Alan Weisman: Have humans done any good for the environment?

Alan Weisman's reports from around the world have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orion, Wilson Quarterly, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, Discover, Audubon, Condé Nast Traveler, and in many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing 2006.  His most recent book, The World Without Us, a bestseller translated into 30 languages, was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 2007 by both Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, the #1 Nonfiction Audiobook of 2007 by iTunes; a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction, for the Orion Prize, and a Book Sense 2008 Honor Book.

His previous books include An Echo In My Blood; Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (10th anniversary edition available from Chelsea Green); and La Frontera: The United States Border With Mexico. He has also written the introduction for The World We Have by Thich Nhat Hanh, available this fall from Parallax Press.  A senior producer for Homelands Productions, Weisman’s documentaries have aired on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and American Public Media.  Each spring, he leads an annual field program in international journalism at the University of Arizona, where he is Laureate Associate Professor in Journalism and Latin American Studies.  He and his wife, sculptor Beckie Kravetz, live in western Massachusetts.

  • Transcript


Alan Weisman:  There used to be a time when we were less populous, that we where just simply another predator out there. We were a hunter and a gather, and we did our job, as other species do, in helping to control some species who’s numbers might out of whack, if some thing wasn’t predating on them. Then we developed agriculture and again until we became so numerous that we had to start doing a non-ecological forms of agriculture like huge monocultures or chemical force feeding in the land. Lot of our agriculture was very helpful to some other species, I didn’t use this in the book, but actually I use this in another book once. There used to be a traditional farming among the Tahona Indians, also known as the Papago Indians in southern Arizona, where they would use, they would channel sheet flooding during the summer rains into big washes that allow them to cultivate the native species that they lived on and they used to be in what is today Organ Pipe National Park. Well, when that park was formed the people where kicked out of there, because the park ranger said this is for wildlife not for people. Well, the Indians had to leave and half the bird species left with them. They were adapted to living around these people and there seeds. Now, in this book The World Without Us, I talk about how a complimentary relationship has developed over thousands of years, between traditional nomadic pastoralists who move cattle around parts of eastern Africa and elephant herds who tend to follow them. The cattle will graze a piece of land until the grass is gone and then they move them on, and, whenever you graze land woody species will invade and replace the grass. Well, elephants love stripping the bark off woody species, they eat trees, so then the elephants move in and then when they ate all those things, then the grass comes in and there has been this lovely cycle going on for a long time, that has only been interrupted recently when real estate values have now imposed fences on Africa, and nomads can no longer be nomadic. Obviously when we become so numerous that we start clearing away a lot of habitats for growing food, that's when the problems begin, but we weren’t fairly good shape up until really the 20th century when our numbers doubled and then redoubled again.


Recorded on: 2/5/08