“Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?” It’s hard to imagine this scenario of Gaia-istic empathy actually happening, but it is nonetheless an interesting question, particularly when one considers the source. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a doomsday scenario but a more thoughtful kind; one that’s focused not so much on how the human race vacates Earth—deadly plague, the Rapture, sudden discovery of interstellar flight and innumerable inhabitable planets within easy range—but on what happens afterward. What does the planet do without humans around doing all of that building, eating, breathing, and polluting that we’re known for? How fast does the kudzu grow back over all those chain stores? Would the planet actually be able to repair itself in any decent amount of time or has the devastation been too serious? Does the earth retreat to a serene garden like in the Talking Heads’ “Flowers” (“There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers”)?
The answer is mixed in Weisman’s sprightly and well-considered book. The good news—“Ruins of high-rises echo the love song of frogs breeding in Manhattan’s reconstituted streams, now stocked with alewives and mussels dropped by seagulls”—with the uglier—that 1 billion tons of plastic we’ve produced won’t be going anywhere for many thousands of years, and the scenario for oil refineries and nuclear power plants, left unattended, is horrific in the extreme. While nobody reading Weisman’s book would consider him a Pollyanna, he refuses to stick to prophecies of eco-doom, being fully knowledgeable that human damage to the earth will likely pale into insignificance when looked at from a geological perspective. In the words of one scientist Weisman quotes, “If the planet can recover from the Permiam, it can recover from the human.” The World Without Us also comes with a nifty website, at which you can not only see the usual publicity material but also a host of multimedia presentations, including one that shows a time-lapse animation of what would happen to a completely untended house over the course of five hundred years. For an audience used to thinking about environmental matters only in terms of this or the next generation or two, seeing exactly how little the human race really means to the planet over such a long stretch of time is humbling. And rightly so.