Oct 1, 2013

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

Imagine humanity suddenly vanished from the earth. Wiped out by a virus, raptured up, abducted by aliens, whatever. How would the Earth recover? Would it, at all? How long would the effects of changes we have wrought here last, how long would edifices we had built remain (perhaps for future intelligences to discover and puzzle over)? Weisman explores all these questions in detail, including the variables between how things would differ if we had time to turn stuff off before we disappeared. In the process, he makes very clear how terrible the things we have done are, and thus it became one of those books that both fascinated, educated and absolutely horrified me.

I learned about vast storage spaces underground (some dug into salt domes!) that harbor extremely toxic and volatile waste. I learned about how huge the explosions and radioactive fires would be if our chemical production and nuclear energy plants were suddenly unmanned. How quickly the subterranean transport systems around the world would flood, how the tweaking we have done with animal and plant genetics would spread (or not) through biological gene pools. I have a new loathing of plastics, now. I never again want to purchase a plastic product that cannot be recycled onto something else. Because plastics are not part of nature. They break down smaller and smaller until you cannot even see them, but they never biodegrade. This means that in the ocean, the little plankton and microscopic filter-feeders are dying of constipation when they eat teensy plastic bits. And what happens when the base of the ocean's food chain ALL DIES? I am horrified. I think we should worldwide quit creating any new plastics right now and only reuse what is extant. My kids? I am buying them no more plastic toys, unless they are obviously recyclable. Wood, cardboard, even metals are fine. NO PLASTICS! *

I do have a new fondness for copper and sculpture, by the way. I have always been fond of copper, it's my favorite metal (um, how many other people have a favorite mineral?) And I've always liked sculpture, but now that I know that bronze will far outlast (thousands of years) all the paintings in the world, my appreciation for this art form is even more heightened. Parts of this book are even encouraging. The sum conclusion is that even though we have overburdened and contaminated and poisoned and denuded our beloved Earth, it will eventually recover. Life will survive, even if we don't, and become something new and interesting again.

And all that is just barely scratching the surface. Read this book!! It has given me so much to think about and bolstered my resolve to even more environmentally conscious in my purchases and actions and eating habits that in my own small way, affect our Earth.

*After writing this little rant on plastics, I did a search and found several ways old plastic toys can be recycled. I can't just throw them in the recycling bin and there isn't a toy recycling center option here. Other than reusing for craft projects or donating those in relatively good condition, the most useful option seems to be downcycling, where plastics are used as filler in other materials. Even that doesn't seem to be the best thing either, though...

Rating: 4/5 ........ 416 pages, 2007

more opinions:
A Variety of Words
Green Fudge
Amateur Earthling
think or swim
Science Book a Day
book of joe


  1. Interesting to read your positive take on this.

    I started it and ended up putting it down very grumpily about halfway through because it didn't seem to be so much "the world without us" as "the world with us and all the ways we've screwed up." It felt very bait-and-switch to me.

  2. I completely understand your view on it; I did get that sense as well but it didn't upset me because I realized that to understand how the world would respond to our sudden absence was to understand how much we have changed it... For me, that fit together well.

  3. This sounds like it should be required reading! I try to be a good citizen of the Earth but I know I could do more.

  4. Jeanne I was expecting something more like the PBS show--the World Without People (I think it was called)--that just dove right into what it would look like afterward. Maybe initial episodes of that dealt with us as well.

    There were bits I found myself bookmarking in this one, but ultimately I gave up.

  5. Bermudaonion- I always feel like there's more that could be done, which I am not doing...

    Bookwyrme- I've just learned of that show, when reading other reviews on this book. It sounds like something I'd like to see.

  6. Oh, wow, so exciting to find that you've read this book! I think my eldest son must have left a copy of it behind, when he visited. I was in the guest room, looking the room over before Kiddo came down, and I found a copy on the dresser. I'm moving the book to my bedroom, post haste!

  7. Bookfool- You must read it! And let me know what you think!

  8. Whenever I read books like this I get about twenty ideas for a dystopian future story. I think it's the way my mind stops me from absolutely panicking about the damage the human race has done and how little I can do myself to fix it. Even if the earth will recover from what we've done, I think we should still be sorry for messing it all up.

  9. Jenny- Seriously someone should write more dystopian stories that don't feature humans! How would that be for a wake-up call? I don't know if there's any like that- do you?


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