The World Without Canadians - Discussion Contest

Is the land we call Canada better off without Canadians? The first 25 Walrus subscribers* in Canada to participate will receive a hardcover copy of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (HarperCollins). Argue your case below!
[*Non-subscribers can participate in the discussion, but may not receive the book. To become a subscriber, click here.]
To introduce this debate about Canadians’ impact on the Earth, here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book where Weisman discusses the everlasting nature of plastic:

The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman

Two sources of tiny plastic particles hadn’t before occurred to [University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard] Thompson. Plastic bags clog everything from sewer drains to the gullets of sea turtles who mistake them for jellyfish. Increasingly, purportedly biodegradable versions were available. Thompson’s team tried them. Most turned out to be just a mixture of cellulose and polymers. After the cellulose starch broke down, thousands of clear, nearly invisible plastic particles remained.

Some bags were advertised to degrade in compost piles as heat generated by decaying organic garbage rises past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “Maybe they do. But that doesn’t happen on a beach, or in salt water.” He’d learned that after they tied plastic produce bags to moorings in Plymouth Harbor. A year later you could still carry groceries in them.”

Even more exasperating was what his Ph.D. student Mark Browne discovered while shopping in a pharmacy. Browne pulls open the top drawer of a laboratory cabinet. Inside is a feminine cornucopia of beauty aids: shower massage creams, body scrubs, and hand cleaners. Several are by boutique labels: Neova Body Smoother, SkinCeuticals Body Polish, and DDF Strawberry Almond Body Polish. Others are international name brands: Pond’s Fresh Start, a tube of Colgate Icy Blast toothpaste, Neutrogena, Clearasil. Some are available in the United States, others only in the United Kingdom. But all have one thing in common.

“Exfoliants: little granules that massage you as you bathe.” He selects a peach-colored tube of St. Ives Apricot Scrub; its label reads, 100% natural exfoliants. “This stuff is okay. The granules are actually chunks of groundup jojoba seeds and walnut shells.” Other natural brands use grape seeds, apricot hulls, coarse sugar, or sea salt. “The rest of them,” he says, with a sweep of his hand, “have all gone to plastic.”

On each, listed among the ingredients are “micro-fine polyethylene granules,” or “polyethylene micro-spheres,” or “polyethylene beads.” Or just polyethylene.

“Can you believe it?” Richard Thompson demands of no one in particular, loud enough that faces bent over microscopes rise to look at him. “They’re selling plastic meant to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers, right into the ocean. Bite-size pieces of plastic to be swallowed by little sea creatures.”

Plastic bits are also increasingly used to scour paint from boats and aircraft. Thompson shudders.

“One wonders where plastic beads laden with paint are disposed. It would be difficult to contain them on a windy day. But even if they’re contained, there’s no filter in any sewage works for material that small. It’s inevitable. They end up in the environment.”
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14 comment(s)

EMangAugust 23, 2007 06:27 EST

Humanity has had an abusive relationship with our environment for centuries. Our lamentable environmental record can be traced to such erroneous thinking as our “dominion” over all species and what constitutes progress.

In the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, a gorilla teaches a man about striking harmony with nature by recognizing that we do not exist outside the environment; rather our actions that emphasize taking rather than leaving result in a poisoned and degraded planet.

To put humanity’s presence into perspective: Part hubris, part need to search for patterns and thereby veer toward the supernatural in the absence of evidence, explain why many people believe the world was created for them. That there is a divine plan with humans at its centre.

However, there is no evidence that we were the intended objective of any process. We exist through hundreds of millions of years of incremental change, selection leading to evolution. The same evolutionary principles that yielded Homo sapiens apply to dolphins, ants and the blue-footed booby. In fact, since the rise of life on this 4.6 billion year old planet, it is estimated that 99% of all species are extinct.

An overwhelming and humbling figure such as that indicates that there will indeed one day be a world without us. Whether that happens through extinction through natural means or human authored catastrophic means is the fascinating question. And what, given our grand appetites and propensity for disturbingly large environmental footprints, will the world look like without us?

In imaging a Canada emptied of its populace, one’s thoughts might first turn to the Alberta oil sands. Human activity to feed the world’s insatiable need for oil has spurred on environmental exploitation that even has conservatives such as former Premier Peter Lougheed nervous. But looking to hundreds of years into the future, one can picture herds of buffalo wandering the places we are currently savaging.

Our forests, which look bountiful when peering at British Columbia using Google Maps or when driving along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, are relatively young. Many old growth, ancient trees have been felled, replaced by saplings. Forests have become crops. Look forward 500 to a thousand years and old growth has returned. Mighty trunks 15 feet in diameter, their tops a hundred feet high, swaying in the pollutant-free winds.

Mines, endless, bottomless pits in Sudbury, would collapse, fill with water. Maybe their darkest depths, brimming with chemicals used in mining, will spawn, through evolution, new species of microbes.

Eventually, the air, stagnant and lingering over Vancouver, thickly hung over Toronto, renewed every day with a constant stream of noxious particulates in Hamilton, blows away and disperses into the atmosphere.

Fish, as numerous as the roiling masses witnessed by Cabot, return to our shores. Fish that could have continued to be bountiful if we knew how to manage our stocks.

It’s tempting to think of the savage and beauteous and naturally super Canada would be.

We must remember that the world wasn’t made for us. We’re another animal on its surface. And the world will continue, neither better nor worse, as it has while losing almost every species that have graced its lands and seas.

In the meantime, since we are the animals capable of reason and environmental stewardship, it would serve the planet well if we recognized that we have no more claim over this blue marble than any other creature but we have an obligation to prevent catastrophic extinction and environmental degradation through human activity and simply let nature take its course.

xcelsior1August 23, 2007 10:46 EST

The fields would be the first to go. Already a yearly battle between farmer and wild, as various weeds and plants try to reclaim the cultivated soil, the unnaturally square clearings and their already dilapidated fence posts would sink into a brush of wild cucumber and thistle before heaving up larger flora such as trees. This is months, not years.

As the first year slid by, the houses that had become shelter for a variety of squirrels and small varmints, clustered together in hamlets and towns would begin to see their paint fade and peel as the overgrown grass pressed through the sidewalk cracks and climbing vines embraced the concrete basements, probing into the cracks and wedging the fracture lines longer and deeper.

In five years the concrete would finally give way and what started out as postage sized nature reserves in the cities would explode into the previously protected sanctuaries of the apartment buildings and the almost completed condominiums.

In the seventh year, a man named Ed Stevens who lived in Michigan would notice that nobody was up here anymore and would sell parcels of “Untouched wilderness” on e-bay. In the tenth year Canada is owned by Disney.

CarissaAugust 23, 2007 12:03 EST

But smooth skin is just so glamourous!

In all seriousness, the environment deserves attention. Green plans are at the top of political agendas and public awareness is increasing. Unfortunately, we are in this together. Will there ever be a time when every country will have the ability (and the interest) to invest in ways to help the state of the environment?

It all comes back to people.

While imagining a world without humans is an interesting thought experiment, I question its use. Isn’t the point of improving the environment to achieve harmony and balance for all of its inhabitants? I have more interest in international sanctions and domestic repercussions to stop the use of questionable material than I do learning about what would happen if we all just vanished. Mysteriously, I might add.

And so should you.

xcelsior1August 23, 2007 13:19 EST

I agree with you Carissa and that was the basis of my somewhat crass initial response. Removing humans from the equation, be it world wide or just Canadians, allows the mind to grapple with a hypothetical that does not see much application currently. While it is very possible and even probable that the Earth will outlive people, it is not going to happen tomorrow (hopefully). Eventually, when/if we do finally die out, we will have introduced structures and materials into the environment that do not yet exist. Likewise, any environmental policies and their repercussions that have yet to come will no doubt affect our legacy on the Earth.
Taking humans out of the equation from this point in our history and inferring the outcome feels to me like a creative writing exercise. Though I have not read the book, I hope that Mr. Weisman expands, beyond simply building the hypothetical, into a study of the Earth's (as we know it now including humans) ability to grow and adapt to us and what we will do to it not only now but also in the future.

Patrick (Walrus staff)August 23, 2007 14:25 EST

Yes, given more pressing concerns, Weisman's improbable thought experiment seems like wasted energy. But only a change of popular consciousness (no mean feat) can sustain politicians' and businesspeople's resolve to reduce our footprint, and deleting people from my mental image of the planet moves me a step in that direction. It reminds me how much non-human life there is and therefore makes the damaging byproducts of "civilization" look all the more unjust.

Some people who respond to Weisman in the same way may start looking for ways to consume less, or smarter. Businesses are starting to see the market for low-impact products, and even to realize how the mess they're making (with consumers' complicity) could cause them problems down the road. Provided someone (consumer groups? government? competitors?) polices claims about the environmental virtue of companies' processes and products, the moneymaking machine that helped us into our current mess might help us out of it.

xcelsior1August 24, 2007 09:02 EST

That does make sense Patrick and I can concede that the more thought exercises like this we do as a general population the more likely popular consciousness will become aware of our massive footprint. I'm not sure about my faith in corporations and governments to be able to move beyond their immediate self-interest, but I think that's a different message board.

Having accepted the exercise, I was humbled when I considered all our cultural accomplishments to date swallowed by the earth in a matter of years(with the exception of bronze judging from the timeline and the author's conversation on "The Daily Show"). The remains of our civilization, if we left it tomorrow, being the plastics that we've created to be "disposable" when they are the very opposite until that too is swallowed by microbes. As a lover of the arts, I find it very disturbing to consider all of our canvas and clay (an artist's ticket to immortality) disintegrating so quickly without us to maintain it and whatever creatures come after us, if they are capable, judging us on our broken toys that were made in China instead of our Timothy Findleys and Tom Thomsons. I can only imagine how quickly the fine cultural threads that define us from the rest of North America would disappear. Would the land be better off without us? Eventually, after what we had done burned and faded, undoubtedly. But without anyone to enjoy the sunsets, what a wasted entity it would be, with animals that are not aware of how lucky they are to have the clean air and clear rivers.

Pat T (Walrus staff)August 24, 2007 12:14 EST

A worrying thought: does the permanence of plastic de facto mean that it is mankind's greatest invention?

I mean, the Pyramids are probably considered the greatest structures on Earth, but I don't think it's because they are particularly beautiful. They are essentially giant honkin Pharoahonic tombstones (and a rather fitting symbol of where we're all headed). Rather, their greatness comes from their staying power.

Likewise with our place here on Earth.

Ie Since we are going extinct anyway when the sun explodes, shouldn't we be making as many indestructible particles as possible?

So amen to the plastics, I say — for those of us who fear existential annihilation, it's the greatest stuff of all time! (or tied for first with nuclear waste).

EMangAugust 27, 2007 07:08 EST

The problem is our relationship with our planet, not humans themselves. This exercise, as pointed out by a few posters, helps us understand the damage we do. But thinking that the world would be a paradise without us is based on the erroneous thinking that we can be separated from the Earth.

There is some evidence to indicate that the human population is pushing the Earth's carrying capacity. Combine this with our dysfunctional relationship with our environment, and it's a toxic brew.

I suppose I take issue with Freedom24's notion that we're parasitic. 1,000,000 years ago, well before Homo sapiens (this period witnessed Homo erectus), hominids lived as any other creature did. There is no evidence that we had deleterious impact on our environment.

In fact, in the 250,000 year history of Homo sapiens, our shift from a symbiotic relationship with nature to one of parasitism is relatively recent.

With respect to forests such as the one that lines the Sea-to-Sky, I don’t dispute their appearance as “virginal”. In fact, using the essence of the word “virgin”, those forests are new and not the old growth stands whose loss I am lamenting.

rhainmanAugust 29, 2007 18:47 EST

I reject the author's original premise that the world could exist without Canadians. If the current denizens of Canada were all wiped out, then new colonizers would settle in and they'd be "Canadians", even if the place was rechristened Gondwanaland. Canada is more than a label. It's a physical place that will continue to exist.

Ergo we can't have a world without "Canadians".

EMangAugust 30, 2007 07:13 EST

Rhainman, I think you missed the point. Professor Weisman's book is about the planet, not just Canada, without it's 6 billion plus inhabitants. The world without Canadians is a Walrus exercise.

What do you think Canada would look like without people? Would it be a wild, untamed land of savage beauty without humans? Or are humans as integral to the land as moose (unless you live in Newfoundland) or polar bears or cougars (the kind that prowl mountains not clubs)?

Another thought: how do our activities impact other parts of the world? For example, we are one of the world leaders in pumping out GHGs.

RickWSeptember 17, 2007 19:59 EST

Could the world without Canadians simply mean that we were absorbed by powers as yet unnamed....?

holymadnessSeptember 17, 2007 23:52 EST

Many of the comments made so far have been principally aesthetic in nature. The scars of industry and resource exploitation will be wiped clean by verdant plant growth. Renewed landscapes will be inhabited and grazed upon by replenished herds of wild animals. Canada will return to its virginal state. The great parasite of mankind will no longer despoil nature and thwart her milder inhabitants' chances at success in life.

These observations, poignant by dint of their poetic imagery, are nevertheless emotive and Romantic. Viewed unsentimentally, the question seems irrelevant at face value. A Canada without humans is a Canada we neither can nor do care about. That is to say that there is no appreciation of nature as is; our concern for the environment is always purposive in some sense.

To discuss ‘nature’ at all is something of an absurdity. Nature is transient. The forests and prairies of hundreds of millions of years ago bear scant resemblance to our own. The natural environments of our own time, which environmentalists exhort us to save from the depredations of human rapaciousness, are in many ways a product of human activity. Nature – and all its concomitant rhythms and cycles – is a result of industrialisation, hunting, farming, limited conservation efforts and the like.

When we speak of wildlife conservation, we engage in unnatural behaviour. A given environment will always be more beneficial or hostile to some animal and plant groups than others. Some evolve and change, while others die out forever. The fossil record of extinctions is quite clear on this point and stretches back aeons before our influence was ever felt on earth.

In short, the question of ‘Is the land we call Canada better off without Canadians?’ merely begs the subsequent question: ‘better for who?’ Is it better for the flora and fauna that will not survive the upcoming Darwinian struggle? Is it better for ‘the ecosystem’, keeping in mind that there have been thousands of stable ecosystems existing in a single spot over the course of time? Nature is indifferent to these destinies; it is even indifferent to its own perpetuation (unless you believe in teleology). Nature is, in fact, a human concept.

This is all driving at my initial point: a thought exercise like Weisman’s is only valuable insofar as it makes us think about the kind of world we ought to create, not how wonderful everything would be if we were to disappear. Obviously, humans have an ecological niche that needs staking out, same as any other creature. That includes activities like land cultivation, ranching, and development of living spaces. Barring future technological replacements, these are simple necessities that both nature and the environmentally-minded will have to accept.

The question therefore revolves around human luxuries, those products unnecessary for life but integral to our lifestyles. I might note here that every comment so far has been typed on a machine whose creation and subsequent discarding pollutes the environment. Every printing of Weisman’s book consumes trees. Are these endeavours any less wasteful than using exfoliant scrub with tiny plastic beads in it? I’ve read articles about broken Western Canadian computers and electronics being shipped to massive dumps in Asia where they litter the land, leeching chemicals into the soil.

All the same, there’s no need to be fatalistic. If two products, one being environmentally healthier than the other, can produce the same result, ceteris paribus we should use the biodegradable one. Humanity has as much interest in the preservation of the current balance of nature for the sake of its own well-being as anything else. This sort of selfish altruism is ultimately going to be our motivator for producing change in our attitudes and lifestyles. Informing the public of their interests and visibly demonstrating the consequences of failing to agitate for them is the next step. This is already being done most effectively with movies like ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Corporations, the ultimate arbiters of what is stocked on our supermarket shelves, will eventually fall in line with consumer demand for greener products, or else fall behind the competition. We can also already see this process in action.

I see a great deal of evidence showing Canadians as a mature, thoughtful, sensitive and compassionate people with regards to this issue. Thanks to our scientists’ and ranchers’ efforts, plains bison are now being reintroduced into the wild in numbers for the first time. There are 260,468 square km. of national parks in Canada, an area the size of the entire United Kingdom. Indeed, I have never been so perplexed as when English activists, whose country has been practically denuded of wildlife due to irresponsible hunting, criticise us for the sustainable culling of seal populations. A Canada without Canadians is a non sequitur; a Canada filled with them is a very good place to live, and will be in years to come.

DannyOctober 20, 2007 20:41 EST

I think the question that begat this discussion is problematic in itself, as the idea of a Canada without Canadians just seems to spur on an odd sort of nationalism, a sort of defensive stance that tends to distract from the scope of the problem at hand. My mind cannot seem to read the question without removing the Canadian element and just replacing it with the more appropriate "humanity".

As for whether the idea of conjuring images of how the world (or country, if you must) would react to a sudden absence of humanity is a useful endeavor, I think it is, in that it at least illustrates the consequences of our collective actions to the environment that sustains us. The most preplexing problem now seems to be how to get our political elites to view the environment issue as one of enourmous breadth, and not just a "file" to manage under the media microscope, and it is here I begin to lose hope...

JohnKoziarNovember 22, 2007 23:05 EST

The question "is the land we call Canada better off without Canadians" poses so many problems as to be almost useless except as a placeholder for the subsequent question "what might Canada look like if humans suddenly dissapeared".

I added "almost" there because it does have a use. We can use an analysis of the problems with the original question to help evaluate the usefulness of the second.

The main problem is what does "better" mean outside of a human context. By suggesting that "the land" might be better or worse off is to contradict the condition of the question by saying the land itself can be personified. You now have a 'person' occupying Canada — a Canadian — and that person is the land.

The other comment-ers here have suggested that the excercise of considering the second question is useful in that it gives an idea of where we should be headed. We should, they say, be seeking a 'balance' between all of the world's 'inhabitants'. I have marked the complicated bits.

I'll assume the issue I take with 'inhabitants' is by now quite guessable. What, on the other hand, is meant by 'balance' as an innately desirable thing?

I say the term is misleading. There can be no goals above human goals, unless you believe in a higher power which, I must mention before continuing, I don't. So I don't want a balance. I want sentience to reign supreme over all else. (I understand that if we are to have a discussion as to what is sentience we will open a different can of beings.)

It is clear that it is currently impossible for humanity to go on existing without the help of 'nature,' upon which I will bestow the temporary definition: the non-sentient life in the universe. The exception I suggested by using "currently" may be the stuff only of sf. That said, we do need to strike a balance. It is not one of our need versus nature's need; it is a balance of our present want against our future want.

Still though, the suggestion that nature is inherently good or desirable can be useful to sway public opinion on issues of conservation.

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