Many readers may recall my last book, The World Without Us, as a thought experiment that imagined what would happen if people vanished from our planet.
The idea of theoretically wiping us off the face of the Earth was to show that, despite colossal damage we’ve wreaked, nature has remarkable resilience and healing powers. When relieved of the pressures we humans daily heap upon it, restoration and renewal commence with surprising swiftness. Eventually, even new plants, creatures, fungi, et al., evolve to fill empty niches.
My hope was that readers, seduced by the gorgeous prospect of a refreshed, healthy Earth, might then ask themselves how we could add Homo sapiens back into the picture—only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of Earthly life.
In other words, how might we continue to have a world with us?
Welcome to another thought experiment, on exactly that subject. Only this time, there’s no imagining: the scenarios here are real. And in addition to the people I describe, locals and informed experts, there’s everyone else—including you and me. As it turns out, we’re all part of the response to what basically came down to four questions I went around the world asking—questions that several of the aforementioned experts called the most important on Earth.
“But probably,” one of them added, “they’re impossible to answer.”
When he made that remark, we were lunching at one of the world’s oldest, most hallowed institutions of higher learning, where he was distinguished faculty. In that moment, I was glad not to be an expert. Journalists rarely claim depth in any field: our job is to seek people who dedicate their careers to study—or who actually live—whatever it is we’re investigating, and to ask them enough commonsense questions so the rest of us might understand.
If such questions are arguably the most important in the world, whether or not the experts deem their answers impossible is irrelevant: we’d damned well better find them. Or keep asking until we do.
So I did, in more than twenty countries over two years. Now, you get to ask them for yourselves, as you follow my travels and inquiry.
If by the end you think that we’re onto the answers—well, I’m pretty sure you’ll figure out what we ought to do next.
Excerpted from Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Copyright © 2013 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.
About the Author
Alan Weisman is the author of several books, including The World Without Us, an international best-seller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Wenjin Book Prize of the National Library of China. His work has been selected for many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing. An award-winning journalist, his reports have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Vanity Fair, Wilson Quarterly, Mother Jones, and Orion, and on NPR. A former contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions. He lives in western Massachusetts.
Author photo by Bill Steen
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