Thursday, September 6, 2007

The World Without Us

Thank you, Alan Weisman.

The World Without Us is the most compelling and creative expression of human peril I've ever come across. I've never been a card-carrying environmentalist, and now I know why the movement has never compelled me in the past: It hasn't been intellectually honest.

This book is intellectually honest. You may ask, "What's the point in writing a book about what would happen to the planet if homo sapiens vanished tomorrow?" There are several:

- It reminds us that the planet was not created for us. We evolved into it, and we are nothing but a blip in its history.

- It details how everything man-made--from our own homes to the Manhattan subway system--are shockingly impermanent and waiting to be reclaimed by water, mold, microbes, plants, UV rays and other animals.

- It points out the most if not all of what we refer to as "nature" would be better off without us.

- It reveals the short-sightedness of the environmentalist movement in focusing on how we are destroying "Mother Earth." The Earth is neither an ally nor an antagonist to humans. The truth is far more disturbing: It is absolutely indifferent to us.

- It shows in vivid detail how our particular mammal has been involved in a form of involuntary--I'll create a word here--speciesuicide. By choosing polymers, energy sources, agricultural practices and hunting methods that ultimately kill our food supply, pollute our water supply and increase fatal natural disasters, we are not destroying the Earth; we are destroying ourselves.

- If you're a conservative, it shows that "letting the market decide" isn't morally bulletproof; it only works under a short-term perspective with the assumption of unlimited resources.

- If you're a liberal, it shows that while "self interest" might have caused this problem, it is also integral to its solution.

- It points out (parenthetically) that weeds are actually a form of biodiversity, which for some reason is one of the most compelling facts in the book.

- It leaves you with this image: As much as we have already done ourselves in by over-consumption, every four days, one million more of us need food, water and energy.

I'll say it again: The biggest problem we face is the relationship between population, energy and the environment. Our only hope is that our worst trait, greed, is ultimately trumped by our best trait, intelligence.

That will only happen if we attain a sense of unity and humility as a species. And that's what this book offers--in abundance.

4 comments:

fab4fan said...

Now that you're finished, I'm going to read it.

I find the point about weeds interesting too. Sometime over the summer I found myself trying to explain to James why we pull weeds out of the garden. "Um ... because they're ugly?" "Because we only want the pretty flowers?" What kind of message is that sending him? I think I'll go back to calling the weeds and dandelions "wildflowers" -- better message for him and less work for us!

Marc Conklin said...

Tell him he's a weed, and if he doesn't behave, we're going to pull him.

Stephen Dashboard said...

Harsh daddy!

James McKenzie said...

Marc's framing of the book in political terms is interesting but reminds me that, over and over as I read it, I, found it profoundly Buddhist. Maybe it was how it steadily reminded me of the truly transitory nature of all things, as no other thing I've read. "The World Without Us" embodies a central observation of Buddhist thought, but at the macro/physical level. I have long been what Marc calls "a card-Carrying environmentalist," but this book goes way deeper than that, showing me how my eco-awareness relates to my sense of a Buddhist mind.