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ABCNEWS VideoSource
Earth 2100 Interview Alan Weisman HD
FOR ABC News - 20/20 147 Columbus Avenue New York, NY 10023 DATE 6/5/08 PROGRAM 20/20 Earth 2100 Alan Weisman, Tp 1-3 BGT NO. 1082724 [BEGIN TAPE 1] [INTERVIEWER OFF MICROPHONE ON ALL TAPES] [OFF CAMERA COMMENTS] ALAN WEISMAN [01:01:16:10] The uh... [BACKGROUND NOISE] It, you know Houston co-, could easily become inundated. That entire you know uh infrastructure of oil tanks, and cracking towers, and flares, and pipelines that go from Galveston uh fifty miles up the Houston's Ship Channel to this enormous city, which is big enough I can't remember how I have it in the book, but uh but several cities in the United States, Denver and Boston and, and it's just about five others all fit inside of Houston. [01:01:48:02] And all but a very, very western part of it are actually in the delta and dropping down below sea level. [01:01:57:08] And th-, that would be a very in-, interesting kind of economic and social and infrastructural uh civilization, a loss, you know that we, it's very hard for us to contemplate something as vast as Houston going down. [01:02:15:02] But it is [SIGH] vulnerable to a short term catastrophe, not just you know 'Oops, we've got forty years before the seas rise you know three feet and we need to do something about it.' M. BICKS [01:02:28:24] But, but they're, they're like three meters _____ not three feet. Maybe one to three meters. That's, I mean by the, but somewhere in the course of this century which is just I mean, th-, three me-, like three meters. Like what happens to I mean you know New York in three meters? ALAN WEISMAN [01:02:42:02] Well a ten foot sea rise um is going to leave just high ground above water here. Uh you know there's, there's a hill in Central Park. There's [BACKGROUND NOISE] some stuff uh up at the top of the island. [01:02:57:20] Uh up, up in the Two hundred and forties, um Washington Heights. And ev-, everything else would have to be protected by sea walls. And I could see civilization deciding that Manhattan was important enough to build some remarkable and remarkably expensive sea walls, but ultimately we, they're not gonna be able to do that all up and down our seaboards. [01:03:25:28] Uh the uh, you know the Middle Valley, California is going to be inundated. Probably the entire Imperial Valley of California, that's that lower part that's really part of the delta of the Colorado River, uh that'll be inundated. Most of Florida would be inundated. [01:03:44:18] Um [SIGH] I'd, I'd have to look at some maps of what has been inundated in, in other times but we're talking Pre-Pleistocene times. Uh we've had inland seas before on all these continental land masses and there's no reason why they won't return. M. BICKS [01:04:04:28] All right. Now how quickly, let, let's say we are uh le-, uh, uh let's say there, there's a meter by Twenty-one hundred. Uh, what would that be you know if they don't build sea walls, wha-, what effect would that have to the infrastructure of New York? In other words ho-, how would the city sort of physically collapse? ALAN WEISMAN [01:04:21:03] Well the way I understand it from, subway engineers have taken me down through the bowels of the city, uh to show me what happens even on a sunny day. Uh th-, they've got thirteen million gallons of water that they've gotta deal with because first of all New York's a rainy island and it's already got ground water. [01:04:45:17] Uh the subways are below the water table for the most part. Then there used to be hills. Th-, an-, the name Manhattan derives from an old Algonquin term that means 'hilly.' And there were about forty streams and small rivers that would drain the city to the sea, or, or the forest where the city now is. [01:05:03:17] You know there was a salt marsh leading from a long, shallow lake where the Plaza Hotel is right now, an-, and that went all the way to the East River. This big, broad ridge line that we now called Broadway had streams going either side, and of course there were springs all over. [01:05:21:04] All those rivers got smashed underground when the hills were leveled to superimpose a grid over everything north of Greenwich Village. And as a result th-, the subway engineers have a lot more ground water than New York would normally have. Now of course sewer, a sewer system was built, but sewers are supposed to ____ water away in effect the way nature used to do it. We're never quite as a efficient as nature is. [01:05:50:00] So they keep nearly eight hundred pumps going down there. Now when there's an inch of rain th-, they are on red alert and if there are two inches of rain they're in emergency mode. Th-, those pumps aren't sufficient. [01:06:07:04] They bring in emergency vehicles with diesel [BACKGROUND NOISE] compressors. They bring in emergency vehicles with diesel compressors and they're running hoses down subway steps, and they're pumping subways out into the gutter so it can go off to the East River et cetera. [01:06:18:13] If we were talking about a meter sea rise, uh or even more, uh th-, they're not gonna be able to keep burning these things continually, unless they build brand [BACKGROUND NOISE] new stuff. So my understanding is that the subway tunnels would flood and they would stay flooded. [01:06:44:08] And the columns that hold up the streets, I talked to several civil engineers an-, and, and urban engineers, uh they pointed out that you know most of them, metal, they're steel. They will rust. They will corrode, average of twenty years before they started to collapse. [01:07:01:03] And as they collapse the streets above them start caving in and low and behold we have surface rivers once again in Manhattan. You know the four, five, six line becomes the Lexington River. Uh there are underground rivers. [01:07:15:24] There's one in Harlem that is already rising underneath some tracks I think. Uh, I can't recall the station uh off the top of my head but, but tracks are corroding from underneath so just imagine with th-, sea levels that high, even when you've got the sea contained on the edge of the um uh by sea walls on the edge of the island the pressure of rising sea levels is putting pressure on the fresh water table. [01:07:48:00] It's pushing it up. It's literally squeezing it up. So I would say that the flooding of Manhattan would have a real destabilizing effect because uh urban engineers uh were quick to point out to me when I was researching The World Without Us that on the one hand, uh yo-, your big skyscrapers here are well anchored into Manhattan schist. [01:08:05:00] On the other hand, they weren't designed to be water-logged. [01:08:18:28] And uh water-logged foundations will eventually destabilize and as one of um, um engineer at uh Cooper Union pointed out to me, he says, 'Think of what happens when a big tree falls in a forest. It brings down a lot of other trees. Well it just takes one skyscraper to destabilize and then one hurricane to hit New York and the climatologist suggests that we're gonna be having more or, or stronger, or more and stronger hurricanes in the future, and blow over one big building.' [01:08:52:28] Buildings are gonna start to get taken out. [BACKGROUND NOISE] [OFF CAMERA COMMENTS] M. BICKS [01:09:52:25] So how long would it take uh I mean le-, let's just say uh for whatever reason New York got abandoned. How long would it take for it to start to breakdown? ALAN WEISMAN [01:10:03:26] Um th-, the breakdown would be ra-, rather rapid. I mean it, first of all, imagine no street maintenance. You would have uh uh an uncountable number of plastic bags blowing around the city, and within a day or two, or at least after the first rain they would be clogging most of the sewers. [01:10:21:06] So you would have standing water in the streets and then you would have leaf litter that would be blowing in from all the city parks, and it would be accumulating in the gutters. And seeds are constantly blowing around the city particularly in the springtime, so you would get a lot of germination in that very fertile mulch. [01:10:49:21] You would also without sidewalk maintenance, you would have uh su-, su-, um trees, flowers, weeds, mustard, all kinds of plants, coming up through every crack. It's extraordinary how widespread the seeds are and how tenacious and opportunistic they are. [01:11:07:12] Uh they get cleared away every year by sidewalk maintenance people but in an abandoned city, no they'd start coming up. There would be no firemen. So as trees started to sprout, within five to ten years you'd have a lightening strike and there would be a fire. [01:11:31:06] And depending on how much fuel you would have, I mean definitely within the ne-, the first twenty years, there would be a major fire because there'd be dead branches and some office building would catch fire and lightening rides wo-, would likely be corroding them. And there's a good chance that without firemen around that the fire would go from building to building. [01:11:52:12] Insulation in the buildings would burn and paper from the offices et cetera. That would form charcoal that would be good for the soil. It would um, it would add nutrients, and uh every leaking roof in Manhattan would uh, let dr-, water drip down. [01:12:16:24] When it hits the steel reinforcing bar that would start to rust and expand, and the expansion would st-, first start popping facing off of buildings, and then it would start crumbling mortar and crumbling concrete. [01:12:28:27] Crumbling concrete is great for soil because it's got lime in it. And your first soil would be fairly acidic but the more lime ad-, that's added the more it would neutralize the soil, which mean you'd get a succession of new kind of plants coming in. [01:12:47:04] Uh within fi-, five hundred years you'd have a fairly mature forest growing around the ruins of cities. It, anywhere, even in arid country, but certainly here in ne-, in, in New York because there would be a lot of moisture. [01:13:01:04] You know the high-line now, uh this railroad spur that used to run through second story warehouses down in Chelsea, it had no soil whatsoever. Uh it was abandoned in Nineteen eighty and plants started growing just in airborne soot. [01:13:16:02] And the last time I was up there, I ju-, I saw an apple tree it, it was fall, and I mean there were big apples on this thing. Uh, uh, and someone had obviously tossed an apple core and you know the myth that you know apples won't grow from seeds very well, these are pretty robust. [01:13:35:20] But you had a whole variety of wildflowers and ______ trees, you know this Chinese um in-, in-, introduced species which doesn't have any natural predators here in New York. So it and the Amur corktrees that you find I mean, half the species grown in New York Botanical Garden right now are these introduced species, uh that came in as ornamentals or when Olmsted did Central Park you know they brought in all these species, and birds, and plants that appear in Shakespeare's plays so a lot of stuff came over from Europe. [01:14:07:00] Uh [BACKGROUND NOISE] you would find a forest regenerating all over Manhattan and possibly up to half the species would be these introduced species, but some of the native species would start coming back and do real well too. [01:14:22:07] Um I'm told that English Ivy, which we see on a lot of buildings here, would probably get out competed by Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. Um. M. BICKS [01:14:30:09] And what about wildlife? ALAN WEISMAN Well um... M. BICKS [01:14:35:19] Uh let's say the city's been abandoned for ten, ten or twenty years. ALAN WEISMAN [01:14:37:25] If okay, it's, the bridges will remain up for at least a couple of centuries. Um uh, the bridge experts took me around Manhattan showed me that uh, uh th-, the problems with bridges arise from when you don't paint them and they begin to rust. [01:15:00:26] Rust is actually protective of steel. It forms uh it, uh it, it forms a, a sort of patina on it. And you're not, it takes a long time to go all the way through plate steel, but as rust expands uh uh, it's gonna end up popping rivets. [01:15:20:28] And more important, the metal bridges that have to expand in, in the summer and contract in the winter, they've got these expansion joints. Bridge maintenance people are constantly cleaning them out during the wintertime when they're wide open because stuff can get in there, a debris, rust if it's not painted. [01:15:43:13] In the summer, if those co-, expansion joints are clogged there's no place for the bridge to expand but it has to physically so it starts straining on the edges where it's connected to the, the mainland and it starts shear-, weakening and then finally just shearing off the bolts. [01:15:58:06] But it's gonna probably take a century or two before we start losing major bridges. So in the meantime this, there, wildlife will be coming into the city. Particularly if there's a sense that there's something to eat here, and Central Park is a good place to start. [01:16:14:25] It's already attracted some coyotes. It's already attracted wild turkeys. Um uh, more coyotes will come, the coyotes that were seen here in New York, New England, seem to be larger than the coyotes out west. Uh ________ just so I've spoken to, suggests that the migratory path for the coyote into the East is up Minnesota, over the Great Lakes, inbreeding wi-, interbreeding with wolves, and um they're gonna be big enough to eat deer. [01:16:46:16] Now would there be deer in Manhattan? Don't see any right now other than in zoos. Um Central Park might be really interesting to them. I kn-, I know there have been movies that have come up that have shown them wandering through li-, lines of parked cars. I don't think they would be there particularly. [01:17:05:20] There's no-, there's nothing to eat. And frankly, there's so much to eat in the suburbs, I'm not sure that deer would be attracted but wildlife sometimes just come cause they're curious or because they're chased. M. BICKS Mm-hmm. ALAN WEISMAN [01:17:17:03] And a coyote could act, co-, uh, uh coyotes and wolves know how to herd and they could actually herd deer over here. So it's possible that Central Park will be um uh, uh, you know will be colonized by them. [01:17:31:17] House cats go, go faro really well. I mean they, uh a house... M. BICKS [01:17:36:07] Excuse me, what goes faro really? ALAN WEISMAN House cats. Uh, I wo-, I, I don't think that we've ever really tamed th-, the house cat. [01:17:44:07] It's identical to a wild cat or a small furred of species that exists around the Mediterranean basin. And I think it just regards us as this easy part of the ecosystem. This two legged thing that brings in good stuff to eat and gives them shelter. [01:07:57:14] But you can feed a cat and put it outside and it's gonna immediately start hunting if it sees, or a, a bird. And there's plenty of birds around here. There's lots of pigeons. Um th-, there are, th-, th-, the cat will be an excellent predator for that songbird and pigeon-sized niche. And uh a lot of raptors will come in. [01:18:17:20] Peregrine falcons, Red-Wing Hawks already live in New York. Uh Ospreys, they're all gonna do really well here without human beings. As um remember the heat will be off, there's no power. [01:18:25:08] So pipes will have burst uh in buildings. Glass will be broken for a number of reasons having to do with what's going inside of buildings, fires, et cetera, and that's all gonna be a great nesting opportunity for uh birds. [01:18:48:10] Rodents will nest in there too. Um I think you know rats th-, th-, the Norway rat that you have here in New York which you know came in on ships, they don't tend to colonize very well out in the countryside. [01:19:02:00] We have native Wood Rat, rats that out compete them. And uh they tend to live mainly on human refuse. There's not gonna be a lot of that around so uh I think the raptors are going to you know uh, do really we-, well. They're gonna eat them pretty quickly. [01:19:17:17] Um domestic dogs will probably get out competed by wolves and coyotes, possibly some big ones will interbreed with them. [OFF CAMERA COMMENTS] M. BICKS [01:19:38:15] [BACKGROUND NOISE] Now um, you know [BACKGROUND NOISE] [CLEARS THROAT] it's funny because [CLEARS THROAT] [BACKGROUND NOISE] you sort of imagine this as an amp-, I mean you know it's, the world you're talking about is a fantasy. But... ALAN WEISMAN [01:19:48:28] So far. M. BICKS [CHUCKLES] Yeah but now do you ever, I mean... Uh, do you ever think about what could bring it to be? ALAN WEISMAN [01:19:59:21] Well um you know when I wrote The World Without Us initially I thought of three scenarios. You know I thought of what if human beings had never evolved in the first place, uh what the, what the world have been like? Obviously no-, there wouldn't have been any cities so we could discount that one. [01:20:18:08] And then I pose in the book, for the purposes of the book, a very remote possibility theoretically possible, that we disappeared instantly and I really, I dispense with all those possibilities in a chap-, in, in one paragraph towards the beginning of the book. [01:20:34:00] A homosapien specific disease picks us off. Say AIDS became airborne and we all got it rather you know, rather than passed by fluids. [01:20:44:26] Uh we, we all contracted it or Bird Flu, or some evil genius created some virus that was extremely successful, or uh that sterilized us all. Or since a lot of people believe in the Rapture I threw that in, whether it be by Jesus or space aliens. [01:21:01:15] The chance of this happening next week, very small. For my purposes it was just enough to um uh uh satisfy people that we were not talking about a science-fiction book or a you know fantasy book. [01:21:15:26] We are talking about something potential so we could clear human beings away, and then clear all the stuff away that human beings created so we could see what else lives here and how it would regenerate or to what degree it could regenerate without us, and also what would it do with all the stuff we leave behind ranging from our buildings, and plastics, to all the carbon dioxide that we've pumped up the air it, it, uh up, up into the atmosphere, which is gonna take a while uh to calm down. [01:21:41:00] Now there's a third scenario that I allude to and it's always lurking in the background in my book but I don't talk about it directly because there's a lot of books that do talk about it di-, directly and they scare the hell out of people and I wanted to write a book that was not gonna make people say oh this is too se-, frightening, you know. I wanted one that they would read to the end because most environmental books only get read just by other environmentalists [CHUCKLES] or people who are already really interested. [01:22:10:01] But th-, the, the scenario that you are describing is really the one that we all have to be confronting which is are we eating ourselves out of home and planet? Have we become either too powerful or too numerous or both to the extent that we are pushing so many things off the planet that we're going to lose something that we really depend on? [01:0:52:08] Or that are very the, the exhaust literally of our society is going to change the very chemistry of the air around us which is going to change the weather and climate around us to an extent that we can't tolerate it. Uh will it overheat it to the point that we can't live on it or will it change geography because it starts creating higher seas and it's gonna inundate a lot of the places that we've been living. [01:23:08:01] Those are real possibilities. And uh you know it's interesting when I wrote The World Without Us I, I started it because as a [AUDIO INTERFERENCE] journalist I've been all over the world and I've seen so many environmental disasters. [01:23:16:06] You know from Chernobyl, to the Ozone hole, to burning rainforests, I was very concerned about the future of the planet. I'm no longer worried about the future of the planet. The planet has remarkable recovery uh capabilities. [01:23:33:19] Life is incredibly resilient. For all the extinctions that have taken place, new stuff has evolved to fill the niches. We've gone from ne-, next to nothing after enormous extinctions to fabulous ages of dinosaurs. And then when the dinosaurs get demolished by an asteroid, then we come up with a fabulous age of mammals. [01:23:55:06] Planet's gonna be just fine. But the planet as we know it with us on it, that's a real open question and that's a se-, that's a serious one that concerns me a great deal cause I'm a human being and I'm kind of partial to my own species. [01:24:10:03] I'd like us to stick around. M. BICKS [COUGHS] But you know it's an, an, but the thing is I mean this is a fascinating time to be alive because um I mean if, if all these big thinkers are right, just to sort of like you know I mean like the next thirty or forty years really determines... [OFF CAMERA COMMENTS] M. BICKS [01:24:41:08] But I mean we're sort of the bottle neck right now, right? I mean [BACKGROUND NOISE] cause there's this whole confluence of I mean I call it 'the perfect storm.' You know between sort of population, resource... ALAN WEISMAN [OVERLAP] Mm-hmm. M. BICKS [01:24:49:29] Depletion, and climate change. I mean we're just uh, how would you describe the time that we find ourselves at now? ALAN WEISMAN [01:24:59:09] Well it's all connected just like the ecosystem is all connected. Uh our population has grown as our resources is, have diminished because the reason our population has grown is that we were already at the limit of our resources and then we came up with all these technological ways of stretching our resource supply, which we thought really solved things. [01:25:27:05] What we didn't understand was it kind of deferred the problem and at a certain point, it actually exacerbated the problem. Things got a lot worse. Let me give you an example. [01:25:36:01] Um at the end of the Nineteenth century [BACKGROUND NOISE] there were one point six billion people on the planet. The planet had never seen so many be-, uh people but, and there were already some indications that we were capable of doing some serious damage. [01:25:54:20] Uh the Passenger pigeon got wiped out right around then and it was the numer-, most numerous species of bir-, uh, uh probably of vertebrae on the planet. I mean uh uh, certainly bird species. [01:26:06:04] You know these enormous flocks that would take hours to pass over. They would be three hundred miles long. And uh you know what happened to them? Well we cleared off so much of their habitat to grow food for ourselves that you'd get uh, trillions of them you know clustered in a couple of trees and it was easily to pick off hundreds, and big fu-, fu-, delicious game bird. [01:26:29:05] And truckloads uh boxcars filled with them came to New York and Boston everyday and, and we actually were able to out hunt them. Well it wasn't just our capability as hunters. We developed some food technologies to uh increase the yields in the middle of the Nineteenth century we started creating artificial fertilizers, and patenting, -ing, them. [01:26:56:19] And we started pushing the planet with chemicals to get bigger yields out of them. Then we started tinkering with plants to select the ones that would, the plant itself would yield more food, you know more wheat berries per st-, per stalk of what. But these plants were selected in the laboratories, so then when we put them out in the fields they needed some kind of protection. [01:27:22:12] So we needed other chemicals to protect them from pests that they did not evolve to defend themselves against. And also for good measure, um herbicides that would clear out competitors for the same nutrients in the soil get even more and more food. [01:27:39:24] [SIGH] The agricultural engineers I think uh didn't pay attention to an important preset of ecology, which is that the population of any species will rise to meet the available food supply. [01:27:54:09] During the Green Revolution we kept hearing that this was going to solve hunger on the planet, but it turned out to be right up there with you know nuclear power is gonna make electricity too cheap to meter. [01:28:07:19] Instead of solving hunger on the planet, the population just kept growing. So today we have many times more hungry people than we used to have and the population doubled, and then doubled again. So today at the end of that century going into the Twenty-first century fe-, we find ourselves with six point six billion people and growing. We're headed to nine point one billion by the middle of this century. [01:28:32:26] You know another fifty percent increase. And uh our medical technologies thankfully, are very good so that keeps you know mortality rate low. It keeps people living longer. All this adds up to more and more people. So what are we doing now to keep stretching our food supply? [01:28:53:20] Well partly we're using even more chemicals. Now we're genetically tinkering with plants, but in such a way that the plants not only do things that they never used to be able to do, but conveniently for the fertilizer makers, and the pesticide, and the insecticide makers, they can't survive without those. [01:29:13:04] So when you buy the seeds you also have to buy the chemicals to treat them. And these chemicals are destroying all kinds of species that we wish they weren't destroying. [BACKGROUND NOISE] I mean today as you and I speak, uh something unprecedented has happened off the coast of California. The, the King Salmon is gone. I mean and this just happened within two years. It just vanished. [01:29:40:24] Uh they have a lot of run off out of the Sacramento you know, uh River, into that Sacramento uh, uh delta. And something seems to have chemically tipped. Uh you know a combination of over fishing and the fact that the chemical run off of all the rivers into estuaries and oceans, which is one of the most fertile places on the planet, it's all been poisoned. [01:30:04:29] The other thing that we're doing is we're scraping away more land to grow more food. We're scraping away a lot of the tropics, Indonesia, Africa, Central America, North and South America, to grow crops. [01:30:16:23] Well [BACKGROUND NOISE] two bad problems there. Nobody's paying attention to what chemicals they're using, and they're using some of them that are even worse than what we use here because we outlaw them. DDT is slathered all over Central America and South America. I go there frequently and I can testify to that. [01:30:33:20] Second, when we [BACKGROUND NOISE] get rid of natural habitats in those areas, we're knocking down trees and other things that are important feeding areas and rest stops for all of our migratory species. [01:30:47:19] And on every continent now, everybody's noticed that the bird populations are plummeting precipitously. [01:30:54:00] We don't hear as many songs in our forests. I live in a forest in New England and I can testify to that one, too. Uh... [OFF CAMERA COMMENTS] [END 1]