23.8.09

GETTING AND SPENDING WE LAY WASTE OUR POWERS. I sometimes wonder if William Wordsworth wrote all those gripes about the early industrial era as a reaction to the newly-built Lancaster and Carlisle bringing day-trippers to the Lake District. There's a strain of disdain for people in environmentalist thinking, and Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, the subject of Book Review No. 32, plays to that strain. There are three major themes in this book. The title considers what would happen to our creations if for some reason we weren't around to maintain them, providing the first theme. The second theme extends the first, with a focus on oil tanks and nuclear waste that could provide a nasty surprise for future archaeologists, whether arriving from space or as representatives of the next iteration of sapient beings to take advantage of whatever niche they find. (I suspect the nasty surprise is more likely to come to a future explorer rendered illiterate by years of inclusive education or rendered vulnerable to something more real than Tutankhamun's curse by future generations' neglect of ancient languages.) The third theme, which provides the author with a way of contemplating what a world without people would look like, is a celebration of areas such as forests, tundras, and tropical reefs that have not had the opportunity to adapt to humans. That those areas include former military bases, the demilitarized zone of the Koreas, and Hermann Goering's old hunting preserve ought give preservationists pause.

The author corresponded with numerous scientists and advocates in writing the book. The science is reasonable. The advocacy too often tends to the disdain for people strain of environmentalist thinking. My use of the expression "opportunity to adapt to humans" suggests a reaction to that disdain. Finches on the Galapagos, to use a popular example, show great facility at selecting for beaks more effective for the prey in the neighborhood. When the finches demonstrate their effectiveness by removing the prey, the logic of the predator-prey cycle tells us what happens to the finches. Humans show great facility at selecting for methods of domesticating and conserving prey and for selecting for ability to recognize improvements and provide methods for making those improvements in the use of their environment. (Put bluntly: radioactive waste is a source of energy we haven't yet figured out how to use effectively, and species extinction means we haven't thought through the predatory-prey cycle as well as we might). The author treats the adaptation of flora and fauna in the absence of people as nature taking its course, but too often takes the point of view of people understanding and adapting to what plants and animals do as an insult against life itself. That's probably an error.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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