Was This Us?

A note on our global legacy

Paul Greenberg


Old things become fresh again when you revisit them after a long absence. Take the simple icons that tell you in any airport, indeed in any public place in the world, where it’s ok to relieve yourself.

I need to go.

Where can I go?

Oh, over there, toward the sign with the humans on it.

That is where I can go.

I had not been in a European airport since the pandemic. This May, a magazine assignment about a Greek archaeologist roused me from my stay-at-home-ism and sent me on a two-leg flight to Crete. And so, in Munich, while transferring to my second leg, I reacquainted myself with all our antiseptic assumptions about what we want, how long we should spend in any given space, and how we can most efficiently be moved from place to place. Rising from my generic sandwich and my generic coffee and needing to address certain generic needs, I was struck dumb by the fact that when looking for the bathroom one need only look for the humans.

Maybe it was the archaeology story I’d been sent to report. Maybe it was the post-COVID seeing of the world afresh. Whatever the cause I found myself thinking that if alien visitors were to uncover the ruins of our civilization some hundreds of thousands of years from now, it’s totally plausible that all that will remain of our form will be the steely flat icons of man and woman directing the aliens to the toilets. “Who were these gods?” They may ask then. “Why are their temples scattered across the surface of the globe so uniformly?”

Probably these aliens, when they find what remains of us and the disaster we made of the post-Anthropocentric Earth will come to certain conclusions. As the aliens catalogue cannisters of our remainders to be brought back to the home planet they may very well label those cannisters with a simple, appropriate moniker: “The Shit People.”

For they will understand, that all humans, male and female, defined themselves according to what they excreted and what they destroyed. An international cult of waste that swallowed the whole world.



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org