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Better Off Dead

Would the world be a better place without us?

By 8.1.07

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The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman
(Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pages, $24.95)

IT IS A COMMON FANTASY among the more zealous environmentalists that some strange and lethal virus will someday snuff out every Homo sapiens on the planet, but leave all other species unscathed. In time, say a few centuries -- a mere geological blink-of-the-eye -- the Earth heals and reverts to its pre-Hominid state.

Such thought experiments are the stuff of Alan Weisman's new book The World Without Us. Weisman's treatise would be an interesting read if it weren't for the nagging suspicion that there is something rather fatuous about its very premise: that a world without human beings could possibly matter.

An associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, Weisman's big revelation is that things will fall apart if left untended. I'll give you the basic outline. Man is whisked away by aliens, or zapped by a death ray, or eaten by a virus, or taken up to paradise during the Rapture. Centuries pass and the Great Wall of China crumbles, skyscrapers catch fire or their waterlogged foundations fail, bridges collapse, dams burst, and the Panama Canal silts up. Fifty years after man's disappearance humanity's ill effects continue to be felt, as radioactivity from the disintegrating nuclear reactors begin to seep into rivers. With man's extinction everything he has touched, including domesticated livestock, dogs and cats, is made short work of by increasing numbers of predators. Man-made plants, flowers, and crops quickly die off or devolve to their wild form. There is one bit of good news: "The invincible cockroach, an insect that originated in the hot climes of Africa, would succumb in unheated buildings. Without garbage, rats would starve or serve as lunch for peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks. Pigeons would genetically revert back to the rock doves from which they sprang."

It is, nonetheless, diverting to read how most signs of civilization would be quickly swallowed up by nature, much like Guatemala's Mayan pyramids or certain former colonial areas in Africa. North America would revert to a pre-Columbian Eden of forests and grasslands populated with bison and deer, bear and wolves. In his travels Weisman finds a few such pristine places extant today: Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ, the Cypriot Green Line, a virgin forest on the Polish-Belarus border once the private hunting grounds of a wealthy Lithuanian duke, now a federal preserve. Even so it would be impossible to wipe out all traces of Homo sapiens' ambiguous legacy. Bronze statues will endure for millions of years. Plastics are likewise virtually indestructible. And automobile tires -- which last on my car about three years--will be around forever. Worse, radio waves broadcasting asinine shows starring Paris Hilton will float around the galaxy for all time.

ITS ENTERTAINMENT VALUE aside, The World Without Us is a prime example of the wrongheaded, extremist views of the Greens who regard Man as Nature's main adversary, an indefatigable villain who is responsible for fouling the oceans, overheating the air, raping the forests and committing "specicide." David Graber, a research biologist for the U.S. Parks Service, seemed to anticipate Weisman when he told the Los Angeles Time, that "Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, is not as important as a wild and healthy planet....Some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." What we call pristine today, paleoecologist Paul S. Martin at the University of Arizona says, is a poor reflection of what would be here if Homo sapiens had never evolved. "When people got out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose."

Weisman's premise is reminiscent of the popular conundrum: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" In this case the answer depends on your definition of "sound." Is sound simply waves troubling the air, or is a better definition waves perceived through a sense of hearing or touch? To the idealist philosopher only that which can be perceived is real, therefore the answer is a resounding "No."

And that's why Weisman's thought experiment ultimately strikes me as philosophically unsound. As Bishop George Berkeley observed centuries ago, all we can know about an object (such as a planet) is our perception of it. This idea was summed up in Berkeley's famous dictum, "Esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived). Therefore, if there is no human mind left to perceive Earth's existence, the Earth cannot "be." Earth exists only as an idea in man's mind -- no more and no less. Put simply, the mental world is the real world. And no, Bishop Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone.

Ultimately this may just be a complicated way of stating the obvious. What would the world be like without us? It doesn't matter.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.