The World Without Us, Alan Weisman

Harper Collins, 2007, 324 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-200864-8

Most environmentally-minded books usually show their eco-credentials by explaining the impact of humanity on nature. But Alan Weisman smartly does exactly the opposite, showing us what happens when humans go away.

The thought experiment is elegant: “Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished… How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap upon it and our fellow organisms? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces?” [P.4]

The first question raised by this thought experiment is how to tackle the subject. There’s no laboratory experiment that will remove humanity and allow the author to see what happens without removing much of the book’s paying audience along the way.

But there are ways to find out. Humans may be known for their insatiable lust for conquering the globe, but there are places that haven’t been colonized yet. This brings us to the last remaining square kilometers of primeval forest in Poland, a never-domesticated preserve that shows what temperate Europe was before humans transformed it to their liking. Better yet: there are a few places in the world where humanity has retreated, leaving behind traces of their presence. Pripiyat, the city closest to Chernobyl, stands as a particularly imposing monument to humanity’s transience.

Because, as Weisman quickly demonstrates in the book’s two must-read chapters, few things can hope to survive without human maintenance. Chapter 2, “Unbuilding a home” fast-forwards through what happens to a typical north-American house when abandoned. Within years, water seeps in and weakens the wooden structure until the house collapses upon itself. Degradation of organic material is relatively rapid, but within decades even metal oxidizes, concrete disintegrates and plastics are under assault by water, temperature, sunlight, animals and bacteria. Five hundred years later in temperate climates, only the ceramics tiles in the bathroom will remain recognizable as such. (Home-owner shouldn’t read this chapter after expensive renovations.) Chapter 3 applies the same logic to cities and shows how quickly a city goes away when no one is there to take care of it. Post-apocalyptic SF fans will get quite a kick out of a serious study of what many have been wondering about over the years. (Curiously, Pripiyat gets a chapter and Savannah earns a passage, but Centralia, PA doesn’t even rank a mention.)

This extrapolation is informed by expert advice, laboratory tests and historical precedent. Latter chapters study specific bits of infrastructure and human activity, and ultimately start wondering which human artifacts may last through the ages. Plastics, alas, may form the bulk of humanity’s few lasting contribution to the universe: very little of it ever degrades (“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastics manufactured in the world in the past 50 years or so still remains.” [P.126] is the killer quote in the “Polymers are Forever” chapter) and a surprising amount ends up washed on the shores of every ocean.

But even as traces of humanity disappear, nature springs back. Not in the same primeval fashion as it did before humanity’s passage, but it does come back. Much of the thick forests in New England are reclaimed farmland, for instance, and the always-instructive example of radioactive Pripyat shows the extend to which wildlife can spring back to prominence if left alone for a while.

Paradoxically, this is where The World Without Us is at its most optimistic. If some facets of the biosphere are already irremediably beyond repair (the great garbage patch of the Pacific will be there for a looong time), there is still some hope for a better relationship between nature and humanity, and the results could be rapidly seen as long as some action is taken quickly. It’s hope through humility, of course, a sobering realization of humanity’s truer place in the natural scheme. Of, as you may see it, a recognition of our responsibility now that we can alter the planet, and a recognition of the good we can do if we commit to reasonable stewardship.

But the book would be so interesting if it wasn’t for Weisman’s arresting style, his judicious choice of international set-pieces and his willingness to let his interview subjects speak for themselves. As a piece of scientific journalism, The World Without Us runs deeper than a mere through experiment about humanity’s disappearance: it’s an exceptional documentary crossing oceans and scientific disciplines in order to inform us. There is a lot of absolutely fascinating material here, from a look at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (now such a heavily mined and regulated area that it has become the Korean peninsula’s best natural preserve) to the operation of the Panama Canal (far more than just a ditch through a jungle.)

The book occasionally errs in numerous digressions that don’t necessarily advance the subject. But it’s hard to separate the chaff from the vital when nearly everything reported by Weisman ends up being so interesting. The style carries even the slower, less relevant passages, and set-pieces such as a quick look at the potential industrial apocalypse of the Texan petrochemical industry may not be strictly necessary, but they certainly leave a vivid impression.

The book has already become an international bestseller, and is now reaching its second wave of readers intrigued by the glowing reviews and the fascinating subject matter. For once, believe the hype: this has a good chance of turning into a minor pop-science classic, and a reference tome for many post-apocalyptic SF writers. It’s a profoundly environmentalist tome that understands its time, avoiding strident calls for action in favor of a calm, almost appealing rhetoric. There’s a real hunger for disaster in a troubled early twenty-first century punctuated by falling towers, drowned cities and the promise of rising shorelines. The World Without Us plays with this sensibility, most notably with its unstated conclusion that we may be the most fragile, most vulnerable species in the whole ecosystem… and that the world can go on quite peacefully without us.

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