'Today' Show's Environmental Solution? Just Get Rid of the Humans!

On Tuesday's "Today" show Matt Lauer discovered the solution to all the environmental crises Al Gore and his ilk have warned about, there's just one hitch, it involves the extinction of all mankind. Promoting a book that examined how long it would take for the Earth to clean up "the mess we've made" Lauer and his co-host Meredith Vieira pondered how pristine the planet would be without us:

Matt Lauer: "Then we're gonna talk to the author of a book and this is, really asks an interesting question. The book is called The World Without Us and it asks the question what would happen to planet Earth if human beings were to suddenly disappear. What would happen to our cities? What would happen to our landmarks? How quickly would our streets turn to rivers? How quickly would our farmland turn to forest? What would happen to natural wonders and man made wonders, like the Panama Canal or the Statue of Liberty. We're gonna talk to the author about that. And really it's all about trying to figure out how long it would take nature to reclaim what we've created."

Meredith Vieira: "The mess."

Lauer: "How long it would take nature to fix the mess we've made?"

During the interview with the book's author Lauer wondered how long it would take for such environmentally-damaging things like farmland and the Statue of Liberty to degrade and then concluded:

Lauer: "What's the lesson here? Would the Earth miss us at all? How long would it take for it, to fix the problems we created?"

Alan Weisman, author: "Some things, obviously, would be colonized by nature and covered by nature very quickly. Other things that we've done are gonna be very cloying. Plastics. Nothing knows how to break them down yet. They'll be around for millions of years. They'll be a part of the geologic record. Our radioactive wastes-"

Lauer: "We got, we got a lot of lessons to learn and this book might teach us a few of them. Alan Weisman, thanks for being here."

The following are the silly teasers from Lauer and Vieira, followed by the full interview segment as they occurred on the September 4 "Today" show:

Matt Lauer: "Also how about this? What would happen to our planet if human beings were to disappear? It's an interesting question. Probably better off. What would happen to our homes, our cities, our landmarks? Actually how long would it take Mother Nature to reclaim what human beings have created? We'll talk to the author of a new book that poses that very question."

...

Matt Lauer: "Then we're gonna talk to the author of a book and this is, really asks an interesting question. The book is called The World Without Us and it asks the question what would happen to planet Earth if human beings were to suddenly disappear. What would happen to our cities? What would happen to our landmarks? How quickly would our streets turn to rivers? How quickly would our farmland turn to forest? What would happen to natural wonders and man made wonders, like the Panama Canal or the Statue of Liberty. We're gonna talk to the author about that. And really it's all about trying to figure out how long it would take nature to reclaim what we've created."

Meredith Vieira: "The mess."

Lauer: "How long it would take nature to fix the mess we've made?"

...

Matt Lauer: "There's been a lot of debate these days about what mankind is doing to our planet. So here's an interesting question for you. What would happen to Earth if humans simply disappeared? Author and journalist Alan Weisman tackles those questions in his new book, it's called, The World Without Us. Alan, good morning. Nice to have you here."

Alan Weisman: "My pleasure."

Lauer: "I like the idea. So many people spend time thinking about how long we can survive on Earth, you take the question one step further and say what happens to Earth after we're gone? Where did you come up with this idea?"

Weisman: "Well, as an environmental writer I get more and more concerned that people don't want to read stuff that is really frightening to them because they're scared that we're all gonna die if something doesn't change or we don't change. So I figured that by theoretically wiping us off the face of the Earth and then just seeing what would happen next, it sort of gets people thinking that, 'Well okay we're already dead. This is gonna be fun. We get to see the future."

Lauer: "So let me just, first of all, fill people in. How did you wipe us off the face of the Earth? What happened to us that created the situation?"

Weisman: "I don't spend, really, much time. I pose a few possibilities. They're remote possibilities. A homosapien-specific virus might pick us off. And let's say that AIDS were airborne, instead of transferred by fluids. Let's say there's a rapture or some nano-genius figures out a way to sterilize us."

Lauer: "One way or another we're gone."

Weisman: "Yeah."

Lauer: "We're gone? Alright, let's get into some specifics. You got a lot of people, right now, Alan, they're watching from their comfortable homes, their houses. Human beings are gone from the Earth. What happens to those homes?"

Weisman: "Well everyone who owns a home knows that nature is always trying to repossess it faster than the bank. And if you're not maintaining it constantly stuff is going to come in. You're gonna have little animals coming in, be they insects or small mammals. Mold is coming in and most of all water is trying to get in. And if you're not maintaining your roof water will start to seep underneath and then it starts to fall apart."

Lauer: "And let's face it, we're using cheaper and cheaper building materials these days so, so Mother Nature is gonna win. You write this, 'Gradually the asphalt jungle will give way to a real one.' You talk about cities. For example, New York City. And what's gonna happen underground in the tunnels, under the streets with water damage. What's the scenario? And how long does it take?"

Weisman: "Well subway engineers took me underneath New York to show me that, even on a sunny day, 13 million gallons of groundwater has to be pumped away. This used to be a very hilly island. There were streams that would whisk the water away to the sea. That we flattened the city down to superimpose the grid. So the water is underground and if they're not pumping it uphill or if there are no human beings manning the power plants, it's gonna flood and then the columns holding up the streets are gonna corrode and..."

Lauer: "So Lexington Avenue is a river and..."

Weisman: "It would take 20 years or so for those columns to corrode enough that the streets would cave-in but that would definitely happen."

Lauer: "A lot of bridges around the world would simply collapse and fall."

Weisman: "Right, but Manhattan's bridges, because they were built really early in the 20th century, oftentimes they're overbuilt, so they're probably gonna last longer than say some of our interstate freeway bridges that are already starting to collapse."

Lauer: "How long would it take for farmland to turn into forest again?"

Weisman: "It depends on whether that farmland had received a lot of fertilizer and pesticides and all the other things that we've done to soil. And I've got comparisons of both kinds in this book. The, the farms in northern New England that never saw much fertilizer, they're already turning into forests. The ones that have gotten all this coating of municipal sludge and the other things that we do to so-call improve soil, they're very acidic. They've been very leeched, it's gonna take a while."

Lauer: "Let's talk about some landmarks, things we can all see. Some iconic images around the world. The Great Wall of China. No human beings. How long does that last?"

Weisman: "Great Wall of China isn't all that great compared to other things because it really depends, just like our subways, just like our bridges on human maintenance. It's a pastiche of bricks and mud and sticks and even rice gluten to hold it all together. And if people weren't there maintaining it, erosion would just dissolve it."

Lauer: "The Panama Canal? What's its future with no humans?"

Weisman: "The Panama Canal was described to me, in Panama by engineers there, as this great wound in the Earth that amputated one continent from the other. It would take less than 20 years, probably less than 10 years for that wound to be healed by nature."

Lauer: "Here's something that would last longer than I ever, the Chunnel. Okay, the tunnel that, that goes from Great Britain to France? How long would that last?"

Weisman: "Well the Chunnel was built, intelligently, through one geographic layer. So it probably wouldn't get divided by a fault or anything. It would, it's a really well-built tunnel that might be buried down there forever. However, the, the Calais side, the French side isn't that high above sea level. So if seas keep rising it may flood and water will collect at the lowest point. It's kind of v-shaped."

Lauer: "Things that would last a long time: the Statue of Liberty, pennies minted before a certain year. What's the lesson here? Would the Earth miss us at all? How long would it take for it, to fix the problems we created?"

Weisman: "Some things, obviously, would be colonized by nature and covered by nature very quickly. Other things that we've done are gonna be very cloying. Plastics. Nothing knows how to break them down yet. They'll be around for millions of years. They'll be a part of the geologic record. Our radioactive wastes-"

Lauer: "We got, we got a lot of lessons to learn and this book might teach us a few of them. Alan Weisman, thanks for being here."

Weisman: "Thank you very much, Matt."

UPDATE: The above segment was very reminiscent of the following MRC Quote of the Year runner-up from 1990:

"It's a morbid observation, but if everyone on earth just stopped breathing for an hour, the greenhouse effect would no longer be a problem."

-- Newsweek Senior Writer Jerry Adler, December 31, 1990 issue.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.