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The World With Us
Alex Steffen, 23 Jul 07
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The World Without Us, Alan Wiseman's new book, explores what would happen if humanity suddenly vanished. How long would it take for humankind's works to be undone? How long would our cities last? Our tools? The chemicals and plastics we've left behind?

This premise allows him to have great fun imagining the stages of a suburban home's decline and fall, exploring the fate of the New York subway systems and touring various involuntary parks (like the Varosha hotel complex in Cyprus). As a thought experiment, it's fun and useful, if gruesome, allowing Wiseman to perform a post-mortem dissection of our current impact on the planet, and how long the consequences of that impact will carry on. There's no information here that's all that new. If you follow environmental issues, nothing in The World Without Us will shock or astound you, though the package makes for a good read.

But I found myself dissatisfied with it. In part, that's because Wiseman doesn't really tackle the essential ethical problem which underlies his premise: what happened to the people? Like many dark green types before him, he simply wishes them away.

That's problematic for two reasons.

The first is that most actual collapse scenarios would be far worse for the planet and its natural systems and biodiversity than our current state of things. As Alan AtKisson has written "A world full of desperate and impoverished people is a world emptied of swordfish, rainforests and panda bears." If we in fact reach the point of collapse, I suspect we will scour the surface of the Earth as we go down. A real collapse would be a sordid and horrible acceleration of the problem, not a solution.

The second is that wishing people you find inconvenient to disappear (even as a step in a thought experiment) smells bad at the end of a century which has seen (and is seeing) genocides, purges and ethic cleansing.

But The World Without Us suffers from an even bigger failing, which is that it's an easy and formulaic angle on the problems it addresses. It's not that hard to imagine the natural world recovering it's health in our absence: it's more difficult, and more necessary, to imagine it recovering its health in our presence.

In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us.

That's a tougher piece of work, because it involves something more than mere reportage grouped together in the wrapper of an imaginary (and bloodless) apocalypse. Imagining a future in which both human beings and nature thrive demands actually thinking in new ways, engaging in anticipatory journalism, teasing out the possibilities presented in various present and emerging innovations, and generally blazing a new path.

If there's any central premise to our work here at Worldchanging, it's this: that such a future is possible. That through the dedicated work of many people and the application of the innovations they can create together, we can create a planet of which both people and nature thrive.

Getting there will involve some heroic struggles. Like the work we each have ahead of us to redefine or reinvent high-quality lives within sustainable personal planets. Or the need to move beyond one-planet living into restorative living, ways of life that leave ecological handprints. Or the real exploration of the planet, most of which lies ahead of us. Or the gardening of our wildernesses and engineering of our climate.

Imagining how to live sustainably on this planet is a far more daring thought experiment than imagining the planet without us, and it's a thought experiment we desperately need to conduct.

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Comments

Another book with an end-times theme is Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_ which describes a sparsely populated world of grey ash and grim desperation. A future we really must begin to avoid NOW.

It would help if there were model communities, preferably of sufficient size to impress and serve as valid testing grounds for technologies, lifestyles, employment and - above all - governance.

So far, a minority of us are talking a good game, but maybe it's time for some of us to get organized and build something.


Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 25 Jul 07

Excellent post. I caught an interview with the author on KBOO radio and then saw him speak at Powells Books that night. The premise is straight out an old George Carlin bit called "The Planet is Fine" except for the glaring difference that Carlin celebrates the existence of plastic as just another product of the earth. Though he supported the meddlesome plan to reintroduce African lions and Bactrian camels to the American West, which I think could be awesome, I was generally left with the impression that Mr. Wiseman views humanity as a blight whose ultimate goal should be to become much, much less of a blight through drastic, but inexplicably humane population reduction and local agriculture. At least he was nowhere near as righteous as the radio interviewer, who said she was "comforted" by the notion of a planet without humans. I found myself finally agreeing with the assertion that there is a deeply religious component to the traditional green mindset, whose Nicene Creed reads that technology is our original sin, that the Wilds of Eden are aghast at this essential impurity, that global warming is our Revelation, that biosphere collapse (if not staved, as the author surmises, by a deus ex machina human extraction) will be an injustice only for the innocents that go down with us, and that voluntary poverty, primitivism, and infertility is the only way to redeem our lost souls and be hip at the same time. Fuck all that shit. This book struck me as the green version of the Left Behind series, a voyeuristic look at a planet post-destiny, in this example with the biocentric twist of imagining humans as errata, a disastrous law repealed with no repercussions, a planetary mulligan. Imagining a world, as you say, not without humans sounds like a daunting challenge; it goes against everything most of us have in some form always believed, and in certain ways, desired.


Posted by: Jonathon Severdia on 25 Jul 07

Kim Stanley Robinson's Three californai's series examines 3 scenarios of California futures, one scenario - the sustainable one - scratches the surface on what your describing as a true challenging thought experiment there Alex.


Posted by: Greg on 25 Jul 07

In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us.

Bravo, Alex. Profound and important points. But forgive me, ultimately as unsatisfying as Mr. Wiseman's book.

Cliff Figalio says something important: ... maybe it's time for some of us to get organized and build something.

Actually it's past time. Sure, imagining, scenarios, new information - all so vital. But until we have dirt under our fingernails - until we're actually confronting, retooling, and rebuilding our human enterprises - then we're just green gasbags, waving our hands around. We fly to yet another conference, stay in another toxic hotel room, eat more extruded industrial garbage, and "imagine" a bright green world that someone else, somewhere else, sometime else, will bust a gut building.

I think the imagining, vision, information and skill we now need will be found through doing. There's a critical mass of "cultural creatives" now, pretty well networked. What's needed is less single-minded focus on "culture" and more emphasis on actual "creation."


Posted by: David Foley on 25 Jul 07

In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us.

Bravo, Alex. Profound and important points. But forgive me, ultimately as unsatisfying as Mr. Wiseman's book.

Cliff Figallo says something important: ... maybe it's time for some of us to get organized and build something.

Actually it's past time. Sure, imagining, scenarios, new information - all so vital. But until we have dirt under our fingernails - until we're actually confronting, retooling, and rebuilding our human enterprises - then we're just green gasbags, waving our hands around. We fly to yet another conference, stay in another toxic hotel room, eat more extruded industrial garbage, and "imagine" a bright green world that someone else, somewhere else, sometime else, will bust a gut building.

I think the imagining, vision, information and skill we now need will be found through doing. There's a critical mass of "cultural creatives" now, pretty well networked. What's needed is less single-minded focus on "culture" and more emphasis on actual "creation."


Posted by: David Foley on 25 Jul 07

Interesting article, thanks. Reminds me of a short story called "The Vanishees" that I read in Adbusters a few years back. Different story/ending, though. Briefly, 10% of humans all of a sudden disappear, then more... and eventually just 10% are around. Their job is to remove all evidence of human existence.. and eventually they do it, and the original 10% who were removed are returned and given a second chance.

I look forard to reading this book, and I'm glad to have re-found your website from an article referral in CS Monitor today... My sense is we need to reduce pop numbers worldwide as quickly as possible. that's the only way to have an effect on global warming. We'll have a better chance at that tack once GW is out of office, but sure would be good to be teaching people that smaller families are good; sex education at all levels is good; easier access to excellent reproductive healthcare is good; and education and economic opportunity for women and girls around the world = good. Just these things alone would be a big help to bring our numbers down. right now we add about 80 million humans a year to the planet, and that's got to stop.

Greetings from Portland, Oregon!


Posted by: Albert Kaufman on 26 Jul 07

"In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us."

Agreed, if by "us" you mean wild-humans and not civilized ones. Thinking that the Earth will begin to heal itself before we stop raping and murdering every inch of it is as delusional as imagining a bloodless apocalypse where humans just disappear. We need to put an end to Western Civilization's destructive practices NOW! We need to start taking out dams and tearing up the pavement and shutting down PERMANENTLY all extractive forms of energy production. (And no, wind and solar power are not viable alternatives -- does no one realize how much oil and toxic chemcials are still used in the production of that kind of infastructure?!)

Resist, rebel, revolt!


Posted by: Benjamin on 27 Jul 07

> " Imagining a future in which both human beings and nature thrive demands actually thinking in new ways ..."

Humankind and Nature are mutually exclusive and can never live at peace with each other. Over the last ten thousand years can you think of any circumstance in which humans lived peacefully -- with each other and with Nature?

How can humans and nature coexist on the Earth? The majority of humankind's crimes against Nature have already occurred. The Earth is already a depleted, polluted mess which is burdened by a massive human overpopulation.

How can humans coexist peacefully with nature? This is a job too difficult for God. Will the lion lie down with the lamb? Will humans really beat their swords into plowshares?

Humankind's window of opportunity is closing fast. Those who want to save humankind from extinction ought to devote all of their time and energy to that task.


Posted by: David Mathews on 28 Jul 07

I agree, that the real work is to imagine "a world where both humans and nature thrives" and to work with urgency toward that goal, but I think there's real value in Wiseman's book, both in the scope of his thinking -- shuttling millennia into the past and future -- and his appraisal of humanity's recent impact on the planet. I think this book goes a long way toward actually contextualizing our impact in critical temporal terms -- should we go, NYC subway system will be flooded in decades, polymers are forever , etc -- through narratives of ecological recovery that may appear at face-value to be escapist but in actuality are very sobering/compelling. I agree too that none of the environmental news presented here is especially novel, but for a culture as hideously short-sighted as our own, the long view, however we can get it, is a welcome thing.


Posted by: sam white on 30 Jul 07

"In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us."


That's what we're doing now, only we're doing it *wrong.*


Posted by: Enoch Root on 10 Aug 07

"Imagining how to live sustainably on this planet is a far more daring thought experiment than imagining the planet without us, and it's a thought experiment we desperately need to conduct."

This commentary by Alex and the responses to it is a microcosm of the power of the pen and its ability to arouse strong responses - in the misguided, the sensible, the softies and the hardies and it is fascinating to witness it being played out.

Thought experiments for a sustainable planet are a necessary first step, but they must be followed by actions and life choices by volunteers who provide a visible and working prototype of "high quality living with zero permanent impact on nature". Luckily today, we don't have to move to a commune in Montana but can create global virtual communities even if it is only with a handful of members.

This need for action s being suggested by a couple of posts above. So what are we waiting for. Lets go ahead and form a community of members who "strive toward" a carbon neutral lifestyle while maintaining a high standard of living. Key word is "strive toward" acknowledging that overnight transformation is not possible, but evolving toward the holy grail is practical and doable. If you are interested in "exploring" this possibility then please contact me.

Bravo Alex, especially for keeping humanity's well being at the center of this fabulous platform that is WorldChnaging.com.


Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 11 Aug 07



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