Book Review: “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman – Footprints in the Sand

Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a fascinating if sometimes poorly connected collection of hypotheses, each backed by startling facts, that attempt to answer the question of how planet Earth would respond to the absence of humanity.

From biological, chemical, ecological, and technological perspectives (and there are more), Weisman details the impact that we have had on our world.  The literal landscaping of our surroundings, whether through the draining of swamps, damming of rivers, or filling of land, have permanently changed ecosystems both locally and abroad.  Our efforts to create more durable materials only means that these wondrous synthetics will take even longer to be recycled into the environment.  Our consistently expanding population, and our conspicuous habits of consumption, put undue stress on our natural resources; stress which is only compounded by our improper use of these resources.  Perhaps Weisman’s most sobering revelation is that of all the things that man has created in his time on Earth, it will be our creations of greatest destructive power–samples of plutonium–that will last the longest and have the greatest effect after we’re gone.

The real jungle reclaims the urban one
The real jungle reclaims the urban one

Weisman balances this bleak assessment with truly amazing tales, verified by the many scientists and specialists he quotes, of how Mother Nature can rebound from even the most damaging assault.  As it desires equilibrium, Weisman details how nature would respond to our  immediately notable absence, evening the scales by adapting its other creations, both great and small, to fill the many niches humans would leave empty.  It’s astonishing to understand how even the tiniest microbes that once depended on us for their very existence could easily evolve to thrive off of the concrete and steel hulks of our abandoned structures.

The book doesn’t offer many conclusions; after all, we’re still here, right?  It’s speculative, but it’s rooted in scientific fact and theory.  It’s a fun and educational read, one of the most accessible and enjoyable pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.  I’d recommend it, as long as you’re not too prone to panic.  Some of Weisman’s passages exude a sense of foreboding and imminent danger more appropriate for fiction.  Yet even though what Weisman suggests has not to come pass, that doesn’t mean that someday in the distant future it won’t.

~ T


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