What I’m Reading: The World Without Us

I remember being interested in reading The World Without Us when it came in 2007, but never got around to reading it. I’m now in a book club at work and was happy to find out that the book, by Alan Weisman, was the club’s selection for September. It’s a non-fiction book, expanded from two articles Weisman had previously written, one for Harper‘s magazine about the recovery of nature around Chernobyl after humans deserted the area, and another for Discover magazine about what the Earth would look like if humans simply disappeared. It’s this latter, broader topic that the book explores.

Nearly every chapter of the book is fascinating, but I think my favorite chapters are a couple of the early ones. One describes what will happen to your house in the years and decades after abandonment, the other discusses the fate in store for commercial buildings and cities should humanity disappear. It discusses what parts of the house will rot away first, which plants will move in, which animals will find their homes burrowing in your walls or basement. For the chapter on cities, there’s a case study from a Greek tourist enclave in northern Cyprus that was abandoned after the Turks invaded the north of the island in 1974. Years later, the Turks decided to try to reopen the hotels and resorts, but found the job was far more difficult than they had imagined. Even though the shells of the buildings were still standing, nature had invaded the structures in ways they hadn’t anticipated, making recovery much more expensive and difficult than they had assumed. The Turks eventually gave up on the effort.

Another early chapter describes the Bialowieza Puszcza, on the Polish-Belarusian border. This is a national park of more than 500 square miles, the largest remaining bit of old growth forest in Europe, preserved with nearly no inhabitants because for centuries it was a hunting preserve that belonged to the Polish king. Later, Russian tsars and Nazi officials kept it undeveloped so they too could hunt. It contains the last population of the European bison and is known as a “forest primeval.” Weisman believes that without humans, much of Europe will return to the state of the Puszcza in five hundred years or so.

One oddity of the book is that I get the definite sense that Weisman thinks eliminating all humans from the earth might be a good idea. Maybe this tone is inevitable in a book like this, discussing all the changes humans have caused to ecosystems around the world and how long it would take them to return to a natural state. Especially in a later chapter that discusses the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, one gets the distinct impression that Weisman admires the group and thinks they make a good case.

And yet, Weisman is honest enough to point out that much of what we think of as natural might not really be so. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they did not find a virgin land filled with natives living in harmony with the land, as is sometimes imagined. Rather, the natives had used fire for thousands of years to clear large tracts of land across North America, driving woodland animals into small forested areas where they would be easier to hunt. In the Amazon, native tribes created a densely-populated patchwork of settlements and rainforest that only returned to its vast, uninterrupted jungle state after the introduction of European diseases winnowed the population there. If humans really left, eventually the Americas would revert to an even earlier condition, one not seen by human eyes for twenty thousand years or more.

Another thing Weisman talks about that I found surprising was how frequently ice ages come and go. At least, it’s fast on a geological scale. Weisman claims that ice ages come every 12,000-28,000 years, driving vast migrations of animals and plants and thousands of extinctions. I find this rather undermines some of the global warming alarmism that creeps into the book. If ice ages are coming on such a regular basis and killing so many species, perhaps it’s not such a big deal that we’re making our own changes now? Weisman even suggests that our contributions to global warming may be staving off a coming ice age.

Whatever the oddities of tone at certain points, this is one of the more absorbing books I’ve read in a while. The writing is packed with information yet fast-moving and readable in a journalistic way, and the research that went into this was thorough. I’m sure that anybody who’s the least bit environmentally-minded will find something of interest on almost every page.

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