In My Words: Discarded buildings and silent streets: What do they mean?

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Rosemary Haskell looks at how our current COVID-19 world parallels that described in Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us," which imagines a future world devoid of people.

By Rosemary Haskell

Alan Weisman’s 2007 book “The World Without Us” is a riveting account of how the Earth might look years and decades after being emptied of people. It’s a work that becomes newly interesting as we now view public spaces that are generally emptier of people than usual. In his “no people left” or “everyone’s gone!” speculation, Weisman tracks predictions of the decline of structures of metal, concrete, wood and stone in the absence of their human creators.

Rosemary Haskell, professor of English

Weisman’s focus on a deserted New York City has an eerie resonance now. “In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract. … If the city hasn’t burned yet, it will now. … With no firemen to answer the call, a dry lightning strike that ignites a decade of dead branches and leaves piling up in Central Park will spread flames through the streets.”

Spring 2020 indeed provides us with a limited taste of Weisman’s deserted world. For now, we might see the benefits of less motor traffic, fewer planes and smoke-free factory chimneys. Pollution is diminished, noise is down, water is cleaner, and the crowds have disappeared. The cavernous streets of New York, Chicago, and London now appear clearly as the chasms between skyscrapers they truly are. These man-made Grand Canyons are like their natural prototype:  they now have nothing to fill their spaces.

My London relatives living under the flight-path of planes heading into Heathrow Airport enjoy the absence of roaring jet engines and celebrate the fact that only two terminals and one runway are now in use. Perhaps this aviation version of the “world without us” will make us re-consider many post-virus building priorities.

Does Heathrow, for example, really need a controversial third runway? If a lot more of us continue to do more of our work “remotely” after COVID-19,  the commuting hoards and flying flocks of professional conference participants may shrink. Will we then decide to build fewer new roads and shelve airport expansion plans? And if more students are going to continue to learn via videoconferencing, will university campus developers draw in their horns?

Weisman investigates the fate of the unbuilt world too. Without farms and farming, how will the earth’s botanical and zoological populations look? Pessimistic about lingering fertilizer chemicals, and looking carefully at the residue of our antibiotic and genetic modification endeavors, Weisman nonetheless celebrates the resurgence of ancient forests. Without our passion for draining and building, marshes and wetlands would reappear. Mosquitoes will be one group of beneficiaries!

This new Spring 2020 life with more unfilled time, and without humans in their usual places has triggered in many a new appreciation of nature. My law-student son has taken up birdwatching!  Going for a state-sanctioned socially-distanced walk with him is like going for a stroll with a golden retriever. Conversation is interrupted with cries of “Nuthatch! Blue jay! Interesting-looking sparrow!” as we make our way through the University of North Carolina arboretum or across the now-deserted campus pathways. In a quieter Chapel Hill, even I can hear the birdsong.

But, like Weisman, I look uneasily and speculatively at the university’s empty department buildings, the peaceful libraries, and the quiet residence halls.  Those brick, stone, metal and concrete buildings: how long would they endure without human interest and occupation? The books sleep (much as usual) on yards of library shelving; and, in the empty lecture hall, no professor harangues students about late-career developments in Jane Austen’s fiction. This spring, at any rate, these structures have lost their purpose, with their usual inhabitants having located their lives elsewhere.
The only buildings we need, at the moment, are grocery stores, hospitals, houses, and, sadly, prisons, homeless shelters and food pantries. In them, the well and the sick, the rich and the poor, are huddled alone, packed in or sprinkled carefully with select others: fellow shoppers, inmates and patients; roommates; parents and children; and with those who keep our lifelines open.

After the pandemic, the built public world will surely be occupied differently. Perhaps the homeless will be housed in now less-desired hotel rooms, the prisons will be a little emptier, as “low-risk” convicts are safely released, and classrooms and halls of residence will be converted to — what?

It’s difficult to imagine the world after coronavirus. It won’t be “a world without us,” but it will be a world we populate differently. And nature may be grateful.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.