Archive for October 20th, 2007

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us ( 2007) by Alan Weisman is a book length exploration of what the earth would be like without human beings. Long story short, a whole lot better off. Weisman investigates the question by recreating what the world was like without humans, what has happened since our evolution and spread, vignettes of places that humans have abandoned for one reason or another, and theorizing what would happen to the world should we vanish. Weisman puts forward unlikely scenarios of how our species could vanish: a human-only virus, alien abduction, or the rapture. In all likelihood there is nothing that could wipe out the human race will leaving the rest of the world untouched. And since some of Weisman’s world without us scenarios demonstrate the unholy terror that will be unleashed by the things we’ve created without us there to manage them, perhaps it will be better if we stick around and try to figure out how to fix things up.

Here’s a quick summary of scenarios of Earth without her most invasive species:

  • Białowieża Puszcza forest in Poland and Belarus, the only old-growth forest remainig of what once stretched across Europe. Here animals like bison may still thrive if the border fence that prevents their breeding is removed.
  • Destroying a home is easy. Just cut an eighteen inch hole in the roof and then stand back.
  • A vision of New York City without us begins with the subway tunnels flooding. The freeze/thaw cycle breaks up roads and concrete and makes foundations crumble. Ailanthus trees take root everywhere. Fires break out and spread unchallenged. Expansion joints on bridges get clogged and the bridges collapse. Central Park will revert to marshland. Bronze statues and stone buildings will last the longest of human artifacts.
  • The western hemisphere once had a great number of megafauna such as the giant sloth. Weisman believes that overhunting by prehistoric peoples brought their end. As evidence he points out that only on Africa where animals and humans evolved together are there still large mammals afoot.
  • In Africa today, grazing animals are unable to migrate freely and thus overgraze land which turns it to desert. Parks surrounded by agriculture create two competing environments that don’t work together well. The plague of AIDS is starting to erase the human population and changing age-old settlement patterns.
  • Seaside hotels on Cyprus remain abandoned, overgrown, and crumbling since the war in 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Green Line, a no man’s zone between the two warring sides preserves remains of once-human habitats.
  • The sturdy remains of the underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey may be a long-lasting remnant of past (and future?) human habitation in a world without us.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade and may end up outlasting our species by millennia. They break down into smaller particles where they will continue to be a hazard to creatures and plants of the sea. Worse, today in the North Pacific Gyre is today a floating trash dump of plastics run off from land and carried to these doldroms where the trash accumulates.
  • The expansive “city” of petroleum refineries and chemical plants covering hundreds of square miles between Houston and Gavelston in Texas. This is one of those places that without human intervention is something of a time bomb that would explode and may never be cleaned up by natural process.
  • The world without farms. Rothamsted in England is a place where research in agriculture has been conducted since the mid-1800’s. This includes the Broadbalk and Geescroft Wildernesses where land has been allowed to simply revert to nature. Another place where the woods are regenerating is New England!
    • “Unlike almost anywhere else on Earth, New England’s temperate forest is increasing, and now far exceeds what it was when the United States was founded in 1776. Within 50 years of U.S. independence, the Erie Canal was dug across New York State and the Ohio Territory opened — an area whose shorter winters and loamier soils lured away struggling Yankee farmers. Thousands more didn’t bother to return to the soil after the Civil War, but headed instead into factories and mills powered by New England’s rivers — or headed west. As the forests of the Midwest began to come down, the forests of New England began coming back.” – p. 147
  • The fate of ancient and modern wonders of the world. 6 of the 7 ancient wonders are already gone with the pyramid at Khufu rapidly eroding. The Chunnel and the Panama Canal are equally doomed with human care, but Mount Rushmore will prevail.
  • The Korean demilitarized zone, like the Cypriot Green Line, is a place devoid of human presence where nature has rushed in to fill the void. Unfortunately, human encroachment on each side of the DMZ has prevented it from becoming the protected space some hope it to become.
  • Birds coexist with humans although many species have been wiped out by us as well (the dodo, the passenger pigeon, et al). Without us they would still collide with radio-transmission towers and power lines which kill millions of birds each year, at least until those things collapsed from inattention. The common housecat also slaughters songbirds for sport and without human care would continue to do so in places where cats would never have existed naturally.
  • Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps. You don’t really need to read this book to imagine what would happen to them in a world absent humans. Oddly, Chernobyl shows an example of wildlife returning to the land abandoned by people after the disaster there. Still, it’s hard to believe the world would recover so easily if all 400+ nuclear power plants melted down simultaneously and contaminated the earth.
  • The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement are people who’ve sworn to not reproduce and simply wish to convince everyone to voluntarily let our species die out. Reading their arguments they actually seem to have a point and are at least convincingly not crackpots.

Oddly it seems that humanity’s greatest achievements (skyscrapers, etc.) are the least permanent, while trash, plastic, and oil — the detritus of civilization — are the most permanent.
There’s a lot more in this book which makes for a thoughtful, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating read.

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