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The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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The World Without Us
Thomas Dunne Books, 2007

Some years ago, Alan Weisman (Gaviotas : A Village To Reinvent The World) wrote an article for Harpers in which he marvelled at nature’s rapid reclamation of the Chernobyl Nuclear site following the 1986 disaster and subsequent flight of any human residents from the area. The Harpers article prompted a call from an editor at Discover, who asked that he write a piece exploring the notion further by posing the question what if human beings all of a sudden disappeared from the Earth entirely? It is this question that Weisman revisits in greater depth in The World Without Us.

It is a fascinating conceit, really – what if, by plague or divine rapture, the entire human race disappeared from the planet? What would that look like? There are perhaps some who would prefer not to consider such a possibility, while others of us find the notion somehow irresistible. Weisman taps directly into this latter reaction in the opening chapters of The World Without Us by first illustrating what, in our absence, would become of the homes we live in.

Five hundred years, he tells us, give or take a few decades climate-dependent, before our suburbs are replaced utterly by forest. His detailing of the process is delivered matter-of-factly. He describes the effects of small leaks, mold spores, insects, and the small mammalian squatters who eventually take up residence after gaining entry through shattered windows.
Urban centers are Weisman's next target. The author focuses his scientific gaze on how organic processes will consume the concrete jungle that is New York City. As with the suburbs, the primary agent of natural restoration will be the stuff of life itself – water. New York City’s water table, which in pre-colonial days was absorbed by soil and grass and the roots of oaks and beech trees, currently has nowhere to go and must be pumped daily from beneath the city streets in order to keep it from flooding the subway tunnels. With people out of the picture, this water will eventually fill what lies below until, Weisman tells us, streets degrade and cave in, and Lexington Avenue itself becomes a river. While buildings erode from water below, they will be similarly attacked from the sky, as rain gains access via roof and skylight leaks, rusting metal and devouring everything else in its path except stone, so that when the flora and fauna – coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcats – retake the city, the only buildings remaining will be those like Grand Central Station, with its everlasting marble construction.

From New York, Weisman criss-crosses the globe, visiting the laboratories, fields of research, and points of import to his query, probing the nature of our impact on the planet thus far. How else, the author asks, can we discover the face of the world without us than by inquiring into what effect our presence has had?
This of course is the genius of The World Without Us, and, I suspect, Weisman’s goal all along. By nurturing such a compelling notion as the potential absence of the human race, he has created an environmental call to action that, unlike myriad clichéd doomsday books, is compelling in its narrative approach to describing what we humans have wrought in our short time here on Earth.

The author calls our attention to a number of travesties in which we may be unwittingly complicit: Our exfoliant body scrubs, for instance, contain micro-fine polyethylene granules that when washed down the drain are eventually consumed by tiny sea creatures. As Weisman is told by a British marine biologist, if humans disappeared today, those small sea organisms would have this problem to deal with for thousands of years to come.

Plastic in general will be a problem for the planet and its inhabitants long after we're gone. Though we've only been producing the substance for fifty years, all of it still remains somewhere in the environment. We have already dumped so much plastic in the oceans that one billion tons of it are caught perpetually swirling in huge oceanic vortexes like the North Pacific Gyre, where a huge plastic soup slowly disintegrates into smaller polymers that choke marine life and further pollute the world's oceans.

The breadth of Weisman's inquiry into our cumulative effect on the planet is enormous. He consults experts from around the world and all of the sciences, calling our attention to numerous ways in which, for every other life form on Earth, we are the problem.
Did you know that one billion birds are killed each year by crashing into the plate glass windows of our houses, storefronts, and skyscrapers? Or that 60-80 million are annually killed by cars? Add into the equation the carnage visited upon the avian population by radio towers, cell towers, power lines, acid rain, insecticides... it's too much to comprehend.

The impact that humans have had upon all other species has been so overwhelmingly negative that mentioning specific damage to an individual species - for instance the 100 million sharks each year who have their dorsal and pectoral fins sliced off in the name of Chinese cuisine (shark fin soup) before being thrown back into the ocean to sink to the bottom and drown - is to diminish the traumatic effect that our presence has had on all other animal life - those still present and those we've already driven to extinction.

It's no surprise that Weisman concludes The World Without Us by calling his readers' attention to groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement ("May we live long and die out") and the Rewilding Institute, and possible solutions such as reversing human population growth by restricting reproduction to one child per each human female. Drastic times call for drastic measures and The World Without Us is the author's considerable contribution towards awakening mankind to the cataclysmically selfish nature of our existence, so that perhaps we don't all have to disappear in order to save the world.
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