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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Posted By David Loftus On November 16, 2007 @ 11:07 am In Environment,Nature,Non-Fiction Reviews | 3 Comments

The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman
St.Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pp.
CLR Rating:

The Earth Without Humans

It is a rare book indeed that reawakens the reader to the gorgeous wonders of the natural world while simultaneously evoking the creepy shivers of a stroll through a haunted house. But that’s the best way I can think of to characterize my reaction to The World Without Us.

Like many film trailers, the book pulls a sort of bait and switch — a quite forgivable one in this case — that leads us to believe we’re going to have one sort of experience but ends up delivering a very different one, even better. Here, the conceit is to imagine what would happen to planet Earth — to its land animals, landscapes, atmosphere, marine life, artificial constructs (from bridges and skyscrapers to open-air mining pits), and all the various wastes we’ve accumulated (from plastics to depleted uranium) — if the human race were suddenly to disappear.

In a prelude, the author invites us to “picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.” The recent noises in the press about global warming are a handy starting point (though only one of many): if we were instantly gone, “How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines?”

For about forty pages, the book sticks fairly closely to the conceit: one chapter describes how the average modern home (in various climates) would deteriorate and collapse; the next focuses on the surprisingly swift implosion of an abandoned city — for example, Manhattan. The details make our lives, our civilization, sound far more precarious than we assume them to be.

But the book goes on to greater things, more varied delights, than mere science fiction scenarios. In fact, it takes the reader to unspoiled places most of us had no idea still exist, as well as pockets of doomsday landscapes where it is as if the world as we know it has already ended — both of which coexist in the present and offer snapshots of life as it might have been long before we got here, and how it will return (or continue to change) once we are gone.

On the one hand, there’s Bialoweiza Puszcza, the last stand of old growth forest in Europe. Straddling the current border between Poland and Belarus, sliced by a Cold War wall and wounded by poachers and hardwood culling, it remains the home of 150-foot ash and linden trees, a few surviving wisent (European bison), and more kinds of life than anywhere else on the continent. (The book’s first chapter begins, “You may never have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza”; and it’s true, I probably hadn’t, but it popped up again prominently in one of the next books I opened to write about for the California Literary Review, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman!)

On the other hand, there’s Varosha, once a city of 20,000 on the eastern shore of Cyprus, deserted by Turkish and Greek Cypriots alike since 1974 after bitter fighting — where shredded laundry still hangs on lines, trees grow up through the collapsed roofs of homes, and the ambulatory inhabitants consist mostly of lizards, snakes, pigeons, and turtles.

On the one hand, marine biologists study Kingman Reef, a sunken atoll that was briefly a U.S. Navy base during World War II and largely unvisited since then, so that its staggering array of marine plant and animal life make it as much a “time machine” as Bialoweiza Puszcza. On the other is what will likely be one of our species’ most lasting legacies: a “very round hole half a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep” called Ekati, about 180 miles northeast of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, from which 240-ton trucks with 11-foot tires have pulled 9,000 tons of ore every day for transport to a crusher that has extracted more than $1 million in diamonds on each of those days for the past 20 years.

And between the poles lie bewildering locales like the Texas City Prairie Reserve, a Nature Conservancy plot where the nation’s second most endangered bird (Atwater’s prairie chicken — only 40 known to survive) hangs on … at the northern edge of the Gulf Coast oilfields; the demilitarized zone that splits North and South Korea, where for political and military reasons few humans may go, so rare red-crowned cranes, Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, yellow-throated martens, the endangered mountain goat known as the goral, and the nearly vanished Amur leopard crowd in; the National Wildlife Refuge at Rocky Flats, 16 miles northwest of Denver, from which the American public was prohibited because ducks used to die moments after landing due to the presence of leaking drums of waste plutonium and uranium; and of course Chernobyl, where barn swallows (some of them albino!), skylarks, moose, lynx, wolves, and even unauthorized humans have returned as squatters.

You could love this book for its fascinating array of odd facts as much as the many places it takes you across the globe. The New York City subway system would flood in just a few days if its army of transit employees were not working constantly to keep water and sewage out. The geologic cycle would take 100,000 years to return CO-2 back to pre-human levels naturally.

Thomas Jefferson was fascinated by mammoth bones and is credited with being the first to identify the prehistoric North American giant sloth. Equus and zebras first evolved in the Americas and migrated back to Asia and Africa. Cut flowers exported from Africa each year remove the amount of water needed to serve a city of 20,000.

Poppy seeds can lie dormant as long as 1,000 years before suitable conditions allow them to sprout. The prehistoric, underground city of Derinkuyu, one of many in the central Turkey region of Cappadocia, dates back several millennia, penetrates at least 18 stories or 280 feet down, and has enough room to hold 30,000 people.

Ninety-five percent of dead North Sea seabirds were found to have plastic in their stomachs — an average of 44 pieces per bird. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, informally known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is a span of ocean between California and Hawaii the size of Texas, where floats a Sargasso Sea of trash consisting of 90 percent plastic. (Oceangoing vessels dump an estimated 8 million pounds of plastic annually.) And krill, jellyfish, and plankton are consuming tiny bits of indigestible plastic invisible to our naked eye. As far afield as the book wanders, none of these tangents seems off topic. Everything naturally relates … at least it seemed to, to this reader.

When the book gets to chapters on extinctions and radioactive waste, the mood gets considerably grimmer. American passenger pigeons were once so common they flew in flocks that were 300 miles long and numbered in the billions. Shotguns and habitat loss killed every last one by 1914. Heavy metals amassed by humans, some of them toxic, are capable of hanging on a long time in farming soil: zinc 3,700 years, cadmium 7,500 years, lead 35,000 years, chromium 70,000 years.

Uranium-235, several thousand tons of which we’ve used in our bombs and reactors, has a half-life of 704 million years, but U-238 (“depleted uranium”) holds on a bit longer — 4.5 billion years, which is possibly longer than there’s been life on Earth — and there’s at least a half million tons of it. Since it bursts into flames when it strikes things, depleted uranium makes dandy armor-piercing weapons, such as have been used in the Iraq War. Much of it also burns into a fine ceramic uranium dust that floats on the air and lodges in lungs.

A more positive recurring feature of the book is the parade of fine (and sometimes a little crazy) human beings who labor to preserve, fight back, and understand what is happening: naturalists, scientists, gamekeepers, journalists, and religious and political activists. Weisman introduces them, mentions what they do, and moves on, but the cumulative effect of meeting such do-gooders offers some comfort among all the dreary facts.

Unfortunately, while most haunted house stories end happily, or at least with some player surviving intact, most of the possible endings one might project from the developments described in this book are unpleasant and pretty final, at least where this species and life as we know it are concerned.

Weisman briefly surveys projects and ideas to extend or alter human methods of survival, but also notes that some folks view the situation from a different perspective altogether. Les Knight, founder of VHEMT, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, says, “By definition, we’re the alien invader. Everywhere except Africa. Every time Homo sapiens went anywhere else, things went extinct.”

Doug Erwin, an extinction expert whose specialty dictates the longer view, remarks, “I figure it’s interesting to be here now. I’m not going to get all upset about it.” Like the prospect of one’s own individual death, I guess it depends on how much you’re inclined to let it get to you.

This is a book that really could, just possibly, change the world if everybody read it.


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