The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 11 August 2012

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

Fantasies of apocalypse have always been popular in modern fiction. It seems that half of all science-fiction, and a fair portion of our modern movies, are about global destruction of some kind. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for his deeply grim vision of a dying Earth in The Road. McCarthy's vision was one of a world devoid of life except for a few surviving but doomed humans. In this engrossing work of non-fiction, Alan Weisman proposes the opposite, a thriving Earth devoid only of humans. It is a thought experiment, engendered by the regeneration of the "dead" zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a region of civilization from which human presence has been almost completely erased. What has ensued is the recovery of nature, the recolonization by plants and animals. How long after our disapperance will it take for the whole world to recover? Can it recover at all?

This is more than just a puerile fantasy of a ruined post-apocalyptic world. Weisman's book invites us to think about our relationship to the environment, how we build things, how we interact with nature (whether we merely consume it or we work with it and nurture it), and to question the illusion of permanence and our faith in undying growth and consumption. If we get an ice age every hundred thousand years or so, and there's evidence that they're more frequent than that, then there are ten thousand ice ages every billion years. The Earth probably has another four billion before the Sun swells up and cooks it. We've been here such a tiny fraction of the planet's history. If we don't destroy the biosphere (and we certainly have the power to do that), then the planet has ample time to recover from our misuse of it. This is an encouraging thought to some. To others, it is a dangerous fantasy. To still others, its a pessimistic dismissal of the superiority of human intellect.

The book has elsewhere been described as a jeremiad, a pointless lament for a lost wild world before humans. In its imagining of a world once again without humans, it is seen as a dismissal of humanity. But people do imagine that an Earthly Eden is possible again (thought we are loathe to do the work to bring it about). What is more dearly to be hoped is that, by understanding how we've affected our environment and how it might recover if given the chance, humans can learn to nurture their relationship with nature, thereby creating a human-populated Eden of balance between civilization and the wild.

Some of the book is encouraging. Other parts turn depressing, when Weisman discusses the petrochemical industry, the contamination of chemicals and metals in the envrionment, and the long term damage of pesticides and genetically modified crops. One day, long ago, we determined that lead is poisonous to humans. There was a fight to ban the use of that metal in many applications, but it lingers in our environment. Today, we're told that chemicals and GMOs are harmless to us. How long before we determine that today's useful chemical miracles are actually killing us and our environment? While the millennia of damage due to lead may have been due to a sincere lack of knowledge, we now know that hidden dangers may lurk in what we consider harmless today. Moving forward with extreme caution seems advisable, but we don't seem to be doing that. Isn't the definition of insanity the act of doing something over and over again, expecting a different result?

As Weisman moves into the realm of nuclear disaster, the 441 nuclear power plants that would melt down or explode upon the disappearance of humans, one begins to consider that the world might not recover so easily from our presence. We are also forced to confront how much human activity goes into simply preventing a disaster brought on by the everyday choices that support our vast technological society. Nuclear power, nuclear waste, chemical contamination, pollution and global warming. All of these are caused by us, and disaster is prevented only by an unceasing effort. Especially with nuclear waste, we've sentenced ourselves to an undying vigilance. Who is to say what our planet will be like in 10,000 years? It is sure to be vastly different. And yet the nuclear waste we produce right now will still be here to threaten whoever remains. How do we make sure our distant decendents know of the toxic legacy we're leaving to them?

All of these and more are questions raised by Weisman's riveting thought experiment. Parts of his book are indeed encouraging. Some of what we've done to the planet will be erased in a mere few thousand years. Other stuff, though, will be around for eons, maybe even a million years and more. If we don't discover that our present actions are creating the conditions for a completely dead world (we have only to look at Venus to see the affects of a runaway greenhouse effect), how will humanity survive in an ever more stressed environment? This is a vital question that humanity as a whole is avoiding. If you don't think we can become extinct, along with most of our biosphere, just ask the dinosaurs. They are still the dominant megafauna on our planet, having survived hundreds of times longer than mankind so far. But where are they now?

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See also: [The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand]