Friday, January 30, 2009

"The World Without Us"

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

What would happen if human beings simply disappeared from planet earth? That is the question author Alan Weisman seeks to answer. Rather than treat this as a parlor game, Mr. Weisman takes us through a careful examination of earth’s current state in terms of geology, anthropology, archaeology, physics, biology, and recorded histories. From there he removes the human race and predicts several series of events which might take place and follows the process through to its likely conclusion. What would this planet look like after the dust settled? Which plants and animals would survive the changes and thrive in the new environment? The World Without Us is a thought-provoking and alarming piece of work, but at the same time, it is an appreciative inquiry into the forces of nature which we humans have only recently begun to respect.

In the beginning, Mr. Weisman takes us to an ancient wilderness on the border of Poland and Belarus, a place of near-perfect ecological balance where 150-foot tall oak, linden, and ash trees create a densely shaded, moist and fertile forest floor, fed continually by decaying leaves, branches, animals, and tree trunks. It is a place, according to the author, that feels familiar on a deep, cellular level even to those born into modern cement jungles. These 500,000 acres are all that remain of the vast forest which covered Europe and much of Asia for millennia; until humans cut it all down.

However we got here, humans were fruitful and multiplied, evolving from bands of hunter-gatherers to plant cultivators; and from there to city-dwellers. The move from simple living off the land to dense population centers signaled the beginning of several centuries of technological innovation culminating in the industrial revolution. The internal combustion engine made automobiles possible, unleashing vast stores of carbon, long-buried under rock, dust, and decaying organic matter. However, it was the discovery of nuclear fission which set humanity on a more rapid collision course with ourselves. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we understood just enough of the magic to make it do some useful things, but not enough to control its destructive power.

Without going into how it might happen, if every human being disappeared at the same time, according to Mr. Weisman, some very predictable things would take place: our yards would quickly be overgrown with weeds, insecticides would lose potency and roaches and other creatures would invite themselves into our homes. Mildew and molds would grow in our newly unconditioned spaces. After a time, windows would shatter, roofs would be damaged, and the weather would come in, rotting the wood framing and floors. Soon, water damage would weaken the mortar between CBS blocks, allowing plants to begin growing through the cracks, leading to the inevitable crumbling of the buildings. Within the century, very little evidence of our cultivated and manicured landscapes would be visible.

Where this book gets interesting is in Mr. Weisman’s analysis of the dominoes which would fall as a result of humans failing to show up at work. Take, for example, our water management system here in south Florida. Every day, hundreds of people monitor the water levels in Lake Okeechobee and the vast network of canals which serve to keep the Everglades within its artificial boundaries. If the monitoring stopped, at some point flooding and erosion would begin undoing the work of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Similarly, the subways of New York City, if not constantly pumped, would fill with water causing short circuits and fires. There are countless other examples of complicated systems which allow us to enjoy our high standard of living which, if left unattended, would burn up, melt down, or create other havoc. Mr. Weisman gives the reader an appreciation of the chain reactions, both nuclear and otherwise, which might take place.

Those who believe that nuclear power is a good way for the United States to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels would be wise to read this book, chapter 15 at a minimum. Mr. Weisman’s research into what might happen if the world’s 441 nuclear plants were left unattended includes some sobering information about the accumulating radioactive waste which sits waiting for a permanent disposal site. According to Mr. Weisman, the United States generates about 6,000,000 pounds per year at our various nuclear power plants. The inconvenient fact is that there is nowhere on earth where this stuff can be safely stored for the millions of years it needs to stop emitting radiation. Even if there were, the political problems with opening such a facility would take decades to resolve, while the nuclear waste continued to pile up.

The Panama Canal, one of the modern wonders of the world, is a fragile system of dams and water gates which, if abandoned, would collapse in very little time. Mr. Weisman spent time meeting with some of the people who prevent catastrophe on a daily basis. The canal is situated in rainforest, meaning that vegetation grows faster than humans can clear it away from the dams; without constant vigilance, tree roots could destabilize the whole system. In other words, even with an army of workers on site every day, the dams will probably fail anyway. Ironically, the granite likeness of its creator, Theodore Roosevelt, along with presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, will keep watch from Mount Rushmore for about 7.2 million more years.

Plastic. It is hard to imagine living without it, and yet in time it may be our undoing. Take a walk on the beach and the most plentiful objects you will find are cigarette butts and various other pieces of plastic-containing detritus, some new, some old and some broken down to almost invisible bits. Eventually, most plastic will be reduced to basic polymer molecules. These molecules, however, will last virtually forever. So is that a bad thing? According to Mr. Weisman’s research, there is much more plastic in our environment than we can measure, and because so much of it is now in molecule-sized bits, creatures up and down the food chain are unknowingly consuming it. Richard Thompson, a researcher from the University of Plymouth in Great Britain, sums up the problem this way: “Suppose all human activity ceased tomorrow, and suddenly there’s no one to produce plastic anymore. Just from what’s already present, given how we see it fragmenting, organisms will be dealing with this stuff indefinitely. Thousands of years, possibly. Or more.”

Radio towers, wind turbines, and electric power networks all conspire to kill millions of birds annually. In storms, birds cannot see them and crash. Electric wires substitute for felled forests, giving migrating birds places to rest on their long journeys. Should a wing or beak touch a second wire, the bird is electrocuted. For small birds this is not a problem. Larger birds, such as cranes, herons, and eagles, are frequent casualties. In a world without people, common housecats will revert to their wild natures and survive by killing off small birds. Many dogs will also survive as will rats, mice, and snakes, putting the eggs and nests of surviving birds at risk. For as many problems as humans have created, we are also responsible for keeping many bird species alive simply by feeding our pets commercial foods and controlling rodent populations.

Dogs, cats, horses, livestock, and other kept animals would miss us if we suddenly vanished. It is unlikely that any other creature would, except for those parasites which call our bodies home. Animals which are currently hunted to the brink of extinction might have a chance to recover, over-fished seas would return to some of their former bounty, clear-cut forests, too, would re-grow but with much different plants and therefore provide habitat to a new set of creatures. In other words, the natural world would continue to evolve and incorporate what we left behind. One hypothesis Mr. Weisman considers is whether any of the ape species might evolve to fill the void left by us. Baboons, for example, have larger brains than all other primates, except humans, and successfully moved from forests to grassy savannahs as their ecosystem changed. Could they be waiting for us to fail so they can have a turn at being the dominant species on the planet?

The World Without Us should be required reading for everyone, but especially for those who would be president. In addition to enlightening us about the delicacy of our current world order, it puts human achievements into perspective. While the human race has been short-sighted and our own worst enemy in so many instances, we have also created much that is worthy of pride and reflects how high we can reach when we are not at war, enslaving each other, or destroying ecosystems. With or without us, planet earth is a place of magic, beauty, creation and destruction, but it is our creative energy that will either save us or be our undoing. A little less hubris and a little more humility on the part of our leaders could make the difference.

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