I enjoyed Alan’s unique perspective and learned a few key takeaways. Sometimes a unique perspective is what we need to start that business or change bad habits. This talk could potentially do just that for you.
Alan is an award-winning journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, and on NPR, among others. His essay “Earth Without People”, on which The World Without Us expands, was selected for Best American Science Writing 2006.
Now, on to my talk with Alan.
What would Earth look like once humans no longer inhabit it?
The first thing that would happen when we disappear is that our carbon emissions will immediately cease. We’ve already put a lot of carbon dioxide up in the atmosphere, and it will take a long time for the seas to absorb it all.
Along with our carbon emissions, air pollution would also cease, meaning the planet would warm up further for a while because it would block sunlight. But within a few years, that would cease, and the amount of carbon dioxide that we’ve packed into the atmosphere would begin to diminish, and gradually, things would start to cool down.
In the meantime, plant life would start to occupy all kinds of spaces, and since they grow up through the cracks in the sidewalk, they would start to split the concrete very quickly if we didn’t have people clearing them away, and so our infrastructure would start to be dismantled.
Aside from this, our pesticide use would also stop immediately. The populations of the birds will start to spring back because pesticides are one of the most significant contributors to their demise. Moreover, since birds eat insects, we would also start to see nature flourish.
Now, our nature might look different from how it used to be since we would be in a warming phase, causing ice to melt and less sunlight to be reflected away. A large amount of methane in solid form, called clathrates, at the bottom of the seas will also start to dissolve.
This has happened before in the history of the world. All our major extinctions (except the one that happened most recently that killed off the dinosaurs) had to do with huge increases in carbon dioxide or methane. Often, it had to do with big volcanic eruptions.
How much have we negatively impacted our planet?
This boils down to how many people can live on this planet without tipping it over and how much nature we have to preserve our own species.
I learned that in the last century, we quadrupled the human race, and we did that because modern medicine helped increase their lifespan and lowered infant mortality.
Most importantly, we learn how to grow more food and plant life on this planet than nature ever could by synthetically pulling nitrogen out of the atmosphere and chemically applying it to the land. These things may sound good, but sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad.
Frankly, this planet can’t support the number of people we have right now without destabilizing. To grow all the food, we need more land, meaning we need to occupy more space.
This would take away habitat from other creatures who co-evolved with us, some of whom we depend on our pollinators and who are critical to our food supply. We know we will be wiping them out in significantly worrisome numbers.
So I think what will happen is to control population reduction wisely. I think that there will be pockets of survival. The world will be more fragmented, and small tribes of us will learn how to start overall again, including how to coexist with nature and live in harmony with it.
Is there anything we can learn from previous civilizations that have perished?
About two months ago, I was in southern Iraq, particularly in Uruk, which was the first great city on this planet, established by the first civilization, the Sumerians. This city had a population of between 60,000–80,000 people, which is not huge because the numbers were nothing like today.
This made me wonder about how long it takes for cities on this planet to be around. In the case of Uruk, it lasted for 5000 years. Today, it was completely covered up with sand.
Geologists just started excavating it in the 1940–1950s. As I stood on the temple and looked down at the crumbled remains being revealed, I tried to imagine the reason behind these changes.
The reason that it changed is that nature is a constantly changing presence. For instance, the Euphrates River, which used to be much closer, shifted, like rivers usually do. They build up silt, and then they move, and it shifts away from it. As a result, what had once been both a well-irrigated city and a port city no longer was, and so it died.
This just tells us that nature is something that we can only control so much, and even our attempts to control it usually backfire. New Orleans is a great example. For 100 years, the Army Corps of Engineers has tried to tame the Mississippi by channeling it.
With cement, it doesn’t work; it just creates more problems elsewhere that ultimately can flood the city anyhow. In megalopolis, nine of the ten biggest cities on earth are coastal cities, and we have created the conditions now that can cause the seas to rise between one and three meters by the end of the century.
What can we do to lessen our negative impact on our planet?
When I wrote my book Countdown, I looked at the concept of population control, which got us into a lot of trouble. In the past, there have been attempts to sterilize women and men for birth control, which didn’t work.
So I discovered that the very best way to deal with this and the environmental impact that we cause is to take a win-win approach: to educate girls all over the planet by letting them go to secondary school and teach them how to be meaningful contributors to their families.
Part of it is encouraging them to have two or fewer children. Since it takes two people to produce a child, they would just essentially replace themselves in the population if they produced two children. Meanwhile, the population will shrink if people have fewer than two children.
So in the most educated countries like Japan, Italy, Muslim, and Iran, where 60% of the university students are female, the fertility rate is closer to one than it is to two. That would help a couple of generations bring our population down gracefully.
What are your favorite resources to stay on top of sustainability?
I go to something called Environmental Health News. It’s something that I visit every day, as they’re doing a great job digesting alarming and hopeful stories worldwide. You can get a quick education of what we’re up against, what it looks like, and the direction we have to go.
Another resource I would recommend is 350.org, an environmental group that is trying to deal with the most prominent problem that we have to contend with in the future — the changing climate. They present some practical ways that we could do to transition to a green economy.
One of the most important things they do is go after the financial entities — the huge investors like insurance companies and the banks that continue to finance fossil fuels.
Right now, banks are torn between pushing for green energy and trying to do the right thing. Yet, they still have a lot of their funding on the fastest way to get concentrated energy through fossil fuel, which has to change, and I believe we can survive these changes.
Every one of us carries all the libraries of the world in the palm of our hand. Now, we have enormous amounts of information, and we have to start using that information wisely.
I hope you enjoyed my talk with Alan and that you took away some value. If you want to listen to the entire interview, click play below or head over to your favorite platform (Apple, Spotify, or Google.)
Subscribe and listen to our weekly interviews here.
Leave a Reply