The World Without Us

Bookshelf: The World Without Us

Today we continue the theme begun yesterday: our impact on the planet. Instead of thinking about things on the scale of the individual, this book forces us to think on a far larger one.

The World Without Us – Alan Weisman

The World Without Us
The World Without Us

The World Without Us is a three hundred page Gedanken or thought experiment in which the author imagines what would happen on earth if all human beings disappeared. The means of the disappearance is not important, but obviously if humans disappeared because the entire earth was annihilated, the thought experiment would be entirely pointless. So Weisman assumes that earth is left pretty much the way it is now, just without people.

This is an entirely speculative work, as we have very little to go on when trying to figure out how an ecosystem will recover or how an urban metropolis will decay in the complete absence of human intervention. I found most interesting the information about the properties of materials and structures – how long they will last, what causes them to break down, and so on – as well as the often obscure case studies that Weisman unearths in order to illustrate a point, and the fragments of pristine environments that he writes about (like the Białowieża Forest in Poland).

Weisman moves from ecosystem to ecosystem, considering forests, farmland, cities, and the ocean. He finds experts in fields you don’t even know exist. He speaks to archaeologists, zoologist, everyone in between. It’s tricky to explain how the book is written; it is not a series of abstract imaginings, but rather a series of vignettes and interviews that Weisman pulls together to make a point. It’s easy to read short sections at a time, but hard to put down. In the ocean chapter, he writes about Kingman Reef, which is our best guess at what an untouched coral reef ecosystem should look like (spoiler: LOTS of sharks). Some things, such as plastic in the ocean, are unfortunately forever.

Despite the apparently gloomy subject matter, I found the book hopeful. It appealed to me as someone who cares about the environment (and if you think that people care too much about the environment, then this book will probably enrage you). I enjoyed imagining my office building with trees growing from the windows on the upper stories, and the parking areas filling with water. After a few good nights’ sleep, I find it hopeful less because it enabled me to imagine my corporate workplace being absorbed by nature, and more because it describes the resilience of the planet. Some environmental disasters, such as the destruction of most coral reef ecosystems as the ocean warms and acidifies, are most likely a foregone conclusion unless an incident of the type upon which this book is predicated takes place and prevents us from adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by destroying humanity entirely. Other predicted environmental catastrophes, however, are not a shoo-in, and can still be avoided or recovered from with some decisive action.

The book seems to have stirred a bit of controversy among reviewers, some of whom were disturbed by the absence of a human perspective or gaze by which to orient the narrative. This bothered me not at all, and I didn’t try and extract anything profoundly philosophical from that aspect of it. I quite enjoy imagining what the Cape Peninsula looked like when it was pristine, before we built the three Disa Park towers on it – one of my favourite photographs is this one, of mist covering Cape Town below Table Mountain. I like to imagine that this is how it looked (minus the boats) before there were any people here.

A blanket of mist below Table Mountain
A blanket of mist below Table Mountain

Reviews of the book from the Washington Post, New York Times (also here) and the Guardian may assist your decision on whether to read this book. I hope you will read it. 

 You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.