Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The World Without Us, Part II

I’ve read a few more chapters in The World Without Us. This book is dense! But definitely interesting. One chapter talks exclusively about New York City (“The City Without Us”) and it’s just amazing all the things that would happen without humans to run things (and I don’t mean for the better; we could be running things into the ground for all we know). Once upon a time, the land that is New York City was hilly and green, but it was flattened to make room for skyscrapers and such. Because of the lack of vegetation to absorb it, rainwater has nowhere to go but down. And what’s down? The subway.

NYC has an organization called the Hydraulics Emergency Response whose job it is to keep 13 million gallons of water each day from encroaching on the subway system. And that’s on a day when it doesn’t rain. In a world without pumps, people and electricity, the experts think the NYC underground would fill completely in two days. TWO DAYS. Within 20 years, the streets become rivers.

In an interest of looking at the world without humans, Weisman studies the world before us. He delves into the ice ages and eras before humans. He talks about how humans evolved from apes and started moving from Africa to Australia and America (continents were much more connected than they are now) and came face to face with such huge creatures such as the wooly mammoth, the cow-sized giant sloth and the black bear-sized beaver. Creatures that are no longer here. Why?

A well-respected theory that Weisman seems to believe is that humans hunted these beasts into extinction. We hunted them for food, for sport, just because we could, not realizing what we were doing. The places we didn’t get to right away (some islands in the Caribbean, farther into South America), well, those species lasted a bit longer. Interesting. When these creatures were gone, we learned to farm. Many people of varying levels of intelligence don’t want to believe this theory. But it makes sense to me. I mean, we seem to care about extinction nowadays, but if our lives depended on it or we just didn’t know any better, there’s no doubt in my mind we’d go after the endangered species. (Weisman even mentions in the book how Teddy Roosevelt killed 600 animals on one safari in 1909. One safari. For sport.)

More recently humans had an effect on nature as well. We brought over new plants and organisms that changed our landscape outright. Writes Weisman, “The European starling—now a ubiquitous avian pest from Alaska to Mexico—was introduced because someone thought [NYC] would be more cultured if Central Park were home to each bird mentioned in Shakespeare. Next came a Central Park garden with every plant in the Bard’s plays, sown with the lyrical likes of primrose, wormwood, larks’ heel, eglantine, and cowslip.” We are so dumb.

Whether you believe in evolution or not, it’s very interesting to think about where we came from and how, quite possibly, we’ve been ruining things for thousands of years. Or, is it all just part of the natural cycle? Extinction is a part of life, many scientists say. That’s probably true.

But who’s next?

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