Saturday, January 31, 2009

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I liked this book because it is of the genre I call “science lite.” Not to disparage Weisman’s research or scholarship – anything but! This is an extremely well researched and well written book. It’s just a mile wide and an inch deep, like my other recent science-lite favorite A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Weisman asks the question “What would happen to the earth if people just disappeared?” To answer the question he consults architects, paleobiologists, petrochemists, ornithologists, marine biologists, and Zen Buddhists (along with many others). The short answer to his question is that in most cases the earth would be just fine, until it was eventually consumed by the sun about 5 billion years from now.

Some places would be very troubled for a long time: Parts of Texas would end up a poisonous hell-hole as the holding tanks and pipelines of the petrochemical plants disintegrated and released their toxins into the ground and the air. Ditto for the sites of the world’s 441 nuclear reactors.

But other parts of the world would quickly turn into paradise for the remaining inhabitants, whose populations would rebound quickly. Weisman uses as an example the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no-man’s land 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide which is now home to “wildlife that might otherwise have disappeared. Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, an endangered mountain goat….If everything north and south of Korea’s DMZ were suddenly to become a world without humans as well, they might have a chance to spread, multiply, reclaim their former realm, and flourish.”

Weisman examines earlier mass die-offs like the Permian Extinction, where 95% of all species perished, and more recent ones like the disappearance of the Mayan civilization. He visits places that people have abandoned for political reasons (Varosha, in Cyprus) and environmental reasons (the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) to see first hand what happens to towns that have no people.

A lot of the information in this book is depressing. Here’s one sobering fact: every bit of plastic that has ever been manufactured still exists. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade (okay, I knew that) it just gets ground up into smaller and smaller bits that eventually clog the digestive systems of animals like sea otters and marine birds. It fouls vast areas of the ocean and beaches. In the few days since I read this I have been trying hard to limit how much plastic I discard and I applaud my cafeteria at Grainger Hall at the University of Wisconsin for its move to biodegradable food packaging (made from what? Potato starch? Corn? I forget.)

Despite the pessimistic tone of a lot of this book, Weisman seems philosophical. He quotes extinction expert Doug Erwin, and so will I:

“Humans are going extinct eventually. Everything has, so far. It’s like death: there’s no reason to think we’re any different. But life will continue. It may be microbial life at first. Or centipedes running around. Then life will get better and go on, whether we’re here or not. I figure it’s interesting to be here now,” he says. “I’m not going to get all upset about it.”

Added later: Someone just steered me to this link: which provides tons of suggestions for reducing your plastic consumption.

(Book 4, 2009)


Meg89 said...

I enjoyed this book, although I had to take it back before I finished it. The good thing is, it's broken up into sections that allow you to do that, you don't miss the point by not getting to the end.

Becky Holmes said...

Right, and in fact, it kind of petered out at the end. I could have skipped the last chapter entirely.

Anonymous said...

I didn't get to finish this book either but I was fascinated, FASCINATED, by what would happen to the New York subways in a matter of days. Wild stuff, man.

Thanks for the review, and the reminder to try and get by with less plastic. I already try to do that but I must try harder.

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