This book was depressing, though not for the reasons you might expect.
As a fan of post-apocalyptic literature, I was very excited when The History Channel aired the original Life After People special, documenting what would happen to the world we left behind if man were to disappear off the face of the Earth one day. As an environmentalist, I’ve always found it gratifying to watch how quickly nature reclaims abandoned development and Life Without People Took this gratification to a new level. (Life Without People has since been spun out into a regular series.)
So, while most people might find the prospect of a post-human world to be depressing, I actually find the thought-excercise to be a heartening reminder of the resiliency of nature. Stumbling across Alan Weisman’s book while Christmas shopping, I accordingly thought it would be the perfect gift for my father-in-law who, as a man who loves solitude, has moved to a very remote area of Maine where he grows much of his own food. Flipping through the book before wrapping it, I was sucked in to the fascinating subject matter and eventually tracked it down at my local library.
The World Without Us turned out to be a much more depressing read than I expected. In order to fully understand how the world might react to our absence, it’s first important to understand how we are affecting the world presently and how we have affected it historically. This is where the book gets depressing for me. It’s also what elevates the subject matter from a mere thought experiment to something a bit more relevant. Nature may be resilient and many of man’s works may be more transient than many of us would believe, but in some regards, we will leave a lasting negative legacy.
The chapter “Plastics Are Forever” was particularly distressing. Plastics do not biodegrade and in the sixty short years since man first started using plastics, they have become distressingly ubiquitous in ecosystems world-wide. There is growing public awareness of the North Pacific Garbage Gyre, a region the size of Texas where combined air and ocean currents collect plastic debris from all over the Pacific rim. It’s one of several such gyres world-wide. Far more distressing, however, is the presence of microscopic plastic throughout the world’s oceans. If the levels of such microscopic plastics continues to grow, and it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t, it is entirely possible that the entire ocean food chain could collapse as the base of zooplankton choke to death. What happens when you kill off two-thirds of the planet? I’m not sure I want to know the answer.
The World Without Us is a remarkably dense book. Each page is chock full of information, much of it alarming, all of it fascinating. Unfortunately, the book filled me with an existential dread that I have not felt since I was in high school — a sense that our species will be lucky to live out the next two centuries. Gratifying as I find the thought-experiment of imaging a world without people, the reality of that scenario is much less appealing.