Friday, November 9, 2007

The World Without Us

Toronto Star, summer 2007. I saw this book in a catalogue or something in advance of pub and thought it looked intriguing. I knew the topic was “hot,” but I was caught by surprise when the book came out and was covered, like, everywhere.

Visions of planetwide disaster dance through our culture these days. Thanks to scientists, journalists, and Al Gore, we know more than ever about the ecological, economic, and political stresses we’re placing on the world. And novelists are fond of foretelling a complete breakdown of social order, whether through spectacular catastrophe or slow attrition, that leaves the remnants of humankind scrabbling viciously for whatever paltry resources are left.

Even in the most horrific of apocalypse scenarios, though – such as Cormac McCarthy’s Oprah-touted blockbuster The Road – the concern is what life’s like for the survivors. True speciesists, we apparently consider the prospect of the Earth enduring after complete human extinction to be either inconceivable or irrelevant.

Not Alan Weisman. With The World Without Us, the American science journalist has written an entire book about what a post-human Earth might look like. It’s an intriguing, attention-grabbing premise – albeit a strictly hypothetical one in this case. Weisman imagines the human race disappearing more or less overnight, leaving the rest of the global ecosystem in the very same shape it’s in now, unravaged by, say, the fallout of a nuclear war. Barring some supernatural rapture, that’s unlikely to ever happen: if we all go at once, it probably won’t be quietly or unobtrusively. And even a deadly new specieswide disease, for example, would still leave some survivors to carry on, as Weisman notes late in the book.

Still, the abstract premise makes an excellent springboard for an often fascinating look at our planet’s biology and ecology. And on its most basic level, The World Without Us appeals to sheer human curiosity about what kind of record we’ll leave of ourselves, and how long it’ll last. Individual homes will go quickly, as untended roofs collapse within decades and moisture attacks from within, and even skyscrapers and bridges will fall after a few centuries, returning cities to their original forest or jungle states. (We can forget all about those sci-fi imaginings of perfectly preserved underwater downtowns, a la Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence.)

Posterity will be better served by underground dwellings, like the cavernous multi-level cities discovered at Cappadocia, Turkey, which date back 10,000 years. Mount Rushmore should last for 72,000 years or so – likely long after anyone’s around who will be able to recognize its faces – and copper-based sculptures like the Statue of Liberty could hang on practically indefinitely, albeit toppled and lying underwater.

Weisman’s MO is to zero in on specifics. He looks closely at the fate of Manhattan, for example, but says very little in general about which metropoli might outlast others. And he offers no cohesive single-chapter overview of the world’s fate. Which means that readers should not come to The World Without Us expecting much of a synthesis or unifying narrative – the book feels like it’s all tangents and little centre. Weisman’s prose is often dry and he’s not exactly a master storyteller; the strengths of this book, rather, are the breadth of his research and his gift for presenting a huge array of information clearly and quickly.

Which, despite the above caveats, is enough. Those tangents are usually fascinating, whether they cover the engineering and design of the Panama Canal or speculations about the fall of the Mayan empire or descriptions of the long-gone giant animals that roamed the prehistoric Americas. And there’s something exhilarating about skipping from a Turkish resort town left eerily abandoned after a war to the gigantic industrial oil complex of the Houston area to Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.

And to be fair, there is one notable recurring motif in the book: our ugly chemical and nuclear legacy. Besides the 400-plus active reactors ready to spew radioactivity into the environment without maintenance, there are underground caches of nuclear waste that could make nasty surprises for unsuspecting future visitors. (At one such site near Denver, officials plan to leave warnings engraved in seven languages on 25-foot granite blocks.) And tiny airborne particles of plastic have already entered the food chain at many levels, which could affect the future evolution of other species in hard-to-predict ways. “What will survive of us is love,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin, but what will really survive of us, it turns out, are polymers.

It should be noted, though, that The World Without Us doesn’t read like a primarily environmentalist text. Weisman’s tone throughout is cool and dispassionate, that of a scientific observer rather than an activist, and when he does argue that we should take care of our planet, it’s in basic terms that are nigh impossible to dispute. Nor does he celebrate or advocate the end of our existence – though he does give some space to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which argues that the best thing for the Earth and for us would be human-wide sterility. Founder Les Knight gets a little dreamy as he suggests that our final generation would live in an idyllic paradise marked by less competition for resources. (Apparently he never saw Children of Men.)

The flipside to Weisman’s dispassion is that The World Without Us is a book of facts more than ideas; it’s rarely illumined by the philosophy or poetry that its premise would seem to invite. The closest it comes is a chapter that covers some of our poignant efforts to send a sort of cultural time capsule into outer space. The Voyager space probes contain gold-plated disks bearing images and sounds that represent human life, including musical selections ranging from Mozart to tribal rhythms to Louis Armstrong. Long after the very Earth has been swallowed by the sun, Voyager and its cargo – “the last remaining fragments of human aesthetic expression,” in Weisman’s words – should still be travelling the spaceways. And the broadcast waves we’ve been sending into space for the past hundred years or so will also keep on marching indefinitely; it’s not inconceivable, says Weisman, that some extraterrestrial intelligence will one day encounter the I Love Lucy TV show. “They may not understand Lucy, but they will hear us laugh.”

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