The World Without Us

Around the globe, every natural system is being affected by human behaviour: from the composition of deep oceanic sediments to mountaintop glaciers. As such, the concept behind Alan Weisman’s extraordinary book The World Without Us is both ambitious and illuminating. Using a combination of research, expert consultation, and imagination, he projects what would happen to the Earth if all 6.7 billion human inhabitants suddenly vanished. Within weeks and months, all the nuclear power plants will melt down; the massive petroleum refinery and chemical production complexes will burn, corrode, and explode; and nature will begin the slow process of reclaiming everything. Over the course of decades and centuries, the composition of all ecosystems will change as farmland is retaken and once-isolated patches of wildlife become reconnected. Cities will fall apart as bridges stretch and compress with the seasons and foundations fail on account of flooding. In the end, only bronze sculpture and ceramics are likely to endure until our red giant sun singes or engulfs the planet in about five billion years. More broadly, there is reason to hope that radio waves and some interstellar space probes will endure for billions of years.

Weisman uses his central idea as a platform from which to explore everything from material science to palaeontology and ecology. The book is packed with fascinating tidbits of information – a number of which have been shamelessly plagiarized in recent entries on this blog. A few examples of especially interesting topics discussed are the former megafauna of North America, human evolution and migration, coral reef ecology, lots of organic chemistry, and the history of the Panama Canal.

In the end, Weisman concludes that the human impact upon the world is intimately linked with population size and ultimately determines our ability to endure as a species. As such, he concludes with the concise suggestion that limiting human reproduction to one child per woman would cut human numbers from to 3.43 billion by 2050 and 1.6 billion by 2100. That might give us a chance to actually understand how the world works – and how human activity affects it – before we risk being overwhelmed by the half-glimpsed or entirely surprising consequences of our energetic cleverness.

Whether you accept Weisman’s prescription or not, this book seems certain to deepen your thinking about the nature of our world and our place within it. So rarely these days do I have time to re-read things. Nevertheless, I am confident that I will pick up this volume again at some point. Readers of this blog would be well rewarded for doing likewise.

[4 November 2007] I remain impressed by what Weisman wrote about the durability of bronze. If I ever have a gravestone or other monument, I want the written portion to be cast in bronze. Such a thing would far, far outlast marble or even steel.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “The World Without Us

  1. From the New York Times review:

    With no one left to run the pumps, New York’s subway tunnels would fill with water in two days. Within 20 years, Lexington Avenue would be a river. Fire- and wind-ravaged skyscrapers would eventually fall like giant trees. Within weeks of our disappearance, the world’s 441 nuclear plants would melt down into radioactive blobs, while our petrochemical plants, “ticking time bombs” even on a normal day, would become flaming geysers spewing toxins for decades to come. Outside of these hot spots, Weisman depicts a world slowly turning back into wilderness. After about 100,000 years, carbon dioxide would return to prehuman levels. Domesticated species from cattle to carrots would revert back to their wild ancestors. And on every dehabitated continent, forests and grasslands would reclaim our farms and parking lots as animals began a slow parade back to Eden.

  2. this sort of deep-ecology, which attempts to consider a future without humans, makes good fiction. However, in terms of a plan for action, it begins from completely mistaken premises – the that in the height of technological development we might value the presence of nature for it’s own sake. We value nature as we value everything else, only as a means to our own ends of expanding our means. “Sustainability” is just the recognition that this cycle needs to be regulated in order to function indefinitely. The only reason we care about carbon levels is because we’re here to care about them, and we want to continue to be here, caring about them. “Beating” global warming, by which I mean eliminating human effects on the biosphere entirely, is only possible through the kind of absolute failure, expressed in Woods notion of a world where we all suddenly disappeared. What Woods forgets, as everyone does, is that there is no World without us, there may be the stuff of matter, but the meaningful way in which we characterize it is a purely human phenomenon.

    The really difficult and necessary thing is to grasp the very notion of “World” itself as a natural phenomenon, which is co-extensive with properly recognizing ourselves as natural. It probably requires re-thinking the “natural” outside of the box enlightenment philosophy has drawn around it.

  3. Teen Discovers Plastic-Decomposing Bacteria

    ganelo writes to tell us that 16-year-old Waterloo Collegiate Institute student Danel Burd has made quite a stir with his plastic-eating bacteria discovery. For his efforts Burd won top prize at a Canada-wide science fair claiming a $10,000 prize and a $20,000 scholarship. “Tests to identify the strains found strain two was Sphingomonas bacteria and the helper was Pseudomonas. A researcher in Ireland has found Pseudomonas is capable of degrading polystyrene, but as far as Burd and his teacher Mark Menhennet know — and they’ve looked — Burd’s research on polyethelene plastic bags is a first.”

  4. Rosetta Disk Designed For 2,000 Years Archive

    By timothy on that’ll-do-for-now

    Hugh Pickens writes “Kevin Kelly has an interesting post about an archive designed with an estimated lifespan of 2,000 -10,000 years to serve future generations as a modern Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta disk contains analog ‘human-readable’ scans of scripts, text, and diagrams using nickel deposited on an etched silicon disk and includes 15,000 microetched pages of language documentation in 1,500 different languages, including versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, and pronunciation guides. Produced by the Long Now Foundation, the plan is to replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world in nondescript locations so at least one will survive their 2,000-year lifespan. ‘This is one of the most fascinating objects on earth,’ says Oliver Wilke. ‘If we found one of these things 2,000 years ago, with all the languages of the time, it would be among our most priceless artifacts. I feel a high responsibility for preserving it for future generations.'”

  5. Nature Reports Climate Change
    Published online: 4 December 2008 | doi:10.1038/climate.2008.133

    Looking back from the future

    Chris Turney

    If future explorers came across evidence of human civilization 100 million years from now, what impression would they have of our existence?

  6. Green.view
    Not as fragile as they look

    Aug 31st 2009
    Leave them alone, and damaged ecosystems will bounce back fast

    CONVENTIONAL wisdom is often a poor guide. For one thing it suggests that human damage to the world’s species, habitats and ecosystems is terminal: that when things are lost, they are lost for ever. But oil spills of the sort that now threaten the Timor Sea, forest fires like those that recently afflicted Greece, and other man-made and man-assisted threats to wildlife are transient. Except in those cases in which a species is driven to extinction, the Earth’s ability to shrug such things off is often underestimated.

    Alan Weisman shows this in his book, “The World Without Us”, which illustrates nature’s great capacity to recover. Have mankind abducted by aliens or wiped out by some Homo sapiens-specific virus, and nature, Mr Weisman reckons, would reclaim its territory with surprising speed, as weeds colonised pavements, rivers flooded subway tunnels and buildings burst as they were played like concertinas by a cycle of freezing and thawing. By Mr Weisman’s reckoning, residential neighbourhoods would return to forest in 500 years and only the most stubborn of human inventions, such as certain plastics, would prove permanent.

  7. Chernobyl Today: A Creepy Story told in Pictures

    Prypiat used to be proud for being home to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers. But something happened on 26 April 1986…

    It took three days before all permanent residents of Chernobyl and the Zone of alienation were evacuated due to unsafe levels of radioactivity. People from around the Soviet Union were forced to come and work here in order to liquidate the danger and evacuate the residents. Many of the workers died or had serious illness from radiation. My father was also recruited for this operation, but he bribed corrupt local officers with some good sausages which were rare and a valuable item at those times, so he’s fine an alive today.

    Let the story be told by these magical pictures taken ~20 years later after the accident.

  8. Chernobyl’s rebirth

    SIR – The book review of “Four Fields” by Tim Dee concludes that “it is at Chernobyl…that man’s influence on the earth’s surface is at its most poignant. Here radiation has left the land flat and bleak for miles, triggering mutations in flora and fauna and leaving everything ill” (“Fields of dreams”, August 24th). Actually, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl has become a wonderfully diverse habitat for otherwise endangered species. One species that was no longer found in the wild, Przewalski’s horse, has been re-established there.

    There is much emotional hyperbole around that ignores the factual evidence on what is happening in Chernobyl’s surrounding area. As far as fauna and flora are concerned, the positive effects of the absence of humans seem to outweigh the hazards of radiation. An unmolested wilderness refuge has developed.

    Professor Stephen Bondy
    Division of occupational and environmental health
    University of California, Irvine

  9. Feeling the effects

    SIR – Professor Stephen Bondy perpetuated the myth that Chernobyl is a wildlife heaven (Letters, September 7th). The vast majority of peer-reviewed research shows that diversity of animals and plants is severely depressed in contaminated areas there. Animals generally do poorly with eyes with cataracts, substandard reproductive performance, dramatically reduced survival, slower growth rates and elevated frequencies of tumours.

    Chernobyl is a wildlife heaven only in a biblical sense. It is not a paradise for the animals and plants inhabiting its contaminated lands.

    Timothy Mousseau
    University of South Carolina

    Anders Pape Moller
    Université Paris-Sud

  10. The roosts are flourishing, thanks in part to volunteers who have cemented mesh to the smooth concrete ceilings, creating better batty toeholds. Some of the colonies number in the thousands, and new species are still being found. Almost all of them are endangered in the region. Some, such as Geoffroy’s horseshoe bat, are exceedingly so. “From the conservation point of view, closed military zones are the best,” says Mr Yedvab. “Frankly, we hope the river zone is never de-mined.”

  11. Perhaps, someday, our signal in the rocks will be found, but only if eagle-eyed stratigraphers, from God knows where on the tree of life, crisscross their own rearranged Earth, assiduously trying to find us. But they would be unlikely to be rewarded for their effort. At the end of all their travels—after cataloging all the bedrock of the entire planet—they might finally be led to an odd, razor-thin stratum hiding halfway up some eroding, far-flung desert canyon. If they then somehow found an accompanying plaque left behind by humanity that purports to assign this unusual layer its own epoch—sandwiched in these cliffs, and embarrassed above and below by gigantic edifices of limestone, siltstone, and shale—this claim would amount to evidence of little more than our own species’ astounding anthropocentrism. Unless we fast learn how to endure on this planet, and on a scale far beyond anything we’ve yet proved ourselves capable of, the detritus of civilization will be quickly devoured by the maw of deep time.

    Geological time is deep beyond all comprehension. If you were to run a 26.2-mile marathon covering the entire retrospective sweep of Earth’s history, the first five-foot stride would land you two Ice Ages ago and more than 150,000 years before the whole history of human civilization. In other words, geologically and to a first approximation, all of recorded human history is irrelevant: a subliminally fast 5,000-year span that is over almost as soon as you first lift up your heel, crammed entirely into the very end of an otherwise humdrum Pleistocene Ice Age interglacial. (NB: That this otherwise typical and temporary warm spell of the Pleistocene has also been strangely given its own epoch, the so-called Holocene—quite unlike the dozens of similar interglacials that came before it—is the original sin of anthropocentric geology.)

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