The World Without Us

“Not only the reason of millennia – the madness of millennia, too, breaks out in us…we are still fighting, step by step, with that giant Chance. Truly, the Earth shall yet become a house of healing!”
F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1885

I am always amazed by the fact that so many people think that humanity is a cancer on the Earth, that the planet would be better off without us, and that it wouldn’t be a great loss if we become extinct. Well, I absolutely disagree. I sincerely wish all of us well for many more million years to come. I have no more given up on the human race than I have given up on myself, and if humanity became extinct, I think it would be a tragedy of cosmic proportions. Had I been confronted with that cynical Mr. Smith in The Matrix, who found humanity disgusting because “you are like viruses” that destroy everything, I would have told him that virology is a very interesting science and that he should look into it to improve his mood.  I would have also told him that humans, unlike viruses, reflect on their behavior, which causes them infinite grief and joy – viruses haven’t a clue about either.

FACING THE WORLD WE HAVE MADE

A most profound thought experiment was undertaken by science journalist Alan Weisman. In The World Without Us, he asked himself what would happen to Earth if all humans magically disappeared. “How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms?” The idea for this book came to him when he visited Chernobyl and saw plants and animals thriving again, even in the ruins of the burnt-out reactor. The surrounding forests, which died within hours of the 1986 explosion, have returned and live with somewhat scrambled DNA now producing odd growth patterns. Life mysteriously continues there as well as in the “the most contaminated square mile on Earth”, Rocky Flats near Denver, Colorado. There, until 1989, a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant received the garbage from nuclear bomb manufacturing plants; contamination levels in its notorious “infinity room” rose higher than instruments could measure. Surrounded by a 6,000-acre security area, forbidden to people, it is now home to a spontaneously emerged National Wildlife Refuge. It will take hundreds of thousands of years, though, before the earth will have metabolized the Rocky Flats nuclear garbage; its long-term effects on the wildlife and plants, living on top of the imperfectly sealed underground holding facility, are still unknown. Our legacy to Earth would include tens of thousands of depleted-uranium weapons whose lethal radiation would last some ten billion years (five billion more than our planet’s remaining lifespan). Similarly, if left untended, the 30,000 nuclear warheads, still kept in working order in some countries’ arsenals, would corrode to release weapons-grade plutonium-239 (1 millionth of a gram causes lung cancer). In about 250,000 years this would finally be lost in the Earth’s natural background radiation. And then there are some 441 nuclear power plants whose “deadly dregs” would also be part of this toxic soup and take hundreds of thousands of years to neutralize.

A world without us would inherit from humanity two items that are, in effect, eternal: music and plastic. All our music, past and current, would travel, like light, for billions of years through the universe and be literally our eternal gift to infinity, available to be picked up, complete and perfect, by those who know how. Plastic products, PCBs and the like are not biodegradable, and even when broken down into ever-smaller particles, they kill millions of animals annually; nothing living can metabolize this stuff, and as it accumulates in their bodies, it kills them. Floating in the North Pacific Ocean is the ever-growing, continent-sized Great Pacific Garbage Patch “where nearly everything that blows into the water … eventually ends up, spiraling slowly toward a widening horror of industrial excretion.”  Its millions of garbage bags and six-pack rings are a death trap for marine life and birds. After we are gone, life on Earth would have to deal with the murderous effects of our “throw-away society” unabated for the next 5 billion years from now, when the Earth slams into the sun. In fact, plastic appears to be the worst legacy – even worse than radiation.

Our cities without humans would rapidly turn into jungles. The New York City subway requires 753 pumps running twenty-four hours to remove 13 million gallons of water every day, to prevent the 40 rivers and streams, on which Manhattan was built, from overpowering the subway; untended, these rivers would begin to drown New York in 36 hours.

Our farms would return to wilderness, domesticated animals would become feral and new evolutionary patterns would develop, once that brief tinkering with domestication, that started some ten thousand years ago, were to stop. The pines of New England would again reach heights of 250 feet and diameters of 20 feet, if cities, farms, and highways disappeared and humans no longer logged anything. The crops we developed over the past ten thousand years – corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, apples, and more – would all return to what they were before – food for their own seeds instead of food for us.  The wonderful world of flowers we have created would disappear and become part of the next phase of plant evolution, helping to create flowering marvels no human eye would ever be privileged to see.

Would we be missed by anything? Oh yes! Head and body lice are adapted uniquely to human bodies only and would become extinct without us. Hundreds of different types of follicle mites can only live in human eye-lashes, and they, too, would be gone forever.

GEOLOGICAL TIME VERSUS HUMAN TIME

Trying to imagine the world without us is existentially impossible: the mind hits an impenetrable wall when attempting to imagine a state in which the observing self is erased. Yet, imagining the unimaginable is as important as it is distressing because it forces us to engage with everything alive – animals and plants – on equal terms.  The illusory hierarchies dissolve because humans, the great categorizers, are taken out of the picture and the categories we imposed dissolve, returning everything living to its original unity.

In Weisman’s thought experiment it is the plants and animals that inherit the earth and we aren’t even around to see what they will do without us. Trying to imagine this, makes it clear just how dispensable and insignificant humans actually are in this immense scheme of things. Within that unimaginable context of geological and astronomical time, we are nothing. As evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, we are an infinitesimal item; if we mess up it is only ourselves we ultimately hurt and deprive of the chance to witness this grand pageant of life. We are of no significance – except to ourselves. To each other we are of supreme significance in this tiny bubble of time.

Extinctions are common in Earth’s history and tend to happen every 20 to 30 million years. Some 250 million years ago the Permian Extinction knocked off 95% of all life when our planet went through a million years of volcanic eruptions. A thin white line in the rock stratigraphy of the earth is all the evidence left of that era. Doug Erwin of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC observes about this event, as if whimsically speaking for the force of evolution: “It was time to try something new.”

Humans began to evolve around seven million years ago and civilization, by any definition, is at most about ten thousand years old. That is less than a split second in evolutionary time. In another split second we might be gone because our destructiveness ultimately is the most harmful to us. An awful lot went on before we turned up and an awful lot more will happen when we are gone, because all species are born and eventually die or evolve into something different. Weisman quotes Erwin: “Humans are going extinct eventually. Everything has, so far.  But life will continue.  I figure it’s interesting to be here now.  I’m not going to get all upset about it.”

Disgusting as our legacy to this planet is, it will all eventually be buried, digested, compressed, and irrelevant.  Future extra-terrestrial archaeologists will be puzzled by some anomalies in the stratigraphy of this planet. Maybe they will even figure out what that anomaly represents. If these considerations don’t kick us into the present, that infinitely precious interlude, the Human Era – what can bring us to our senses?

Billions of us now know that we have made a mess of our home, and that we can’t escape to yet another Promised Land anytime soon, seeing the moon is uninhabitable and oil is running out. The past millennia were inspired by unclimbed mountains, combats with wild beasts, one kind of Gold Rush or another, and dreams of empires whose natives were thought to be in need of civilization. Now all of us are the natives in need of civilization.

The challenge is to deal with garbage mountains that don’t biodegrade; all of nature needs to be freed from what geographer Alfred Crosby calls our “ecological imperialism”. The stupendous task is now to re-invent ourselves along the lines of refuse, reuse, recycle. Naomi Klein observed in a recent documentary film: “We have an economic model that thinks like a crack addict – where can I get my next fix?” We need to heal our addictions and, thereby heal our ecological niche.

The heroic ideal of the last few thousand years gave us conquest, competition, dominance, and the fight against evil as interpreted by the opposing side. Today, the context has changed radically. Those ideals will lead to humanity’s suicide. We now need ideals of repair, protection, restraint, and transformation. The Buddha taught that “we are what we think and our thoughts create the world.” A new way to be must always first be imagined.

LEARNING TO BE HUMAN

Whether we move a large object through a doorway or plan a party, we always first visualize every detail in our minds. Weisman asks: “Since we are imagining, why not also dream of a way for nature to prosper that doesn’t depend on our demise? We are, after all, mammals ourselves.  Every life form adds to this vast pageant. With our passing, might some lost contribution of ours leave the planet a bit more impoverished?” One thing is certain: we ourselves would be very impoverished if we lost ourselves.

This thought experiment is rather like the old question about the meaning of life.  Mythology researcher Joseph Campbell used to say, that nobody really wants to find the meaning of life, because that’s an intellectual dead end.  What everybody does want, he asserted, is to “have the experience of life”. To deprive ourselves and others of that – now that is the truly awful.

The efforts now underway to clean up the planet and focus on how to live in accordance with the demands of nature are so numerous, it is impossible to keep up with the news. Universities and corporations are working at breakneck speed and with fierce concentration on making environmentally friendly plastics that degrade without causing harm, even in microscopic parts; methods are being invented for recycling all that old trash that is now a death-trap to birds and fish to become clean energy; architects and materials experts are designing environmentally friendly cities; the work being done on harnessing the sun, ocean waves, and heat inside the planet for clean and renewable energy is possibly the most inspiring current talent show; and superbugs are being coaxed to feed on arsenic and other heavy metals.

Perhaps even birth control will work out as hoped: Weisman reports research showing that with luck, planning, education and without coercion (requiring that we toss archaic religious ideas) the human population could quite naturally drop to 1.6 billion (from the present 6.5 billion) within less than two hundred years, thereby proving “that intelligence really makes us special after all.” Even Mr. Smith would have to consider this number as closer to a planetary family and less like a vast virus colony.

Mental health is the ability and willingness to accept reality as it is, not sugar-coat nor demonize it. Believing Earth would be better off without us nihilistic and voyeuristic. What vicarious pleasure is there in a vision of species annihilation anyway? Wishing humanity gone is nihilistic because it assumes the right to dismiss what is not ours (we belong to nature and evolution) and simultaneously shirks the task at hand: that immense clean-up that is part of any transformation.  Would it be moral to kill off all the children in a nursery school because they consistently make horrible messes? Are we not to teach them to clean up and respect each other’s needs, and will they not transform regardless of our efforts?  Humanity is very young. Our seven million years hardly compare to the 150 million-year reign of the mighty dinosaurs.

Is it not arrogance to demand that humans must be good  – or else they should be eradicated as some cancer?  Hitler was famously addicted to purity and perfection, and to him exterminating all the Jews meant making the world racially pure again – his “final solution”. In those of our darkest moments in which we judge humans to be worthless we are just as deluded. The philosopher Nietzsche described this tendency to reject humanity as worthless as a state of mind: “a weariness, which wants to reach the ultimate with a single leap, with a death-leap, a poor ignorant weariness, which no longer wants even to want…”

Imagining the world without us is a thought experiment that may hopefully awaken us to the grand potential of this Human Era and arouse a deep desire for and commitment to life.

References

W.K. Dodds, Humanity’s Footprint, Columbia, 2008
J. Porritt, Capitalism As If The World Matters, revised edition, Earthscan, 2007
A.B. Pralle, Branching Out Digging In: Environmental Advocacy and Agenda Setting, Georgetown University Press, 2007
A. Weisman, The World Without Us, Basic Books, 2007
Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2008

Helke Ferrie is a medical science writer with a master's degree in physical anthropology. Her specialty lies in investigative research into ethical issues in medicine and the politics of health. She started her investigative journalism career in the mid-1990s, looking at issues of medicine and environment. She has been a regular contributor to Vitality Magazine ever since. Helke has also authored several books on various subjects including: "Ending Denial: The Lyme Disease Epidemic", "What Part of No! Don't They Understand: Rescuing Food and Medicine from Government Abuse", and "The Earth's Gift to Medicine". Read her article: When governments abandon the public interest — look out for your own health Find her book -What Part of No! Don't They Understand Helke has also been a regular contributor for the Vitality Magazine. Links to few of her articles: The Tyranny of Government Protection Success Story - How I Recovered from Lyme Disease IN THE NEWS: Fluoride Dangers; Roundup Lawsuits; Lyme Disease Epidemic Helke Ferrie now lives a retired life and can be reached at helkeferrie@gmail.com

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