Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, September 02, 2021

Here’s a cheerful thought, brought to you by Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us”: If the human race were to disappear tomorrow, Mother Nature wouldn’t need all that much time to fill the void:

In even the most heavily fortified corners of the settled world, the rot would set in quickly. With no one left to run the pumps, New York’s subway tunnels would fill with water in two days. Within 20 years, Lexington Avenue would be a river. Fire- and wind-ravaged skyscrapers would eventually fall like giant trees. Within weeks of our disappearance, the world’s 441 nuclear plants would melt down into radioactive blobs, while our petrochemical plants, “ticking time bombs” even on a normal day, would become flaming geysers spewing toxins for decades to come. Outside of these hot spots, Weisman depicts a world slowly turning back into wilderness. After about 100,000 years, carbon dioxide would return to prehuman levels. Domesticated species from cattle to carrots would revert back to their wild ancestors. And on every dehabitated continent, forests and grasslands would reclaim our farms and parking lots as animals began a slow parade back to Eden.

A million years from now, a collection of mysterious artifacts would remain to puzzle whatever alien beings might stumble upon them: the flooded tunnel under the English Channel; bank vaults full of mildewed money; obelisks warning of buried atomic waste (as current law requires) in seven long-obsolete human languages, with pictures. The faces on Mount Rushmore might provoke Ozymandian wonder for about 7.2 million more years. (Lincoln would probably fare better on the pre-1982 penny, cast in durable bronze.) But it’s hard to imagine an alien archaeologist finding poetry in the remote Pacific atolls awash in virtually unbiodegradable plastic bottles, bags and Q-tip shafts, or in the quadrillions of nurdles, microscopic plastic bits in the oceans — they currently outweigh all the plankton by a factor of six — that would continue to cycle uncorrupted through the guts of sea creatures until an enterprising microbe evolved to break them down.

As for the creatures who made this mess, the only residue of our own surprisingly negligible biomass — according to the biologist E. O. Wilson, the six billion-plus humans currently wreaking planetary havoc could all be neatly tucked away in one branch of the Grand Canyon — would be the odd fossil, mingling perhaps with the limbs of Barbie dolls.

It seems our collective quest for legacy is an exercise in folly. So much for leaving a good-looking corpse.

Douglas posted a succinct version of this bleakness a few months back, along with accompanying flowchart. I admit his contribution stuck with me ever since, even though I’ve been familiar with the concept of human impermanence since high school. It’s all in the framing: Break it down into demonstrable cause-and-effect chunks, and it becomes vivid. A lesson there, if in no other way.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 09/02/2021 08:16:37 PM
Category: Publishing, Society, Science | Permalink |

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  1. VOLUNTEERING FOR EXTINCTION…

    Take the save-the-planet blueprint behind zero population growth one step further, and you’ve got the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (or “VHEMT” for short, except that that “T” doesn’t stand for anything, and s…

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 09/03/2021 @ 08:26:09 PM

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