The World Without Us

I just finished reading The World Without Us and I think it might be my book of the month. The author, Alan Weisman, originally wrote a brief essay called “The Earth Without People” for Discovery Magazine. The article simply wasn’t enough, and Weisman decided to expand that work into a full length book which is nothing short of awesome. You really ought to go read it as soon as possible, because this thought experiment is simply fascinating.

The premise of the book is this:

What would happen if humans just disappeared from the face of the Earth one day?

Weisman traveled from the DMZ to the Amazon jungle to find out, and some of his findings were very interesting, from a discussion of the death of coral reefs to a chapter on the longest running agricultural laboratory in the world, Rothamsted. He also interviewed all sorts of neat people in the process, and it is really interesting to hear the opinions of very talented, intelligent people on this subject. The first few chapters talk about the basic breakdown of human civilization, starting with New York city, and then he moves on. Weisman looks into what would happen to land being used for agriculture, whether or not nuclear power plants will explode, and what will happen to wildlife. Which new species might arise when we vanish? How will we have shaped the planet and its organisms, and how will our legacy endure?

All in all, it seems to me like the world would be a better place without us, but Weisman does not actually go that far. He does talk about the long-lasting damages which some of our actions will leave behind, and he certainly suggests that our way of life is not very sustainable. He also includes some ideas, ways to make our presence less toxic, for example. How do we want future archaeologists to view us? Or visitors from other planets?

Towards the end of the book, he also talks about the efforts of groups like VHEMT, and population control. He almost waxes poetic about VHEMT, and I cannot blame him. The organization has a beautiful and admirable goal, and I like the thought of enjoying my waning days, knowing that our species wanes from the Earth along with me. Of course, we could also just be more practical about reproduction. According to a graph he includes toward the end, we could stabilize the skyrocketing human population by the middle of the century if we restricted the birth rate to one child per woman around the world, down from the current average of 2.6. By the middle of next century, the human population could be down to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. And that would be pretty amazing to see.

The whole book really made me sort of wish that I could be here to see the end, watch cities collapse and fields return to wilderness. It also made me wonder about the series of radical and unfortunate decisions which have led us to this point, and whether we will recognize what we are doing before it is too late. More importantly, what are we going to do about it, and what kind of sacrifices are we willing to make?

[The World Without Us]