Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

Harper Collins, 311 pages, $32

Reviewed by Liam Brennan, Volunteer Staff

The Manitobian Online (September 12 2007)

What if the unimaginable occurred and Earth was suddenly devoid of human beings? What would happen to everything mankind has worked so hard to sustain? And what effects will our existence have had on the environment? After extensive research and consultation with expert scientists, Alan Weisman, an award-winning environmental sciences author, provides an astounding look at what the world was like prior to humanity and prophesizes about what it might be like long after we are gone. Weisman begins with New York, explaining how a common household would break down, beginning with water seepage around the chimney. Rodents, squirrels, birds, lizards and numerous other animals would quickly chew their way through the drywall and exterior. Rain and snow would eventually make their way into the house, rotting the wood and causing mold buildup. Fifty to 100 years later, the roof collapses in on itself as the trusses begin to bend.

As nature eventually reclaims the remaining scrap piles, the New York City subway system is rapidly falling apart. With no maintenance workers to unclog drains during a thundershower, water builds up in the train tunnels.

Soon enough, streets begin to crater, as steel columns corrode and "Lexington Avenue caves in, becoming a river". Nature is taking over where humans left off, attempting to return to its former state.

From there, Weisman travels around the globe to discover the inevitable future of humanities creations. Abandoned hotels in formerly troubled Cyprus, the Korean demilitarized zone, and even Chernobyl act as prime examples of what will happen when nature is left to thrive. Though the concept may seem complicated at first, readers will soon find their imaginations enthralled by Weisman's bold predictions and the evidence used to back them up.

As wild an idea as it seems, dwarf elephants the size of border collies, beavers the size of grizzly bears and cow-sized sloth are just a few of the former inhabitants of the planet. These creatures, along with countless numbers of others, have long since evolved into modern day forms or gone extinct due to our constant pursuit of nature. The remnants of our destructive society may again overwhelm many species and destroy ecosystems.

Weisman claims that plastic granules from bathroom products, such as shampoo bottles, are flowing down drains and into the ocean where, "they are swallowed by little sea creatures". While no plastics would be produced in a world without humans, Weisman speculates that we have already created such a massive amount that underwater organisms will be forced to deal with it indefinitely.

A look at the way in which plastics, polymers, and even newspapers in garbage dumps contaminate the Earth, gives instant credibility into the idea of finding alternative means for production in everyday life. However, the question remains as to what lasting effect these materials will have on the planet, as they have not yet been around long enough for us to thoroughly understand how they break down over time. With the world becoming increasingly more aware of greenhouse gases and global warming, this book provides a fantastically detailed and thought provoking glimpse at the precise effect humans are having on the Earth. By presenting environmental science in a straightforward and user-friendly approach, this book allows readers to clearly understand the perils facing the planet today and the opportunity to go green in their own lives. While we cannot know for certain what will happen in our absence, Weisman believes that "the only real prediction you can make is that life will go on. And that it will be interesting."

Bill Totten


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