Posted: October 29, 2007
The good news, according to journalist and author Alan Weisman, is that no matter how much humans do to despoil our planet, in the end nature, of which we are only one small part, will be just fine. The bad news is that if we don't clean up our act by polluting less and reining in population growth, the rest of nature will relentlessly and efficiently dispose of us. This is not a new realization for Weisman, who has spent much of his career reporting on the global environmental crisis. Among his biggest frustrations has been that it is hard to get people to pay attention to, much less act upon, the dire warning signals clearly in view.
Weisman's strategy was to write a book that entertains while it informs. The product of that effort, The World without Us, released by St. Martin's Press in July, is on its way to becoming one of the year's literary phenomena. It is climbing on every major best-seller list and is being published in almost 30 languages.
Weisman found his hook in the form of a thought experiment.
That nothing lasts forever is a given. But what if people died off suddenly, victims, let's say, of a rapidly spreading Homo sapiens-specific virus? What would happen to all we have wrought? Would the earth miss us? How would this blue orb circling the sun proceed? This was the premise as Weisman embarked on a research quest that took him to places such as an abandoned resort in Cyprus, the demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula, a serendipitously preserved swath of old growth wilderness in Eastern Europe, and New York City's subways.
"This book has gotten the attention of a much wider audience than just those who are environmentally tuned in," Weisman told about 100 people at an October 25 talk in Gamble Auditorium sponsored by Mount Holyoke's Center for the Environment and the Odyssey Bookshop. Much of his book draws on interviewees with specialized knowledge in areas such as maintaining infrastructure, geologic history, and natural processes. Readers "get to see the future through the educated eyes of all these experts," Weisman said. "I don't preach. I just let the facts speak for themselves, which is what a reporter is supposed to do."
A lot of environmental reporting is hard to digest for the simple reason that it can be depressing and tend toward hectoring. Weisman's book is not only filled with vivid imagery and surprising revelations, but it relieves the reader of having to worry about the fate of humanity. "I came up with this funny little device in which people don't have to worry if we are all going to die because I kill them off in the first couple of pages," Weisman said. So the reader is free to contemplate the fragility of human constructs as well as the sheer exuberant resilience of the wild.
An indication of Weisman's success is the range of interviews and broadcasts he has been part of this summer and fall. In fact, C-Span2's "Book-TV" taped his Mount Holyoke speech. His appearances, he said, have included several shows heard on National Public Radio as well as a New York Times podcast and more esoteric media venues such as the Archdiocese of New York Catholic Hour and Sirius Satellite Radio's programming for the gay and lesbian community. As a line formed for his book signing after the Mount Holyoke talk, Weisman told one admirer about the effect his appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show had on an international journalism seminar he teaches at the University of Arizona. "Students once plotting my assassination were suddenly so very proud of me," he said.
Sandra Postel, interim Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of Mount Holyoke's Center for the Environment, commented after the talk that Weisman's thought experiment is "a unique and very intriguing way of asking some important questions about human relations to the earth."
In response to a young woman's question about whether he views nature as a "sentient being" with a will of its own, Weisman responded, "The question you asked is basically, 'Is there a God out there that thinks?,' and the answer is, we don't know." What he does know through observation is that "life is incredibly resilient and incredibly powerful; I don't understand it [but] I'm in awe of that."
"Life will go on in this planet, the question is, will our life go on, and the answer to that one, I think, is still pretty much our decision, and I hope that we make the right decision," he said.