Sunday, October 7, 2012
The World Without Us
Author: Alan Weisman
Genre: Science, environmental
Ever feel guilty about being a human?
Sometimes I have spurts of self-consciousness, and I start recycling for a week, or I make an honest attempt to use as little electricity as possible. I even pick up other people's trash off the street and apologize to seagulls about polluting their lake and taking their swamp to build a huge city on. But then, life gets back to me, and I'm busy being a person again, and by the time I remember my environmentally friendly aspirations, it's many months later.
In his hypothetical experiment The World Without Us, American journalist Alan Weisman poses the question of what would happen to the Earth if we all instantly vanished. If every human either kicked the bucket or was abducted to some extraterrestrial zoo in the space of an instant, what would happen to the great cities and monuments we've built? What would become of the blue planet that we call home?
Weisman begins with our cities and suburbs. With exquisite detachment, Weisman chats about falling roofs, dirt-filled swimming pools, cracked pavement, and crumpling houses as if he is discussing the weather over a cup of coffee. Nothing in our drywall-and-plexiglass neighborhoods will last more than a decade (except for the ceramic bathroom tiles, but those will be buried by sediment before long). The step-by-step breakdown of the towns and houses we feel so safe in today is a little bit unnerving, if methodically and casually told.
Next he addresses our cities. Nature will make short work of those, Weisman says-- cracked pavement, invading trees, crumbling stone facades, collapsing subways, and so on-- and before long, islands like Manhattan will be close to the natural woodlands that they were before the Dutch ever set foot there. Of course, some things will be different, but these are just projections from one of the humans that will be long gone by the time the Empire State Building is rubble.
However, once Weisman shifts into the next part of the book (the one about the environment) the feeling of wonder ceases. The tone of casual detachment vanishes for one vaguely tinged with accusation and derision, and the guilt sets in. One must wonder if Weisman is a self-hater, for all the negative voice that he directs at mankind, even if the facts are straight.
The guilt keeps pouring on throughout the rest of the book, and by the time you reach the chapter about polymers, you're begging for good news about yourself. Maybe there's one thing that humans have done to benefit this planet, you hope desperately. And sure enough, there is a chapter about creatures that would miss us. Bad news: they're cockroaches, lice, and bacteria. The cute creatures might or might have a party when we disappear.
On top of being an enormous guilt trip, the book is really strangely organized. The beginning flows neatly, the pieces lining up into a fluid narrative of a world after humanity, the story growing like the trees that it describes. After that, however, it falls apart into a chapter-by-chapter non-cohesive blurb of information, all of which is indelibly researched and sound, but poorly set up. Disappointing for such a good beginning, the readers sigh in relief by the time they reach the end.
Altogether, though, Weisman poses an interesting question. What are we doing to protect the earth that we love? The resources may be there for our benefit, but are we being good stewards of what we have? Management is just as important as productivity. Maybe if we all think a little harder about what we use, what we buy, and especially what we throw away, the Earth would miss us a little more on the day we disappear.
The History Channel is running an interesting series about the same topic, titled "Life After People." It's not affiliated with the book, but it just goes to show that now that the question has been raised, that nasty human attribute called curiosity has to explore it to its bitter end.
The World Without Us is available on the Kindle for $10.00, or in paperback for $10.20. After spending 26 straight weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, this book is available in most libraries, but if not, see if a friend has it. It's not one of those books you read for fun on the weekends, but it's definitely worth it for the thought that it provokes.