What if humanity disappeared tomorrow?
According to Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us," in an interview with Scientific American, nature would reclaim the planet awfully quickly. In the event of an ecumenical rapture or a "12 Monkeys"-style plague, Manhattan's suppressed underground rivers would quickly reclaim the Big Apple's core, mosquitoes would thrive, feral cats would rule the roost, and the Statue of Liberty would wait for an enraged Charlton Heston who, like Godot, would never arrive.
Weisman isn't concerned with what might eradicate humanity; he's just interested in what the world would be like without us. People have long been fascinated by such ideas. There's even an environmental fringe group called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, dedicated to the dream of Earth returned to the pastoral bliss of the noble savage, hold the noble savages.
More typical, however, is the fixation on imagining the world emptied not of everybody but of everybody else. That was the plan of several James Bond villains, countless sci-fi writers and more than a few eugenicists who fantasized about starting from scratch with just a handful of humans.
The seductiveness of such daydreaming stems from a view of humans as a burden rather than a boon. It was the British economist Thomas Malthus more than anyone else who introduced the phobia that humanity reproduced itself at unsustainable rates. That thinking led to such apocalyptic egghead porn as Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 treatise, "The Population Bomb," in which the biologist predicted that 65 million Americans would die amid global starvation in the 1980s. In case you missed it, that didn't happen.
The blind spot in the Malthusian vision is humanity's bottomless capacity for innovation. The "green revolution," for example, largely eliminated food scarcity.
In other words, our wealth is really all in our heads. Literally.
In the United States, for example, less than a fifth of our wealth exists as material stuff like minerals, crops and factories. In Switzerland, cuckoo clocks, ski chalets, cheese, Rolex watches, timber and every other tangible asset amount to a mere 16 percent of that country's wealth. The rest is captured by the expertise, culture, laws and traditions of the Swiss themselves.