Book: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Entertaining if you come at it right

Alan Weisman
The World Without Us
St. Martin's Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34729-1
ISBN-10: 0-312-34729-4
275 pages (main text)

Disclosure: I am a friend of this book's author.

The World Without Us is about what might happen to the Earth if all the humans on it suddenly vanished. Perhaps even more than with most books, whether you enjoy reading it depends on what you're looking for in it.

If you're looking for consistent science with all its detail and acknowledgment of uncertainty, you're likely to be disappointed. Equally, if you're looking for a useful environmental call to action, you're not likely to find it. There are plenty of environmental complaints, but no practical solutions proposed. But if you're looking for something like a ghost story for summer entertainment and you don't mind that the narrative is a bit disconnected here and there, The World Without Us is a fine book.

Alan looks at small and large matters in the book's 19 chapters (plus a sort of afterword he calls a coda). He starts out with a few pages on a patch on ancient forest that remains in Europe and then moves on to how a house that's not maintained will eventually be reclaimed by nature. Then there's a chapter about what's likely to happen to whole cities if they're abandoned. The book has sections on past and future extinctions likely caused by humans and what soft of animals might fill unoccupied niches if humans weren't around. And there's also a good bit of the book about plastic. Plastic is engineered to be durable because that's what you generally want. But it does cause a problem when the plastic is somewhere that you don't want it, such as an ocean reef or blocking the digestive tract of some tiny sea creature. The book is a bit miscellaneous, but if that doesn't bother you, there are some interesting things here.

Alan visits some places that have been abandoned by people (the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plants and a part of the divided island of Cyprus among others) and finds that life is resilient. It returns to remarkably inhospitable places. There are a few photos in the book from those places, but more photos to go with Alan's descriptions would have been interesting to see.

Alan's prose style is engaging, but it's also a bit misanthropic. For example, I have no real objection to his defining the world before humans as pristine (though I suspect that it was a bit messy), but those references often shade into ones that suggest that it was Edenic, which nature red in tooth and claw surely wasn't. Still, there's a post-apocalyptic ghost story here that's a fun read.

Posted: Thu - August 23, 2007 at 05:44 PM   Main   Category: