Monday, October 5, 2015

The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (2007)

What would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the Earth? How long would it take our buildings and bridges to break down, our farmland to revert to the wild, endangered species to increase their populations? These are the questions that Alan Weisman sets out to answer in his comprehension examination of the ways in which humans have affected our environment and which of those changes might have permanent effects.

This was a tough book for me to read. There isn't a story or characters, and I'm still unsure how exactly the chapters are organized. I'm not sure I would have made it through if it wasn't required reading for our Community Read list of nominees, but I'm glad that I did because I think it's an important book.

Many of us have some idea about how we have impacted our environment, but I learned so much about our basic infrastructure. For instance, there is rising water underneath the New York subway that we are constantly fighting against, the huge network of petroleum refineries in Texas need to be attended to around the clock, and our nuclear power plants produce waste that we just keep burying underground in hopes that it will never be unearthed. If people were to suddenly disappear, there could be dire (and explosive!) consequences.

But the chapter I found most disturbing is entitled "Polymers are Forever" and details just how insidious is our ubiquitous use of plastic. It will never go away, it's damaging to wildlife, and we just keep making more. The worst part is that so much of what we buy isn't designed to last in terms of usefulness, but once it inevitably breaks the parts will live on forever. How can we be so short-sighted?

But Weisman's book is not without hope or perspective. In some ways, the world will bounce back - coral reefs, for instance, can come alive again. But we're also reminded that humans, like every other species, will go extinct eventually, and in around 5 billion years the sun will expand into a red giant and destroy the Earth anyhow. Which I realize doesn't sound terribly positive, but I think it's important to remember that our Earth-based catastrophes happening right now or in the near future are just a blip in the vastness of time and space.

A lot is touched on here in under 300 pages: areas such as history, engineering, wildlife, and manufacturing. Of course it doesn't delve too deeply into any one subject and someone well-versed in science might not find much new here. But for a layperson it's a great overview of our world and how we've affected it.

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