This article was written by Alex Steffen in July 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
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.
The World With Us is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
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