The title reminds the cynic in me of the question asked of Gandhi: “What do you think of Western Civilization”, to which he replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.
Alan Weisman’s natural history, The World Without Us (St. Martins Press $24.95) attempts to discover what exactly would happen if all the human beings disappeared from the planet.
Weisman begins by examining what would happen to our homes and buildings if we weren’t here to maintain them (keep your home repairs going folks!); to the New York subway system (it would flood within days); how cities would crumble; how billions of birds would flourish without glass to fly into, breaking their necks: and, really, how cockroaches would perish without heated homes for them to nest in. Without us, nature would reclaim the abandoned areas of the world like Chernoybl, and the Mayan Empire that so mysteriously disappeared.
The author has traveled throughout the world in search of his answers. He takes us to the Guatemalan jungle, the DMZ in Korea, the last remnant of the primeval European forest in Poland, the Chunnel between France and England and the devastation of the man-made disaster in Cyprus. Along the way, he interviews engineers, biologists, astrophysicists, ethicists and religious leaders. Paleontologists recreate the world of megafauna, like the giant sloths, larger than mammoths, who lived before the coming of homo sapiens, and who could re-emerge were we not here to hunt them into extinction.
Weisman is a very good writer. All the concepts he presents are done so in a lucid and accessible manner. The book reads much like a non-fiction thriller, a veritable page-turner. As a natural history, it has much to teach us; as a prophecy, it has much to frighten us. And the main lesson? Without us, nature will heal what we have done to it.