Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
The World Without Us

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

The World Without UsThe World Without Us
Alan Weisman

The World Without Us begins with a fascinating thought experiment: what if homo sapiens suddenly vanished from the planet – all 6,653,087,804 of us (as of 11:19 am CST on February 26, 2008)?

What would become of the built environment – the homes, cities, highways, nuclear plants – we left behind? What about animal life? What species would flourish without us? How long would it take for endangered species to recover? What would become of the Earth? Without questioning the practicality of the premise, it is an engaging proposition – to imagine the world without us.

For clues about what would happen to the world after our demise, Weisman employs some ingenious strategies. First, he looks at ecosystems that (so far) have been relatively untouched by humans – such as the Bialowieza Puszcza – a half-million acres straddling the border between Poland and Belarus that contain Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth wilderness. It exists today because it was set aside as a royal game preserve in the 14th century. The vicissitudes of history have been kind to this forest primeval, which is now a Polish national park. This is what Europe once was – and most likely, would become again a few centuries after humanity vanished. It is a deep forest of 150-ft. hardwoods filled with a rich variety of plant and animal life.

Weisman examines the question why Africa still has remnants of its large fauna, while on all the other continents they were quickly hunted to extinction after humans arrived. The answer, he believes, is that in Africa, humans and the megafauna evolved together, slowly over a million years. The animals learned that humans were the most dangerous predator of all. By contrast, the unsuspecting American, Australian, Polynesian, and Caribbean large herbivores had no idea how dangerous we were – and were quickly slaughtered. In a world without us, large animals likely would re-emerge to fill the highest niches on the food chain currently occupied by humans.

Another place where Weisman looks for clues to post-human Earth is places that, for compelling reasons, have been emptied of humans and have remained deserted. Korea’s DMZ, for example, a 2.5-mile wide swath of “empty” land that stretches 151 miles across the Korean peninsula, has been empty of humans since the end of the Korean conflict in 1953. The few buildings that were there are slowly melting back into the Earth, and the 400 square miles of mountains and fertile river valleys have reverted back to a natural state. Unintentionally, the 1953 truce created an enormous nature preserve, completely empty of humans. It is now sanctuary to endangered Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, a mountain goat known as the goral, and the nearly vanished Amur leopard – all of which surely would have disappeared during the last half-century of explosive Pacific Rim growth. The DMZ provides vital staging areas for four endangered species of migrating cranes.

On the island of Cyprus, the brief 1974 war between the Turkish Cypriots and the Greeks was resolved leaving a no-man’s zone called the Green Line, arbitrarily established as the division between opposing troop positions at the exact moment of the cease-fire. The Green Line meanders across the island varying from ten feet in width in some built-up areas, to some five miles in width in the country. UN troops patrol the strip, which has become a de facto nature refuge.

Buildings within the Green Line zone have been allowed to decay. Some modern tourist hotels were just completed at the time of the hostilities; now only their vacant concrete shells remain, and they are crumbling. The luxurious plants of the island are covering all signs of human habitation: feral geraniums, philodendrons, flame trees, chinaberries, hibiscus, oleander and bougainvillaea engulf houses, climb high-rise walls and colonize all empty spaces where there is sunlight and rainfall. At night the darkened beachfront, empty of humans, crawls with unmolested loggerhead and green sea turtles who have come to lay their eggs.

The site of the Cherynobyl nuclear disaster which occurred in 1986 has been cleared of human inhabitants. The Zone of Alienation, a 30-kilometer-radious evacuated circle around the plant, has become the world’s biggest nuclear-waste dump. The birds have returned, though some sport albino feathers; and the pine trees have re-sprouted, though some have irregular branches and needles of uneven length. Though affected by the nuclear disaster, flora and fauna are showing enormous resiliency in returning and re-colonizing the devastated area only a few years later, when radiation levels are still much too high for safe human habitation.

So, Weisman concludes that life on Earth, having shown tremendous capacity for survival and adaptation through the five previous mass extinction events, would most likely survive in some form even if the human race disappeared in a nuclear holocaust.

Several chapters of the book outline the stages of decay and destruction of the built infrastructure, from the flooding of the New York subway tunnels within days of the pumps ceasing to operate, to the surprisingly rapid decay of most modern housing. What would be likely to survive to show the work of human hands over the millennia?

Plastics, which are now scattered across the globe, are likely to persist until microbes or other creatures evolve which can break them down. Weisman gives shocking details about the proliferation of even minute particles of plastic – everywhere. Penguins in Antarctica have traces of plastic in their systems. Pelagic birds that spend their lives at sea, when killed and autopsied, are found to have an average of 40 bits of plastic in their bodies.

Bronze sculpture is likely to survive the ages relatively unscathed. It does not rust or decay over time as other metals do– even stainless steel. The form of housing or building most likely to survive is that which has already survived the longest – underground structures such as the ancient Cappadocian towns and villages excavated deep into the volcanic tuff dating back to at least 700 BC. Other structures built of giant stones are likely to persevere – the pyramids at Giza date to approximately 2500 BC, so they have already survived some 4500 years.

Beyond the somewhat fanciful thought experiment that is interesting to pursue, Weisman’s The World Without Us possesses great usefulness in creatively summarizing much of what we now know of the devastating impact of human activities on the planet. The book documents the countless ways we have polluted and harmed the Earth.

That’s the subtext to this fascinating book: how will the Earth begin to heal itself as soon as we humans stop poisoning, polluting and damaging the biosphere and all living things within it?

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