Alan Weisman Summarized by Daniela Berenguer
Prelude- A Monkey Koan Subdivision I Alan Weisman opens his book with the story of Ana MaríaSanti, a Zápara Indian of the Equatorian upper Amazon. Her old age and the decay of her tribe is evident when, during a minga or barn raising celebration, she is offered spider monkey meat. This animal is considered the spiritual ancestor of the Zápara tribe, and she rejects the meat saying, “When we’re down to eating our ancestors, what is left?” Weisman connects this upsetting comment making us wonder if we are ‘eating up our ancestor’, if we’ve “poisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included” to a point of no return. Although he recognizes that it is impossible to know what effect we have had and will leave on the planet, he presents a hypothetical situation in which all humans simply disappeared form the face of the planet overnight. Through extensive research and expert opinions on the subject, he will try to answer the question, what will happen after we leave?
Part I Subdivision I Alan Weisman is not an expert in geology, a climatologist, or a biologist, but through broad research and help from different sources he is able to establish a prediction: if humans were to disappear from the planet overnight, nature would find a way of outlasting and conquering the ‘human world’, just as it has since the history of the world can remember. In chapter one, A Lingering Scent of Eden, Weisman illustrates the Białowieża Puszcza. This is an amazing ‘forest primeval’ in Poland, alive with five-hundred-year-old oak trees, elk, foxes, and animals and plants of all kinds. This natural oasis has been around from millions of years and has managed to survive World Wars, changes of government, and human disasters. He concludes by saying that “given 500 years without people, true forest could return” to all of Europe. In chapter two, Unbuilding Our Home, the author gives us a specific account of how, in not a very long time, nature will take over and destroy our houses, “Clean them right off the face of the Earth.” He describes how water will seep in, wind blow the walls down, and mold finish tearing the buildings down. This contrast demonstrates how something that we think to be as sturdy and enduring as our houses can easily be regained by the power of nature.
Part I Subdivision II In chapter three, The City Without Us, Alan Weisman insists that if humans were to leave the planet, some man-made and man-built materials might persist but eventually there would be “nothing to indicate that it was us who put it there”. He gives a point-by-point account of how each aspect of our ‘strong’, modern cities would decay until they fell to the ground. Ironically, he mentions that ‘old’ buildings like St. Paul’s Chapel, which are made of stone, will be some of the last to crumble down. Weisman dedicates a large part of the chapter to describing what will become of Central Park’s botanic and animal life. After doing extensive research and dedicated enquiries, he is able to describe how, even though people have introduced many foreign species to the park, in very little time local species will rule, others will adapt, animals will start intensely migrating. He uses specific examples to convince the reader of just how superficial our trace on the planet would be, if we were to leave before we made any irreversible, tragic changes.
Part I Subdivision III The next idea that Weisman argues is whether or not humans have evolved to such an extent that we can be compared to a ‘force of nature’, and if our actions are unavoidable and could be repeated by another species after we are gone. In chapter four, The World just Before Us, Weisman gives an accurate description of how the world was… just before us. He then focuses on Lake Tanganyika in Africa, an amazing wildlife forest that due to human intervention has suffered unimaginable genetic changes. He describes how this came to be and how humans came to evolve, and ensures that “no enticement is readily evident for another primate to […] follow in our futile footsteps. Until, of course, the ice returns.” By implying that our effects on that region can be compared to the effects that an ice glacier can have on it, we can understand that we have risen to the level of a natural ‘force of nature’, and all the power and responsibility that comes with it, even though we might have chosen to ignore it. In chapter five, The Lost Menagerie, Weisman paints the picture of the pre-human, thriving animal kingdoms that were the Americas. He also introduces the various opinions on why this natural sanctuary suffered from an immense ‘megafaunal genocide’. Paul Martin’s theory, a renown paleoecologist, says, “When people got out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose.” However, countering his idea that humans are responsible for the extinction of a continent, there is also talk of this genocide being the effect of extreme climate changes. We are, once again, being compared to a ‘force of nature’ or at least being charged with the same crimes as one.
Part I Subdivision IV Continuing his battle, Alan Weisman wonders, or makes us wonder, if it is not to late to turn back now. In chapter six, The African Paradox, he compares the situation he had talked about in chapter four- the disappearance of an animal haven in the Americas perhaps due to the sudden, seemingly harmless appearance of homo sapiens- to the effective side-by-side evolution that animals like elephants and humans went through in Africa. He explores places like the Abedares moors in Kenya, Tsavo ‘brushy country’, and the Nairobi National Park to sustain that theory, and to describe what would happen in a post-human world, “No people and 20 times more elephants would restore them as the undisputed keystone species in a patchwork mosaic African landscape. By contrast […] American forests represent vast niches awaiting any herbivore big enough to extract their woody nutrients.” If we were to leave right now we could expect the African natural kingdom to come back as it used to be, a hope that we might have obliterated for the wild life of the Americas. Weisman seems to indirectly want to suggest to stop now, before any more irreversible damage is done.
Part II Subdivision V Opening the second part of his book, Alan Weisman contrasts two genuine cities- Varosha in Greece that has faded away with time and no human intrusion, and Cappadocia, a system of underground cities and towns which has endured since Constantinople in 360 and probably will outlast even humans. Through these examples, Weisman seems to suggest that it is our foreign, unnatural, manmade materials will be the ones that will first perish after we are gone; contrary to the items that we have made incorporating nature, like the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, a monumental stone mosque that has survived over one thousand years and probably will many more. Following this compelling idea I mention the Leave No Trace organization, a center designed to raise awareness and educate on ‘enjoying the outdoors responsibly’. It works to reducing our impact on the world, and by following it we might just be able to live on forever, or at least what we leave behind could remain and possibly be of use to another future, like the Cappadocia has served us today.
Part II Subdivision VI In the following chapters, Polymers Are Forever and the Petro Patch, Alan Weisman continues a more avid tirade against the unnatural and unrestrained impairment that humans have imposed on the world, always through subtle description of the current and past situations. He traces the effect of polymers on different areas of the world, specifically plastic in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and rubber and oil in Houston, Texas, the Goodyear tire & Rubber Company. He reports studies that have been conducted by various authorities and comes to conclude that our impact in the world is already irreversible, or at least very hard to erase even if it was stopped now. He even wonders, “[…]could nature possibly dismantle, let alone decontaminate, the great Texas petroleum patch?” I agree with his morbid conclusion that our damage slightly got out of our hands, and would like to consider the case of the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ oil spill. In 2010 a BP company oil spilled in the gulf of Mexico continuing for about three months. The damage done to the community and the shores of the coast are incredible, and the damage in the actual ocean is unimaginable. Grass roots are drowning, leading to the collapse of the marshes; shrimps, crabs, oysters, and pelicans will be poisoned by the affluent chemicals, the estimated 11m barrels of oil inviting death to slowly creep into the wetlands. This is just another of the horrible examples that human excess and unempowerment can cause.
Part II Subdivision VII Concluding the second part of his book, Alan Weisman includes chapter eleven, The World Without Farms. Unlike many before, this chapter gives us two prospects, Broadbalk and Greescroft, both research fields for the world’s oldest ongoing research experiment, Rothamsted, John Bennet Lawes’ successful fertilizer industry, and explores their past, their present, their future, and how they might reflect on the world itself. Rothamsted Research began in 1843 and is still going on today, and samples of each kind of fertilizer, poison, or organic concoctions that have been added to the strips of farmland that make up the research center are all held in a barn behind Rothamsted’s grand manor. Looking at these samples, Weisman explains, one may see the history of the world, how we went from preindustrial levels, to contaminating our earth with the malice necessary for invention, to even inventing our own damaging and toxic chemicals to introduce into the earth and into the soil. Will discovery of “Rothamsted’s extraordinary archive,” Weisman asks, lead someone to “wonder if we were trying to kill ourselves?” In the spirit of exposing the great ecological shock that farms have brought on the world, I would like to contribute the classic example, the Amazon rainforest. This amazing ‘lung of the earth’ originally covered about 40% of the South American continent, and due to obscene deforestation commencing in the 1960’s, 587,000 kilometers squared have been cleared, 70% of these accounting for forest clearing and livestock pasture. This extraordinary rainforest was born about ten million years ago and if we continue like this, what has taken all that time to grow can take us the blinking of an eye to destroy.
Subdivision VIII Part III In chapter twelve, The Fate of Ancient and Modern Wonders of the World, Weisman further covers what will ultimately endure from our civilization once we left. He discusses cases like the Great Wall of China, the unnatural Panama Canal, the English Chunnel Tunnel, and the fantastic Mount Rushmore. After explaining each one, he concludes that most of our modern ‘wonders’ would not make it, because they are in need of constant human care and restoration. Regarding the Panama Canal, he gives us two veterans who work have worked with it. Modesto Echevers, a Panama Canal hydrologist, shudders at the thought of what would be of the Canal without human supervision, “Like a zoo animal that has never accepted its cage. The water looses control. If it was allowed to rise, it would not top the dam.” Alan Weisman seems to consider this example just another proof of how powerful nature can be in regaining what was hers, but he fails to see what I consider the most disturbing part of it, how in the world us humans have considered that we may tame a wild animal and put it in a cage, or sculpt a river and keep it behind a concrete dam just for our pleasure. He continues with The World Without War, where he introduces a very different point of view. Most of the people in the world would undoubtedly say they hate war, but most of us have no idea of the repercussions war has on the environment. Using the example of the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea, a thriving biodiverse patch of forest, just because it has had next to no human intervention in almost 60 years, he highlights the difference between humans and nature, but switching the usual around because this time it is us human that perish from war and nature that is helped by it.