What if humanity disappeared off the face of the earth in some unspecified way, whether a virus, space aliens, or a Rapture? What if the rest of the world wasn’t harmed by our departure? What would New York City look like after a while? (Hint: the underground passages would fill with water and poison ivy would climb up the buildings.) What do we know from Chernobyl that would give us clues as to how nature might react? What about the toxic chemicals we would leave behind? This no-human scenario, massively unlikely as it is, provides the framework for a very imaginative, fact-based, and award-winning book, The World Without Us, by journalist Alan Weisman.
I found out about the book when I was telling a friend about an idea I had for some fiction I might write. It would be in the dystopian vein, from the point of view of a raven several hundred years in the future, communicating telepathically with a woman of our era. Yeah, also an unlikely scenario and not at the top of my list of things to do. Anyway, my friend suggested this book for good background, and I found it on the shelves of our local public library.
I discovered immediately that Weisman writes well, with many details and with stories of his discussions with a wide range of people. He finds places, like the pusczcza (forest primeval in Polish) that give us what he calls a lingering scent of Eden. But then he also tells us that all our modern homes would decompose. Here’s a bit of that chapter:
After we’re gone, nature’s revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world. It begins on the roof, probably asphalt or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades–but that warranty doesn’t count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs. (page 16)
He continues by describing the effects water and mold can have. I was surprised at how quickly the house would become uninhabitable, except by rodents and other small critters.
Going back in time to before the human era, looking ahead at what nuclear power plants would do without humans there to control reactions, Weisman weaves information so deftly that this was one book I couldn’t put down.
Alan Weisman Talks About The World Without Us
Here are two videos of Weisman. The first one is about 11 minutes and the second one is just under an hour:
Weisman has since written another book: in 2014, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? came out. Here are Amazon links to both books. The range of reactions to both books is interesting!