Save The Planet—Disappear

Weisman presents a curiously refreshing vision of the apocalypse


By Alan Weisman

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press -- 324pp -- $24.95

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Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good An intriguing vision of how nature would flourish if humans disappeared.

The Bad Some readers may find the trick of assuming away humanity to be frustrating.

The Bottom Line A curiously refreshing, and oddly hopeful, vision of the apocalypse.

The extinction of humankind is a grim topic. Yet in The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman invokes this ancient specter as the jumping-off point for a refreshing, and oddly hopeful, look at the fate of the environment. His central question: What would earth be like if humanity just vanished?

Weisman's answer is as fascinating as it is surprising. It turns out, from towering bridges to sprawling cities--not to mention delicate books or masterly artworks--precious few of man's creations would last long. The author richly documents the damage done by industrial civilization, providing further momentum for business to go green. But his explanation of just how all of our methodically built cities, factories, and temples would implode under the slow assault of rot, rain, plants, and critters is the most compelling aspect of the book. The winners in Weisman's tour de décomposition are the very flora and fauna that today are under pitiless assault from humanity.

In an abandoned Manhattan, for example, key bits of infrastructure would fail in hours. The grid would go dark, shutting down pumps that keep the subways dry and sewers from clogging. In days, groundwater would flood subterranean spaces. In time, some of the island's buried streams would resurface, accelerating the process of rust and rot from below. The seasonal freeze-and-thaw cycle would soon crack sealed surfaces, and in countless gaps, plants would take root, adding the soft push of roots to the process.

In a decade, mighty steel-frame skyscrapers would begin to collapse as metal joints corrode and rupture. Waterlogged pillars holding up subway tunnels would disappear even sooner, collapsing into pond-filled craters and new waterways. These would hydrate the island's resurgent fauna, descendants of today's small but resilient menagerie of raccoons, feral cats, amphibians, and birds. They'd eventually be joined by returning species from the north such as bears, beavers, and wolves, plus perhaps a few zoo escapees.

Such images, like Weisman's narrative as a whole, represent a curiously optimistic vision of the apocalypse: It would be great for nature if calamitous for mankind. Weisman drops in on exotic hot spots of biodiversity, from the Korean DMZ to Europe's most ancient forest and the otherworldly high, wet Aberdares moors in central Kenya. There, he finds the last remnants of rare species--such as Kenya's seldom seen black leopard--that could return in force.

Weisman's what-if approach lets him avoid a familiar fault of many environmental tomes: the simplistic cataloging of the disasters facing one species after another. It also makes the book easily accessible. Flip open to any chapter, and a series of punchy vignettes illuminates his broader point.

Some human artifacts would last, including massive stone structures such as arch bridges. Another survivor: plastic. Unlike most other man-made materials, no biological agent has yet evolved that can digest it. And while the sun's ultraviolet rays can break it down, so much plastic is buried or sunk that it will persist for eons. In the distant Pacific Ocean where currents and winds end, Weisman visits an Africa-size flotilla of plastic bags, suspended in a lifeless, slowly spinning gyre.

Some readers may find Weisman's trick of assuming away humanity to be frustrating. Yet he does explore the matter, finding the odds of such a vanishing to be slight but within the realm of possibility. Mankind is the über-cockroach of the global ecosystem: stubbornly hardy, fast-breeding, and near-impossible to exterminate. Disease seems an obvious possibility. Yet even a 99.99% lethal disease would leave more than 650,000 disease-resistant humans, plenty to repopulate an emptied earth.

And what of global warming? It is perhaps the greatest wild card. "Our redesigned atmosphere," as Weisman describes it, would take 100,000 years to return to pre-human levels of CO2 and so would be one of our longest-lasting legacies. And the magnitude of climate change, Weisman admits, could mean a future far different from the one he imagines. If the planet were to reach temperatures not seen in eons, the global system could reset in a scenario resembling the Permian die-off. During that pre-dinosaur era, 95% of the world's species perished.

Today we know of this period only from the fossilized remnants of tree-size ferns and giant insects. After reading Weisman, you may find yourself imagining future alien visitors probing the soils of a human-free earth millions of years hence--and wondering just what kind of creatures could have made the plastic Barbie dolls they find.

By Adam Aston

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