Tuesday, January 15, 2008

book review #1

Book review: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

Canadian edition. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007.

"Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be."

In "A World Without Us", Alan Weisman imagines the kind of grand scenario that I used to dream about when I was around 13. Bullied and unhappy, my 13-year-old self would daydream about a world where everyone — or at least, a large percentage of the population — just disappeared. Poof! Gone. Since it was my daydream, I got to choose who would and wouldn't go, but it wasn't as easy as the people I liked staying and the people I didn't like going. My imagination being what it was, and still is, I went further to imagine what our village, and the world beyond it, would look like with people gone but all the remnants of human life left behind: cars, electric power plants, stores. How would I — and the band of people I allowed to remain in my depopulated dream world — live? I imagined us first caching all the food we could find, then going on to appropriate neighbors' houses, getting to choose which domicile we wanted to live in. But we'd still have to haul wood and keep our food from going bad in a world without power. I was as realistic about it as fantasy would allow, and my so-called dream world ended up pretty drab. Well, maybe that's not the right word, but "challenging" might begin to cover it.

Weisman's fantasy doesn't even let the 13-year-olds stay. Everyone goes. He asks the question: what would happen to this old earth if every last human were suddenly gone? The project was born from his agent asking him that very question, after she re-read an article Weisman wrote about Chernobyl after the meltdown, which described the way "nature rushed in to fill our void". After reading about birds and beasts repopulating the area around the Chernobyl site, she asked him: what would become of the Earth after we left, but left our messes behind? Weisman writes,

"It was a deceptively simple question that, I came to understand, lets us view our Earth's current myriad stresses from the disarming vantage of a fantasy in which we supposedly no longer exist, yet somehow we get to watch what unfolds next. Watch, and maybe learn."


I first heard Weisman talking about his book on CBC's Sounds Like Canada, in autumn, and thought it sounded interesting. The next time the book popped up in my life was at Christmas, when my brother bought it for himself with gift money. (Thanks, Granny and Grandpa!) I didn't get a chance to read it, however, before he left to go back to school, so I requested it from the library. And from the moment I opened to the first page, I couldn't stop reading — and imagining.

Weisman went a lot farther with his scenario than I did at 13, and that's an understatement. The view of this book, if you can imagine his descriptions coming at you through a camera's lens, starts in the Ecuadoran Amazon, then flies to the Poland-Belarus border, then to North America to begin "unbuilding" the modern home, and that's just for a start. The first stop, to see the Zápara people, introduces the idea of life during and after immense trauma both to the environment and to the people who live in it. The Zápara are now driven to eating the very spider monkeys they once revered as their ancestors; will we in the so-called "developed world" be driven to similar choices soon, given the strain to which we've subjected all natural systems? Instead of postulating an answer similar to those given by other authors before him, an answer based in reality, Weisman takes his into the realm of imagination, asking the reader to dream of everyone just ... disappearing. Doesn't matter why, it just matters that we all go. And now. And ironically, as a device, this works.

To see the world without people with the mind's eye actually brought me to realize how there is no such thing as the world without people. I don't mean the obvious — that the whole thing is a flight of imagination. I mean that even if our human bodies were gone, our legacy, meaning every single thing made by human hands or invented by human minds, every house and road and skyscraper and bridge and car and so on, would still be here. And there would no longer be humans to paint or scrape or re-pave these items. Natural forces like wind, rain, erosion or animals, to name just a few, would continue to have their way with our stuff. What would happen? Where would all our stuff go, and what would the planet look like in 50 or 100 years? How about 50,000 to 1 million years, and beyond? What state were things in before we came along with all this stuff? And what relation might the future world bear to this earlier state?


In order to answer these questions — which he does with aplomb — Weisman takes the reader on a trip. Beginning in North America, and de-constructing the modern house much as Nature would do if we weren't here to stop it, he takes a walk down Manhattan's future streets (which would actually be rivers, with trees growing along the banks, in only about 30 years), then takes off to East Africa's Lake Tanganyika to look at human origins and the possibilities of future ice ages and climate changes. From there it's back to Arizona for a lesson in paleo-ecology, then to Kenya for a visit to Africa's national parks, and the animals and humans who live there in precarious balance.

Part II starts in war-torn Cyprus, to visit abandoned hotels, and then a stop in Turkey, to check out the underground cities of Cappadocia, which have to be read about to be believed. Our human legacy begins to turn the stomach in Chapter 9, "Polymers are Forever", when Weisman goes to the Plym River estuary, in England, to see what happens to all that plastic we use every day (and it ain't pretty). Then it's off to the petroleum patch along the Texan coast to imagine what might happen to catalytic cracking towers if people weren't around to let the pressure off and shut down the alchemical reactions, which takes the feeling of "Oh, my god — this is real?!?!" from the previous chapter and twists it just a bit more. (And if you think that's bad, wait until Part III, when Weisman takes you to the nuclear zone.)

Moving along, we fly from the Chunnel to the Great Wall of China, then from the Panama Canal to Mount Rushmore, to see about the fate of our modern Wonders. Then to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea to see what happens when people go, leaving behind land mines, as well as untouched habitat for endangered red-crowned cranes. Next it's a look at birds around the world, which, like most of the answers Weisman finds, both is and isn't hopeful. Birds are heavily affected by human activity, and it's uncertain what would happen to them in a post-human future. But they have come back in Chernobyl: "Yet skylarks perch on th[e] hot steel arms [of abandoned, radioactive machinery], singing." Considering the nuclear legacy we're burying and leaving behind in barrels, this is positively amazing.


Besides all that, there's more. But I'll leave that for you to read in the book itself. There's no way to encompass the whole book in this review, and I suppose that's why Weisman wrote the book, in the first place. But for all that it contains, it's a relatively quick read: at 324 pages (Index and Reading List included), with sporadic photographs and a beautiful design, as well as a narrative that hums right along, The World Without Us kept me hooked through every chapter and paragraph. It puts all that stuff we have, and all that stuff we do, in a whole new light. Much like when you move house, really; you see it all as if for the first time.

"I still have that awful dress from the late-90s? And these cartons of books I never read?"

Only in this case, it's: "I have all this plastic around me? What will happen to the things that fill my house, whether I'm here or not? And speaking of that, what will happen to nuclear power plants?" You get the idea.

Rather than leave the reader with the idea that we're all going to go in the end, anyway, and nature will take care of it, which would be the ultimate cop-out, Alan Weisman's book left this reader with a realistic — which means slightly scary — sense of what we're up against, and a realistic hope that with intelligence and patience, we might be able to mitigate some of it.

The bottom line? We're not going anywhere. But if you want to imagine what it would be like if we did, and get a whole new perspective on the world we live in, read this book. I'm betting you won't regret it.


The Official website.
The California Literary Review (more in-depth).


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