Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book Review: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

It's been a long time since I did a book review post, but I just finished listening to this one on CD on my way to work tonight and thought it was worth writing about.

In The World Without Us, Weisman presents the theoretical scenario that humans vanish from the world en masse. Whether we're raptured away or killed off by some sort of human-specific virus...whatever the scenario, we're just gone, and everything else is left behind. All our structures, all our gadgets, all our pets and possessions. What will happen to buildings and infrastructure if we're not around to maintain them? (Some answers: Houses crumble in less than a century, bridges topple in 200-300 years, and the NYC subway system floods in less than 36 hours.) How long til forests reclaim our cities? (Depends on geographical location, but generally less than 500 years.) Will anything we made truly last? (As it turns out, yes; Mt. Rushmore will still be around almost 10 million years from now.)

It's a fascinating read. Some parts are downright horrifying - the amount of plastic we produce, which may break down into its smallest physical components but won't biodegrade completely, and so much of which ends up in our oceans, is staggering - but on the whole it's a really interesting thought experiment. Turns out the earth is pretty resilient, for all our destructive actions, and in places where humans have voluntarily made themselves scarce (Weisman talks about Chernobyl and Korea's demilitarized zone), nature has rebounded rather nicely. Still, the continued stresses we place on the planet are really not great. Without a break from people, the earth's ability to self-regulate is severely hampered.

The book isn't all doom & gloom. Well, I should say, it's not all about what might or might not be. There's a lot of historical context, talking about humanity's past impacts and what the world was like before we were ever here. Weisman writes about several places I didn't know much (if anything) about - Cappadocia in Turkey, the Aberdares in Kenya, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belarus & Poland - so the geography and history lessons are pretty neat.

Overall, I think it's important for us to educate ourselves about humanity's impact on this planet that is our home. The bigger issue though is figuring out what we can do to help our home right itself in a way that doesn't require our own extinction. I know mine is not the first generation to worry about the kindness of bringing children into the world in its current state, but the effects of climate change make this a whole new ballgame from what went on before. Do we do the environmentally responsible thing and limit ourselves to one child (if we have any at all) or do we take the (admittedly elitist and somewhat morally icky) "try to outbreed Cleetus" approach? (See Idiocracy.) I don't know what the right answer is. (And I'm veering slightly off topic.)

The point is, this book has made me want to find the ways I can be a more responsible inhabitant of our planet. And that's quite a thing for a book to do. So I've got to throw the recommendation out there, and maybe it'll speak to you as well. I don't know if any of you have already read it (aside from AquaMegan, who recommended it to Tom & me), but if you have, I'd love to hear your thoughts. As for me, I give it an A.


ml said...

it is pretty remarkable that a book makes you want to be a better person! we can discuss the child limiting thing at dinner this weekend! i think about that a lot too.

susan said...

Sounds good. I'm looking forward to those ribs! Mmm, ribs...