Friday, February 8, 2008

Think Like A Jillian Book Review #1

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman

This book provides an oddly optimistic outlook for a world suddenly without humanity. It is basically a series of "what ifs" that Weisman attempts to answer with the best information available, although, to some extent the answer to the World Without Us question is "who knows?". Weisman asks his readers to imagine the nearly impossible--that humanity suddenly vanishes (he suggests that religious or alien rapture or heretofore unimaginably lethal disease be the cause). What would happen to the world? Our cities, our works of art? What would happen to our farm land, to our orchards, to our favorite pets? The question, though macabre, is clearly one that appeals to many because the book is a bestseller. Weisman is skilled with words and knows how to weave a rich story. Unfortunately, the topic is huge and Weisman did not have the space to be truly comprehensive, so the reader is left wanting more. Nevertheless, Weisman does a good job with his picking-and-choosing, and the book covers several of the most interesting results of human disappearance in great detail.

Weisman begins by covering the basics of how different materials break down over time, so you get a feel for how long your house will stay up after you are mysteriously spirited away. You understand why your plastic Tupperware will be around long after your roof collapses and your home is taken over by a nice family of raccoons. On a slightly larger scale, he talks about what will happen in our cities, whether on the ocean or inland. Our glistening skyscrapers will be long outlasted by stone cathedrals built centuries ago. Our modern buildings don't stand a chance. On the other hand, anything made in bronze will last basically forever, as will automobile tires, so don't think we won't have left our mark : ).

The most fascinating part of the book was devoted to describing the fate of a few of our man-made "wonders" after we are no longer around to tend to them. China's Great Wall would fall or be swallowed by foliage within a few short decades. The Panama canal would probably not last a single rainy season. New York City would literally sink into it's own subway tunnels and rivers long buried under the pavement would flow freely through the streets. In Texas, the large oil refineries would probably explode from pressure within a few days. If not, as metal tanks quickly corroded, one lightening strike would ignite an inferno we can hardly imagine. And nothing would stop it until all the fuel had burned. There is no way to fully predict the effects that would have on Earth's climate. And then think of the nuclear power plants scattered around the globe. They have back-up systems and safety controls of course, but with no people around to flip the switches, they wouldn't last long.

Weisman's two closing chapters were particularly entertaining. The first focuses on a small community of activist groups who are dedicated to eliminating the human race (Visit the website for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement at Some groups are fairly militant where others just want to decrease birthrates worldwide. The final chapter talks about the future of our little solar system. Whether or not we are here to see it coming, the sun will expand one day and swallow up the inner planets of the solar system. We already know that life on this planet is temporary; Unless we can find a way to move somewhere else, I'm afraid extinction is in our future eventually. I say let's accept it gracefully : ).

As I said, the book has a rather positive outlook overall, though you may not be able to tell from this review (apparently I liked the dark parts best). Weisman spends a lot of time dealing with plant and animal life and how it would flouish happily if we were gone, so that's were most of the optimism comes in. This is a good read; I highly recommend it.