By the shores of Gitche Gumee
The Scientific American reviews Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, an examination of what the planet would look like if shorn of its human burden.
To see how the world would look if humans were gone, I began going to abandoned places, places that people had left for different reasons. One of them is the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe. It’s like what you see in your mind’s eye when you’re a kid and someone is reading Grimm’s fairy tales to you: a dark, brooding forest with wolves howling and tons of moss hanging off the trees. And there is such a place. It still exists on the border between Poland and Belarus. It was a game reserve that was set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact. After World War II it became a national park. You go in there and you see these enormous trees. It doesn’t feel strange. It almost feels right. Like something feels complete in there.
I’m not suggesting that we have to worry about human beings suddenly disappearing tomorrow, some alien death ray taking us all away. On the contrary, what I’m finding is that this way of looking at our planet—by theoretically just removing us—turns out to be so fascinating that it kind of disarms people’s fears or the terrible wave of depression that can engulf us when we read about the environmental problems that we have created and the possible disasters we may be facing in the future. Because frankly, whenever we read about those things, our concern is: Oh, my God, are we going to die? Is this going to be the end? My book eliminates that concern right at the beginning by saying the end has already taken place. For whatever reason, human beings are gone, and now we get to sit back and see what happens in our absence. It’s a delicious little way of reducing all the fear and anxiety. And looking at what would happen in our absence is another way of looking at, well, what goes on in our presence. ...
What about our greatest acts of art and expression? Our most beautiful sculpture? Our finest architecture? Will there be any signs of us at all that would indicate that we were here at one point? This is the second reaction that I always get from people. At first they think, This world would be beautiful without us. But then they think, Wouldn’t it be sad not to have us here? And I don’t think it’s necessary for us to all disappear for the earth to come back to a healthier state.
The mosses, wolves. The damp forest. It's beautiful alright, but only to beings for whom beauty is a reality. For whom pattern, order, harmony and shape possess an attraction of their own. The wolves themselves see with different eyes. And though the wolves were once our brothers in the days before beauty, the path back to that time is barred. And we ourselves are in the way.