Humankind is an unusual species, the only living organism on this planet to be at odds with nature. While other life adapts and flourishes around nature’s challenges, we are the only species that instead forces nature to adapt to us. But having said that, if humans were to cease to exist, would nature survive without us?
Without the human race, nature would not only survive, but it would thrive. Although our legacy of pollution, nuclear remnants, and climate change will impact nature long after we are gone, eventually nature will heal and the planet will become abundant with diverse animal and plant life.
If humans were to face some cataclysmic disaster that eliminates us from the planet, what will happen to the cities and infrastructure we leave behind? How will the world change without our impact?
What Would Happen To Nature Without Humans?
As humans, we tend to be quite egocentric, believing the world exists merely to further our exploits. We couldn’t be more wrong. In the grand timeline of the existence of the Earth, we are but a speck! Nature existed long before we stood up and began using our big brains and it will exist long after the last of us is absorbed back into the earth.
99% of all species that have roamed the Earth have died out primarily due to extinction events. According to Alan Weisman, author of the book “The World Without Us” (Thomas Dunne 2007), “it’s just amazingly thrilling how fast nature can bury us”.
In 2020 we were giving a glimpse at how quickly nature can creep back in when we are not meddling. With hard lockdowns happening the world over, our social media feeds became inundated with heart-warming photos and videos of wild animals enjoying our empty streets and waterways. That happened within days of us being removed from the equation.
Can Our Cities Survive Without Humans?
It won’t happen overnight, but just as the jungles of the Amazon reclaimed the Mayan cities of old, so too will nature infiltrate the cities we leave behind.
One of the first things that would happen within hours of humans disappearing is the flooding of the subways. Without people operating the pump systems and diverting rainfall and rising groundwater, engineers estimate it will take only around 36 hours for the subways to become underground rivers beneath the cities. This water will erode metal support structures, eventually collapsing the streets.
Without humans to maintain infrastructure, simple things like not removing ice from pavements over consecutive winters will result in them cracking and breaking up. In these cracks, there will be exposed earth and through wind and animal excrement, seeds will find their way into these openings. Trees and plants will grow and their roots will further add to the destruction of our paved surfaces.
With more natural elements taking hold of our cities and no humans to clear debris away, streets would become lined with twigs and dry leaves, creating the perfect fuel for fire. Once the fires start, they will sweep through our cities, abolishing our high rises with no one to stop them.
The ash of the fires will fall to the ground and this material will, in turn, create a rich surface covering perfect for organic life to flourish. It would take about 500 years for our streets to return to grasslands and forests. Re-forestation of cities would occur quicker in tropical areas where foliage grows fast and lush versus desert environments.
The buildings would also continue to degrade through erosion and being subject to fire breakouts. The more modern buildings would be the first to go, but eventually, in a few hundred years, there would no longer be city skylines. Ultimately, nature would take back all that is rightfully hers.
Can Animals Survive Without Humans?
Our domesticated animals will have a more challenging time surviving in a human-less world than wildlife. Some may not escape their enclosures and will starve to death, but for many, the static, docile natures we have bred into them will make them easy pickings for predators.
House cats have proven themselves formidable the world over, quickly adapting and multiplying. Their hunting instincts are still strong and they’ll soon learn to fend for themselves. Our house cats are likely to be just fine without us.
On the other hand, dogs will probably be outmuscled by wolves and so our faithful friends would follow us into non-existence. Those who can survive will quickly breed back into an animal closely resembling a wolf to survive a landscape without the human hand to feed them.
However, wildlife is likely to celebrate our exit from the Earth and have themselves a bit of a party. We will no longer be hunting them for sport, destroying their habitat, or ripping them from their watery homes for our dinner plates, but the most significant impact for wildlife starts at the smallest level.
Without our farms operating and spraying crops with pesticides, insects will recover quickly and boom. With the revival of the insects, a domino effect begins in the natural kingdom. Plants will become healthier, with many of our crops reverting to their wild forebears. There will be an increase in animals that eat insects and subsequently an increase in the animals that eat those animals all the way up to the top of the food web.
A 2015 study conducted by a team at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden revealed that without the consequences of human migration, the entire planet would look like the Serengeti in terms of density and diversity of wildlife. Our history shows that with our migration patterns came drastic increases in extinction rates. Where ever we did wander, so did extinction. At this stage, it is estimated that it will take three to seven million years for the planet to recover from past extinctions caused by us.
It’s not really surprising then that wildlife will be much better off if we just weren’t around anymore.
Can Nature Survive The Legacy Of Humans?
Some might argue that we have already set in motion such harm to the environment that our swift exit from the planet may not be enough to save nature. There are those that believe that even if we were never to emit another molecule of CO², we have already surpassed the tipping point on climate change.
There will be no smooth departure of humankind. We will leave behind an Earth subject to oil spills, chemical leaks, explosions and fires that could last for decades.
One of the great heirlooms we would leave to the planet is our nuclear power stations. Without our management, there would be nuclear fallout and a mass amount of radiation released upon the Earth, the consequences of which are unpredictable.
The mountains we leave behind will not be the pristine peaks of the Himalayas but the immeasurable heaps of waste, much of which will be plastic. It will take thousands of years until all the plastic is degraded.
There are certain human-made chemicals that cannot be broken down by nature. Some of these chemicals may be around until the end of time on Earth, a friendly reminder of the wondrous ways human beings contributed to the planet.
To save the best for last, as it stands now, the greenhouse gases we have released into the atmosphere will take at least 100 000 years to return to pre-industrial levels. The impact of climate change will continue to affect all aspects of life on this planet long after we are gone and will be the worst of the inheritance we leave to the Earth. Eliminating us will not bring an end to this tragedy we have launched.
Although what we leave behind will be a series of polluting disasters that will have damaging effects for millennia to come, it is unlikely that, despite our best efforts, our departure will bring about the total destruction of nature.
Nature will always find a way. Eventually, petroleum leaks will be broken down and reused by microbes. Micro-organisms will evolve to break down the endless supply of plastic. The oceans will absorb the CO² and marine life will adapt to the more acidic water conditions just as they did during the Jurassic period. Ocean levels will rise and climates around the world will change. The Earth will lose many different species, but nature will continue to adapt and evolve and ultimately thrive as it always has.
How Has Nature Survived Without Humans?
Chernobyl is a living example of how rapidly nature returns when the human element is removed. After the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster, the Soviet Union created a 1000 square mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl. This area is restricted to everyone except some scientists and government officials
Thirty-five years down the line and the area is teeming with wildlife. Although the radiation initially killed the surrounding forests, nature has bounced back, and the now dense woodlands are home to wolves, deer, lynx, beaver, eagles, boar, elk, foxes and bears. Not seen in the region in over a century, the European brown bear is documented to be living in the exclusion zone. Even the endangered Przewalski horse was introduced into the area and is thriving.
Of course, there is concern for the health of the animals with their exposure. Still, it appears smaller animals living closer to the site are more affected, with noticeable deformities and cancers. The larger animals seem to display worrying mutations far less. Any mutations they may have do not appear to be affecting their quality of life or the virility of the species. It would appear that some species are even adapting to the radiation exposure.
The scariest part of this whole scenario is not that the wildlife is exposed to contaminates and susceptible to mutations. Instead, that nature can thrive in an area drenched in radioactive material a thousandfold better than an area that humans merely inhabit. We are a higher risk factor than radiation. Animals feel safer living in nuclear waste than living next door to us. However, it does give hope to the idea that nature will prevail.
Can Nature Survive Now Without The Help Of Humans?
Ultimately nature will find a way to survive in spite of us. But how much more will we destroy, damage and navigate towards destruction before nature eradicates us?
We have changed the face of the planet to such an extent that we have now entered a new geological era, The Anthropocene, “the age of man”. Never before has a single species been responsible for bringing about a new geological epoch. We have etched our mark on this planet like none before us.
Wildlife now needs humankind to be able to survive. We need to save wildlife from ourselves and the path we have created. As ecologist Carl Safina explains, we have often been told by well-meaning conservationists that we need to protect wild animals in order to protect ourselves. The message is so often lost as many see through the false ideology and realize that there is not one particular animal’s extinction that will impact their day-to-day living.
Decimating species is something we have done since time immemorial and we are very aware that the effect on us has never been anything but positive. Eradicating species has allowed us explosive fuels, food sources and the growth of human populations and technologies. We have succeeded in the wake of their decimation.
The truth is we cannot look to save animals for our own interests. As Safina states, “human need is a very poor metric for evaluating the existence of living things”. We need to concern ourselves with a loss of a species to maintain our dignity. We are supposed to be an evolved creature, capable of conscious and abstract thought, complex emotions and empathy. We pride ourselves on morality. Caring for wildlife is a case of moral obligation, not survival. We can make a difference and therefore, we should.
Caring for the environment as a whole is, however, a case of self-preservation. That which is harmful to nature, such as polluted waterways, is damaging to humans as well. The Earth and her finely balanced ecological systems support us. She provides us with the air to breathe, the water to drink and the plants and animals to nourish us.
Make no mistake; we cannot exist without her. A total breakdown of living systems would mean a complete disintegration of humanity. Sadly, if we continue on our trajectory, this will happen long after all the large animals, wild lands, and viable ocean habitats are lost.
Despite the notion that nature will endure no matter what we throw at her, we need to ask ourselves how much more abuse she must tolerate at our hand. Each strike we land sets her back further and makes her climb back to balance all that much longer. Now more than ever, nature needs us to fight for her, a chance for a small amount of redemption for us. She will survive us, but how battered and bruised she comes out the other side all depends on the actions we take now.
“Only nature can fully heal itself, but it can heal much faster if we help it along”Robin Chazdon, Ecologist
We won’t win this battle with nature. We may seem on top now as we shape our environments to surrender to our requirements, but eventually, the balance of nature must be restored. Nature will find a way to rid herself of the pests that have become such a destructive force on this planet.
With us gone, nature will not be crying that her favorite children no longer walk the surface of this Earth. She will rejoice that the abuse is finally over and at last, the healing can begin. It will be a long slow process, but in time even the scars we leave behind will be concealed.
Nature will not only survive without us; she will be far better off.