Jan 20, 2010

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman asks us to imagine what most would perhaps consider unimaginable: what would the world be like without us? What would happen to the planet if tomorrow human beings disappeared without a trace? But rather than just a thought experiment, The World Without Us is a book that forces us to consider the extent and the permanency of the damage we have already done to our planet. It’s also an absolutely fascinating collection of facts about topics that range from biology, evolution, and geology to geography, obscure history and demographics.

I learned so much from this book. I learned about different theories on the disappearance of megafauna in the American continent; about the real impact of plastic resides in the oceans (and also to carefully read the label of any exfoliant I buy, to make sure the little beads are not plastic); about the building of the Panama Canal; about the oil industry in Texas; about the underground cities in Cappadocia; about the several attempts humankind has made over the years to communicate with other sentient species somewhere out there; and so on. And if any of this sounds like it wouldn’t be interesting or relevant, fear not: Alan Weisman makes it so.

And it’s not just the subject matter of The World Without Us that is fascinating: the book is also wonderfully written. Weisman’s calm, collected tone forces readers to consider the implications of his thought experiment dispassionately, and thus we engage with ideas we would probably reject if we were upset or afraid. By taking humans out of the picture completely, The World Without Us becomes—not necessarily depressing or scary, but eye-opening. I love people, I really do. And even though we constantly do horrifying things, I don’t want us to go. But I love the rest of nature too, and I don’t want anything else to have to go because of us.

The fact that a world without us has some definitive perks probably makes this book even scarier than even the bleakest post-apocalyptic fiction. Or perhaps just sadder; I don’t know. One thing I do know is that this is a humbling work, as it should be. Also, that it filled me with wonder and awe – as the best science writing always does – in the face of the hardiness of nature. While never sugar-coating just how destructive our impact on the environment has been and continues to be, Weisman also emphasises the resilience and adaptability of life. Our current lifestyle is more harmful than most of us can even begin to understand, but hopefully this too shall pass. The species we lose will never come back, and I
m all for putting a stop to this while we still can. But its at least a little bit comforting to think that evolution still has one fascinating trick or two up its sleeve.

My favourite chapter was the one entitled “Art beyond us”, which focuses on a topic I have thought about before: how impermanent even what we think of as timeless masterpieces, as the highest points of human achievement, actually is. It was a beautiful and moving chapter, and I especially liked the information on the Pioneer projects Carl Sagan was involved in (about which I only knew in passing). It's so fascinating to think that there are bits of human art and music out there in the universe, like a message in a bottle in a large, large ocean.

As much as The World Without Us made me think, I think that, in the end, I failed to really imagine a world empty of humans; a world with nobody here to witness any of this. It's kind of like trying to imagine our own deaths: ultimately, all we can imagine is our reaction to the world's reaction, or what a world empty of us would look like through our eyes. Perhaps for that reason, more than frightening me The World Without Us left me thinking about how, horrible things we do aside, it's such a blessing that we're still here at all, able to embark on a thought experiment of this kind.

Memorable passages (warning: the first is wonderful, but the other two are awful. Or rather, they're about awful things):
Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimms Brother’s fairy tales. Here, ash and linden tree towers nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, of a wolf’s wail, and returns to stillness.

When Ana María’s grandparents were young, she says, the forest easily fed them, even though the Zápara were then one of the largest tribes of the Amazon, with some 200,000 members living in villages along all the neighbouring rivers. Then something happened far away, and nothing in their world—or anybody’s—was ever the same.
What happened was that Henry Ford figured out how to mass-produce automobiles. The demand for inflatable tubes and tires soon found ambitious Europeans heading up every navigable Amazonian stream, claiming land with rubber trees and seizing laborers to tap them. In Ecuador, they were aided by highland Quichua Indians evangelized earlier by Spanish missionaries and happy to help chain the heathen, lowland Zápara men to trees and work them until they fell. Zápara women and girls, taken as breeders or sex slaves, were raped to death.

In Hong Kong, shark fin soup commands up to $100 per bowl. After slicing off their pectoral and dorsal fins, finners throw mutilated sharks, still alive, back into the sea. Rudderless, they sink to the bottom and suffocate. Despite campaigns to ban the delicacy, in less remote waters an estimated 100 million sharks die this way every year.
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In the Shadow of Mt TBR

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  1. I've heard about this before, but not enough to get me to read it yet - it dropped back under my radar. I've always been very interested in environmental issues and actively try to reduce my carbon footprint, so I'm really interested in what would happen if we all just vanished. Your review has definitely made me interested in this!

  2. Hand me any murder mystery and I won't blink. But this is the type of thing that scares me to death. When I read that last passage about the sharks, I immediately thought of the documentary I just watched called The Cove (about the needless slaughtering of dolphins in Japan). It made my stomach hurt, but these things are a reality.

  3. I definitely remember someone recommending I read this book. I think it was my lecturer for a course on sustainability that I took last year...

    I should go look for this. It sounds very much like something I would like to read.

  4. Thanks for posting about this book! I work in the field of the environment, and always feel like I should read more about this topic outside of work, but find it hard to find books that I actually want to read. This one definitely sounds like it's right up my alley!

  5. Wasn't this made into a TV series on the BBC. I am sure I remember my husband watching this. I know he really enjoyed it. Personally, I found it a little scary. I don't like to think too much about what could happen in the future.

  6. The thing about books like this is that they sound so fascinating but at the same time I know I couldn't read it myself. I am just so bad at reading nonfiction. While I really dislike TV much of the time, this is something I'd rather see in a documentary than read about. And I feel really bad about that.

  7. Okay, time to make everyone hate me. Well, hopefully not you, as I think I've pretty much said this to you before and you've stuck with me. :) But while you said you don't want to see us go, if given the choice, I think I would choose to have us go. I don't say that lightly at all...I've spent more hours than I can count thinking about it. I don't hate human beings. Really I don't. But I hate what we do to this world, to all the other species that inhabit this planet with us. I know that a whole heck of a lot of people feel it's our right, feel that we're somehow more important than any other species. But even those of us who don't feel that way do so much damage. And believe me, I'm not leaving myself out of the blame. Oh crap, I'd better shut up now. If I go on, people will start throwing around that dreaded word "alarmist" ;)

    Thanks for the wonderful review, Ana. I can't wait to get my hands on this book.

  8. I started reading this one in the bookstore one day, and I was TOTALLY sucked in! It now resides on my shelves, and it's up for a read VERY soon. Your review just whetted my appetite for more. I'm finishing up Emma right now and starting a re-read of The Graveyard Book, but I think The World Without Us will come after that.

  9. This is one I definitely wanted to read, but your review has completely bumped it up to the top of the TBR. Wonderful review!

  10. I thought of The Cove also, reading about the shark soup. How horrible! I banned monogamous fish from us too, because once you kill one, the other is left alone for life. How sad!

  11. There was a special on awhile back that had this premise. It was kind of scary though because of the things that humans would leave behind (like nuclear reactors and animals stuck inside).

  12. Another one of my favorites, Nymeth. A very intense and sad book when you think about it. I sometimes try and imagine what my world looked looked like be for we got here and after we are gone. Life is very resilient and our future is really up to all of us.

    Did you look at Weisman's website?

  13. Wow it sounds like a fantastic book. I've wondered how nature would recover from our abuses, if all of a sudden we just left her alone and disappeared. The quotes were great, too- I love it when nonfiction is written in such a fluid way, so accessible to the reader. I'm adding this to my TBR right now! Thanks for the review.

  14. Wow, this sounds very eye-opening and captivating. I would be very curious to check it out. Great post!!

  15. The world would probably be a better place without us, I'm sad to say. The book sounds very thought provoking.

  16. As I read your review, I kept picturing images from the film I Am Legend with Will Smith. There's images of NYC after most humans have died, or became whatever those infected things were.

    Those quotes are so sad, especially the one about Henry Ford and the Amazon. I hate how greedy humans can be. I also hate that some people think global warming isn't real and that it doesn't matter what we do to the environment, because it really does matter.

    I will definitely have to seek out the World Without Out Us, not only for me, but also for my boyfriend who snaps up anything pertaining to geology (I like encouraging the boy to read).

  17. Is this the book that inspired the After Humans tv series on history (or discovery) channel? I think so. It sounds FASCINATING. Great read and review, Ana!

  18. Very interesting book. My hubby may be interested in this one for sure!

  19. This book sounds great. I spent years of my life being a city girl and not concerning myself with nature, the environment, any of it. I was completely ignorant. When I started camping and fishing and hiking and spending more time outdoors I got it. I can't stand to think how we are ruining this beautiful planet (me included). Books like this help us all look at things we can do to make it better. As for the shark fins...I won't eat in a restaurant that serves shark fin soup and many upscale places do. I have literally walked out of a place that did. Made me feel better if only for a second.

  20. I find it ironic that Homo sapiens sapiens, as arguably the most highly evolved species on the planet, has caused the most destruction and irreparable damage to worldwide biodiversity. I too often think the world will be better off without us...and it will happen at some point.

    Excellent review Nymeth thank you. I'll be sure to look out for this one.

  21. I've had this book on my TBR shelf for a long, long time now. I was incredibly excited to read it when I got it but I somehow forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me! I'd like to get this soon. Especially since I think it would be a good follow-up to Bill Streever's "Cold."

    P.S. I'm pretty sure the Discovery Channel did a special based on this book. You should check it out if you haven't already. :)

  22. This book sounds so amazing. I remember thinking it sounded fairly interesting when it first came out, but your review has me wanting to read it for sure. The chapter on arts' impermanence sounds especially interesting. Thanks for the review.

  23. This book seems like something everyone should read. I watched a NatGeo or Discovery Channel documentary on what would happen to the world if humans just up and disappeared. It was super interesting-- much like I'm sure this book is!

  24. This sounds like such a great book! I'm so glad you read it. I heard about it when it was first published but my library didn't have it, so I forgot about it. Thank you so much for reviewing this book. I'm off to see if bookdepository.com has it.

  25. Life after People was the name of the show on Discovery. It was really good. This book sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Sounds an interesting read.
    I have read a few similar speculative pieces like this before.
    I feel that we need to look after this planet simply because if we don't we will become extinct.
    The reassuring thing is that if we do the worst, life is so powerful that you look ahead a few million years and it will be just as amazing and diverse as before we came along.

  27. At first I didn't think it was one I'd be interested in, but you sold me! Wow. Sounds like something I really need to understand better.

  28. This sounds like a good follow-up to what I've read recently: Ray Bradbury's story August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains, Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, and M.T. Anderson's YA novel Feed.

  29. Meghan: I think you'll enjoy this one just as much as I did, then. It certainly gave me lots to think about.

    Sandy: Oh no...that sounds HORRIBLE about the dolphins :\

    Michelle: It makes sense that it'd be mentioned on a course on sustainability!

    Bored_D: Yes, this one's very readable, and riveting too!

    Vivienne: I didn't know, about apparently it was! As for the future, it really scares me to think about it, but at the same time I think we need to, so we are jolted into action.

    Amanda: Well, it's your lucky day, as apparently there IS a documentary :P

    Debi, nobody will hate you! Personally I just hope it never comes to either/or. If to stick around we have to continue to destroy other species like there's no tomorrow, then yeah, :\ I guess I just still hope that we'll stop in time. But as you know, I definitely don't think we're more important or more entitled to life than the rest of nature!

    Andi: I was amazed with how quickly this sucked me in, to be honest. And wow...you have some seriously excellent reading ahead of you :D

    Lu, thanks!

    Jill: That IS incredibly sad :(

    Michelle: Exactly..even without us around to cause more harm, the world will be a huge mess for a long, long time :\

    Gavin: I haven't, but I'm off to visit it now!

    Jeane: It would take an unimaginable amount of time for nature to fully recover, that's for sure :(

    April, thank you! I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up.

    Kathy: Sadly, it probably would, yes :\

    April: I hate that too...and the idea that it's not real, or at least "not as serious as those scientists and ecofreaks are trying to make it sound" is sadly VERY prevalent. Which means huge trouble for us all. Sigh.

    Aarti: I didn't know, but yes! Now I need to watch it.

    Staci: You should get it for him and read it too :P

    Kathleen: I think it's seriously awesome of you to have walked out!

    Mariel: It is ironic, yep :\ Gah.

    J.S. Peyton: For me it was the other way around: I started Cold the day I finished this. It was great to read them in close succession! And I'll definitely check out the documentary :)

    Amanda: That chapter really affected me because it was like...if we stay, nature goes (at this rate, anyway). But if we go, art goes. It might sound silly, but it breaks my heart to think about this.

    She: I think it IS something everyone should read, yes!

    Vasilly: Hopefully they do!

    Julie: I'll definitely look for the Discovery show. Thanks for the info!

    Al: I agree. And I do have faith that the world is recover (well, unless a really big asteroid takes care of ALL living things), but it's a shame that we have to make such a mess :\

    Rebecca: It was eye-opening in so many ways!

    Jeanne: The Bradbury story actually came to my mind as I read this. I haven't read Feed yet, but it's on my tbr pile!

  30. Wow! This looks really good. Some of those excerpts are absolutely chilling. Great review. Adding to my to read list!

  31. Oh Ana, you didn't think I was implying that I thought you believe humans were more important than other species, did you? I sure hope not...believe me, I know better!!! And guess what...I bought this book last night! Now, if I can only finish some of the truckload I have started...

  32. WinterWrite, I hope you enjoy it!

    Debi, I KNOW that! #luvdebi :P yay for getting this :D

  33. I picked this up recently and hope to get to it fairly soon!

  34. I failed to really imagine a world empty of humans; a world with nobody here to witness any of this

    Yes, I think it's an impossible task to wrap our heads around the concept. I never could, either. Just glimspe the thought of what he was saying right then. It did inspire me to make some changes in my life, though.

  35. I think Debi is absolutely right about everything she said in her comment. I started to read the book because I've got inspired by this review. And it is truly captivating but I'm not native speaker so it is not that easy fro me to understand ev erything. I hate when someone drom litter or cut a tree.

    I am not finding the book scary because the damage that we had already made is so big and the Earth needs to refresh, heal and start over. I had been thinking about why did the dinosaurs die. Maybe the matter was the same and the planet had to refresh itself.


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