The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without UsThe World Without Us by Alan Weisman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This vivid, well-written book leaves one hungry for more of its title topic.

I seem to recall first seeing this book advertised and perhaps recommended in Scientific American magazine in 2008. That, combined with the book’s intriguing premise and its provocative cover art, made me eager to read it. I bought a copy and started reading it, only to leave off soon as the wind of my reading interest shifted elsewhere, as it often does.

I picked it up again over Christmas and powered on to the end. I found that it took a bit of a push to finish it, because I felt that the author had wandered too far away from the matter at hand. For while Weisman does show us things that would happen if humans were suddenly to vanish from Earth (that is his premise), he spends much more time setting up the locations and researchers involved in the various locales that he zooms in on; and while these descriptions are always engaging and evocatively portrayed, they are still only about the world with us still in it.

For example, he spends several pages in the middle of the book describing the ancient underground cities of Cappadocia in central Turkey—a fascinating archaeological curiosity that I’d never heard of before. But while I was indeed glad to read about these, the purpose of describing them was simply that these ancient excavations may be among the artifacts of man that last longest into a future in which we ourselves don’t.

Other descriptions seem more closely on-topic, such as an account of the petroleum-processing megaplex of Texas City, Texas, were huge amounts of crude oil are taken in, processed, and piped out. What happens with all that crude and all those toxins depends sensitively on whether people do or do not flick certain switches before they depart the scene. The account of nuclear plants and their waste is even more tightly linked to the “what will happen if” premise. Here, I have to admit, although I am an advocate of nuclear power, I found the prognosis for unattended nuclear plants to be most troubling. Nuclear messes are not pretty—and they’re not brief.

Ugly though nuclear leftovers are, I found the most troubling chapter to be the one on plastics. For it turns out that we, humanity, have already filled Earth with them. The soils and oceans are full of plastics, especially the tiny pellets known as nurdles from which larger plastic structures are made. These particles, which never biodegrade, have long been in the global food chain, and will continue to move up it, concentrating in the top-of-chain species, such as you-know-who, interacting with our biology in unknown but unhealthy and irreversible ways.

I’ve read before about how the Pacific Ocean contains a vast floating island of garbage. In Weisman’s book I learned that these floating islands are in every ocean, and that the most remote beaches on Earth are strewn with discarded running shoes, bottles, and disposable diapers. One of my main takeaways from this book is that Homo sapiens, as a species, regards Earth’s land as his dump, the oceans as his toilet, and the atmosphere as his smokestack. And they’re all getting full.

It’s hard not to conclude that the world without us would be, well, better off. And that’s too bad.

This book is thought-provoking. It is also well researched and written in an informative, fast-moving, punchy style (which sometimes was a bit flip for my taste). It is a good book. But I wanted to be led more through the landscape of an Earth depopulated of us, and led through a timeline of it, rather than spending so much time looking at landscapes still filled with us.

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