This is one of those books that appeared on my radar from time to time, gently nudging me until I eventually broke down and decided to read it. I was sceptical of how interesting a book could be when its premise is a world without … well, us. In hindsight, that seems like a silly way of thinking about this book, since the only way to envision the "world without us" is to first consider the impact we've had on the world.
And impact it we have. Alan Weisman carefully, painstakingly discusses the ways in which humanity has made its mark on the Earth. In some cases, such as modern cities, most art, and digital music, little vestiges will remain after a couple of hundred years. Other contributions of humanity, from bronze sculptures to the Statue of Liberty to isotopes from nuclear fallout, will remain much longer, extending into geological time. It's oddly comforting and disturbing to realize that we have permanently marked this planet.
Weisman covers a plethora of topics in this book, to the point that it's almost unwieldy. Reading this in only a few days was probably a mistake; in retrospect, it's the sort of book that benefits from a chapter read here and there over the course of a month. And this book is, in some ways, a crash course in human history. Before we can know where the Earth is going, with or without us, it's worth looking at where the Earth was before we arrived on the scene. Even if you're not that interested in the book's main proposition, Weisman's depictions of how human evolution and development have changed the planet are fascinating.
My favourite chapter concerned plastics and their eventual fate—grim, for the environment, according to Weisman. I'm young, so I take everything in this world for granted, including readily-available, omnipresent plastics in a variety of flavours and styles. So it's a reality check when Weisman points out that plastic is pretty much an artificial human invention. The polymers from which it's constructed are natural, but we've chained them together in synthetic ways, and we've only been doing it for about sixty years now. More to the point, all the plastic we've ever manufactured still exists (with the exception of a small cumulative amount destroyed when it's burnt). Where does the plastic go? We throw it away, and it lies in landfills, leaches into the water tables, ends up in the oceans . . . where it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of powder and gets taken up by even the tiniest sea creatures, who don't find it very healthy. And I knew, before reading this book, that carelessly wasting plastic and throwing it away wasn't a smart or environmentally-conscious attitude, but I didn't know exactly how plastics affected our environment.
Also a twentieth-century artifact, the atomic era has fundamentally changed our planet. Detonations from nuclear bombs and waste from nuclear reactors have released isotopes into the atmosphere that don't occur in nature. Some of these isotopes will remain long, long after we're gone, probably until the Earth itself gets swallowed by the expanding sun. As with the discussion about plastics, it's mind-boggling to think that we're forced to sit down and consider ways of labelling nuclear waste dumps so that people 100,000 years from now (or something that replaces us in that time) won't stumble into them.
I was less fascinated by the less permanent effects of our presence. Weisman's analysis of how modern cities like New York would hold up without human maintenance and activity didn't enchant me, but your mileage may vary. The same goes for the penultimate chapter about sea life … thematically and structurally, it brought the book back to the beginning, but it felt very stale. There's a great deal of literature about the unique biodiversity of the oceans, so I'm glad Weisman only re-tread that ground for a single chapter. Finally, the epilogue took on a weird, pseudo-spiritual tone probably designed as an appeal to pathos that I just found distracting. I don't need to hope for paranormal thought re-incarnation; for me, the beauty is in the science.
That beauty is manifest whether or not humanity exists. And let's face it: one day, we'll go extinct. It happens to the best of species. The best we can do is make the most of our situation, try to hang on for a while longer, and enjoy our time while it lasts. So why not take care of the planet? The World Without Us is mostly a thought experiment, with little "practical application." Obviously we won't be able to do anything to affect the world after we're gone.
So why bother with this book? Firstly, it gave me insight into what various scientists and experts do to study the world around us. There are people who devote their lives to studying plastic levels in the ocean or making sure that the New York subways don't flood (and I have a great deal more respect for them!). Secondly, it encourages us to think about our impact, not just on a massive climatic level—global warming is only a part of the problem—but on a systemic, component-based level.
Weisman clearly has strong feelings on what we need to do to strike a better balance, but the book itself is rather unbiased. It doesn't say we have to massively restructure society to bring it into harmony with nature. Weisman mentions some proposed solutions by various people and identifies certain practices that we still need to phase out (remember those nasty chlorofluorocarbons? Yep, still around). Overall, however, this isn't a book that advocates dumping your car and riding a bike; Weisman isn't telling you to stop using toilet paper.
Instead, The World Without Us is about environmental awareness in the truest sense of the word. Globalization has made human civilization so connected and complex that it's difficult for individuals to understand how their actions impact the planet. The food I eat may come from halfway around the world; the materials used to manufacture my desk or electronic devices or car were mined and processed and fabricated on every inhabited continent. The World Without Us offers a glimpse of the global chain reaction our consumption and production perpetuates. At times it's long-winded and disorganized … Weisman tends to repeat himself, and I admit I skimmed some of the chapters that I found less captivating. But that doesn't detract much from the quality of the book. It covers so much that there's bound to be one item that resonates you … and that's all it takes. While far from perfect, this is a thought-provoking read that I recommend to pretty much anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons.