Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Post collapse fiction versus reality - The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I love post-collapse science fiction in any form, so it is no surprise that I have been binging on the genre of late. Most recently, I finished Children of Men, the basis for an excellent movie, and Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam, the final book in the eponymous trilogy that includes Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood. MaddAddam struck me with some of the details and descriptions of the post-collapse environment. It reminded me of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which I decided to re-visit due to my recent obsession with apocalyptic fiction. The book is something of a thought experiment to address the question of how the world would look without humans; it is definitely on my great science reads list.

I am Legend's image of New York City without us
My original vision of a post-collapse world was a paradise where plants and animals take over the newly vacated cities. The traces of our civilization would be quickly covered in kudzu and dust, as seen in The Walking Dead or I am Legend. However, Weisman's book changed this view; his book suggests that while some vestiges of our existence would disappear rather quickly, other elements would persist long after we are gone.

A crumbling Brooklyn Bridge five years after us (K. Brown)
My favorite chapter is "The City Without Us". The author spoke with a variety of experts (e.g., engineers, chemists, geologists) to discover how New York City would change after humans disappear. During the development of Manhattan, various environmental engineering projects transformed the island from a tidal 
500 years after humans: New York City becomes a forest
marsh filled with rivers and streams to the metropolis we know today. All of this water, currently trickling unseen under the city, would be a major force for change after humans are gone. The subway tunnels would fill with water only a few days after the power turns off. As the water seeps through the subway system, it would cause weaknesses in the roads and sidewalks. In combination with seasonal changes in temperature, bridges and roads would collapse quite quickly. Without people around to maintain the infrastructure, roads and bridges would likely be crumbling after just five years. In about 500 years, Weisman predicts that the city would be a forest, with a unexpected array of animals, including deer, moose, bears, and coyotes. The images on the right are from the author's website, where you can find more amazing visions of New York City without humans.

Abandoned bumper cars in Pripyat, Ukraine, the site of Chernobyl
Within days of our disappearance, power plants would go offline, causing meltdowns at nuclear plants. Chemical and industrial plants would catch fire without maintenance, making the initial landscape rather hellish. While the fires would eventually extinguish, the chemical and nuclear wastes would persist. These pollutants would then become a force for adaptive change. The city of Pripyat, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, can serve as an example of how the landscape changes without us. The fallout from the disaster is estimated to irradiate the environment nearby until at least 2135. The Exclusion Zone (a 30 km radius evacuated around the plant) has highlighted how adaptable nature can be. Weisman discusses how the biodiversity in the Exclusion Zone has improved; in fact, the zone has become home to an increasing number of animals (e.g., moose, voles, rabbits, birds). Surprisingly, it is unclear whether these animals are experiencing an increased mutation rate (primary article with coverage on ScienceBlogs). The inner reactor core has proven to be a unique niche for evolution: scientists discovered a  radiotrophic fungi as a black slime on the inner reactor core; this fungus converts gamma rays into energy for growth. Other published articles have described how plants have adapted in the highly radioactive environment.

One vestige of human existence that would persist without us: plastics. Weisman thoroughly discusses the issue of plastics pollution, including the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, more commonly known as the Pacific garbage patch. Like the four other oceanic gyres, this area of the ocean has become a sink for plastics in varying states of decay; plastic debris is reduced to smaller and smaller sizes by the action of waves and the sun. The majority of the plastic wastes in these gyres is in the form of microplastics. Because plastics have only been in use for about 60 years, scientists are only starting to understand the ramifications and possible outcomes of the life cycle of plastics. Likewise, this relatively short time frame means that microbes have not yet evolved to degrade them. Despite the gloomy information in this chapter, the author keeps a positive tone, suggesting that while we do not know how long it will take for plastics to degrade, there is hope on the geological timescale: "Like trees buried in bogs a long time ago....were changed into oil and coal," maybe plastics will degrade when microbes evolve to degrade them or when something else changes them altogether (p. 128). This geological view from the book's website may also help keep things in perspective. 

The World Without Us informs the reader of the knowns and spurs the imagination of the unknowns. In this way, it captures the things about post-collapse fiction that I find appealing: that initial sadness at the loss of our humanity, the imaginings of what kind of place the world will become without us, and the hope that the world could be better.

More links: 

* The author also discusses the Mannahatta project, which has done extensive research to chronicle what Manhattan looked like before Henry Hudson landed. I am adding the book about the project to my ever-growing book list.

* To get some ideas for this post, I read a lot of opinions on why human are so obsessed with the apocalypse. I did not find a really satisfying answer, but this piece was the best of the relevant articles.

* If you enjoy the pictures here, be sure to check out the AbandonedPorn (SFW) Subreddit.

                                                  Talking Heads' (Nothing but) Flowers.

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