Do you worry about the nuclear waste and bombs squirreled away in underground bunkers? And wonder what would happen if there weren’t humans constantly monitoring these stockpiles? Such questions once led me to read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), which explores what would happen to the planet if humans suddenly disappeared. His book answers the question: How long would it take Earth to recover from us?
I was relieved to learn that, at least with regards to uranium bombs, the speeds required for the fissionable material to collide and explode are not found in nature. Short of pushing a uranium bomb off the side of the Grand Canyon, it isn’t likely these weapons will go off accidentally. Learning this eased my fear of a group of renegades (or poorly trained government employees) mishandling nuclear bombs in transit and accidentally dropping one. Furthermore, if one day we return to a planet of apes, stone banging and jumping on nuclear bombs won’t deploy them either.
However, the bombs’ casings, like the power plants and nuclear waste containers, eventually will corrode. At that point, all surrounding life will be exposed to cancer-causing and mutation-forming alpha particles that will take at least 250,000 years to join background levels of radiation, and hence become nonlethal to life (as we now know it).
With regards to Weisman’s question — how long will it take the planet to recover from our environmental impact — some toxic substances will take hundreds of thousands of years to dissipate, while other contaminants might flush from Earth’s system in a mere year without humans around.
For example, despite being on the planet little more than fifty years, plastic — like nuclear waste — may be one of the longest reminders of late modern civilization. Plastic poses a formidable threat, especially to sea life. When they aren’t hopelessly snared in six-pack rings and nylon cord, many sea animals are mistakenly eating plastic pellets that have the colorful markings of food but could prove deadly once ingested. Furthermore, at present there is no way to naturally breakdown plastic. Even so-called biodegradable forms require environmental conditions few plastics ever experience — intense sunlight and enough heat for them to photodegrade — since most end up swirling in cool ocean currents or on the ocean floor.
A more hopeful picture of the future without us occurs with the end of farming and relief from the fertilizers that saturate the globe’s waterways. Weisman estimated it would take only one growing season for the lifeless chemical plumes that presently choking sea-bound waterways — such as the Mississippi, Sacramento, Yangtze, and Nile rivers — to start to disappear and for life to return. As Weisman puts it, “a Mississippi Delta fisherman who awakened from the dead after only a decade would be amazed at what he’d find.”
I enjoyed The World Without Us, and was impressed by the extensive research and the number of people Weisman interviewed during the four years he took to produce the book. Yet I felt unsettled by my fascination with the thought of a world without humans. In fact, I felt guilty; perhaps Earth would be better off without us.
I know I am not alone in such feelings. After it came out in 2007, Weisman’s book became a bestseller, and the attitude that there are simply too many humans on the planet has become a common sentiment. Overpopulation will determine development and sustainability efforts for years to come, if not centuries (assuming we humans last that long). A guiding question of our era has become (or should become): How will we manage dwindling resources while the human population (along with consumption and environmental degradation) continues to grow?
When reasonable, we humans are impressively intelligent and can successfully address such a question. But intelligence alone can’t save us, since scientific ingenuity cannot protect us from our overwhelming emotions and imaginations when triggered by trauma or posttraumatic stress. The human reaction to trauma creates upper limits on our capacity for dealing with catastrophes as well as thinking clearly, and this limit needs to be considered as much as scientific ingenuity when it comes to sustainability and environmental preservation.
Fundamentally, science is about prediction and control. And prediction and control are highly time-dependent concepts, guiding our understanding of such things as planetary orbits, viruses, and the evolution of species. But it turns out that the human capacity for time consciousness, and thus sustained awareness, is actually a rather recent evolutionary development, and it is still easily disrupted by traumatizing experiences. This likely has to do with how the human brain has evolved, which has been accidental and fortuitous. What evolved earliest has remained, and with minimal alterations.
The neuroscientist David Linden (2007) compared the brain’s evolution to the building of an ice cream cone: “As higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged. In this way, our human brainstem, cerebellum and midbrain are not very different in overall plan from that of a frog.” On top of the so-called reptilian brain was scooped an emotional brain, the so-called limbic system, and on top of that scoop, the decision-making neocortex is where cognition is believed to dominate.
This building-block approach to brain development perhaps led to the desire for prediction and control. When our emotions become overwhelming, which is de rigueur for traumatizing events, our frontal lobes pretty much go offline. Thinking takes a backseat as more primitive brain structures take over the business of basic survival. As a result, our view of the situation becomes constricted as we pay attention to what threatens us or what might lead to escape, thus activating fight, flight, freeze, submit, or attachment cry defense responses.
Trauma, and the posttraumatic stress it causes, is considered a syndrome of derealization because it constricts conscious awareness. To avoid reminders of past traumas, we will function from lower levels of awareness, in effect seeing, feeling, imagining, or thinking about only what will allow us to get on with the business of living – and without activating traumatic memories.
Consequently, we can have the best theories and technologies rational-minded people can develop, but if as a population we often have to live from a place of constricted consciousness to avoid awakening unconscious monsters, then we won’t likely make the kind of changes necessary for consistently practicing sustainability and safeguarding natural resources.
If we are going to protect and preserve Earth, then we are going to have to stop traumatizing one another.
In a poem titled “Kiss the Earth,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “the Earth will be safe when we feel safe in ourselves.” I think this is one of the wisest statements I have ever read. What the Earth needs from us is our consistent awareness and deep emotional connection to all life. But instead, we give it periods of intense witnessing interspaced with distraction and inattention. Regardless of our best intentions, our attention will constrict when we are overwhelmed by traumatic stress.
Emotional resiliency begins in the first years of life in homes where nurturing is the norm and family violence and chaos are nonexistent. Those of us who lacked such environments need to heal so that it is safe to both witness and be witnessed. We also need to protect the youngest generation so they can develop and sustain the emotional resilience necessary to reverse the destruction caused by their ancestors. Perhaps then there will no longer be an interest in imagining the world without us.
Linden, David J. 2007. The accidental mind: How brain evolution has given us love, memory, dreams, and God. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Weisman, Alan. 2007. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).