The World Without Us - Alan Weisman (2007)

Part IV

Chapter 17. Where Do We Co from Here?


F HUMANS WERE gone,” says ornithologist Steve Hilty, “at least a third of all birds on Earth might not even notice.”

He’s referring to the ones that don’t stray from isolated Amazon jungle basins, or far-flung Australian thorn forests, or Indonesian cloud slopes. Whether other animals who probably would notice—stressed, hunted, and endangered bighorn sheep or black rhinos, for instance— would actually celebrate our passing is beyond our understanding. We can read the emotions of very few animals, most of them tame, like dogs and horses. They would miss the steady meals and, despite those leashes and reins, maybe some kindly owners. Animal species we consider the most intelligent—dolphins, elephants, pigs, parrots, and our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins—probably wouldn’t miss us much at all. Although we often go to considerable lengths to protect them, the danger usually is us.

Mainly, we’d be mourned by creatures who literally can’t live without us because they’ve evolved to live on us: Pediculus humanus capitis and her brother Pediculus humanus humanus—respectively, head and body lice. The latter are so specifically adapted that they depend not just on us, but on our clothing—a trait unique among species, save maybe fashion designers. Also bereaved will be follicle mites, so tiny that hundreds live even in our eyelashes, helpfully munching on skin cells as we discard them, lest dandruff overwhelm us.

Some 200 bacteria species also call us home, especially those dwelling in our large intestines and nostrils, inside our mouths, and on our teeth. And hundreds of little Staphylococci live on every square inch of our skin, with thousands in our armpits and crotches and between our toes. Nearly all are so genetically customized to us that when we go, so do they. Few would attend a farewell banquet on our corpses, not even the follicle mites: Contrary to a widespread myth, hair doesn’t keep growing after death. As our tissues lose moisture, they contract; the resulting exposed hair roots make exhumed cadavers look in need of a trim.

If we all suddenly keeled over en masse, the usual scavengers would clean our bones within a few months, save for anyone whose mortal husk dropped into a glacial crevasse and froze, or who landed in mud deep enough to be covered before oxygen and the biological wrecking crew started in. But what about our dear departed who preceded us into whatever comes next, whom we carefully and ritually laid to rest? How long do human remains, well, remain? Will humankind approach immortality at least as recognizably as the Barbie and Ken dolls created in someone’s slick idea of our image? How long do our extensive, and expensive, efforts to preserve and seal away the dead actually last?

In much of the modern world, we begin with embalming, a gesture that delays the inevitable very temporarily, says Mike Mathews, who teaches the process in the University of Minnesota’s Mortuary Science program, as well as chemistry, microbiology, and funeral history.

“Embalming’s really just for funerals. The tissues coagulate a bit, but they start breaking down again.” Because it’s impossible to completely disinfect a body, Mathews explains, Egyptian mummifiers removed all organs, where decomposition inevitably begins.

Bacteria left in the intestinal tract are soon aided by natural enzymes that become active as a dead body’s pH changes. “One of them is the same as Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. They break down our proteins so they’re easier to digest. Once we stop, they kick in, embalming fluid or not.”

Embalming was uncommon until the Civil War, when it was used to send fallen soldiers home. Blood, which decomposes rapidly, was replaced with anything handy that didn’t. Often, it was whiskey. “A bottle of scotch works fine,” allows Mathews. “It’s embalmed me several times.”

Arsenic turned out to work even better, and was cheaper. Until it was banned in the 1890s, it was used widely, and heavy arsenic levels are sometimes a problem for archaeologists examining some old U.S. graveyards. What they generally find is that the bodies decomposed anyway, but the arsenic stayed.

After that came today’s formaldehyde, from the same phenols that produced Bakelite, the first man-made plastic. In recent years, a green burial movement has protested formaldehyde, which oxidizes to formic acid, the toxin in fire ants and bee stingers, as yet one more poison to leach into water tables: careless people, polluting even from the tomb. The eco-burialists also challenge why, after we intone sacred words about dust returning to dust, we ambivalently place bodies in the ground, yet go to extraordinary lengths to seal them away from it.

That sealing begins—but only begins—with the casket. Pine boxes have yielded to modern sarcophagi of bronze, pure copper, stainless steel, or coffins crafted from an estimated 60 million board feet of temperate and tropical hardwoods, felled annually just to be buried underground. Yet not really under the ground, because the box into which we’re tucked for good goes inside another box, a liner usually made of plain gray concrete. Its purpose is to support the weight of the earth so that, as in older cemeteries, graves don’t sink and headstones don’t tumble when caskets below rot and collapse. Because their lids aren’t waterproof, holes in liner bottoms allow whatever trickles in to drain away.

The green burial folks prefer no liners, and coffins of materials that quickly biodegrade, like cardboard or wicker—or none at all: unembalmed, shrouded bodies are placed right in the dirt to start returning their leftover nutrients to the earth. Although most people throughout history were probably interred this way, in the Western world only a handful of cemeteries permit it—and even less, the green headstone substitute: planting a tree to immediately harvest the formerly human nourishment.

The funeral industry, emphasizing the value of preservation, counsels something rather more substantial. Even concrete liners are considered crude compared to bronze vaults so tight that in a flood, they pop up and float, despite weighing as much as an automobile.

According to Michael Pazar, vice president at Wilbert Funeral Services of Chicago, the biggest manufacturer of such burial bunkers, the challenge is that “tombs, unlike basements, don’t have sump pumps.” His company’s triple-layered solution is pressure-tested to withstand a six-foot head of water—meaning a cemetery transformed by a rising water table into a pond. It has a concrete core, clad in rust-proof bronze, lined inside and sheathed outside with ABS: an alloy of acrylonitrile, styrene, and butadiene rubber, which may be the most indestructible, impact-and-heat-resistant plastic there is.

Its lid is affixed with a proprietary butyl sealer that bonds to the seamless plastic liner. The sealer, Pazar says, may be strongest of all. He mentions a major private testing lab in Ohio, whose reports are also proprietary. “They heated it, hit it with ultraviolet, soaked it in acid. The test report said it will last millions of years. I’d be uncomfortable with that, but these guys are Ph.D.s. Imagine some time in the future when archaeologists only find these rectangular butyl rings.”

What they won’t find, however, is much sign of the former human to whom we devoted all the expense, chemistry, radiation-resistant polymers, endangered hardwoods, and heavy metals—which, like the mahogany and walnut, were wrenched from the Earth only to be stuck back in it. With no incoming food to process, the body’s enzymes will have liquefied whatever tissues bacteria didn’t eat, mixing the results for a few decades with the acidic stew of embalming juices. That will be yet another test for the seals and ABS plastic liner, but they should easily pass, outlasting even our bones. Should those archaeologists arrive before the bronze and concrete and everything else but the butyl seal have dissolved away, all that remains of us will be a few inches of human soup.

Deserts like the Sahara, the Gobi, and Chile’s Atacama, where desiccation is near-total, occasionally yield natural human mummies, with intact clothing and hair. Thawing glaciers and permafrost sometimes give up other long-dead, eerily preserved predecessors of we, the living, such as the leather-clad Bronze Age hunter discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps.

There won’t be much chance, however, for any of us presently alive to leave a lasting mark. It’s rare these days for anyone to be covered with mineral-rich silt that eventually replaces our bone tissue until we turn into skeleton-shaped rocks. In one of our stranger follies, we deny ourselves and our loved ones the opportunity of a true lasting memorial—fossilhood—with extravagant protections that, in the end, only protect the Earth from being tainted by us.

THE ODDS OF us all going together, let alone soon, are slight, but within the realm of possibility. The chance that only humans will die, leaving everything else to carry on, is even more remote, but nevertheless greater than zero. Dr. Thomas Ksiazek, chief of the Special Pathogens Branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is paid to worry that something could take out many millions of us. Ksiazek is a former army veterinary microbiologist and a virologist, and his consultations range from threats of biological attack to hazards that unexpectedly jump from other species, such as the SARS coronavirus he helped to characterize.

Grim as those scenarios are, especially in an age when so many of us live in oversized Petri dishes called cities, where microbes congregate and flourish, he doesn’t see an infectious agent arising that could wipe out the entire species. “It would be unparalleled. We work with the most virulent, and even with those there are survivors.”

In Africa, periodic horrors like the Ebola and Marburg viruses have slain villagers, missionaries, and so many health care workers that the rest fled their hospitals. In each instance, what finally broke the chain of contagion was simply getting staff to wear protection and scrub with soap and water—often lacking in poor areas where such diseases usually begin— after touching patients.

“Hygiene is the key. Even if someone tried to introduce Ebola intentionally, though you might get a few secondary cases in families and hospital staff, with sufficient precautions it would die out rapidly. Unless it mutated to something more viable.”

High-hazard viruses like Ebola and Marburg originate in animals— fruit bats are suspected—and are spread among people through infected body fluids. Since Ebola finds its way into the respiratory tract, U.S. Army researchers at Fort Detrick, Maryland, tried to see if a terrorist might be able to concoct an Ebola bomb. They created an aerosol capable of spreading the virus back to animals. “But,” says Ksaizek, “it doesn’t make respiratory particles small enough to be easily transmissible to humans via coughing or wheezing.”

But if one Ebola strain, Reston, ever mutated, we might have a problem. Currently, it kills only nonhuman primates; unlike other Ebolas, however, it is believed to attack through the air. Similarly, if highly virulent AIDS, which is currently passed through blood or semen, were ever to become airborne, it could be a real species-stopper. That’s unlikely, Ksiazek believes.

“Possibly it could change its transmission route. But the current way is actually advantageous to HIV’s survival because it allows victims to spread it around awhile. It evolved into that niche for a reason.”

Even the deadliest airborne influenzas have failed to wipe out everyone, because people eventually develop immunity and pandemics fizzle. But what if a psychotically obsessed, biochemically trained terrorist creatively spliced something together that evolves faster than we develop resistance—maybe by clipping genetic material into the versatile SARS virus, which could spread both sexually and via the air before Ksaizek helped eradicate it?

It would be possible to design for extreme virulence, Ksaizek allows, although, as in transgenic pesticides, results of genetic manipulation aren’t guaranteed.

“It’s like when they breed mosquitoes to be less capable of transmitting a viral disease. When they release these lab-bred mosquitoes, they don’t compete very well. It’s not as easy as just thinking about it. Synthesizing a virus in the lab is one thing; making it work is another. In order to repackage it as an infectious virus, you need a constellation of genes that will let it infect a host cell, then make a bunch of progeny.”

He chuckles mirthlessly. “People trying might kill themselves in the process. There are a lot of easier things to do with a lot less effort.”

HAVING YET TO perfect contraception, thus far we have little to fear from misanthropic plots to sterilize the entire human race. From time to time, Nick Bostrom, who directs Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, computes the odds (increasing, he believes) that human existence is at risk of ending. He is particularly intrigued by the potential of nanotechnology going awry, accidentally or deliberately, or superintelligence running amuck. In either case, however, he notes that the skills needed to create atom-sized medical machines that would patrol our bloodstreams, zapping disease until they suddenly turned on us, or self-replicating robots that end up crowding or outsmarting us off the planet, are “at least decades away.”

In his morose 1996 scholarly tome The End of the World, cosmologist John Leslie of Ontario’s University of Guelph concurs with Bostrom. He cautions, however, that there’s no assurance that our current dallying with high-energy particle accelerators won’t crack the very physics of the vacuum in which our galaxy twirls, or even touch off a whole new Big Bang (“by mistake,” he adds, with scant consolation).

Each of these men, philosophers taking ethical measure of an age in which machines think faster than humans but regularly prove at least as flawed, repeatedly smack into a phenomenon that never troubled their intellectual predecessors: although humans have obviously survived every pox and meteor that nature has tossed at us until now, technology is something we toss back at our own peril.

“On the bright side, it hasn’t killed us yet, either,” says Nick Bostrom, who, when not refining doomsday data, researches how to extend the human life span. “But if we did go extinct, I think it would more likely be through new technologies than environmental destruction.”

To the rest of the planet, it would make little difference, because if either actually took us out, many other species undoubtedly would go with us. The chance that zookeepers from outer space might make this whole conundrum moot by rapturing us away but leaving everything else is not only slim but narcissistic—why would they only be interested in us? And what would stop them from the alien equivalent of salivating over the same enticing resource repast that we’ve gorged on? Our seas, forests, and the creatures that dwell in them might quickly prefer us to hyper-powered extraterrestrials who could stick an interstellar straw into the planetary ocean for the same purposes that induce us to siphon entire rivers out of their valleys.

“By definition, we’re the alien invader. Everywhere except Africa. Every time Homo sapiens went anywhere else, things went extinct.”

Les Knight, the founder of VHEMT—the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—is thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate, and quite serious. Unlike more-strident proponents of human expulsion from an aggrieved planet—such as the Church of Euthanasia, with its four pillars of abortion, suicide, sodomy, and cannibalism, and a Web site guide to butchering a human carcass that includes a recipe for barbeque sauce—Knight takes no misanthropic joy in anyone’s war, illness, or suffering. A schoolteacher, he just keeps doing math problems that keep giving him the same answer.

“No virus could ever get all 6 billion of us. A 99.99 percent die-off would still leave 650,000 naturally immune survivors. Epidemics actually strengthen a species. In 50,000 years we could easily be right back where we are now.”

War doesn’t work either, he says. “Millions have died in wars, and yet the human family continues to increase. Most of the time, wars encourage both winners and losers to repopulate. The net result is usually an increase rather than a decrease in total population. Besides,” he adds, “killing is immoral. Mass murder should never be considered a way to improve life on Earth.”

Although he lives in Oregon, his movement, he says, is based everywhere—meaning on the Internet, with Web sites in 11 languages. At Earth Day fairs and environmental conferences, Knight posts charts that acknowledge U.N. predictions that, worldwide, population growth rates and birthrates will both decline by 2050—but the punch line is the third chart, which shows sheer numbers still soaring.

“We have too many active breeders. China’s down to 1.3 percent reproduction, but still adds 10 million a year. Famine, disease, and war are harvesting as fast as ever, but can’t keep up with our growth.”

Under the motto “May we live long and die out,” his movement advocates that humanity avoid the agonizing, massive die-off that will occur when, as Knight foresees, it becomes brutally clear that it was naive to think that we could all have our planet and eat it, too. Rather than face horrific resource wars and starvation that decimate us and nearly everything else as well, VHEMT proposes gently laying the human race to rest.

“Suppose we all agree to stop procreating. Or that the one virus that would truly be effective strikes, and all human sperm loses viability. The first to notice would be crisis-pregnancy centers, because no one would be coming in. Happily, in a few months abortion providers would be out of business. It would be tragic for people who kept trying to conceive. But in five years, there would be no more children under five dying horribly.”

The lot of all living children would improve, he says, as they became more valuable rather than more disposable. No orphan would go un-adopted.

“In 21 years, there would be, by definition, no juvenile delinquency.” By then, as resignation sinks in, Knight predicts that spiritual awakening would replace panic, because of a dawning realization that as human life drew toward a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water. The seas would replenish. Because new housing wouldn’t be necessary, so would forests and wetlands.

“With no more resource conflicts, I doubt we’d be wasting each other’s lives in combat.” Like retired business executives who suddenly find serenity by tending a garden, Knight envisions us spending our remaining time helping rid an increasingly natural world of unsightly and now useless clutter, in pursuit of which we’d once swapped something alive and lovely.

“The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden.”

IN AN AGE when the decline of natural reality is paralleled by the rise of something called virtual reality, VHEMT’s antipode is not just those who find the promise of better living through human extinction deranged, but also a group of respected thinkers and noted inventors who consider extinction possibly a career move for Homo sapiens. Transhumanists, as they call themselves, hope to colonize virtual space by developing software to upload their minds into circuitry that would outperform both our brains and bodies on numerous levels (including, incidentally, never having to die). Via the self-accruing wizardry of computers, an abundance of silicon, and vast opportunities afforded by modular memory and mechanical appendages, human extinction would become merely a jettisoning of the limited and not very durable vessels that our technological minds have finally outgrown.

Prominent in the transhumanist (sometimes called posthuman) movement are Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom; heralded inventor Ray Kurzweil, originator of optical character recognition, flat-bed scanners, and print-to-speech reading machines for the blind; and Trinity College bioethicist James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. However Faustian, their discussion is compelling in its lure of immortality and preternatural power—and almost touching in its Utopian faith that a machine could be made so perfect that it would transcend entropy.

The great barrier to robots and computers leaping the chasm between mere objects and life-forms, it’s often argued, is that no one has ever built a machine that is aware of itself: without being able to feel, a supercomputer might calculate rings around us, but still never be able to think about its place in the world. A more fundamental flaw, though, is that no machine has performed indefinitely without human maintenance. Even stuff without moving parts breaks down, and self-repair programs crash. Salvation, in the form of backup copies, could lead to a world of robots desperately trying to stay one clone up on the latest technology to which competitive knowledge was migrating—an all-consuming form of tail chasing that hearkens to the behavior of lower primates, who undoubtedly have more fun.

Even if posthumanists succeed in transferring themselves to circuitry, it won’t be anytime soon. For the rest of us, sentimentally clinging to our carbon-based human nature, voluntary-extinction advocate Les Knight’s twilight prophecy hits a vulnerable spot: the weariness that genuinely humane beings feel as they witness the collapse of much biology and beauty. The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive. Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder that humans have wrought amid our harm and excess. If that most wondrous of all human creations—a child—is never more to roll and play on the green Earth, then what really would be left of us? What of our spirit might be truly immortal?

Deferring for the moment the matter of afterlife as defined by religions great and small: After we’re all gone, what would become of the passion that believers and agnostics alike share—our irrepressible need to utter what’s in our souls? What will remain of our greatest creative forms of human expression?