Thursday, October 29, 2009

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

I know two people who read this book, and they both said it was pretty interesting, so two weekends ago, when I was supposed to be studying at the local library, I checked this book out instead.

I've hated books more than this, but none were as infuriating to read. Hardly a page goes by that Weisman doesn't take the opportunity to remind us that humans are unstoppable killing machines. In one spot he mentions the relatively scant species we've driven to extinction, but in another he calls our heritage the worst episode of extinction since the Permian. It might be the case that both are true, except it's not. The extinction of megafauna when humans first reached the Americas was much worse. However, it's not as cool to castigate neolithic ancestors as it is to wag the beseeching finger at those fellow modern men who aren't as enlightened as yourself.

I wanted to read about the science of entropy, basically, and how it would play out in modern society. We get very little of that. Instead we get a healthy dose of industrial criticism, or the idea that foolish man has doomed himself and the rest of nature with us.

One thing that seemed strange to me: the record of earth's history shows just how varied climate and life have been, yet every dire prediction for the future is couched in the argument that global warming is a threat to the world. The process by which carbon would once again be locked beneath the earth's surface is presented here. Times when climate has changed more dramatically are presented here. Natural extinctions of nearly all life are presented here. So nothing we can do can really destroy all life. Even nuclear war would decimate it and alter it, but it wouldn't annihilate it. The second thing that seemed strange to me: if man is just another animal, why is his animal behavior sound roundly criticized? Elephants knock over trees just to scratch themselves, with no thought to the animals living in the trees or the trees themselves. They're just doing what comes naturally to elephants. Why do they get a free pass when man, just doing what comes naturally to man, gets hauled to the woodshed? I guess one would say it's because we should "know better," but why should we expect that of an animal?

Also, the science seems to be very poorly presented in some places. Sometimes we're told that thousands of years of living with man wasn't enough time for the American megafauna to evolve survival mechanisms, while elsewhere we're told that African animals have now adapted to 20th-century human technology. How much time does it take to adapt to a man with a spear? More than it takes to adapt to a man with a truck, evidently.

And remember when acknowledgements were limited to the dedication of the book? An author got to thank one person per book, and often it was only done by including the person's name. Now even fiction books have a acknowledgements page, and this has even grown to defining the page as "front and back." Well, Weisman has 11 pages of acknowledgements, so large a number that the demands of good journalism style require me to use numerals instead of spelling it out. Nearly all of the pages could have been summed up by one sentence: "I want to thank everyone who helped with the book." I mean, I read the whole book; I know who you interviewed and where. You don't have to recount it all for me at the end.

What I hate more than anything, though, is when Evolution (with a capital E) is presented as a sentient entity, as Weisman does here:

Back in China, this formerly cold-weather species coated its seeds with harvestable quantities of wax to guard against winter. Once it was brought to the balmy American South as an agricultural crop, it noticed there was no need to do that. In a textbook display of sudden evolutionary adaptation, it stopped making weatherproof wax and put its energy into producing more seeds.(140-1)
Seriously. The Chinese tallow tree "noticed" something, then "stopped" doing one thing so as to "put its energy" into doing something else. A legitimate scientist would have explained it more like this: "The American environment did not select against the genetically-mutated trees that failed to produce wax on their seeds. These trees then survived to pass along their mutation. Because these trees put less effort into seed coating, they thrived in other areas, such as seed production. Possibly even the wax coatings were a detriment in America, so the un-mutated trees were selected against. Eventually, only mutant trees remained." There's some good science behind that explanation. Evolutionists lose their effort to win over creationists when they assign rational decision-making processes to trees.

Finally, the book ends with this pearl of wisdom:

The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.(272)
Weisman enjoys the intellectual's freedom to recommend policy without commenting on its implementation, so I'll ask the question he avoids: does he advocate forced abortion, or just forced sterilization? He doesn't even recognize that he must choose between one of these two options because in his mind, once everyone is sufficiently enlightened, they will all do this voluntarily. Notice how he thinks it requires "courage" and "wisdom," but somehow doesn't require "policing" and "oppression." Of course not.

Weisman wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Whence comes this "intelligent solution," if not from the intellectual explosion that has accompanied our increased numbers? If someone like Newton is a one-in-a-billion, our ancestors had to wait millennia for their first; we now have six alive right now. Weisman argues that following his draconian policy (which he kindly assures us would be "fairly applied," because he somehow knows the inner thoughts of elected officials yet determined) would thin our ranks to under one billion within 150 years. He's basically saying, "Thanks for the modern technology; now everyone else die so we can enjoy it," and advocating for the freezing of technological progress for the remainder of time.

I hold that technology will provide the solution to the problems of today. If no one currently alive knows how to clean up spilled nuclear radiation, we need to make more people to figure it out. Man has always been one step ahead of his cleaning strategy. We'll solve the pollution problems of today and have new problems to solve in the future. It comes from the basic laws of economics, that until there is a problem you don't divert resources to its solving, and that decisions are based on opportunity costs. The first person to decide to pour his engine oil down the storm drain didn't create a crisis by himself. The conservation movement has made giant strides in winning the public consciousness. We now take the welfare of other animals into consideration when making many of our decisions. The solution to man's problems isn't fewer of us; it very well may be more.

Rating: 0 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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