The World Without Us: Author Interview

Earlier this week I spoke on the phone with Alan Weisman, the author of The World Without Us. (See our initial piece on his book.) Alan was gracious enough to take some time out of his publicity schedule to share his thoughts on the book, the world, his writing process, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ed: This book addresses what on the surface seems to be a pretty far-fetched hypothetical: that humanity might suddenly disappear. What drew you to this premise in the first place?

Alan: Well, precisely that. Most great environmental writing does not get read by a lot of the people who ought to be learning about it because the nearer-term possibilities just seem sometimes so frightening, or so depressing, that nobody really wants to pick up a book to read it.

By structuring the book the way that I did, I disarm the automatic fear that repels a lot of people from reading about the environment. People don’t want to read something that seems too threatening. On a subconscious or even a conscious level, they don’t want to be worried we’re all going to die. In my book, killing us off in the first couple of pages means people don’t have to worry about dying because we’re already dead, and that’s a relief in a sense. The idea of glimpsing the future is irresistible to all of us and I establish pretty quickly that is not going to just be me speculating, it’s going to be some hard science writing based on a lot of reporting, of talking to experts or eyewitnesses whose guesses will be far more interesting than most peoples’.

The fact that it is far-fetched is really useful because on the one hand really it’s a remote possibility that we would leave, that we would disappear tomorrow. So people don’t go into a panic over this book, and it really gives people enough time to think about these things without panicking about it. So that’s how this device works, and I think it’s been proven to be very effective. I’m getting a lot more people to read it than just people who are hung up on the environment.

Ed: It’s amazing what an expansive book, what a great read it is. How did you organize and manage such a sprawling project, and how did you work out the structure of the finished book?

Alan: Well, thank you. I had no idea how to organize it. I didn’t even know where to go. The Korean DMZ was suggested by a magazine editor—it was a great idea. The idea of the Białowieża Puszcza, I can’t even remember how I came up with that. I was going to Europe for a conference and I started looking around for interesting stuff, and somehow I stumbled on this thing, that there was an original forest left. “I need to go see ruins, do I need to see new buildings, old buildings.” I was just flailing and somebody in an almost offhand comment mentioned that in Cyprus there was something really interesting, this abandoned resort. That got my attention. So I thought if you go to Northern Cyprus, you have to go to Turkey. Well, there must be something in Turkey—maybe I could get the antiquities out of the way in Turkey.

Everything that’s ever gone on on Earth that we’ve had anything to do with—you scratch it and you find some great human beings to hang the story on. The sneaky thing about this book is that it’s about the world without people but there’s all kinds of interesting people in it.

Ed: You do a really nice job of creating characters with the stories you tell.

Alan: Well, it’s important. One of the subtexts, one of the themes of this book, is how important human beings are on the planet, to the planet, and certainly to my readers. It’s really critical that you give readers whatever you can, something human to follow because we are humans and we’re emotionally interested in humans.

Actually, I wrote several drafts and I always knew I wanted to start in that forest. You know, I wasn’t even sure why. I didn’t really understand it until I did it. After that I had no idea where to go. I didn’t have any structure in mind and, as my wife can attest, I would just sit there for hours and hours and hours, figuring “what do I do? What do I do?” I was just in a total panic. This literally happened all the time until the very end, when I started to say “ok, now I see where it’s going.” I would just say “ok, write anything. Don’t worry about the order. Later on you’ll figure out the order.” And of course, the subconscious mind is really what does the writing. You sit there and you try to visualize the whole thing and it’s impossible because a book is too big to fit in a conscious mind all at once. My subconscious figured it out. The book was virtually written in the exactly order you see it. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!

Ed: Wow, that’s remarkable! Well, speaking of people, at the end of The World Without Us you make an impassioned argument for population control, for limiting every woman to having one child. Why do you call this “the intelligent solution”?

Alan: Well, we pride ourselves on being a species unlike any other species that can envision the future, that can envision the consequences of our action. Well, let’s take that intelligence and apply it. So in that way, it would be the intelligent decision. I don’t like the idea of one child per family at all. I think big families are beautiful. In my own family I’m child number two. Everybody alive right now, except for the complete, total jerks, I value.

I don’t want anyone alive to die, but I think that if we’re reproducing at the rate of a million every four days, and already, just with the numbers that we’re at, the way we’re using energy, there are a hundred more parts per million of carbon than there were at the beginning of the industrial revolution. If we increase our population by nearly fifty percent by the middle of this century, it would be astronomical. We don’t have enough mature, renewable energy right now. We just don’t know how to do it. So I figure we’re going to have to do something to limit our population, because if we don’t do it, nature’s going to do it for us. Every population suffers a crash when they reach the limits of their resources. That kind of sucks!

Now, do I expect that people are going to actually do this? Well, I don’t know. It’s a real hard one to undertake, to change the world to get them do this. You know, I didn’t expect them to do much about global warming before, before it got really scary, but now they’re actually paying attention. The whole population thing got pushed off the table by the right-to-lifers and all that. A lot of people have just been scared away from taking a stand on population, which is just really wrong. We have to be thinking about this. You can’t find a zero-population growth movement in the U.S. anymore. I think this has to be part of what we are considering because we’re going to have to try everything we can to keep this planet a habitable place for us and for other things that either we really depend on or just make life very beautiful.

Ed: Well, it’s a good answer, and I think it’s important to talk about that. One of the points that I really liked that you made throughout the book was that it’s not the high-profile disasters that we hear about that have the most impact on the ecology of our planet, it’s everyday human life, urban life—trash, plastic, the incremental transformation of the landscape.

I wanted to ask you one more question in a different vein. We’re blogging about open culture and new media. One thing that we’re interested in is how the media landscape is changing, and I was interested in your take on how that’s taking place. It seems like every week we hear another story about newspapers cutting their staffs. As a journalist who has worked extensively in print and radio, how do you think the Internet is changing the business?

Alan: Well, it’s having a very positive effect and it’s having a very frightening effect. You know, just like television can be such a neat medium and it can be just so damned awful, it could be a force for the good. One good thing about the Internet is that it’s just terribly convenient. The problem that has to be dealt with is the fact that when you get your news on the Internet, whether you realize it or not—you’re reading a lot of reports that come from, generally, newspapers. Either by clicking around or by going to Yahoo or Google News, you’re seeing a digest of something that the San Jose Mercury News reported, or the New Delhi Times, or the London Independent.

It’s really, really important that everybody who uses the Internet understand this. Google is not sending correspondents out into the field. Neither is Yahoo. It’s the newspapers. And if they go under, then we’re going to have no news. As it is right now with all this cost-cutting, we don’t have anywhere near as many correspondents in the field as we used to have, and that is extremely dangerous. That means our access to what is going on is limited and it’s coming through fewer and fewer sources, and most of them are corporate, and most of them stink. It’s really bad how bad some of the reporting is out there. I mean, why do you think we’re still stuck in Iraq after all these years? Seriously—it’s a terrible idea and it’s been covered really poorly for the most part.

We are just not being served by the press as the press gets smaller and there are fewer and fewer correspondents. This isn’t necessarily the Internet’s fault, but the Internet magnifies the situation since the news media got so corporatized. There are unlimited budgets, relatively, for public relations and for advertising. And there are, every day, more limited budgets for news. It’s absolutely outrageous and it’s got to stop. We’ve got to turn this thing around. We need journalism out there. Blogs have done an interesting thing by filling in some of the cracks. But there are limitations to what bloggers can do because they are generally not reporting from the field. They are editorializing from their homes. It’s nice to have more opinions out there than some that are just managed by corporate America, or Europe, or Japan. We really need news reporters in the field.

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