October 18, 2007

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The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (2007, Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 324 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

Without humans, the world would look a lot like western New Hampshire.

Go west along Route 101 (and to other chunks of our state and New England in general) and you’ll see forests where farms once existed. About 100 years ago (more in some areas), the farmers left, to the mills, to big cities, to points out west. You can still see parts of the stone walls that marked their property or the foundations of homes and farm buildings. But the forest has taken the land back with trees and ground cover and animals. Alan Weisman explains this phenomenon (and how the rest of the world might follow) in The World Without Us, an answer to musings about the planet without its most damaging, creative inhabitants.

Without humans, the world also would look a lot like the DMZ between North and South Korea. There, wildlife not scared away by land mines has had a rebirth, creating not just an ecological jewel but a prime piece of real estate that (according to recent newspaper articles) developers are already eyeing for golf courses and the like should the Koreas ever rejoin.

“Almost” is also the key here — from climate change to toxic waste to our millennia of breeding and domestication of animals, the world won’t return exactly how we left it. According to Weisman, we’re due for another ice age but climate change might have altered the weather patterns irrevocably. Our pet dogs (distant descendents from more feral beginnings) will probably be dead (eaten, most of them) within a generation, as might our cows. And then there’s our nuclear material — weapons, waste, etc. Without humans to tend to its up-kept, all manner of post-human disasters could occur.

The World Without Us, in its vision of an earth where we have been lifted out and the rest of nature remains, tells us a lot about the world as it is now. All manner of our engineering, from sidewalks to skyscrapers to the Panama Canal, requires constant maintenance (keep that in mind the next time it seems like your town is always asking for more road repair funds). Even things we consider “wild” or “natural” (crops, farm animals, feral cats) are the result of generations of development by humans. Climate change, as everyone from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to the Nobel Foundation agrees, is real and scary.

Weisman explains these things in a straightforward, non-preachy way that will make the non-science-minded wish they could take college biology again. His writing is engaging and the story is as page-turning as a detective mystery. He describes a Manhattan island of the people-less future as interesting as the one the Dutch found. And that is what makes this book such as fascinating, melancholy-producing read — should the earth as a whole ever return to the Eden-like pre-human state, we won’t be around to see it. A-Amy Diaz