Writer in the spotlight: Alan Weisman

Envisioning a post-human planet healing itself, The World Without Us is “an experiment in thinking”. Its author tells Kate Cheney Davidson how the book evolved – and hails a “courageous” China.

Alan Weisman’s environmental reporting has taken him to the farthest corners of the earth. From Amazon rainforests to the Korean demilitarized zone to New York City’s vast underground rail system, the American journalist has gone in search of places where humans have had their greatest, and their least, impact on the natural world. In his latest book, The World Without Us, Weisman travels to where no one has gone before – to an imagined time when the earth, suddenly rid of humankind, begins to heal itself.

The bestseller, which has now been translated into 30 languages, including Chinese, has been called one of the most provocative “thought experiments” of our time. chinadialogue’s Kate Cheney Davidson caught up with Weisman to talk about the genesis of The World Without Us and what it says ultimately about our human condition.

Kate Cheney Davidson: Why this book and why now?

Alan Weisman: I got a call from a Discover magazine editor in July of 2003. She wanted me to explore the idea of what would happen if we just left, you know, like now. Tomorrow, we’re all gone. Would nature bounce back without us there anymore? Once I got beyond the theoretical possibility, then I realised that this could provide us a really fresh perspective on the world. It would be a new way of looking at things from the other direction rather than worrying about how we can undo everything.

KCD: So the magazine article obviously evolved into a book-length project. How did you know that people would be interested in a book that is largely not even about them?

AW: The initial reaction from people when I told them I was working on a book about what the earth would look like without people was, “God, wouldn’t that be great?!” That was really interesting to me. It made me wonder what was going on here. Do we all miss the Garden of Eden on some level? Is this just some fantasy we have? Or is there really something to it? Suddenly I realised that what I had here was something so fascinating on lots of levels, but also there’s something in us that just loves to watch things break down.

KCD: Why do you think that is?

AW: I think there might be a few different mechanisms operating at once. Part of it is this animal inside of our nature in which we miss a beautiful, natural world that isn’t cluttered with all this stuff, and we kind of take great glee in watching nature eat it all up. There’s a novel by AM Homes called Music for Torching. At the very beginning of the book, you meet this totally stressed-out suburban family and they accidentally do something that could set the house on fire, something that they could have easily put out. But then they just sort of look at each other, and despite the fact that they are in the midst of this seething argument, they look at each other and look at the flames and they sort of smile and walk away. As if to say, ah, just let it go.

I’ve had people say similar things to me about my book, especially the chapter about how the walls of your house, or the walls around our entire culture like the city of New York would fall apart without us there to hold them up. Lots of people said to me that they had so much fun reading that chapter.

KCD: How has the experience of writing this book made you think differently about things like global warming?

AW: I think about global warming in the same way. Climate change is always occurring on earth, but this one [the change since the Industrial Revolution] is pretty clearly traceable to our activities because it’s easily documented how much carbon we’ve thrown into the atmosphere and the correlation between rising temperatures and the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases that we have created.

As a kid, I was fascinated by paleontology and I’m okay with the earth being in a state of constant flux. What I’m not okay with is my species being out of control. So my feelings about global warming haven’t changed. They’ve been reinforced. I haven’t run into anything that would cause me to be less concerned.

KCD: After writing this book, do you think the situation is hopeless?

AW: My feeling about hope, or about being encouraged by what’s going to happen to nature, actually did go through a change and went through a change for the better. I’ve been really depressed about the environmental destruction I’ve seen, and I’ve thought about it in terms of the world coming to an end. That’s a very anthropocentric point of view. It may be the earth as we know it coming to an end and — sadly enough, because of our own activities — it may mean the end of my [human] race, but life is not coming to an end. I’ve seen continual examples during my research for this book of how amazingly indomitable life is.
KCD: Okay, so the earth will survive us. But are we, the human race, a lost cause?

AW: I’m just not ready to give up on us. I would like to think that human life will go on and that’s really why I wrote this book. It’s called The World Without Us, but I really want us to look hard at what’s going on, understand the totality of our impact. I didn’t want this book to be a polemic, but rather to show people stuff and let them make their own conclusions. But at the end, I pose this other fantasy: suppose that maybe we do keep living, but we only produce one child per family?

KCD: That’s long been the policy in China, but the idea is still very unpopular in your country, the United States. What reaction have you received from readers there?

AW: Mixed. Some of the reaction has been appreciative, but then Rush Limbaugh [a conservative American radio talk-show host] damned me to hell on his show.

KCD: How do you think, or hope, your book will be received in China? A country whose population, as you say in your book, is still one of the most active “breeders” on the planet? A country, by the way, that does not see itself as the ones who started the global environmental problems we face today.

AW: They’re not the ones who started the mess. However, by proliferating to the point that they have, they are definitely a world leader in increasing the population. They’ve also been a world leader in trying to do something about it. I think that the Chinese experiment [the one-child policy] was very courageous, and very, very difficult to try and implement and it showed us a lot of the pitfalls. But that is what experiments are supposed to do.

I hope that the Chinese are honored for having created an experiment that did point out a lot of the problems that we would have to overcome, and I hope that we will consider that experiment again. It’s just like at the beginning, everyone down-played the issues about global warming and didn’t want to face it, but now we’ve come around to realising that we have to face it. I think that the Chinese were pioneers, just like Al Gore was a pioneer, in talking about global warming.

KCD: Are you really a proponent of the world adopting a one-child-per-family policy?

AW: This book is an experiment in thinking. Even the overpopulation thing, or the one child per family. I’m not comfortable with that at all. Not only do I love my sister, but I’m a second born so I wouldn’t even be here. But we’re facing uncomfortable choices. The idea that we can green ourselves back into existence by eating forest-friendly foods or something is ridiculous. We can’t consume ourselves into sustainability. We have to lower consumption. That means we either consume things over and over again by recycling, or we consume fewer things. There are limits to how far growth can take you.


Alan Weisman is an American journalist, author, documentary-maker and educator.

Kate Cheney Davidson is a San Francisco-based journalist and US editor of chinadialogue.


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