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.

Image credit: Infrogmation at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. 2007. Rpt. New York: Picador-St. Martin’s Press, 2008. 6.

  1. John

    I just have a few things to say…
    first, will a pack of lions eat the last gazelle?
    sure as sh*t they will, even if it is the last meal they will every eat.
    second, the Galapagos islands. there is a chain of them, some newly forming, some vibrant with life the likes of which is found no where else, and some dead, DEAD (and dead not because of anything man has done, dead because of nature).
    third, we(humans) are part of nature, (just as the lion eating the last gazelle). If you play with the notion that nature would be “happier” if we(humans) were gone, then are you not saying that nature is intelligent?
    are we(humans) part of nature or not?
    if we are part of nature, then everything we do is “natural” (even eating the last gazelle)
    if not part of nature, where did we come from and what does that mean?

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    hank you for your comment John! You make some true points, for sure. I agree entirely that humans are part of nature, but that does not by default mean that all of our actions are GOOD FOR NATURE; whether or not you call them “natural” is a matter of semantics, not of substance.

    My perspective is that humans have a full right to live as part of the biosphere, but we also have the duty (especially because of our ability to reason and make ethical decisions) to live so that OTHERS MAY LIVE. That is where it comes down to sustainability.

    Weisman is not saying that humans SHOULD go away in his book. He instead imagines a world where we do go away for some reason, in some way. He presents facts as he finds them, which I think is a wise and most useful strategy.

    I hope you read the book to see for yourself!

  3. Charles Sifers

    John is absolutely correct. Humans are part of nature, and what’s good for us is good for nature. I’m really tired of self-absorbed urbanites spreading their ignorance and hate.

    If you think that humans are “problem children”, or a “scourge on the planet”, do us all a favor and find a way to remove yourself from the problem. You are probably a totally worthless individual, or you wouldn’t project your psychosis on to the rest of us.

    Be green, be fertilizer. Then the rest of us can live in a more beautiful world and get about our work.


  4. Adam Williams

    @ Charles —

    Which one of you is self-absorbed, ignorant and hateful?

    You just called a person you don’t know “totally worthless” and none too subtly suggested he kill himself.

    You’re bringing closed-minded hostility to the conversations at Green Media.

    And as I have told you before, that’s useless. You’re only flaming the problems of communication.

    As a commenter said in one my recent posts here, with regard to such inappropriate behavior in these online venues: Slash-and-burn viciousness is for non-thinkers.

  5. Bobby B.

    Adam, thanks for the by-line. One question to all concerning a world without us. Assuming it required eons for homo-sapiens to regain their rightful place at the top of the food chain, how would we know that we were ever here before? If nature would destroy all of our manmade wonders (esp. our historical record), what evidence would remain of our prior existence? Maybe this scenario has already played out countless times.

  6. Adam Williams

    Bobby, we seem to be carrying our convos to a new location. 🙂

    It is a fascinating idea to think this scenario may have already played out, and maybe numerous times.

    It is often easy to feel we are so significant when really the universe contains so much more — and has for so much longer — than any of us individuals can truly understand, given the relative shortness of our existences.

    But I am genuinely curious, what is the religious take on the idea you mentioned: that this may have played out countless times?

    My memory and understanding of the Bible is rusty at best, but doesn’t it say that God made the Earth, man, etc….7 days…?

    Given our earlier exchanges elsewhere, I think you are a Bible-reading man, but you seem in this comment above to lend an ear to the possibility that the universe has been around much longer than the Bible says, if I’m understanding you correctly.

  7. Justin Van Kleeck

    Bobby & Adam, putting aside the Judeo-Christian perspective of creationism and whether or not our “rightful” place is at the top of the food chain, I think Bobby raises an interesting prospect. Weisman does not say humanity’s various productions would disappear, only the humans themselves. So if in some distant future another human walked the Earth, he/she would surely have some things to use to piece together our past. I find it fascinating to try and picture how this would happen, what things would be found, how they would be interpreted, and how the past would be used for the future. But surely some sci-fi writer (not to mention just about every major religion) has covered this ground well enough already?!

    Oh, and Charles, you may be right, and I may be a “worthless individual.” “By their fruits ye shall know them,” right? But at least, at the end of the day, I will have used my energy trying to help others rather than hurt them. Perhaps that makes me a smidgen less worthless before I become fertilizer.

  8. Bobby B.

    Adam, I was just pulling your chain with the repeating scenarios idea. I am not only a Bible-reading man, but a Bible-believing man. God completed the work of Creation in six days and rested on the seventh.

    Justin, I believe “The Planet of the Apes” touches upon what artifacts future man might find to verify his past existence when Charlton Heston confronts the apes with a human doll that talks. The apes had claimed that ape came first and then non-speaking man came later.

    BTW, I highly recommend getting a 1560 Geneva Bible if you are interested in reading the English Bible as written by the protestant reformers.

  9. Bobby B.

    Whoops! In the previous post, I said, “as written by the protestant reformers.” I meant to say, “as translated by the protestant reformers.” There is a distinct difference and I hope my error did not confuse anyone out there.

  10. Tom Schueneman

    Well, shan’t step into the fray from the beginning of this thread (I suppose it’s easy to misunderstand a book you haven’t even read), but I’d just like to tip my toe in the water here and say I recently finished Weisman’s book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Anyway, nice review and good discussion, the hate speech notwithstanding.

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