Monday, February 28, 2011

The World Without Us

Long, long ago, I caught an episode of a show on The Discovery Channel (or the like - I really don't remember), about what will happen to the world once humans are gone, and I was absolutely intrigued. And then I magically had a gift card, I saw this book, and the rest, as they say, was history.

I have been blabbing in people's faces for months now about the awesomeness of this book, even though I was reading it extremely slowly. Usually, I speed through books, but for some reason, The World Without Us became part of my morning and evening commute, and was something that I looked forward to. I read it in doctor's offices and while eating lunch, but really, I treated it as something to be savored.

The author, Alan Weisman, is a brilliant writer. A journalist by trade, he writes about scientific and historic subjects with such interesting prose, that you are excited to learn!

God, I am such a nerd.

But honestly. It does not drag. It does not assume too much about its reader. It does not preach about global warming and recycling. Instead, it merely explains what will happen to this planet once humans are wiped out. He theorizes on what might cause a worldwide holocaust, but never really settles on a direct cause -- this is just fine with me. The possibility that the destruction of Homo sapien would be the result of more than one catastrophic event or disease is much more likely.

Weisman opens the book with a chapter about the Biolowieza Puszcza, a half-million acres of forest between Poland and Belarus. What makes this forest special is that it is the oldest surviving "old-growth, lowland wilderness." Once, all of Europe looked like this forest - something resembling what the author describes as what you might imagine as a child when someone read Grimm's Fairy Tale aloud. What happened?

People happened.

Weisman explores areas of the world that many will never see: Manhattan before people, and the biodiversity it once championed; the town of Pripyat, devastated by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; atolls in the Pacific, teeming with more predators than prey; Olduvai Gorge and the cradle of civilization - what would have happened to this planet had humans not evolved?

The book is fascinating and uplifting, but always in the background is a dark, looming, depressing idea: Humans have changed and damaged the Earth in ways that may never be undone. The pollutants in our atmosphere, the radioactive waste we've buried underground - we may have ruined this Edenlike planet with our goals of technological advancement.

And yet, it's strangely satisfying to know that eventually - hopefully - it won't matter.

I originally thought that this book might be a bit dull, a bit too scholastic. But the reason that it succeeds is because of the clear, concise, interesting writing. Weisman hits it out of the park with this book.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from The World Without Us, a reminder that nothing is constant, that everything is liquid, and what we've built will one day be erased from the Earth:

"The upheavals and pressure will change it into something else. Just like trees buried in bogs a long time ago -- the geologic process, not biodegradation, changed them into oil and coal. Maybe high concentrations of plastics will turn into something like that. Eventually, they will change. Change is the hallmark of nature. Nothing remains the same."


lem said...

What's amazing is how little time it would take for nature to take over our cities again.

Heather said...

lem - Exactly. Stuff is built to last, but not forever, and not if upkeep ceases. It is a great book.