The World Without Us
ALSO BY ALAN WEISMAN
An Echo in My Blood
Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World
La Front era: The United States Border with Mexico
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS
ST. MARTIN’ S PRESS
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin’s Press
THE WORLD WITHOUT us. Copyright ? 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved. Printed in the
United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in
critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue,
New York, N.Y. 10010.
Portions of this book have appeared previouslyin different form in Discover Magazine
andthe Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Book design by Ellen Cipriano
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
????The world without us / Alan Weisman.
????Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Nature—Effect of human beings on. 2. Material culture. 3. Human-plant
relationships. 4. Human-animal relationships. I. Title.
Printed on recycled paper
In memory of
with lasting love
from a world without you
Prelude: A Monkey Koan
1 A Lingering Scent of Eden 2 Unbuilding Our Home 3 The City Without Us 4 The World Just Before Us 5 The Lost Menagerie 6 The African Paradox
7 What Falls Apart 8 What Lasts 9 Polymers Are Forever 10 The Petro Patch 11 The World Without Farms
12 The Fate of Ancient and Modern Wonders of the World 13 The World Without War 14 Wings Without Us 15 Hot Legacy 16 Our Geologic Record
17 Where Do We Go from Here? 18 Art Beyond Us
19 The Sea Cradle ????Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls Acknowledgments Select Bibliography Index Das Firmament blaut ewig, und die Erde Wird lange fest steh’n und aufblüh’n im Lenz. Du aber, Mensch, wie lange lebst denn du?
The firmament is blue forever, and die Earth Will long stand firm and bloom in spring. But, man, how long will you live?
—Li-Tai-Po/Hans Bethge/Gustav Mahler The Chinese Flute: Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth Das Lied von der Erde
The World Without Us
A Monkey Koan
NE JUNE MORNING in 2004, Ana María Santi sat against a post beneath a large palm-thatchedcanopy, frowning as she watched a gathering of her people in Mazáraka, their hamlet on the RíoConambu, an Ecuadoran tributary of the upper Amazon. Except for Ana María’s hair, still thickand black after seven decades, everything about her recalled a dried legume pod. Her gray eyesresembled two pale fish trapped in the dark eddies of her face. In a patois of Quichua and anearly vanished language, Zápara, she scolded her nieces and granddaughters. An hour past dawn,they and everyone in the village except Ana María were already drunk.
minga, the Amazonian equivalent of a barn raising. Forty barefoot ZáparaThe occasion was a
Indians, several in face paint, sat jammed in a circle on log benches. To prime the men forgoing out to slash and burn the forest to clear a new cassava patch for Ana María’s brother,they were drinking chicha—gallons of it. Even the children slurped ceramic bowls full of themilky, sour beer brewed from cassava pulp, fermented with the saliva of Zápara women who chewwads of it all day. Two girls with grass braided in their hair passed among the throng,refilling chicha bowls and serving dishes of catfish gruel. To the elders and guests, theyoffered hunks of boiled meat, dark as chocolate. But Ana María Santi, the oldest personpresent, wasn’t having any.
Although the rest of the human race was already hurtling into a new millennium, the Zápara hadbarely entered the Stone Age. Like the spider monkeys from whom they believe themselvesdescended, the Zápara essentially still inhabit trees, lashing palm trunks together with bejuco
vines to support roofs woven of palm fronds. Until cassava arrived, palm hearts were their mainvegetable. For protein they netted fish and hunted tapirs, peccaries, wood-quail, and curassowswith bamboo darts and blowguns.
They still do, but there is little game left. When Ana María’s grandparents were young, shesays, the forest easily fed them, even though the Zápara were then one of the largest tribes ofthe Amazon, with some 200,000 members living in villages along all the neighboring rivers. Thensomething happened far away, and nothing in their world—or anybody’s— was ever the same.
What happened was that Henry Ford figured out how to mass-produce automobiles. The demand forinflatable tubes and tires soon found ambitious Europeans heading up every navigable Amazonianstream, claiming land with rubber trees and seizing laborers to tap them. In Ecuador, they wereaided by highland Quichua Indians evangelized earlier by Spanish missionaries and happy to helpchain the heathen, lowland Zápara men to trees and work them until they fell. Zápara women andgirls, taken as breeders or sex slaves, were raped to death.
By the 1920s, rubber plantations in Southeast Asia had undermined the market for wild SouthAmerican latex. The few hundred Zápara who had managed to hide during the rubber genocidestayed hidden. Some posed as Quichua, living among the enemies who now occupied their lands.Others escaped into Peru. Ecuador’s Zápara were officially considered extinct. Then, in 1999,after Peru and Ecuador resolved a long border dispute, a Peruvian Zápara shaman was foundwalking in the Ecuadoran jungle. He had come, he said, to finally meet his relatives.
The rediscovered Ecuadoran Zápara became an anthropological cause célèbre. The governmentrecognized their territorial rights, albeit to only a shred of their ancestral land, and UNESCObestowed a grant to revive their culture and save their language. By then, only four members ofthe tribe still spoke it, Ana María Santi among them. The forest they once knew was mostlygone: from the occupying Quichua they had learned to fell trees with steel machetes and burnthe stumps to plant cassava. After a single harvest, each plot had to be fallowed for years; inevery direction, the towering forest canopy had been replaced by spindly, second-growth shootsof laurel, magnolia, and copa palm. Cassava was now their mainstay, consumed all day in the
chicha. The Zápara had survived into the 21st century, but they had entered it tipsy,form of
and stayed that way.
They still hunted, but men now walked for days without finding tapirs or even quail. They hadresorted to shooting spider monkeys, whose flesh was formerly taboo. Again, Ana María pushedaway the bowl proffered by her granddaughters, which contained chocolate-colored meat with atiny, thumbless paw jutting over its side. She raised her knotted chin toward the rejectedboiled monkey.
“When we’re down to eating our ancestors,” she asked, “what is left?”
So far from the forests and savannas of our origins, few of us still sense a link to our animalforebears. That the Amazonian Zápara actually do is remarkable, since the divergence of humansfrom other primates occurred on another continent. Nevertheless, lately we have had a creepingsense of what Ana María means. Even if we’re not driven to cannibalism, might we, too, faceterrible choices as we skulk toward the future?
A generation ago, humans eluded nuclear annihilation; with luck, we’ll continue to dodge thatand other mass terrors. But now we often find ourselves asking whether inadvertently we’vepoisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included. We’ve also used and abused water andsoil so that there’s a lot less of each, and trampled thousands of species that probablyaren’t coming back. Our world, some respected voices warn, could one day degenerate intosomething resembling a vacant lot, where crows and rats scuttle among weeds, preying on eachother. If it comes to that, at what point would things have gone so far that, for all ourvaunted superior intelligence, we’re not among the hardy survivors?
The truth is, we don’t know. Any conjecture gets muddled by our obstinate reluctance to acceptthat the worst might actually occur. We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed overeons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.
If those instincts dupe us into waiting until it’s too late, that’s bad. If they fortify ourresistance in the face of mounting omens, that’s good. More than once, crazy, stubborn hopehas inspired creative strokes that snatched people from ruin. So, let us try a creativeexperiment: Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait accompli. Not bynuclear calamity, asteroid collision, or anything ruinous enough to also wipe out mosteverything else, leaving whatever remained in some radically altered, reduced state. Nor bysome grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade, dragging many more species with us in theprocess.
Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.
Unlikely perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible. Say a Homo sapiens— specific
virus—natural or diabolically nano-engineered—picks us off but leaves everything else intact.Or some misanthropic evil wizard somehow targets that unique 3.9 percent of DNA that makes ushuman beings and not chimpanzees, or perfects a way to sterilize our sperm. Or say thatJesus—more on Him later—or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory or to azoo somewhere across the galaxy.
Look around you, at today’s world. Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavementunderneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place, but extract the humanbeings. Wipe us out, and see what’s left. How would the rest of nature respond if it weresuddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? How soonwould, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines?
How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the way it must have gleamedand smelled the day before Adam, or Homo habilis, appeared? Could nature ever obliterate all
our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriadplastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural thatthey’re indestructible?
And what of our finest creations—our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of spirit?Are any truly timeless, at least enough so to last until the sun expands and roasts our Earth
to a cinder?
might we have left some faint, enduring mark on the universe; some lastingthat,And even after
glow, or echo, of Earthly humanity; some interplanetary sign that once we were here?
For a sense of how the world would go on without us, among other places we must look to theworld before us. We’re not time travelers, and the fossil record is only a fragmentarysampling. But even if that record were complete, the future won’t perfectly mirror the past.We’ve ground some species so thoroughly into extinction that they, or their DNA, will likelynever spring back. Since some things we’ve done are likely irrevocable, what would remain inour absence would not be the same planet had we never evolved in the first place.
Yet it might not be so different, either. Nature has been through worse losses before, andrefilled empty niches. And even today, there are still a few Earthly spots where all our sensescan inhale a living memory of this Eden before we were here. Inevitably they invite us towonder how nature might flourish if granted the chance.
Since we’re imagining, why not also dream of a way for nature to prosper that doesn’t dependon our demise? We are, after all, mammals ourselves. Every life-form adds to this vast pageant.With our passing, might some lost contribution of ours leave the planet a bit moreimpoverished?
Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without uswould miss us?
A Lingering Scent of Eden
OU MAY NEVER have heard of the Biaowiea Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in thetemperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several formerSoviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the BritishIsles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert,subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to thispuszcza to stir your memory, too.
Puszcza, an old Polish word, means “forest primeval.” Straddling the border between Polandand Belarus, the half-million acres of the Biaowie a Puszcza contain Europe’s last remainingfragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomedbehind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here,ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangledunderstory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with halfa millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones intheir three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that partsbriefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returnsto stillness.
The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens tofertility’s very origins. In the Biaowie a, the profusion of life owes much to all that isdead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is in assorted stages of decay—morethan 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishingthousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missingfrom the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.
Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons,badgers, otters, fox, lynx, wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are foundhere than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or shelteringvalleys to form unique niches for endemic species. The Biaowie a Puszcza is simply a relic ofwhat once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.
The existence in Europe of such a legacy of unbroken biological antiquity owes, unsurprisingly,to high privilege. During the 14th century, a Lithuanian duke named Wadysaw Jagieo, havingsuccessfully allied his grand duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, declared the forest a royalhunting preserve. For centuries, it stayed that way. When the Polish-Lithuanian union wasfinally subsumed by Russia, the Biaowie a became the private domain of the tsars. Althoughoccupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, a pristine core was leftintact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. The timber pillaging resumed briefly underthe Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, a nature fanatic named Hermann Goring decreed theentire preserve off-limits, except by his pleasure.
Following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to letPoland retain two-fifths of the forest. Little else changed under communist rule, except forconstruction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which, Viskuli, an agreement was signed in1991 dissolving the Soviet Union into free states. Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuaryis more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven