Laura Hall-Schordje

Book Review

Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us.
New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007

What would happen to this planet if humanity was suddenly gone? This intriguing premise leads Weisman and the reader through a flight of imagination that ultimately reveals just how much environmental impact humans have, with surprising results.

Weisman begins with the dismantling of all things human. Homo sapiens has disappeared suddenly and completely, and our structures gradually follow. We constructed homes, and worked throughout the years to keep destructive elements like water out to preserve our buildings. Without us, the chimneys of our homes provide an entry point for the water that will eventually begin the deconstruction. Water erodes materials and provides a pathway for microbes to begin their work rotting wood and devouring the cellulose. Freezing water bursts pipes and begins more deconstruction. Animals colonize our buildings, plants break through their walls, air and water oxidize our metal structures, and eventually our homes return to nature. Oddly, our chimneys will usually be the last thing standing, until they, too succumb to the erosive effects of wind and water. (p. 17)

So, too, our cities slowly disappear. Water, again, is a force that erodes structures, flooding our subways and cracking roads, sidewalks, and even bridges in the freeze/thaw cycle of the seasons. Weisman takes the reader on a tour of the water pumping facilities beneath Manhattan, a constant process that barely keeps the underground tubes clear of water. Without people or power to operate the machines, these tunnels would soon fill with water, streets would collapse, and eventually the island would eventually return to its earlier watercourse state—with a river running down Lexington Avenue. (pp. 24-26) Plants would take root in the new soil created as no humans clean out gutters, rake leaves, or pick up branches in the park, soil which is fed and nourished by fires from lightning strikes. Animals and plants thrive or disappear, depending on their connection with humans. Weisman speaks of the ubiquitous cockroach, which will die out without humans around to heat buildings in the freezing winters of New York, and the rat, which will starve without our trash to eat. Native species will battle for food and space with those we have introduced to the city environment—ornamental plants, pets, zoo animals and those unintended creatures that ride in our shipments or travels from other countries. Weisman explains these changes in small stories of specific organisms in specific niches, speculating which ones will thrive when people no longer impact the environment, and describing the wild plants growing and blooming all over what was once a paved city. Weisman estimates New York would be a wilderness again in just a few hundred years, and it would be beautiful. (pp. 27-28)

Weisman then travels back in time, looking at the environment before it was impacted by humans, a time far back in human history. He speculates over the fact that the large animals of ancient North America died out due to human impact, based on the Blitzkrieg theory that humans entering various continents had a similar impact. These species did not evolve along with humans, learning to defend against them as their cousins on the African continent did. North America shows evidence of human manipulation from long ago, including grasslands created by the repeated burning of forest by indigenous peoples. The pristine environment “discovered” by European explorers was not one that was natural, that is, without impact by humans. (pp. 58-63)

Weisman goes on to explore what human made items will last, and what will not. Buried structures, like the underground city at Cappadocia, may survive. Cheaply built homes will not. An unexpected survivor of human origin may well be the plastic polymers we dump into our environment. Plastic may break into smaller and smaller pieces by the action of air and waves, but these tiny pieces remain. Plastic is a growing problem in the ocean, floating in the water and being consumed by various creatures unable to digest them, and killing animals as they slowly increase the amount of inert plastics in their bodies. The impact of our farms spreads across the globe to places we did not expect and for a longer time than we expect. The traces of persistent organic pollutants—POPs—like DDT and PCBs do not seem to be degrading, and are turning up in places like the Arctic and Antarctic. (p. 159) Taken up and returned to the environment by plants that do not have the capacity to break them down, these POPs will continue in the earth’s environment much longer than any human anticipated. Weisman similarly compares the impact of human triumphs we hoped would last, as in the seven wonders of the world, and the Panama Canal. The engineering feats we boast of will not last, as in the Panama Canal, held together by continuous maintenance and pumping. The seven wonders are gone. But in an unexpected twist that shows how humans cannot anticipate all the ramifications of their actions, Weisman looks at the demilitarized zone between the North and South Korea, heavily mined and free of most human encroachment for nearly 60 years. This area has become a bird and wildlife sanctuary, creating an undisturbed home for many of the rarest bird species on the planet. Despite the result of war’s death and destruction, war and land mines have created people-free zones on areas of the planet that allow nature to have some undisturbed places for return. (pp. 183-185)

Perhaps no study of human environmental impact would be complete without examining our use of nuclear power, and the author does just that. Weapons left without human warriors are not a threat—they need a powerful impact to be set off, and they will not be much of a threat to the environment. But Weisman looks at the 441 nuclear power plants we will leave behind. Without humans maintaining and cooling them, and with “uranium fuel, which takes 704 million years to lose just half its radioactivity” (p. 212), these power plants will melt down or explode, depending on where they are in their fuel cycles, leaving a “hot legacy” (p. 201).

Human expression in art may well survive far into the future as well. The author explores what art will last—paintings no, sculptures of the noble metals, yes—but what may survive longest of all may be our television waves beaming out into the universe. Weisman traces an episode of “I Love Lucy” from its broadcast in 1953 through its travels away from earth. It will leave our galaxy in 2450 AD, and continue into intergalactic space. (p. 253) Weisman looks at the human efforts to contact other life using our images and our music, and sees a lasting impact in the idea of our laughter being beamed across the universe to other life.

Finally, Weisman looks at the oceans of our planet, which he deems the cradle of human life. Again, we see how human impact fouls the oceans with our trash, which circles in a gyre in parts of the ocean that begins to resemble a large trash heap. He contrasts this with stories of the complexities of the coral reef and the symbiotic relationships of living beings there, relationships humans are only beginning to understand because they do not resemble the relationships of creatures on land: many predators like sharks bring more diversity to the reef, not vice versa.

Weisman sums up his book with a short chapter that states the need to limit human population by slowing down our replacement rate. Limiting our numbers would limit our impact on the planet, and allow it to recover. The reduction in numbers would mean a more guaranteed survival for all, as we could deal with issues of hunger and land, and reduce the impact of our species. He concludes with talk of prayer—that our minds transmit waves like those from our televisions that beam through space, waves that we can focus, and “make things happen.” (p. 274) The humans absent from the earth, he suggests, could find their way back.

When I first heard the title of this book, The World Without Us, I expected a polemic against humanity, a celebration of the absence of human beings from the earth. Weisman’s book is no such polemic. Instead, it draws you in at the wonder of both the world and this species called homo sapiens. The author looks at humans and their effects on nature with affection for both. After all, humans are part of nature and part of the world. When I began reading I began with some knowledge of science, nature, and how humans impact the environment. But Weisman explores just how vulnerable we are to our environment in ways I never understood before, and the science knowledge he shares is astounding in its depth and breadth. In his examination of the interconnected complexity of all life he reminds us that we are interacting with nature every day in ways we may not realize. The simple act any homeowner faces, like trying to keep something like mold from growing in our bathroom, puts us in a contest with geologic and evolutionary forces. Wind may drive water into a chink in our home’s armor. That water trickles and breaks down surfaces as it has done for millions of years. The breakdown of those surfaces makes those surfaces hospitable for single celled organisms like mold, who thrive on the moist environment. Each day, we fight against forces that shaped us and made us and the world around us as we try to make the world suit our needs. We are painted as beings in a contest for our survival still, even if the contest is not against large predators that will eat us, but against the tiniest creatures that will break down our careful work almost sight unseen.

If any creature is the star in Weisman’s book, it is the single-celled organism. These small creatures and plants will be the saviors of much of the planet, evolving to consume or break down the byproducts of human occupancy on the planet. It is the single celled organism that Weisman sees cleaning up our oil spills, and, hopefully, eventually learning to break down plastics less complex than the lignin in wood they have already evolved to break down. (pp. 127-128) Humans and bacteria evolved together in a symbiotic relationship, and the 200 or so varieties that we host would be the most likely creatures on the planet to live without us. (pp. 235-236)

I believe one could argue the descriptions of dismantling our finest—often read “largest”—creations by natural forces and tiny organisms is a criticism of human pride. Humans are being reminded we are not the pinnacle of creation but a part of it, and the things we build are fleeting in the great span of geologic time. But I believe Weisman does so with compassion for the human he talks about. We dream big dreams and make big plans, but in a very short amount of time, our cities will return to wilderness. But the author reminds us that our buildings may be compressed into bands of copper or iron ore that a future being may find and mine for use. Evidence of our existence will not disappear, but be returned to a natural state. He invites us to see ourselves, even removed from this planet, as part of a continuing cycle of life.

At the same time, I believe Weisman sees us as more powerful than we understand, to the detriment of nature. Our actions sometime outstrip our abilities to anticipate just what unintended effects our actions will have on the future of our planet. Even our actions in trying to do what might be environmentally correct can come back and haunt us, as when There are cautionary tales in looking into big scale projects to solve the problems of earth. I believe that is why Weisman ultimately suggests we simply reduce our numbers on the earth. Our impact is too big, and has been from the earliest human history. With our big brains and inventiveness, we are bound to continue to have a big impact on any ecosystem we live in. The only way to limit it is to keep us in balance by number.

Despite the many stories Weisman shares in his book about poisons in the air, water and land, about the residues of our nuclear proliferation, the indelible marks we have made on the earth, it is this “only case” scenario that I found discouraging. Perhaps it is because I read The World Without Us with the hopefulness of someone who recycles and reuses, gardens organically, and tries to reduce her carbon footprint. I would like to believe that there is a solution that humans can arrive at, that perhaps we can stay our population at current levels and find technologies that will keep our planet with our presence stable. Weisman sees no such scenario for humans on earth. His suggestion is that only by reducing our number can we reduce our impact on the planet, an action actively promulgated by groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and the transhumanist movement. (pp. 241-243) I can understand his reasoning, but I am not willing to agree that this is the only solution to human impact on nature.

First of all, the actions of humans in the past have shown we tend to fill any niche we can, something that allowed us to evolve as we did and can’t be turned off simply by will. I would argue that even if one or several generations decided to voluntarily reduce our numbers, there is no guarantee that the future humans would not soon forget what happened, or be convinced they could learn from our mistakes, and go on to fill our planet with vast numbers of people all over again. If we all were possessed with such a will to save our planet as a race, I believe that modest reductions in our birthrates—something we can accomplish by increasing food to the hungry and health care to the ill to ensure survival and working to find effective contraception—coupled with the desire to live more simply might accomplish the same effect. The choice is how shall we live: much as we do now, but with fewer people? Or more simply and sustainably? I think Weisman looks at numbers as our answer, but I argue that it cannot be our only answer for the long-term.

But this book is one I am very glad to have read. Weisman does tell an important story, and it is not a linear story. We do not begin with the destruction of our homes and finish with the restoration of our planet by our disappearance. Weisman weaves a tale of probabilities and possibilities. In response to A, B may happen, but given changes to the water, to the atmosphere, whether global warming will continue, or whether water will creep or flow, or whether one’s feathers are light or dark, the outcome may be C, or even D. I believe this format allows us to see the big picture of the complexity of interactions between living creatures and nature, but also allows us to look at the issues individually to increase our understanding. The story of Chernobyl is one such example. We can look at all the issues of nuclear power, we can weigh them in theory, but we also need to look at the story of that wasted place as someone’s home. It is the home of wildlife, already adapting to their shorter lifespans by maturing and reproducing earlier. (p. 217) We need to understand that even humans will creep back into this poisoned place, because they long for home. (p. 218) We can intellectually grasp the big picture with our big brains, but it takes these small, personal stories for us to grasp it with our emotions, to take it to heart, and to act. Therefore, this is not a “how to save the planet in 50 ways” book, teaching us everything will be okay if we only use the right light bulb or the right grocery bag, or drive the right car. Weisman offers us a much more complex understanding of the problem in focus on the macro and micro pictures of what is happening, has happened, and can happen to our planet. I found this book difficult to put down once I started, and I would heartily recommend it.