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Would Human Extinction Be Good For The Earth?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Humankind has walked the Earth for thousands of years, gradually building civilisations. But what if we disappeared? Would our planet miss us? Or would our absence actually be a benefit for Mother Nature, and the environment? Life on Earth would certainly never be the same again!

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Would Human Extinction Be Good For the Earth?

It will happen. One day. Whether it’s thousands or millions of years from now, humans will go extinct. And the world will keep on spinning. In the cosmic time-scale, humans have been on Earth for just a fraction of a second. Our planet formed around four-and-a-half billion years ago, and microorganisms - the first signs of life - appeared soon after. Modern humans or homo sapiens - to get technical - emerged about 300,000 years ago, but we began to exhibit behavioral modernity only 50,000 years ago. And even then, civilization as we know it today, complete with sedentary societies, agriculture, and farming, didn’t start until around 10,000 years ago. The Earth was here long before we were. But what would it be like if we were gone? Would Earth survive? Go from strength to strength? Or somewhere in between? Let’s find out!

In the event that humans are suddenly and cataclysmically wiped from Earth, it would only take around one human-free day for most of our lights to go out, plunging Earth into inevitable darkness once the sun sets. Power stations that run on fossil fuel would quickly shut down without human intervention, resulting in massive worldwide blackouts. And while there may still be some power left on Earth due to alternate power sources like hydroelectricity and wind turbines, these too will eventually fail. Plus, without human operators to monitor factories, power plants or oil refineries, fires would rage and whole facilities would explode. But as the lights are extinguishing all over the world, bacteria, rodents, insects and animals would begin to eat the food that we had left behind. And if the food isn’t eaten, it would quickly rot because there’d be no way to artificially preserve it.

Within weeks, subways, sewage systems and underground foundation systems would begin to flood without functioning water pumps to maintain them. Freezers could thaw, chillers could overheat and previously safe and regulated buildings could become increasingly volatile environments. After just a couple of human-free days, all sorts of definitely human-dependant species - like head lice, for example - would follow humans into the history books, as they’ll no longer have a host. So far, things aren’t looking especially positive - especially for head lice!

And larger scale changes are also afoot. It wouldn’t take long for domesticated pets, farm animals, and even zoo animals to escape their houses and enclosures - or else die trying. Those that can’t escape would perish of starvation and thirst within a few days - or possibly weeks - but successful escapees would have to return to their natural instincts and begin hunting for food. Which means that a new natural order would quickly set in… Which would be bad news for some domesticated breeds. Weaker animals would be swiftly picked off by their more powerful and able foes, or defeated by the raging fires and increasing radiation that will have spread without humans to battle forest fires, save self-destructing nuclear plants, or stem the flooding. Still, the Earth looks like it’s in a very bad way.

However, once the initial shock of human extinction had passed, it actually wouldn’t take long for the Earth to reclaim its land. After one human-less month, hardy and invasive vines like Kudzu would wrap around and through buildings, the weeds we usually cut back would continue growing along cracks in the pavement, and within just five years some sidewalks could become carpets of grass. Deserted desert cities would soon be shrouded in new layers of sand, while it could take just a couple of decades for low-lying cities like London and Amsterdam to find themselves at least partially submerged in water.

After fifty years, man-made human constructions are truly beginning to tumble. Rusted windows have fallen or been blown out of buildings and surviving animals have set up shop in severely dilapidated high-rises. Some bridges have corroded and collapsed, roads and abandoned cars have disappeared beneath unruly weeds, moss and vegetation, and the last of the satellites in space have collided into each other, and fallen out of the sky. By now, the planet is rapidly adapting to its human-free existence. It’s a mess, but it’s much greener, infinitely quieter and completely without limits since men, women and children disappeared.

Within 150 years, Mother Nature’s grip on the globe has only gotten stronger. Homes, hospitals, schools, supermarkets and office blocks now play host to entire ecosystems, as their walls gradually erode away into dust. Increasing numbers of cities are nearly or entirely underwater, and the oceans are well on their way toward recovering from pollution as their populations thrive without pollutants or commercial fishing to endanger them. After 200 years, the greatest iron and steel structures of the human era are probably no more. And within 500 years, even ancient monuments are covered by sand, water or weeds, or else disintegrated completely. By the half century mark, there’d still be hints at a human history from long ago, but immediately obvious indicators will have all but disappeared, leaving few clear cut signs that we were ever even here.

It all sounds pretty ominous, but the Earth is likely loving it’s newfound freedom to grow and replenish at will. And, while some links between us and the human-free future would continue, after 10,000 years virtually all traces of humanity will have been lost. If the Pyramids of Giza still stand, even they are almost completely buried beneath the desert. It’s hard to see anything stopping Stonehenge, but even that ancient monument will’ve likely grown mossier and unrecognisable from what it is now.

Amazingly, and somewhat despairingly, some estimates say that some evidence of man-made plastic could still survive on Earth for thousands or even millions of years, also buried under layers of sediment - waiting for future archaeologists to dig up and debate. So, it’s not our great structures, scientific achievements, or the pivotal pieces of our history that will outlast us, but only our water bottles. Though at least human extinction would save the Earth from millenia more of human-caused pollution, meaning the plastics of today could have formed their own (hopefully quite thin) layer within the Earth’s crust. After 100 million years, like the dinosaurs before us, all that will remain of humans themselves are our bones in fossil form.

But of course, although evidence of the human impact on Earth would gradually disappear, probably prompting the planet to restore all sorts of plant, animal and marine-life species, we humans could still return in spirit. Sort of. If current attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial life eventually bear fruit - perhaps a signal sent out in the twenty-first century is received and acted upon 200 million years from now - then the Earth could have a whole new species to contend with, necessitating all new adaptation techniques. And because the humans who had originally sent the message are no more, the outcomes are impossible to predict.

But, sidestepping the borderline sci-fi and imagining only an Earth without humans - it’s not half bad, in the end. Would human extinction be good for the Earth? Almost definitely.

Sure, the first few weeks, years, or even centuries could be tricky, while the human influence recedes. But, once the natural world fully takes over and envelops the unattended husk of human civilisation, the planet essentially patches itself up, enters into recovery, and reshapes itself for whatever is next. While we don’t (and never will) know what will happen, it’s clear that in the grandest of grand schemes of things - within the entire history of our planet - humans are ultimately quite expendable. Without us, Earth would quickly reclaim her land, new life would thrive, and the world would keep spinning into the next few billion years, or so.

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