The World Without Us

I’m a sucker for “end of the earth” stories like the Bible’s “Revelations,” Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” Walker Percy’s LOVE IN THE RUINS, and Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, but here’s a new one with a twist: THE WORLD WITHOUT US by Alan Weisman.

Weisman’s story is an apocalypse without any bad guys. This new book is the ultimate “what if” story: Weisman has all six billion humans exit stage right, and he ponders what would happen to the planet without us manipulating it with bulldozers, dikes, exhaust, and hairspray.

It seems our brains are fertile ground for “zap, we’re gone” narratives because the story is catching on. Last week Alan Weisman’s new book was at number seven on THE NEW YORK TIMES Nonfiction Bestsellers List.

Some might say that we’ve been primed for such stories by the “Left Behind” series, the doomsday clock ticking closer to midnight, the tsunami, Katrina, and the climate change media blitz this summer.

Whatever the reason for its current success, THE WORLD WITHOUT US is a good read. Within the first 50 pages Weisman manages to “unbuild” our house (“On the day humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house-or houses, that is.”) and deconstruct New York City (“… the time it would take nature to rid itself of what urbanity has wrought may be less than we might expect.”).

After that, Weisman repopulates the planet with animals, and follows a raft of plastic trash “the size of a small continent” that will circulate forever without us in a polymer vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in spite of the current efforts at recycling by Coke.

I think Weisman’s chapter on houses hit me hardest. We put lots of sweat and money into building this place five years ago. I’ll admit in the back of my mind when we got our certificate of occupancy I hoped that some string of future families would enjoy it long after we’ve departed. I look around and it seems that our house is lasting, if not permanent. What would happen to it without all of us humans? According the Weisman it would not be a pretty sight for those of us who love the spaces we’ve created by our human occupancy.

The point of beginning so close to home is for Weisman to show us how little impact what we’ve done so far would have on the planet if we somehow left. If we vanished, nature would have its way with our architecture in no time: “No matter how hermetically you’ve sealed your temperature-tuned interior from the weather, invisible spores penetrate anyway, exploding in sudden outbursts of mold-awful when you see it, worse when you don’t, because it’s hidden behind a painted wall, munching paper sandwiches of gypsum board, rotting studs and floor joist.”

Move humans out of the picture and the planet would roar back in a geologic flash. All you’ve got to do is leave the front bed unweeded for two weeks and you’ll see what Weisman means. Without us, plants will prosper and push into all those trimmed spaces we’ve reserved for the lawn services.

Weisman’s book makes my head spin a little. On the surface his narrative starts out with the opposite message we’re getting from the media. At every corner we’re told how fragile the planet is, how likely it is that we’ll do it in. Species are vanishing at an alarming rate, habitat is disappearing all over the globe, and the atmosphere is warming. Things fall apart, especially when humans engineer them.

But in the end, Weisman’s EARTH WITHOUT US is another call to arms for responsibility and stewardship. By imagining a human-free planet Weisman is asking us to pay attention to what we are doing in the here and now. In his last chapter he quotes a Turkish Sufi master on how we should live to guarantee the world will keep us around: “We take care of our bodies to live a longer life. We should do the same for the world. If we cherish it, make it last as long as possible, we can postpone the judgment day.”

The world with us is a good place worth saving, in spite of all those discarded plastic bottle swirling around in the Pacific.

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