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Alan Weisman


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

What would happen to the world if humanity instantly vanished? This is the question that Weisman sought to answer by interviewing a huge number of experts in all sorts of subjects. The result, it has to be said, is not all that encouraging: the damage we have caused would endure in some cases for hundreds or even thousands of years. But some things would recover much more quickly.

The big cities would decay quite rapidly, especially those, like New York, that depend on continuous pumping of water to prevent flooding. The process is described vividly and this sets the tone for much of what follows. Before we return to the future, however, there is a fairly lengthy retrospective, looking at prehistory to explain why we are where are today. Up to this point the reader is left feeling that if we disappeared it would be just as well so far as the state of the planet and its other inhabitants is concerned, but the world would not simply revert to how it was before we evolved.

The plastics we have manufactured would mostly be extremely resistant to bacterial attack and some would endure for millennia. Our huge stores of petroleum products would become unstable and might detonate in a mighty explosion. Toxic metals would leak from our enormous industrial and chemical complexes into the environment and would be extracted by plants from the soil and recirculated for thousands of years. Worst of all would be the residues of our nuclear industry and nuclear weapons stores. No satisfactory way has been found to contain nuclear waste in the long term, and the means that are being used at present would not continue to function if we weren't there. In the absence of maintenance the 441 nuclear power plants would run by themselves for a time but would sooner or later overheat and melt down like so many Chernobyls.

Still, it's not all gloom. In the absence of farming much of the earth would become forested again, and life would go on, as it always has in the past after great catastrophes. Many kinds of animals and birds would flourish, although our domestic species, apart from cats, would not last long.

Brooks writes of all this with passion and considerable lyricism. And he suggest a possible solution to the problems we have created for ourselves: we need to restrict population growth drastically. War and famine don't work—populations always bounce back—but he thinks that what would work would be to get every human female on the planet to restrict herself to producing only one infant, which would bring our population down to pre-industrial levels in less than a century.

The only alternative he suggests is the even less plausible scenario of finding a fertile planet elsewhere and sending ourselves there holographically by radio waves. In a slightly odd coda Brooks invokes the paranormal and compares the holographic solution to prayer. I'm not clear how seriously we are supposed to take this.

2 June 2009

%T The World Without Us
%A Alan Weisman
%I Virgin Books
%C London
%D 2007
%G ISBN 978-0-7535-1357-6
%P 324pp
%K futurology

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