Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Without a Trace

The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman

What would it look like if planet earth were suddenly a ghost town - that is, if all human inhabitants disappeared suddenly and nature were allowed to take its course? The World Without Us takes a hard look at this question, and addresses everything from how long it would take for our "indestructible" buildings and bridges to crumble to the impact on the biodiversity of other species to the storage of nuclear waste. Weisman does not rely on his own instincts or personal grasp of the facts - he consults with structural engineers, botanists, zoologists, physicists, paleontologists, and numerous other specialists. This is a fascinating read that calls each of us to thoughtfully consider the home that we are leaving to future generations (and the sad truth that future generations at some point will not exist because of our squandering of the earth's resources).

Weisman's book reminds us what a blip on the radar screen human beings are when our time on earth thus far (approximately 4 million years) is compared to the estimated age of the earth itself (3-5 billion years). The numbers are mind blowing. It is, frankly, a little scary. Most of the time we humans think we have got things all figured out with our incredible technology and our advanced thinking on most subjects. We think of ourselves (and there is some biblical basis for this) as the pinnacle of God's creation. We may, however, only be the pinnacle of God's creation thus far. An even stranger thought - if human beings as we know ourselves were to go extinct but life were still to persist, at some point some form of humanity may re-evolve. In other words we could possibly start over - it weirds me out a little bit to think of a whole "new" civilization 3 or 4 billion years from now finding archaeological evidence that we existed sometime in the distant past.

For much of terrestrial and marine life, human extinction would be a great thing. Scientists predict that extinct species could re-evolve, and that newer, stronger species would develop as well. Our skyscrapers and houses and bridges would rust out and rot and disintegrate in a relatively short time (a couple of centuries), opening up space where nature once thrived, and could again. It is sobering to think of a world without us, especially when we consider how we would get from here (overpopulated) to there (extinct). Weisman theorizes about how the extinction will happen, but for the purposes of his thought experiment he assumes a scenario in which we all disappear simultaneously. He acknowledges that this is unlikely, and says a slow dying out of our species, much like what happens with birds or fish or lichen, is more likely. The thought of us having conscious awareness that we are lurching towards extinction gives me the willies.

It occurred to me as I read The World Without Us that in many ways it would be easier to cling to creationism and the misguided belief the the world is only 6,000 years old. It IS disconcerting to realize our own insignificance compared to the age of the earth, the force of nature, and the size of the universe. It would be much easier to dismiss science outright and dismiss evolution as "only a theory" rather than face the possibility that we are just part of a long chain of being and will not always be here and not always be running the show (as if we ever have been). I see now, though, that to dismiss what science has shown and to take Genesis as literally true (end of story, no ifs, ands, or buts) is to make an idol out of one book of the Bible. Denying that God is still in the process of creating and may have further plans for this planet is also to deny God's sovereignty.

No one likes to envision the process of human extinction - except perhaps the members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), who say that we should save the earth by stopping reproduction now and living out our days on a progressively less crowded planet. It's an extreme solution, and one that would never happen, but one that if carried out would likely provide a better end for us all than what is coming if we do not change how we occupy the planet. I hope that we can learn to live here with respect for all life and for the life in whatever form that will come after us. We also must recognize and accept our place in space and time, without elevating OR diminishing that place.

Reverent Reader


At 2/5/09, 5:14 PM , Blogger Ruth said...

I keep seeing Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes as I read this.

At 2/5/09, 5:29 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

I thought of that too!


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