The World Without Us - Alan Weisman (2007)

Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls


S THE SAYING goes, we don’t get out of this life alive—and neither will the Earth. Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets back into its fiery womb. At that point, water ice will thaw on Saturn’s moon Titan, where the temperature is currently –290°F, and some interesting things may eventually crawl out of its methane lakes. One of them, pawing through organic silt, might come across the Huygens probe that parachuted there from the Cassini space mission in January, 2005, which, during its descent, and for 90 minutes before its batteries died, sent us pictures of streambed-like channels cutting down from orange, pebbled highlands to Titan’s sand-dune seas.

Sadly, whatever finds Huygens won’t have any clue where it came from, or that we once existed. Bickering among project directors at NASA nixed a plan to include a graphic explanation that Jon Lomberg designed, this time encased in a diamond that would preserve a shred of our story at least 5 billion years—long enough for evolution to provide another audience.

More crucial to us still here on Earth, right now, is whether we humans can make it through what many scientists call this planet’s latest great extinction—make it through, and bring the rest of Life with us rather than tear it down. The natural history lessons we read in both the fossil and the living records suggest that we can’t go it alone for very long.

Various religions offer us alternative futures, usually elsewhere, although Islam, Judaism, and Christianity mention a messianic reign on Earth lasting, depending on whose version, somewhere from seven to 7,000 years. Since these would apparently follow events that result in severe population reduction of the unrighteous, this might be feasible. (Unless, as all three suggest, the dead would be resurrected, which could trigger both resource and housing crises.)

However, since they disagree about who are the righteous, to believe any one of them requires an act of faith. Science offers no criteria by which to pick survivors other than evolution of the fittest, and into every creed are born similar percentages of stronger and weaker individuals.

As to the fate of the planet and its other residents after we’re finally done with it—or it’s done with us—religions are dismissive, or worse. The posthuman Earth is either ignored or destroyed, although in Buddhism and Hinduism, it starts again from scratch—as does the whole universe, similar to a repeating Big Bang theory. (Until that happens, the correct answer to whether this world would go on without us, says the Dalai Lama, is: “Who knows?”)

In Christianity, the Earth melts, but a new one is born. Since it needs no sun—the eternal light of God and the Lamb having eliminated night— it’s clearly a different planet than this one.

“The world exists to serve people, because man is the most honorable of all creatures,” says Turkish Sufi master Abdülhamit Çakmut. “There are cycles in life. From the seed comes the tree, from the tree comes the fruit we eat, and we give back as humans. Everything is meant to serve man. If people are gone from this cycle, nature itself will be over.”

The Muslim dervish practice he teaches reflects the recognition that everything, from atoms to our galaxy, whirls in cycles, including nature as it continually regenerates—at least until now. Like so many others— Hopis, Hindus, Judeo-Christians, Zoroastrians—he warns of an end-time. (In Judaism, time itself is said to end, but only God knows what that means.) “We see the signs,” Çakmut says. “Harmony is broken. The good are outnumbered. There is more injustice, exploitation, corruption, pollution. We are facing it now.”

It’s a familiar scenario: Good and evil finally spin apart, landing in heaven and hell, respectively, and everything else vanishes. Except, Abdülhamit Çakmut adds, we can slow this process—the good are those who strive to restore harmony and speed nature’s regeneration.

“We take care of our bodies to live a longer life. We should do the same for the world. If we cherish it, make it last as long as possible, we can postpone the judgment day.”

Can we? Gaia theorist James Lovelock prophesies that unless things change soon, we’d better stash essential human knowledge at the poles in a medium that doesn’t require electricity. Yet Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, a cadre of environmental guerrillas who had all but given up on humans deserving a place in the ecosystem, now directs The Rewilding Institute, a think tank based on conservation biology and unapologetic hope.

That hope both includes, and depends on, the consecration of “mega-linkages”—corridors that would span entire continents, where people would be committed to coexisting with wildlife. In North America alone, he sees a minimum of four: they would span the continent’s dividing spine, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the Arctic-boreal. In each, top predators and large fauna absent since the Pleistocene would be reinstated, or the closest things possible: African surrogates of America’s missing camels, elephants, cheetahs, and lions.

Dangerous? The payoff for humans, Foreman and company believe, is that in a re-equilibrated ecosystem, there’s a chance for us to survive. If not, the black hole into which we’re shoving the rest of nature will swallow us as well.

It’s a plan that keeps Paul Martin, author of the Blitzkrieg extinction theory, in touch with Kenya’s David Western, fighting to stop elephants from downing every last drought-stressed fever tree: Send some of those proboscids to America, pleads Martin. Let them again eat Osage oranges, avocados, and other fruit and seeds that evolved to be so big because megafauna could ingest them.

Yet the biggest elephant of all is a figurative one in the planet-sized room that is ever harder to ignore, although we keep trying. Worldwide, every four days human population rises by 1 million. Since we can’t really grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as has happened to every other species that got too big for this box. About the only thing that could change that, short of the species-wide sacrifice of voluntary human extinction, is to prove that intelligence really makes us special after all.

The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.

The numbers resulting from such a draconian measure, fairly applied, are tricky to predict with precision: Fewer births, for example, would lower infant mortality, because resources would be devoted to protecting each precious member of the latest generation. Using the United Nations’ medium scenario for life expectancy through 2050 as a benchmark, Dr. Sergei Scherbov, who is the research group leader at the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and an analyst for the World Population Program, calculated what would happen to human population if, from now on, all fertile women have only one child (in 2004, the rate was 2.6 births per female; in the medium scenario that would lower to about two children by 2050).

If this somehow began tomorrow, our current 6.5 billion human population would drop by 1 billion by the middle of this century. (If we continue as projected, it will reach 9 billion.) At that point, keeping to one-child-per-human-mother, life on Earth for all species would change dramatically. Because of natural attrition, today’s bloated human population bubble would not be reinflated at anything near the former pace. By 2075, we would have reduced our presence by almost by half, down to 3.43 billion, and our impact by much more, because so much of what we do is magnified by chain reactions we set off through the ecosystem.

By 2100, less than a century from now, we would be at 1.6 billion: back to levels last seen in the 19th century, just before quantum advances in energy, medicine, and food production doubled our numbers and then doubled us again. At the time, those discoveries seemed like miracles. Today, like too much of any good thing, we indulge in more only at our peril.

At such far-more-manageable numbers, however, we would have the benefit of all our progress plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control. That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong.

Projections, Population of the World:

----------- Medium UN scenario: fertility declining from 2.6 children per woman in 2004 to slightly over 2 children per woman in 2050. Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (2005).

_________ Scenario assuming that all fertile women are henceforth limited to 1 child. Source: Dr. Sergei Scherbov, research group leader, Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences.


If we don’t, and thus let our numbers increase by half again as projected, could our technology stretch resources once more, as it did for a while back in the 20th century? We’ve already heard from the robot contingent. Relaxing on the deck of the White Holly, watching the sharks roll by, microbiologist Forest Rohwer takes a stab at another theoretical possibility:

“We could try using lasers, or some similar particle-wave beams, to actually build things remotely on other planets, or in other solar systems. That would be much faster than actually sending something there. Maybe we could code for a human, and build a human in space. The life sciences will probably provide the ability to do that. Whether physics will allow it, I don’t know. But it’s all just biochemistry, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t construct it.

“Unless,” he allows, “there really is something called a spark of life. But it’s going to take something like that, because there’s no evidence that we could actually move from here in any reasonable time frame.”

If we could do that—find a fertile planet somewhere big enough for all of us, holographically clone our bodies, and upload our minds across light-years—eventually the Earth would do fine without us. With no more herbicides, weeds (otherwise known as biodiversity) would invade our industrial farms and our vast monocultured commercial pine plantations— although, in America, for a while the weeds may mostly be kudzu. It’s only been around since 1876, when it was brought from Japan to Philadelphia as a centennial gift to the United States, and eventually something is bound to learn to eat it. In the meantime, without gardeners endlessly trying to uproot the ravenous stuff, long before the vacant houses and skyscrapers of America’s southern cities tumble, they may have already vanished under a bright, waxy green, photosynthesizing blanket.

Since the late 19th century, when, beginning with electrons, we got down to manipulating the most fundamental particles of the universe, human life has changed very fast. One measure of how fast is that, barely a century ago—until Marconi’s wireless and Edison’s phonograph—all the music ever heard on Earth was live. Today, a tiny fraction of 1 percent is. The rest is electronically reproduced or broadcast, along with a trillion words and images each day.

Those radio waves don’t die—like light, they travel on. The human brain also emanates electric impulses at very low frequencies: similar to, but far weaker than, the radio waves used to communicate with submarines. Paranormalists, however, insist that our minds are transmitters that, with special effort, can focus like lasers to communicate across great distances, and even make things happen.

That may seem far-fetched, but it’s also a definition of prayer.

The emanations from our brains, like radio waves, must also keep going—where? Space is now described as an expanding bubble, but that architecture is still a theory. Along its great mysterious interstellar curvatures, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to think that our thought waves might eventually find their way back here.

Or even that one day—long after we’re gone, unbearably lonely for the beautiful world from which we so foolishly banished ourselves—we, or our memories, might surf home aboard a cosmic electromagnetic wave to haunt our beloved Earth.