The World Without Us
Last night I was far too distracted to write a book review, but I do want to get back into the habit of writing them. This week’s book is The World Without Us, by Alan Weissman. As suggested by the title, the book explores what would happen to the Earth if humans simply disappeared one day (whether abducted by aliens, taken in the rapture, or killed by a highly specific virus that left everything else on earth alone). How long would our creations last? Would the damage that we’ve done to the environment be healed, or would our chemical and nuclear facilities wreak even more havoc left untended?
Weissman uses these questions as launching points to explore a range of phenomena, from the Korean DMZ as wildlife refuge, to vast underground cities in Turkey, to the dead zone at Chernobyl, to the question of why there are almost no mega-fauna left anyplace on earth but Africa. (Weissman’s answer is that African megafauna learned early to be wary of humans, while the great animals in other parts of the world were taken by surprise by the dangerousness of these apparently helpless primates. As I write this, I’m not sure why Asian elephants and tigers are an exception to that rule.)
The wide range of topics in the book are both a strength and a weakness. Weissman’s conclusion is that almost all traces of humans (except for bronze statues and radioactivity) will be erased, given enough time. But because he jumps from issue to issue, having read the book, I still don’t have a specific sense of what the world would look like in 5 years, 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years.
It’s hard to read the book, and not be horrified by some of the things that we’re doing to the earth — driving species to extinction, filling the oceans with plastic, changing the very climate. But it doesn’t point to obvious solutions, and can leave you with a sense that nothing we do at this point can fix things very much.