Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I finished reading The World Without Us a month ago. Incredibly, every day something triggers a memory about something in the book. It stays with you. To imagine a planet without people, Weisman draws on virtually every realm of science from biology to astrophysics, not to mention a healthy dose of engineering, archeology, and social sciences. What would be the immediate consequences of our absence? Which man-made structures would last the longest? How long would it take for decimated animal populations to recover? Would another race of humans someday evolve?

On this speculative journey, the reader visits the New York subways, Houston's petrochemical plants, the "horse latitudes" where ocean trash languishes, the English birthplace of modern fertilizers, an Arizona nuclear power plant, and the radiation-poisoned -- but not lifeless -- area surrounding Chernobyl. Along the way, tour guide Weisman imparts fascinating tidbits. For example, when he describes how weather would break down the average house in the absence of a diligent homeowner, he notes that ceramic bathroom tiles will last the longest because they are chemically similar to fossils. Elsewhere, he describes how newspapers fill up landfills -- we think they break down quickly, but they last much longer buried without air or sunlight. While discussing the relative permanence of polymers, Weisman says "biodegradable" plastic bags don't really degrade completely; they just separate into minuscule particles of plastic. These plastic pieces do not break down, and they turn up in plankton and other small organisms.

Some Amazon.com reviewers claim the book says the world would be better off without us. Weisman never says that, however, so perhaps those people have guilty consciences. Also, science deniers need not apply -- evolution and global warming come up repeatedly.

The World Without Us is written in easy-to-understand language, which is important for a book that veers from chemical engineering to anthropology to oceanography. If the book has a flaw, I suppose it is its non-linear organization. Instead of a narrative moving from the present into a humanless world, the author jumps from topic to topic, shifting back and forth between now and the future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the environment and our role in it. It does all the things a great book should: it entertains, provides a lot of information, and makes the reader think.

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