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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