The World Without Us

It was nearly midnight the night before we embarked on our 12-hour drive to Panorama Resort near Invermere, BC for the start of TransRockies and there was still one important thing I had left to do: I had to find an audiobook to download to my iPod for the drive. I saw iTunes had "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman, a book I recalled recently reading a review for in National Geographic Adventure and thinking that it sounded fascinating. And it was.

"The World Without Us" is based around a very simple premise: what would happen to the world as we know it if humans were to suddenly, for whatever reason, just disappear. How would Earth react if we were to instantly vanish and were no longer able to do all the things we humans do every day. Would our buildings and highways survive? Would our impact on other species and the landscape prove irreversible? Have we in fact done irrevocable damage to the global ecosystem? Or are even our greatest achievements in science and engineering simply no match for the grand scale of geologic time?

Weisman has done a masterful job of exploring nearly every aspect of our collective human existence and has relied heavily on expert geologists, biologists, engineers, chemists, and every other form of scientific expert you can imagine to nail down precisely how the Earth would go about undoing our creations. The book begins with a detailed blow-by-blow breakdown of how the landscape would quickly take back a farmhouse in the country and, surprisingly, almost as swiftly return Manhattan to the wild place it was when our ancestors purchased it from the natives -- the key lies in the near instantaneous flooding of the subway tunnels. From there, the book moves on to look back in time to how humans aided the mega-fauna extinction on North America and how, with us gone, domesticated pets and livestock would serve as a buffet for carnivores. It wouldn't take long for big cats and other carnivores to return their numbers to populations that existed before humans settled the world. Lengthy chapters about the use of plastics in our lives prove rather unsettling and soon give way to an in-depth look at the petrochemical industry. With the help of expert petrochemical engineers, Weisman provides a step-by-step analysis of how the safety systems in place at refineries would be overwhelmed without human assistance and how every refinery in the world would go up in flames before long.

The book relies heavily on research and expert testimony to get its point across, but it doesn't ever stray too far into being preachy and does not serve as a call for human extinction. Rather, Weisman seems content to try and provide the most factual answer possible to an utterly hypothetical question. Although there are some lengthy sections concerning natural history and botany that can run dry, and not everyone is going to appreciate discussions of raw material plastic nerdles riding the sea currents around the world, I think the book, as a whole, is still worth reading (or listening to). It's not for the masses and isn't a light read, but I imagine anyone with an interest in science or engineering will find at least a couple of chapters to prove rather fascinating. If you enjoy nonfiction and have an interest in the environment or sciences, then it's a no-brainer. If not, you should probably page through it at the bookstore and see if it hooks you before buying.

Link to the book at Barnes & Noble.

Link to the audiobook at iTunes.

From the publisher's description:

Discover the impact of the human footprint in The World Without Us. Take us off the Earth and what traces of us would linger? And which would disappear? Alan Weisman writes about which objects from today would vanish without us; how our pipes, wires, and cables would be pulverized into an unusual (but mere) line of red rock; why some museums and churches might be the last human creations standing; how rats and roaches would struggle without us; and how plastic, cast-iron, and radio waves may be our most lasting gifts to the planet. But The World Without Us is also about how parts of our world currently fare without a human presence (Chernobyl; a Polish old-growth forest, the Korean DMZ) and it looks at the human legacy on Earth, both fleeting and indelible. It’s narrative nonfiction at its finest, taking an irresistible concept with gravity and a highly-readable touch. Some examples of what would happen:

One year: Several more billions birds will live when airplane warning lights cease blinking.

Twenty years: The water-soaked steel columns that support the street above New York’s East Side would corrode and buckle. As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river.

100,000 years: CO2 will be back to pre-human levels (or it might take longer).

Forever: Our radio waves, fragmented as they may be, will still be going out.

1 comment:

Maarten said...

Thanks for the review.

Funny you should mention the plastic bits that are riding around on the world's seas. I had just come across this bit about sea birds ingesting plastics:

(note: the link isn't excessively graphic but might be unpleasant if you're really easily grossed out.)