World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
We just finished reading and discussing The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, for the Twenty-something Readers book club. Here’s a book with a fantastic idea, chock full of fascinating questions and observations, that unfortunately lacks organization and any semblance of what would be described as a smooth read, which is really too bad because it could have been a fine book. Although the book is a work of nonfiction, it is built on the premise that humans have simply vanished from the earth. It does not indicate, or matter, how we vanished, but we have. The question becomes, what will happen to the earth and everything that is left in our absence? This sounded really cool to me, and apparently to many television producers as well, as both National Geographic and History Channel have features on this topic, and the History Channel also has a whole series based on this idea.
The problem with the book is it reads more like a series of short essays on different aspects of the earth, be it certain animals, like birds, or certain geographical locations, like Chernobyl, or the Texas Oil Patch. Each one in itself is pretty cool, well most of them are, but there is no coherence in the order. They are not put together chronologically, as the History Channel video is organized- 1 year after humans, 10 yrs, 100 yrs, etc. - nor is the reader given a sense of why the author bounces around at will, despite the fact that there are four “sections” to the book. And the book needs a nice trimming, 350 pages (paperback version) is just too long for his writing style. If this had clocked in at 200 pages, we might have a real winner.
The writing is clunky, but not so much in a textbook sense or dry sense, but more of a sense of just bad structure and flow, probably much like my writing here, although I guess I would never pass myself off as a “writer,” more of a hack. I found myself rereading parts trying to understand what he was saying, again, probably like you may be doing now.
Now, despite all this whining, after finishing the book I found it to be a fascinating topic. When we selected this book, almost all the reviews hailed this as an excellent read, and none mentioned its awkwardness or lack of organization. If the reader were to go into the book with this in mind, and be ok with skimming over parts, they will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of things included in The World Without Us that we never ponder in our day to day lives, for we never realize they are going on. Some of the topics include: descriptions about nuclear waste and disposal, the building of the Panama Canal, wildlife in the DMZ between North and South Korea, the history of fertilizer in the US, theories of extinction of megafauna, how New York City and all its skyscrapers and subway systems would relatively quickly disappear without us, and how future civilizations or beings may judge us based on what remains of our civilization.
A couple more nuggets which may entice you: There is a part about how birds have magnetite particles in their heads which help to operate homing devises that keep them safe in inclement weather. In bad weather the device tells them to go towards light at night, like the moon. In today’s age a problem arises with electric towers. The lights on the towers wreak havoc on the birds’ homing system, drawing them into the towers and tangling them in the wires. I found this whole scenario of nature colliding with technology to be interesting, and I must admit while driving around I now look at the towers and birds quite differently.
Another mind blowing fact was that many former nuclear waste sites are now Natural Wildlife Refuges. One former site, Rocky Flats, near Denver, was such a site. It was eventually shut down by the FBI after it was discovered that numerous safety gaps were occurring. In one such example, drums of oil saturated with plutonium and uranium were leaking, and in an effort to cover this up, workers simply poured asphalt over the evidence! In a movie this would be pretty funny, but this was the U.S. government.
Some have said this work is a bleak look at the future. I would disagree, I thought it was an uplifting alternative to the doom and gloom environmentalists. Weiss speaks with tons of experts and most seem to indicate if we were to disappear then the earth would, in due time, and not without difficulty, manage to fix itself. They point to the Ice Ages that have started the earth anew, and the ability of plants and animals to adapt to new environments. Most of our man-made structures would disappear, although I did not realize Mount Rushmore may be one of the longest lasting remnants of our stay here. Even that pesky problem of plastic might just be ok. The book contends that the problem with plastic is that even if it becomes torn and weathered and exposed to the elements and disintegrates, it still stays around forever at the microscopic level. Although at some point it gets eaten by microbes, it is never totally broken down. Scientists seem to think that at some point in the future, be it millions of years, some microbe or organism will evolve that has the ability to eat and totally breakdown the plastic particles. And that is something to chew on.