Sunday, September 07, 2008

The world without us

I spent most of Labor Day weekend glued to CNN watching Hurricane Gustav play havoc with New Orleans. And while Gustav failed to live up to Katrina’s legacy, the hurricane did do sufficient damage to a city still trying to rebuild three years after the sister of all storms hit landfall.

Watching the seemingly unmanageable force of Gustav, it was hard to believe that everyday activities like driving our cars or heating our homes can affect the power of a hurricane, but they do. Scientists have warned us for decades that the most frightening impact of climate change will be a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophic weather.

The World Without Us - Warsaw, Poland, ilustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren.

Like Frankenstein and his monster, we are playing with forces way beyond on control. Climate change is just one of our many legacies that will come back to haunt us. Despite our science and technology, our arrogance and our evolutionary superior opposing thumbs, in the end it is Nature that will prevail. Whether it prevails with or without us, and what our legacy will be is the bigger question.

In his international bestseller, The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of a world suddenly without humans. Drawing on archeological data, scientific research and his own extensive travels, he reaches backwards in time to paint a world untouched by human influence, and then with equal ease fast forwards to describes the demise of human civilization and its artifacts.

The World Without Us - Lisbon, Spain, ilustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren.

Weisman tackles everything from nuclear power and strip mining to plastic bags and house cats with equal eloquence. He even goes so far as to introduce the idea that the human race voluntarily phases itself out by consciously deciding to stop procreating and letting Nature move on. Far from being disturbing, Weisman’s beautifully crafted prose transcends our egotism and fundamental ignorance as a species.

What is particularly fascinating about the book is that according to Weisman’s telling, it is often our subtle, indirect invasion into the natural world that has the greatest potential impact. In one particularly poignant phrase, he writes,

“We don’t actually have to shoot songbirds to remove them from the sky. Take away enough of their home or sustenance, and they fall dead on their own.”

And therein lies the problem. We are such an egocentric species that we even define wilderness in terms of our own presence. Consider the age-old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear?”’

The point is, it shouldn’t matter. Nature should be able to exist without us, and our unquenchable desire to fix what we perceive God didn’t finish. As my husband Brian often jokes, “Just imagine what God could have done if He’d had concrete.”

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to change. Governments, not-for-profit agencies and individuals are beginning to recognize the need to preserve the natural environment from our infernal interference. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has partnered with corporate and individual landowners to conserve more than two million acres of ecologically significant lands across Canada.

New York's Forest Preserve protects almost three million acres in the Adirondack and Catskills mountains that have been declared “forever wild.” This designation affords these lands with the highest degree of protection under Article 14 of the New York State constitution.

Whether we willingly work to preserve the natural world, or are forced to abandon it in the wake of hurricanes and other disasters, according to Weisman, Nature will ultimately prevail. In November 2007 interview with USA Today, Weisman provided a commentary to a slide show of homes that were abandoned in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina. In only three short years, many of the homes are already overgrown with vegetation, the roots of trees have cracked their foundations and their mailboxes have been covered in morning glories and wild flowers.

“It’s beautiful to see Nature come in and take something tragic and turn it into a garden again”, he said.

Given the chance, hopefully she always will.


For a link to Weisman’s USA Today commentary, “Reclaimed by Nature”, to view the “Your House Without You” video, or for more information about the book and the author, check out

For more on the work of of Kenn Brown and Chris Wren visit Mondolithic Studios


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