The World without Us by Alan Wiesman Essay
The World without Us by Alan Wiesman
In Alan Wiesman’s book, The World Without Us, it is centered on the idea of what would happen to the world if only humankind were to disappear off the face of the earth. The purpose of this essay is to show how humankind are causing a modern world crisis, specifically focusing on plastic and how its ability to not decompose in the environment is having a negative effect on the wildlife as well as how humans are killing off many birds and bird species each year due to their careless human errors. Weisman through much research comes up with an estimated time of how long it will take the earth to recover from these human mishaps before the world can repair itself to how it was before humans controlled it.
The Bialowieza Puszcza, puszcza being the Polish word for “forest primeval”, spreads between the borders of Poland and Belarus and stretches over half a million acres. In the 14th centaury, Wladyslaw jagiello, declared the forest a royal hunting reserve until many centuries later Russia dominated the Polish- Lithuanian union and proclaimed the Bialowieza as that of the tsars. The forest survived through World War 1 and in 1921 it was declared a Polish national park. Although this forest was supposedly protected there has been damage done to this primeval forest as forest ministries in Poland and Bulgaria have allowed management to cull and sell the mature hardwoods that would have become nutrients and a windshield for the forest.
It is believed that before humans build their entire infrastructure and dominated the forest, the whole of Europe would have looked like the Bialowieza Puszcza. Andrezej Bobiec, a forestry student in Krakow, discovered the biodiversity in this forest was ten times more than any other forest. This forest is home to all nine species of the European woodpecker, which is not evident any other European forest, this forest is also home to the wisents, a specie which is nearly extinct, with only 600 in the world, most in this particular forest. This primeval forest is evidence of what Europe would look like without any human influence.
It shows how human influence on other European forests have killed many species, driving them from their homes in order for humans to cut down the forest and use it for their own benefit without the consideration of the other species both animals and plants. It is estimated that Europe would need 500 years before a true forest would grow back and once again dominate most of Europe’s vegetation. Weisman uses the Bialowieza forest as an illustration of what part of the world, specifically Europe would look like without any human influence. This forest is seen as the lingering scent of Eden showing how it is seen as a primeval forest.
Richard Thompson, studied at the University of Plymouth to become a marine biologist, in the 1980’s he would spend his time organizing the Liverpool contingent of Great Britain’s national beach cleanup whereby his 170 teammates would collect metric tons of rubbish along 85 miles of shoreline. Thompson started to realize over the accumulating years that the trash collected was becoming smaller amongst the usual bottles and tires. Thompson and another student would collect these and examine them under a microscope but they were usually to small to determined what source they came from. Once he had complete his Ph.D, Thompson started to compare this unknown matter to the database of known material using a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, this device allowed for microbeams to be passed through a substance once this is completed the device compared its infrared spectrum to the database.
Thompson found small material waste to be nurdles, these two-millimeter high plastic cylinders come in an array of colours and known to be “raw materials of plastic production” that are melted down to manufacture many plastics products. In the early 20th century, Alister Hardy the marine biologist of Plymouth, took many samples around the British Isles but only every second one was examined and the remaining samples were stored in a climate-controlled warehouse which decades later were discovered by Thompson who examined the samples. He found that during World War II plastic barely existed and was only evident in telephones and radio applications. In the 1960’s there was an increasing number of plastic particles and by the 1990’s, triple the amount of particles were present than three decades earlier.
The evidence from these samples shows that the amount of “acrylic, polyester, and crumbs of synthetic polymers” in the water are increasing at a rapid rate and most of human kind are not even noticing. These small little plastic pieces mainly float and according to Hardy’s plankton recorder they are being caught about 10 meters below surface. Nurdles are now becoming smaller and smaller because of the friction from both the waves and rocks and therefore are being taken by global sea currents. The problem with these nurdles becoming smaller is that they are still not degrading and there is no sign of them ever being able to degrade.
Plastic is very dangerous, once animals swallow it through mistaking it for edible food, the plastic causes a blockage in animals intestines and therefore causes constipation and later resulting in death. Animals also are strangled and caught up in fishing line, nets and polyethylene rings from six-pack drinks. Animals such as sea otters, gulls, sea turtles and fish are all prone to these fatal accidents.
Ph.D student Mark Browne also discovered that in beauty products that contain exfoliants such as hand and body washes, body scrubs and face washers that do not contain 100% natural exfoliants are actually using polyethylene in a micro or bead form. These little plastic sizes can also be traces in paint and once they are disposed of and sent through the sewage system they will inevitably land up in the sea allowing for little sea creatures to swallow these bite size plastic portions which, does not have a positive effect.
At the marine plastic summit, a senior research scientist at North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Dr. Anthony Andrady produced a long term prognosis compiling a 800 page tome on Plastic in the Environment. Andrady spoke of photodegrade when “ultraviolet solar radiation weakens plastics’s tensile strength by breaking its long, chain-like polymer molecules into shorter segments.” This means that because the strength of plastic lies in its length of polymer chains, the UV rays of the sun are causing these to break and therefore plastic starts to decompose. Problems that this theory face is that because most of the plastic waste is found in the ocean and water it takes the process of photodegrade much longer as well as its chemical nature will like wise be around for hundreds and thousands of years.
Plastic is not having a positive effect on the environment mainly because it cannot decompose. In Weisman’s book he explains how nurdles, which are used to manufacture all plastic products, are being broken down in the sea but are not completely decomposing. This means that these little plastic pieces are being eaten and are causing blockage in sea creature’s intestines resulting in their death. It is not only nurdles but also fishing line, nets, toys and plastic bottles that are suffocating and trapping animals.
Some human products mainly used for beauty are also harmful to animals in the environment as they contain small plastic exfoliants within the product that eventually find their way into the sea also causing harm for the sea creatures. Human’s need to find a better and safer way to get rid of their plastic waste so not to damage the environment. If humans were to disappear off the planet completely, plastic would probably still be evident in the world for hundreds of thousands of years before they may decompose due to photodegrade.
Weisman also looks at the effects humans are having on the life of birds and how they are slowly causing them to become extinct. “Of more than 10 000 species that have coexisted with us… about 300 have disappeared.” Of these 300, birds including the moas which were eliminated by the Polynesians within in two centuries of discovery, the dodo which in a hundred years was killed and eaten by the Dutch settles and sailors passing by, the great auk by hunters, the moa-nalo and the passenger pigeon in America.
In the 20th century the passenger pigeon could have been classified as the “most abundant bird on Earth” but humans carelessly lead to their extinction. First humans cut off most of their food supply and destroyed their homes by cutting down most of the forests on the eastern plains of the USA. Because the forests were now being cut down, it made the birds easier prey as they were now spotted faster and more were being shot in a shorter period of time. Once humans realized what they were doing to the bird population, it only increased their need to kill the birds and by 1900 only a few were left surviving, mostly living in the Cincinnati zoo but due to the lack of care the last bird in 1914, leaving the passenger pigeon extinct.
The passenger pigeon is a good example of how humans are carelessly allowing animals to become extinct through their own human actions, which can be controlled by law restrictions on hunting and killing. Radio-transmission towers are a huge treat to the different bird species because of their red blinking lights, which are used to warn aircrafts of their position. In Syracuse, Kansas in 1998, a snowstorm occurred at night and because of the fog the only visible thing to the Lapland longspurs was the red blinking lights from the radio-transmission tower which resulted in 10 000 birds lying dead, frozen on the ground. Not only are radio-transmission towers a problem but so are cell phone towers, which result in over half a billion of birds being killed each year.
Birds that migrate and travel at night are most prone to the danger of these towers, birds from North America like the red-eyes vireos, Tennessee warbler and wood thrushes and those more rare like the red-cockaded woodpecker are at most risk. Another problem occurring for birds is the telephone and electricity lines. Most birds die from just simply colliding with these power lines resulting in a high amount of deaths each year. If a bird is perched on a power line it is safe as long as they do not circuit themselves with another line or the ground but birds such as hawks, eagles and herons have a problem as they can span across more than two lines. If a bird were to connect the circuit between 2 or more lines not only would their feather ignite but it is possible for their beaks and feet to melt as well. 60 to 80 million birds annually are reportedly killed from flying into windshields and windows.
Muhlenberg College ornithologist, Daniel Klem, explains how birds do not recognize both clear glass and reflective pane windows as objects. Migrating bird are forever flying into high-rise buildings and breaking their necks. Klem worked out that over 1 billion birds in the United States alone are killed from flying into windows. Windows are another example or how humans are irresponsibly killing off many bird species. Although humans are quickly killing off birds with their hunting and man made equipment such as towers, power lines and windows there is evidence that birds do repopulate and do come back even after disasters.
Ukraine was home to Chernobyl, nearly one of the biggest nuclear complexes on Earth. In 1986, there was a huge explosion due to a human error and landscapes were destroyed and the environment was left birdless. Yet in the following spring the birds returned showing that life does go on and that although there are disasters the environment does attempt to repair itself. Although it is said to believe that humans are killing off billions and billions of bird species all around the world there is one bird, the Attwater prairie chicken, which is questionably only alive due to human impact on the environment.
Oil industry apparatus and the arrival of both petroleum and the Chinese tallow tree (a “cold weather specie coated it seeds with harvestable quantities of wax to guard against winter”) has help keep the Attwater prairie chickens habitat alive. Due to the annual burning in the Nature Conservancy, humans are maintaining the artificial wilderness that these birds need to keep alive and to repopulate in. In the first year of humans disappearing billions of birds would flourish as radio and connection warning lights would cease to blink, the high-tension wires would go cold and birds would once again return to nuclear reactor sites. Humans are having a very negative impact on bird species through out the world and if they are not careful it will result in many more extinctions.
Humankind are quickly emerging themselves in a world crisis. Through their plastic waste and carelessness they are causing major problems for mostly the sea wildlife as these nurdles and small plastic particles are being digested and blocking sea creatures intestines resulting in a fatal problem. Plastic, because it is not biodegradable, will be left in the world hundreds of thousands of years after humans disappear. Although there are few species that depend on humans for their survival like the Attwater prairie chicken, humans are having more of a negative impact on birds.
Because of their careless hunting and human inventions such as towers, telephone and power lines and windows, billions of birds are dying each year. If humans were to disappear completely it would only take birds one year to flourish and populate over a billion birds more than the previous year. The world varies on how long it takes to eliminate the problems humans are leaving it but over many centuries the world will finally mend itself to look as if humans never existed.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 16 February 2017
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