Of People and Plastics

A UA prof's new, best-selling book explores what would happen if humans disappeared from the Earth

Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us begins with a funny but humbling exploration of what would happen to New York City if humans were gone, wiped out by a virus or a wizard who perfected a way to sterilize our sperm.

"Or say that Jesus, or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory, or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy," writes the UA associate professor of journalism and Latin American studies, before he launches into a delicious deconstruction of a great world city.

Without people to unblock the sewers or run the power stations, it wouldn't take long, Weisman predicts, before the city flooded, streets cratered, weeds sprang up, pipes burst and fires broke out.

"Collectively, New York's architecture isn't as combustible as, say, San Francisco's incendiary row of clapboard Victorians," Weisman notes as he describes how, with no firefighters to answer the calls, fires triggered by lightning would engulf the city.

Over the following centuries, corrosion would periodically set off "time bombs left in petroleum tanks, chemical and power plants, and hundreds of dry cleaners," while outdoors, a great return to wildness would occur, repopulating the city with maturing forests, coyotes, wolves "and a wily population of feral house cats."

Tracing the Big Apple's demise through to the next ice age, Weisman concludes that "after the ice recedes, buried in geologic layers below will be an unnatural concentration of reddish metal, which briefly had assumed the form of wiring and plumbing."

Weisman says he came up with his World Without Us fantasy after reading and writing about the environment for two decades, including stints covering Chernobyl and the melting of the Arctic permafrost. (For more on this, see the Weekly's May 4, 2006, TQ&A interview with Weisman.)

"I saw all this stuff and began to say, 'Oh man, this hopeless,' but then I stepped back and saw that there are places that are still untouched and beautiful, and that even in Chernobyl, voles were throwing off bigger litters," he says.

Weisman's book resulted from his struggle to find a way "to get people to read about environmental issues without saying, 'Oh, forget it,' and throwing away their newspapers." The author says his fantasy is intended to help people take a long view of our current challenges and begin to understand, for example, the profoundly serious impact of, say, plastic on our world.

He focuses on "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," or the North Pacific subtropical gyre, as it's officially known. It's in this swirling sink that "nearly everything that blows into the water from half the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly towards a widening horror of industrial excretion," Weisman writes.

"They say it's an enormous sump, and there are others on the planet where all the plastic ends up," Weisman says, noting that discarded plastic accounts for only 20 percent of the material in landfills, with the rest consisting mostly of construction debris and paper products. But unlike the Rocky Mountains, which are slowly, almost imperceptibly eroding and will end up in the ocean, plastic gets blown into the sea much faster.

"It's only been around since World War II, but already, it's everywhere," Wiseman says of plastic, which has the featherweight ability, once broken into tiny particles, to ride global sea currents.

Weisman's account should leave San Francisco proud to be the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, since these limp suckers apparently feature heavily in the oceanic sumps. But with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch measuring 10 million square miles in area (nearly the size of Africa) as of 2005, and six other tropical oceanic gyres swirling with ugly plastic debris--not to mention all the other environmental problems humans have caused--is it too late to heal our world?

Speculating that microbes will eventually evolve to eat all our plastics--something that could take 100,000 years to occur--Weisman suggests a healing path that doesn't require a world without us. "Green technology won't be enough on its own," he notes. "The answer lies in lowering the number of humans on the planet. I don't mean shoot ourselves, but that we don't replace ourselves at same rate."

There are 6.6 billion people on the planet, and 9 billion are predicted by 2050. Weisman says that by restricting reproduction to one child per couple, "our population could shrink to 1.6 billion by 2100, and the world will be a better place."

And in the meantime, don't forget the reusable bags on your next trip to the grocery store.