Title: The World Without Us
Author: Alan Weisman
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007
Every once in a while I encounter a book so important I feel it should be turned into required reading for everyone. This is one of those books. In answer to the question, “What would happen to the world if humanity were to disappear”, Weisman takes us on an exploration of the planet and the pressures under which its ecologies exist all thanks to our species.
This book was recommended as part of my research for a novel I’m writing, but I very quickly forgot this was supposed to be research, and got sucked into the somewhat depressing realisation of exactly how badly the human races has mucked up the planet.
Weisman has taken a very broad view, speaking to a vast collection of scientists and discussing how such magnificent cities such as New York would handle even a few years of neglect, down to the European and American forests, and how quickly these would reclaim the land. Very soon readers realise that mankind’s physical imprint in concrete and metal wouldn’t last very long and, in fact, would fall down and be covered in soil within a few hundred years.
Not so impermanent, however, are our plastics. From the tiny specks ingested by molluscs to the giant patches of plastic garbage floating in our seas, these man-made substances don’t just conveniently go away. Many have a long-term impact on the environment.
Equally frightening is the issue of our nuclear reactors. Even one the size of Chernobyl has had a disastrous impact on the landscape. Now imagine all the world’s reactors melting down within a short space of time. Not a pretty picture.
Weisman also looks at megafaunal extinctions in a way I hadn’t previously considered, and gives a clue as to why Africa still has its megafauna largely intact. For now. He also suggests why ancient South American civilisations faded—a dire warning to contemporary society with its love of bling.
Not only does he look toward the earth, but Weisman also casts his eye toward space, discussing a number of the probes that have been sent out, and also the probability of any sign of us being discovered by possible sentients in the galaxy and beyond.
Weisman ends this account with a visit to the coral reefs, and with more than enough disquieting observations that all point accusatory fingers back at us and the way we’ve ruined this planet.
These are just a few of the topics upon which Weisman touches, but I stepped away from this book with a new appreciation for exactly how impermanent mankind is. If we were to somehow succeed in wiping ourselves out, life will go on without us. An important fact we need to understand is that life on this planet is dynamic. Nothing stays the same. At times in the past there have been great extinctions, from which a diverse multitude of living organisms rebounded. If we were to be the catalyst for another extinction (which is not unlikely) life would find a way to adapt and, eventually, once again proliferate.
Our time, as a species, is so incredibly brief compared to what has passed, and possibly that which is yet still to come to pass once we’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs. All this will end. But we, as a species, need to come to our senses, and fast, lest we hit our evolutionary dead end far sooner than intended.