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By Robert McHenry : BIO| 03 Nov 2020
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The October 12 edition of New Scientist magazine ("Science Fact not Science Fiction") offered an article called "Imagine Earth without people" (online version ). Author Bob Holmes imagines what is evidently meant to be a heart-warming future in which all humans disappear from the planet instantaneously and things begin to "work their way back to a natural state" - "a natural state" being "the way they were before humans interfered."

To begin with, then, we are to assume that the rise of mind, of consciousness, the development of language, the invention of civilization - all these and their implications - are somehow not "natural," and that their presence on the planet for these hundred thousand years or so has amounted only to "interference." Holmes writes as though he had in mind a peculiar theory of panspermia, in which seeds of our uniquely predatory species have drifted through interstellar space for eons, infecting first one and then another planet with their deadly spawn. Earth's bad luck was to have been in the wrong place and the wrong time.

Holmes carefully traces out the changes that would occur in the very near term, such as the collapse of many structures (old fashioned masonry ones holding out the longest), and then at progressively longer intervals. One of the first effects, as power stations run out of fuel, is the elimination of "light pollution" of the night sky over formerly populated areas. This effect of artificial illumination was dubbed "pollution" by astronomers decades ago and is perfectly justified, given their special needs. Why it is to be thought of as pollution more generally is unexplained by Holmes, as is why its elimination would be a welcome development when there is no one left to look at the stars.

In the slightly longer term, most of our celebrated endangered species gradually become unendangered, though a few might not make it. Ecosystem by ecosystem - the forests, the plains, the seas - the world returns to a "normal balance" as the works of man deteriorate and disperse. Waters become pure, the air pristine, the very earth of the Earth purified. Even, mirabile dictu!, this dread global warming business eventually works itself out, though there are some complications involving methane.

In tracing out this future history (sorry, Mr. Heinlein), Holmes finds use for all sorts of words beginning with re-: return, revert, recover, rebound, regrow. Precisely to where, or to when, everything is going back is never defined, though, leaving the reader to imagine, as Holmes apparently has, some Golden Age, a mythically stable Peaceable Kingdom that preceded all our interference.

In all, Holmes reports, "it will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely." Only a few fossils and buried artifacts will remain. All will be well. It's unfortunate that Holmes's vision stops at this point, the point at which the really interesting question arises:

What then?

It is not hard to guess what kind of politics lies behind an outlook such as this. It is a little more difficult to imagine the mentality that enables it. At a guess, I would liken it to that familiar adolescent fantasy in which a young person, feeling more than ordinarily put upon or ignored, imagines his own death in order to bask in the imagined sorrow of those left behind. "That'll show 'em." Of course it is implicit in this little mental drama that the subject, though "dead," somehow still be around to enjoy the aftermath. Just so I suspect that Holmes' evident satisfaction in the scenario he paints is grounded in an assumption that he would nonetheless be vouchsafed to preen in the knowledge that he was right all along and that the rest of us, the infection, the "civilization that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement," had been justly punished.

Robert McHenry is a TCS contributing editor and former Editor of Encyclopedia Britannica.

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