Congrats on your inclusion in The Best American Science Writing 2006. What prompted you to write the article "Earth Without People"?
Well, it's kind of a funny story, because I blame the editor, and the (Discover magazine) editor blames me. (She) called me up and asked me to do a piece on what the world would be like without people in it. At first, I thought it was a really dumb idea, because she wanted a story on what would happen if people just vanished suddenly. And I said, "You know, that's not likely to happen, and we're probably going to go down slowly, agonizingly, and drag a lot of other species with us ... ." (But) I realized this was very interesting, because if you theoretically remove human beings, suddenly we start to have a clear picture of what else is here, what we do to it and how stuff might flourish in our absence. ... I said, "This is actually a pretty good idea. How did you come up with it?" ... She had read (an article) in Harper's in 1994 which she had never forgotten ... a piece I had done on Chernobyl seven years after the reactor. I talk about how nature is reclaiming the plant.
Your Web site (www.homelands.org) mentions that beyond writing your new book, The World Without Us, which is based on the Discover article, you are conducting research on the future of energy. What have you found so far?
Let me take you back a little ways so you can understand how this happened. ... In the early '90s, I worked on this huge project for National Public Radio, "Vanishing Homelands," which looked at forces that were ... making entire cultures into endangered species. ... And subsequently, my colleagues and I were funded (by the) Ford Foundation to look for the antidote to all this called "Searching for Solutions." And we had focused on things like population and food production, and it was pretty clear that energy and the pursuit of energy was one of the biggest driving forces in environmental destruction.
So, it occurred to me ... the one thing we have to do that could buy us more time on this planet might be to find a cheap, abundant and clean source of energy. ... I started taking a look at hydrogen again. ... (But) hydrogen just doesn't exist in a free state, and to get it in a free state, it requires applying more energy than you're going to get out of it. People have looked for all kinds of ways to do a run around that, at least to do it cheaply. ... These are not easily solved issues. The more I looked at all this, there just might not be a real clean solution to energy.
Is your energy research going into the book you're working on?
That's a question I still haven't answered. The book that I'm working on currently is going to have to address the energy issue, because what we're doing for energy is relevant to what the world would look like if human beings weren't here tomorrow. ... But most likely, this stuff is going to find its way into some other book. ... My intention was to write a hopeful book, saying, "Here's something that we can do." The more I looked at it, the less hopeful I became about hydrogen. So, I'm looking for a really positive way to tell this energy story so people will actually read it without wanting to open a vein. ... That's an issue that a lot of environmental writers face these days: How can we talk about the environment and describe it as this beautiful and regenerating, spiritually restoring source that it is to us, and yet talk about it in realistic terms?
Seems like a tricky balance between making a positive call to action, and, at the same time, disclosing the significance and harm of the actual problem.
This is a tricky balance, all right. You know, the really lovely thing about the book I'm working on is that it's not a scary book in terms of talking about, "If this keeps happening and this keeps happening, we're all going to die."
It seems like people would tune out the doomsday approach.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. This book assumes for some unknown reason that doomsday has already happened. Human beings, they're gone, but everything else is still there. It creates an imaginary scenario that people find intriguing. ... It's like going into a horror movie. It's kind of fun to watch New York fall apart, because you know at the end of the movie, you're going to go out, and you're back on Fifth Avenue. And this book is the same way: At the end of the book, you're still here.