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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Back to the future

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (September 27 2007)

The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman Virgin Books, 336 pages, GBP 20

It takes a lot to make us environmentalist writers turn green, if you'll excuse the pun. But every once in a while, someone who is not obviously from our camp comes up with an idea that is so lateral and clever, so powerfully evocative and masterfully executed that the only appropriate response is fervent envy. Such is my response to The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, an award-winning American journalist whose previous books involve topics as varied as the US border with Mexico, a sustainable village in war-torn Colombia, and his own family's tortured Jewish history.

The stated premise of this book is very simple: what would happen if humans disappeared overnight? This sets the stage for a fascinating exploration of the durability of human civilisation, and the natural landscapes on which it has been built. Manhattan Island, Weisman reveals, was once traversed by more than forty brooks and streams. If pumping systems in the subway ceased and the foundations of New York's skyscrapers began to corrode, in not too long a time Lexington Avenue would once again become a river, while deer might browse among the tall hardwood trees where Broadway once lay.

The odd discursion into structural engineering aside, the genius of this book lies in its fresh approach to some otherwise rather familiar environmental issues. In asking how quickly the earth might recover, once human beings vanished, Weisman needs to answer the question of how profoundly our species has altered the planet's natural biological systems - the classic environmentalist concern.

But rather than straightforwardly bemoaning the amount of plastic dumped in our seas, for instance, Weisman discusses how long it might take for microbes to evolve that would be able to biodegrade the artificially synthesised organic molecules in modern plastics. Rather than lament the destruction of almost the entirety of Europe's old-growth forest, he asks how long it might take for the remnant fragment of "wildwood" left in Poland to begin to recolonise abandoned farmland.

Instead of getting angry about genetic engineering, he explores how persistent the novel genes that humans have inserted into everything from fish to potatoes might be in situations where natural evolutionary pressures are restored. The subtext, while never explicitly addressed, is a profoundly moral one, exploring the human relationship with nature and our place on this planet: the true meaning of life.

Much of the book is based on first-hand field research, and Weisman's observational talents as a journalist are evident from the very first page. At one point we find him aboard a research vessel in the remote Pacific Line Island archipelago, surrounded by sharks. At another, he's in low-lying England, investigating recolonised agricultural land which was experimentally fenced off in the 1870s. The prose is vivid and lucid, every sentence carefully crafted.

Whereas most environmental books sag under the weight of their accumulated bad news, The World Without Us seems refreshingly positive. Yes, biodiversity has crashed and Mother Nature has been banished to the sidelines by the rapacious demands of industrial civilisation and an exploding human population; but once the pressure is eased, the earth quickly begins to bloom again.

This is probably the only place that I would quibble: not with the engaging optimism, but because Weisman possibly overemphasises the ephemeral nature of humanity's planetary impact. It is true that New York in a few centuries would revert to forest, and in a future ice age, a few tens of millennia hence, what is left of the Empire State Building and its companions would be ground to dust by the advancing glaciers.

But humanity is a profound geological force, and the earth can preserve even the most fragile markers for tens of millions of years. When imprints of fish scales and bird feathers survive in fossils over long spans of geological time, it is hard to believe that traces of humanity would not litter the planet pretty much for ever more. Some of our lasting legacy may get sucked down into subduction zones at the edges of plates and melted in the planet's hot mantle, but much of the rest - from fossilised laptops to a nutrient spike in ocean sediments - will survive for as long as the earth does. Like the rather longer Cambrian and Cretaceous, the Anthropocene will be one of the world's most transformative geological eras, as this book elegantly shows.


Mark Lynas is a climate change writer and activist, author of the acclaimed book High Tide (Tandem, 2004) and fortnightly columnist for the New Statesman. He was selected by National Geographic as an 'Emerging Explorer' for 2006, and blogs on

Bill Totten


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