Thursday, December 29, 2011

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman Book Review

The World Without UsI've wondered at many points in time what it would be like when humans no longer populate this earth. Usually these thoughts venture into the sci-fi doomsday scenarios that play out in so many bad B-movies, but at times I truly wondered what it would be like, here on Earth, if man suddenly disappeared. As a kid, working in the fields as a farmhand, I saw a piece of garbage half buried in the dirt, maybe a Doritos bag or other plastic sack and think nothing of it... until I was in the same field a year or two later and noticed the exact same piece of garbage--it was still there, 100% intact, after a couple of years of weathering the elements. This was really the first time I realized the human impact on this world will last so much longer than our species ever will.

Weisman runs with the premise of exploring our world after humans were to vacate it and, despite it being a bit dry and clinical at points, it is a fascinating look at how there is really no way to make our impact disappear. What we've created, changed, and destroyed will not instantaneously change back to how nature made it. In fact, certain changes will last for millennium.

Knowing that we've had such an impact made this book a bit depressing to read. Obviously this wasn't the intention or tone of the writing, but as you read about the speculative individual cases, augmented by partial real-world examples, you're left with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that we, as a species, don't really give much of a care to what we do to this planet in the long run.

I never really considered myself a staunch environmentalist. You won't see me tied to a tree or only using hemp-sewn reusable bags as I shop exclusively at local farmers' markets. I try to do my part by limiting the garbage I create, conserving water when I can, and treating my surroundings with respect... but that's not really what's doing the damage, or that would have the long-lasting impact on nature if we were whisked away tomorrow. No, it's the bigger things--nuclear power plants, the invention of polymers that do not decompose, the transplantation of species to new habitats... there's so much on a macro level that our species has changed it boggles the mind to actually think about it.

What's most disheartening is knowing that, for all intents and purposes, it's already too late to undo or counteract the changes we've made to this planet. When we eventually are not present, nature will have to deal with what our machinations have done to this planet. I think this is the most distressing point the book makes. For as many great achievements we have made as a species, we have made equally as many horrible changes to our planet and home.

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