Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Ecological Post-Apocalypse - The World Without Us

A little while ago I read Alan Weisman's wonderful non-fiction book The World Without Us, and thought it'd be interesting to consider it in comparison to its genre. Make no mistake - despite it being a work of popular science rather than prose fiction, it's still essentially post-apocalyptic fiction, even if it skirts around the subject a little. What it gives us is a compelling and well fleshed-out vision of an alternative future that is, nonetheless, based on an entirely fictional and highly unlikely premise. Weisman, in his book, asks the simple question: "What if we all disappeared tomorrow?". Thus, rather than creating a complicated fictional world around typical tropes such as nuclear annihilation, a long-dragged out eco-catastrophe or an asteroid colliding with earth, he can simply observe the world without us. In post-apocalyptic fiction in general, I think this has been a surprisingly uncommon question to ask. Instead of a storyline following a ragged band of human survivors, his storyline follows the ragged remnants of the biodiversity we've left behind, and its struggle to reassert its right to the planet. Like most post-apocalyptic fiction, it's not really about the survivors either, but about the reasons for the apocalypse itself - the challenges the world has to overcome with us gone are all things happening right now. What's fun about Weisman is that the real ecological apocalypse is what will happen UNLESS the premise of his book is fulfilled, which is a nice twist.

It has to be admitted that the book is written like a screenplay for TV; filled with flowering prose it is not. The way he introduces the various characters and events reads like directions to the cameraman (or like Tom Clancy), and much of the text itself could be converted directly to a documentary voiceover. This is perhaps not unsurprising considering Weisman's background as a journalist, and in the context of this book it functions marvellously: the purpose of screenplay prose is, after all, to put images as clearly and succinctly into our heads as possible, and I think The World Without Us manages that just perfectly.

As a resource for anyone wishing to write post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is invaluable. Ever wonder what would happen to skyscrapers, left alone for long enough? At what point all of our largest constructions, from bridges to dams, would begin to crumble? How soon the forests would repopulate the abandoned fields, how the animals would retake their old territories, what would happen to our useless domesticated pets (some of which, happily, aren't quite as useless. Yay, cats!), and how plants imported by humans might affect the end result. Did you, when you wrote your post-apocalyptic world, ever think of what would happen to New York once the pumps stopped working? Or what would happen to the over 400 nuclear power plants when their coolant water finally dried away and the fuel rods were exposed to the air?

Although he theorizes much (with solid, scientific backing, mind), he also visits many locations which are in essence miniature versions of his vision, such as Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ and an absolutely fascinating place in Cyprus called Varosha, which was a beach resort that was abandoned when the country was split in twain in the 1970s, and since then jealously guarded by the Turkish military.

His thoughts on how quickly everything we leave behind would disappear is, to say the least, sobering, as is the descriptions of civilizations that have already disappeared, such as the Mayans. Throughout, his message is clear: ecologically, the human post-apocalypse would indubitably be Eden, and the only things we would leave behind would be our bronze statues and a couple of things we carved into solid bedrock (oh, and a lot of nuclear waste and plastic).

The post-apocalypse is usually a dreary thing, and that is for a reason I believe. We tend to anthropomorphise the world, and if things are going bad for us (people) then things ought to be going bad for everything else as well. I believe this is sometimes referred to as 'pathetic fallacy'. This book essentially proves the opposite. The visions of post-nuclear deserts or ash-ridden skies or eternal winter or whatever scenario the post-apocalyptic imagination can conjure up are all, in the long run, brief seconds in the ever-crunching wheel of life which will, soon enough, retake the earth, with or without us. I don't know about you, but I at least feel a little of the existential blight of the coming end-of-the-world lessen when I think of just how much better off the world will be without us.

On a purely philosophical level, however, I still think it's pretty neat to be able to think, feel, observe and share stuff that happens in this world, so I'm not saying we humans are -completely- defunct in the universal order of things. Just that we really should stop breeding and consuming. Now excuse me while I go back to chewing on chocolate grown on another continent while surfing the Internet on a computer containing bucketloads of petroleum in my nicely centrally heated apartment.

(Picture of Varosia/Varosha taken from here, with licence :

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