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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

The World Without Us gradually reveals itself to be one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doomsaying.

The World Without Us

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 0312347294
Author: Alan Weisman
Price: $24.95
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-07

At first glance, the central premise of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us seems no more than a gimmick, perhaps suitable for a magazine article but altogether too cute to sustain an entire book. Weisman, a veteran freelance writer and journalism professor at the University of Arizona, sets out to answer the question of what would happen if Homo sapiens were suddenly removed from the planet: How soon would nature rebound, and in what ways? How long would human artifacts remain to bedevil other species, or, perhaps, bemuse future sentient creatures, should any evolve?

What makes Weisman's premise irritating, apart from its apparent pointlessness, is the very adaptability of humankind. Like no other species, save, possibly, rats, we not only survive but thrive in most natural environments, from the tropics to desert to tundra. No reason presents itself why we will not adjust to newly harsh climates caused by our own improvidence -- global warming, pollution, elevated radiation -- though, perhaps in reduced numbers or with a lessened measure of what is blithely termed "quality of life."

In a "prelude" Weisman coyly establishes his premise by means of, say, a hypothetical human-specific virus, or an "evil wizard" who kills off humans but not other primates, or even a rapture, whether by Jesus or space aliens, that removes us "either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy."

From that oozy, high-calorie beginning, however, Weisman plunges into the best kind of journalistic science writing. He engages the gears of reader interest with a brief visit to Bialowieza Puszcza, a half-million acres on the border between Poland and Belarus, which Weisman describes as the last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness in Europe, saved only because a 14th century Lithuanian duke wanted a royal hunting preserve. By merest chance it survived the tsars, the Nazis, the Soviets.

"It is startling to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza," Weisman writes. "To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended. Seeing elders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here -- gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah -- should seem as exotic as the Amazon or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, what's astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. And, on some cellular level, how complete."

By touching on this remnant of what a substantial portion of the world looked like before we rose to complete planetary dominance and started killing everything, Weisman establishes a baseline image that informs the rest of his text, flowing naturally first to his discussion of what will happen to our homes, how quickly they will rot, rust, otherwise decay and fall without people to maintain them, to the larger issue of our cities. Taking Manhattan as his example, Weisman shows how bridges succumb to weather, heat and cold, and especially the depredations of water. Subways collapse in as little as 20 years and become watercourses. Buildings teeter and crumble. Trees return, and so does wildlife, though not precisely the species that occupied this space before we arrived.

Cockroaches, contrary to popular myth, die out. A tropical species, they will not survive without heat supplied by humans.

From that point, Weisman ranges the globe. "The World Without Us" is no mere thought experiment, but an on-the-ground investigation of places and developments seldom reported elsewhere. He discusses, for example, new understanding of the Amazon rain forest, which, far from being primeval, was the site of an extensive pre-Columbian civilization, depopulated by disease brought from Europe and overgrown almost instantly.

Weisman finds astonishing cases of nature's resilience, as in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Having been heavily mined by both sides, the DMZ's very danger to humans has turned it into an unintended nature preserve, where rare Asian species have staged a spectacular comeback, though one threatened, oddly enough, by the prospect of peace between the two Koreas.

In the end, Weisman's book transcends gimmickry to attain a kind of brilliance -- paradoxically by adhering rigorously to its establishing premise. Returning again and again to what the world will be like without, say, humans to maintain nuclear reactors, he shows, among other things, how enriched plutonium would certainly escape into the environment, endangering life for 250,000 years.

Sadly, our poisons -- heavy metals, plastics, PCBs -- will be among our most enduring legacies.

The World Without Us is not without a few notable missteps. In a discussion of the enormous numbers of birds killed each year by slamming into antenna towers and guy wires, for example, Weisman neglects to make the self-evident observation that windmills erected for power generation can only increase the avian carnage.

Yet such relatively minor oversights aside, The World Without Us gradually reveals itself to be one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doomsaying. No weary jeremiad this, it is instead the very best kind of popular science book.


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