A New Hope

Standout Q&A with Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman

Photo: Ronn Spencer
Alan Weisman is a laureate professor of journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. His reports from Latin America have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. More >>

Author Alan Weisman has a knack for the dramatic. In The World Without Us, subways are flooded, bridges crumble into the sea and wildlife reigns supreme once the world is relieved of pesky humans. His earlier best seller, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, chronicled efforts to establish an eco-community in an area of Colombia considered by many to be uninhabitable.

Despite the massive environmental destruction he’s witnessed firsthand, Weisman remains hopeful. Momentum caught up with the globetrotting writer in Arizona to talk over his seminal books, the importance of sustainable cities and the folly of converting wetlands to playgrounds.

Why write a book about a world without humans?

I wasn’t writing a book that just made people feel depressed or frightened or guilty. I wanted to leave people feeling, “there’s still a way we can do this.” I don’t want to kill hope. I did not write The World Without Us because I think the world will be better without us. I wrote The World Without Us so people would see how fabulous the world could be.

Do you generally consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?

I came out of that book much more hopeful about Earth than when I went into it because I realized by the end of my research that the planet is going to be fine. The planet has gone through unbelievable destruction in the past. Huge species lost and it always bounces back.

Are humans a lost cause, then?

I would not have written this book if I thought we were a lost cause. I would have just gotten drunk. I mean, the book was a lot of work. I really believe that humans deserve to be here on this planet as much as anything else. It’s taken a lot of hard work to evolve to this point. Yes, we’ve done some very destructive things. But we’ve also done some very beautiful things.

Having said that, it’s also clear that any species that outstrips its resource base suffers a big crash. Sometimes it’s a fatal crash. All the signs are absolutely there in the ecosystem and the economic system that we have grown beyond realistic size. We are no longer sustainable. You know, every four days there are a million more people on the planet; and we are trying to provide more goods and services and energy. And it just doesn’t work. I’m optimistic that there is still a chance for us, but we’re going to have to make some big changes. Nature will not let anything stay at an unsustainable level for long.

In The World Without Us, you wrote about the unintended consequences of plastic. Is there a comparable example that’s emerging today?

Yeah, nanotechnology. There are all these tiny little particles. Just by the very nature of how small they are, they are very hard to control. They can get into the ecosystem, and a lot of these things are built to replicate themselves. It’s sort of like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, where this thing that converted water into a solid called ice-nine suddenly went rampant. So there’s concern that nanotechnology could have some really unintended consequences.

Did your childhood in Minnesota impact your environmental views?

I lived on one of those countless wetlands in Minneapolis, or just outside of it, and I could see incredible birds. And I go back there now and there’s just far fewer of them. And that wetland, which was my playground and the playground for all the kids I grew up with, they filled it in and they built a playground. I never see kids using [the playground]. It’s just the dumbest thing.

What should we be doing in the Midwest to make our cities more sustainable?

I’ve been in towns in Germany that are of a higher latitude than Minneapolis and they’ve been giving terrific tax or purchase advantages for solar-generated electricity for anybody who puts solar collectors or panels on their houses. They’ve been doing that since the early ’90s in some towns. So, our rooftops should be slathered with implements for catching the sun. From now on when we build buildings, we should be building them to be producers of energy as well as consumers of energy.

You’ve done a lot of interviews over the years. Any comment in particular that stands out?

Years ago, I was doing an article and I was interviewing a composer. He said the most intelligent thing to me. He said, “When anyone talks about how beautiful a city is, they are always talking about the trees.”