3/3/08

The World Without Us (2007)

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
By Alan Weisman

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us.

In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; what of our everyday stuff may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe.
I generally don't read non-fiction, and I haven't read one in its entirety since grad school--going on EIGHT years ago. *cries* I'll use non-fiction for my historical research, but I'm not like Keven. I don't absorb fact just for the fun of it. And even with this book, I was reading it with an eye for the details I could use in a sci-fi work of fiction. (Darla, that's why I never did your meme on non-fiction. I didn't have anything to say!)

Although I'd heard of this book from Weisman's interview with Jon Stewart, I'd forgotten about it until Bettie mentioned it on her blog. Kenosha's populace was helpful enough to leave a copy on the library shelves when I was there last week, so I picked it up.

Wow.

The sheer scope of this book is amazing. Sure, the premise is "what would happen if we weren't here," and our first inquiry tends toward the fates of our cities. He demolishes them in one chapter. So what could the rest of the book possibly cover? Everything you wouldn't necessarily think about, from microbes and sharks and tires and Mount Rushmore to depleted uranium and cockroaches and the Channel Tunnel and grass. We touch every facet of this planet, and Weisman literally covers ALL of it.

Drawing from scientific research in the world's abandoned spots--nuclear wastelands such as Chernobyl and various Pacific atolls, the Korean DMZ, an abandoned hotel complex in the north of Crete, etc.--he examines how life has fought to continue, flourish and adapt in our absence. The results are remarkable, rendered in Weisman's lyric prose.

But the planet does not recover from us entirely. The depleted uranium will be here until the sun novas several billion years from now, as will tires and bronze statuary. Radio waves will leave the Milky Way in about 450 years, destined for parts unknown that we, as a species, will likely never see. The scope of the book is humbling, as is the relentless nature of time and, well, nature.

The comforting thing about his hypothesis--what would happen if we weren't here--is that he's not into doomsday scenarios. He doesn't care if we go by virus or war or Rapture, just that we're all gone, all at once. Once you get on board with that, it's a fun mental exercise. Like playing pretend. But his research has ramifications on reality. Our habits are not conducive to the long-term survival of our species, like a virus that eats its host too quickly and exhausts its home and food source.

And maybe that's why I don't do the non-fiction thing too often. It's informative and challenging to my wee little brain, but it can also be a desperately sad exercise. The world after us will be taken over by baboons and feral cats, at least until the next ice age. All the while, the tiniest of animals will be consuming plastics that continue to break down into smaller and smaller bits, never actually decomposing. No happy endings here, only a thoughtful, poetically written and eye-opening message to a very singular species. The only thing Weisman suspects remains common between us and every other species in the Earth's history is our inevitable fate: extinction.

On that cheery note, I'll say that I highly recommend this book and it deserves all of the fantastic praise it's garnered.

Do you think that the amoeba ever dreamed that it would evolve into the frog? And when that first frog shimmied out of the water and employed its vocal chords in order to attract a mate or when it tired of gravity, do you think that that frog ever imagined that incipient croak would evolve into all the languages of the world, into all the literature of the word, possibly? And just as that froggie could never have conceived of Shakespeare, so we can never possibly imagine our destiny.

Look, if you take the whole of time represented by just one year and put it in the first few moments of the first of January, it's a long way to go. And no, we're not going to sprout extra limbs and wings and things because evolution itself is evolving. When it comes, the apocalypse itself will a part of the process of that leap of evolution. By the very definition of apocalypse, mankind must cease to exist, at least in a material form. We'll have evolved into something that transcends matter, into a species of pure thought.

~ Johnny from Naked

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