The world without us
There are several piles of books on my bookshelf. Some of them I read a long time ago and reread in recent years: George Orwell’s “1984,” Ole Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth,” and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” It is interesting how thirty years of life changes how I understand what is written.
There is also the stack of books that I’m part-way through: Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” John Ikerd’s “Sustainable Capitalism” and a book on textiles called “Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years.” I’m sure the reason those are only partly read is pretty obvious.
I also have a list of books I plan to read. One of those is a nonfiction book which has been around a few years called “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman. The author imagines what might happen to the earth if humans suddenly disappeared. He uses the expertise of scientists, religious leaders, engineers and others to envision how the earth would be after we’re gone. He contemplates what parts of our civilization would persist and what would simply vanish.
The very premise of the book seems more than a little creepy and reminiscent of science fiction movies. On the other hand, it may be a topic worth some consideration.
In our discussions about global warming and pollution of the environment we tend to focus on the impacts of earth’s changes on other creatures. Scientists warn that changing climates will cause–indeed are already causing–the extinction of a growing number of plant and animal species. Rarely do we consider that one of the species that might disappear could indeed be our own. We tend to think of ourselves as being apart from the rest of nature, able to control and manipulate the world around us. To some extent that is true. We have learned to heat and cool our homes so we are less vulnerable to the extremes of our climate. We have learned to grow food and to apply fertilizers and water to stimulate our crops’ growth.
We humans seem to forget that according to the Bible we were created last–on the sixth day. According to paleontologists, Homo sapiens have only been around for about 200,000 years and the earth has been circling the sun for more the 4.5 billion years. In other words, biblically and scientifically, we are a relatively new species, almost an after thought. Not only are we new, but in many ways we are a fragile species. We can’t exist without our parents until we are relatively old. We need clothing and shelter to survive in all but the most ideal climates. We need a variety of food and large amounts of water to live. We are prone to many diseases and live in highly concentrated populations which makes us even more susceptible to epidemic illnesses. Probably the only reason we have been able to survive and populate the planet is that we are intelligent and creative enough to find ways to overcome our weaknesses as a species. Still, there is very little doubt that life on earth would continue without us. Weisman’s book gives a view of what that world would be like.
I’m looking forward to reading it, not because I like pondering my own or my species’ demise. I think it is good for us to approach the world around us with some humility. We are part of the environment not separate from it. We are affected by other creatures and dependent on them. Did you know that without the bacteria in our intestines we would starve to death or that without the microorganisms in the soil, we could not grow food? We need bees and other pollinators to fertilize our fruit trees. We need insects and bacteria to break down dead organic matter into soil. We need the rest of creation more than it needs us. If we view ourselves as part of the environment around us rather than separate and superior to it, our interactions with the earth changes. If we see environmental abuse as abuse of ourselves or our children, we might be motivated be more careful.
The idea that the earth will continue on without us is, in another way, a hopeful one. It is amazing how plants will grow in any little crack in the sidewalk or trees will sprout up through the center of an unused building in just a matter of a few years. The earth has powerful regenerative powers. Nature can undo man’s centuries of work in a much shorter span of time. Realizing that we are not essential to the rest of the world is not a reason for despair. It is a reason for hope for the rest of creation, at least.
Life on earth will continue with or without us. It is up to us to learn to find new ways to live respectfully in our changing world, especially if we want our descendants to be able to live here.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains