes sticking up out of the ground. Could nature turn it back into a forest? That was how Henry Hudson first saw it.

It turns out that, yes, there are vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. One of the unintended consequences of this book for me was the immense respect I gained for the people who maintain our cities, our subways, our bridges, our nuclear plants, our everything. If they weren't there, stuff would start to fall apart so quickly, and some of it could be downright dangerous. Certainly our nuclear plants.

Manhattan was a hilly island until we smashed it down and covered up all the rivers. There used to be something like fourteen streams that ran between the hills on the island; we forced all that water underground, and now the subway engineers have to contend with it every day. They're constantly pumping water away. If those engineers were gone, not minding the pumps, or if everybody was gone and there was no power going to the pumps — because the power plants would shut off pretty quickly — subways would flood. Steel columns that hold up the street would corrode and buckle within a couple decades. Streets would cave in, and eventually the streets would turn into rivers. A whole cascade of events takes place.

Dave: Korea's demilitarized zone and Varosha in Cyprus give you working models for what might happen if people were to disappear.

Weisman: It's ironic that war can be one of the best things for the environment.

As a reporter, I had been to the Mosquito Coast in Nicaragua within days of the end of the Contra War. Pine stands along the Coco River and the Caribbean Coast, which had been over-harvested, a lot of them had bounced back. Same thing with the shrimp and the lobster beds. It was heartening.

In the book, I mention Nicaragua in passing but I linger over the Korea's demilitarized zone, which has become possibly the most important nature preserve in Asia, a thin strip where for more than fifty years now some of the most magnificent and endangered species in all of the continent have found refuge. One of them, the Red-Crowned Crane, is an animal of both ecological and mystical importance. You see it in Japanese paintings. It's the Korean national bird. Next to the Whooping Crane, it's the most endangered.

Standing at the DMZ, you always have to be at some bunker. There are guns pointed across and guns pointed back, and you can see the propaganda going back and forth — it's only two and a half miles wide — two of the biggest armies on earth just seething at each other. And in the midst of these hostilities, these cranes waft in. Most of their bodies are pure white; it's like innocence falling down into the middle of human mayhem. They light down — they're light enough that they don't touch off land mines — and most of them winter there.

If it weren't for this perpetual state of war, they might not have a place to winter. A whole lot of developers, and a whole North Korean government, would love to go in there, sweep away the mines, put in industrial parks, more suburbs for Seoul, build workers' villages... It's them versus a group of international scientists, many Koreans, plus people like Dr. E. O. Wilson, who would like to turn the DMZ into an international peace park. That would accrue a tremendous amount of great public relations for both Koreas, it would give them something wonderful to unite over, and it would preserve some species like the Amur Leopard and the Red-Crowned Crane that we might otherwise lose.

Dave: The buildings in Varosha, in the demilitarized zone of Cyprus, were new when war broke out. They're not holding up very well.

Weisman: You would think modern architecture should be the last to go, but in fact we build much more cheaply now than we used to.

Varosha was a seaside resort, a seaside Riviera. It looked like the Acapulcos and Miamis and Cannes of the world, all these hotels with balconies facing the sea. It was built by Greek Cypriot money in the early seventies, and then the war broke out. When the truce was signed, wherever the troops happened to be standing, that's where the line fell, so it's kind of a zigzaggy thing.

Varosha ended up on the Turkish side of the line. Well, the Turkish Cypriots were shrewd enough to not let people just go in there and live. They realized this would be a valuable bargaining chip when the island finally sat down for real reunification talks, so they put barbed wire up to keep people out.

Thirty-three years have passed. It's still a state of war there, only under truce. There have been no talks. The barbed wire remains. Only a few people have been inside. I was able to interview a few of them, and I got into a few places where I could glimpse parts of it, but what is very well known and what you can see is that those buildings are gone. A lot of them are still standing, but they're in horrible shape. Trees, including introduced ornamentals like philodendrons and even gardenias, are growing right out of the rooftops. Animals have colonized them: rats, pigeons. The beach is well occupied now by sea turtles, which is really kind of lovely to see. Hotel lobbies are filled with sand dunes.

I'm told by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots that nothing is salvageable there anymore. The concrete facing has burst off a lot of buildings. The concrete itself that they're made of, in a lot of cases, is gone — when water gets into a crack in the roof, the rebar reinforcing bar rusts, expands, and bursts the concrete. It's not the best way to build, and there's a lesson in all of that.

Dave: In order to imagine what might happen in the future, you researched what life was like on Earth before humans started affecting it.

Weisman: I wanted to find the baseline. I wanted to get a sense of what life was like before Homo sapiens showed up. It turns out that's complicated because Homo sapiens turned up on different land masses at different times.

Coincidentally, curiously, and perhaps convincingly, our arrival at various landmasses coincides with the disappearance of a lot of species. Most dramatically, virtually all the megafauna, all the biggest stuff, disappears. North America once had three times as many species over a ton as Africa has today. That raised some questions. I wanted to know, What was it like here before?

Paleo-ecologists have done some wonderful sleuthing. It's amazing to think of giant ground sloths that lived all over the Americas. They stood taller than the mammoth. We think of the mammoths as being mammoth, and of course they were, but sloths were even bigger. We had mammoths and mastodons and some really odd things including one animal that looked like a cross between a camel and an elephant. We had armadillos the size of Volkswagens.

All this amazing stuff disappeared after Homo sapiens arrived. That made me realize, for a couple reasons, that I needed to go to Africa. I needed to get a feeling of what it's like to be in a landscape surrounded by wild animals, to get out into the wilds, but also to deal with the question of, If big animals disappeared everywhere else, how come they're still in Africa?

It turns out the reason is that, in Africa, those animals evolved alongside human beings. They learned gradually how to avoid this predator because they were with the predator every step of the way as the predator became very adept at predating. That happens in Africa today; I describe the evasive techniques that ostriches and zebras and gazelles use to avoid leopards and cheetahs and lions. Obviously, some of them get picked off, but more of them survive, which is why we still have prey out there.

Next, I started thinking about, Why did we evolve in the first place? That seemed to have a place in this book. I ultimately found myself with the director of chimpanzee research in the forest that Jane Goodall has studied for many years. We spent a day running up and down hills and ravines until we finally came face to face with a band of chimpanzees. I wanted to look a chimpanzee in the eye in the wild. Why did this creature, which shares a common ancestor, why did it stay in the forest? And why did we go off into the savannahs?

It's a fascinating part of our history, and it helped me understand where we are right now and where we might be going. It also helped me respond to the question I get from a lot of people before they read the book. They say, "If we disappear, is something going to jump into our niche? Will human-type intelligence naturally evolve? Is the world fated to deal with this?" Nobody can answer that, of course, but some candidates are out there, and one of them is another primate: the baboon.

What was going on, it turns out: There were a series of ice ages, and, though the ice never covered Africa, whenever an ice age occurs, a lot of the earth's moisture is locked up in the ice, so the rest of the world is undergoing drought. Forests were shrinking in Africa. There was less habitat.

Does this mean that our ancestors were the intrepid risk-takers and adventure seekers that we like to think they were, that they went off to see what was beyond the horizon? Or was it really that a battle royale took place in the forest to see who got to stay amid the trees and the fruit and all the rest, and the losers crept out of there? Those were our ancestors. I don't know, but it's fun to think about.

Dave: The intricacy of the underground cities at Cappadocia, from the way they channeled smoke more than a mile laterally through chimneys to hide its source, to the defenses against intruders — it was completely amazing to me.

Weisman: It's really rather brilliant. This is in central Turkey. It's an area that's covered with an enormous layer of volcanic tuff, which is easy to dig in. It's a great construction material because once you expose it to air it develops a resilient, hard shell. There are beautiful mansions carved right into hillsides there, and the facades are just gorgeous; the house itself is just a cave.

The underground cities started with some very early civilizations. The archeologists I talked to speculate that people began digging there in prehistoric times. Then subsequent civilizations to occupy that part of Turkey, all the way up to the Christians and then the Muslims again, kept going deeper and deeper. The city I spent some time in, Derinkuyu, goes down eighteen stories now, but they're pretty sure there's even more down there. They've found all these tunnels — and we're not talking about a little tunnel you crawl through; several people can pass abreast, and they can walk five kilometers to the next underground city.

They had wineries in there. They had places to stable horses. It's estimated that Derinkuyu could hold 30,000 people. They had all this really clever stuff to make life livable, including communications tubes so that you could talk to someone seven stories above you. Also, as you mentioned, intruders would have to pass through spiraling staircases with pocket doors that would roll into place and trap them; and then that communication tube above them suddenly became a handy way of pouring hot oil on intruders' heads. Remarkable.

I put it in the book because I realized that among the longest-lasting human artifacts will be our underground establishments. The Chunnel that connects England and France, because it's in a single geologic bed and it's on the same tectonic plate, should last a long time. It may be buried and nothing will ever find it again, but it's formidable. Some subway systems that are not so accosted by water — Ankara's, for example — will probably last. These underground cities in Cappadocia, they'll be hidden down there. Even if a glacier scrapes away Turkey, at least a few stories of this thing will survive.

Dave: When Dava Sobel was here, I asked why she became a science writer instead of a scientist. How would you answer that question?

Weisman: I'd always planned to be a scientist when I was a kid. I was in love with all of it: paleontology, astronomy, ornithology... Then in eighth grade I had a science teacher who hated me and I had an English teacher who loved me. It was as simple as that. I was discouraged about the sciences, and I was encouraged about the written word.

I sort of wasted my college career. I was an English major, which meant that someone gave me grades for doing what I was doing anyhow, reading literature — I devoured it all the time. I barely studied the sciences in college. Just geology. It was required that I study something. Only afterwards did I discover how much I missed it and loved it.

I became a journalist partly because I could never figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My senior year in college, I still didn't know. I just knew that I wasn't going to be an English professor.

Being a journalist allows you to poke your nose into what everybody else is doing. And if you're lucky, you get invited along. That certainly happened with this book. Posing the question to experts all over the world, "What would happen if we extracted the human being from your field of study? How would things proceed?" — I usually didn't have to ask another question. They would get off and rolling.

I must have been halfway through my research before I recalled that two-thirds of our planet is water, and that I better be looking into how our disappearance would impact the seas. I was in Panama at the time, looking at the Panama Canal. How would nature heal that wound, that severed one America from the other?

I tracked down Jeremy Jackson, an eminent marine paleo-ecologist, who for years has split his time between Scripps Oceanographic in La Jolla and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. We talked for a long day, and he said, "We're doing an expedition to the South Seas to look at the most pristine coral atolls left. We want to get a baseline of what a healthy coral reef should be, as much untouched by humans as possible. We have brilliant people from all over the world — it's a real multinational crew — and we're looking at everything from big animals like the sharks down to the microbes; nobody's ever done the microbes before. You have to come."

He didn't have to convince me. Thanks to Jeremy, I spent three weeks on the seas with these guys, diving into unbelievably wonderful waters.

Dave: Not a bad perk. What did you take from that trip?

Weisman: One thing that happens in a healthy coral reef system is you get a lot of really big animals. Whereas on land, because of limitations of habitat, there are always fewer big animals — they have to eat ten times the amount of their weight, which is why you have fewer predators and more small creatures. In the seas, it turns out to be quite the opposite (this is one of the hypotheses they were testing). There's so much activity on a coral reef. It's incredibly productive. You constantly have creatures cropping algaes that are growing up on the reef, and then you have all these bigger fish cropping them, and then bigger fish cropping them. And the bigger a fish is, the longer it tends to live.

When we got out into these pristine waters, there were a lot of these big carnivores out there. Lots of sharks. Lots of big, carnivorous snappers constantly attacking the divers. It was pretty thrilling to see once you got used to the fact that you can keep sharks away if you know what you're doing. It was thrilling, and yet it was also sad too because even that far away we could see examples of corals that had been bleached pretty badly by warming events in the ocean. And you could see places where plastic had heaped up on the shore, plastic that had drifted across on the Japanese current. There's so much plastic in the ocean now; it's all been going downstream and, until some microbe evolves to eat it, it's indestructible.

And yet the scientists I was with were not daunted by the condition of the seas, however over-fished they may be. Jeremy Jackson himself pointed out to me, he said, "Look, change is inevitable. Change is part of nature. It's almost the definition of nature. Things are already changing. If we lose our coral reefs in the tropics because things are warming up, maybe that means that coral reefs will migrate farther away from the equator. Maybe we'll have them off the mid-Atlantic or we'll have them off of Argentina. And even though we've banged a lot of species really hard, very little out there is extinct. It's endangered, but if we were to lay off, a lot of stuff could come back and we could see the seas replenished."

He's done a lot of research in the Caribbean. And he's quite a historian. He would talk to me about the texts that he's found in Spain and in Cuba. In Columbus's second and third voyage, those Spanish galleons of his were like ice breakers, only instead of ice on the surface it was sea turtles; there were so many out there that the ships had to plow their way through. When they introduced cattle to Hispaniola, sharks were so big that they would swim upriver and pick off cattle that were out there drinking water.

Now when we dive off a coral reef in the Caribbean, we see all these beautiful fish and think we're in nature. Sure, it's nature, but those sharks are just a pale copy of the huge ones that used to be out there. Eight hundred pound groupers were quite common in the Caribbean until they got over-fished. It's hopeful that stuff could come back.

Dave: One surprising, oddly optimistic anecdote in the book comes from your trip to Chernobyl. You explain, "Any vehicles and machinery that worked [at Chernobyl] on the cleanup, such as the giant cranes towering over the sarcophagus, are too radioactive to leave [the 10-kilometer radius around ground zero]. Yet skylarks perch on their hot steel arms, singing."

I wouldn't call it a happy scene, but it's much more complicated than a person might expect.

Weisman: It is complicated. Birds returned to Chernobyl a year after the reactor blew. That first year, things were really quiet there. It was unnerving, some of the nuclear physicists said. But then they started hearing birds.

A lot of the birds didn't last very long, and for quite a while there were no taxonomical studies being done because everyone was so busy dealing with mitigation: How do we stop the cooling water from entering Kiev's drinking system? But very quickly, people started to notice that not just birds but a lot of creatures were coming in. A whole herd of radioactive roe deer. Boars. All this stuff. People wanted to hunt them, and some people surreptitiously did.

Inevitably, studies started taking place. Some of the outcomes are very discouraging and others are encouraging. A lot of newborn birds bear markings that make it obvious they have genetic issues; white splotches on them, for example. They've noticed that these birds tend not to return after migration, which may mean that they're weakened, or it may mean that their blotches make them more attractive to predators. It's hard to say.

We know that the lifespans of swallows are shortened there, but there are also some interesting studies on a population of voles; even though these voles have shorter lifespans than voles in other parts of Europe that haven't been so intensely irradiated, they seem to be sexually maturing earlier and throwing off bigger broods, which may be nature's way of responding to a new element in the ecosystem — in this case, the new element is radiation. If so, just like with Darwin's finches, something will evolve in a slightly different way, and we may end up seeing some radiation-tolerant creatures out there.

Dave: Chernobyl threw off relatively little radiation when you consider all the nuclear plants we'd leave behind and what could ultimately happen.

Weisman: Something's going to have to happen with all these nuclear plants. If suddenly humans are gone and nobody's maintaining them, once the coolant water starts circulating around the reactor cores, depending on how much fuel is there — at what point in their cycle they're in before refueling — either they're going to burst into flames or they're going to melt down. Either way, a lot of toxicity will be released. The flames will be really, really bad. From just one reactor fire at Chernobyl, clouds of smoke ultimately drifted around the world. Everything got a little dose. Well, there are 441 nuclear plants at last count. That's going to be a real challenge for the earth.

I spoke to a curator at the Smithsonian, Doug Irwin, one of the world's great experts at previous extinctions. He kind of shrugs. He says, "The earth has been through worse. The Permian Extinction wiped out ninety percent of the species. It must have been pretty barren here, but stuff crawled out of the sea and eventually we got dinosaurs. That was pretty impressive. And all those wonderful jungles. Then some asteroid showed up, dinosaurs couldn't adapt, and they disappeared, but enough was left over apparently for the earth to die back and start up again. Otherwise, you and I wouldn't be sitting here."

Dave: In Echo in the Blood, you reference a conversation about the atmosphere with Al Gore. Reading about that encounter felt like stumbling on a time capsule.

Weisman: Al Gore had the great fortune, as a freshman at Harvard, to take a course from Roger Ravelle, who was the first American scientist, possibly the first scientist anywhere, to connect the carbon we were digging out of the ground and throwing into the atmosphere with an overheating event.

Al Gore got thoroughly indoctrinated by this guy. When he became a congressman, one of the first things he did was hold a hearing on global warming and invite Ravelle as the first witness. Everybody else in Congress thought this guy was nuts, but Gore was relentless about it. Then, in 1985, the ozone depletion was discovered, so Gore started holding hearings on ozone depletion. When he became a senator, he moved those hearings into the Senate.

I went down to Antarctica and southern Chile to do a story on the ozone hole. Scientists down there had done experiments to show that organisms were being affected by ultraviolet radiation increases because of the ozone depletion. I started searching all over the States for anybody who was looking to see how that would ultimately affect human beings. Gore had had a whole bunch of experts troop through his hearings, and that became my directory to finding people.

I was constantly talking to his staff. At one point, they said, "You are going to come and interview the Senator, aren't you?" I actually hadn't planned to, but as a courtesy I said I would. My fifteen minutes with the Senator. Well, I went in there and we spent the whole day talking about this stuff. He wouldn't let me out of his office. He'd been to Antarctica, of course. And I realized this guy really knew this stuff. He really understood it.

Dave: This was before Gore hooked up with Clinton. He was still a senator.

Weisman: It was 1991. At the end of that interview, I asked him, "Why aren't you running for President? You're the only politician I've ever met who understands what we're up against." He explained that he had wanted to run, but his son had been in a car accident. I said, "I know, and that was terrible, but thank god he's better. How come you're not running?"

The fact was that the primaries were underway and this guy Clinton was doing terrific. Who knew that Clinton would pick Gore to be his running mate? Back then, the conventional wisdom was that you would never have two Southerners, or two Northerners, on a ticket. I thought this was brilliant of Bill Clinton because he realized that a lot of young people were inspired. Gore had written Earth in the Balance — and he really wrote it. After talking to him, I knew that. He understood

There was a rising environmental consciousness, and, wow, these guys were going to get to run the country — after Ronald Reagan, who ripped Jimmy Carter's solar collectors off the roof of the White House as his first act as President. I thought, This is going to be wonderful.

Unfortunately, I found the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration colossally disappointing from an environmental point of view. They didn't do anything for global warming. They watered down the Kyoto Agreement, and then we didn't wind up being signatories to it.

Gore could have been President. I think he was wrestling with himself in all those debates with George Bush. I mean, how do you lose a debate with George Bush? Gore defeated himself. His humane side was fighting with the politic side, the one who I really believe gave in to the automobile industry and never pursued alternative fuels. Yes, he did encourage a lot of green technologies, but he could have done so much more. He had eight years.

Gore has done something really wonderful by not giving up, by coming back and presenting the issue in a way that people are actually paying attention. Now he's written a book about the ethics of politics [The Assault on Reason]. This is very important stuff, but we could have begun in 1992. I expected it. Maybe I was na�ve.

Dave: People have a hard time accepting that the planet can't withstand whatever we might do to it. We're testing its limits more than ever before. You cite some incredible statistics about plastic, for instance, how much we've produced in just fifty years.

Weisman: I believe that we deserve to be here. We worked pretty hard to evolve to this point, just like every other creature that's alive. Unfortunately, our influence is so much greater that we're overwhelming and wiping out a lot of other creatures. Eventually we're going to wipe ourselves out.

I was thinking the other day about the Beatles' movie, Yellow Submarine. There's this one critter that walks around on two feet, and its head is a vacuum cleaner. It goes around vacuuming everything up until finally there's nothing left, so it points at its own feet and vacuums itself up. That's where we're going.

I don't spend a lot of time in this book talking about solutions people are already aware of. We must stop using this insane amount of plastic. We must conserve energy until we figure out a way — and we may never figure out a way — to produce it renewably in the quantities that our society now demands. And our society now includes populous places like India and China. Everyone knows that we're up against it.

Dave: More and more people for the earth to contend with. You discuss the implications of population growth toward the end of the book.

Weisman: It's the one element I consistently see left out of the mix, and I'm amazed that it is left out. It's not just what we do but how many of us are doing it.

At the end of the book, I pose another fantasy: What would happen if instead of procreating at the rate that we are, which has taken us from 1.6 billion people at the end of the nineteenth century to nearly 6.6 billion people at the end of the twentieth century (and now headed to 9 billion people by the middle of our twenty-first century if we keep going the way we're going, which seems to me to be fatal), what if, as an entire human race, we did what the Chinese did once and limit every family to one child?

Just suppose. What would happen? I'm hearing from readers, "This sounds really radical, except after everything I just read in the book it makes sense."

I called population institutions of the United States, and I couldn't get any of them to run the numbers for me. They wouldn't even talk about this. Nobody talks zero population growth; they all got too intimidated by politics that equate population growth with abortion. And there's something else in there: The United States policy, since we started having world population conferences, has been that limiting population is anti-capitalist. We always want more consumers so there can be more growth.

Eventually, I found a distinguished demographic institute in Austria. They got back to me with an interesting answer. Within a century we'd be down to 1.6 billion people again. That's not by killing anybody off or doing anything brutal. It's just by attrition.

I wasn't alive in 1900. Nearly none of us was. But just in my own lifetime, I can remember when there was more space, when there was more stuff, when there were more birds. Things were a lot more livable. The idea of us managing the population now and bringing it down has to be seriously considered. If we don't do it, nature's going to do it for us. It always has.

Every species in the history of the planet has crashed when it's run out of resources. We're beyond the limits now. We keep stretching the limits by clearing more land for agriculture, which is only undermining us. That means clearing away more habitat. You wonder what happened to all the birds? Well, they have fewer and fewer trees to land on in their migratory flyways. And those birds don't just sing pretty. They pollinate for us. They do all kinds of functional things. They're some of the nuts that hold the environmental web together.

The thought of us not having siblings... I adore my sister, but if people want more than one kid, there will be orphans out there to adopt. Some people will break the rules because passion, not just planning, produces children. There will be ways to do it, I suppose. But if we made the attempt to bring down the population we could buy a lot of time on this planet and maybe even bring ourselves back into balance with nature.

Either we take charge of this or nature will take care of it for us. And nature can be cutthroat sometimes. It doesn't mind spilling blood. It doesn't mind extinguishing a species. Nature always bounces back. I certainly learned from doing this book how resilient life is, and life will go on. There's no question. Whether we get to be part of it or not, that's the question.

Alan Weisman visited Powell's City of Books on July 19, 2007. Outside, Portland temperatures approached ninety degrees. Weisman and I shared a table and a space heater in the small room where we spoke. Something about a malfunctioning thermostat, I was told. Such a perfectly illogical mess of human making — drinking tea on a hot summer afternoon to stave off the air conditioning. Given the thrust of Weisman's book, it seemed apropos.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. The World without Us
    Used Hardcover $8.50
  3. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and... Sale Trade Paper $2.97
  4. The Assault on Reason: How the...
    Used Hardcover $1.25

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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