Friday, February 22, 2008

The World Without Us

Last year I read a few reviews of The World Without Us, a book by Alan Weisman, and was intrigued. The book presupposes that the human race vanishes - what happens to everything we've built, or already destroyed?

Before you get the wrong idea, this isn't an apocalyptic doomsday piece (although there is some interesting talk about how humans' exit from the Earth might happen, including an interview with someone from the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement; do we know anyone involved in that?). It also isn't a politically-motivated piece like anything from Al Gore or the right-wing wackos who deny global warming.

It's just a good, thought-provoking book. Even if it did feel like homework as I labored through it over Thanksgiving. Some of the most interesting parts included:

-The DMZ between North and South Korea, untouched by man for more than 50 years, is now home to a number of rare animals. A group of dedicated South Korean scientists is allowed access to the DMZ, and warns that creeping suburban sprawl will soon threaten even this area.

-In Chernobyl, site of the horrific 1986 Russian nuclear meltdown, all sorts of interesting species of plants have grown back in an area where people just don't go anymore. Tours of Chernobyl are offered - wouldn't it be fascinating to take one?

-A look at a patch of old-growth primeval forest in Poland, where all sorts of rare wildlife still lives.

-There's a farm in England where they've been taking soil samples for a century and a half. Those samples tell a depressing tale of rising ph levels from pollution.

-Ever think about what would happen to the millions of miles of pipes built to handle oil in East Texas if humans weren't around to monitor them? Scary stuff that Weisman gets into.

-Apparently there is a nation-sized area in the Pacific Ocean that is pretty much all plastic bags - the place where any non-degradable goods that enter the water stream end up, swirling for eternity.

-Not sure what this had to do with the book's overall premise, but in Turkey there are whole cities built underground - how cool would it be to see them?

-Billions of birds are killed every year when they run into man-made structures, including radio towers.

-Most reviews of the book focus on Weisman's assessment of what would happen to New York after people were gone (shocker), and it's still very interesting.

-Weisman is cool and even-handed throughout, except for when he rails on ... house cats, who he sees as the pampered brats of the animal kingdom.

It's dense reading, or at least more dense than reading about fantasy baseball and the Baltimore Ravens, but worth the time. On our ride home from the UP, Jana asked me what the big takeaway was. Good question - Weisman doesn't lead us there, to his credit. It sounds obvious, but my takeaway were that current initiatives - recycling; developing renewal energy sources; pollution control; consumption moderation - are what we've got to do to give Earth a chance long-term.

Then again, humankind will probably be wiped out in another couple thousand years, the cleansing described in the book will take place, and the planet will be fine for new or holdover species to thrive.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on such a great book!! So I have to say, my take-away was a bit different than yours. No matter what chapter I read, what I got most out of the book was that no matter what we do, the earth is going to change, and humans will change, too - if we soil the earth with chemicals and damage the ozone, life will still go on... just only the life that can adapt. And if we (humans) can't...well, someday the sun will blow up and we'll all be gone anyway! Heavy, but true. But no reason why we can't live with a spiritual connection to our home and the creatures we share it with now - we're essentially all in it together...

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