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Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is a meticulously researched and fascinating look at what would happen to our planet if humans were suddenly to disappear. It is at once a glimpse into the history of our planet (both before us and after us) and a look into the future and what we’ll leave behind.

world without us

Weisman, an award-winning journalist, has consulted with experts ranging from engineers to academics in order to show what will happen once the Earth loses its humans. The oldest (and best built) structures will last the longest; newer, more cheaply built structures will crumble more quickly. Without the humans that keep 13 million gallons of water from invading New York’s subway tunnels every day, water would rapidly fill the underbelly of Manhattan, and within a mere twenty years, “the water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side’s 4, 5, and 6 trains [would] corrode and buckle. As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river.” The Great Wall of China would likely fall apart without humans to maintain it, while the Chunnel could last millions of years.

The book includes such details as how bridges will topple and what will happen to great works of art—but what’s most fascinating from an environmental perspective is the way in which things might recover if we’re not around to do quite so much damage.

A few examples of our impact on the natural world: with Kenya being Europe’s biggest supplier of flowers, a typical flower exporter ships to Europe the equivalent of water that would serve a town of 20,000 people (during droughts, water is siphoned from the bird and hippo sanctuary of Lake Naivasha, sucking up generations of fish eggs). Thanks to poaching, there are only 400 black rhinos left in Kenya, compared to 20,000 in 1970—and there are only 19,000 elephants, down from 1.3 million in the 1980s. Thanks to plastics in the ocean, marine wildlife from sea otters to seabirds ingest everything from pocket combs to fishing lines. Of the 10,000 species of birds with whom we coexist, 130 have disappeared.

Africa is the one continent that has not suffered the massive wildlife extinctions other parts of the world have (“here, humans and megafauna evolved together”), and one wildlife expert believes that the continent, “which has been occupied by humans longer than any other place, would paradoxically revert to the purest primeval state on earth.”

Birds are among the creatures who would thrive after our departure—our presence is detrimental to their well-being on so many levels: power lines, radio towers, traffic, tall glass buildings, the lands we clear for agriculture, and even outdoor housecats.

The extent to which we’ve messed with the natural order of things appears in myriad examples throughout the book. In Hawaii, for example: “To protect exotic sugarcane from being eaten by exotic rats, in 1883 Hawaiian growers imported the exotic mongoose. Today, rats are still around: the favorite food of both the rat and the mongoose is the eggs of the few native geese and nesting albatrosses left on Hawaii’s main islands.”

The book offers much food for thought with no judgment: It does not ask us to change our ways or to feel guilty about existing—it simply presents the history and the facts. And it’s all information well worth knowing, from where our trash ends up to what strip mining does to the environment. While there are no calls to action, it’s hard to imagine readers not becoming more mindful about their impact on the planet upon reading this book. Yet the book is not, by any means, a portrait of gloom and doom; while The World Without Us does highlight the ways we’ve injured our planet, it doesn’t condemn humans nor is it unbalanced. Without moralizing, the book does, however, challenge readers to consider our impact to all life on Earth.

One of the most interesting sections in the book offers an interesting lesson in conservation and preservation: Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, which no humans have inhabited since 1953, is a wildlife refuge of sorts. Among the wildlife in the DMZ are Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, rare red-crowned cranes, an endangered mountain goat, and the nearly extinct Amur leopard. “If everything north and south of Korea’s DMZ were suddenly to become a world without humans as well,” Weisman writes, “they might have a chance to spread, multiply, reclaim their former realm, and flourish.”

The inadvertent animal refuge that DMZ has become is an interesting metaphor for the fact that, as human beings, we’re all in this together, whatever our differences. As Ma Young-Un of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, tells Weisman as he looks out over the DMZ: “One day this will all be one country, but there will still be reason to protect it.”

Midge Raymond
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.