The World Without Us

Alan Weisman

I feel as if I’ve been reading this book forever but it’s actually just been a month or so. The scope of Weisman’s imagining of the entire world suddenly depopulated of humans is so broad that inevitably some parts feel leggy. But the scenario may give the best look at our overall impact on the planet.

There are moments where nature seems so incredibly resilient that you might get lulled into thinking maybe we haven’t done so bad. Even the Panama Canal wouldn’t last long; a lock superintendent describes it as “a wound that humans inflicted on the Earth — one that nature is trying to heal.” But then there is all the nuclear waste, the petrochemical plants in Texas, and all the plastics in the world that were ever made (many of which are massed together in the middle of the Pacific). You might start to wonder if it’s even possible for us to fix the damage done even by disappearing all at once. In the case of the petrochemical plants, our sudden disappearance might actually make things worse.

Weisman writes in a clear fashion and seems to simplify difficult concepts successfully. The book doesn’t always flow clearly from section to section, but that is also part of the broad scope. In the end, Weisman describes how:

Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets back into its fiery womb. At that point, water ice will thaw on Saturn’s moon Titan, where the temperature is currently -290ºF, and some interesting things may eventually crawl out of its methane lakes. One of them, pawing through organic silt, might come across the Huygens probe that parachuted there from the Cassini space mission in January, 2005 … Sadly whatever finds Huygens won’t have any clear where it came from, or that we once existed.

He then continues to describe briefly how different religions approach the end of life on earth. I found myself in an existential panic, and even though he tries to get hopeful in the end, it all felt rather depressing. It’s still a great book, but so much stuff most of us don’t really want to think about.