I remember Paul Cibaric, my Advanced Placement European History teacher at Stevens Point Area Senior High School announcing on the first day of class: “The answer to every question in this course will be “Greed”.” This, I believe, epitomizes better than any other single anecdote the primary reason why I have always found the subject of Sociology so baffling and challenging to grasp. As far back as I can remember, I have always seen the world from what theoretical astrophysicist Doctor Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space famously refers to as “the cosmic perspective”.
The known recorded history of human civilization dates back only a few millennia, but even the lifespan of a species as relatively new and young as our own can be measured on the scale of tens of thousands of years. And from this perspective, much is not most of what the social science of sociology studies, the majority of which is concerned very nearly to the exclusion of all else with the interrelationships and resulting sociocultural problems of the world as it is today, has the tendency to seem somewhat superficial to say the least. This can be attributed in no small part to the fact that much if not a majority of the science underpinning sociology is, consciously or not, social psychology: the study of not only how people interact with one another but each individual person’s conscious, subconscious and unconscious motivations for interacting with others in the way that they do. This is where the shallowness and superficiality inherent in the study of sociocultural interaction comes from, since as Cibaric said so many years ago, people’s motivations for behaving the way that they do can all to often be succinctly boiled down to one word: “Greed”, by far and away the pettiest of all human impulses.
Much of the science of sociology, like all social sciences, because it studies human cultures and societies and the interactions between them, has the tendency to be restricted in its focus to the present. However, in the study of global phenomenon such as globalization, it is important to recognize the reality that civilization as we know it is a relatively recent development, and so it is only relatively recently that humanity has become a significant player, as it were, on the scale of global events. It is equally important to recognize, however, that beyond even that, humanity itself is newcomer to the world as well. From this wider perspective, it is most helpful to conceptualize humanity not as the dominant species on the planet, but merely as one generation in the much longer history of life on Earth. Like all such generations, humankind’s had a beginning and will have an ending. From this broader worldview, what is truly most important about a phenomenon such as globalization is not the sociocultural motivations underpinning interactions between cultures and civilizations, as sociology has the tendency to gravitate towards studying, but rather instead what those civilizations, including the modern one in the developed industrialized western first world, will leave behind when they, and on a broader scale humankind, inevitably disappears.
This is the theme of the 2007 book “The World Without Us” by University of Arizona Professor Alan Weisman and the History Channel documentary series “Life After People” based on Weisman’s book. It is notable that neither Weisman nor any of the History Channel documentaries in the series make any attempt at all whatsoever to explain any way that humans may disappear. As they explain, this is because how the human generation comes to an end is largely irrelevant. Even if mankind is exterminated by a thermonuclear war, for example, the world after humans will still be left with not only nuclear power plants but also undetonated atomic warheads. As Weisman discusses in Chapter 15, when their casings corrode, their plutonium will be released.
Nor will the motivations that humans had for building the structures that they did last beyond the demise of the human species. The earth after humans will not have international trade, for instance, but if, as the History Channel series posits, every person vanished tomorrow, the physical alteration of the Earth that is the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District would be left behind, and would last for millennia.
In Chapter 2: “Unbuilding Our Home” and Chapter 3: “The City Without Us”, Weisman explains the effect of climate on all types of housing materials. He explains how nature breaks down the materials found in our homes: “In the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—our houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the Earth.” [Weisman, Page 15] Things will crumble because of water: “Most of all, though, you are beset by what in other contexts is the veritable stuff of life: water. It always wants in. After we’re gone, nature’s revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne.” [Weisman, Page 16]. Then animals will come in and start chewing and nesting, adding to the destruction. Weisman explains that people in advanced societies are not as motivated to keep their houses up as much as people did in Europe two hundred years ago, and predicts that nature through animals and weather will reduce our homes to rubble in fifty to a hundred years. [Weisman, Page 17]
Chapter Three uses Manhattan as an example. Before the land was settled, Manhattan was 27 square miles of porous swampland covered by pine and oak trees and meadow grasses. Whatever of the 47 inches of annual rainfall the living roots didn’t siphon would drain to lakes, marshes and the oceans via forty streams. [Weisman, Page 23] Central Park us to have hundreds of streams that ran through it. Weisman predicts that if New York were deserted for a hundred years, there would be a couple hundred streams running through the city. According to Weisman, because there is little soil to absorb the rainfall and vegetation to transpire it, if it rains hard, sewers clog with debris and the water, with buildings blocking the sun from evaporating it, will flow down to add to a rising underground river corroding the subway lines. [Weisman, Page 24] Eventually the subway lines will corrode and buckle and become a river. It is essential to constantly pump the thirteen million gallons of water daily uphill and to monitor manmade water management tools such as special dams that hold back the flow of water every time it rains. After they’re gone, the pumps would fail with no power, the water would crash through and destroy the support pillars, the subway tunnels will flood and cave in within 20 years. [Weisman, Page 26] As the oceans continue to warm and rise, at some point the water will not subside.
Season 2 Episode 5 of “Life After People”, entitled “Home Wrecked Home” deals with the destruction of suburban homes in Levittown in Hempstead, Long Island, New York and the San Remo, a 27-floor apartment building located at 145 Central Park West in Manhattan opened in 1930. The episode also deals with the fate of Cooperative City in Baychester, the Bronx in Northeastern New York city. According to the documentary, the Hutchinson River would reclaim the former marshland the Bronx and the City was built on within 100 years “after people”.
In Chapter 15: “Hot Legacy”, Weisman begins writing about Global warming. He then moves on to the subject of the world’s more than 450 thermonuclear power plants. If humankind was to depart, he writes, the plants would run on autopilot until the reactors overheat and after two weeks without us, all of the world’s nuclear reactors would explode. Weisman then explains the effects of a nuclear explosion, which would first cause a wave of radiation that would kill anything that was living within a certain radius. “Whatever the correct measure of human mortality may be, it applies to other life-forms as well and in a world without humans the plants and animals we leave behind will have to deal with many more Chernobyl’s.” Weisman writes. “Little is still known about the extent of genetic harm this disaster unleashed: genetically damaged mutants usually fall to predators before scientists can count them.” [Weisman, Page 217] In his interview with Scientific American, Weisman predicts that nuclear reactors could burn and melt down as soon as seven days after people as their water-cooling systems fail. The same is true of the basins of cooling water that serve as storage locations for spent fuel rods. When the water evaporates, the temperature in the basins rises.
Then the radiation would form into clouds that would travel around the globe. The radiation radii of the world’s more than 450 nuclear power plants, , such as the 30-kilometers around Chernobyl, cover such a large area of the world that the damage that this radiation would cause to the Earth’s ozone layer Weisman likens to that of chlorofluorocarbons such as Freon. The holes in the ozone layer created by these radiation clouds would expose whatever remained living on the surface of the planet to even more radiation, since the ozone lessens and even blocks exposure to cosmic rays.
In Season 2, Episode 2 of the history Channel series “Life After People”, without human intervention, spent nuclear fuel rods spontaneously burst into flame.
` Weisman published an article in the Sunday February 6, 2005 issue of Discover Magazine entitled “Earth Without People”. In the article, Weisman speculated on what might happen to human civilization’s structures if the humans who built and maintain them vanished. In the article, as in Chapter 3 of “The World Without Us”, Weisman referred to “rising groundwater” as a “problem that already plagues New York”, writing that if New Yorkers disappeared “sewers would clog” and “natural watercourses would appear”. At the end of his Discover Magazine article, Weisman provides a timeline strikingly similar to that in the History Channel’s “Life After People”, in which he predicts that within twenty years after human vanished from New York “water-soaked steel columns supporting subway tunnels corrode and buckle” and that oaks would re-cover the land with a hundred years. In researching the article, according to an interview published in the July 2007 Scientific American, Weisman discovered there was more material, enough for a whole book. So began what became Weisman’s work on his book “The World Without Us”, published in July 2007.
The two-hour pilot the History Channel series “Life After People” aired on Monday January 21, 2008 and had an audience of 5.4 million viewers, the most-watched program ever on the History Channel, which launched on January 1 1995.
Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” reached number one on the San Francisco Chronicle nonfiction bestsellers list on September 23, 2007, ranked number one on TIME Magazine’s top ten nonfiction books of 2007 and on the same list from Entertainment Weekly and placed number one in the nonfiction category of Amazon’s Best Books of 2007 in Canada. The book placed number four on the same list in the United States , peaked at number three on the Globe and Mail’s nonfiction bestseller list on August 11, 2007 on its way to ten weeks on the list. It was number six on the New York Times Best Seller list from August 12 through September 9, 2007 on its way to nine weeks in the top ten.
In an August 11, 2007 review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chauncey Mabe of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel called Weisman’s book “one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doom saying”, writing “Weisman’s book transcends gimmickry to attain a kind of brilliance”. On July 23, 2007, Gay Kamiya of Salon called Weisman’s book “brilliantly creative” and “an audacious intellectual adventure”, writing that:
“The World Without Us” taps into one of our deepest, if only furtively acknowledged, pleasures…It also appeals to out love of looking the cosmic rearview mirror: Like “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”, it sucks us in with a vision of what is, what has been and what is yet to come…Just a few pages into it and I was as enchanted as I was by the imaginative books I loved as a boy…“The World Without Us” makes saving the world as intimate an act as helping a child.”
Time’s Lev Grossman called Weisman’s book “a mesmerizing and grandly entertaining meditation” writing “I don’t think I’ve read a better nonfiction book this year.” In the September 2, 2007 New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Schuessler calls Weisman’s book “a fascinating nonfiction eco-thriller”, writing that “Weisman’s gripping fantasy will make most readers hope that at least some of us can stick around long enough to see how it all turns out.” At the same time “we are taught through the course of this book;” wrote Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian; “to feel good about the disappearance of humanity from the Earth”. Anthony Doerr of the Boston Globe called the book “a beautiful and passionate Jeremiad against deforestation, climate change and pollution”, writing that “Weisman has an extraordinarily farsighted point of view, and he is actually at his best when exploring the past, tracing the world as it was.” Jerry Adler of Newsweek wrote “journalist Alan Weisman has produced, if not a Bible, at least a Book of Revelation.” “His research is prodigious and impressive;” wrote Janet Maslin of the New York Times in an overall negative review; “So is his persistence.”
Analysis and Discussion
Having taken courses in Anthropology and Archaeology, History; Philosophy, Political Science and Psychology; as well as Sociology, I can now confirm that what my high school AP European History stated was indeed true. Very nearly everything that humans have built since the beginning of the known recorded history of civilization has been motivated in one way or another by some form of greed.
This is what makes my study of Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” both fascinating and challenging. Like the History Channel series “Life After People”, which I also studied, Weisman makes no attempt at explaining the cause or reason for human disappearance from the surface of the planet Earth. As such, unlike much of sociocultural sociology, his book and the documentary series it inspired look less at Human greed in and of itself than at the monuments, both figurative and literal in nature, to our greed that we as a civilization have erected throughout the few millennia of our history. This applies even to things that the majority of laypeople would never think of as being greed-driven, such as roads and writing.
As early as 8,000 BCE in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, accounting was being done with clay tokens in the shapes of different good that were later wrapped up in clay balls. These clay balls were later marked with shapes representing those of the tokens inside, indicating the number of each token contained. By the late fourth millennium BCE, these token had been done away with all together in favor of only the drawn shapes and the clay was flattened into tablets. The shapes were imprinted into the clay with sharpened reeds, lending this writing system its name: “Cuneiform”, meaning “wedge-shaped”.
In so many words: Capitalism invented writing. When people had more wealth than they could physically hold onto, they needed a way to keep track of how many of what things they had. So they invented writing for the purposes of trade…for the purposes of attaining ever more material wealth for themselves. So even writing, as an invention of western civilization, was a product of human greed.
As for roads, which according to both Weisman’s “The World Without Us” and the History Channel’s “Life After People” will be among humankind’s longest-lasting creations. The purpose of roads in trade is obvious, so the construction by different civilizations throughout the Old World of roads was conducive to the accumulation of both the wealth of society as a whole and that of the wealthiest members therein. In the case of the Ancient Roman Empire, the clichéd proverb that “All roads lead to Rome” was literally true in many cases due in no small part to the fact that many of the Empire’s famous roads were patronized either by the Emperor’s themselves or by the Empire’s aristocracy, because they understood that roads benefited not only the treasury of the empire as a whole but their own pocketbooks as well [albeit, more often than not, the two were one and the same].
Like Weisman, I possess what Tony Doerr from the Boston Globe called an “extraordinarily farsighted point of view” and what Degrasse-Tyson calls a “cosmic perspective.
The phenomenon of globalization can be succinctly summarized, in a word, as the erasure of the borders and boundaries between the countries of the world and their cultures. The sociological study of globalization has, however, continued to present a challenge for me, since from the dispassionate objective outsider’s perspective that Weisman and I take, the borders and boundaries being erased by the globalization process never existed in reality to begin with in the first place. Good social science, however, like all good science, strives to see all sides of a given phenomenon. Throughout my sociology courses, I have been requested, and expected, on numerous occasions to conceptualize and articulate the negative harms of globalization. Needless to say, it is difficult for me, as it would be for anyone, to come up with any way in which erasing imaginary borders and boundaries that never existed anywhere within the physical universe of perceptible reality outside of our own minds might potentially be a bad thing.
The process of globalization is, in a word, the process of humans around the globe becoming one species in one shared world. What makes imagining potential negative ramifications to this difficult is the fact that a single species on a single planet is what humans are and have always been.
I started off this project with the stated “Problem” of exploring and investigating how globalization has impacted the planet Earth, the problems that it has caused and the threat that it poses. The conclusion that I have come to, however, is very nearly the opposite: that, if indeed any solutions do exist to the problems our planet is experiencing and the threats that we face, then there can be little or no reasonable doubt that whatever solutions exist lie within globalization. The one commonality that all problems and threats facing our planet, from climate change to pollution to thermonuclear war, share amongst them, it is that if, when and where they happen, none of these are any great respecters of arbitrarily drawn imaginary national boundaries. If solutions to these problems and threats exist, therefore, they are not to be found at the state or national level. Both climate change and thermonuclear war pose a danger to the survival of the human species regardless of nationality, and are threats that can only and should only be addressed by the human species, not by nations. The damage we have done to the planet has not been the sole exclusive responsibility of any one nation, and the legacy that we leave behind won’t be either.
 Weisman, Alan. “Earth Without People”. Discover Magazine. Sunday February 6, 2005: http://discovermagazine.com/2005/feb/earth-without-people
 Weisman, Alan. “An Earth Without People”. Scientific American, Volume 297, Issue 1, July 2007, Pages 8-104: http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v297/n1/pdf/scientificamerican0707-76.pdf
 Tucker, Neely. “Depopulation Boom”. Washington Post. Saturday March 8, 2008: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/07/AR2008030703256.html?hpid=artslot
 “San Francisco Chronicle Best-Sellers”. San Francisco Chronicle. Friday September 21, 2007: http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/San-Francisco-Chronicle-Best-Sellers-2539363.php
 Grossman, Lev. “Top 10 Nonfiction Books”. TIME Magazine. Sunday December 9, 2007: http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1686204_1686244_1691768,00.html
 Reese, Jennifer. “The Best Books of 2007”. Entertainment Weekly. December 20, 2007: http://www.ew.com/article/2007/12/20/best-books-2007
 “Editor’s Picks: 2007’s Top 25 Nonfiction”. Amazon. December 20, 2007: https://www.amazon.ca/gp/feature.html?docId=1000175351
 Harrison, Kate. “UA Journalism Prof Collect Year-End Kudos For book: Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us” Continues to Attract Attention from Readers and Critics Alike”. University of Arizona. December 14, 2007: https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/ua-journalism-prof-collecting-year-end-kudos-for-book
 Mabe, Chauncey. “Don’t Think About Us When We’re Gone”. Pittsburg Post-Gazette, August 11, 2007: http://www.post-gazette.com/book-reviews/2007/08/11/The-World-Without-Us-by-Alan-Weisman/stories/200708110131
 Schuessler, Jennifer. “Starting Over”. New York Times. September 2, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/books/review/Schuessler-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
 Lezard, Nicholas. “Goodbye To All This”. The Guardian. Friday May 2, 2008: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/may/03/society1
 Doerr, Anthony. “Alarms, Ideas to Help Save a Damaged World”. Boston Globe. July 15, 2007: http://archive.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/07/15/alarms_ideas_to_help_save_a_damaged_world/
 Adler, Jerry. “After We Are Gone: If Humans Evacuated, the Earth Would Flourish”. Newsweek. July 23, 2007.
 Maslin, Janet. “A World Without Humans? It Falls Apart”. New York Times Sunday Book Review”. August 13, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/books/13masl.html?_r=2&ref=books&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
 For more information on this topic, see the 2001 book “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Academic” by Duke University Professor Thomas Naylor
 Heise, John. “Cuneiform Writing System”. Netherland Institute for Space Research. May 4, 1995: https://personal.sron.nl/~jheise/akkadian/cuneiform.html