I finished up reading “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman. The premise is what would happen to the planet if human beings were to suddenly disappear. Weisman uses a mixture of the past, advice from experts, an examination of present and some illustrative examples to conjecture about what the world would look like if we humans were to suddenly leave.
The remarkable subtext of the book is what impact people are having on the planet now, and how have we changed the planet already. The impact of our species over its history is amazing. The point that we are at currently is frightening. In the conclusion, Weisman broaches a topic that is nearly impossible to discuss, but is essential to the problem: population.
This was a point brought home in a different book called “The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations” by Dietrich Dorner. Technology can improve life expectancy, efficiency in food production, infant mortality, etc. However, these improvements are often met with increased demands on resources whose efficiency we can’t improve. When that necessary but unreplenishable resource dries up, it is the definition of disaster. Usually, it gets worse in that when disaster begins to strike, the larger population usually starts engaging in all sorts of counter-productive activities which exacerbates an oncoming disaster.
The solution Weisman presents near the end of the book is rather simple: one child for every woman until the human population reaches approximately one billion. It is humane and sensible from the stand-point sustainability and environmental impact. However, with society as it stands I have severe doubts to its feasibility.
In this respect, evolution puts humanity in a little bit of a paradox. Evolution rewards the reproductive cheaters and the people who do not voluntarily comply. Biologically, the human species has developed a brain capable of holding ecological dominance over the entire planet but seems incapable saving it from the consequences of its collective action.
I therefore find it slightly dismaying when I hear Stephen Hawking speak about the need to get off the planet… now! If the human population were stable around one billion, we could easily spend the millions of man-years necessary to build the vessels to safely explore space while eliminating social concerns such as poverty and starvation. Although, if scientists are anything, they are realists.
In that respect, Hawking’s proposal depresses me. Not the aspect of exploring and potentially colonizing space, but the prospect that we do so because we so blighted our own home that we needed to find another to wreck. In the final analysis, I do not feel that it is enough merely to survive for the sake of doing so. We, as a species, need to demonstrate a case for deserving to survive. Being good stewards and capable of living in harmony with our surroundings, I feel would be sufficient grounds for making that case, especially if we limit our impacts and do our best to treat every creature ethically. Humanity does have a special gift, and capable of feats no other animal on our planet can imagine. However, it mere hubris to believe our gift to this planet and universe are so important that it eclipses the contributions of all others species on this planet. The retribution for our transgression is the world Weisman describes, a world without us and a world that will rapidly erase all remnants of our existence. The world without us is a world doing its best to forget.