For a long time, I have had a handful of questions that I kept handy in case I ran into a famous scientist but, one by one, I keep finding the answers to my questions. Questions like: “If the primates got wiped out, from which class would the next Intelligent Species to Dominate The World come?” (answer: Rodents. Thanks to Richard Dawkins in the Ancestors Tale – best book of the century so far).
My last remaining question was “How long would it take for all traces of humanity to disappear when we are gone?” so imagine my delight when I heard that someone had written a whole book on that very subject – The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
Starting with the example of what happens to a barn when you cut an 18 inch hole in the roof and then working up through a house with a loose shingle (once the water gets in, it’s all over) he talks us through the destruction of New York City (reverts to forest in a 100 years and then the next ice age removes all trace (but see below about bronze statues)).
Some of our artifacts – like Houston and all its refineries – will cause 100s of years of pain before fading into nothingness but, on the whole, he expects the world to recover quite well. All the rivers will revert to their original courses and all the forests will grow back. In many cases, the original species will also recover and much of our meddling (wheat, cows, maize, dogs) will get eaten or out-competed very quickly.
Cats (and a few ornamental shrubs) are a sad exception to this rule. Apparently they are responsible for an avian holocaust (second only to plate glass in their ability to take down whole species). I always suspected that cats were evil and now I have confirmation.
Some of the best chapters in the book are about some accidental experiments where humanity has temporarily left an area because of war (Cyprus, Korea’s DMZ) or disaster (Chernobyl) and in each case the native species returned very very quickly or lived on when the same species became almost extinct in other areas.
I also enjoyed the mystery of why all the North American mega fauna died out around the same time that men with spears were crossing the Bering Strait (coincidence or…?). Don’t worry though. They will grow back. Not exactly the same of course. Maybe there will be Sabre Toothed Sloths and Giant Ground Tigers instead of what we had before. Meanwhile, we can join the campaign to Bring Back the Elephants!
More depressing are the sections that enumerate our waste products that will stick around for a long time like plastics, tyres, U-235 and dioxins but, one day, some clever bacteria will figure out what to do with them (except the U-235. nature will just have to learn to tolerate that). It’s actually quite shocking what we are doing with plastics and nuclear waste. Before I read the book, it was shocking in an abstract, distant way but now the problem appears quite real and close at hand.
Some of our artifacts that will be around longest include Mount Rushmore, bronze sculpture and the Voyager probes (which will probably outlast the earth) but they are all fairly innocuous so I don’t resent them too much.
All in all, I found the book very uplifting and it almost wants me to hasten our demise so that nature can make a start on restoring some of the beauty that we have destroyed. Which is why I just signed up with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.