Imagining a World Without Humans What would happen to the Earth if all humans suddenly disappeared? In his new book, The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman discusses how long it would take for all evidence of human life to vanish from the planet.
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Imagining a World Without Humans

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Imagining a World Without Humans

Imagining a World Without Humans

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Up next, what happens if we were to disappear? I mean, all of us - everybody on Earth. You know, so many times you've heard environmentalists talking about saving the world. What if they really mean it, you know? If what if they mean, well, if we have to save the world - to keep the world safe, a safe place - we humans can't be here?

Because the world would seem, you know - maybe it'll go on just fine without us. At least that seems to be the message of a new book called "The World Without Us." Some things like head lice or cattle might be in trouble without humans. But by and large, the world would survive and might be argued, might be better off ecologically and environmentally without us in it.

Joining me now to talk about what might happen on Earth if humans were to suddenly vanish is my guest, the author of "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman. He's a journalist and senior editor and producer at Homeland Productions Radio. Thanks for talking with us today, Mr. Weisman.

Mr. ALAN WEISMAN (Author, "The World Without Us"): Thank you, Ira. Good to be here.

FLATOW: What made you decide to take us off the Earth here?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, I actually don't want to take us off the Earth, but theoretically removing us from the Earth helps us solve the problem that a lot of us who write about the environment constantly confront, which is the more deeply and completely we report it, the more overwhelmed are readers or listeners sometimes feel.

And sometimes, they just don't want to face it because it just seems so depressing or so scary. And I realized that if I just disarm the concern about all - are we all going to die if this, you know, if this keeps going this way. If I just kill everybody off in the beginning and then let everybody stick around to see what happens next, they might just sort of relax and enjoy it. They would think that, you know, this is kind of a fantasy. And I posed some remote possibilities how this could happen, say a Homo sapiens-specific virus just picked us off and left everything else. Let's say that AIDS were airborne rather than, you know, passed by fluids. Or a lot of people believe in the rapture may be, you know, a spiritual figure or space aliens take us away to heaven or to some place across the galaxy. But just suppose that the Earth woke up tomorrow and everything else was here intact as it is today except for us. What happens next?

FLATOW: And, you know, you came up, I think, with some - initially some very surprising things that would happen, like the cockroaches would go away.

Mr. WEISMAN: The cockroaches would go away from our northern cities because it turns out, I'm informed, that they depend on the heat inside buildings to get through the winter. So if people are gone, the power plants are off, the heat goes off, the cockroaches have no refuge to take and they would be cold. But in the tropics, places like Florida, they would still have to deal with cockroaches.

FLATOW: And there would be a disruption in the whole chain of the food system?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well definitely. The - by food system, you mean agriculture?

FLATOW: Agriculture would go away and food that we eat, that we feed inadvertently to rats and other kinds of animals that depend on it.

Mr. WEISMAN: Well definitely. The urban rats who live a lot on human refuge, they would be sorting for food. In fact, they would become food themselves because there would be a lot of raptors and other predators that would be populating the cities very soon and they would find hungry rats everywhere looking around in the surface for something to eat.

At the same time, our agricultural fields - I trace in this book what the succession back to a natural forest environment, for example, would be in fields that have both never been fertilized before such as in New England, parts of New England, such as where I live in western Massachusetts, where farmers moved on to better soils and longer growing seasons as United States march westward, and also places that have received liberal amounts of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers over the years, forest succession would proceed differently in those cases.

But in any event, a lot of those crops that we have planted, they would be gone and some of the vegetables and things that we are used to, like cauliflower and broccoli and carrots - they would revert back to wilder forms that wouldn't be very recognizable to us. Well, carrots are an interesting example because they would revert back to Queen Anne's lace, which we know is a flower, not as an edible root.

FLATOW: Wow. So you'd be - we'd be turning the clock backwards. I want to talk more about this because we're talking about the food here. But you have - you will describe, when you go back in history, some interesting things to how we got to be where we are, and that's just as interesting as where we would be headed. So we're going to take a break and come back and talk not just about the disappearance of the living things but how quickly are structures, are bridges, are buildings would just disappear.

It's shocking talking with Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us." We'll take your questions. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also, you can go visit our avatar on Second Life at Science School in Sci Land, so stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with author Alan Weisman, author of the book "The World Without Us." 1-800-989-8255. It's a book about what would happen to the Earth if all the people disappeared accidentally. And you start out with New York City, I guess, because it's a really interesting place to watch what happens when the people disappear. And you talk about how important - what happens with water when it's allowed to get into places that we have no control over anymore?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, in a previous chapter, it show how our houses are something that are certainly vulnerable to water. Anybody that has ever had a roof leak knows about that. But even our big, cemented cities, same thing happens. So in the case of New York - and I mentioned several other cities - it would actually start underneath the city, not on the roof. Subway engineers took me through the bowels of the city and showed me how the history of the city can be seen down there in the rushing water that is coming out of the ground all the time. New York used to be a hilly city. The name Manhattan refers to hills - that's an old Algonquin term Manhatta(ph).

And there were forty-some streams and rivers on the surface that would, of course, drain water away to the sea. When those hills got smashed down to superimpose the grid on the city, the rivers were pushed underground. And even on a sunny day, they're pumping about 13 million gallons of ground water in a rising water table up - out of the city into the sea.

If the power went off, nearly 800 pumps would go silent and the subways would flood. And then the columns that are holding up the streets would start to rust and start to corrode, and they gave, what about, two decades before they would start to collapse. And the streets would start to crater and some of that water would then become surface water once again. And at the same time, the foundations of a lot of buildings would start to become waterlogged and they would also corrode and eventually come destabilized because they were built to be standing in water.

FLATOW: Then you say that eventually, our skyscrapers would be just blown over by the wind?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, a destabilized skyscraper would be very susceptible to high winds and of course, New York being a coastal city, has been hit by hurricanes before. There are some speculation that we may be seeing more hurricanes around East Coast and perhaps more powerful ones in the decades to come. And a destabilized skyscraper - we all know that skyscrapers will sway in the wind. This will - if it topples, it will probably do the same thing as a big tree does when it topples in the forest. It takes down some other trees standing around it with it.

And that's actually going to be kind of good for the succession of forest in the city. New York was once completely forested, of course, and trees will be already colonizing in the streets. They'll be growing in the leaf litter that will be filling the gutters in the streets, because no one will be raking the streets and no one will be unclogging the sewers that - will probably have plastic bags stuck over the top of them. And the crumbling concrete will add lime to the soil, which will make it less acidic. So more and more plants - types of plants will be able to colonize.

FLATOW: Hmm. And you also talk about how quickly, you know, New York is famous also for its majestic bridges. How quickly do bridges will crumble?

Mr. WEISMAN: The bridges will not exactly crumble as they will begin to fall into the bodies of water below them, because a bridge has to be maintained all the time. That means painting it and that means clearing the debris that will gather in the expansion joints. Now, bridges, which are made out of metal usually - except for the very old ones, the stone ones - they expand and contract. And in the wintertime, the expansion joints are open, and if they fill with debris or if they fill with rust - which occupies a lot more space than metal does, they will clog and in the summer - there'll be no place for the bridge to expand. But it has to so it starts straining at the very bolts that connected to piers of concrete or connected to the bedrock on either end, on the mainland, or on Manhattan or Staten Island. And eventually, when those bolts shear off, the bridge will just start to walk around until finally, one of end it collapses.

Also, steel plates that make up the bridge, if they are rusting, water will penetrate between them and that rust has to expand and will absolutely pop rivets, even rivets that are two inches long. I've seen examples of this thing. The bridge experts showed it to me.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255. Wendy(ph) in Spring Creek, Nevada. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WENDY (Caller): I love your show. I listen to it every week. I just love it. It's great.

FLATOW: Thank you.

WENDY: What is going to happen to all the atomic energy plants throughout the world when this (unintelligible)?

FLATOW: Good question.

Mr. WEISMAN: That is a good question, and I have a whole chapter on that, Wendy. The - our atomic bombs aren't going to be much of a problem because they need repulsion that only we can provide - to slam a couple of pieces of uranium together or to implode plutonium fast enough so it will explode. And therefore, when corrosion finally exposes the radioactive materials to the elements, they will just be very radioactive. But the plants are much more of a concern to me because there's a lot more radioactive materials in them and they will…

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

FLATOW: You can get the phone.

Mr. WEISMAN: No. I'm sorry.

FLATOW: That's okay.

Mr. WEISMAN: That was a different line.

FLATOW: That's okay.

Mr. WEISMAN: And what happens with the nuclear plant, I visit - I mean, two interesting examples. I go to Chernobyl, which, of course, has already had a bad accident, and I go to the newest one that we have in the United States, Palo Verde in Arizona. Palo Verde is very typical that if the plant suddenly were to shut down - it's human personnel we're not there - it would shut down but a fail-safe generators, diesel generators would come on to keep the water circulating around the reactors, which cools them. That diesel is only about a seven-day supply, so when that stops - if there were no human beings - the water around the reactors would start to evaporate because the reactors are very hot. And depending on how much fuel is in the reactor - cycle, it would either catch fire or it would melt down.

Now, we have 441 nuclear plants in the world and many of them have multiple reactors. So those would be a lot of Chernobyls that the ecosystem would have to deal with. I mean, the present Chernobyl, of course, many of us know that the area right around the plant strangely enough has greater biodiversity than the area outside evacuated zones because there are no human beings there so the animals and plants are rushing in.

FLATOW: Even being radioactive, they survived.

Mr. WEISMAN: Yeah. Well, the studies are showing that their life spans - the species that have been studied - their lifespan seem to be abbreviated, and some of them may not do very well. No one really knows how the radiation will tumble, bounce(ph) regenerations and whether its effects, genetic effects, would be cumulative.

The birds don't seem to be doing tremendously well. They may be very sensitive, but there's a population of voles that's being studied and it's noticed that even though they are dying younger, they are also sexually maturing younger and they are throwing off more offspring, which may be nature's way of responding to this big change in the environment, by throwing out more opportunities for some, more radiation-tolerant mutation to appear. And maybe that's the direction the lineage will go.

But, you know, I really think that our nuclear plants would cause a tremendous problem. And whether we're here or not, the fact that so much of our radioactive waste is just sitting alongside them in temporary storage until we figure out what to do with it was a fact that really came home to me during the research I did all over the world for this book.

FLATOW: Yeah. I'm talking with Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us," a meticulously written book. You know, in writing the book and then reading it - a terrific read - you had to learn so much about how to build these things that eventually decay.

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, that's true, Ira, and thanks for your compliment. I agree with Wendy. I'm a great fan of your show as well. The learning curve for this book was enormous but it was like, you know, a rollercoaster. I would travel to one place after another, trying to find out all sorts of different things like what happens to the sea after we're gone? What happens to our petrochemical installations? Along with nuclear plants, I also went to see chemical plants and oil refineries in that huge petroscape that we have between Houston and Galveston, which is sort of the biggest concentration in that kind of stuff on Earth.

I went to former war zones. The Korean DMZ is a wonderful example of an area that had just been left fallow. And even though you got two of the world's biggest and most hostile armies facing off each other, in sight of each other, the strip in between them has become this inadvertent nature preserve, where some of the most precious endangered species in all of Asia now are sheltered. And other places - well, I saw another demilitarized zone in Cyprus where a fairly new seaside resort had been built in the early '70s, you know, it sort of looks like a riviera with hotels and big balconies along the shore. And then the war came along and it was built with Greek Cypriot money, but after the war, it ended up on the Turkish side. The Turks put a fence around it so it would be intact in a good bargaining ship when the island got down to reunification talks.

But 33 years later, sadly that hasn't happened. And now all these buildings of our newest kinds of architecture, you know, reinforced concrete with steel reinforcing bar, glass and steel - these buildings are complete goners. And a lot of them are still standing but they can't be salvaged anymore. And the beach is full of not bathing human beings, but sea turtles, which is very nice.

FLATOW: Wow. A thousand - two thousand years from now - whatever…

Mr. WEISMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: …is there anything left of us to know that we were even here?

Mr. WEISMAN: Oh, lots of things.

FLATOW: What will stay around? I imagine the plastics will last forever.

Mr. WEISMAN: Yeah. There's a whole chapter on plastics which was really one of those staggering journalistic experience is to learn amazing fact after amazing fact. Plastic isn't that old. It was invented in the beginning of the 20th century but it didn't really enter the mainstream until after World War II. And yet now, we've got more than a billion tons of the stuff. There is so much of it out there. And it turns out that much of it ends up in the ocean. Perhaps, most of it because, you know, everything eventually erodes and goes to the sea. But plastic is much lighter than rocks so it's getting there a lot faster. There are continent-sized rafts of the stuff floating around in our oceans and wave action is breaking it up.

If all the plastic, except for a little bit that's been incinerated, all the plastic ever made is still there. If it breaks up in the ocean into smaller and smaller particles, if it breaks up on land, if ultraviolet hits the plastic that is UV-sensitive, it's still is there. It's just in smaller bits. And in the ocean, smaller and smaller creatures are mistaking it for something organic and they're eating it. And their systems will get clogged up if they eat too much of it or a piece that's too big for them to digest, and we don't know what the repercussions of this is going to be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISMAN: It was pretty enormous to find this out. Also, I'm assured by plastic experts that because the hydrocarbon with various other added elements to give it different kinds of properties, eventually microbes will figure out how to digest it but this could take thousands, hundred of thousands, even millions of years. And it's, you know, just like it took microbes that long to figure out how to digest the lignite and cellulose in trees - until that happened, trees didn't decay. They eventually got buried and eventually got so compressed by what buried them that they turned into coal. Well, this probably going to happen to plastic as well.

FLATOW: Talking with Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Let's go to the phone for some questioning. Let's go to Malcolm(ph) in Cody, Wyoming. Hi, Malcolm.

MALCOLM (Caller): Hi there.


MALCOLM: Hi. Alan, I just saw you on "The Daily Show" a couple of days ago. Looks like a very fascinating book and I can't wait to read it.

Mr. WEISMAN: Thank you.

MALCOLM: My question was if you addressed global warming at all? If we get to a tipping point where even if we're gone, is that's going to leave an impact in the long term? I'll take my question off the air.

FLATOW: Okay, thanks for calling.

Mr. WEISMAN: Okay, thanks. Yeah, I had to address global warming because, you know, the future is kind of a moving target right now. We're not sure where it's going. There are several different models, and I point to a couple of different possibilities in various sections of the book of what we might expect. For example, the forest I mentioned before that will eventually cover New York City again - and we know that there's going to be a combination of native species and a combination of exotic species that we have introduced overtime into New York. But if the seas keep rising because of global warming, how much of Manhattan, for example, will be above the water?

Certain parts of it, like Washington Heights for example or the hill in Central Park, probably will be. But will the foliage there, the native foliage - or will we be looking at palmettos? We'll be seeing magnolia trees coming in there. Some of the models - and Ira, I know that this has been discussed a lot in your show - indicate, you know, steadily warming temperatures. Some of them believe that we could be ushering in an ice age very quickly, particularly if cold, freshwater from Greenland inundates the ocean conveyor and suddenly shots that down or shows it down considerably.

So, I looked at a few different models like this and try to speculate or - I got experts to speculate. I'm just a journalist myself. And some of them also point that out to some models that suggested some of these things might cancel out each other and that the temperatures may stable for a while.

FLATOW: And you did mention that eventually, even though we have high CO2 levels and they're rising, that will eventually lower itself, as people are gone.

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, if we were gone and smoke stacks tomorrow stopped issuing more buried carbon into, formerly buried carbon, into the atmosphere, that would be an enormous relief I think for the ecosystem as we know it. I mean the Earth has, in the past, have this much carbon in its atmosphere and it was a really different planet at that time. I think the last time was 700,000 years ago. And we know that were, you know, tropical vegetations growing in Greenland and in Antarctica. Possibly, we would be looking at that again.

But the consensus that I got from atmospheric scientists I talked to is that it would probably take around 100,000 years for all the carbon that we have put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution to be absorbed by a combination of ocean, the action of the biosphere, plants, et cetera and geologic cycles itself. You know, rain will dissolve carbon dioxide and then the carbolic acid will then dissolve rocks and eventually this stuff precipitates out in the form of limestone, shells, all sorts of thing. Most of that would probably happen during the first 1,000 years.

It takes the sea 1,000 years to turn over but, again, we're looking at models of something that no one has ever witnessed before, so scientists are doing their best to try to get in all the variables into this huge ecosystem model to predict what's going to happen.

FLATOW: Talking with Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us." A really interesting book about what would happen to the Earth if people suddenly disappeared and the consequences. And if you'd like how - if you like to talk about how things are put together, you like to talk about how they come apart. So, I want to keep you on for a few more minutes. We're going to go to the break and then we'll come back and talk a little bit more with you. So, stay with us, we'll take some more of your calls and your questions, 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this short break.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

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FLATOW: We're talking this hour with Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us." There's so much in this book about the details, and my new - I say that in a positive way because for a geeky guy like me who likes to know how everything works, I used to rip things apart in the basement. He takes everything in the world. Take everything apart and looks how it was put together and where it may be heading. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Let's go to the phones to Melody(ph) in Syracuse, New York. Hi, Melody.

MELODY (Caller): Hi. I know that Northern Europe has a tremendous human imprint left on it and I was thinking of places like the Netherlands with the dikes and so many places. Have you thought about the impact there? How long will it take, the dikes, to collapse or erode?

FLATOW: Well, we got - do we have him back yet? We don't have them back. That's a good question, Melody. We had got disconnected from Alan Weisman a little bit here, so we're going to have to talk to you about it a little bit more. What makes you thought - think of the Netherlands?

MELODY: Well, I - just all of Northern Europe has been so much transformed by human beings and the Netherlands just keeps increasing the technology to keep sea at bay. And I think at some point that even though they have - I forget how many dikes now, how many layers of land, what is it about a third of their land or maybe…


MELODY: …two-thirds that has been reclaimed now, that - if it's suddenly were all to go at once would it cause more damage than just the Netherlands, you know, would more species in Northern Europe be affected by this? Would it all turn to marshland?

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me ask Alan. Are you back?

Mr. WEISMAN: I'm back and I didn't hear the first part of the question.

FLATOW: Question is what would happen to all the dikes of the Netherlands there? What would happen, you know, the - what would sequence of events today do the life forms there?

Mr. WEISMAN: My best guess - because I did not get to the Netherlands for this, but I did look at other dike and dam systems elsewhere, is that all the dikes and the dams require human maintenance. And if human beings were not maintaining - for example, I went to one of the biggest pieces of infrastructure on Earth, the Panama Canal. And a tropical river, which, you know, this is the rainforest there - which runs into what is the canal, is being held back by a series of earthen dams. Earthen dams or cement dams, it doesn't matter. These dams will all fail without human maintenance. They have to be opened…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WEISMAN: …their floodgates have to be opened from time to time to let currents through or let the tides through or they will erode and if they're not being maintained. And yes, Holland will definitely - eventually flood again if those dikes are not maintained. We haven't built anything permanent that will hold back the sea.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about what you saw as the most permanent kinds of structures. Could they be the oldest - you mentioned the ones that are made of - that are masonry or made out of stone. Will they virtually last almost for eons?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, I think their building blocks will certainly last. Stone, of course, is the stuff of the Earth itself.

FLATOW: The pyramids either in Egypt or in South America, things like that. Are they going to be around much longer than anything we have built?

Mr. WEISMAN: The pyramid - I mean, just consider it now a mountain, you know? It used to have marble all over it, which was carted away by the Arabs to build Alexandria but - or to build Cairo, I'm sorry. But today, it is just eroding like any other mountain and it will probably be around a million years or more, probably much more, but it's going to get steadily lower.

I would say that some of our most resilient structures will be like Machu Picchu. I - those not only that made out of stone but those stones are fit together so beautifully that they're not that dependent on mortar, they're dependent on gravity to hold them together and they're going to be pretty resilient.

In New York City, I mentioned that St. Paul's Chapel, the oldest building in the city, which is across the street from the World Trade Center. It's built out of Manhattan's shift(ph), the same thing the island is made out of so that's going to be around for a long time. And even if, eventually, it topples, well, its building blocks will be there. But concrete and steel, they're not going to last that long. Steel corrodes and the steel rebar inside of concretes, it expands and it just - it flakes away the concrete pretty fast.

FLATOW: And of course, then you have things like earthquakes that could shake up a lot of things.

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, absolutely. And of course in the case of Manhattan, eventually, there's going to be another ice age. There've been a lot of them, and no matter what we're doing to the atmosphere, once that dies down, the ice will scrape the island clean again. Thinking about that, I did go visit some of the underground infrastructure that human beings have created there. Some underground cities in central Turkey that go down at least 18 stories. They keep discovering more. And a glacier going over the top of that would probably just bury it a little deeper.

FLATOW: Wow, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How did you know what - where to stop? I mean, there's so much to think about. You must have put - or you've just, you know, have to brain melt some…

Mr. WEISMAN: At a certain point, Ira, my publisher said we need you to write the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISMAN: But I tried to cover as many bases as I possibly could. I mean, there are a lot of ways to think about the planet and what it is that we do to it. But most important, ultimately, was the fact that I really wasn't suggesting that we have been horrible for the planet and that the planet would be much better off without us.

I think that we are a valuable species, as valuable as any other species. I think that we have grown so powerful that we can go so far, and dig so deep, and harvest so much. And most of all, there are so many of us that our impact really has to come back into better balance of nature, and that's why I wrote this book.

FLATOW: Yeah, you mentioned that in the last chapter of your book. You talked about limiting population growth, someone - something that no one really wants to talk about very much.

Mr. WEISMAN: Yeah, and that's why I brought it up. I mean, I didn't want to offer any suggestions in this book, you know, do any preaching that we have to do this, we have to do that. There are many eloquent books that are doing that job already. But at the very end, I decided to raise the population issue because it has kind of disappeared from the conversation in the last 15 years or so. It's been scared off for political reasons, and we really need to be thinking that even if we do the best we can in conserving energy and recycling stuff, there are so many of us.

I mean, a million more every four days, a million more humans, that we really have to be thinking about it. So I looked at the so-called Chinese experiment, which I think has revealed to us a lot of interesting things, that if we all had one child per family from now on, no matter how you define families. Well, at the beginning of the 20th century there were 1.6 billion. At the end of the 20th century, 6.6 billion. We're headed to 9 billion by the middle of this century.

But if we just did one child per family, we'd be back down to 1.6 billion within a century. And that might buy us a lot of time on this planet to come up with some other solutions that might give a lot of space to those other organisms who make this life beautiful. They share this planet with us and we depend on them. I mean, just think of that bee segment that you just ran. A lot of these species are very, very critical to our survival, and I think giving them more space and more room to breathe and more places to grow would be in everybody's best interest.

So it's something that we have to think about. I know it's an uncomfortable -you know, conversation to have. I mean, we all love our brothers and sisters -I certainly do. But this is - I mean, we're going to have a population crash of human beings at some point because we're about to limit of our resources that happens to every species.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISMAN: The question is: Do we want to manage it or have nature do it for us?

FLATOW: Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us." A terrific read. It's something you should pick up this weekend. Thank you very much…

Mr. WEISMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: …for taking time to be with us.

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