Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
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Aug 25, 08

Recommended to Jennifer (aka EM) by: Mike
Recommended for: all earthlings
Read in August, 2008

An astonishing book, and the first piece of non-fiction that I've read in quite some time that has had the emotional power of a novel. The first comment I'll make has to do with that: Weisman's voice is a powerful one. He knows how to marshall the facts but also how to keep the story moving, and most importantly, get the reader engaged at an emotional as well as intellectual level.

Weisman's research seemed incredibly solid, but the book never felt plodding or laden down with eye-glazing data, as is so often the case with environmental treatises where the (defensive) author feels compelled to justify his or her conclusions against the nay-sayers with endless reams of facts and figures. Instead, Weisman uses the device of the "thought experiment": what would happen to the planet if humans *poof* simply disappeared. How long would it take to revert to a natural state, recovering from the damage we've done to our home planet? What would live, what would die, and would we be "remembered"?

The enormity of the problem--climate change and global warming, deforestation and species extinction, the unsolved issues of nuclear waste, carbon emissions and ozone depletion--can so easily overwhelm us. Weisman tells the story by jumping from topic to topic; era to era; location to location. Since we’re often dealing in geologic time, it could have been disorienting. Instead, it forces the reader to seek patterns in trends and events across time and invest them with meaning that might not occur if she was led down a straight, chronological path. There is much that is new to learn, and even what we already know (or think we know) is shown in a new light.

In short, it was a very, very effective way to let the complexities of the problem reveal themselves through the various scenarios, all well-documented, presented. Weisman leads us where he wants us to go: not merely to an acknowledgement that environmental destruction is occurring by our own hands, but to a renewed sense of commitment to what might be done to stop it.

If I have any trouble with the book, it is: a) in the premise that sets it up; and b) in the final conclusion.

Weisman overtly says that the premise is not to speculate on what ends humanity, only that it ends quickly and completely–-all at once, everywhere. Unfortunately, I couldn't get my head round the fact that it won't actually happen that way, will it? Even a massive asteroid hit, a broadscale nuclear war, biological warfare or the outbreak of a world-wide plague will have human life petering out slowly, unevenly, inconsistently. There will be no quiet overtaking of our cities by kudzu, birch and aspen. Instead, as human beings slowly and agonizingly die off, those small bands of survivors who’re left will not go gently into that good night. As resources dwindle, as infrastructure fails, as hope fades...human nature and, never mind that, our basic will to survive, will remain intact and grow ever more desperate. The will to survive is an individual, not collective, one. People will fight for the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter. Civilization, government, order and what we construe as morality and humanity will cease to exist to any meaningful degree.

It won’t be pretty.

Perhaps I am a pessimist about human nature, informed by my study of social psychology, and more recently, my reading of The Road and Blindness, which foretell gruesome, cruel and barbaric acts perpetrated by humans on humans in the face of just such doomsday scenarios. There has never been a situation where–especially in the face of annihilation–those with power and resources have not wielded them to their own advantage, to the extent of overtaking and enslaving those without.

So, I struggled with the premise, and before humans are wiped from the face of the earth, I wonder how much more damage we will do, not just to each other but to our home planet. And if preventing more damage requires universal cooperation, as it surely does, I despair that we have the individual or collective will to achieve it.

The conclusion and suggestion Weisman leaves us with, that we should limit reproduction to one child per woman, is laughably simplistic not to mention politically impractical. It's not that I was looking for an "answer" from the book, but far better to leave the questions it raises unanswered, I think, than to undermine the careful and detailed picture drawn of the problem by offering a poorly conceived solution. Better instead to send people off, galvanized into action and inspired by hope in what might be possible, to seek those solutions. Which (in my more optimistic hours), is exactly what I think this book can do and likely has done.

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