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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

December 17, 2018

I read this book and wrote this review in 2007, before this blog. While writing the review for The Overstory by Richard Powers, I remembered this book and how much I liked it.

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What would happen if people disappeared? If we were just gone in an instant. What would happen to what we left behind, and how would nature cope with our absence? It’s a hypothetical question, obviously, but it’s the fascinating premise of this “thought experiment.”

The majority of the book is a tale of man-made objects falling apart, of nature healing and reclaiming the world, and of things returning to their natural state. Weisman examines a wide array of topics. He starts with our suburban homes, walking us through the process of them coming apart as windows crack and break and the roof begins to leak, allowing the elements to slowly break down the walls, the support structures, and eventually collapse the home, leaving little but the chimney a century later. This section, and much of the rest of the book, is an interesting look at how things are put together as much as how they come apart.

The next section deals with cities. Weisman examines New York in particular, walking us through the failing of the unmanned pumps that keep the subways and roadways dry. It doesn’t take long for the roads to become rivers and much of NYC to return to its natural, marshy state. With us gone, new animals migrate onto the island across the bridges (before they collapse) and animals that depend on us for survival—cockroaches, rats, house pets—die off. Eventually, without maintenance, the foundations corrode and the great sky-scrapers come down.

Weisman takes us around the world, examining the ancient forest preserves of Eastern Europe to see what the flora was like before, and eventually after us. He uses the Eastern African Rift Valley to explain the fauna of an untouched ecosystem. And he takes an interesting look at the natural history of the Americas, where we once had more animals weighing over a ton than Africa does today.

Much of the book is concerned with our more damaging blights on nature. What will happen to our oil fields? Our nuclear power plants? Our nuclear waste? To the incredible amount of plastic bottles, rubber tires, and other non-biodegradable trash that we’ve put into the ecosystem?

Although some readers on Amazon have criticized this book for being yet another anti-human, pro-environment rant, it’s far from that. Certainly there is an overarching environmental message, but by removing humans from the equation, Weisman eliminates the human vs. environment debate altogether. We aren’t faced with tough sacrifices since we’re not around. To me, it’s more a book of very interesting trivia than preachy environmentalism. Still, people who refuse to believe that we owe anything to the earth or have a responsibility of stewardship may be offended by Weisman’s suggestion that only an intentional reduction in our global birthrate and a more environmentally friendly approach to production and consumption can save us from our collision course with the inevitable. Our current lifestyle is simply not sustainable. But the main point of this book is less to remind us of that and more to carry the hopeful message that the earth is a living system, and in time it will recover from whatever abuse we dish out, if given the chance.

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor LaPorte permalink
    December 17, 2018 7:34 pm

    It’s like your catching up on homework for a whole year.

    • December 17, 2018 7:36 pm

      Ha! Every year in January I tell myself not to get behind this year, and then in December it’s like exam cram time. I have 10 reviews to write in the next 14 days.

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