The World Without Us [Book Review]

World Without Us bookcover“What would happen to our planet if humanity vanished tomorrow? What are the clues to that outcome existing on Earth right now?”

That is Weisman’s central premise in his book.

Reading the cover & in-flap, and judging it from that alone, I expected the book to be a lot of conjecture, explaining in detail what will unfold for our planet if humans disappeared. Something along the lines of this chart that circulate the Internet some years ago (source unknown).

While the book was along those lines, it expanded upon that theme by finding specific scenarios on our planet right now where humans HAVE disappeared (due to political, military, or economic reasons), and observing how nature has recouped.

The message in the book is quite clear: in a myriad of ways, humanity is having a very significant impact on the environment, and damage has been done. If humanity vanished, some problems would be eliminated (the quality of air and logging of forests, for example, would immediately improve), others would linger (water pollution, such as nurdles, as well as landfills and other waste products that biodegrade slowly) and others would have diasastrous outcomes if we weren’t there to manage them, most notably the nuclear waste sites and nuclear plants — both of which would likely meltdown in a radiated pyroclasm if we were not there to monitor and provide the cooling system power. It wouldn’t be overnight, but it’s inevitable.

Some of the examples were quite amazing, including the repopulation by birds around the wasteland surrounding Chernobyl, and the near pristine-forest on the Poland/Ukraine border. It is quite apparent that the absence of humans and human influence is the BEST scenario for the rest of nature to survive — we have a tendency to ruin the party like a drunkard at an awards ceremony. Whether or not humans survive is kind of moot if we destroy the world we live in to the point where it is devoid of its innate natural beauty. (I have little doubt, for example, that we would ultimately invent some technological wizardry to ensure our survival — we’re remarkably resourceful and our internal genetic diversity has so far rendered us impervious to most biological disasters)

Ideally, I would love to see an overall movement towards developing some kind of symbiotic relationship with our surroundings. The recent incarnation of the green movement, for example, seems promising, if it continues to grow. It seems only fitting that since our advanced brains have allowed us to rape and pillage our planet, we should use those same instruments to develop solutions to abandon our wantonly wasteful ways.

The skeptic (or perhaps cynic) in me, however, thinks that our stubborn species will more likely have to succumb to some manner of catastrophe (biological, environmental, etc.) to convince us to change. Perhaps another ice age caused by the cessation of the Atlantic gulfstream’s movement, or some future incarnation of antibiotic-resistant swine-flu / staphylococcus aureus hybrid will pandemically wipe out most of us. Our growth curve has thus far proven to be exponential; the annual RATE of worldwide population increase is increasing itself, and shows no signs of abating. If there was some kind of worldwide movement towards families limiting themselves to 1 or 2 children (autonomously, not through legislation), then I might believe our population curve would level off — but until that happens, it seems only a matter of time before we hit a bust.

If, for example, every family in the world limited themselves to 1 or no children, by 2050 our worldwide population will return to the levels of the mid 90′s (~5 billion). If we limited our families from ~2.6 children per woman to slightly over 2 children per woman, our population worldwide would approach 10 billion by 2050 (~50% increase from current number). (p.273)

I’m certainly not in favor of governments telling you how many children you are ALLOWED to have – India and China both have incentive-based systems (you get certain benefits if your family is limited to 0-1 children, I think; In China, you can have 2 in certain circumstances, and still qualify for the incentive programs). These programs include paying higher-ed tuition and other social welfare programs. Regardless of how we get to that point, we, as a species, need to eventually realize that the path we are on is unsustainable.

I would recommend this book to anyone casually interested in environmental issues or human-impact issues. The author does not offer many solutions to the problems presented; the book is more exploratory than persuasive — although the content of the book is practically dripping with an implicit argument for humanity’s self-regulation. The author does not talk much about “climate change”, but instead focuses on real-world situations of our collective impact on our surroundings.

This book is available for loan to anyone in the Richmond area, shoot me an email / msg / phone call.