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.