Imagine if humans disappeared tomorrow. What would we leave behind? How long would it last? These are the questions at the heart of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
The setup reads like a familiar post-apocalyptic story. Perhaps a pandemic has spread across the globe, a retribution from nature killing only humans. The end-of-world is such a common genre now we've surely surpassed peak-apocalypse. But The World Without Us remains worth reading. This book imagines first that humans have vanished, and then attempts to trace what would happen next.
Despite its imaginative premise, the book might be called ‘speculative non-fiction’. Weisman tours an impressive range of humanity’s efforts at construction (and destruction) and explores how these monuments of human effort and ingenuity would cope if they were suddenly abandoned by their caretakers.
To make this alien concept real, Weisman starts close to home. It turns out your house would not last particularly long, with water most likely seeping in over time through the flashing in your roof. Plants – especially introduced creeper species – would make fairly quick work of mortar, too. Once water and plants get in, it’s all over for your home. After a hundred years, there would most likely be no trace left.
The book then broadens its scope, looking at everything from great dams, ancient pyramids, and even the holes left behind by years of mineral extraction. Other discussions include: how quickly Manhattan would sink (the subways alone would flood within days); what would happen to the thousands of untended nuclear bombs and power plants; human probes already well beyond our solar system, and the messages we placed on them; and how the Panama Canal would fill with silt, reconnecting two continents. All of this doom and gloom, and then some.
In the ways we live, humans are responsible for the extinction of far too many species to count. Yet even in disappearing, we would kill off species. Innumerable cockroaches would die from exposure to cold, after having thrived in the warmth of our cities. Within a year of our disappearance, human head and body lice would be completely extinct.
It’s not the grand developments we imagine to represent our human progress that will remain – the skyscrapers, the works of art, the wonders of technology. It’s the things we tend to think least about that will leave the most enduring mark. Small plastic pellets, or nurdles, used as raw materials for the production of other, bigger, plastics make their way into the oceans every day. Many exfoliating scrubs use micro-plastics. They’re literally designed to be washed down the drain. In sea water these nurdles eventually break down into small
er, brittle pieces. But they don’t disappear. Even if production ceased tomorrow, fish will be eating plastic particles for thousands of years to come. Meanwhile, the half-million tonne of depleted Uranium-238 in the US will be around in 4–5 billion years, when the sun expands and engulfs the earth.
Yet our most enduring contribution isn't something we can touch. The radio waves we are emitting each day, and have been sending out now for generations, may continue to bounce around the universe for untold eons.
If this sounds like collapse porn, there's a surprising note of hope in between the lines.The World Without Us speculates on what species might survive and even thrive. Today, in Fukushima’s exclusion zone, plants continue to grow and in the absence of humans, animals continue on in similar exclusion zones around the world. The long-term effects of exposure to radiation on these animals is an ongoing question. But there is an undercurrent point to this: Life finds a way.
That’s perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this book. It walks a careful path between the pitfalls on either side: a revelry in the gloomy acknowledgement of the damage we’ve already done (and, despite the premise of the book, will continue to do) on one side, and a sermon on the sacredness of Mother Earth on the other. The middle path is a peculiar one that leaves the reader feeling both sadness and hope. The message is clear: We are not the centre of the earth; it has been here a long time, and will be long after we're gone.