In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman poetically describes his well-researched hypothesis of what would happen if humans were to disappear, for whatever reason, suddenly. Similar to the TV series that came after, this version is much better. Beautifully described, he begins with the most basic of our structures: our weather-proofed, leak-locked homes. When the electrical grid fails, and back-up generators eventually loose juice, what happens to the pumps, locks, and holds held at bay by them? Where does nature first invade?
Without humans to fight erosion or pull back weeds, how long will it take for our concrete spaces to turn green? What species would thrive, survive, or fail? What of animals? Our beloved domestics, how long would they last? And what of wildlife? Left to their own devices, without management or interference, would they do fair-well, or are we somehow part of their maintenance and well-being?
When we think civilization, we usually picture a city. Small wonder: we’ve gawked at buildings ever since we started raising towers and temples, like Jericho’s. As architecture soared skyward and marched outward, it was unlike anything the planet had ever known. Only beehives or ant mounds, on a far humbler scale, matched our urban density and complexity. Suddenly, we were no longer nomads cobbling ephemeral nests out of sticks and mud, like birds or beavers. We were building homes to last, which meant we were staying in one place. The word civilization itself derives from the Latin civis, meaning “town dweller”.
Weisman takes us to Africa (my favourite chapter), and explores the mass-extinction of megafauna and how it differs from what we experienced in North America (and why). He seemlessly and invigoratingly evaluates structures such as nuclear powerplants, canals, polymeres, and the oil industry.
Somehow he does all this while keeping us engaged, curious, and extremely humbled. What is reversible? How long will it take and what of our conquering will endure through time? He looks at all of these and (so much) more in a compelling, spell-bound manner, capturing you well into the night.