Friday, September 7, 2007

I swear, Ira Flatow = Alan Alda. Listen to that voice!

I'm a little bit baffled by a segment on Science Friday this week. (God, what could be geekier than "Science Friday"? It's not just science-on-the-radio, it's you're-listening-to-the-radio-on-Friday-night-because-you-have-no-life. And you're listening to SCIENCE. Wow.)

Here's what the piece was about, according to the show's website:
"Ira talks with author Alan Weisman about what the world might be like if humans were suddenly to disappear from the planet. Would a human-free Earth be more environmentally friendly? Would a sudden removal of humans disrupt the planet's ecosystems still more? In his book The World Without Us (St. Martin's Press, 2007), Weisman says that in as little as two days without human intervention, the New York City subway system would be flooded -- and in as little as a year after a mass human disappearance, every nuclear power plant on Earth would have run out of coolant and failed or melted down. How long would it take the planet to heal itself after humans left?"

Now, this sounds mostly reasonable; certainly the bare question of "what happens to the Earth without us" is interesting and the answers seem to be interesting as well. What I don't totally don't understand are the judgments about how the planet would be "better off" without humans, or how the planet would "heal itself", implying we make it sick, or what "more environmentally friendly" from the above blurb can possibly mean.

I've actually wondered about this for decades, since I was in elementary school and there was a "Save the Earth" campaign. Now, I TOTALLY understand that people have a particular impact on the Earth and that we are and have been changing its temperature, rainfall, climate patterns, etc. I am not at all skeptical about global warming; I understand about the hole in the ozone layer; I understand about depleting resources and introducing all kinds of specific chemicals into the environment and cutting down trees and all of these things. ANNNNNNNNND I understand that what we are doing and have done is making the Earth less habitable for humans. WTF does that have to do with the absolute "health" of the planet?? It's clear that there's a particular balance of chemicals and water and temperatures that need to be present to make a planet hospitable to human beings and other life forms that we know and love, but who says that that balance is "good" for the planet? IT'S GOOD FOR US. THAT'S IT. Isn't it? What am I missing?

If "Save the Earth" is shorthand for "Save the Earth in its current state because we need it that way to live comfortably on it" then I accept that and have no beef. But. BUT! But what about this "would the planet heal itself", thing? There are other planets out there. They don't have the same climates as our planet. They're still *fine*, as far as they're concerned, aren't they? They're not inherently unstable or about to break apart or somehow "sick", are they? They just don't support human life. Let's say that if we were to continue polluting/depleting/etc exactly as we are now, in some number of years Earth will get hot and there won't be any water, and living things won't be supported, and let's say Earth becomes exactly like Mars. I know that's bad for US, but how is it bad for EARTH? WTF does Earth care?

"Would a human-free Earth be more environmentally friendly?"

ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY TO WHOM?? If the message is something along the lines of "without humans, it would take x years to return to a state of perfectness for supporting humans", who gives a shit, on account of that whole WITHOUT HUMANS part?

I'm confused.

(But damn, I also learned from this show that the wild form of the regular old carrots we know and love is Queen Anne's Lace, a beautiful flower that I remember growing near my Grandmother's house in Queens. Carrots! Who knew?)


jjd said...

I think you are spot on. In their parlance, "healthy" seems to mean "habitable for us" which is kind of meaningless if the initial condition is "there is no us."

I loved the scenes in the 1994 Stephen King miniseries The Stand that depicted what would happen to the US infrastructure if 99.9% of the people died. The images of the roads, bridges, tunnels, cars, etc. were pretty interesting.

Scot said...

It's more likely the Earth will become exactly like Venus, but that's not nearly as interesting as considering peanut butter on Queen Anne's Lace. (I think she'd be pissed.)

replicnt6 said...

a) I can't believe jjd said "spot on". He's listening to the BBC on WBUR too much.

b) You're totally right that there's some romantic notion of nature being beautiful and happy. It's actually kind of nasty and brutish. But in a good way, I'm sure.

b) I think there may be some objective, non-human-centric measures of "health" of the planet. First off, I posit that the notion of health means sustainability of life. Is life a good thing? I'm glad you asked that question. I don't know.

The two measures that come to mind are the number of species and the rate of change in the number of species. We do seem to be causing extinctions at a breakneck speed. Rapid change in the environment might risk complete extinction of life. But this really does seem improbable. I suppose humans plus a nice meteor strike could conceivably extinguish a whole lot of species. But some shit would almost certainly survive.

replicnt6 said...

b) I don't feel the need to give an enumerated list distinct letters/numbers.

b) Did you read that essay in Harper's in the Guiliani sucks issue about how the only way to stop global warming is to abolish capitalism? Holy shit that pissed me off. 2) it's wrong. Humans were destroying/massively changing the environment long before there was money. And 2) it plays right into the global-warming-denier's contention that global warming is a hoax perpetrated to abolish capitalism.