The Case of the Missing Humans: Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us
Imagine that you are not here anymore. Your friends, your family, neighbors, all gone. Even I, your favorite green blogger, have vanished like a snuffed candle flame–not just from the blogosphere but from the entire bloody biosphere!
This scenario of modern Earth minus its most problematic children, us, is the subject of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. In one of the most compelling, meticulously researched cultural thought experiments of recent years, Weisman examines the numerous ways that humanity has stamped its footprint on the Earth’s face and then what would likely happen if we simply went away.
Weisman’s books has received a lot of fanfare and awards, such as being Time magazine’s #1 non-fiction book of 2007 and a New York Times bestseller, so I have been anxious to read it for a while. But any expectations I had, as you may have, of some misanthropic environmentalist’s tirade against humankind quickly get exploded by Weisman’s more nuanced, balanced, intelligent approach. The result is an inspiring, if also at times disheartening, presentation of how life has endured and will endure with or without humans in the mix.
In this respect, Weisman’s final sentence in the Prelude provides a provocative launching point into the book: “Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?”1 Having this idea of nature missing us as or after it takes over again keeps the reader wandering what trick Weisman (or nature!) has up his sleeve as he describes all the serious alterations we have made to the natural ecosystem. It also challenges the widely held assumption that Earth would be better off without us–and so likely happy to see us gone!
Weisman’s book is most engaging, perhaps, because he imagines and then describes the fate of some aspects of human civilization that you might not otherwise consider. For example, he delves deeply into the destiny of plastics, briefly contemplates our tinkering with plant and animal genes through genetic modification, or looks at the arts.
In all cases, you cannot help but look up from the page and ponder his thoughtful prose. For instance, faced with the prospect of GMOs, Weisman can only guess at what would happen without further modifications to the gene pool, since this practice is too new to have much evidence to support it. He writes,
Some [genetically modified organisms] will be roundly trounced by competition toughened over eons by evolution. It’s a fair bet, though, that others will pounce on an opportunity to adapt, and evolve themselves. (205)
Even if we disappear, then, the various monsters we have created like Dr. Frankenstein may still linger and potentially wreak havoc…or coexist.
To conduct his flights of fancy with feet firmly on terra firma, Weisman adopts a very wise strategy of looking to the past in order to envision the future of dehumanized Earth. This helps to support his descriptions/visions of nature returning to an earlier state by undoing what we have done–or at least redoing it in key ways. It also shows how nature is already doing its best to undo the human factor, making clear that without constant defense our various constructs would be deconstructed with relentless efficiency–for example, how weather and critters and even mold spores would quickly, persistently “unbuild” our homes. (You can also play with this prospect in virtual reality at the book’s companion website, www.worldwithoutus.com.) The result is fascinating and informative in each element of human life that he treats.
Ironically, Weisman’s strength of building a firm foundation with facts about the past and present is also a bit of a weakness in The World Without Us–probably the only one I could find. Weisman usually spends so much time laying out past and present facts as the basis for his visions of the future without us that he seems then to wrap up a given topic somewhat abruptly. He may spend twenty or more pages on the past and present before giving the likely outcomes in several paragraphs–as happens in the chapter “The World without War.” This often may leave you wanting more, be it facts or informed fiction. But even this possible weakness, creating more a feeling of disproportionate amounts of material rather than of a flaw in the author’s technique, does not detract from Weisman’s The World Without Us.
And to send us off to keep imagining a humanless future, Weisman never really answers his question in the prelude about our being missed by something. (Speaking for myself, though, I found it pretty hard to answer with a fully optimistic affirmative.)
Instead, he shows that with just about every bit of harm we humans have done to Earth, “…these things, too, will pass” (211). In the end, then, he closes with a remarkably beautiful image: human memories coming back, “surf[ing] aboard a cosmic electromagnetic wave to haunt our beloved Earth” (353).
Hopefully we would be much, much wiser at that point, too, since Weisman is most successful and praiseworthy for proving without doubt that life will carry on …and that it would be worth our long journey back.