This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of reading ‘The world without us’ by Alan Weisman. As the title says, Weisman looks at a world where humans have gone but plants and other animals have survived. This book is so good it makes me want to kill myself! (this is a dark joke, no need to report me to the Samaritans/start celebrating). I discuss a few themes it inspired me to think about.
Our impact: no less impact than a mega-volcano or major ice age The scale of impact we’ve had on the planet is immense. I realise that most people who do not read about environmental issues are not aware of this. When you walk by a huge lake, or look out into the expansive countryside, you think ‘The world is so big and I’m so small. Even if I throw this sweet wrapper, what difference does it make?’ (I never think like that, but I bet some people do). The answer is of course that we have a huge impact – gyres trap rubbish patches bigger than Texas in every ocean in the world. That would be a place to see expansive rubbish as far as the eye can see. I’m convinced plastic is a crime and happy that some Chinese cities are banning plastic bags altogether and hope others will follow – you have to take your own bag when you go shopping. That might be a small inconvenience, but given that plastics do not biodegrade in any sensible time frame (100, 000 years + for some plastics), we can surely do that much for our precious environment.
Here’s another obvious point for starters: the massive countryside is fields of wheat, barley, maize (corn) or some other foodcrops. That, of course, is human impact. The ironic thing is that people often talk about the countryside as if it’s an epitome of nature. Natural land is wild forest, not neat fields of monoculture. Agriculture has conquered the vast majority of land in the world: ~37% according to FAO in 2011: 25% is pastures and meadows, 12% is cultivated crops. Note how much more is pastures and meadows! And when you exclude deserts, ice, and inland water bodies, nearly 50% of land is used to grow food (FAO 2011).
Deprived of nature
What we don’t realise is that most of us have had such little contact with unadulterated nature that we don’t even know what it looks like. We live in a concrete world, or a world of manicured grass with those dumb signs ‘Do not walk on the grass’ or managed forests. When it comes to nature, we are deprived and starved. We want it so bad: we pay for zoos, for animal experiences like Seaworld and safaris; we watch documentaries; we go to natural history museums; we create places like Kew Gardens and the London wetlands centre. But these are poor and packaged substitutes for the real deal.
Weisman describes the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. Trees grow to staggering heights, some rot on the forest floor. Vegetation is dense and disorderly, and the forest has European bison, which most of us have never seen (I’ve never seen one).
I compare these now to the forests in Scotland where I was this summer: trees are all of the same species in many patches and grow in neat rows, and you barely see any animals. Every so often, “forest maintenance” is carried out in forests all over Europe (and the rest of the world I’m sure but Weisman focuses on Europe), often a euphemism for logging giant patches for timber. Of course, true nature doesn’t need managing or maintaining. It’s been around for millions of years before us.
“Europeans have hardly any memory of forested wilderness” – Weisman
When I observe how we deal with nature, I remember Joni Mitchell’s song lyrics: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone….They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
Awareness is the first step to solving any problem. So that’s my goal in these blogposts. In my forthcoming blogpost, I look more at animals and human intervention in animal lives, and what is happening to animal numbers around the world. I will say, that I do firmly believe, that the root that needs to be addressed, when the world can stop being so scared of the truth, is human population growth, and then secondly human greed. More untempered forests, less golf courses please.