Mon Jul 9 2007
Manhattan, circa 1609, juxtaposed with Manhattan, circa 2006 *
Have you ever wondered what would happen if humans simply disappeared from the planet? Well, if you haven't, don't stress, because science writer and author Alan Weisman has, and he's mapped out exactly how he imagines thing would be in his new book The World Without Us. TONY features Weisman in this week's "3 questions" in the Out There section. To hear more about his controversial theories and what specifically would occur in Gotham, read on:
So how do you suppose we'd all disappear?
Well, if you read the introduction to my book, you know I list them very quickly. A Homo sapiens specific virus, space aliens or Jesus raptures us away, something like that. But then once we get beyond that, you know, if we theoretically wipe human begins off the planet, suddenly all of our stuff is not in the way, at least all of our activity, all the noise that we make. And for the first time you'd be able to hear the planet. I've been to a few remote places on where you don't hear a machine, and you feel blessed. You start to hear your own heartbeat. It's an amazing experience.
What sparked your editor to come up with such a concept for a book?
It was a story I wrote about Chernobyl seven years ago after the explosion of the nuclear plant. My editor said she remembered reading about all the abandoned towns around the reactor and even at the reactor itself, humans had to flee but nature was just coming in. Plants were coming, some of them were growing crazy, birds were in their nests again, some were dying early, but nature was suddenly turning it into a wilderness. I also discuss the Korean demilitarization zone in the book. For 50 years there has been this four-kilometer wide stretch that goes 180 miles long. It bisects the Peninsula. It's turned into an accidental nature preserve. I went there with these Korean ornithologists and they showed me these species. There are only a couple of places where you can go in and it was a big ordeal to see as much as I saw. But there are these endangered species, including some of the most fabulous birds on earth, the red-crown crane that is this mythic bird of the Orient that you see in these Japanese paintings all over. Most of the ones left in the world are there, about 1,200 winter in the Korean DMZ. If it weren't there they'd probably go extinct. And this is like a holy bird. It's the national bird of Korea. And the ornithologists would not admit to praying that there would never be peace, but frankly peace frightens them, because the DMZ will be developed and bye-bye, habitat.
You also talk about Europe's last primeval forest on the Polish-Belarussian border.
It's actually one of the last fragments left. It's about a half-million acres. When you go in there it's really that vision that you had as a kid of the forest primeval with wolves howling and moss hanging from tree. There's even bison in there. The European bison is confined to this forest. There are only 600 of them left.
So why did you pick New York to illustrate how nature would eventually take everything back that man has built?
Well, one of the things I had to tackle in this book was what would happen to all of our stuff. And there's probably no more symbol of human infrastructure more potent that New York City. Most people don't think of New York as particularly vulnerable. I use New York both because it's one of the cities that is best known on earth. And probably more people have gone through this city, than any other city, certainly literate human beings. And second, it's a typical city in many ways. Humans went into an ecosystem and changed it radically.
And how would this reforestation take hold?
It's all going to start with the flooding of the subways. Eventually all the steel foundations and anchors would be waterlogged. Buildings are going to get unstable and they're going to start to shift and tilt. We're also certainly going to have hurricanes. And eventually some tall building will become unstable and fall over. And if you've ever been in a forest and seen what happens when a big tall tree dies and falls over or gets blown down by a hurricane, they create a clearing and knock down all the other smaller tree around them. In that clearing it becomes sunny and all these seeds and things blow in and you've got a whole new ecosystem. Just image what will happen when nobody is raking the leaves in Central Park or in Gramercy Park, Union Square and any place where there are trees. Think of all the plastic bags and nobody collecting them, they will clog the sewers and leaf litter will fall on top of them and create soil. Another factor is the whole freeze-thaw syndrome. Each time this happens water trickles down into the cracks of sidewalks. Water expands the crack and it turns to ice. When that stops happening, seeds blow in and al these little plants and trees begin coming up through the sidewalk."
So obviously all of the steel and cement will eventually corrode or disintegrate. Is there anything that will remain?
Probably the sturdiest bridge is Hill Gate, the big railroad bridge. That will probably last the longest. The bridge experts I talk to gave that one a thousand years on the outside, but all the other suspension bridges will starts to fall in about two or three hundreds years. St. Paul's Church across from the World Trade Center site has a real good chance of being around. It's made out of Manhattan schist. Grand Central will be around for a while, though the roofs and the stuff inside will be in pretty silly shape. Bronze, however, is probably one of the strongest materials humans have ever created, and it may last over 1 million years easily. I also followed the spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They're carrying recorded music and recorded images of some of the finest art from all of the cultures of the world in 57 languages, off to who knows where. I also follow our radio waves, and even if they're defragmented they will still carry our sounds. And there is something that is sort of uplifting and immortal about that. So like I said, it's a pretty beautiful planet and life will go on.
*Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis; 3D Visualization by Markley Boyer for Mannhatta Project/Wildlife Conservation Society