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Eco-Footprints

by Archives November 27, 2007

Days after humanity disappears, pumps in Montreal’s Concordia-Guy metro station fail and water begins its erosion of the city’s foundations. Above ground, after the first winds break the glass on Montreal’s skyscrapers; rain and snow begin to erode their ceramic floors as the city slowly crumbles beneath; streets crack and buckle, toppling the remaining buildings into rubble. Water mains break, gas leaks and a series of explosions make their way along the streets in all directions; tiny water molecules thaw and freeze, pushing apart slabs of sidewalks.
Fifty years later, after the fires have burned out and buildings are reduced to mortar, what we see is a disappearing city structure; overgrown by vegetation, coyotes and bears freely roam the streets, scavenging for food, birds circle the skies diving for fish in the swampy area that once was Little Burgundy; only the clocktower of the Atwater market reveals that we were once here, and soon, that too will be shrouded with vines and vegetation.
How soon would, or could, the earth return to where it was before the industrial revolution? How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the pristine glory before man walked the face of the Earth 10,000 years ago, if we were no longer here?
The answer, according to Alan Weisman’s latest book, The World Without Us, is 4.5 billion years or more.
By his estimate most of what we leave behind would rot and crumble; much of our damage would take eons to undo. The book is a thoroughly researched, scientifically grounded account of how the environment – natural and built – would change if people were no longer around. In a sense, nature gets to trash what we built.
Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, and religious leaders, Wesiman describes in length that a pre-human world inhabited by mega fauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths could once again exist, if we would just go away. His descriptions of a post-human world are not unlike those depicted in The Nature of Things, NOVA or the Daily Planet, which means we have become accustom to green-gloomy outlooks and we might take notice of something new.
Writers from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to Al Gore have have warned us of environmental collapse, and now Wesiman goes one step further; the collapse has already happened, now what? It’s not often that an environment book goes beyond examining the environment without us, and that is probably based on our own egotistic belief that humans will forever walk the Earth, but this is what is new about The World Without Us.
It’s a sometimes morbid and apocalyptic story–we are gone, we told you so, and look at the mess we have left behind. Fear not–the Earth will restore its balance, eventually.
No one is certain that the world would, or even could, revert to its former state, and given that we have upset many of its delicate balances, it may never. Weisman insists it can, suggesting that even microbes could develop over time to biodegrade the billions of tons of plastic floating around the oceans or buried in the soil.
But even Wesiman sheds some doubt on this, suggesting that plastics could go down in earth’s geological record because there is no way to get rid of them. Plastics is not the only problem. Uranum 235, several thousand tons of which we’ve used in our bombs and reactors, has a half-life of 704 million years, but U-238 or depleted uranium holds on a bit longer – 4.5 billion years, which is possibly longer than there’s been life on Earth – and Wesiman reports that there’s at least a half million tons of it that will never degrade.
So it is with a grain of salt that we read The World Without Us as a “what if” book, and the fact is that nothing is likely to wipe us out completely. Even a virus with a 99.99 percent kill rate, the CDC says it would still leave more than half a million naturally immune survivors who could fully repopulate the earth to current levels in a mere 50,000 years.
The book does provide an indication of our collective footprint over the last 10,000 years, and it does give us a different perspective on how resilient the planet is. Weisman investigates many areas of the Earth that have been left untouched by man, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea for example, that has seen the return of the azure-winged magpie birds, ring-necked pheasants and grau-headed woodpeckers, birds no longer common in Korea. If the land around DMZ were suddenly to become a world without us, Weisman predcits they might have a chance to spread. Eventually, they would multiply, reclaim their former realm, and flourish.
Other environment books have focused on how badly we have treated the Earth and tries to persuade us to change. Weisman doesn’t try, though it is difficult not to think about changing our habits, to persuade us to change, but once you’re finished reading, you might think twice about your own footprint.

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