The World Without Us: Q and A with Alan Weisman

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By allDAY

This morning, author, journalist and professor Alan Weisman talked about his new book, The World Without Us, which asks the provocative question: What would happen to Earth if humans were to vanish tomorrow?

That's right, we, as a species, are gone tomorrow. Wiped out by something. Doesn't matter what. All that matters is that we're gone. What happens next? And if we're gone, why whould we care about what happens?

Professor Weisman and Matt discussed those questions and more this morning. WATCH VIDEO

Last week, in preparation for the segment, I had the chance to chat with Professor Weisman a bit more.

One point that did did not come up in the interview with Matt was that Professor Weisman believes for humans to return to living in harmony with the planet, we need to drastically reduce our population. He suggests that all female humans be restricted to having a maximum of one child. If we were to implement such a plan, our population would drop from 6.5 billion today to 1.6 billion by 2100. At our current rate, we'll reach 9 billion people by the middle of this century. (More on this argument below.)

Here are some more notes from our conversation:

Q: Why did you write this?

Alan Weisman: For years, I have been looking for a way to look at the whole global environmental situation, which I have the privilege and burden of covering. And I wanted to give people a way to do something about it.

Most people would rather not hear about the environment because it's scary, so my goal was to write something that was readable so that people would learn a lot and not be so depressed that they would throw the book away.

When it was originally proposed to me, it made no sense -- but if we theoretically just wipe us out, suppose we were gone right away. Then we can suffuse the fear factor of dying, and we get to hang around and see what happened.

We are distracted by all the stuff we do, and we'd have a much better sense of what is around us. Stuff would thrive in many different ways if we weren't in the way.

If nature could do that well without us, wouldn't it be important to keep us in the picture and figure out ways for us to not trample everything?

Q: What do you want people to take away from the book?

AW: I tried to approach this as a journalist and do hundreds of interviews to let the experts say what they needed to say.

One of the main things is to say, oh by the way, it's not just what we do that affects the environment, it's our existence. We had to reopen that conversation and think about it that:

1. It's numerically undeniable that we're stretching our resources way too much.

2. Every population in the history of biology that has outgrown its resource space suffers a population crash. I would rather have us manage it than have nature do it so brutally.

Other things that I talk about now:

Plastics. There are more surprises in that chapter than I was expecting. The fact that it's all indestructible until microbes evolve to eat it.

We did pretty well without plastics until World War II. Now, I realize that a lot of things are great with plastics, and I don't think we necessarily have to get rid of them all.

But think about what your grandmother did when she went to the market. Did she take a plastic bag for a tomato, a plastic bag for a cucumber? No, she took one bag to the market, put all of her groceries in it, brought it home, and reused it the next time she went.

I seriously want it to be made a crime to give away free bags in supermarkets -- paper bags too. That would solve an enormous problem.

One of the reasons I think the population question is important, if we want to be as green as possible, any of our energy that is truly renewable is limited. Solar and wind are intermittent and they're so diffuse, it's difficult to harness them in a significant way. But one thing we could be doing is making it a law (like it is in Israel and Cyprus) to take every building eight stories or under and heat all of the water in those buildings with solar energy. It's absolutely simple and cheap technology.

Q: You ask, "Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?" Well, would it?

AW: Here are a couple things to think about:

--before our agriculture was so vast, we used to do agriculture in a more sustainable way in that it didn't overwhelm nature or use tons of chemicals to make things grow faster. Our methods used to fit neatly into the ecosystem in a way that humans got plenty of food and other species in the ecosystem also got plenty of food.

--we have done some truly wonderful and original things that no other species has done, like we've written Beethoven's 9th. Some of our acts of expression are so beautiful. We deserve to be here as much as any other species. It took us a lot of work to evolve to this point, but we should be in much better balance with nature than we are right now. We don't have to make excuses for our existence.

Q: You talk about how quickly it would take the infrastructure of our cities to disintegrate, and recently, we've had an underground steam pipe explosion in Manhattan and a bridge collapse in how do those incidents fit into your discussion?

AW: The fact that the infrastructure is falling apart is not necessarily because it's built poorly. The New York City subways were built in 1903. The fact that they're still running at all is an enormous success. The fact that New York City's bridges have held up as long as they have is extraordinary, and the engineers didn't have computers to tell them about tolerance. They overbuilt these things -- traffic on them is like an ant on an elephant.

When I heard about what happened in Minneapolis, the first question I asked was, "When was it built?" 1967, was the answer. I said, "Ah, that's the problem." Some of its columns were built in the Mississippi River, and from what I read, to do some of the structural repairs, workers wrapped tarps around the columns, which keeps moisture in. This newer concrete we use gets wet and flakes away. It's not nearly as strong as the steel we used to use on the older bridges. We've got a lot of low bids out there and stretched budgets. We've got lots of people with lots of needs and not enough resources.

The real people who hold our civilization together are the maintenance people. If it weren't for them -- pumping water out of subways, painting bridges to keep from rusting, fixing a steam pipe that is 70 years old -- we'd be sunk.

If we got rid of all the politicians and the policymakers in the world, the world would keep going. If you get rid of maintenance people, the whole thing breaks down.