"More and more, every story becomes an environmental story," says journalist turned best-selling author Alan Weisman, explaining the origin of his 2007 book The World Without Us.
"I've been looking at eco-disasters, the ozone hole over Antarctica, rainforests coming down in the tropics, things like Chernobyl.... There's a cumulative sense you get, not just that there's a lot of grim things going on, but that these things are all related."
Yet, finding such a book on the global environment crisis—one that is neither doom-laden nor scientifically impenetrable—is difficult. "I've been thinking for a long time about how I could write a book that would do all this stuff, and not pull any punches, but would be so seductive and readable that it would attract a bigger audience than diehard environmentalists," he says.
For Weisman, the answer came from an editor at Discover Magazine, Josie Glausiusz, who called Weisman, suggesting he write an article detailing, in Weisman's words, "what's going to be left after we eat ourselves out of house and home and there's nothing left but an empty lot."
Initially, Weisman was skeptical. But soon he saw some merit in the thought experiment. "Think—what would happen if we all just left? Then you'll see what else is here. Then you'll see how it would be if nature didn't have our constant pressures. What about all the stuff we leave behind? What materials would we leave behind that would last the longest? What would we leave behind that would be a time bomb that would detonate itself in the future?"
This was not the first time Weisman had examined nature's resilience in the absence, nor near-absence, of humans. Glausiusz approached Weisman because she had been struck by an essay he wrote for Harper's Magazine in 1994, "Journey Through a Doomed Land: Exploring Chernobyl's Still-Deadly Ruins," chronicling his Ford Foundation-funded trip to Chernobyl and the discovery of a deeply damaged ecosystem that was, astoundingly, already in recovery. Rather than apocalyptic, that essay emerged for Glausiusz as a powerfully hopeful, even optimistic look at the resilience of the Earth, of nature itself.
Weisman remembers the trip well: "You'd go into these places [near Chernobyl], and there'd be bountiful crops and plants, huge mushrooms and rhubarb everywhere. It was wonderful—until you turn on the Geiger counter."
Weisman says the same strange beauty can be found in such places as the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where a recent photo shoot in USA Today revealed cars covered by moss and flowerbeds, or in the abandoned, prairie-like regions of shrinking post-industrial cities like Detroit. It's the same attitude he brings to The World Without Us, which he is always careful to describe as a kind of anti-apocalypse. The sudden disappearance of humans reveals not only the scope of the damage we've done to the planet, but also the speed with which the planet could bounce back, if we'd only let it.
"I didn't write this book because I want humans to disappear," he assures me, as if it needed to be said. "The bottom line is that by getting rid of everybody we can see how nature restores itself. You see how fabulous it is. If nature could do this if we just lightened up, isn't there a way we could do this by living in balance, not in mortal combat with nature?"
The World Without Us emerges as an unexpectedly political book, if not an activist text. In much the same way that Utopian science fiction allows for the defamiliarization of the known and the consideration of alternate possibilities, the thought experiment at the center of The World Without Us allows Weisman's scientist sources and his readers (in more than 50 languages) to think about ecology and the environment outside partisan sloganeering and defensiveness.
"I'm a journalist," Weisman says. "I present facts. I don't tell people what to think about them. I don't tell people, 'We have to change our ways.'" There are, he points out, only two really scary chapters in the book: one on plastics and another on radioactivity, two areas where the human footprint is likely to long outlive us. ("I don't know," he admits, in a rare moment of ecological pessimism, "that the planet has dealt with anything on the level of the radioactive material we are going to leave.")
Weisman is insistent that neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on solid ecological thinking. "Leftist politics have been worse for the environment than capitalism," he says. "Spend time in the former Soviet Union, or in China for that matter." During his trip to Chernobyl, he saw heating ducts on the outside of buildings, with "no thought to regulation or efficiency."
The World Without Us speaks not for the left or for the right but for a humanistic, post-partisan, even post-national vision of collective action in the face of environmental crisis. In his words: "We are all part of nature. We live on this earth, we have no alternatives, and what we do will impact us all collectively—and money won't buy us out of it."
And if we can't get our collective act together, we can at least take some comfort in the idea that the Earth itself will endure, even if we don't. "We may be wiping out the planet that we can live in, but the planet itself is not in trouble," Weisman says. "The planet will be just fine. It'll bounce back, in new and surprising ways."
Alan Weisman will read at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. You can find excerpts and supplementary material for The World Without Us at www.worldwithoutus.com.