SCOTT SIMON, host:
Alan Weisman's book, "The World Without Us," has been riding near the top of the best-seller list all summer. It's been called a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting, an attempt to envision the world as it might be if all human life were to disappear.
We'll ask Mr. Weisman to read from his description of what would soon happen to the best-known urban vista in the world - the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Mr. ALAN WEISMAN (Author, "The World Without Us"): (Reading) In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate. And where they do, rain leaks in - bolts rust and facing pops off, exposing insulation. If the city hasn't burned yet, it will now.
Collectively, New York's architecture isn't as combustible as, say, San Francisco's incendiary rows of clapboard Victorians. But with no fireman to answer the call, a dry lightning strike that ignites a decade of dead branches and leaves piling up in Central Park will spread flames through the streets.
Within two decades, lightning rods have begun to rust and snap and roof fires leap among buildings, entering paneled offices filled with paper fuel. Gas lines ignite with a rush of flames that blows out windows. Rain and snow blow in and, soon, even poured concrete floors are freezing, thawing and starting to buckle. Burnt insulation and charred wood add nutrients to Manhattan's growing soil cap. Native Virginia creeper and poison ivy claw at walls covered with lichens, which thrive in the absence of air pollution. Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons nest in increasingly skeletal high-rise structures.
SIMON: The asphalt jungle, says Mr. Weisman, will give way to a real one.
Alan Weisman is a busy freelance journalist who's written for the Atlantic, The New York Times magazine and done stories for NPR, joins us now from the studios of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Alan, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. WEISMAN: Thank you, Scott. Great to talk to you.
SIMON: What put this particular vision of the Earth in your mind?
Mr. WEISMAN: I have done so much reporting around the world of environmental situations that, you know, from the ozone hole in Antarctica to melting permafrost, and a lot of hot spots in between like Chernobyl and burning rainforests. And I became increasingly obsessed with the idea of bringing all this together in one book where readers could understand how these global situations all connect to one another, and they connect through us.
So I realized that why don't I just kill everybody off right in the beginning, pose a fantasy in which something just takes us away, say, a Homo sapien-specific virus just picks us off and leaves everything else, or maybe there's a Rapture or something happens, we're gone, but the rest of nature continues on. How long would it take to wipe out our traces? Could it recover from everything we've done to it?
SIMON: I recognize how difficult this is. Can you put a certain time span on a point that might come on the Earth absent of humankind where we could say for the scientific eye, there's no sign of our having been here.
Mr. WEISMAN: I think superficially, we would not notice many traces of human beings after, say, 15, 20,000 years - or human activity. Glaciers will probably have swept away an awful lot of our architecture. There may be signs of it left in desert areas that don't get touched by ice caps.
But I think scientists of the future might always find signs of us in a couple of ways. The stuff that will last the longest are ceramics. They're, basically, chemically like fossils. And unless something falls on them and crushes them, they're going to last as long as other rocks. Bronze sculpture will do extremely well. Bronze is one of the most durable alloys that human beings have created, and which is why we know about the Bronze Age - a lot of it is still left out there. And our plastic, there's no microbes on Earth that know how to eat this stuff yet. So that stuff is going to enter the geologic record. We're going to have little imprints of, you know, your telephones and Barbie dolls down there.
So I have a feeling that there's always going to be some sign of us, you know? I looked at the Panama Canal to see how long it would take nature to heal that little gash that separates the Americas. It looks like it'd only take a couple of decades. But Teddy Roosevelt, who built that, his image should be up there on Mount Rushmore for at least 7 million years.
SIMON: Let me ask you about a couple of the trips you made to research the book. You went to what amounts to an abandoned resort hotel in Cyprus where -your beautiful phrase for it, I believe, was that the flowers become wrecking crews.
Mr. WEISMAN: It's actually not just the hotel but it's an entire resort. It's about five kilometers long. It was built in the early '70s as a Cyprus Riviera. And it was built with Greek Cypriot money. Unfortunately then, a war broke out. And when a truce finally was called, this resort ended up on the Turkish side of the line.
Now, 33 years later, Cyprus is still divided. And this town called Varosha, this resort, is now crumbling. There are ornamental plants that are coming right through the ceilings. There are sand dunes in the lobbies of the hotels. Pigeons roost in there. Rats have taken over. None of these buildings are salvageable anymore. They would have to bulldoze the thing and start over, which tells us something about our modern architecture, some of our oldest buildings on Earth that were built out of the stuff of the Earth, out of stone. Those are the ones that are going to last the longest.
SIMON: You went to Korea's Demilitarized Zone.
Mr. WEISMAN: Yeah. The Demilitarized Zone is an extraordinary experience. It's like walking right into a metaphor because you've got this abandoned strip that's two-and-a-half miles wide and runs a - the width of the peninsula, 180 miles. And on either side of it are two of the world's biggest and most hostile armies. And into the middle of this thing have gathered some of the most precious, endangered wildlife in Asia because former rice paddies and villages have returned to wilderness.
The most amazing scene is to see the red-crowned cranes. This is like a holy bird in the East. You see them in Japanese paintings or in Korean silk art. They've got a cherry cap but the rest of them, mainly, is as white as innocence itself. And these silent little flocks of them just sort of glide down between all the hostilities and they settle down. They're too light to touch off any landmines. And they just peacefully exist.
Next to the whooping crane, they are the rarest crane on Earth, and most of them in the world winter in the DMZ. So it's a constant state of interrupted warfare that is keeping them alive.
SIMON: In the end, to try and understand your book, it's - as I read it, it's not an attempt to say that we would be a happier Earth without humankind, so much as we would be a happier Earth if humankind can find a way to keep the place together.
Mr. WEISMAN: I think that humans deserve to be on this planet as much as any other creature. But I think that we have overstepped our reach. We go so far now. We can dig so deep, we can harvest so much that we are pushing other things off the planet. And I think, in order for humans to remain part of this planet, we're going to have to find a better balance with the rest of nature.
But nature has gone through really severe challenges before, you know. The Permian extinction, wiped out 90 percent of everything alive and yet it bounced back.
I think it will overcome the human-caused extinction. The question is, can we still remain a part of it? And that's what I really want readers to think about. And I hope my book gives us a little distance from all of our distractions so they can see the rest of the Earth more clearly and then figure out how can we be a part of it.
SIMON: Alan Weisman has written one of the summer's big books, "The World Without Us."
Thanks so much.
Mr. WEISMAN: Thank you, Scott.
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SIMON: You can read an excerpt about how plastic has become one of humankind's most enduring legacies on our Web site, npr.org/books.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.