A world without humans

June 24, 2007 at 3:00 am 3 comments

Kim photoWell, here’s an interesting way to look at humanity’s impact on the environment – if all humans disappeared off the planet, how would the world fare without us? This is a scenario that the current issue of Scientific American explores (subscription needed, but I’ll give you the gist of the article). Science writer, Alan Weisman, conducts a thought experiment in his book, The World Without Us, and looks at the sequence of events that would most likely occur in the years, decades and centuries following our demise.

Weisman doesn’t actually say what might cause humans to be snuffed out but he starts off by saying that infrastructure would begin to crumble immediately – without street maintenance, road crews and cleaners – highways and boulevards would crack and crumble. Over the decades, houses, office buildings and shopping malls would become dusty caverns but ordinary, everyday items made from stainless steel, like pots and pans, could last for millennia and common plastics could last for years before microbes evolved to consume them. The concrete jungles that are our cities would be reclaimed by verdant forest. Subways would be overrun by water – apparently the New York subway system requires 13 million gallons of water per day to be pumped out otherwise the subways would flood. Focusing on Manhattan, Weisman says that the waterways and rivers that used to form part of Manhattan have been channelled underground and it takes an extraordinary daily effort to hold off nature in her attempt to claim back land and waterways.

Should humans disappear, one of the first things that would happen is the power would go off without people to maintain grids, pumps and so on. The subways would flood; sewer systems would overflow; leaf litter, which is normally swept away by maintenance workers, would clog up drains. The rising rivers would cause the steel frames that hold up the subways and office buildings to corrode causing streets to collapse into the subway system and tall buildings to topple over, perhaps taking others with it. Into the cleared spaces, seeds from plants would blow in off the wind and take hold in the cracks, crevices and pavements. Powdered concrete from decaying buildings would provide lime – a less acidic environment for various species. A city would start to develop its own little ecosystem.

As part of his research, Weisman visited places that humans had abandoned or left to see how nature has evolved. One of these places was the primeval forest in Europe, on the border between Poland and Belarus. It was a game reserve set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact and after World War II it became a national park. Giant oaks and ash trees gently sway in the breeze; wolves howl at night; woodpeckers stuff pine cones into trees; and the last remaining wild herd of Bison bonasus, the native European buffalo, still roams. Weisman also visited the Korean demilitarised zone where a thriving wildlife reserve exists between two armies facing off each other and where wild cranes roost. He suggests that without humans North America would turn into a giant deer habitat; forests would re-establish themselves over the continent and, over time, large herbivores and predators would evolve. The chemicals we have introduced, specifically since the end of WWII, the pollutants and the damage we are currently doing to the environment may have longevity that we can’t yet predict.

It’s not all prophecies of doom and gloom. As Weisman points out, humans have created beautiful and expressive artefacts – sculptures; architecture; fine art; literature – and he asks wouldn’t it be sad for the Earth not to have humans?

The picture he paints of deserted, decaying cities reminds me of a film where many years later humans who survived whatever calamity visited the urban canyons that were once thriving cities. Wild winds whooshed through what were once busy streets and intersections; a lion appeared on the steps of a public building. I can’t recall the film but it sure gave me shivers. Would the world be better off without us?

Okay, I admit I haven’t read the book yet, just the Scientific American article – but I wonder if Weisman considers the hundreds of nuclear reactors out there. If they’re not maintained, wouldn’t they suffer a melt down and leach toxic waste into the atmosphere or soil and kill off life sans humanity?

Anyway, it’s an interesting thought experiment and you can watch a video of it here – but the scary looking dude in the video put me off a bit!

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Entry filed under: Books, Environment, Future predictions.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Henderson  |  June 27, 2007 at 11:59 am

    Hey, very nice article. Thank you for bring that to us. Oh yeah that movie you were talking about it ounds like 12 monkeys.

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  June 27, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Hi John
    I think you might be right – 12 Monkeys. Thx!
    Kim

    Reply
  • 3. Jake  |  August 12, 2007 at 3:33 am

    I just read that book, it’s sitting on my desk right now.. It wasn’t really what you expect, they go through a lot of history that’s interesting (zebras immigrated from America), but not necessarily what you want to read. It doesn’t make you want to kill yourself either, since a lot of the harm has already been done, and fixed (you know how much plastic is in the ocean? They already banned CFC’s and DDT mostly everywhere), and it’s not that technical. Surprisingly, they don’t put a huuuge emphasis on global warming, but more on small scale factors that are screwing up the earth (abandoned oil refineries will explode, among other things). It sure did convince me though that us humans are assholes!There are some fascinating pieces of information in there, I guess I’d recommend reading it, but yeah be aware it’s a lot different than your initial impression.

    Reply

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