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An Earth Without People.
June 20, 2007 8:24 AM   Subscribe

An Earth Without People. An interesting (and I am sure it will be debatable) article in the current issue of Scientific American. Personally, I have always liked Douglas Coupland's version too
posted by ShawnString (42 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
The SA article made me think of that line from Fight Club...

" In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."
posted by ShawnString at 8:25 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


oh and sorry about the snafu on the SA link. it should be this
posted by ShawnString at 8:30 AM on June 20, 2007


I didn't see Fight Club, but that's where my mind went... taking away people isn't that interesting... you get more of the same nature we have now...

But take away social institutions... take away the world powers and industrial capability... take away all the oil for example... gone overnight... now that's some good times right there.
posted by ewkpates at 8:39 AM on June 20, 2007


Previously.
posted by markdj at 8:41 AM on June 20, 2007


From the article: It’s a common fantasy to imagine that you’re the last person left alive on earth. But what if all human beings were suddenly whisked off the planet? That premise is the starting point for The World without Us, a new book by science writer Alan Weisman, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona.

I wonder if he got the idea from the various AskMe questions that have pondered the same premise.

I bookmarked the article to read later when I have more time. Thanks for the post, I love hypothetical stuff like this!
posted by amyms at 8:44 AM on June 20, 2007


Check out Where London stood for similar stuff.

Some of the details of the Douglas Coupland version strike me as a bit iffy: he makes the Battlefield Earth mistake of assuming stacked nuclear weapons will set each other off like dynamite. I'd have thought the first to go would trash the mechanism of those nearby - for instance, the circuits that invoke simultaneous detonation for the implosion. Their fissile material would probably make the first explosion a lot dirtier, but I don't think they'd detonate properly.
posted by raygirvan at 8:58 AM on June 20, 2007


Nature wiped out almost all traces of the aliens who populated ancient Earth.
posted by caddis at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2007


Also the idea that there are failsafes that will automatically launch ICBMs if there is no one to tell them not too? I don't think so.

The nuclear power plants won't melt down they'll shut down.

Copeland's version is dubious at best.
posted by Bonzai at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2007


I wonder if he got the idea from the various AskMe questions that have pondered the same premise.

Or maybe from basically every post-apocalyptic SF book ever.....

It's neat that he's done a lot of technical research on the subject, but it seems like a pretty obvious thing that if we suddenly vanished then nature would grow back and our creations would fall apart. Hell, our creations fall apart even when we're around to maintain them. This bit struck me, though:

"And I don’t think it’s necessary for us to all disappear for the earth to come back to a healthier state."

As he himself notes just before this, his book shows that the environment is fine with our without us, so it's odd that he would talk about a "healthier" state. There's no such thing as a healthier state for the environment, just states in general. Climate change alters the world, but this is really a problem for us, because the world will alter itself as needed, though that will probably mean the death of many species as it has so many times before.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:03 AM on June 20, 2007


Sounds like a really fun book, but maybe the epiphanies are going to be stupendously obvious: . I discovered that our huge, imposing, overwhelming infrastructures that seem so monumental and indestructible are actually these fairly fragile concepts..

Well...duh. I mean, time literally builds and destroys mountains, even oceans and continents. You thought the Empire State Building was somehow impervious?
posted by DU at 9:03 AM on June 20, 2007


Just look at the ruins of ancients civilizations that suddenly disappear (e.g Mayans): buried in a jungle. That's is exactly what would happen, nothing new under the sun.
posted by dov3 at 9:04 AM on June 20, 2007


I have always liked this idea.
But it's an unpopular notion because it
doesn't appeal to humanity's ego.

The idea that the planet would be
better off without us does not appeal
to the greedy children in us.

This puts the focus more on our
absence than our presence. It doesn't
posit that we are a chosen people.

If the nature of our individual lives
is to appear, live and die, becoming dust -
why can't that be the larger nature
of our species?

Call me an apocalypse-lover, but the
day we all disappear will be a relief.
Happily I won't be around to feel it.

And I mean all this in the most non-
morbid non-suicidal way. More in the way
that Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes always
seemed to accept Calvin's capriciousness
as a force of nature he was bemused by.
posted by Sully at 9:07 AM on June 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


The idea that the planet would be
better off without us does not appeal
to the greedy children in us.


But that's a fallacy. It wouldn't be "better off", it would just be there. That's what the author was saying. How do you define "better"? Why would it "be a relief"? Your expressed idea smacks of "getting what they deserve" retribution which certainly does seem a bit morbid and suicidal.

Incidentally, what's with the poem-style construction of your prose post? Formatting error?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:13 AM on June 20, 2007


Sangermaine, are you just as healthy with food poisoning as without? I mean, you're still there and alive in either case. Wretching your guts out is just as healthy as feeling great, right?

He didn't say any state's as healthy as any other, just that the earth was tough enough to survive. Biodiversity is the measure of ecological health, and there's plenty of room to be "violently ill" before you reach "dead." That doesn't mean that "violently ill" is the same as "perfectly healthy."
posted by jefgodesky at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's no such thing as a healthier state for the environment...

I don't think this is really true. Sure, if the Earth was a few degrees warmer life would go on and both states are just as inherently healthy. But it is easy to imagine a state where, say, all animals on Earth depend on one particular plant, which in turn depends on an exact amount of rainfall, say. That's fragile and therefore unhealthy. Or like the current state in some areas, where food webs are disrupted to the point of near-chaos. Fragile and not healthy, even if we weren't here.

Of course, it would only like that temporarily. But arguing that eventually evolution will fill in the gaps is like arguing that shipping jobs overseas helps everyone...'s grandchildren.
posted by DU at 9:26 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


jefgodesky,
That's a false analogy. As a human, there is an optimal base state for me to be in. If I were poisoned and my body forced away from the healthy state, of course I'd be worse off. But the Earth has no base state to move from. It doesn't get sick, or die. Is the Earth healthier now than after the Cambrian extinction? After the Triassic extinction? We flatter ourselves to think we're making that big of a difference, is my point. Some species will die, but others will rise up to fill in the open niches, just like they always have.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:28 AM on June 20, 2007


Biodiversity--that's the word I needed. Food webs and safety nets. Redundancy.
posted by DU at 9:28 AM on June 20, 2007


I don't think this is really true. Sure, if the Earth was a few degrees warmer life would go on and both states are just as inherently healthy. But it is easy to imagine a state where, say, all animals on Earth depend on one particular plant, which in turn depends on an exact amount of rainfall, say.
But the world is not like such a hypothetical scenario. In reality, no changes short of an asteroid impact or total nuclear war would cause anything even close to that.

Of course, it would only like that temporarily. But arguing that eventually evolution will fill in the gaps is like arguing that shipping jobs overseas helps everyone...'s grandchildren.
Exactly my point. Even such a terrible knock out of balance would only be temporary at best. And yes, evolution acts over the very long term, so yes, though the shipping analogy is bad, short term pain can in the long term be corrected. Given a large, mostly empty ecology, there's no reason why creatures wouldn't expand into the empty niches just as has happened many, many times before, during extinction events which were far, far worse than anything we're doing.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:44 AM on June 20, 2007


The analogy isn't false, because the earth does have a standard of health, just like your body does. We can say whether the earth is healthier now than it was after the Cambrian extinction, by comparing the levels of biodiversity. Sure, some species will die, and others will rise up to fill in the open niches, just like you recover from disease and poisoning. Mass extinction events are bouts of ecological illness on a global level. With the current mass extinction killing 200 species every day, with expectations of dead oceans and half of all life wiped out in the next century, the scale is easily comparable to the Permian extinction.

Take a look at Gaia theory; it doesn't take any kind of eco-centric spirituality to recognize that the earth operates as an organism, and that it regulates to an optimal state, just like your body. Notice that biodiversity doesn't just keep on increasing; it stabilizes at an optimal level in a climax ecosystem (see succession).
posted by jefgodesky at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nature wiped out almost all traces of the aliens who populated ancient Earth.

It was those darn aerobes that did it, at least per Niven's The Green Marauder.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2007


I've long believed that Australia should be evacuated and the entire continent transformed into an enormous nature reserve/prison for the world's endangered animals. The Australians really haven't done much with the place and six continents is plenty enough for humanity anyways, and there'd finally be at least one place where animals could happily eat each other without humans mucking it all up.
posted by nixerman at 9:53 AM on June 20, 2007


jefgodesky,
But what is the standard? The point is that life is life, and the type of life doesn't matter. So what if the oceans are barren of advanced forms, from the long-term point of view? What if every creature above bacteria were gone? There would still be life, and it would be doing fine. Biodiversity is a measurement of the health of any given state, but what is this optimal state you speak of? What is the right amount of which kinds of life? A world of only bacteria is just as good as there world we have now, or the worlds that existed long ago. Yes, I'll qualify: there are extremes in which, perhaps, there would only be one species in existence, but these are beyond concern. Just being around is healthy enough.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:58 AM on June 20, 2007


I'd also like to note the Wiki article you link to goes directly against your statement:
it stabilizes at an optimal level in a climax ecosystem

From the Wiki:
"Ecological succession was formerly seen as having a stable end-stage called the climax (see Frederic Clements), sometimes referred to as the 'potential vegetation' of a site, shaped primarily by the local climate. This idea has been largely abandoned by modern ecologists in favor of nonequilibrium ideas of how ecosystems function. Most natural ecosystems experience disturbance at a rate that makes a "climax" community unattainable. Climate change often occurs at a rate and frequency sufficient to prevent arrival at a climax state. Additions to available species pools through range expansions and introductions can also continually reshape communities."

Which seems to support more what I'm saying.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:01 AM on June 20, 2007


As others have pointed out, the Douglas Coupland essay is bunkum.

On a related note, I was pretty fond of this book when I was a kid in the 1980's.
posted by smoothvirus at 10:17 AM on June 20, 2007


Hey, Sangermaine, stop hogging the thread. And no, that line talks about additions to species pools, where you were talking blithely about extinctions.
posted by imperium at 10:30 AM on June 20, 2007


Sangermaine speaks truth.
posted by chinston at 10:44 AM on June 20, 2007


...short term pain can in the long term be corrected.

And you call that pain....? I'd call the temporary state of being on the road to health, "unhealthy", as used in the following statement: "The state of the environment is unhealthy."

Saying the environment can't be in an unhealthy state because eventually it'll (probably) get better is pretty useless. *Eventually* the universe will end, does that mean I didn't have a cold last week?
posted by DU at 10:57 AM on June 20, 2007


Before Sangermaine gets all dog-piled, I wanted to back up his contribution. Environmentalists (of which I am one) often quote James Lovelock's glibly without any serious thought about the real problems Gaia Theory poses.

Take, for example, the problem of invasive species. In my home area zebra mussels and carp are taking over fresh water lakes, pine beetles are decimating forrests, and cormorants are pushing out native seagulls. These species are reducing biodiversity, should we take measures to control them? If so, I am not sure us taking the responsibility to "weed" the entire planet wouldn't cause more harm then good.

Another example: It's quite likely that global warming, in the long term, will end up increasing biodiversity. Most biological processes run more efficiently at higher temperature. A 2 degree shift may kill all the polar bears and flood Manhatten, but think of all the new jungles! Maybe we should be burning more fossil fuels!

I'm being glib, but it's important to point out the difficulty of using biodiversity to measure environmental health, especially over long time periods, since it's quite obvious the biosphere has no optimum steady-state.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Where's Charlton Heston?

Damn you all to hellllll!!!!!
posted by tadellin at 11:11 AM on June 20, 2007


*Eventually* the universe will end, does that mean I didn't have a cold last week?
posted by DU at 12:57 PM on June 20


Well, when you consider the likely infinite number of parallel universes that exist, it's quite likely you indeed didn't have a cold last week. Statistically speaking.

Also, there has never, since the earth cooled, been a steady-state. It has constantly changed and evolved. The land levels, ocean levels, temperatures, atmosphere mixture, hell even the magnetic fields, have all changed over time.

To talk about there being some sort of "healthy" or even "normal" state for the planet is absurd.

I'm not a biologist, but hasn't biodiversity been increasing since the beginning, except for a few mass extinction events which were, geologically speaking, brief in duration?

We are able to see species go extinct all the time, but it is unlikely we will see the rise of any species (as opposed to the "discovery" of new species that have been here all along). Our window of observation is simply not long enough.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:17 AM on June 20, 2007


This will be the intellectual hot topic for, oh, maybe the next 50-100 years: That mankind is an infestation on the Earth, and that by simply existing, we're doing the Earth no good.

We're not talking about ecology. That's very much 20th century thinking. We're talking about justified and reasoned misanthropy—an entire philosophical school of thought. The worst part is that it will be almost impossible to argue against.

We're going to start to feel guilty for being alive. Meekness will be the new fashion.

"Have you considered that your society might be better off if half of you were dead?" — John Titor
posted by humblepigeon at 11:58 AM on June 20, 2007


But what is the standard?

Stable biodiversity, as in a climax ecosystem. Old-growth forest is an example.

The point is that life is life, and the type of life doesn't matter.

Perhaps not, but the diversity of it does. If you lose all the "advanced" (I'll assume you mean "complex") life in the oceans, you've lost a whole dimension of biodiversity. See Gould's Full House, particularly the bit about the "left wall."

What if every creature above bacteria were gone? There would still be life, and it would be doing fine.

Since bacteria make up most of the diversity of life, that would be somewhat true, but a huge amount of biodiversity would be lost. Bacteria that rely on more complex hosts would also die out. Life would not be doing fine; life would be suffering an enormous setback just shy of complete extinction. In time, it would heal, but that doesn't make the event any less disastrous. You recover from wounds and illness, but that doesn't make them healthy.

A world of only bacteria is just as good as there world we have now, or the worlds that existed long ago.

No, it's not. A world of bacteria is greatly diminished in diversity. It is far more vulnerable, and immensely diminished. It cannot maintain the climate as a more diverse ecosystem can, regulate the atmosphere, and so forth. The negative feedback loops that keep life stable are diminished. It would take far less to wipe out that level of life, because it lacks the diversity that life today does, just like you're far more likely to die without your immune system than with it.

Yes, I'll qualify: there are extremes in which, perhaps, there would only be one species in existence, but these are beyond concern. Just being around is healthy enough.

No, it's not. Just as the extreme of just one species would be assured destruction, just two are much more likely to die out, and three are only slightly better off. There is a stable level of biodiversity that life trends towards, where energy needs balance security in the long term. We are already far below that level, and that jeopardizes the health of the planet in exactly the same way that halving your white blood cell count would.

Which seems to support more what I'm saying.

Not in the least. Just as your body temperature is rarely 98.6 degrees exactly, so, too, does biodiversity fluctuate around something we might call a "climax ecosystem." But to say that a human's body temperature fluctuates around 98.6 does not mean that you're still healthy when your body temperature drops to 87.3 degrees, which is essentially what you're saying.

Take, for example, the problem of invasive species. In my home area zebra mussels and carp are taking over fresh water lakes, pine beetles are decimating forrests, and cormorants are pushing out native seagulls. These species are reducing biodiversity, should we take measures to control them? If so, I am not sure us taking the responsibility to "weed" the entire planet wouldn't cause more harm then good.

Invasive species are primarily problemtic if you're looking at it through the lens of some kind of ecological "purity." Ecologies change and adapt. An invasive species reduces biodiversity in the short term, but once the species adapts and becomes native, it increases biodiversity. Ecologies change.

Another example: It's quite likely that global warming, in the long term, will end up increasing biodiversity. Most biological processes run more efficiently at higher temperature. A 2 degree shift may kill all the polar bears and flood Manhatten, but think of all the new jungles! Maybe we should be burning more fossil fuels!

I'm not so sure it's clear that global warming will increase biodiversity, but as Lovelock himself pointed out, the long-term challenge for "Gaia" is to keep cool as the sun warms over its lifetime. The Pleistocene ice age was a sign of exemplary success. In that sense, the whole point of life has been to sequester carbon, to keep the planet cooler. Digging up nearly half of that carbon that all life managed to bury over the past billion years and burning it back into the atmosphere over the past 200 can hardly be seen as a positive development in terms of Gaia Theory.

I'm being glib, but it's important to point out the difficulty of using biodiversity to measure environmental health, especially over long time periods, since it's quite obvious the biosphere has no optimum steady-state.

Neither does the human body, strictly speaking. All organic systems have more-or-less optimal states of dynamic equilibrium. Your temperature fluctuates around 98.6 degrees, but too much variation is bad. Biodiversity in an ecology settles somewhere around a climax ecosystem, and there's a certain amount of normal variation, but too much is a very bad thing. So the point that the optimal state is not a static one is neither here nor there; there's a certain range of healthiness, beyond which variation becomes increasingly unhealthy. This is true for every organic system, including the earth as a whole.

I'm not a biologist, but hasn't biodiversity been increasing since the beginning, except for a few mass extinction events which were, geologically speaking, brief in duration?

No. For the most part, it's been fairly static. Not perfectly static, of course, but like a population near its carrying capacity, it doesn't usually stray very far, either.

We are able to see species go extinct all the time, but it is unlikely we will see the rise of any species (as opposed to the "discovery" of new species that have been here all along). Our window of observation is simply not long enough.

And doesn't that tell you something about the current rate of extinction? If this was "normal," then how is there still life on the planet? Consider a human population; if 100 people die every day and one baby is born every week, what's the long-term outlook for that group? That fact alone should highlight that our current extinction rate is far, far higher than normal.

We're not talking about ecology. That's very much 20th century thinking. We're talking about justified and reasoned misanthropy—an entire philosophical school of thought. The worst part is that it will be almost impossible to argue against.

Humans were doing just fine for 2-3 million years. Obviously, misanthropy misses the point. It's not humanity that's destroyed the planet, it's just one way of life among the thousands upon thousands that humans have tried. That's going to be the new hot topic for the next 50-100 years.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:29 PM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


jefgodesky,
But how are you defining "healthy" in terms of the planet? It seems to be a tautology, that health means more biodiversity (or an optimal level of it), and an optimal level of biodiversity is health. For an individual creature, we might say health is when all systems are functioning at a level where there are no problems either within each system or in the organism as a whole. But this function seems to break down at the planet level, because what systems are threatened by a loss of biodiversity besides those systems which promote biodiversity? Life has shown itself to be able to survive in a huge range of conditions, and evolved in a world that was once quite different, but through photosynthesis and other actions turned it habitable. It seems wrong to say that a loss in biodiversity would result in a loss of life, which could only be deemed unhealthy if life were forced into a state where it couldn't function properly, just as I am sick when my systems are put in a state where I can't function properly.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:49 PM on June 20, 2007


The Dude Earth Abides.
posted by cog_nate at 1:26 PM on June 20, 2007


Huh? I read the Coupland essay years ago and liked it, but reading it again now it strikes me that not so much the premise, but more so the language is crap - take these examples:

By midnight, most of the Northern Hemisphere fares slightly better in an On the Beach sort of way,

That's Southern hemisphere.

fail-safe mechanisms the world over trigger nuclear volleys

The existence of these mechanisms is debatable in itself, but even then surely you mean "fail-deadly".
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:53 PM on June 20, 2007


fail-safe mechanisms the world over trigger nuclear volleys

And if you believe this -- that there's armies of Desmond-like guys sitting in rooms entering numbers into computers to keep the missiles from firing all by themselves -- I have some land in Florida to sell you.

Coupland's version is wildly overstated, as others have noted. The area around Chernobyl today is akin to a wildlife sanctuary.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:00 PM on June 20, 2007


But how are you defining "healthy" in terms of the planet? It seems to be a tautology, that health means more biodiversity (or an optimal level of it), and an optimal level of biodiversity is health.

How are you defining "healthy" in terms of yourself? Isn't homeostasis simply tautological? More biodiversity means an ecological community that's better able to handle whatever might come its way. As Ramon Margalef put it in his classic 1963 paper, "On Certain Unifying Principles in Ecology" (American Naturalist 97:357-374), biomass is "a keeper of organization, something that is proportional to the influence that an actual ecosystem can exert on future events." The biodiversity of an old-growth forest reflects a community that has learned how to deal with events.

That's pretty much how we define health in terms of humans, as well. We experience a disruption of homeostasis negatively, prompting us to try to push things back into (dynamic) equilibrium. But what's actually going on is that your health, your ability to continue your existence, has been compromised. You're in a weakened state. You can't handle as much when you're sick as when you're healthy.

But this function seems to break down at the planet level, because what systems are threatened by a loss of biodiversity besides those systems which promote biodiversity?

We're not talking about the big orb of rock we're sitting on, but that thin green rust on its outer shell, that super-organism that acts as a single system composed of many nested ecosystems, each one made up of myriad plants, animals, fungi and microbes; that's "Gaia." Sure, it could all be wiped out, and the orb of rock would still be there. But less biodiversity means that life on this planet is in a few more precarious position. It wipes out many of the techniques life has accumulated for adapting and surviving, reduces the relationships upon which the survivors depend, and puts the entire system in a position where it can much more easily be snuffed out.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:03 PM on June 20, 2007


Did anybody find the soundtrack for the accompanying video a strange choice? Kinda sounded like the SA guys just went clubbing, or to a dub show.
posted by conch soup at 3:17 PM on June 20, 2007


Rust never sleeps.
posted by Tube at 5:37 PM on June 20, 2007


Don't overlook the interesting sidebars, such as The Winners and the Losers:
↑ Birds, trees, mosquitoes, feral housecats
↓ Domesticated cattle, rats, cockroaches, headlice

On balance, I'd say our demise would be a good thing for Gaia.
posted by rob511 at 6:08 PM on June 20, 2007


I think it's a very interesting thought experiment, and I'm curious to read more.

I like the (admittedly romantic and absurd) idea of the Earth growing back around us, as opposed to actually removing us from the picture altogether. Of course, it's a short jog to dysentery and no teeth, but it's nice to dream.


cue Ozymandias, , but I'll take All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

Oh, and can someone post that little cartoon, done in the style of an airplane-passenger-instruction-card wherein the people in the office revert and do the go-back-to-nature primitivist-shaman thing? You know, burning the desks and vines crawling in the windows, wearing grass skirts, etc? I can't seem to find it despite my best efforts, and I think it's particularly appropriate here. kthx.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:33 PM on June 20, 2007


See, I don't think people take the Gaia idea far enough. If we're going to accept the premise of a planet as organism, then you may as well think it through properly. A given organism's ultimate goal is not to maintain its own health, this is only a short term goal. In the long term, the goal is to reproduce. For a planet-organism, reproduction can only consist of the transplantation of some representative part of it's ecosystem on another planet.

By this metric, the extinction of humans would be catastrophic for the Gaia-organism. I see no other species even thinking about accomplishing this goal.
posted by Arturus at 10:54 PM on June 20, 2007


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