The World Without Us

The World Without UsAlan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a book-long exercise in “what if…” Specifically, it asks, and answers, what if the human species immediately and completely vanished from the Earth, today.The answer he provides is neither tedious nor depressing, in part because Weisman infuses the book with a ton of interesting, even astonishing information, and in part because he keeps changing the setting of the future scenario to show that the answer is not at all simple. Some critics have complained that the whole book is a seductive set-up for the conclusion in the book’s Coda: That the only alternative to dreadful annihilation and the horrific mess we will leave behind when we wipe ourselves out, is an urgent Stop At One program for every female on the planet for the next 150 years, returning our numbers to a sustainable 1.6 billion and preventing the Sixth Great Extinction just in time.

I didn’t find the book as entertaining or as stimulating as Ronald Wright’s novel (A Scientific Romance) with a similar theme (the sudden extinction of humanity, leaving other species more or less intact). And I will confess that while I agree with the prescription in the book’s Coda I don’t think it fits well with, or follows from, the rest of the book. But my copy is already full of underlined passages of intriguing arguments, facts and figures. A sampling:

  • Thomas Jefferson said “such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct”. This was before Darwin, of course.
  • The Americas were once home to most of the world’s largest and most exotic mammals, almost all of which were hunted to extinction long before the Europeans arrived to begin their murderous reign.
  • The existence of much of the Great Plains is likewise due to fires set by early human inhabitants to concentrate game and create grazing land; it is not the ‘natural vegetation’ of these areas. Except in New England, pre-European invasion America was already extensively cleared and planted, dependent on maize.
  • Species extinction is the result of humans’ (and quite probably other large-brained apes’) “acquisitive instincts that can’t tell us when to stop, until something we never intended to harm is fatally deprived of something it needs. We don’t actually have to shoot songbirds to remove them from the sky. Take away enough of their home or sustenance, and they fall dead on their own.” Isn’t that a marvelous way of summing up the paradox of being a conservationist?
  • The reason wild animals have done comparatively well in Africa is that they co-evolved with humans, so they learned the danger we posed, whereas elsewhere we arrived abruptly and wiped them out before they could learn.
  • Only 6000 years ago the Sahara was green savanna.
  • If humans suddenly vanished tomorrow, it is quite conceivable that baboons would quickly evolve to fill the niche created by our absence.
  • The vast majority of plastic sent to landfills ultimately ends up, instead, in the ocean, over a billion tons of it, all the plastic ever created (since its invention about 60 years ago)
  • Close to a trillion non-biodegradable tires have been produced since the automobile was invented scarcely a century ago.
  • Left unattended, petrochemical ‘alleys’ would eventually explode in a runaway chain reaction creating a toxic band of poison that would circle the Earth, creating a chemical ‘nuclear winter’ producing massive die-off and mutations. A large gas well that caught fire and was left uncapped could likewise burn for millennia, making the CO2 created by Saddam’s oil well arson look like child’s play.
  • Likewise, left unattended, nuclear warhead depots would leak waste products that would take a quarter million years to neutralize, CFC depots would leak enough mothballed toxins to wipe out the ozone layer, and stored depleted uranium from thousands of nuclear power plants would…well you get the idea. Half the nukes would ultimately burn down, and the other half would melt, adding to the mess.
  • The soils in much of North America were already severely depleted and poisoned with man-made toxins a century ago. As early as the 1800s, every conceivable form of fertilizer from everywhere on the planet was harvested to try to renourish Europe’s depleted soils. The buildup of lead in our soils will take 35,000 years — several ice ages — to disappear naturally.
  • The algae blooms that are consuming more and more freshwater lakes due to runoff of artificial phosphate and nitrate fertilizer, weigh tons and choke so much oxygen out of the water that everything living in it quickly suffocates.
  • Songbirds are dying in massive numbers — billions of birds in North America per year alone, and perhaps 2/3 of all songbirds in the past generation alone — due to a combination of attractive red lights on transmission towers, high-voltage lines, cats, and chemicals (notably dioxins, which are even more toxic and long-lasting than DDT — which is making a resurgence in many countries as mosquitos build up resistance to newer chemicals).

If this book makes you want to learn more about how we got into this mess,you’re ready for the grim but liberating truths of John Gray’s Straw Dogs or Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. Happy reading!
Artwork from Salon.com’s review of the book.

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5 Responses to The World Without Us

  1. chosha says:

    Wow, does he give any examples of those ‘large, exotic mammals’? The book sounds interesting.

  2. Vish Goda says:

    Dave,As you yourself have said – that is the past – we know how we got there – I think it is high time – we start implementing your plan – building awareness is the first step and you and many others are already doing it. What is the next step? I would say – publishing a blueprint for review – the roadmap, if you will. How about it?Vish

  3. Vish Goda says:

    Again, at the risk of repeating myself – there has to be a place for an online community that will serve as the backbone (or the lifeline or the support line or something to that effect) for all the natural enterprises. And one or more feeder lines or spurs (Roadrunner lines) must connect every disparate and disconnected enterprise manually to a hub that will serve as the gateway to the online community. The primary purpose of the global online community and the manual feeder lines being to prevent any individual community from getting politically and socially isolated – and thereby, allow for a quick response to situations that threaten the survival of any individual enterprise.Vish

  4. Bob Watson says:

    Dave,Toby Hemenway, Permaculturist, paints a far different picture of pre-European agriculture in the Americas. At this sitehttp://patternliteracy.com/beyondwilderness.htmlInstead of the boogeyman of “fires set by early human inhabitants”, he describes in considerable detail the swidden-fallow methods of those early agriculturists.I can’t tell whether he or Weisman is doing the special pleading here, but I find Hemenway’s site a valuable counterpoint to Peak Oil and other forms of apocalyptics.Bob Watson

  5. aweb says:

    I’m most of the way through the book now, actually, and I find it a very enjoyable read. There is no dwelling on how/why humans disappear, just a fascinating look at what might/would happen. The section on New York was terrifying (if I lived in NY). I had no idea the whole city depended on constant maintainance to stop from sinking into the ground. And the section on nuclear power…ugh. Might the best choice actually be to shoot all the waste into space, risk of massive contamination after an explosion or no? Because the book makes it clear, the waste we’re producing now isn’t going anywhere. I like the ongoing thoughts on what a future species might think (once they’ve evolved to replace us) if they ever performed archeology on our time period. And the need for universal language/symbols to warn them away from opening our most horrific wastes. Having not reached the end, I think it’s pretty clear that the world, for now, would be better off if humans stuck aroud, in smaller numbers. WE are the only force that might come up with a way to clear the atmosphere/water/soil on a non-geologic time scale, however unlikely that might be. A few examples of extinct large mammals in NA : the giant sloth (elephant sized, but heavier), the mammoths/elephants, larger versions of the buffalo.

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