As an archaeologist you get a funny perspective on time — occupational hazard. For years I’ve been musing about what traces our era will leave to last into the far future. I’ve been thinking about six-lane highways with their cuttings through hills and their earthen banks across depressions. In my mind’s eye I’ve seen my housing area as a pasture, sheep grazing across gridded grass-covered rectangular mounds of building debris.
Journalist Alan Weisman didn’t stop at musing about all this. He went out and talked to a bewildering number of people around the world about it. The result is a fine, lyrically written book that will amaze you with marvels and chill you to the bone.
Because The World Without Us is really about two things. The premise — what if all us humans just disappeared? — does offer ample entertaining food for the imagination as Weisman takes us to an abandoned 1970s Greek hotel development on the Turkish side of Cyprus, to the sewers of Manhattan, to the De-Militarized Zone between the Koreas, to the artist who designed the messages affixed to the Pioneer and Voyager probes, to the subterranean cities of Cappadocia. But this leads inexorably to a hard look at the damage we’ve done and are doing to our environment. “Here’s how long it will take for the wounds to heal if we disappear tomorrow”, says Weisman. “Here are the irreparable losses we’ve already caused”. And of course, we know that we most likely will not disappear tomorrow. Our environmental footprint per capita will not shrink starting tomorrow, it will continue to grow, and so will our absolute numbers. “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late”.
Despite it’s serious message, this is not a grim book, nor a preachy one, nor a despondent one. The World Without Us gets full marks and my warmest recommendation.
Weisman, Alan. 2007. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1.