by Chris Mackowski
The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman
Thomas Dunne Books–St. Martin’s Press
What would the world be like if the human race just up and vanished?
â€œUnlikely, perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible,â€ writes journalist Alan Weisman. Perhaps a human-specific virus wipes us out or aliens kidnap us or God raptures us away. Poofâ€”weâ€™re gone. Tomorrow.
Thatâ€™s the hypothetical premise behind Weismanâ€™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. â€œBack when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what youâ€™d also be paying so that nature wouldnâ€™t repossess it long before the bank,â€ Weisman says.
The insidious culprit behind most of it is plain old water, which finds a way â€œmysteriously, inexorablyâ€ 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. Itâ€™s everything youâ€™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 weâ€™ve already left will remain millions of years into the future.
In virtually every instance, thatâ€™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 surfaceâ€”one of six such masses in the worldâ€™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 Weismanâ€™s book so compelling, though, is the solid journalistic foundation itâ€™s built on. Weisman travels the world to do some excellent reporting. For that reason, itâ€™s impossible to dismiss The World Without Us as â€œa book for tree-huggers.â€ Itâ€™s real journalism that objectively explores serious environmental issues. Weisman never preaches.
Not that heâ€™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 isâ€”as thoughtful and thought-provoking as it isâ€”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.
â€œ[W]e donâ€™t get out of this life aliveâ€”and neither will the Earth,â€ Wesiman says.
In a stirring coda, â€œOur Earth, Our Souls,â€ 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 weâ€™re gone.
â€œWorldwide, every four days human population rises by 1 million,â€ he says. â€œSince we canâ€™t really grasp such numbers, theyâ€™ll wax out of control until they crash, as happened to every other species that got too big for this box.â€
â€œAbout the only thing that could change thatâ€¦is to prove that intelligence really makes us special after all,â€ Weisman continues. â€œThe intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test.â€
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 â€œpoignant and distressingâ€¦but not fatal.â€
On the other hand, by 2050 the earthâ€™s population will balloon to 9 billion peopleâ€”and there just arenâ€™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. Whatâ€™s even more startling is howâ€”and how soonâ€”it may end up that way.
Chris Mackowski is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University.