The World Without Us is non-fiction, but it is the stuff of sci-fi. It’s a thoroughly researched, well thought out “What If?” – and it’s a real page-turner.
Alan Weisman walks the reader through what would happen (to his best extrapolation) on Earth if the entire human population was suddenly gone. He does a great job of presenting his best guess at what would happen and then explaining why. Weisman is remarkably thorough, too – he covers what would happen to our cities, our farmlands, our soil, the sea, plant and animal populations (domestic to endangered), oil fields, and nuclear power plants.
Despite the topic, which can be boiled down to “all humanity is gone, and the Earth heaves a sigh of relief – and then recovers,” the book is remarkably hopeful. Weisman is very clear that the planet isn’t in danger. The plant’s going to be around for a LONG time. Period. The environment is going to be around for a long time, too – it’s just a question of the state it’ll be in.
It was remarkable to read about just how fast our cities would be reclaimed by nature. I’ll readily admit that I’m a bit of a sucker, but Weisman’s reasoning seemed extremely sound to me. For example, in an early chapter, he discusses New York City’s subways and the roll they’d likely play in the city’s decent back into nature. Apparently, there is a small army of people that spends their waking lives keeping water from retaking the subway – that every time it rains in NYC, the subway system is in danger of being flooded. If those people were no longer there… well, like Weisman says, Water Street is called Water Street for a reason. It’d be underwater very, very quickly. And there’s nothing as benign and destructive as water – particularly in areas (like NYC) that have a freeze-thaw cycle. (If you’re not familiar with the freeze-thaw cycle and what it can do, here’s the reader’s digest version: water gets into cracks of asphalt, concrete, rocks, etc, the weather turns cold, the water freezes and expands, pushing the cracks out further and damaging the asphalt, concrete, rock, etc, then the water thaws. The process happens again and again until the hard material is nothing but broken up bits. Water is incredible, isn’t it??)
The World Without Us is wide-reaching – it doesn’t just discuss what would happen in the US. He discusses environments around the world and effects of human activity in nearly every corner of the globe. And yet it’s readable, accessible, and utterly fascinating.
The one real downer was his discussion of the world’s nuclear power plants and nuclear waste. Weisman almost casually discusses the likely meltdown of the power plants and the likely resultant spewing of deadly material into the atmosphere…material likely to continue being radioactive longer than the planet is likely to be around. Resigned might be a better word than casual. Personally, the very idea of 441 nuclear power plants melting down inspires me to run in circles almost comically yelling “OMG, we’re all gonna die” praying that I’d improbably turn into something that would care less about it…possibly a sofa… a la Douglas Adams. That Weisman can calmingly regard the possibility of massive nuclear meltdown shows that he’s really committed to his theoretical “all humanity is gone” experiment. No point in panicking if we’re all already history, right?
I’m pleased to report that The World Without Us does provide a plan to make sure that the world DOESN’T have to go on without our presence. Unfortunately, there’s no way in hell the plan would work. You’d never get buy in from the entire human population of this planet to limit the birth rate – specifically, one child per woman until the population settles back down to a more comfortable two billion. It’s a little frightening to think about, but Weisman’s undercurrent seems to be that if we opt to not voluntarily cut back our numbers, nature will do it for us. There will come a time when all our technology and know-how will simply not be enough to sustain our growing numbers. Truth really does hurt…
Still, The World Without Us is a great read. I’ve been reading a book called the Unnatural History of the Sea at the same time – a GREAT book to read in tandem with The World Without Us. I’ll review it as soon as I finish it, but I do recommend reading both at the same time… one one right after the other if you’re not into having multiple books going. 😉
PS – If you’re wondering what happened to Book 16… The review will be published on The Internet Review of Books sometime this month, I think. When it is, I’ll link to it, in Book 16’s post.