Can the Earth survive?: Weisman's The World Without Us

by Chris Mackowski

The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman

Thomas Dunne Books–St. Martin’s Press
324 pp.

What would the world be like if the human race just up and vanished?

“Unlikely, perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible,” writes journalist Alan Weisman. Perhaps a human-specific virus wipes us out or aliens kidnap us or God raptures us away. Poof—we’re gone. Tomorrow.

That’s the hypothetical premise behind Weisman’s newest book, The World Without Us.

But while the premise sounds fanciful, Weisman offers nothing but cold, hard facts and a gnawing gut feeling that something is already dreadfully, dreadfully wrong.

The book starts out with a fascinating look at how houses deteriorate, how cities crumble, how bridges fall. “Back when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what you’d also be paying so that nature wouldn’t repossess it long before the bank,” Weisman says.

The insidious culprit behind most of it is plain old water, which finds a way “mysteriously, inexorably” into everything given enough time. Water has the power to corrode and erode and wash things clean away.

Throughout the first quarter of the book, the world wears away in such fashion. Weisman talks to scientists, engineers, ecologists, and an assortment of other experts, building his case on well-known, well-documented fact and experience. It’s everything you’d want in a Discovery Channel special.

In those first few chapters, the planet without us sounds peaceful and bucolic, but Weisman is really just lulling readers into a false Eden. The remaining three-quarters of the book shows the terrible impact humanity has already had on the planet and how, if our species were to blink away, the footprint we’ve already left will remain millions of years into the future.

In virtually every instance, that’s not a good thing.

Take plastic, for example. Every particle of plastic ever manufactured still exists somewhere in the environment. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a mass of plastic debris the size of Texas clutters the ocean surface—one of six such masses in the world’s oceans. Millions of tons lay buried underground. No one knows how long it will take for any of that plastic to biodegrade.

What makes Weisman’s book so compelling, though, is the solid journalistic foundation it’s built on. Weisman travels the world to do some excellent reporting. For that reason, it’s impossible to dismiss The World Without Us as “a book for tree-huggers.” It’s real journalism that objectively explores serious environmental issues. Weisman never preaches.

Not that he’d need to. The scientific data speaks loudly for itself, leading readers from incredulity to dread to despair. Make no mistake, as vital as this book is—as thoughtful and thought-provoking as it is—The World Without Us is not for the weak of heart. Most readers will hardly be able to believe the precarious condition our planet is really in.

“[W]e don’t get out of this life alive—and neither will the Earth,” Wesiman says.

In a stirring coda, “Our Earth, Our Souls,” Weisman links the post-human world to the post-world human, touching on the religious implications of the world without us. He smartly avoids any long theological discussions by taking a broader approach that examines the ethical implications of what our presence on the planet now will mean once we’re gone.

“Worldwide, every four days human population rises by 1 million,” he says. “Since we can’t really grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as happened to every other species that got too big for this box.”

“About the only thing that could change that…is to prove that intelligence really makes us special after all,” Weisman continues. “The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test.”

In other words, if everyone knew what scientists all around the world already know and what Weisman has written about, and if everyone applied that knowledge, we could save the earth. Such a solution, he says, would be “poignant and distressing…but not fatal.”

On the other hand, by 2050 the earth’s population will balloon to 9 billion people—and there just aren’t enough resources on the planet to support that kind of population. The planet only seems big, and resources only seem endless, but the human race is careening toward a hard, abrupt lesson about sustainability and the finite nature of nature.

The World Without Us will be a startling place, Weisman suggests. What’s even more startling is how—and how soon—it may end up that way.

Chris Mackowski is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University.

9 replies »

  1. er, I think you’ve got an ‘m’ where you wanted a ‘b’ in that second-to-last paragraph. Interesting post, though.

  2. It’s an excellent book. I got it for my birthday and it’s already passed through quite a few hands…i look forward to it returning to my shelf.

    My only critique is that Weisman didn’t spend enough pages working the interesting thought experiment of the world without us. I’m not suggesting that the passages on plastic, for example, are without worth…they are worthwhile and interesting. Perhaps the book needed to be a few hundred pages longer.

  3. In recent years, I’ve been marveling at how limiting population growth has dropped out of public discourse. The hard right and fundamentalists have Americans convinced that if they don’t breed, they’ll be over-run by Mexicans and Muslims.

    Young married couples need to take a moment to try to imagine the world to which they’re condemning their children to live — simply by dint of having those children (or more than one, at any rate).

  4. I agree jackpine, I could have read several hundred more pages. His descriptions of paradises lost alone is worth the price of the book.
    Nearly twenty years ago we made a conscious decision to have only one child and to raise her with deep respect for the earth and nature. She’s going one better than us and will only adopt a child. We’ve been very free with information similar to what is in the book. We’ve seen ourselves how quickly the earth and nature can heal itself after humans have left it alone. Amazing stuff, actually.

  5. A couple of things.

    Russ – population growth has fallen out of public discourse in some places, true, but I know a lot of “child free” folk who have chosen not to have children because of population growth reasons or because of the number of unloved children who need families, either foster kids or orphans. There’s a lot of blame to go around, though, on why it fell off most people’s radar.

    I haven’t read the book, but Scientific American did an article on it a few issues back, and I found it quite different in tone from the review above. Now, it’s SciAm, so they focused on the science of what hung around (the longest-lasting thing appeared to be bronze, which I just don’t get….) instead of the damage that was done. One of the things to remember, though – humanity is not capable of killing off the Eart. All our toxins, plastics, wastes, etc. will last a long time, but they won’t end all life on the earth, even if we end up being responsible for a Permian-level major extinction. Life will still survive, albeit in a radically different form than it is now.

    The planet will be fine over the long run, with or without us. We should do all the healthy, environmental things in order to improve the odds that planet will be fine with us instead of without us.

  6. How very well said, Brian. The idea of destroying the Earth/life is one thing that sticks in my craw about some environmentalists. I’ve long believed it to be an ego issue. We are but a piece of a very large (likely infinite) puzzle.

    This issue is probably why i enjoyed the provocative thought experiment of humans simply vanishing more than the environmental exhortations.