Wednesday, September 3, 2008

World without end: After we're gone

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Will the Earth miss us when we’re gone? It’s unlikely, suggests Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling 2007 book The World Without Us. Weisman, who stops by Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Friday for a reading and book-signing, takes us to places people have abandoned and shows us how nature is reclaiming even urban landscapes.

He visits, among other places, the area around Chernobyl (still recovering from the 1986 nuclear disaster), and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (whose wildness is watched over by heavily armed soldiers), speculating on what will happen if, and when, people vanish (whether, Weisman cannily teases, by mass extinction, evacuation, or indeed Rapture) and leave the planet to its own devices.

His most striking example is on Cyprus, where, thanks to political tensions for the past 30 years, Varosha, a city that was once home to 20,000 people has been left abandoned and subject only to the forces of nature. Two years after war forced its evacuation, trees were growing up through what had once been paved roads, and at towering hotels, “10 stories of shattered sliding glass doors opening to seaview balconies now exposed to the elements, had become giant pigeon roosts,” Weisman writes. Four years later, “roofs had collapsed and trees were growing straight out of houses. . . . Tiny seeds of wild Cyprus cyclamen had wedged into cracks, germinated, and heaved aside entire slabs of cement.”

Now, “Fallen limestone facing lies in pieces. Hunks of wall have dropped from buildings to reveal empty rooms . . . brick-shaped gaps show where mortar has already dissolved. . . . Feral geraniums and philodendrons emerge from missing roofs and pour down exterior walls.”

Backed by extensive research and exhaustive travel, Weisman shows the real long-term effects of what we're doing to the planet — what wouldn’t make it through next week (New York's subway tunnels, daily in danger of being flooded), what would endure for 250,000 years (nuclear weapons' radioactivity), and what would last for millions of years (open-pit mines).

In the process, he offers a kind of hope — much of what we do to our environment can be undone without our help — as well as a warning: the undoing of damage only starts when we stop causing it. And then he ends on what we'll choose to call a happy note. "Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets [including Earth] back into its fiery womb." Then, the only things that will be left of us — if anything — will be our space probes, wherever in the galaxy they have ended up, and the TV, cellphone, and radio transmissions we have sent out into the universe for the past century. They will travel ever onward, without us.

Alan Weisman | reads from and signs The World Without Us | September 5 @ 7:30 pm | South Church, 292 State St, Portsmouth NH | Free | 603-431-2100