Steve's Reviews > The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
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's review
Jan 23, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fun-nonfiction, the-natural-world

What would happen if humanity -- and just humanity -- disappeared tomorrow? What would happen to the world? What would happen to all the things that we've made and built and dumped and thrown away? What would happen to the plants and animals we've moved about, rearranged, bred, or brought along by accident (the roach, for example, often cited as indestructible, is actually very dependent on warm human buildings and running water for its existence across most of the globe)?

This book attempts to answer that question. It talks about topics ranging from how long our houses or cities would last before they fell apart (not very long), and what would happen to our big hunks of technology (days or weeks). It talks about not just the world after us, but the world before us, and how we've been making an impact on the world not just for decades or centures, but millenia.It's interesting, well-written, and a fast read.

Like most books written by journalists, this book tends to flit around from topic to topic without spending a lot of time on anything. So you find out how your house would fall apart in 5 pages, and how long New York would last takes 15. There's a lot going on in those failures, and it would be nice to know more and go into more detail. Similarly, like most journalism, he has a fondness for telling the stories of specific places and the people who are trying to study them or save them -- which is good storytelling style, but you can't help but notice the amount of space (in a not-very-long book) spent on these anecdotes.

Of course, if my biggest gripe is that the book is too short, it's probably been pretty successful. I have other issues with the book, but the point of the book is to make you think about the impacts that we've had on this world as well as the resilience of this little hunk of rock. And that it does quite well.

Update: My wife and I just watched the History Channel show based on this book, Life After People, and it's interesting to compare and contrast the two. My take was that the TV show really tried to emphasize the apocalyptic parts of the book: structures collapsing, the invasions of "pests", etc. while the book really emphasizes the (somewhat surprising) resilience of life and the ephemeral nature of mankind's mighty works. The TV show liked to show various creatures going feral: dogs and livestock, roaches, etc. thriving without us, while the book suggests that most animals that we've modified will follow our disappearance with their own shortly thereafter. It wasn't clear how much of the TV show's comments are grounded in fact versus wishful thinking; with all the computer graphics of buildings and structures collapsing, it was certainly more sensationalist.

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