Alan Weisman's The World Without Us


Weisman's book is interesting, undeniably so. It's just not quite what it seemed like it was going to be. To paraphrase the thought experiment that the book claims to answer: imagine no more people. Just that, in an instant. No war. No nuclear fallout. Just a world, as is, without people, forever and ever. Amen. How would things change? Which trees would die off? Which animals would prosper? How would our houses fair? Our art? And so on.

Except the book is not quite about this. Not really. What the book is about is by and large our current and past impact on the planet. The vast majority of the book is about dumps composed of one-fifth plastic, of scrap metal in fields, of animal species that feed off of our garbage, of war torn Korea, of the death of the passenger pigeon. All throughout, little bits about what this means for our future, or, more specifically, what it would mean for everything else's future if our time was up, show up, but they show up as single paragraphs in whole chapters, as single sentences in the middle of sections.

There seems to be two reasons why the book could be slightly off topic, which is bound to be the major complaint (and, looking through places like's reader reviews, it makes up about half the major complaints, the other half I will get to). The first, and lighter, reason could be akin to a college student doing a research paper on the widespread presence of snake and serpent myths in world mythology, who starts out intending to look at psychological reasons why such things might occur, and ends up writing most of his paper on various myths and fine detail. Maybe Weisman kept looking for information and the more information he found, the more that he felt he had to impart. If you spend a month building up to a fairly in depth interview about the motion of trash within a landfill, you might find it impossible to melt it down to a few quick sentences without tossing in a few of the other paragraphs in as well. "Mostly harmless," doesn't seem apt to cut it.

Or, more likely, there is one important other reason: there is no Earth as we know it without humanity. The questions of climate change aside, when you look at earth changing projects like the Panama Canal, deforestation, implementation of agriculture, introduction of new species, harvesting, road ways, pets, warzones, and so on, you find that so much of the present Earth as it is requires humans to have been there. Any attempt to study what an Earth might be like without us is largely a study of what the Earth looks like now, and trying to untangle how it got there. Due to bringing in non-native plants and animal species, we have greatly changed the way some ecosystems work. You do not have to posit human induced climate change to believe that, either. Just look at how many European and Asian plants and animals now flourish in the United States. Take a trip through Alabama and look at the pine trees that have been planted in place of old oak forests, swamps that have been dried up to make them easier to harvest, kudzu fields that have choked away trees, and at least one lake that is not meant to be there. We have reshaped the land, and so much of the land we know is already endowed with our reshaping.

This is not to say that Weisman never answers his own question. He has many places where he speculates, or has an expert speculate (the book has an amazing set of acknowledgements and references). Just, well, often he sort of leaves some conclusions sort of up in the air and mostly lets the reader draw his or her own conclusion. For instance, he mentions the fact that nuclear reactors around the world will probably have a melt down as they slowly but surely boil off their cooling bath. He does not go into graphic detail discussing trade winds or areas of impact or disaster zones. He talks about Chernobyl. He talks about how animals came back. How radiation changed the way animals bred (shorter lifespan, but faster maturity). The reader does the rest, thinks about whether this is the universal truth, or if the world would be screwed. He talks about plastics, the great sea of them floating in the ocean, sitting in screams and strung out across cacti in the desert. He talks about the possibility of a plastic eating microbe, the effect of tidal forces on plastic, plastic's basic toxicology, and the effect it has on other toxins in the area. He does not spend a chapter discussing step by step breakdowns of the plastic, does not posit what it would be like in a million years.

Does this work or not? A little bit of both. The book comes across as fascinating. There are details on clean coal, using water to leach carbon out of the air, underground cities, comparisons to primitives structures, the HIV epidemic in Africa, what sort of animals can't live without humans, and so forth. As a book about the absence of man, though, it tends to talk in such vivid description about the presence of man, and when it moves on to the absence and what it might mean, it just doesn't have the oomph. The latter sort of passages pale compared to the bold strokes of former.

As I'm sure anyone could guess, the other half of the major complaints focus on the environmental message. Namely, the perception that Weisman isn't writing a book about speculative science, but is writing a book that delights in a fantasy. Is Weisman hating on humans? Maybe. He does call for a limiting of single children per parent (something I agree with) and he does list numerous ways we a paving the path to our own destruction, numerous ways that we have overlooked simple safety and simple impact data for a few extra dollars, or for a slightly faster result. This book is something of a list of sins: how many species have we killed, how much plastic dumped, how many trees have we wiped out, how many other humans have we hurt? How often have we wiped out forests as old as Jesus in order to make fancy furniture, as though it was a God-given right? Does this mean that Weisman is screaming hatred for all mankind? No. At least, it did not strike me in that way. Weisman does indict our methods, but seems to be promoting the concept of finding a balance. It's as though his message changed, that his thesis wavered. Rather than writing a book about what would be like without humanity, he started noting ways that humanity seems to be moving towards getting rid of itself (and everything else with us).

What's the final verdict? This is a intriguing book. Not only for the look into the original idea, but for the sheer number of facts about different disciplines. It's not perfect, namely in the fact that it went off course, became essentially about something else, and also for the fact (not mentioned yet) that the chapters don't seem to flow together in any particularly logical order. The final and the first chapters make sense, the rest seem tossed in at random, occasionally bouncing back and forth. If I had my druthers, I would have said pick eight to ten areas (city streets, apartment building, museum, house, battle ship, landfilled, nuclear power plant, Panama canal, seaside resort, etc) and then pick a set number of intervals (1 week, 1 month, 1 year, 1 decade, 50 years, 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, etc) and look at each in turn. But I didn't write this book, the much more talented Weisman did, and that's probably for the best. I'll take it for what it's worth, and recommend it. In general, to everyone, except those people who absolute hate discussion of evolution and don't want to think of humans as being responsible for environmental impact. Maybe them, too, but they are going to bitch about it.

This book gets a Good rating. Worth it's cost in trade paperback. Lots of info but meanders. Large follow-up suggested reading list, though, if you want to, you know, follow-up.

As an interesting aside, the book features a small, tiny section about the Church of Euthanasia. By tiny, I mean about two sentences. What is funny is that in a couple of the negative reviews I have come across, this is blown up out of proportion. "I just knew this book was evil when I read it promoting canabalism!" This probably means such people did not read the book. Not only is that statement inaccurate, but this quote happens towards the end of the book. It seems strange to think that someone could read the majority of a book, get to such a sentence, and forget all about chapters on Nuclear Reactors, Polymers are Forever, the Panama Canal, and so forth, and focus merely on a statement tossed out as an aside. I cannot fathom, also, that a person who had the reading comprehension to make it that far would be confused enough by Weisman's wording to think he was promoting canabalism. However, I have met dumber people who could read just find. That's one of the glories of working in a bookstore, you meet a wide variety of well-read fool.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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