Saturday, May 31, 2008

Books: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

I'm not a big reader of non-fiction, but I am sort of a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement sympathizer. I call myself a sympathizer rather than a member because I recognize the complete impossibility of such a movement's success; if people lived responsibly, there wouldn't be a need for them to responsibly cease procreation, because their lives wouldn't have the hideous impacts on the environment that our current lives are having. And while Alan Weisman may be preaching to the choir in this book, he has enough ugly facts to scare the shit even out of us. Like the bit about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a part of the ocean where, thanks to currents and winds, most of the sea-bound trash collects. . . with a surface area bigger than Texas. Um, dude? Texas is pretty fucking big. That's a lot of trash. In the ocean. And that's only on the surface. What about the heavier trash that's sunk? And the trash that has algae growing on it, and is floating indeterminately below the surface? And by the way. . . that whirling sea o' garbage? It's 90% plastic. Even I, who already used to fight with the deli people about not wanting a bag, started fighting more, demanding that my sandwich not be put in a plastic box, but just wrapped up in wax paper (that's how people had been ordering sandwiches for years, you know, before the rise of the plastic box). Whose idea was it to put trash in the ocean?

Weisman covers an astounding breadth of locations to describe the impact humans have had on the Earth (in fact, the Universe), and what the Earth might start to look like if we all somehow disappeared (whether by virus or by will or by "rapture"—a perhaps inoffensive way of alluding to a religious "Second Coming" or some such. We see nature overtaking the supposedly poisoned Chernobyl, and reclaiming a beach-side hotel in Cyprus, where war has kept the tourists away. We see rare birds flocking in the Korean DMZ, the tiny slice of land protected against the encroachment of condos and billboards and flashing lights. We see a Polish forest, preserved because it was once the King's protected hunting grounds, and the British plantation where fertilizer was developed, where over 100 years of canisters of earth show the exponentially-increasing levels of nitrogen in the soil. We see the oil fields of Texas, and learn how, if humans were to suddenly disappear, they would eventually break down—up in flames, if no one turns the off switch before we go, or hunkered down to corrosion and eventual flames as well, if some one does.

Weisman has a gentle way of demonstrating, rather than inflaming, so that by the time a reader has finished the book, whether he or she is religious or not, naturalist or not, capitalist or not, the sense of flux in nature has grown apparent. Humanity, the individual in particular, seems more fleeting—something to which one begins to lose attachment. Although he tells us that our television and radio signals will outlive us in outer space, and that groups of scientists have ambitions to holographically project our intelligence in the same way, so that we might leave our bodies behind and prolong existence, in a higher state, elsewhere, these God-like dreams sound interesting but irrelevant. Life on Earth is a constant game of mutation, extinction, and evasion of extinction via mutation. Weisman even suggests that, perhaps one day, bacteria will evolve that can eat plastic, because of its plentiful availability. Which brings him to his final conclusion: that we need the world, but the world does not need us.

By way of proposing a solution, Weisman suggests that we immediately curtail population growth; that each woman have only one child, until our numbers become more sustainable. Like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, there is a complete lack of feasibility to this plan, at least for now. And yet, that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve my sympathy.

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