The planet after humans

It’s a measure of how our conceptions of Eden have done an abrupt 180-degree handbrake turn that Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us should have become a bestseller. This thought experiment, imagining what a post-human world might be like — and how quickly Mummy Gaia would recover from the depredations of her wayward sons and daughters — ended up being advertised on the Tube. As you descended the escalator into the frowsty netherworld, you could feast your eyes on the book’s cover image: Nelson’s Column entwined in a bushy convolvulus while the admiral’s stony gaze surveyed a tree canopy undulating towards the horizon.

The message of the book’s success was clear: a significant proportion of the reading public were prepared to entertain the idea of life-after-them, and not as a dystopic vision, but an Edenic one: the garden without Adam and Eve, only their much-loved pets, now happily liberated.

Looked at one way, every era gets the apocalypse it deserves. Wells’s alien invasion of the 1900s spawned thousands more — and these then overlapped with the nuclear fry-ups that became current from the 1940s. The natural disasters — droughts, floods, earthquakes — that ushered in the age of environmental consciousness became more and more extreme until they purged the planet as utterly as the fire and brimstone of Revelation.

So what should we make of the new fashion for a post-human world itself, rather than the 20th century’s obsessive dwelling on the wipeout? One view is that it’s simply the recasting of religious fables that are ineradicably human. Richard Dawkins might fall to the floor gnawing on the woolly his wife knitted for him, but just as his own works supply us with a story of our own origins to match any creation myth, so the post-human world supplies our need for an end-state. What’s it all been for? we cry, existentially tormented adolescents that we are. And the answer comes back: a lovely arboretum.

It seems that MI5 has largely given up on the terrorists who for years now have expressed their love for some apes by trying to kill others. It’s not that Huntingdon Life Sciences is to be allowed to go about its slicing and dicing entirely unmolested — it’s only that a clearer and more present danger has emerged: Earth First! and other eco-warrior networks have, we’re told, their wilder fringe, those who believe in the most radical solution to the threat humanity presents to the planet and its biota: getting rid of people altogether. Actually, I incline to the view that such folk are as sweetly deluded as Sarah Palin-style climate-change deniers. And like the deniers, they’re completely anthropocentric; after all, it’s still all about them — or us. But if Gaia does shuck humanity off its back, or it transpires that our own instinctive impulses — to go forth and to multiply packaging — result in the flame-grilling of our own cities, the only way of comprehending this, without recourse to a sky god, is that it’s not really about us at all. Despite our ability to comprehend our own death — whether individual or collective — and our much-vaunted free will, we’ll have to accept that our belief that humanity is different from any other species of life, whether religious or scientific, has been utterly groundless.

The writer John Gray has described the current standing-room-only situation on Earth as an example of a “population spike”; the same sort of thing you see with rats or rabbits when they’re provided with particularly easy pickings. Indeed, Gray also proposes a new Latin tag for us; no longer should we be called Homo sapiens, but Homo rapens, such has been the ferocity with which we’ve munched our way along the world’s buffet. Gray anticipates an era of resource wars and pandemics as the world warms; the population collapse will be cataclysmic — from 11 billion in the middle part of this century to…? Well, who can say?

Clearly the human suffering embodied in this stark subtraction is inconceivably vast; luckily we lack the equipment to empathise with it. Humanity is not a single family of angels but a great mass of chimpanzee troupes. Those who place a premium on human exclusivity — whether progressives who look for a technological fix or the Luddites of Earth First! — cannot help but be angry with us and themselves: we screwed it up. As things get worse, the self-hatred of humanity will ramp up accordingly. But those of us who truly accept that people are animals just like any others will have at once the most sympathy and the most detachment.

We couldn’t help despoiling the world — it’s in our nature. You cannot expect a puppy to rub its nose in its own shit — but that doesn’t make you love it any the less. I have the luxury of doubt: I don’t know if there ever will be a world without us. What I do know is that sympathy and detachment are a better basis for action than anger and recrimination.

28.12.08